I have no talent as an artist. I can’t make use my hands to forge a representation of something I see in my mind. Instead, I chose to take the hands of many and see if a representation would crawl out of the random aggregation into our minds. What would a painting look like if everybody got just one brush stoke? Not enough to shape the larger vision, just enough to make a difference. Call it a community mosaic, participatory pointillism – call it a waste of time. This is either the most selfless act of art (where the artist ultimately gives up control), or the most arrogant (thinking that something significant will emerge with only one instruction). I launched into this project with two premises.
Premise #1: As human beings we are programmed to recognize patterns and to discern order from chaos.
Premise #2: As social beings we will naturally look for ways to cluster into groups.
This post marks the first journey into social experiments. The test was to see what would happen if I spent an afternoon in Harvard Sq. handing out different colored stickers. Everybody got roughly the same instructions: Take a sticker and put it on a poster-board that I held. The ultimate question is whether or not anything would emerge. I was also curious about the process; how would people react to such a “pointless” endeavor? What would be the best way to get people to participate? How long could I actually do this for?
Based on previous musings about social forces – I expected three categories of people.
1) The Careless: People who didn’t take the time to consider where they put the piece
2) The Copiers: People who looked for patterns groups or ways to connect or extend existing patterns
3) The independents: People who tried to reject any patterns and separate their contributions from the others.
It turns out I was wrong on all three accounts. What actually emerged was still interesting nonetheless. After at least 500 stickers, people were still consistently looking for open space of areas of low concentration for the color they were adding. Clustering was very low, as was linking one color next to another which did happen in only a handful of areas with 3-5 pieces overlapping in some places. The other activity which surprised me is that not a single person tried to identify an emerging pattern or image and contribute to its formation. Several people noticed clusters that were emerging, but chose not to join it. So, nobody “copied” as I had anticipated. The Even the careless still chose to spread out colors. The only clustering I was able to notice was that people tended to place the dots towards the top simply because of the way I was holding the poster.
While the above were identifyable behaviors on a group level. There were several different individual actions that may reveal something about the person adding the sticker:
- A single yellow placed in the cluster of 6 blues to creat a flower
- a single blue placed over the single yellow to restore the unified blue cluster
- one red placed directly ontop of another red
- 3 occasions where the sticker was placed on the back side of the sheet
- two people asked if they could put the sticker on me, one did
- couples and families on multiple occasions placed overlapping stickers
- my personal favorite: one girl tore the sticker in half and created “horns” for another sticker (unfortunately they fell off before the final version)
Some casual demographic observations:
- I was most successful with younger groups; the kids were really a blast. They were generally quite smart and engaged with the mission of the project as well.
- Slightly noticeable greater success with females; This could be because I’m a guy, or that girls are more willing to do random art.
- Older people by themselves were the least wiling to participate; people are generally conditioned to ignore strangers.
And at the end- did anything emerge? I keep staring at the poster now. There are enough dots where different images dance in and out of my brain, but not enough connection to actually make anything stick. The poster is almost uncomfortable to look at deeply because my brain screams for something to recognize when in fact there is nothing. It feels like the night sky to our ancestors. We must wonder if the images that emerge come from our brain or if they were placed with some purpose.
Maybe this is, at best, a critique of modern art. The method is easily copied, but this work can never be replicated. What’s more valuable to me than the result is the experience of interacting with a great set of people. It was a delight to work with such a random group of artists.