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A Chat with Jeff Cain, Creator of The Utopia! Exhibition
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Jeff Cain

Following on from last week’s chat with the creator of CCHits, we’re taking a look at another very popular Ning App – or rather, a set of Apps. The Utopia! Exhibition is both an art project and a contest in which visitors can submit and rate photographs.

There are eight different divisions, each with its own App, cloned from our own very popular This Or That. The top-ranked entries in each division will be exhibited as part of Fair Exchange at the Millard Sheets Gallery, and the whole project is part of the 2006 LA County Fair. Note that the deadline for both submission and voting is this Sunday, July 2nd, at which point voting will be turned off – so if you want to take part as either an artist or voter, you’d better move fast.

This is a large and fascinating project which raises and exercises issues regarding the roles of artist, curator and viewer. It’s also a great demonstration of how relatively simple social apps can be used in new and ambitious ways. The man behind it all is Jeff Cain (pictured above right, photographed by Dercum Over). In this interview we wander through the issues raised by the project, the patterns of submissions and votes so far, and how he’s been using Ning to power it all.

Who and where is Jeff Cain?

I’m an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. I’m interested in cultural, technological, and site-specific projects. About a year ago I organized my studio, research, curatorial, and organizational practices into something called the the Shed Research Institute.

What’s the overall theme of the Utopia! Exhibition?

It’s a curatorial project looking at how communities produce and consume photography online as opposed to in physical spaces.

Where did the idea come from? Have you put together exhibitions in the past?

I was looking to curate a show that would not focus on my tastes and opinions; instead, that the juried show could collectively reveal something about the context and meaning of how the work was selected. I originally knew that I wanted to have this be a participatory project that would be characterized by radical inclusiveness. The internet seems like the only way to facilitate this sort of exchange.

I chose to work with one of the established models of internet photo-rating: This Or That. There are so many new ways in which culture, images and ideas are rated on the internet (Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube, Blogger). These systems appear more and more in how people socialize, access, understand, and purchase culture on the internet. I thought by taking the work selected online and presenting it in real life, it would create a really interesting divide that would help reveal how we value and understand images in these two places.

I have put together conventional exhibitions before; for example, an exhibition of paintings for the Los Angeles Absolut Biannual. But I generally work on more experimental concepts and exhibitions, as ultimately I identify as an artist more than a curator.

How has the reaction been so far? Have you tallied the votes and submissions?

The submissions for all eight categories are over 1000 now, with nearly a million votes in total.

I love the fact that you’ve used This Or That because, while some people consider it a trivial app, it’s one of the most-cloned and has seen some wildly-varied and creative uses – yours being one of the most notable.

This or That is widely used for fun, but it is a statistically fairly accurate way of getting a disorganized and fragmented audience to offer feedback on content that may be too numerous to look at thoroughly. It also makes you look at and evaluate two images before you move. So in a way, every image has possibly been scrutinized and looked at by the general audience more so they they would have been at a regular exhibition, even the ones that you might not have considered at all.

At what stage in developing the idea did you discover Ning and our own This Or That App?

I selected that I wanted a This Or That style of app right away – largely inspired by the internet phenomenon of Kitten War and by the Ning apps on Cute Overload. I did a great deal of research looking for a This Or That implementation that I could use and I found Ning the easiest and fastest way to go.

Your clones of This Or That are quite heavily customized. How has that process been for you?

It was fairly easy. I have good html skills, so general formatting and styling were quite simple. It was my friend, computer wiz, and fellow artist Chris Bassett, who most customized the architecture.

One of the aspects that particularly interests me here is the contrast with most art exhibitions, which are usually put together by one or two dedicated curators. Have you had reactions to your unusually democratic approach?

Most people I’ve met really like the idea and are taking part because it is fun and participatory, while they wouldn’t have participated in the competition before. Some of these people are very serious artists. I have also set up a forum for discussion, and know none of these people giving feedback. Many of these responses are conflicted and some outright resistant to the democratic process. I would say that the answer is mixed.

One would suppose that the openness of the submission and selection process trades off against a consistent vision for the exhibition as a whole. However, I wonder if any recurring themes have emerged from both the submissions and the collective opinion of voters. What are your thoughts on this?

For sure you will see a very heterogeneous group of work. I was relying on self-selection to weed out the most topically incongruous, and I’m really not sure if that happened. There were a lot more cat and dog photographs than I expected – maybe you really can’t take the kitten out of kitten war.

There’s a large incentive for abuse in this app – especially people voting for their own work over and over. How are you dealing with that?

That is the most contested question. I also believe that this is the most interesting point.

