BY Olivian Cha in Frieze | 17 DEC 14
Featured in
Issue 168

History 2.0

How Wikipedia skews the story of art

BY Olivian Cha in Frieze | 17 DEC 14

Noah Purifoy, Squatter’s Shack, 1989. Courtesy Susan Haller and The Noah Purifoy Foundation

By now, most contemporary art institutions have fully embraced the marketing potential of social media. Yet distinguishing the ways in which internet-based applications such as Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or Facebook align (or misalign) with the mission statements of diverse cultural organizations – from large-scale museums to commercial galleries to small, non-profit spaces – seems less of a concern than the urgency of participating in today’s cultural economy of ‘likes’. For the contemporary art world, distinctions in social-media paradigms are articulated less on the institutional level and more by way of its content creators: artists.

Wikipedia’s underlying tenets, as expressed in the website’s FAQs, seem to imagine an intellectual utopia that is all-inclusive and supported by ‘collaborative creation’ and an ‘awareness that we know much more together than any of us does alone’. In line with this thinking is the call for diversity: ‘Wikipedia will only contain “the sum of all human knowledge” if its editors are as diverse as the population itself.’ Never mind that the language and structure of any modern encyclopaedia imposes a kind of homogeneity: according to a 2009 Wikimedia Foundation survey, 87 percent of Wikipedia editors are male. Several cultural and academic institutions have organized public ‘edit-a-thons’ to counteract the deficiencies that are assumed to result from this statistical imbalance. These events bring people together to collectively improve Wikipedia’s content while also diversifying its contributors. Harvard University has organized a series focusing on women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, while the Art+Feminism campaign has held edit-a-thons in Australia, Canada, the UK and US that centre on women in the arts.

East of Borneo, an online contemporary art magazine based in Los Angeles, is one such organization. Its motivation is to construct a ‘better online history of art in Southern California’ – a topic that, everyone in LA can agree, is urgent. Founded by Stacey Allan and Tom Lawson, and supported by the California Institute of the Arts, the magazine’s website is a rich and diverse resource that features original essays, interviews and artist profiles alongside historical texts, videos and images. Taking place in museums and galleries around the city, East of Borneo’s series of Wikipedia edit-a-thons has improved or created over 50 entries on artists, exhibition spaces, publications and other cultural figures, including the artist Noah Purifoy, the architect Silja Tillner and the gallerist Virginia Dwan. The events themselves are a peculiar manifestation of social mobilization. Allan and a Wikipedia representative are usually on hand to assist, but the act of writing is, for the most part, a solitary affair and the majority of attendees proceed to write their contributions with headphones on, in the glare of laptop screens.

In general, the press has applauded these efforts to expose under-represented cultural histories to a larger online public. None, however, has considered the context of Wikipedia in relation to contemporary art history. Encyclopaedias were not originally conceived as a medium for interpretative or comparative history but for factual information. While neither history nor information are purely objective – librarians have struggled with the neutral preservation, description and organization of information since the disciplinary inception of librarianship – Wikipedia imposes editorial standards that regulate language and promote the ‘neutrality’ of information in order to sustain an encyclopaedic knowledge that, ultimately, undercuts the critical and discursive significance of contemporary art history. The conservative and authoritarian model that the online encyclopaedia follows is based on the very forms of legitimization it seeks to counter.

Writing a new entry for Wikipedia involves a somewhat tedious process of validating content according to strict guidelines that emphasize ‘significance’ and ‘verifiability’ according to ‘reliable secondary sources’ – as deemed by the organization itself. Attempts at content standardization often erupt in the imposition of problematic terms but, for its part, East of Borneo seems to understand the futility of such determinants when attempting to validate lesser-known cultural figures and organizations. In this sense, their events take a ‘something is better than nothing’ approach, providing guidance on how editors must write this ‘history’ in order to keep their entries online.

Perhaps the best embodiment of Wikipedia’s democratic aspirations can be found in its structural design. The abundance of footnotes and hyperlinks uniquely positions the site as something like a live annotated bibliography. This is not a call for the neo-liberal potential of immaterialized, ‘social’ networks but a reminder that Wikipedia is able to redirect its millions of readers from standardized encyclopaedic entries to a multiplicity of interpretations and resources. It is here that Wikipedia’s social formation has the potential to enact a meaningful model of diversity: embracing multiplicity and discursiveness rather than reducing entries to a singular, utopian consensus.

Olivian Cha is a curator and critic based in Los Angeles.