Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Tale Of Art, Ethics, And Technology

West Collects Suspects Voting Fraud, Ends Online Competition

For those of you who haven’t heard of the West Collection of the West Prize, here is the long and the short of it:
“The foremost goal of the West Collection is to meet young artists who are creating challenging and inventive work and to present an experience of this new art to the public. Since the mid-90’s, the West family has loaned most of the collection to SEI Investments, which Al West founded in the late 60’s and runs today. Curator Paige West has actively grown the collection to extend beyond SEI, to include loans to museums and university galleries. A major goal in collecting has been to visit artists in the studio and to understand their reasons for making art. In presenting the artwork to the public, our goal is to impart an experience of the artist’s studio to the viewer through our installations and accessible traveling exhibitions.”

In a bold move, this year West Collects made the decision to develop an iPhone (iPod, iPad)-exclusive app for the public vote for its $25,000 prize. Get the most amount of public votes via the application, and you got yourself 25k!

Sounds cool and cutting edge right?

In theory it was a good idea, but often times with new technology, there are unforeseen glitches in the system, and as a result, the West Collects art competition was abruptly ended on March 16, 2012, with only 60 days of competition remaining. It was clear to anyone watching the competition, which began in December, that over the last two months either the app had been compromised, or the voting system itself was broken.

News that the app-based voting portion of the competition had been cancelled was a surprise to some, and to others a relief.

If you have not already read the West Collects statement, here it is:

The public voting portion of West Collects 2012 has been canceled.

Yes, we noticed something fishy going on, too. We spent months analyzing data and tweaking things on the backend. We finally came to the realization that the app and the competition had been compromised. We shut down the public voting portion of West Collects 2012 in fairness to all of the participating artists.

The $25,000 earmarked for the winner of the public vote will be folded into the larger West Collects 2012 acquisition budget. All of the artists participating in the public vote will still be considered for acquisition into the West Collection. The artists whose work is acquired through West Collects 2012 will be announced, as planned, on May 15th, 2012.

We launched the West Collects voting app in the spirit of promoting artists and their work. We saw it as an opportunity to try something new. We have learned from this experience and through feedback from many of you. We look forward to continuing to embrace new technologies, bettering the experience for everyone, and finding ways to introduce new audiences to great artists.

Here’s what happened.

As you know, West Collects made the decision to develop an iPhone (iPod, iPad)-exclusive app for the public vote for its $25,000 prize this year. A number of people initially voiced concerns about the exclusivity of the app and the questionably democratic nature of having to route the vote exclusively through Apple products. Others were having a tough time explaining to friends, family and fans that any supporting votes would have to be through the iPhone/iPad/iPod.

It was probably a complicated decision by West Collects, but really, who cares? They are buying $300,000 worth of art every year. How bad can that be, however they choose to experiment awarding the $25,000 prize? On the matter of the app, West Collects states:

We choose the iPhone [app] based on user statistics and the fact that visual and creative people tend towards Apple products. If this year's test goes well, next year there will be more choices for voting. Within the first four days of its release over 2,000 people have downloaded the app, so we are off to a good test-case scenario.

It is important to embrace new technologies, and the fact is that Apple makes some very good --and very relevant-- products. I'm sure many artists would agree. However, considering the subsequent developments in standings, and the apparent vulnerability of the process, I'm also sure that WC is revisiting the role of an app in their collecting process. This situation, too, should serve as an important example to other entities considering app-based voting schemes. Clearly improvements need to be made. For West Collects, or anyone considering app-based voting, one of the most important considerations is that these systems are very easy to manipulate, and they should not be relied upon for awarding prize money. I'll explain why.

