Through illustrating 26 Wikipedia articles, sharing the process in a blog, publishing a book and running workshops we hope to draft a new path for a visual free culture.

Maybe Wikipedia is simply not built for change

Wikipedia has recently updated its design but you wouldn’t be able to tell anything has actually changed. With minor changes to the typography and a tiny and practically meaningless change in image size, the recent changes seem more like a placebo than an actual commitment to change. While other major sites on the web go through multiple dramatic redesigns to address changes in user culture and web technology, Wikipedia has been slow to adapt.

Apparently it could have been different, but according to the Wikipedia community rejected the changes suggested by Wikipedia’s in house design team. Fast Company’s Fast Design blog wrote:

Too many cooks are apt to spoil the soup, and Wikipedia is the ultimate ruled-by-committee entity. Every word typed within the network can be scrutinized or edited by anyone–literally 500 million monthly users worldwide. That check-and-balance system is the very premise on which Wikipedia can operate as a gargantuan, objective source of the world’s information, and yet, as the design team shared its creative process behind a more beautiful Wikipedia, right down to some of the earliest pencil sketches, the response ultimately manifested into a mob mentality that’s keeping Wikipedia’s design in the 1990s.

I guess we should not be surprised then that almost all of the new illustrations contributed via the Wikipedia Illustrated project have quickly found themselves washed down the ash heap of history by furious deletionist editors. There is no doubt the project attempts to raise a debate about visual culture in Wikipedia, but it seems like this is a debate that the online encyclopedia’s conservative editors prefer to suppress.

Occasionally we did try to have these conversations with deletionist editors in the talk pages. This was the least offensive response we received:

You don’t seem to understand the concept of an encyclopaedia, nor the concept of an encyclopaedic illustration. An encyclopaedia, by definition, is descriptive and provides (or should aspire to provide) a description of facts, not the writer’s opinions or impressions. The current pictures in 2012 Houla massacre or in Glorious First of June (to pick out two random examples from today’s first page) are descriptive, and provide direct information relevant to the article. Your artwork is not descriptive (since an actual ash heap of history does not exist) and is merely a so-called “artist’s impression”. These can be acceptable on Wikipedia if the artist or author is notable enough, in which case the illustration throws some light on reactions to the issues discussed in the article by contemporaries or other people of note. But not just any random artist impression – this is still an encyclopaedia and not a platform for self-promotion! Similarly, an (hypothetical) article by George Orwell discussing the Ash Heap of History would be appropriate here under “Bibliography” or “Footnotes”; an (hypothetical) blog entry on the same subject written yesterday by me would not. Aviad2001

It seems like as it is reaching a position of power Wikipedia goes against everything it was celebrated for in its early days. Wikipedians’ progressive speak of reimagining what an encyclopedia might be and challenging old models of public knowledge construction gave way to a conservative speak attempting to have already decided what an encyclopedia is and what it is not. As if Wikipedia already “got it right” and now it only needs to preserve itself as-is. As if the dwindling numbers of editors are simply because the mission was accomplished and the vision fulfilled as now every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. As if there is no room to question how history and knowledge is constructed, because it is constructed according to Wikipedia’s guidelines and that’s the way it should be. As if there’s no room to challenge Wikipedia’s built-in gender biases, because Wikipedia’s predominantly white male editors can talk about wanting to raise the embarrassing 15% female editors number, but wouldn’t dare change the way these biases are structured into the site’s interface and culture. As if there is no room to question Wikipedia’s form of knowledge documentation, preferring text over images, because text is easier to collaborate on, because it raises less copyright challenges and simply because the written word is just what Wikipedia’s guidelines were originally written for. The historical role of image making in knowledge construction throughout all of human history, and much before text is swept under Wikipedia’s rug just because it is less convenient to tackle through the collaborative model that Wikipedia already “perfected” and is resisting to change.

We were hoping to bring this discussion into Wikipedia, and even after being edited out, to engage the deletionist culture even in the talk pages. But it seems these very talk pages have been segregated specifically to contain conversations and to let contributors “blow off steam” rather than be truly open to critiquing the very nature and infrastructure of the discourse. It’s been a while since we last contributed a new illustration to Wikipedia and we’re not sure when will we do that again.

We used to celebrate Wikipedia’s audacity at the face of historical biases towards “dead white men‘s” control of history and knowledge. But the conservatism of the “alive white men” in Wikipedia resisting change and clinging to their technocratic superior power is even more frustrating.

Dead white men can’t change, Wikipedians could but won’t.

