From Aaaaa! to ZZZap!

Michael Mandiberg’s exhibition, From Aaaaa! to ZZZap! opened on Thursday, June 18th, at Denny Gallery in New York. The exhibition is in a small storefront gallery on a packed block on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Two of the gallery’s walls are covered in a floor-to-ceiling grid of painted book spines, which are meant to look like the spines of many of the hundreds of thousands of volumes that would contain Wikipedia, were Mandiberg to print the entire website. Seven white shelves, dotted across the walls, hold the beginnings of the printed archive, the volumes’ spines perfectly aligned with their painted counterparts. The third wall of the gallery is all window, and the fourth is blank save for a projection of the order form for Lulu.com, the digital publisher that prints the books on display. A Dell desktop computer sits on a small, white pedestal in the corner between the window and the projection, running code. This is the “performance” aspect of the exhibition: the computer is uploading Print Wikipedia, a digitally scraped and laid-out version of Wikipedia, to Lulu.com.

There is a smaller room in the back of the gallery, which contains the 36 volume contributors index. Mandiberg himself is in included somewhere in these volumes, having contributed nearly 2,000 edits to the site.

The exhibition’s literature seems most concerned with size, calling the project “a visualization of the largest accumulation of human knowledge” that shows “the futility of the scale of big data”. However, rather than an overwhelming abundance of information that the entirety of Print Wikipedia would provide, we get only a hint of this multitude. The blank wall waters down the effect of the gridded spines, detracting from the display of immensity. Though the white walls suggest the aesthetics of both Wikipedia and galleries—clean, pure, minimalist—they almost beg to be filled. It is in the details that the project’s scope is most apparent. Most of the bookshelves hold only a few books, but the one that is filled holds 20 volumes, 19 of them labeled BAT-BAT. Batman. Bathing suit. Batting average. Each of these 700 page texts covers only 1/19th of the Wikipedia articles starting with these three letters. Even more detailed are the page numbers. Each book’s numbering starts where the last’s left off, and these numbers quickly jump from thousands to tens of thousands, boasting the vast quantity of information contained within.

The painted spines also emphasize Wikipedia’s immensity, with two walls of books not even making it through the first six letters of the alphabet. Extrapolating from there, I can assume that the whole library would cover eight walls. If each book has 700 pages, and there are 20 books on a shelf and something like ten shelves to a column, and let’s say six columns on a wall…that’s a lot of information. But it’s far from inconceivable. It’s true that the website is “[impossible] to render” as one could not reprint fast enough to keep up with the constant edits, but the scale is smaller than I imagined. Perhaps it’s because the exhibit only shows two walls worth of texts. I could imagine a gallery in which I am overwhelmed by a constant proliferation of objects, which would more accurately replicate Wikipedia. But then again, perhaps the goal isn’t to imitate the website, but to capture it, as a taxidermist freezes a creature in order to study it. This exhibit is to Wikipedia as a natural history museum diorama is to the wilderness—a living entity suspended in time.

The exhibition was open 24 hours a day for the show’s first weekend “in recognition that the computer itself works continuously.” The interplay between digital and analog is at the heart of the project, most strikingly in the space itself. The analog invites touch, while the digital refuses it. Though the computer has a mouse and keyboard nearby (a Mac keyboard strangely paired with a PC monitor), its placement close to the floor and the inscrutable code cycling across the screen don’t invite interaction. The projected order form asks the user to continue or cancel, but we, the viewers—and supposed customers—don’t have the means to do so. The books, on the other hand, are open to us. There is a white chair in the middle of the room, inviting viewers to rest a moment and examine the texts more closely. Though there is only a fraction of the number that could potentially exist, there is far too much information in even these few volumes for a person to take in.

Even here, in the analog, the digital is present. The books are laid out by a computer and then digitally printed through an online publishing company. Each shelf has on it the words “Handle with Care,” a seemingly earnest gesture that strikes me as ironic, given that we do not handle Wikipedia at all, and if we did, it would certainly not be with care. We make Wikipedia entries about ourselves, enter fake information, fail to cite, and abuse the resource with impunity. Mandiberg has taken an endlessly mutable, seemingly indestructible entity and transformed it into a delicate objet, underscoring how easy the physical world is to damage. Given his interest in appropriation and the limits of ownership, I could say instead that he has taken an everyday object and elevated it into a work of art—the evolution of readymades in the digital age. But I find the limits between digital and analog, which the exhibit and its literature seem to brush over, the more interesting question.

The volumes don’t include footnotes, which is a curious omission. I have contacted the artist to find out if this was a conscious decision or merely a result of the program scraping the site, but I haven’t received an answer. [Update: Mandiberg says it was a coding and length decision, implying that there would be too many volumes if the footnotes were included. It seems to me that if the point is to show the immensity of Wikipedia, then one would want to have as many volumes as possible, but I guess not.] In addition to the missing footnotes, there is also the absence of links. Unlike a printed text, a Wikipedia article doesn’t end when the page ends; you can always click away. In this physical incarnation, there are solid boundaries, where online, the walls are all just curtains that are easily pushed aside. This makes me think of Wikipedia games, like Five Clicks to Jesus, and the endless rabbit hole I often find myself in of clicking from article to article, learning new information about the world, and, if I stop clicking for a moment of introspection, discovering something about myself. The printed volumes offer no analogous experience (pun intended).

Through community-created resources like Wikipedia, ownership is becoming less clearly defined. But as computers infiltrate our lives, what is separate from the digital is becoming less clearly defined as well. Print Wikipedia is an exercise in archiving that takes a historical approach: put the thing on paper. The tools with which Mandiberg creates the archive are the same as those that created the source text, but the archive—or the translation—captures only a fraction of the original. Print Wikipedia is another metaphor for the same idea: we will always fail to capture the immensity of the universe. The digital universe is merely a new universe to fail with.

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