Watchers of the competition will recall the extraordinarily rapid pace of *name of artist removed* which seemingly came from nowhere after weeks of absence in the competition. This image did not simply creep up t he ranks, mind you, but it displayed a veritable blitzkrieg to the number one position. Of course, this was to be expected at some point: many of the artists who submitted are absolute unknowns, and at some point in the competition it was inevitable that bigger names were sure to enter, like *name of artist removed*

Some people did absolutely everything they could think of to drum up press coverage, rattle the social media circles, and contact as many iPhone-owning friends with hopes of collecting as many early votes as possible, in anticipation of this situation. To me, it was simply astounding to witness such a rapid ascension, and at the same time find little past --or emergent press-- on that particular artist or entry. *name of artist removed*  entry was collecting somewhere around 80-90 votes every day at the peak of his rise. It was impressive!

To offer a comparison/example: during the few opening months of the competition, one could Google "West Collects" and the first result was Chromatic Typewriter by artist Tyree Callahan.

Callahan (sadly no longer in the competition) used the power of social media exposure and wholeheartedly credits Tumblr with a large part of the piece’s success. The photo of the typewriter was -reblogged over 10,000 times during the first month of competition. (Because of keywords in the blog, that post altered the Google algorithm to post the typewriter first when the term “West Collects” or “West Prize” was entered.) But those efforts did not translate into more than a dozen of votes a day at the peak of his own press blitz.Yet, votes kept piling on at an astounding rate for *name of artist removed*

Initially, I did chalk it up to *name of artist removed* prior establishment in the photography world (leading me to question whether or not this was truly a competition for 'emerging' artists, but that's another issue), but day after day of being outvoted by such huge margins, another competitor, Joseph Spangler, began the conversation about the rapid rise of *name of artist removed* mysterious doctor, and began to wonder: is it possible to game the system?

*name of artist removed*, Mr. Spangler and others, if you're reading this, in the absence of a smoking gun I have to give you all the benefit of doubt. Please accept my apologies in advance for advancing my suspicions, should they have no merit. And if they do have merit, well, I can’t speak on behalf of WC or other artists, but I will personally extend a very hearty fuck you to anyone who collected dishonest votes with the intention of winning the prize. Thanks for ruining what had been an otherwise exciting competition.**

It Pays To Discover
Mr. Spangler did some inquiring with West Collects in an attempt to discover if the votes were indeed legitimate. Mr. Spangler is tech savvy enough to understand the possibility that votes might be generated illicitly and that there might (if not should) be a way to find out if that was indeed going on. Not necessarily to accuse, mind you, but to discover. I hope I can safely assume that when WC states that “we spent months analyzing data and tweaking things on the backend” this action was initiated by Mr. Spangler’s concern.

As those months rolled by, *name of artist removed* entry kept amassing votes and became veritably unbeatable. There was no way anyone would catch up. This proved to be enormously frustrating for Mr. Spangler, who began his own investigation into whether or not the app could be compromised. The findings: Yes. There are indeed ways to get around an app’s ability to register a vote. Once they were discovered, Mr. Spangler forwarded the findings to WC, so that they would be aware of the possibility of the vote being compromised.

Mr. Spangler's research uncovered an app that can change the unique ID of any i-device. This app is available only to jailbroken devices, and available through an app store called, Cydia which specializes in apps for jailbroken iDevices. The app is called " UDID faker" Basically, it randomizes the phone's unique id number, which subsequently tricks any installed app into thinking it is on a new device. So when used with the West Collects app, the UDID Faker essentially tricked the West Collects app into thinking it was on another device, thus allowing an individual to collect an indefinite number of votes almost automatically. Mr. Spangler immediately forwarded this information to WC.

Now, I have to pause for a moment to provide a character study that should preface what happened next. Earlier in the competition, in a generous act of fairness, Mr. Spangler pulled a number of his paintings--all were in the top ten at the time--to make room for other artists in the top spots, a generous thing to do when he had $25,000 at stake and every possible advantage in keeping them listed. Other artists, too, can confirm Mr. Spangler's move and his subsequent email encouraging other multiple entrants who were clogging up the top 25 to do the same. (I don't think any of them did, but again, I can could stand to be corrected on that item.) Mr. Spangler strikes me as an honest man.

Enter: "Spangler's Gambit."