Apr 12th, 2014

An illustrated critique of technocratic thinking

Iain McGilchrist on the Divided Brain. In-par with our critique of Wikipedia’s left-hemisphere model of knowledge. And in this case, also illustrated:

Sep 29th, 2013

Wikipedia Illustrated talk @Mutamorphosis

Mushon Zer-Aviv & Galia Offri present their paper within the panel Limits of Collaboration: The Revolution of the Geniuses or the Downfall in Middlingness at International conference MutaMorphosis in Prague, Czech Republic.

Jun 9th, 2013

The Internet as a crowdsourced “Über-Archive”?

We’re hosting curator Manuela Neveau in an essay exploring the limits of collaboration and using Wikipedia Illustrated as a key example. Manuela has recently hosted us in a panel at the Mutamorphosis festival in Prague.

[originally posted by Manuela Naveau at]

In the beginning of October 2011, I took part in a conference in Sao Paulo, where the „Possible Futures” of archives have been discussed (initiated by Giselle Beiguelman and Ana Magalhães / both University of Sao Paulo in cooperation with Ars Electronica Linz). I experimented in theory on the topic of the internet as a kind of „Über-archive“, confronted Encyclopaedia Britannica with Wikipedia on the topic of Knowledge transfer and was asking about the power of images and illustrations as well as the challenges and borders concerning participation today.

    Wikipedia Illustrated at MutaMorphosis, panel hosted by Manuela Naveau of Ars Electronica

Wikipedia Illustrated at MutaMorphosis, panel hosted by Manuela Naveau

Archiving means collecting and selecting, organizing and preserving; it means translating and transferring; it means evaluating, putting in context and safekeeping, as well as making accessible, and so on… Archives are never completed or complete; most are constantly being revised and expanded, and are so complex that a concrete query is absolutely essential in order for archives to serve as sources of useful enlightenment.

Is the Internet proceeding according to similar principles?

Archives are set up to gather together the knowledge of the world in a particular area.

Seeing the internet as a sort of über-archive that provides information on a broad meta-level—thus the use of the German word über, that means both “above all” and “about”—must, of course, be scrutinized in light of the real facts and circumstances. What is being presented to us here and where does this information come from? Who has input/posted this material? How old is it? … One is also confronted by questions such as these when one uses archives.

It seems to me that there’s a question that’s even more important than the just mentioned matter. The central question raised by the über-archive internet since having developed into Web 2.0 is: What can I contribute to this knowledge?

An example.

Without praising Wikipedia, but when one considers the subject of participation on the internet, then the first thing that comes to mind for most people is the online encyclopedia. This example shows how successfully participation can function nowadays and, at the same time, clearly brings out the limits of participation. Since February 2012, 500 million individual visitors a month have logged on to Wikipedia and gone on to access 18 trillion articles.[1] When the Prix Ars Electronica began honoring Digital Communities in 2004, Wikipedia shared the first Golden Nica in this new category (with a project entitled “The World Starts with Me”). An article in that year’s Prix Ars Electronica catalog made reference to a Wikipedia policy that, due to the tremendous diversity of contributors with their wide-ranging ideological predispositions and origins across the face of the earth, was making a conscious effort to generate neutral knowledge. Nevertheless, a 2011 research project conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute shows that Wikipedia propagates a strongly Western and above all European picture of the world, though it also displays a clear disparity between North and South. More than twice as many articles are contributed to Wikipedia from Europe (776,000) than from the United States (342,000). They’re followed by Asia (125,000), Oceania (38,000), Africa (28,000), South America (27,000) and Antarctica (8,000).[2] Several comparisons of the Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia reveal similar quality standards, but that Wikipedia is simply faster and covers our world to a much broader extent. Whereas years pass before a printed encyclopedia is revised, errors in Wikipedia content are recognized more quickly and revised in an average of only two minutes (according to remarks by Austrian legal scholar and university instructor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of the Oxford Internet Institute at a conference in Vienna in early September 2012.)

Now, if one considers the fact that Wikipedia consists mainly of entries by Europeans and North Americans who actively work on and administer this wiki, and looking at the map that the production and dissemination of user-generated content on Google is manly done in the United states and to a much lesser extent in Europe (mainly with Germany, the Netherlands and Norway) and Japan, then the picture that emerges makes it understandable where images and definitions of general validity are being produced.

