Crowdsourced art project to printout the Web honors free-information activist

by Dan Zak

The Washington Post

The World Wide Web began to show up by snail mail at the end of May. It arrived on sheets of office paper, stacked in white boxes, slipped into bubble-wrapped manila sleeves, folded into a clean, white business envelope with Rosa Parks stamps, stuffed in neon-green packaging from Farmington Hills, Michigan. As of this week, 10 tons of pages from the Internet have accumulated at an art gallery in Mexico City, sent by more than 600 people who bothered to print out portions of the Web and postmark them.

To give some sense of scope: 10 tons is roughly equivalent to the combined weight of three or four baby Blue whales. It’s a lot of paper. Yet it’s not even a sliver of the whole Internet.

“There’s very little pornography, and I’m really surprised by that,” says Pamela Echeverría, founder and director of Labor, the art gallery hosting the exhibit. “I thought, ‘Oh, my god, we’re going to receive really nasty pictures.’ So far, it hasn’t happened.”

Instead, after the May 22 announcement of its “crowdsourced project to literally print out the entire Internet,” the gallery received printouts of spam folders, bank statements, online diaries, news articles, 20 pages of the letter “A” repeated continuously, 500 pages of poetry created by erasing text extracted from Web sites, and musical scores to the complete works of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.

The submissions are being read aloud by members of the public at a desk on a small platform in the gallery, where visitors will be able to rifle through them. The exhibit runs through Aug. 26.

This prompts the question that follows all artwork in all forms from all eras of civilization: Why?

The answer: to memorialize Aaron Swartz.

Another question: Who?

Swartz was the 26-year-old Internet prodigy and free-information activist who committed suicide in January while facing federal charges of computer hacking after his alleged theft of millions of documents from the academic database JSTOR.

Another question: How is Swartz honored by the recitation of lyrics to every song that the musician Prince recorded under the alter ego “Camille”?

The coordinator of the exhibit, explicitly titled “Printing Out the Internet,” isn’t exactly sure if there’s a direct correlation between tribute and tributee.

“My gesture is dedicated to and inspired by him,” says Kenneth Goldsmith, poet laureate of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, whom Echeverría enlisted to create a homage to Swartz. “Mine is a poetic gesture. … His was a political gesture, a gesture of liberation. And I’m not doing this so that everybody can go and steal all the material on the Internet. I actually want to use his gesture as a jumping-off point to begin to ponder much larger questions.”

“I downloaded a torrent that was supposed to be some chunk of Swartz’s heist. It was 33 gigabytes, and it was something like 18,000 documents, and I began unzipping those files. And within each one of those were thousands and thousands of pages,” Goldsmith says. “I started thinking about the large data sets that everyone’s dealing with.

“We have no idea what we’re talking about, and I think the way to understand it is to concretize it,” he says. “We’re dealing with abstraction, and we have no idea what this is. We need new metrics for infinity.”

While the Web is effectively infinite, an archive of Web pages is now seven petabytes, or 7,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. The Internet Archive, a nonprofit attempt to build a Web library, has about 350 billion pages in its collection, according to its founder, Brewster Kahle.

The size of these numbers implies that the exhibit’s mission is destined for failure, which Goldsmith recognizes and dismisses as irrelevant. His detractors, meanwhile, have taken issue with the mission itself. A small Change.org petition was drafted to needle Goldsmith about the resources required to produce and recycle paper and ink. E-mails and tweets have excoriated him for being wasteful, for razing rain forests in the name of some pseudo-artistic boondoggle.

Goldsmith has scoffed at this reaction and deflected the argument over waste toward other parts of the industry, notably the outsize, costly artwork of Jeff Koons.

“Nobody hollers about insane excesses in the art world, and its elitist and exclusive nature,” he says. “This is an inclusive project.”