Hundreds of appeals have gone out in the past to participate in collective film projects, but this one is different. Or maybe not? The project is called “Your Views” and the basic idea is simple: people all over the world are asked to submit clips showing the view from their windows at home. The special twist here is that the photographs will be collected for use in an art project that will later be displayed in art museums and galleries and on television. Author and initiator of the project is the renowned British artist and filmmaker Gillian Wearing, in collaboration with her gallery, Maureen Paley.
The attention-grabbing invitation to participate enjoins people to: “Be part of a unique, global, collective filmmaking experience with the artist Gillian Wearing. We want to capture a snapshot of views from people’s homes all over the world and this can only be done with YOUR help.”
It sounds like an interesting opportunity to take part in a film by a prominent artist. But the meaning and the concept behind the planned work is not evident from the announcement. At best, one can speculate that social or ethnographic aspects might play a role. The purpose however is clear: the filmmaker would like to receive by “free home delivery” photos from around the world that she would otherwise be unable to gather authentically or only at a tremendous cost. Similar goals or concerns underlie almost all participatory film projects and can practically be seen as their identifying feature. This is in no way objectionable in and of itself. At the same time, though, a tone is taken in Wearing’s project that prompts some scepticism with regard to the planned mode of production. Despite the fact that a collective experience is promised, “Your Views” is anything but a collaborative film project.
In contrast to collaborative, participatory film projects (see examples in the footnotes), the potential of the co-filmmakers involved in “Your Views” to have a say the production is almost nil. It starts with the conception of the individual clip and already ends again with the selection of the material and the way it’s used. The submission instructions even describe meticulously the formal parameters for the shot.
The view from the window should be revealed by first opening a curtain or a blind “with a quick steady motion”. Telling a story is prohibited – the participants’ films should be impersonal and remain uniformly “flat” in terms of narrative. Even the framing is specified: the window frame and objects in the apartment behind should not be included in the shot. The camera’s focus and exposure setting are stipulated. Even the length of the shot is defined down to the second. The entire production is therefore regimented. In film production practice, this is known as a stage direction, something that always must be observed in the film industry, where there is a clear hierarchy of production employees.
But that’s not all. In the Terms & Conditions “uniqueness and creativity” are cited as selection criteria, but above all “consistency with the creative and artistic vision of the Director of the Film” (Gillian Wearing). Without any details provided, how is one to know just what that vision might be? Finally, the relinquishment of all rights to the submitted clip is also a requirement for participation. Costs will not be refunded and no licensing fees paid. All that the participants whose clips are chosen can look forward to as a gesture of thanks is a short trailer version of the finished film.
How are we to judge a project like this one – ethically, artistically or culturally? Is it different by definition from commercial participatory projects just because it’s an art project? One extreme example of the former that can be cited in this connection is the project “Mass Animation” (2008-2011), which, although not comparable in intention to “Your Views”, does exhibit a whole series of methodological and structural similarities that raise similar questions.
Mass Animation was launched by the former Sony Vice Chairman Yair Landau as a new production model for animated films. The crowdsourcing project saw itself as an “open invitation to artists around the world to collaborate in creating the next generation of animated stories”. More than 50,000 filmmakers from 101 countries participated. Fifty-one of the works were chosen as scenes for use in the finished short film “Live Music”. Only the authors of the selected works each received a lump sum of $500 as fee. The film’s production cost only a fraction of the usual amount. The method was heavily criticized on the American animated film scene as exploitation. In a blog on Motiongrapher, the ostensibly participatory approach was given the negative label “democratization of animation”, the writer wondering why the participants had no influence on the creation of the final film and were only used as animation artists – basically a routine task. In this case as well there were detailed instructions, a predetermined script and hierarchical decision-making procedures. True participatory opportunities, such as cooperating with the production studio or even collaboration amongst the participants, were not envisaged.
In the end, it’s a question of economy. If crowdsourcing is used only as a method for manufacturing a product cheaply or obtaining services for free, it is reprehensible and unacceptable. It is an approach that has however unfortunately become widespread in certain areas of the so-called creative industries. Crowdsourcing invitations for advertising films have almost become commonplace. Graphic designers are particularly affected by this trend. A special term has even been coined for crowdsource work: “spec work” (see also http://www.nospec.com). But it is not always easy to pass judgement on every incidence of crowdsourcing. This is in particular the case when a project involves non-professionals, “ordinary citizens” who don’t expect payment in the first place. And also when it comes to private initiatives and cultural projects. Another criterion for evaluating crowdsourcing projects beyond the economic question is the degree of genuine cooperative and collaborative elements they incorporate.
Gillian Wearing’s “Your Views” project does not include any actual collaboration and asks the crowd to work for free. The contributions are however made voluntarily by civil society, i.e., not produced as part of the economic cycle. But the latter statement may not be entirely true, because the finished work does indeed have a chance of succeeding on the art market, immediately raising the economic question again. The artist and her project inevitably end up facing this dilemma. Structural reasons are to blame here, regardless of Wearing’s personal intentions.