Faith (Copyright Joe Spangler)

To anyone watching the competition, one way to have described the vote during the waning days of February was to say that, sure enough, 'some shit is going down!' On the first of March, I took a peek at the "top dogs" page (which listed the top 25 vote-getters) for the first time in a couple of weeks) when I opened the app, I was awed to find that Mr. Spangler--who was also a very large margin behind *name of artist removed* the last I checked-- had suddenly jumped to the number one position by an order of a few thousand votes, with his painting! Incredible! 

Was he just profiled in Life Magazine? Or, better yet, perhaps some trade-specific magazine published by Apple? Not that I could find!

After watching *name of artist removed* piece continue to rocket forward, and with no evident outward action on the part of WC, Mr. Spangler bravely --and rather brazenly-- employed some curious, if not suspicious, means of collecting votes. I will stress again at this point that I have no proof of anyone employing those methods with the prize in mind, but surely anyone watching will agree that it seemed explicit in more than a few cases, for there were suddenly a handful of other artists who immediately ran up into the top positions. Most of us were no doubt left skeptical and wondering when the referee was going to step in. 

And here was Mr. Spangler's entry, garnishing what? several thousand votes in short order!

But $25,000 Is A LOT OF FUCKING MONEY...

This was all fine on one level: the experimental one. After all, there were no rules posted to forbid app-cracking, or collecting votes by alternate means or jail-broken devices. It is even possible WC had not considered the use/risk of jailbroken devices. I’m not a programmer, but can the next version of the app somehow query the phone and disallow votes on a jailbroken device? Perhaps. But there’s an equal probability that an app exists to thwart such a query. The trouble is, when you set out to develop an app specifically for creative people you have to expect the advent of "creative" strategies for winning. It is naive to think otherwise.

A warning to anyone: If you are considering an app-based vote, be sure to draft policies to discourage these situations. If there is money involved, and statutory authority, consider warning would-be cheaters that fraudulent activities will be prosecuted. Had those types of things been drafted in this case, I think otherwise honest people might have behaved differently and subsequently kept the contest a lot more interesting.

$25,000 is a lot of money, though, and it is definitely a fraud-triggering figure.Words alone may not be enough. That much money would buy a great many entrants an entire year to create and advance our art, in some cases (mine, for example) without the stress of having to hold down a shitty job that otherwise robs time from that Noble Pursuit. That example is a huge--I mean HUGE-- incentive for anyone to manipulate the numbers.

The app was a wonderful way for WC to embrace emerging technology. The lesson learned is that the same technology creates a disadvantage, if not by limiting a majority of the voting public, than worse: by being compromised via hacking/cracking or illegitimate methods. (For the record, I count among the latter the theoretical possibility of having a friend who works at an retail apple store load the app and vote on dozens of devices once a day for a specific artist/piece.) Of course, I inherently understand that participation in any competition is neither a guarantee of winning a prize or --much less-- of being noticed, so I'm not laying blame on the idea of the app: It is what it is. But in a competition, a measure of fairness is expected. That's the crux of the issue here.

Then again: WC, as an aside, please take note: The app and the current web design make it extraordinary cumbersome to browse the art and discover favorites. The app, I understand: you are working with a very small piece of real estate for images! The main website, however, should display a far greater number of thumbnails, both for ease of initial filtering, and to get a better sense of the sheer scope of this competition.

Had I entered the compeition this year, obviously it would have been great to win, but obviously there's no telling which way the aesthetic winds will blow in this, or any other public vote. That reality was exciting. And, especially considering the exclusivity of the app, in the future it would be interesting to watch the results from an Apple iDevice crowd versus those of non-apple users, as an experiment in ‘creative class’ aesthetics -vs- others. The app is a good way to have input from the 'creative class' to help to choose potential pieces for the collection -- to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak-- but it seems that until it can be more certainly fraud-proofed (and how can any e-vote accomplish that, really?), the app is a risky means of rewarding a $25,000 prize.

No one wants to see that kind of money awarded to a cheater.

