Interview with Hendrik-Jan Grievink

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