In the case of art projects, the problem – the discrepancy between private crowdsourcing and market commercialization – grows proportionally to the renown of the respective artists and their market value. Though Gillian Wearing’s ranking in this connection is not bad, she is still far from the top, so that there is not a great deal of money at stake. To cite a counter-example, works by the market leaders in video art, such as Bill Viola, Fiona Tan or Pipilotti Rist, can go for several hundred thousand dollars at auction. For conceptual reasons, however, there is probably no danger of normal everyday citizens being asked to participate unpaid in their works.
Things are different when it comes to an art form that has been very successful over the last few years at biennials and art fairs, and which sees itself as a new variation on participatory art. We are not talking here about (commendable) educational or social art projects, but about the variant known as “Relational Art” (after Nicolas Bourriard). To put it bluntly, this is participatory art in which the dialogue between producer and consumer is more about the rules of product marketing (usually personified through a curator) than actual meaningful participation in the artistic process.
Wearing is normally not counted among the Relational artists. Nor does she invite the public to participate in the artistic process or feel like artists themselves. “Your Views” unequivocally defines in its Terms & Conditions who the artist is, namely “the Director”. In earlier works, however, Gillian Wearing has at times involved ordinary citizens more strongly in the process and given them some creative leeway. For her film “Self Made” (2007) Wearing put out a call for lay actors, and after casting seven people trained them to act as the protagonists in her film. Her chief interest here was not however participation as such, but rather, as in her other works – including the photographic ones – questions of identity and the differences between outward appearance versus inner truth, artificiality versus authenticity. Nevertheless, in Wearing’s early works as well, dramatization and documentary elements overlap. This shift, which blurs the boundaries between art and reality, is also typical of relational aesthetics.
Even if she is not counted among the school of relational artists, Wearing has at least let herself be influenced by sharing and crowd strategies. This is evident from another project that she is developing in parallel with “Your Views”. In her hometown of Birmingham, she is planning the monument “A Real Birmingham Family” . Wearing publicly advertised for a family wishing to model for the bronze sculpture, which is to be installed in 2014. Out of more than 370 families who attended a casting call, a jury shortlisted four. In the meantime, the “winning family” has been chosen and the project is now in the realization phase. That means that the production of the monument must first be financed – and half of the money is coming from crowdfunding! Citizens of Birmingham in particular are being asked to donate. During a certain phase of the crowdfunding, the Arts Council will match the funds collected. After all, Â£100,000 must be raised to realize the project. Anyone who donates more than Â£250 can call themselves a “Friend of the Family” and will be named in the list of supporters.
One can already imagine what the monument will look like, because there is a forerunner, a bronze replica on a 1:1 scale of an Italian family (image “Typical Trentino Family of 2007″).
Referring to “Your Views” and other participatory art projects, Simon Stephens asks in an article in the Museums Journal the logical though heretical question of whether public participation in the arts is necessarily always a good thing. He expresses doubts as to the quality of works of art thus produced. Stephens cites here another review of Gillian Wearing’s film project, in the Guardian (which by the way inspired this article). In his Art Blog on Guardian Online, Jonathan Jones disparagingly labels Gillian Wearing a “social artist” and describes her work as boring “interactive happy-clappy art” (Will the digital age kill off art?, The Guardian, 2 July 2013).
For “Your Views” at least, this harsh judgment is premature. What will happen with the submitted window clips is after all still the artist’s secret, and we can’t know at this point what the finished work will look like. At any rate, audience participation and the integration of social media strategies in art and film certainly remain exciting issues fraught with contradictions.
_Links to Gillian Wearing and her work
“Your Views”: http://yourviewsfilm.com/
“Your Views”, a few participatory films online: http://randomacts.channel4.com/artist/298/Gillian
“A real Birmingham Family” (2012 – ): https://ikon-gallery.org/event/a-real-birmingham-family-9/
“Self Made” (2010)
“Secrets and Lies” (2009)
“Sixty Minute Silence” (1996)
“Working on the Community. Models of Participatory Practice”, Christian Kravagna 1998: http://republicart.net/disc/aap/kravagna01_en.htm
Complications; On Collaboration, Agency and Contemporary Art”, Maria Lind: http://pi.library.yorku.ca/ojs/index.php/public/article/download/30385/27912
“Participation and collaboration in contemporary art”, S. E. Fotiadi: http://dare.uva.nl/record/293009
“Crowdsourcing”, NO!SPEC: http://www.nospec.com/category/crowdsourcing
_Examples of art films
“They Shoot Horses” (2004), Phil Collins, Teenagers dancing in Ramallah
“Sweet Nightingale”, Victor Alimpiev (2005), a large group of people being instructed, to execute various minimal movements.
Nearly all films by Yael Bartana
_Collaborative crowdsourced films
“A Remix Manifesto”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RiP!:_A_Remix_Manifesto
“Sanctuary” / “Head Bin”: http://modfilms.com/archives/20040903_head_bin.html
“Iron Sky”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Sky