12:27pm Thursday 9th June 2011
By George Nott
It's fair to say Nathaniel Stern and Scott Kildall have suffered for their art. It's not just the time spent in front of a computer, though there was lots of that, becoming a "major problem" for one, an "addiction" for the other.
Since their first collaboration, they've been labelled vandals and trolls and suffered personal insults both "nasty and completely untrue".
"We're not artists because we want fame, glory and money," says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Nathaniel. "We think it's important stuff for the world, and are willing to invest in it."
Lucky that, because although their 2009 work, being exhibited for the first time in the UK at the Furtherfield Gallery in Haringey, found them discussed on internet forums in more than 15 languages and profiled by the world's media - it also cost them a hefty sum in lawyer's fees.
Money San Francisco artist Scott would have rather spent on his mountain bikes; Nathaniel on the 5-year-old daughter with whom he now guards his time "fiercely".
They met on the internet, in person a year later, and soon began work on Wikipedia Art. At first glance, a straightforward entry on the online encyclopaedia; behind the webpage, says Nathaniel, an "intervention into the power structures behind the most powerful, and most-often used, information resource in the world."
A quick lesson in the way of Wikipedia. One of the most popular websites in the world, it is closely guarded by eager volunteer editors and a "citation mechanism" which means all entries must be cited by a mainstream source.
"However, these 'notable' media sources often siphon their facts directly from Wikipedia," explains Scott, "creating a problem of there being no original source."
A feedback loop of misinformation the pair pounced upon. Before their page was launched it was written about by their media friends in various publications. Wikipedia's safeguard had been sidestepped. And the trouble began.
A war of words broke out between Wikipedia's editors. They were outraged, they'd been duped. The page was deleted within 15 hours.
And it wasn't long before the lawyers started circling with talk of copyright infringement and trademarks.
"We felt they proved our point for us," says Nathaniel. "Behind Wikipedia are powerful individuals with agendas and flaws and mood swings, even in their commendable efforts to disperse information widely."
Scott, kept quiet during the editors' "territorial response", to him their reaction "a huge success". To Nathaniel the hostility was "like a badge of honour".
The pair had exposed the power structure and flaws of the internet's first point of knowledge. But is it art?
"Good question," admits Nathaniel. Think of it more as an "art intervention" he says, defined (by Wikipedia, who else?) as "art which enters a situation outside the art world in an attempt to change the existing conditions there".
It can't be bought or sold, that's for sure. "There is no single object or site and as soon as it would get purchased," says Scott, "it could no longer grow."
Art, activism or both, the work continues to change. Just by mentioning it, this very article becomes part of Wikipedia Art's existence and history, the author now too a collaborator.
Were the endless hours at a computer screen, abuse and legal fees worth it?
"Thanks to this work," explains Nathaniel, "far more people than ever before are aware of how Wikipedia and its surrounding community function, and thus tend to look at it with a more critical eye when using it.
"So, for that - absolutely."
The piece, in a physical form made up of legal letters, scrolls of online debates, media coverage and the reactive work of other artists, is at the Furtherfield Gallery, Ashfield Road, with some of Nathaniel and Scott's individual works until June 25.
Judge it in person for yourself - because you won't find it on you know where.
Details: 020 8802 2827 www.furtherfield.org
© Copyright 2001-2013 Newsquest Media Group