Artists Galia Offri and Mushor Zer-Aviv, a couple from Tel Aviv in Israel, have dealt with precisely this issue. They not only wanted to know what visual information the online encyclopedia worked with; since 2010, they have also been investigating how and why illustrations on Wikipedia are discussed and then either retained or discarded. Back in December 2007, The New York Times reported that MIT Professor Philip Greenspun had contributed $20,000 to finance key illustrations by artists. In an e-mail, Greenspun wrote:

“In comparing the Web versions to the print versions, I noticed that the publishers’ main contribution to the quality of the books was in adding professionally drawn illustrations […] It occurred to me that when the dust settled on the Wikipedia versus Britannica question, the likely conclusion would be ‘Wikipedia is more up to date; Britannica has better illustrations.’”[3]

This initiative designed to grant commissions to illustrators was a matter of controversy among Wikipedians who eschew commercial activities in their communally generated effort. The “Wikipedia Illustrated” project shows, however, that there’s also another phenomenon at work here: subjective perception. Text submissions can be formulated with consummate objectivity and precision, but illustrations always transport emotional content and engage people’s emotions. How universally valid can illustrations be? How technical or artistic should (or may) they be? The boundaries tend to get blurry.

In Galia Offri and Mushon Zer-Aviv’s “Wikipedia Illustrated” project, the artists started to create 26 illustrations (one for each letter of our modern Latin alphabet). They began by reconnoitering Wikipedia and picking out articles that offered them maximum possible latitude in designing their images to accompany particular texts. Entries selected for illustration included “Ash heap of history,” Doppelgänger,” “Fight-or-flight response” and “Philosophical zombie.” It didn’t take long for Wikipedia activists to react. Of interest here is not only how diverse the reactions were but also how much more emotional the discussions of contributed images were than the corresponding discussions of text entries. It became apparent that the artistic identity of the contributions can’t be negated, and that this is precisely what got some Wikipedians so riled up. For the artists, this raises the question of whether images had to be “historical” before they could come across as distanced, objective and factual, and comply with Wikipedia guidelines.[4]

Since we’ve now reached a point at which history is being recorded on Wikipedia, it’s very interesting to analyze which contributed images have succeeded in gaining admission to the annals of the online encyclopedia. The image by Galia Offri is indeed to be found illustrating the English-language “Doppelgänger” article on Wikipedia, and it’s on the Spanish page as well.

Galia Offri’s Doppelgänger on the English and Spanish Wikipedia

Doppelgänger in French

But there’s an unillustrated Wikipedia article on the subject of “Doppelgänger” in German, the language in which that now-widespread word got its start. The same holds true for the counterparts in most other languages.

Doppelgänger in Russian

Doppelgänger in Russian

Since Wikipedia is categorized by languages and not by regions (which, by the way, I consider an interesting experimental model for the presentation of the world’s knowledge), I also checked out the Portuguese article, which I found was not accompanied by an image. With the French article, I found an icon that generally refers to the theater. The Russian and Ukrainian articles feature Henry Van der Weyde’s 1895 photograph of English actor Richard Mansfield, who achieved fame and success in his starring double role in the “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” This is impressive evidence indeed, and one can spend hours comparing the images used to illustrate the same term in Wikipedia articles in different languages. One final comparative example is the illustration accompanying the Czech Wikipedia article on the subject of “Doppelgänger”: a drawing of a naked man based on the image engraved onto the gold plaques on board the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts launched in 1972, whereby the purpose of the plaques is to provide aliens with information about the existence of human beings and the location of their home planet. And even though a naked woman was standing beside the man on the original plaque, the Czech Wikipedia article on the subject of “Doppelgänger” simply extracted the naked man from NASA’s image, duplicated it and juxtaposed the two guys. (And, after all, the Wikipedia article is entitled “Doppelgänger” and notDoppelgängerin, the female form in German.)

So what does this mean?

Artists like Galia Offri and Mushon Zer-Aviv show us that there are laws of the game and rules within the internet. They limit us to a certain extent. Nevertheless, there is free space to contribute and  (according to Geert Lovink) we need this artistic and creative contributions and collaborations for the deconstructing and reshaping of the very foundations of our today’s network society[5]. If written or spoken language is a major border to let more people collaborate and participate, we need in addition more pictures and illustrations, we need to create experiences and translate information visually.

If the Information Age originated with people like Otlet and Wells and their endeavors to democratize knowledge by providing and then increasingly facilitating access to information, then we currently find ourselves in the Participation Age. We can co-determine what is input into the worldwide servers, what they output and how it’s done. This is a right and privilege of our time. And even with the knowledge that we’re not the proprietors of these servers worldwide and don’t have it in our hands how things will really go down in history, at least we’ve gotten our foot in the door (german saying).