The very active voters come and go. Some people vote for themselves and raise their own work to the top and for some reason most of those people also go down. One of the big differences from voting on Kitten War is the reward of placement in an art exhibition, the association of the image with your actual name and the idea of earned merit – ergo, some reward for producing a “good photograph”.

If you enter a space of putting yourself in the top three positions, your work is highly suspect and you gain an exhibition but in a way you lose the accolade of “good photograph”. (There’s a lively post on this topic from “lopilaroe” on the discussion board.)

People rarely engage and examine artwork actively in an exhibition; we end up deferring to the “one who knows” instead of really trying to understand the work, what we think, or how it got there. Hopefully, this process brings that question to a head and that “we can witness each others’ views” not blindly accepting what we are told is good but sharply engaging everything we see.

Which are your favorites out of the submissions so far?

I really like Mathew Bantug’s work (1, 2) which is doing very well.
I also like Brian O’Dell’s (1, 2) and Kevin McCarty’s pieces (1, 2), but they look like they won’t make the cut.

If they don’t get voted in, do you think you might include them anyway? Or are you going to stick rigorously to the plan?

I’m sticking pretty rigorously to the plan. If anything I am opening up the number of exhibited works because I can’t bear to see some not being shown.

Being a Brit, I’ve never even heard of the LA County Fair – why should I go?

I’m no official spokesperson, but you should fly right over! LA County is the most populated county in the US, and the Fair has over a million people come every year. While the county has agricultural roots, almost all of that has been replaced with a megalopolis of very dense and diverse suburban development. So most of the people who come aren’t farmers but come to this temporary museum, celebration, and competition of traditional crafts: knitting, quilting, table decoration, Christmas tree decoration, adobe home building- everything.

There are of course concerts, rides, shows, etc. It’s a refreshing experience because people only think of Hollywood when they think of LA, but there is so much more. It’s like the simple life without Paris Hilton.

Why did you choose Ning for this project on rather than building and running it on your own site?

Honestly, time and effort. The time between the green light on this project and its actualization was very quick. Using Ning was one less thing I had to think about.

What appeals to you about Ning?

I think the most radical aspects of the internet are how it can organize and enhance life off the internet. One of the best ways is through social software, which is very difficult to do from the ground up. The many Ning App templates that can be modified and blended into new uses make hard projects easy, and impossible projects possible.

Tell us a little about the purpose and history of SRI – in particular, where do the sheds come into it?

The SRI was designed to create a model for presenting independent site-specific projects, including: art, design, cultural research, new technologies, whatever is interesting and really addresses questions much wider than the disciplines from which they came.

The shed is part symbol and part functional. Sometimes the SRI will need a facility to have an event or a temporary home base or exhibition. There are all sorts of cheap prefab sheds and tents that you can design or buy off the shelf. I thought that this would be more flexible, mobile, interesting, and cheaper than having a regular storefront gallery space.

I’m very interested in how self-sufficiency manifests in people. Hobbies and tinker time seem like one of the last resources that individuals have to exist and think autonomously, away from the top-down organisational influence of the contemporary world. It’s not uncommon for people to have a little toolshed, garage, or back house where all the tinkering goes on. I thought that it would be interesting to transform this symbol of ubiquitous backyard tinkering into a radical space of great possibility, hope, and opportunity for cultural production.

(That’s a great analogy which definitely rings true for us here. Ning, while obviously a commercial project overall, has attracted a large number of tinkerers producing interesting stuff for the sake of it. I think that’s a good part of our appeal, being a free and easy space to do that, and we love encouraging it.)

Your RHZ Radio project has been dormant for a while but sounds particularly interesting. What’s that about? And how’s its future looking?

RHZ Radio is an attempt to create a legal technology that makes unlicensed local radio broadcast legitimate. All people in this country have the right to operate a very small radio station that broadcasts a quarter of a mile. RHZ Radio was about using the internet to have a bunch of these small transmitters work together to make one big radio It operated for about 4 months as a working radio station but was so time-consuming to manage that all forward momentum on the architecture stopped. It is a project that creeps along still, but is waiting for funding to allow us to develop and manage it properly.

Apart from RHZ, what projects do you have planned for the future?

I’m going to develop a flickr/wikipedia/google maps mash up to create a way to document a people’s representation of what goes on in the neighborhoods of LA and I’m developing a a model of swarm behavior with a fleet of remote controlled blimps.

Would you use Ning for these projects?

It is a good possibility for the online aspect, yes.

I’m looking forward to seeing them, as well as finding out who the Utopia Project winners are. Thanks very much for your time, Jeff, and good luck with the exhibition!

Remember – there are only three days left in which to take part in the Utopia Project, so if you’re a photographer with work to share or a keen critic with an eye for a good image, get moving!