In a London gallery, a volume of an encyclopedia lies open. Someone snaps a shutter, exposing the spread to a single frame of film. Someone turns the page and the process is repeated, page by page, volume by volume, over the course of the exhibition. One imagines looking on as the tissuey, Bible-like paper pages are turned, wanting to join in and snap a few frames. The result is John Latham’s 1971 film Encyclopaedia Britannica.
At MoMA on Saturday, March 7, Wikipedia is open for editing. Someone adds a citation or checks a link, and then saves to the cloud. Someone turns to the next entry and the process is repeated, page by dematerialized page, over the course of the day. You can look on, or join in and tweak a few screens yourself. The result is more Wikipedia.
One wonders what Latham thought of Wikipedia (he died in 2006, about five years after it got going). He might have linked it, as I do, to his notions of the “incidental person,” referring in part to the idea of small individual actions having large collective effects, and the “least event,” his term for the smallest increment of action beyond no action at all. To participate in Wikipedia, the formidable collective product of so many “incidental persons,” you start with “least events.” One is to create an account. Another is to make a simple edit: add a period or delete a comma. You work up to checking links, adding new references or images, and placing entries into categories.
But the most important “least event,” as Woody Allen may or may not have said, is to show up. Once on site we’ll embed you in the process, whether it involves a training session, group discussion, research chat, or a quiet place to work. Also, there will be coffee. Lots of coffee. Or you can show up at one of over 50 satellite events worldwide. You can even show up nowhere, via Google hangout.
In addition to the idea of showing up, Latham’s work and the MoMA event (Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon) share a critical aspect—to make one conscious of the constructed nature of institutionalized knowledge. The March event involves questioning a documented gender gap in Wikipedia by focusing on coverage of modern women artists. At a similar event last year, over 90 articles were enhanced and over 100 were added, including entries for Mary Miss, Xaviera Simmons, and Liza Bear. This year participants have the option to zoom in specifically on artists documented in the Museum’s Modern Women initiative.
Which brings me to the Artist Placement Group. The APG was conceived in the late 1960s by Latham’s wife Barbara Steveni to embed artists in commercial and public institutions as participant-observers, engaging in what curator Peter Eleey described as a delicate blend of “antagonism and service.”
In the spirit of “antagonism and service,” I notice that Steveni lacks a Wikipedia entry. Conceiving of the APG was just an early part of her ongoing investigation into the blending of art and life. Ironically, one of her current projects is titled “I Am An Archive,” yet it is minimally documented online. (For comparison, Latham has a Wikipedia entry and a thorough, highly conceptual, digitized archive.)
So my service on March 7 may involve a shiny new Wikipedia entry for Steveni. Look for me in the Library, ready with databases, research strategies, and maybe even a book or two. I will be thinking of the time Latham and students chewed up a library book and tried to return it. The library wouldn’t take the book, but MoMA did. Try that with Wikipedia.