‘I'm trying to figure out the smallest move I can make in order to transform something’
Michael Mandiberg is not the first person to attempt to print the entirety of the English-language Wikipedia. In 2014, PediaPress Wiki launched the most ambitious effort to date, creating an Indiegogo campaign to publish the entire Wikipedia database, though the project was quietly pulled. It appears, though, that he will be the first to succeed. “It’s very important to me that the work does what it says it’s going to do,” he says. His past internet-involved works have lived up to their intentions. For Shop Mandiberg, he put all of his possessions up for sale online, from half-used tubes of toothpaste to his computer. His AfterSherrieLevine.com and AfterWalkerEvans.com offered high-resolution versions photographs by those artists, testing the boundaries of photo appropriation.
He’s also the first person to include a complete contributor index as part of the 7,600 volumes (each holding 700 pages) that are in the process of uploading, after being compressed into 11 gigabytes, to Lulu.com, a print-on-demand website. (Individual volumes will be printed into physical copies when ordered.) The upload began on Thursday at Denny Gallery in New York in a show titled “Print Wikipedia: From Aaaaa! To ZZZap!,” and will finish after approximately 11 to 14 days. During that time, the upload page will be projected onto a blank wall in the gallery; the rest of the walls are covered in spines representing the first 1,980 volumes in the set. One hundred six physical volumes are in the gallery itself, some of which contain what Mandiberg calls “resonant words”—words that are relevant to the exhibition, like “aesthetics,” “appropriation,” “code,” and “humanism.” The titles of these volumes evoke a failure of humanist ideals. Bookending the volume containing the word “humanism,” for example, are the entries “Hulk (Aqua Teen Hunger Force)” and “humanitarianism in Africa,” which provide its title.
These individual volumes are discounted from the usual $80 to $68; the entire collection, should anyone want to order it, is $500,000. (Ironically, you can’t actually order it online, as the sheer size of the order would break the shopping cart. If you go to printwikipedia.lulu.com, Denny Gallery’s phone number is listed for interested buyers underneath a fake “Buy Now” button.)
What is the impetus behind what the The New York Times termed Mandiberg’s “futile grand gesture?” The artist and programmer (according to his own Wikipedia page) refers to Print Wikipedia as a work of found poetry as well as “likely the largest appropriation ever made,” saying “it’s a memorial performance…that’s where I see the futility.”
I spoke to Mandiberg at Denny Gallery a day before the show opened, which was also the day after the team had officially finished converting the Wikipedia database into print-ready PDF files.
ARTnews: How many volumes are there going to be?
Mandiberg: There are a couple of numbers that are relevant—one is for the encyclopedia itself, which is 7,473 volumes long, and if you count the contributor appendix and the table of contents, it’s exactly 7,600.
So a lot of people will never know their names are in print.
Yeah, I bet everyone who contributed to Wikipedia is going to come in here and be like, “Where am I?”
It should be a New York landmark. Are you one of Wikipedia’s more popular contributors?
No, not by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve made about 2,000 edits, which barely qualifies me to apply for administrator-ship. There are a couple of people in New York, for example, who have made 10,000 edits or more.
Tell me about your connection with Wikipedia.
Like I said, I’m just barely crossing the threshold of someone who would call themselves an experienced editor. I started editing in 2008—Steve Lambert, Bennett Williamson, and a bunch of other guys put together a Wiki editing marathon on the arts, because we were a little concerned that there wasn’t substantive coverage of the arts on Wikipedia. (On that day I made articles for Amy Franceschini, and Machine Project.) And about 18 months later I started thinking about doing this project—it was 2009, and I was doing a lot of work involving books and poetry as sculptural materials. I also started teaching with Wikipedia—I’m a professor at CUNY, and I started teaching Wikipedia as a site, and my students would write articles and learn how to edit. So it came together that way. A lot of my interest comes from free culture and collaboration, which are things that I’ve worked with from a creative perspective as well as from a scholar-activist perspective.
That’s interesting, because most art is the opposite of free. It’s different from other forms of culture, like music, for example, which is distributed widely and cheaply, but with art, in most instances, only one person or institution can really own a piece.
Are you familiar with my AfterSherrieLevine.com and AfterWalkerEvans.com project? I scanned all of the images that Sherrie Levine rephotographed of Walker Evans’ photos and licensed them with certificates of authenticity that said that anyone who signs the work authenticates it as a work of art. So it’s kind of turning the whole thing upside down. I open-sourced the project, and I gave it a copyright license. And so, in that sense, I am thinking a lot about these issues of ownership and authorship.
That’s similar to the idea that tweets or Instagram photos should be copyright-protected.
I think there is already way too much that’s copyrighted in the world. Buildings have become copyrighted; you don’t have freedom of panorama. But if you look at copyright law, copyright is actually meant to incentivize the publishing of knowledge so that you have a limited time [with] exclusive use of that knowledge. So it’s to keep people from…it’s to make it so you have some incentive to share knowledge.
I was reading an article in The New York Times that described your artwork as “futile.” That’s very clear to me in your 2001 piece Shop Mandiberg, which involved you selling all of your belongings online. In this case, for example, the question is: why do we need a physical copy of Wikipedia if it’s all online?
