The Encyclopedia That Anyone Can Edit
In the spring of 2011, Fillip commissioned a series of new photographs by New York–based artist David Horvitz. Entitled Scotch Broom, the work extends the artist’s ongoing series of Wikipedia photographs—images intended for distribution through the Web-based encyclopedia’s Wikimedia Commons server space. First begun as an occasional, ad hoc series and continuing in a more developed manner with Public Access (2011), Horvitz’s Wikipedia photographs are recognizable through the juxtaposition of subject matter (e.g., a monument, historical site, or otherwise) with Horvitz’s own body (often only partially visible). Operating somewhere between self-portraiture and pictorial travelogue, each work ostensibly illustrates a person or place while also delineating the artist’s own idiosyncratic interests through his discreet additions and edits to the Wikipedia knowledge base.
For Public Access—first exhibited by SF Camerawork, San Francisco—Horvitz charted public beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway from the US–Mexican Border at Border Field State Park northward to Pelican State Beach, close to the California–Oregon state boundary, with a series of beachfront horizon shots. As the artist explains: At these locations I made photographs of the view of the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes inconspicuously, and sometimes conspic- uously, I stood within the frame of the photograph. All of them I faced towards the ocean, away from the camera, so that the photograph was not necessarily about me, but that it would seem that I just happened to be in the photograph.1 In his stance, Horvitz consciously recalls that of the figure in the foreground of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), looking out into the vastness of the horizon. Yet in their repetition and seriality, these images disrupt the romantic monumentality of their referents. This disjuncture between anonymity and visibility is exaggerated further through their circulation on Wikipedia, where the photographs were variously censored or cropped to exclude the artist’s body over time.
Because of its ever-expanding scope and the perceived checks and balances on its crowd-sourced information, Wikipedia has increasingly established a standard (and its inherent limitations) to control the content and tone of popular discourse. At once embracing and destabilizing the authority and utility of Wikipedia, Horvitz’s work calls into question the way various communities develop and standardize visual information. The assumption is that the visibility of the artist’s own body adds something to an image: providing scale, signalling a cultural context, populating a space. And yet it is the repetition of Horvitz’s presence within the frame—fully or as excerpt—that has raised the ire and censure of the Wikipedia community.2
The artist’s interest in Wikipedia’s visual systems parallels other works that use Wikipedia as a space for exhibition and exchange. For example, in 2007 the artist attempted to “delete” art history from Wikipedia,3 and in 2009, he invited readers of his blog to create Wikipedia pages for their mothers.4 Horvitz’s two-volume Wikipedia Reader, completed with designer Mylinh Trieu Nguyen, extends this exploration even further by mapping and documenting Wikipedia dérives made by invited guests whose wanderings through the site were reproduced in print form.
For his work for Fillip, Horvitz used room 129 of the Waldorf Hotel as a base of operations for his continued visual infiltration into Wikimedia Commons. With Scotch Broom, photographic subjects coalesced around a particular cultural and geographic nexus formed in and around the city of Vancouver. The selection process was aided by a series of tour guides who assisted Horvitz’s navigation of the city. An open call was put out for assistance, through both the artist’s personal network, and by way of an ambiguous post made to Craigslist Vancouver’s “Strictly Platonic” message board.
The final collection of photographs uploaded to Wikipedia included documentation of a range of sites throughout the city of Vancouver, including
– The Nine-O’Clock Gun (link)
– Japadog food cart (link)
– Crab Park (link)
– Scotch Broom at Britannia Beach (link)
– The Tomahawk Restaurant (link)
– The Gastown steam clock (link)
– Third Beach in Stanley Park (link)
– Oppenheimer Park (link)
– Waterfront Station (link)
– The Japanese Hall (link)
Within these locations, the photographs record everything from the particularities of Vancouver’s regional cuisine to the banality of local “attractions” and “places of interest.”
Horvitz’s path through the city seems to trace a fairly familiar, touristic course: Gastown to Stanley Park to English Bay. And yet there are moments of departure. Oppenheimer Park, for instance, is hardly considered a tourist destination. As the park’s Wikipedia page notes: “The park remained a popular family destination until the late 1980s when crack cocaine trade and abuse began to dominate the park’s usage.”5 Nor is the Japanese Hall, located across the street, a space whose historical links to the forced confiscation of property and the internment of Japanese Canadians by the Canadian government during World War Two throws into contestation the city’s recent celebration of Japanese culture—most visibly through the proliferation of Japanese izakaya restaurants, to which Japadog is an obvious heir.
Within the space of Wikipedia, these images have a tenuous fate. Several have already been deleted from the pages they were linked to, and others may be at any time. Once deleted, they will remain in a sort of graphic purgatory, still stored (and thus accessible) on the Wikimedia Commons server, but removed from the encyclopedia itself—and thus from a system predicated on the collective distribution and codification of knowledge, which forms the purpose of the site itself.
Scotch Broom was developed as an artist’s project for Fillip 14. It is a continuation of Fillip’s interest in investigating the potential overlaps between magazine publishing and public programming. The project was curated by Jeff Khonsary. Special thanks to Christian Schwarm, Lucas Soi, Antoni Wojtyra, Courtenay Webber, Kristina Lee Podesva, Michael Cadamia, and Jennifer Cane.
- David Horvitz and Ed Steck, Public Access (Berkeley: Publication Studios, 2011), 3. Accessible at: http://media.rhizome.org/blog/7949/Public-Access-PDF.pdf.
- Horvitz has embraced this process, claiming the re-cropping of his images as part of the work and the various Wikipedia contributors as collaborators on the project.
- See http://davidhorvitz.com/art_history/index.html.
- See http://davidhorvitz.tumblr.com/post/105328958. A later work circulated on the same Tumblr blog encouraged: Find a Wikipedia article about something near you. An example would be a coal landmark. Make a photograph at this location. Include your hand in the bottom right hand corner of the photograph. Upload the photograph to the article. Try to become present in as many articles as you can. You can see my hand in the article on Hannah Arendt, touching her grave.
- See “Oppenheimer Park, Vancouver,” Wikipedia, last modified June 14, 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppenheimer_Park_).
About the Author
Jeff Khonsary is Publisher of Fillip.