Monday, July 09, 2007

"Too Many Chefs..." or "How many Artists does it take..."

In Wired this week, we have discussion of crowdsourcing in both Journalism and Art. The whole discussion, Assignment Zero, with over 80 interviews with academics, book publishers, artists, reporters, etc is very interesting.

Basically, the concept of crowdsourcing is simple: a project is given to basically anybody who wants to complete it.

An example on a journalistic level would be an independent news blog throwing out a proposed state budget online and having anybody with expertise in certain areas of that budget report on those respective areas. (The Pentagon actually engaged in crowdsourcing a few years ago when they released a great amount of Iraqi documents online so that they could get, literally, an infinite amount of eyes on them.)

Crowdsourcing in the arts can be used for written, visual and performance projects.

One of the biggest recognizable performance pieces of crowdsourcing happened about a year ago when, at a busy train station, hundreds of people started rocking out silently to whatever was playing on their i-pod.

On Matt Freeman's site, On Theatre and Politics, there is a kind of crowdsourcing going on regarding the concept of a national premiere network. You can see the discussion here.

According to the Wired interviews, the most successful examples of crowdsourced projects are "curated" or engineered very closely. The Wired article mentions why this is:

Q: What happens when they don’t work together so well?

A: I’ve seen crowdsourcing go awry when the wrong people start using the tools, and then it turns into a teenage mudslinging fest. There was one project I considered for the Apex show that was called
. was a great concept: you just post a question and then the crowd answers it. You can ask any question in the world, for example, you can ask people to solve a particular equation, or maybe something more on an emotional level. So it sounds like a great idea, but then people started posting questions like “What size bra do you wear?” or “Are you wearing any panties?” and it turned into this pornographic and really base kind of site. I don’t know why it went in that direction and got used for such childish purposes. People had the option to email the Webmaster and report that the content was objectionable, as you can with a lot of websites, but I think that people got so sick of it…maybe just asking a question is too simple. Maybe there has to be more complexity.

Q: Or maybe more restriction. Swarmsketch had problems too, right? Before [the creator] Peter Edmunds put some parameters on the project and restricted how much each person could do, it devolved into a kind of chaos where people couldn’t agree enough to create anything coherent.

A: An individual’s contribution to Swarmsketch is literally like a
string of 5 or 10 pixels. It’s tiny. But then you have the opportunity to vote on other marks. I don’t now how [Edmunds] came up with that balance of individual and group contribution, but it works really well. A lot of the images are very compelling, and they’re not straightforward illustrations. They’re very evocative.

Q: You seem to be saying that people need a very specific task,
an assignment, for this to work. Part of what makes something crowdsourcing is that someone comes up with a task.

A: Right. Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher work on those assignments for hours to craft the language and get the right phrasing and parameters, and we did the same with NBTH. If you don’t anticipate every divergence and set up the lines very clearly at the beginning it’ll go all over the place and you’ll end up with a shapeless form, which is what happened when the British web developer Kevan Davis asked people to draw TVs and faces in an earlier experiment that predates Swarmsketch. The crowd could draw fonts and other non-abstract items, but it had a hard time with works that required an interpretation of some sort. People are always going to diverge from the task, so you have to keep the assignment somewhat narrow in order to end up with something successful.

They also talk a little about community and how that fits into the overall scheme of crowdsourcing.


Thomas Garvey said...

Swarmsketch is "compelling" and "evocative"? I beg to differ - more accurate adjectives would be "obvious" and "derivative." Folks remain in denial of a significant failing of the web - so far it hasn't really facilitated, much less generated, any lasting art.

Art said...


Scanning through Swarmsketch, it is difficult to find anything compelling or evocative, (Most look like children's fridge art "Vrrroooom: F") but it is fascinating to watch the process of development on some of these pictures. At least to me.

Reading through everything at the Assignment Zero site, it seems many of those who are furthest along in these projects question the quality of what is created as well, although I think you are right to point out that calling the Swarmsketch pictures compelling an evocative seems somewhat deluded, I am not sure I would go so far as to say that they are in denial.

I actually think the flashmob at the train station is not a bad piece of performance art, all things considered.