[1] Graham, M., Hale, S. A. and Stephens, M. (2011). Geographies of the World’s Knowledge. Ed. Flick, C. M., London, Convoco! Edition. Retrieved September 17, 2012, from

[2] Graham, M., Hale, S. A. and Stephens, M. (2011). Geographies of the World’s Knowledge. Ed. Flick, C. M., London, Convoco! Edition. 22-23


[4] Cf. Zer-Aviv, M. (2012). Wikipedia Illustrated. Retrieved July 20, 2012, from


Jan 10th, 2013

Ecosystem services

DRAFT a later version will be contributed to Wikipedia

Ecosystem Services

from the Drawing For Wikipedia workshop in Art, Environment, Action! at Parsons

• Pollination of crops by bees is required for 15-30% of U.S. food production; most large-scale farmers import non-native honey bees to provide this service. One study [15] reports that in California’sagricultural region, it was found that wild bees alone could provide partial or complete pollination services or enhance the services provided by honey bees through behavioral interactions. However,intensified agricultural practices can quickly erode pollination services through the loss of species and those remaining are unable to compensate for the difference. The results of this study also indicate that the proportion of chaparral and oak-woodland habitat available for wild bees within 1-2 km of a farm can strongly stabilize and enhance the provision of pollination services, thereby providing a potential insurance policy for farmers of this region.

By (1)

Nov 16th, 2012

this is how we recycle

DRAFT a later version will be contributed to Wikipedia

from the Drawing For Wikipedia workshop in Art, Environment, Action! at Parsons

Products made from a variety of materials can be recycled using a number of processes.

By (1)

Nov 16th, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

DRAFT a later version will be contributed to Wikipedia

from the Drawing For Wikipedia workshop in Art, Environment, Action! at Parsons

Hurricane Sandy was a hurricane that devastated portions of the Caribbean, the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States, and Eastern Canada in late October 2012. Sandy, the eighteenth named storm and tenth hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, was a category 2 storm at its peak intensity.

By (1)

Nov 16th, 2012

Drawing For Wikipedia workshop in Art, Environment, Action! at Parsons

Glacier retreat

As part of the Art, Environment, Action! exhibition at Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons in New York City, I (Michael Mandiberg) will be giving a 3 2 day workshop on making visual contributions to Wikipedia. (It was a three day workshop, but the first day is cancelled on account of Hurricane Sandy). We will be building on the work of Wikipedia Illustrated and others, and will be posting some of our drafts and/or final work here. Our goal will be to use visual language to explain complex concepts without over simplifying them. This could range from the factual, such as diagrams of biological or chemical phenomena, maps of environmental issues/disasters, or charts, to the poetic or expressive. Artists, scientists, illustrators, environmental historians, designers, activists, and Wikipedians were invited to this collaborative workshop. Over the next week+, you will hopefully see the results of this effort here on Wikipedia Illustrated. – Michael


For more info, please visit the workshop page.

Art, Environment, Action! is a creative laboratory that brings together 16 internationally renowned artists/artist collectives and designers to explore art as, and in, environmental action. Over 11 weeks, the gallery will function as an active learning environment and a lively locus of exchange on ecological issues through movement, media, visual and performance art, and design.

Participating artists include: Beehive Design Collective; Stefani Bardin, Toby Heys, and Siddharth Ramakrishnan; Beatriz da Costa; Ecoarttech; Futurefarmers; Michael Mandiberg; Jennifer Monson/iLAND; Beverly Naidus; Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science; Red 76; Stephanie Rothenberg; Jill Sigman; Trade School; and Tattfoo Tan.

Oct 30th, 2012

Video from the Open Knowledge Festival

Starting at minute 27:26

Or watch it on Bambuser

More about the festival in the previous post.


Sep 18th, 2012

At the Open Knowledge Festival, Helsinki

This week we’ll be presenting Wikipedia Illustrated and participating in other events at Helsinki’s Open Knowledge Festival. We would love to see you there:

Monday, Sep 17, 5pm
Open Publishing and Visual Free Culture
 – A satellite event hosted by M-Cult and Pixelache

Thursday, Sep 20th, 4pm
Open Source Hardware for Renewable Energy + Manufacturing in Motion + Wikipedia Illustrated
 – presentation and discussion as a part of the Open Design topic stream

Thursday, Sep 20th, 6:30pm
Life in the Urban Panopticon Discussion –
a panel discussion on privacy and policy in public space as a part of the Open Cities topic stream

Saturday, Sep 22th, 10am
 a workshop hosted by Pixelache and the Mushrooming Network and actively exploring the dark side of InfoVis

Sep 16th, 2012