Interviews

Marc Horowitz Crowdsources Life/Art From Strangers

by An Xiao on December 1, 2010

On November 1, one of People Magazine‘s Top 50 Hottest Bachelors, conceptual artist and Internet start Marc Horowitz, took a line from Subservient Chicken and let the Internet tell him what to do.  He agreed to bound by these decisions, no matter how absurd, and to broadcast the results online for the wider world to see.

For the entire month, with the backing of the New York-based public art organization Creative Time, Marc has been crowdsourcing his life. Everything from what he should wear to how he should celebrate Thanksgiving is open to the masses. The piece continues in the tradition of Marc’s extensive body of enormously popular Internet-based works, from “Talkshow 247,” where he broadcast his life continuously for three months, and the “Google Maps Roadtrip,” a journey across the country using only Google Streetview.

The voting screen for The Advice of Strangers

The voting screen for The Advice of Strangers. On the left are the results of al the previous polls and on the right are the options for the current vote. Videos and images generally accompany each question.

For “The Advice of Strangers,” his most recent piece, he’s making the connection even more explicit: anyone can follow along, anyone can vote on his dilemmas and questions, and he’s bound to our advice. An engaged electorate, we contribute, we comment and then we let Marc deal with the consequences.

What happens this morning is pizza, and the pizza is part of a B movie Marc is filming with his crew per the vote. Marc is very much the embodiment of his online persona: immediately disarming, goofy, and not a little frenetic. He grabs the pizza, sets it down and returns to his motley crew. He’s in the midst of receiving a hair cut for the movie, and his interns — two 15-year old girls recruited that day from a Craigslist ad — are hammering out the remainder of the day’s script.

We spend the rest of the day in his apartment in Highland Park, a small neighborhood in northern Los Angeles that’s recently become hip. Marc and his crew sing songs in gibberish, don upside down sunglasses and play Foosball, pick up Marc’s underwear and even stage a fight with fake blood oozing out of Marc’s mouth. Marc’s in-house production team films his life and edits it for his popular Advice of Strangers YouTube Channel, and he works with a programmer to make sure the website and corresponding iPhone app function properly.

The iPhone app developed to encourage votes

The iPhone app developed to encourage votes. Voting on this system makes Marc's life as much a part of your life as it is his.

Whether it’s high art or juvenile self indulgence, it doesn’t matter: we voted for this. In the midst of the project, some 54% of his followers asked that the project be entertaining, and a few days later, Marc’s project started receiving as many as 1,444 votes on each question.

“The comments have been amazing,” he mentions between takes. “People have been very supportive, and I base a lot of my questions on the comments.”

Indeed, comments range from encouraging him to drink less and exercise more (“You look like your 44!”) to reminding him to “Go to class and do something hilarious but good!”

But not everyone is a fan of the project. “It’s been really tough on me,” Marc tells me over cigarettes during a reflective moment. He had to take down a video of his therapy appointment upon his mother’s request (he said things about her she didn’t want aired in public), and he tells me that his graduate program has been less than supportive that he’s had to take so much time away from class and studio work to focus on the month-long project.

“But every now and then,” he says, “someone has to shake things up in the art world.” Out of the average artist’s mouth, this might come across as arrogant or presumptuous. But coming from Marc, it sounds earnest, even endearing: he genuinely wants to engage arts audiences in a new way, one that ultimately is more engaging and exciting for a generation raised with more active media like YouTube and Flickr.

“The next logical step in crowdsourcing,” he continues, “is to crowdsource your life. At the core of the artist’s work is decision making. Making that public is what makes this project different.”

Although his videos appear spontaneous, Marc's in-house production team smooths them out before they go online.

Although his videos appear spontaneous, Marc's dedicated in-house production team smooths them out before they go online.

Even when he’s not subjecting his actions to the voting booth, he’s subjecting them to those around him. His every moment is interspersed with “What should I do here?” and “What do you think?” Even his B movie, Extra Rinse or No Extra Rinse 2, is titled as a question of options.

Ultimately, whether the work is successful is as much up to the audience as it is to Marc. Though he chooses the range of options for each question — “I don’t want people to tell me to go shave my head and have sex with a lamb” — the outcome of the work relies on the audience.

“The web predominately feels like the Wild West right now. It’s a place of populace,” Marc says of his larger experiments in online-based art. “I have to speak to that. I have a hard time justifying this work, and people ask me what I’m doing with this project.”

He takes a puff of his cigarette. I didn’t ask him to do that, nor did his audience vote on this action. Our entire conversation is happening without their knowledge.

Marc gets his hair trimmed for The Advice of Strangers.

Marc gets his hair trimmed for "The Advice of Strangers."

“Is it entertaining or not?” he asks. “Am I a cultural producer or a cultural critic? I don’t know. I don’t fit in anywhere.”

The work, so reliant on votes, has turned art into a democracy. Like a democracy, the choice exists, but it’s limited to only a few options. And like a real democracy, it’s not clear who to blame if the work sours or who to praise if it’s successful.  If I don’t like the way things are being done, do I blame the idiots who voted against me? Or is it my fault for not rallying my friends to action?

If Marc the artist can be credited for success in this piece, it will be for his on-screen charisma and in-person charm and the particular way he phrases his questions and posts the results. It’s addicting to check in, see what he has to say, and watch how he deals with the utter absurdity of a life at the hands of others.

Marc Horowitz’s “The Advice of Strangers” continues until December 5, 2010.

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  • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

    It seems like the web is the best place to be both a critic and a producer, but to me this project doesn’t feel that ambiguous or difficult. It certainly engages audiences in a different way, but it’s more comedy/sitcom than criticism. It’s not bad that it’s entertaining but that doesn’t make it more interesting to me… like a digital version of Abramovic’ bodily harm performance, but less dangerous.

    Also, I can’t find it, but there was another artist who led her life for a while by crowd-sourced wiki-style posts. Anyone remember that?

    • axs

      That’s a good point – the cultural critic/producer divide does seem like an unnecessary dichotomy online. The work definitely has the semblance of a comedy/sitcom, which I appreciated.To me, much of the ambiguity lies in how to appreciate the work; there were a number of votes when it could have taken a more serious direction, but the audience voted for something more lighthearted (visiting his father’s grave, for instance: http://theadviceofstrangers.com/poll/12?start_day=1&vote_method=by_votes). Artists are frequently critiqued for developing work to cater to their audience; this piece lays that process bare. Might TAOS have become more dangerous for Marc had the audience voted slightly differently? Possibly.Are you referring to Lauren McCarthy’s Script? http://lauren-mccarthy.com/script/

  • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

    Lauren McCarthy was the one I was thinking of, thanks for digging that up! I wasn’t really thinking of the reception of the work as opposed to its making, that’s a good point. The watchers are really the ones who control the making of the work, which is neat.

    • axs

      You’re welcome! Fun fact: both Lauren and Marc are Los Angeles-based artists.Another fun fact, on the point of watchers controlling the work: I appear very briefly in the second YouTube video in this article (hint: around 3:30 – 3:50). Try as I might to remain neutral, I ultimately became a part of the piece.

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