The growth of Wikipedia as an institution has mirrored, and possibly even propelled, the growth of Web2.0. As the importance of Web2.0 has grown in our lives, Wikipedia has become the world's go-to encyclopeadia, a veritable treasure trove of information on all sorts of topics. Because Wikipedia is user-generated, relying on its readers to add the information, it manages to cover more topics than any other encyclopedia before it. And with its rise has come about the demise of Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book, those handsomely bound, meticulously edited, multi-volume tracts that were the first source of research for student and teacher alike in the days before the Internet.
But of course, not everything in Wikipedia-land is hunky dory. The first and most important criticism of the encyclopedia is that, by allowing users to generate and edit their own entries, there is no one who is accountable for any errors that creep in - and any expert on a topic will tell you just how many errors creep into almost every Wikipedia article. This was the basis from which digital media artists Nathaniel Stern and Scott Kildall launched Wikipedia Art in February 2009. Their goal is to bring to the public's attention the most vital failings of Wikipedia as a media source; to inform them that the world should not trust everything they say under the famous W symbol.
"Wikipedia Art arose from our discussions about how important Wikipedia is as a resource of information, but how little people know about its internal mechanisms. Nathaniel and I had tried working as Wikipedia editors to compensate for the absence of contemporary arts coverage in it. We realised that many assume that Wikipedia is the 'free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit', while it's actually quite difficult to make a new page. And there's a lot of politics and lobbying involved in trying to get across an important information in it," says Kildall.
The artists started the project with a poetic idea — an open art work that anyone can edit within the confines of the enforced standards of quality and verifiability of Wikipedia. The artwork could be edited by anyone as long as the changes were published on and cited from, 'credible' sources. Their main objective was to highlight the way Wikipedia functions.
"Wikipedia itself works on a citation mechanism. Their threshold for inclusion is 'not truth, but verifiability'. If you want to put something on Wikipedia, your information has to come from somewhere else. This was the issue we were trying to address — the discrepancies between what is acceptable as a reference and what gets rejected. We modelled Wikipedia Art on that concept," he adds.
"This was an intervention into Wikipedia. Wikipedia itself defines an art intervention as 'an interaction with a previously existing artwork, audience or venue/space' that may 'attempt to change the existing conditions there'. We wanted to point to the invisible authors and authorities on Wikipedia, and show to a wider audience how the system really works in a biased, difficult and messy fashion," Stern told Guardian20.
Unfortunately, 15 hours after Wikipedia Art's birth, Wikipedia marked the article for deletion for not adhering to Wikipedia standards. "Despite this, Wikipedia is still promoting the project's critical analyses. The disclaimer on our website stating that we are not related to Wikipedia in any way is because the Wikimedia Foundation threatened to sue us for trademark infringement. Wiki eventually backed off after we went public about the issue as it earned them a lot of negative publicity," Stern said.
The duo was invited last year to be a part of the Venice Biennale for their Wikipedia Art project. "Our concept was to invite other artists to re-mix the debate and content that took place in the wake of Wikipedia Art. This way, the idea of information and intervention became more accessible," Kildall said.
The artists are presently working on writing academic papers that engage the issue of Wikipedia Art and. They are also working on a publicly curated exhibition about the piece and Wikipedia at the Transmediale festival in Berlin.