I would not necessarily disagree with that [characterization]. I think there’s a poetry in that. There’s a kind of utopian and dystopian element to [my previous projects], and they’re also memorials in a way. For Shop Mandiberg, I put all my possessions up for sale—it was about 450 or 500 things—and about a third of it all sold. I tried not to replace things when I could, for some kind of philosophical reason. I set out certain rules for the game, in a way, and in the beginning I tried to follow them, and for the most part I let that happen. But then someone bought my computer, and how could I keep playing the game if I didn’t have the tool to play the game? So I went a month and half, two months without a computer, and when I finally bought one, it went right back up on the site.
I’m not that person anymore. They’re memorials to the person I was; that’s where I see the futility. At the same time, these works do attempt to do the thing they set out to do. I don’t make mock-ups, I don’t make demos. It actually has to work.
It’s interesting that you say this is utopian, because technology is often described as dystopian.
One of the things that I like about Wikipedia is that it is a collaborative site. Ninety-nine percent of people who edit there are working in good faith, and despite their trolling, that other 1 percent can’t actually bring it down. There are problems—it does represent in many ways structural racism and sexism. All of society does, but Wikipedia is in a position to correct some of that.
Right, Wikipedia’s objectivity is built into its identity, because it’s an encyclopedia—unlike, say, Google or Facebook.
The other thing that is really important to me about Wikipedia is its un-alienated labor. That’s what allows everyone to contribute to Wikipedia, and then it allows someone else to use it, and then it allows someone else to use it again. It’s very different, I feel, from the work I do on Facebook. I’m working for Mark Zuckerberg when I’m on Facebook, and I’m working for Jack Dorsey when I’m on Twitter. I hate to do that, but that’s the world that we live in. But when I’m on Wikipedia, it’s different because no one owns that—it’s part of the collective, and it’s part of a communal digital conference.
Why do you call yourself an appropriator? I see that in this project, but it’s less clear in your work overall, to me.
Most of my work involves items that become found objects. Appropriation is a strategy I use in my work, because one of the things that I’m interested in doing is trying to figure out what the smallest move is I can make in order to transform something—just barely, but enough that there’s a real difference.
The whole collection costs $500,000. How did you decide on that price?
It’s entirely based on production costs.
The art market—and inflated pricing—are such a huge part of the art world. As an artist, do you feel disconnected from the art world for that reason?
The art market has been such a huge part of the art world in the time that I’ve been part of it—I’ve actually watched the art market take over the art world. This is what we talk about in a program I run called New York Arts Practicum, which brings fifteen young artists to New York and they have access to facilities here. One of the things they see is how many different art worlds there are: the auction-market art world is an entirely different art world from, say, the museum art world. These two really high-strata worlds are different from the Bushwick art world, which is different from the Lower East Side, merchant-class art world. And that’s just New York, this little space. Plus there are all of the street artists. Then there are media artists, and then there’s the social engagement aspect. There’s no one such thing as the “art world”; there’s a collection of “art worlds.”
At what point did Wikipedia itself become involved in the project?
I realized I needed to contact them because there were trademark issues, and when I did their eyes kind of [popped out of their head]. Everybody was like, “We’ve been talking about doing this for years!” And I was like, “I’ve been working on it for years too!” They’re particularly excited about the contributor appendix, because no one’s actually figured out how many editors there are, and no one has ever represented the community in that way.
Did it take you three years to condense Wikipedia?
If you go to dumps.wikimedia.org, you can download the entire database, and there are several different formats for the database. The data is filtered, so one version is just the most current version, one is all the revisions, there’s a whole range. You could download that today. You could—if you wanted to, and if you had a computer that was set up for it—you could have your own version of Wikipedia running. It would be a little out of date, but…
Condense might not be the right word, but you started something in 2009…
I started on this project in 2009, and it got to a point where it just became too difficult. There were too many technical problems that were too hard, and I didn’t have the bandwidth for it, so I just decided to stop and shelved it after 4 to 6 months of working on it. Not that long in my world, because these are big projects—the project was only really in pre-production. In 2012 I revisited the idea and I was like, “Is this still interesting to me?” And I was like, “Yes, this is still interesting—this is even more interesting to me, more relevant, I really need to do this.” I started the project again—I started programming again, started the process of pre-production all over again, started writing some requests for grants and some residency applications. About 2 years ago I went to work with a programmer there to try to realize and churn through a chunk of it. We made a lot of progress, and then from there it’s just been trying to solve it. There have been all of these technical problems that have come up along the way. If you look at someone like Christo and Jean-Claude, their projects are really long because they have all these legal and technical problems. It’s not the same thing as that, but there’s a kind of durational aspect to this that was unlike any other project that I’ve taken on.
What are you planning after this?
I’m working on a couple ideas, but they’re too new to talk about. The thing that’s probably most relevant is that I would like to share this project in a different country, with a different language—maybe in Paris, or Berlin, or Beijing, or Dehli. I think it would become a different thing, and I’d really like to see that.