Artists Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern developed the idea to create a self-referencing Wikipedia article late last year. The plan was to write a new article, titled Wikipedia Art that was wholly devoted to the fact that the page had been created — an article that was completely meta and self-referential.
The axiom that all press is good press is especially apt when considering Wikipedia Art. The project is, in essence, the amalgamation of everything that references it. I’m sure that this article, once published, will become yet another piece of what some would label collaborative performance art.
The project’s detractors include Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation, who have taken legal action by claiming trademark infringement. They might even accuse me of adding fuel to what is essentially an act of Wikipedia vandalism. But of course that accusation, if printed somewhere, would just become another piece of the project. Kildall and Stern aren’t interested in joining the debate over its merits; they’re just there to document the debate itself.
Because Wikipedia articles are strictly required to have citations (both to establish notability and to verify the facts they assert are true), the artists reached out before the article was published to several blogger and journalist friends, asking them to conduct interviews and write about the project, with the idea that those posts and articles would become fodder for citations.
“We knew when we put up the page we wouldn’t have any citations yet and it would be not notable,” Kildall told me. “But we simultaneously asked a number of people if they’d write about the project. We got about 15 to 20 people, some of whom wanted to do an interview with us based on the information we gave them. We had those ready to post at the time of the intervention. We didn’t know what they were going to write about beforehand, but we knew they were going to write something. So when we put up the page on Wikipedia, on Valentine’s Day, we simultaneously got everything released about a half hour from each other.”
Theoretically, this meant that the page about itself had justified its existence. Notoriety, if you believe one side of the argument, had been established. But anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the arcane style rules of the online encyclopedia would recognize the naivety of such an idea. Just about all Wikipedia editors will tell you that not all citations are created equal — for instance, most blogs are not considered reputable sources — and one person’s justification for the existence of an article often meets skepticism from Wikipedia administrators and users. In other words, you better be able to present a strong case for why your article topic matters. Otherwise, it is subject to deletion.
But for Kildall, deletion isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the entire point of the project stems from his desire to analyze Wikipedia’s methodology regarding the verification of knowledge, to perhaps prove that that there is a bias within its collaborative system. He began pondering these questions after finding numerous errors while editing past Wikipedia articles on video art (his area of specialization).
“That’s actually why I became interested in the Wikipedia Art project, because I was going through and fastidiously adding citations for a lot of these articles when I saw that they weren’t properly cited,” he said. “A lot of people on Wikipedia had added information, but it wasn’t properly cited and in some cases it wasn’t correct. I think it’s really interesting how information was cited on Wikipedia and what actually constitutes notable information. So it’s kind of interesting with video artists; a lot of information is propagated through the Internet only, not printed exhibition material, so in terms of mainstream coverage it’s almost non-existent.”
Either way, the Wikipedia community was not buying the article’s justification for its own existence. Within an hour after its publication — and even less time after the citations were added — the article received a stamp marking it for deletion. This creates a window of time in which registered Wikipedia users can weigh in and vote as to whether an article deserves to get the ax. The discussion articles of such threads are often populated by lengthy back-and-forth debate.
“Many found the concept itself to be confusing,” the Wikipedia Art website says of the episode. “Did this point out a hole in the authority-structure of Wikipedia? Is it a valid work of art? A valid encyclopedic entry? Is it vandalism? Does it adhere to Wikipedia standards of notability? Is it improperly self-referential?”
In the end, these discussions were inconsequential, because an 18-year-old administrator with the username “Werdna” pulled the plug and deleted the entire article, apparently bypassing Wikipedia’s policy to wait five days before making a final decision over whether an article should stay. Admins, though unpaid by the Wikimedia Foundation, have vast editorial powers with the encyclopedia.
But the Wikipedia Art project did not end with the article’s deletion, it just simply moved off the Wikipedia domain and onto WikipediaArt.org and any website or publication that happens to mention it. The artists meticulously documented everything that had happened with the project up until the point of deletion and then sent out press releases in the hope that media outlets would bite. They did, and so the project was able to live on; by deleting the article the Wikipedia administrator had created a hook with which to pull in more people who would write about the entire ordeal.
A Gentle Demand
After awhile it seemed that conversation had quieted down about the project — a trend that would lead to the end of Wikipedia Art, given that it is based entirely around the discussion concerning it. But then in April, Kildall and Stern went public with a letter sent from a law firm representing the Wikimedia Foundation claiming that the two artists had infringed on the nonprofit’s Wikipedia trademark.
“As a trademark owner, Wikimedia is obligated to enforce its legal rights, which includes policing the Internet for unauthorized uses of the WIKIPEDIA name, including in domain names,” the letter states. “Although Wikimedia understands that your use of the WIKIPEDIA name may not be intended to violate Wikimedia’s rights, Wikimedia is concerned that doing so may mislead Internet users into believing that your website is somehow affiliated, connected or associated with Wikimedia.”
The letter ends saying the foundation would like to deal with the situation “amicably,” provided that the artists turn over the domain name for Wikipedia Art.
“I was surprised and very upset,” Kildall recalled. “I didn’t know what to do. I talked to Nathaniel a lot about it, and I didn’t know the best way to handle it. I really just wanted to keep the dream of the project alive. It didn’t cross my mind in any way that we were violating the trademark. The weird thing is that we’re not a major player in the world of Wikipedia. We’re just a byproduct of them. I was just really disappointed. I felt that if it wasn’t a legal threat, if it was a conversation with the Wikimedia Foundation, then we could have reached an amicable arrangement without having to go to the press.”
Jay Walsh, head of communications at the Wikimedia Foundation, told me he had “nothing more to add from our side at this time.”
However, several representatives of the foundation have responded in multiple outlets. In an email to WebProNews, Jimmy Wales mockingly called Wikipedia Art an “alleged bit of performance art” and referred to its two creators as “trolls.”
“There was never a legal threat, no action of any kind, and there is no intention to take action of any kind,” Wales wrote. “We asked them politely to put up a legal notice distinguishing themselves from Wikipedia, and they did. Show’s over, nothing to get excited about. A group of trolls managed to manufacture for the media a publicity stunt. It’s disappointing how easy it was for them to pull it off.”
“Unsurprisingly, the artists, who enjoyed making a fuss with their initial perfomance art project, are hoping to make a fuss about our having contacted them at all,” Godwin wrote. “We anticipated precisely this reaction, of course, which is why our initial letter to Wikipedia Art, now posted on their website, talks about resolving the matter amicably and asks the artists to respect and understand our concerns. In other words, it’s about the gentlest ‘demand letter’ one can possibly write.”
Despite these assertions that the Wikimedia Foundation didn’t intend to litigate, Kildall told me that he isn’t completely convinced, and Paul Alan Levy, from the Public Citizen Litigation Group, has agreed to represent the artists if any legal action is required.
Even though the project has lived on well past the deletion of the Wikipedia Art article, Kildall acknowledged that one day, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, the project will be over. Because it encompasses anything written about it, once journalists and bloggers lose interest in it, there will be nothing to keep it going. Though Kildall spoke vaguely about a second phase to the project, he said that he had no current plans to continue fanning the flames or lobbying to get the article back on the Wikipedia domain.
And given that he recently found himself staring down possible litigation, he said that he is looking forward to that day when the collaborative performance piece comes to a close.
Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. You can read more of his writing at his blogor contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.