Give it a name: ApexArt tries to pinpoint an art movement


By Nicole Davis

When ApexArt tapped Andrea Grover, a media artist from Houston, to curate a new show at the Tribeca gallery, she knew she wanted to include Found magazine and the website Learning to Love You More (learningtoloveyoumore.com). The magazine, edited by Davy Rothbart, reprints found items like love letters, photos, and to-do lists sent in by readers, and the website, run by Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher, gives the public assignments like “Make a documentary video about a small child,” and publishes the submissions online. What interested Grover in both works was the wide swath of the populace that each harnessed toward a common, creative goal.

“But I wasn’t sure how to name it,” Grover said, until she read an article in Wired magazine by Jeff Howe, titled “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” That was the word she was looking for. Excited, she explained the concept to the five artists she selected for her group show, “Phantom Captain: Art and Crowdsourcing,” which opens October 18. “When I told them the title of the show, they said ‘Oh that’s an interesting term—I guess that is what I’m doing.”

In fact, we all participate in crowdsourcing, a word that refers to the growing, laypersons labor pool that corporations use to create content, problem solve, even perform research and development. Payment isn’t necessary for all of these volunteers — think of all the bloggers, musicians, and experts who add value to sites like Blogger, MySpace and Wikipedia for free. But compensation can sometimes be used as an incentive. Netflix for instance, just announced a million dollar bounty to any developer who comes up with a better system for movie recommendations on their site.

“I think we’re experiencing a moment in time where technology is allowing for people to cooperate in large numbers on all sorts of things,” Grover said from her home in Houston last week. Even ApexArt practiced a form of crowdsourcing when it invited Grover, 1600 miles from New York, to curate a show.

“They like to invite people who have different areas of specialization and who are not necessarily curators or critics — and that’s right up my alley, because crowdsourcing is entirely about embracing the amateur…Innovation doesn’t come necessarily from the trained technician, but from the people who just have a love of doing it ­— which is what the word amateur comes from. The Latin is ‘to love.’ ”

With that in mind, Grover, the founding director of an art house cinema called the Aurora Picture Show, cast a wide net for artists who used an amateur labor pool in their creative, crowdsourcing projects. Taking the term “Phantom Captain” from a chapter in a Buckminster Fuller book that describes a machine-like, collective consciousness that connects all of us, the show includes many works that employ the Internet, such as SwarmSketch.com, an experiment led by Peter Edmunds. Each week, Edmunds randomly chooses a popular Internet search term for a sketch subject that visitors to the site can collaborate on, one line at a time. Users get to vote on which ones stay or go, get lighter or darker, thinner or wider. The results, writes Grover in the exhibition brochure, “are something akin to the unholy union of a Cy Twombly and a Willem de Kooning drawing, and a very compelling argument for the mob’s creative talents.”

Not every crowdsourcing artist in the show employs the Web to generate content, however. One particularly low-tech work in the exhibit is Allison Wiese’s “Artists’ Cookbook.” Though the San Diego-based, multi-media artist did send out an email calling for recipes, her community cookbook concept is one of the oldest forms of crowdsourcing—and one that’s apparently familiar to artists. Along with the “MoMA Artists’ Cookbook,” Wiese also discovered titles like “The Sensuous Carrot” from the Country Art Gallery and the “California Artists’ Cookbook,” which seem to debunk that starving artist stereotype. At Apex, she will be displaying page proofs of the 46+ recipes she’s collected so far, from Jay Stuckey’s Coca-Cola Cake to Francesca Fuchs’ Chicken Renoir.

Weise is planning another riff on the show’s theme by putting together a potluck culled from these recipes for the opening night of the exhibit. And before the show’s close, Davy Rothbart and Jason Bitner of Found magazine will be reading at ApexArt on November 8, and on the 15th, Jeff Howe will be giving a talk about the term he invented.

“I’m really excited about the possibilities of this,” said Grover, adding that she feels the show is “just version one” of a series. “All of the artists in this are brilliant. I feel like they’re on the cusp of something really significant that doesn’t have a name yet, and crowdsourcing is just a placeholder for a larger movement.”