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From Emoticon to Ellen Degeneres, an Index of the Most Popular Wikipedia Articles

Installation of Jason Salavon's “The Master Index (v.EXPO_Chicago)” at Expo Chicago
Installation of Jason Salavon’s “The Master Index (v.EXPO_Chicago)” at Expo Chicago

CHICAGO — According to Jason Salavon’s “The Master Index (Semaphore),” we are all a little more interested in Kanye West than masturbation, would rather read about Jennifer Aniston than Freemasonry, and have caught up on China’s affairs a few more times than investigating human penis size. Culled by counting the page views of Wikipedia articles, Salavon has created a master list of the five million most popular entries, summing up the internet’s interests in a comprehensive archive.

Curated highlights of this list, along with a video piece associated with the data, were presented by Houston’s Inman Gallery in a corner of the Projects section at this year’s Expo Chicago. A sheet of white wallpaper on the left featured the top 1,000 most popular Wikipedia entries, and black wallpaper on the right contained the top 250,000 articles in the online encyclopedia in alphabetical order. Although the larger data set was an impressive mass, the pared-down list lent itself to a more poetic interpretation. The meticulously ordered user data appeared as a seemingly chaotic alignment of celebrities, diseases, and cultural artifacts, placing “Selena Gomez” at 36, between “Japan” and “Germany,” the year 2012 right on top of “Emoticon,” at 451, and “World Population” sandwiched between “Zombie” and “Swine Influenza,” at 663.

Detail of Jason Salavon's “The Master Index (v.EXPO_Chicago)”
Detail of Jason Salavon’s “The Master Index (v.EXPO_Chicago)”

“The Master Index (v.EXPO_Chicago)” wallpaper was an iteration of the 2013 collaboration between Salavon and researchers at the University of Chicago to compile a numbered list of English Wikipedia articles, sorted by page-view counts gathered since 2007. Each time Salavon shows the project, he updates it to reflect the current tally of page-views; most recent revision is from August 2015. The list speaks to our collective desire for bits of knowledge, our need for specific information to guide school projects, solve temporary brain lapses, and settle heated debates. It’s an ordered representation of our information obsession, with such funny and chance juxtapositions as “Dog” directly above “Snoop Dogg” and “Scientology” hovering just over “Celebrity Sex Tape.”  

“I knew during EXPO people would be moving fast and have a lot to see. I wanted to explore and accentuate the weirdness of the top 1,000 Wikipedia articles. How do these pages become so popular? What is driving all of that? It is a great topic of conversation,” said Salavon. “People are often surprised by the frequent juxtapositions of history and sex. It is so funny that people can pretend to be prude, but then see anal sex appear near the top 100 viewed entries. There is something depressingly truthful about the contents of the list.”

Installation view of Jason Salavon's “The Master Index (v.EXPO_Chicago)” at Expo Chicago (click to enlarge)
Installation view of Jason Salavon’s “The Master Index (v.EXPO_Chicago)” at Expo Chicago (click to enlarge)

Situated a few rows to the right of “Anal sex” (on the lefthand wallpaper) was the video piece “Local Index (Tessellated),” which Salavon coded while serving as the very first artist-in-residence at Microsoft Research earlier this year. The piece takes popular art-related Wikipedia entries — museums, movements, artists — and works with their source code to produce colorful, tessellated visuals based on the length and syntax of each text.

“You have this crisp, conceptual wallpaper, and I was interested in using computation and other methods to create an aesthetically interesting piece to relate to that,” said Salavon. “I wanted to take this infinite feed and make a geometric pattern with its data — merge video editing and painting into a single practice.”

The colors he uses are sourced from user-generated palettes on Adobe’s color website, and they’re then matched with an entry based on popularity. In the video, each article’s code flashes on screen for a moment before a triangulated pattern begins to move down over it, covering the letters, numbers, and symbols like a brilliantly hued virus. Although the list of 1,000 art articles is largely influenced by Salavon’s interests (his own Wikipedia page is included), it’s interesting to see how the video depicts each entry’s source information — how its color choices may or may not align with the colors we associate with specific museums or artists in our heads.

Jason Salavon, “The Master Index (v.EXPO_Chicago)” with “Local Index (Tessellated)”
Jason Salavon, “The Master Index (v.EXPO_Chicago)” with “Local Index (Tessellated)”

Displayed together, the projects connect our interests and often taboo research with a visual representation of these very human patterns. The straightforward and clean lists on the walls complement the chaotic glitches of the video, giving shape and color to the odd synapses occurring in each of our brains.

Jason Salavon’s “The Master Index (Semaphore)” was presented by Inman Gallery at Expo Chicago (Navy Pier, 600 E Grand Ave, Chicago) September 18–20.

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