Let's Get Physical

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Los Angeles-based artist Xtine Hanson calls her Mechanical Olympics "an alternative media spectacle to the Olympic games." Indeed, the project humorously turns the otherwise tightly-regulated machinery of both web commerce and international sports competition on their heads. Launching simultaneously with the Beijing games, on August 8th, The Mechanical Olympics invite the public to compete in sports previously restricted to people of specific genders and nationalities. The artist has enlisted participants via Amazon's Mechanical Turk site in which users receive paid commissions for completing tasks almost but not quite so simple a machine could complete them, thus joining the ranks of participatory projects like AddArt, Sheep Market, and Ten Thousand Cents, which also employed this service. Hanson likens this playful outsourcing of labor to working with artificial intelligence. Nonetheless, it's clear that her worker bees are bringing a hefty dose of personal creativity to this web-based role-playing game. A perusal of the videos thus far uploaded to The Mechanical Olympics' YouTube channel features Starbucks baristas working overtime to put their own spin on the classic sport of Hockey, and the woman who represents South Africa in the Freestyle Swimming event could win a gold medal in charm for her combined use of a spray bottle and trippy arm movements. When accepting one of the project's Human Intelligence Tasks (or HITs), the athletes agree to wear a pre-designed sign indicating their sport, gender, and country (they get to pick their own number) and to be paid between $1-3 dollars upon emailing Hanson a URL to their 30-60 second video. The footage will be posted daily, during the Olympics, and voted upon by blog readers. Rather than medals, the winning artificial Olympians receive bonus commissions, much like their more famous counterparts whose accomplishments score them lucrative endorsement deals. - Marisa Olson ...

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Bidding and the Beat

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Sex and teletext, e-commerce and elektronische tanzmusik collide in The Sound of eBay, the latest internet intervention (and a 2008 Rhizome Commission) from Ubermorgen.com, which generates unique low-fi electro tunes from individual users' eBay data. Visit the project's site, generously decorated with 8-bit teletext porn, and enter your (or anyone's) eBay moniker and an email; a specially-tailored mp3 arrives in your inbox in a matter of hours. According to Ubermorgen.com's own account, an invisible army of bots scours the World's Largest Online Marketplace (tm) to scrape data and bring it back to be transformed into music. How a given user's actual data corresponds to the structure and content of each tune is not evident to the listener, but relates to the eBay-Generator application's own idiosyncratic system of producing and processing hashsums from user-to-user transactions: more frequent eBay bidders may receive denser compositions, and two different songs created from the same username can differ. In the future, the creators of eBay-Generator plan to release the application under a GNU Public License. The Sound of eBay concludes a trilogy of works by Ubermorgen.com--otherwise known as the artists Lizvix and Hans Bernhard--including GWEI (Google Will Eat Itself), an economic ourouboros that generates money off Google text ads then uses the income to buy Google stock, and Amazon Noir, which exploited Amazon's "search inside" function to create pirated versions of full books. Unlike these latter acts of digital ju-jitsu, the parasitic Sound of eBay has a relatively benign relationship to its host organism. Celebrating with only partial irony the auction giant's peer-to-peer distributed capitalism, the Sound of eBay offers a way to shake one's booty to the hidden rhythms of electronic commerce. - Ed Halter


Ubermorgen.com, the Sound of Ebay "Visuals" (Screengrab ...

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All About the Benjamin

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Aaron Koblin and Takashi Kawashima made a hundred dollars the hard way: with a staff of 10,000 people distributed across the globe. Or maybe the easy way, depending on how you look at it. In 2007, they posted a mysterious assignment on Amazon's Mechanical Turk--a crowdsourcing business site that lets companies offer piecemeal jobs for tiny bits of cash--asking potential employees to reproduce a greenish abstraction using a customized drawing tool; each sketcher received one cent in return for their work. Unknown to this invisible workforce, each image was 1/10,000 of a picture of a $100 bill; upon completion, the whole emerged from a mosaic of its hand-drawn parts. Continuing the numerical theme, life-sized digital prints of the work are now available at their site Ten Thousand Cents for $100 a pop, with proceeds going to One Laptop per Child (a charity originally based on the goal of the "$100 Laptop"). This isn't Koblin's first foray into collaborative artmaking with Mechanical Turk: in 2006, he similarly produced The Sheep Market, a collection of 10,000 individual black-and-white drawings, each one commissioned for two cents a piece with the simple instruction to "draw a sheep facing left." Maybe that request was prescient, given that Ten Thousand Cents made unwitting activists out of an anonymous flock of online workers. - Ed Halter

Aaron Koblin and Takashi Kawashima, Ten Thousand Cents, 2008

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All the World's a Datastream

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The Rencontres Internationales is an international festival now enjoying its 15th edition, in Madrid. But you don't have to fly to Spain to surf through its compelling exhibition, "Data Meanings." (Installed at Complejo El Aguila through May 14th.) While the RI's programs do boast a roster of over 150 respected artists and arts professionals, the festival is distinct in that it is less driven by the art market and more driven to critique practices (creative and professional) within the contemporary arts community. In particular, this year's events are designed to explore the relationship between "new cinema and contemporary art" and, unsurprisingly, new media is at the center of the debate. "Data Meanings" thus chimes in as an intellectually rigorous show presenting nine artists engaging with data sets of various sorts. Mindaugas Gapsevicius's Bookshelf (2006) places computer monitors on shelves as their screens flash text that visualizes network traffic. Shown adjacent to shelves containing real books, the installation questions the status of reading, the narrativity of protocol and data streams, the relative invisibility of data, the permanence of print versus the impermanence of digital archives, and the role of the human memory in retaining this information. Christophe Bruno describes his Dadameter (2002-2008) as "a satire about the recent transmutation of language into a global market ruled by Google et al." He's essentially created an elaborate system for analyzing text surveyed by Google and mapping its linguistic similarities to Dada forms; particularly the writings of Raymond Roussel. Dada geeks will appreciate the irony of conflating these rule-based systems. On an even more playful note, JODI's Composite Club (2007) exploits the point of view of "cameras" in Playstation games by triggering them with prerecorded videoclips while Ubermorgan's The Sound of Ebay (a 2008 Rhizome Commission) uses ...

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Express Yourself

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If virtual commerce were ever in need of a critical makeover, we might look no further than Kevin Bewersdorf and Paul Slocum to offer some solutions. As key instigators of a new type of objecthood, Bewersdorf and Slocum's individual and collective practices treat the internet as a launching pad for self-expression, where a motley crowd of Google searches and "spirit surfing" can be reinvested with the "ephemeral-imperfect" qualities of everyday items, courtesy of Walgreens.com Photo Center and other online manufacturers. What ensues are amusing products - pillowcases emblazoned with search result images of "Titanic" and "Woodstock"; mouse pads covered with pictures of "Pain" - made all the more bewildering by their stringent adherence to the terms of gallery exhibition: pristine white pedestals et. al. Bewersdorf and Slocum's reapportionment thus extends beyond the realm of clever shopping and into that of conceptual art, offering methods of traversing the routes of internet-based consumption towards highlighting a dominant commercial paradigm, yet ultimately sequestering its products in the realm of aesthetic display, within which their uncanny qualities may be brought into sharp relief. "Spirit Surfers," opening this weekend at VertexList, promises to find the artists delving deeper into this inquiry, and also marks the debut of their brand new web-based surfing club of the same name. - Tyler Coburn

Image: "Maximum Sorrow Throw Blanket #2", Kevin Bewersdorf, 2008

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