Interview with Hendrik-Jan Grievink

Posted: August 20, 2010 at 9:55 am  |  By: julianabrunello  |  Tags: , , ,  |  2 Comments

What was the compelling reason for you to get involved in a project concerning Wikipedia?
As a designer, I dedicate myself to inventing new ways of understanding the world through images. I use existing images in almost every project: the Fake for Real memory game I showed during the conference is a good example of this. This is a game that pairs images to make a statement about simulation in ourl world. Another example would be the Next Nature book (to be published early 2011 by Actar, Barcelona). This book talks about what we call ‘culturally emerged nature’, or ‘the nature caused by people’. Through hundreds of images and observations we analyse the influence of technology and design on our daily lives. These projects can be looked up on respectively and

A lot of images that we use are created by ourselves (co-editor Koert van Mensvoort and me) but even more come from all kinds of sources: some traceable, others not. We strive to credit all authors and would love to pay them a good fee for using their material – if this was possible, which it isn’t. Paying for all visual content would quadruplicate the costs of such a publication, which would make it impossible to get published. As for the credit part: we will always credit artists for creative images, but for small or generic images – even commercial ones, we’re not going to do this, it’s just way too time-consuming. Also, a lot of the times it’s realy hard to trace back the origins of an image in today’s copy/paste culture.

When I heard of the Wiki Loves Art contest I was immediately sympathetic to the initiative, because I think these kinds of best-practise projects are crucial to change the way people (in this case: museums and cultural institutions) think about intellectual property. They have to realise that limiting the availability of resources limits cultural production in a very direct way. Next to that, I am interested in everything that signals new forms of cultural production and the crowdsourced archiving of images certainly does that.

Are you a Wikipedian yourself or a user? Have you contributed to any articles? What about Wikicommons? Any contributions from you that we can find there?
Although I have contributed a few articles I would not consider myself a wikipedian, neither do I have any ambitions of becomimg one. As for Wikimedia Commons, I must confess I am abit of a leech: I use it often, yet only contributed little – I am sorry to say. But I will improve my life in the future! Actually, I am thinking of uploading a batch of my work and visual elements from my work when I have the time. So it can last a while, as I am extremely busy, at least until the end of this year.

In 2006 however, I did the graphic design for the My Creativity convention, organised by the Institute Of network Cultures. One of the main images I designed for this event was a copyright symbol that I manipulated into a snake that bites its own tail. A very strong image i must say in all modesty, even today. I uploaded this image to Wikicommons, but so far it has not been used by people, only on some incidental powerpoint shows here and there. It hooked me up to Paul Keller from Creative Commons Netherlands, who proposed to turn it into a font so that it could be used on people’s PC. Now Paul and I collaborate on the WLA book. But we still should do the font. Maybe there are readers of the INC website who would be interested in doing this?

At the conference you gave us some insight on the ‘Wiki Loves Art’ book. How is the production going? What can we expect to see in the book? Have you planned already a possible launching date?
At the moment we’re editing material from Flickr (both texts and images) and correspondence between the organisers and the contributers. This are mainly small observations which will be presented in an A-Z index that runs through the whole book. You can think of comments by other Flickr users, statements from the participating museums and short analyses of the visual material, like a comparison of different images from the same object, or a special page dedicated to the person who obsessively photographed all the information labels in the Boijmans museum in Rotterdam. This is the most light-hearted part of the book. More a documentation or celebration of the project. Next to that, we have longer written essays by contributors who reflect on topic relating to the project, like copyright, amateur culture, curatorial issues, crowdsourcing etc.

My little baby in the project however, is the visual contribution part. We invited artists and designers – young and upcoming as well as more established ones – to make a derivative work, a remix you could say, of the images from the WLA project. For example, one artist makes a series of merchandising products by combining images from the WLA database with online printing-on-demand tools. This results in products like an Isaac Israels Thong, Mondrian Sneakers etc. and conceptualizes a kind of virtual Wiki Loves Art Museum – a museum that exists only through it’s DIY merchandising.

We do this because we are convinced that good practices of remixing otherwise copyrighted material can help change the way cultural institutions think about intellectual propery in a positive way, in the hope that in the near future they will loosen up their IP regimes. For me, this part of the project is very exciting because it relates the most directly to my practice as a designer and personal interest in this project: the (re)use of cultural resources for new forms of cultural production. In the end, it is all about the question: how can we have as much high quality visual material accessible for everyone as possible?

The launching date has to be confirmed, but the plan is to release the book during the Economy of the Commons event, organised by INC in November this year.

By reading the blog entrance on your presentation, I came across the following sentence: "A real challenge would be to think of Wikimedia Commons as a goal in itself." Would you care to comment on that?
Well, as I stated in the answer to your previous question, my personal agenda is as much banal as it is idealistic: I just want as many visual resources online so that I can use them for the projects I do. The idealistic part is that I want this for cultural actors all over the globe because I believe this contributes to a better world. At least one where cultural production is more free and less restricted by intellectual property laws.

Since its start, Wikimedia Commons is mainly set up as a picture archive for Wikipedia. There is nothing wrong with that because Wikipedia is still very text-based and could use some imagery here and there. My problem with it is that Wikipedia is very much linked to literate culture – a perception of the world through the written word. But the cycles of meaning production in the world are more and more dominated by images (whether you think that is a good or a bad thing). If you want this process to be more democratic instead of dominated by corporations, than the tools behind visual production should be more democratic and collaborative than tey are now.

For example, the visuals from the keynote presentation that Al Gore used to adress his global warming statement have made a huge impact on (at least a part of) the world’s ideas on this topic. Regardless what your position is in this debate, one has to acknowledge the highly manipulative character of these images (as is the very nature of images, but that’s another story). So when there’s manipulation through images, whether it is for ‘the good cause’ or not, we deal with power relations and power always corrupts and thus needs contra-power. In this case, we talk about Visual Power: the power of images to change the way people think. To go short, I think Gore’s presentation should be available online in an open format, including all the media files that come with it, so that it can be re-used, mis-used and re-interpreted by anyone. In a flash of self-chosen naïvity (call it idealism), I would say the same should go for voting forms, press photography, corporate imagery and so on.

I see a huge potential for Wikimedia Commons there. It is shocking how little cultural actors (like my designer friends) are aware of the existence of Wikimedia Commons, let alone that they use it or even contribute to it. This is not just because of their lack of interest, they just don’t know about it because they have other tools. They google everything because Google image search seems to have a monopoly as image archive. But we all know what comes with finding images on Google: they’re often poor quality, badly tagged and from unclear sources and often not copyright-free. Flickr is a bit more reliable in that respect, although it is hard to cut through all these Eiffel tower pictures there. But for some reason the architecture and design of these two websites is just so much more convenient for cultural actors to get their images from. There is a lot to be learned from these commercial giants. I see a huge potential if Wikimedia Commons would be able to abondon their librarian’s mentality and rethink itself as the world’s largest collaborative media database. But before that happens, we need to realise that understanding the world through text is on its demise and rethink the world’s cycles of meaning production from a visual culture perspective.

Do you have any recommondations for Wikimedia Commons?
  1. Acknowledge that we live in a visually oriented culture and act to that
  2. Learn from succesful tools on the web such as Google’s image search and
  3. Try to engage image makers and other people who professionally use images on a daily basis
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