On that note, I don’t think anyone can criticize West Collects for ending the experiment. It was the best outcome for the credibility of the competition at this point. I think "Spangler's Gambit" deserves some kudos, too. Thanks, Joseph, for the illumination. Whether or not this sort of thing was going on before is hardly the point. It is nice to know, with authority, that it can happen, and that it needs to be fixed for the future. You ought to get a prize for that.

Special thanks to Tyree Callahan and Joe Spangler for contributing to this blog post.

To check out the competition and view some killer art, visit West Collects.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dealing With Flakes, New Work, & Bargain Priced Fellatio

Been slacking off on blogging for a bit. Well not really slacking off, I just didn't have anything worth blogging about. There has been a lot of Musser Family upheaval in the past month, but it's highly personal stuff that perhaps I can get into another time, or maybe my Dad can do a future guest spot. Anyhow, onto the good stuff.

I Left My Heart And My Pants in San Francisco

When I venture out of my painting cave, I enjoy making the most of what Sacramento has to offer. But I must admit, I never really need a reason to get out and travel. One of the great things about Sacramento is its close proximity to other places like Tahoe, and the Bay Area, even LA is only 70 minutes away by plane.

I’m not much of a snowboard or ski enthusiast and the last time I was near Tahoe was last spring when I was "working" with John Pugh, aka Mr. Creepers (that's not him btw, that's the creepy preacher from one of the Poltergeister Movies) so getting away to Tahoe doesn’t really appeal to me. 

The San Francisco/Bay Area and LA area, now that’s a different story. About six months ago I heard from a former Sacramento resident who had found work at a small up and coming coop gallery in San Francisco called Big Umbrella Studios.

He was putting together a group show for early spring (first week in March) and wanted to include me in the lineup. I of course said yes and in late January, I started sketching out ideas for the theme Girls And Guns. I knew that most artists would immediately go with the sex/death type angle of a scantily clad woman suggestively holding a handgun, lips slightly parted, a modern day siren sitting on the back of a Harley, sort of vibe.

While those kind of images appeal to my archaic, caveman “must ravage and impregnate now” DNA, that’s not where my art is going. I chose to make something more personal and introspective, but still created a piece within the theme of the show.

More on that later.

Welcome To Flake City
Those of you that know me know that I like to be prepared and organized. When it comes to my career as an artist, I arrive when I say I’m going to arrive, I return phone calls, I sign paperwork, I do research, I say “please” and “thank you” and while I have made monumental mistakes in the recent past, to the to best of my ability, I maintain a high level of professionalism. It’s my career, my job, my only source of income, so the mantra of “Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” is paramount. 

So you can imagine when I enter into a business arrangement with someone who acts likes the polar opposite, I go a little insane.

My contact up until recently was a guy, let’s just say his name is Ary Chezans, who from all my interactions, seemed like someone who was serious about art and serious about the business of art. 

Around early February, I inquired about when and what time I should show up to the gallery, should I email an image of my work for press releases, do they need help setting up, can I submit more than one piece, what are the size requirements, you know usual stuff. Ary informed me via Facebook of all the particulars, gave me his new number, and told me he was really looking forward to the show; all seemed well in the world.

Fast forward to first week in March when I’m putting the finishing touches on my piece, a time when I should be feeling euphoric about the finish line. But I’m not feeling the usual accomplishment because Ary has dropped off the fucking map and I am beyond annoyed! He informed me via text message he and his girl are “taking a break from FB” but won’t return my calls or answer text messages. Taking a break form FB is fine, I recommend we all do a FB cleans now and then, but not returning my text messages or phone calls when I’m supposed to be showing in your gallery, that is un-fucking-acceptable!

Attention All Artists! Always, always, always keep in frequent contact with the gallery in which you plan to show! Up until this point, I never had any problems, and I could have just let it go and chalked it up to experience. But thankfully my folks taught me to be assertive. Had I not followed up with the gallery, I feel I would have been letting them down. Plus I had invited at least 20 people and I would have looked like a fool if they showed up and I wasn’t in the show.

Don’t Be A Self Righteous Fuck Stick
Now I don’t know what happened with Ary. Maybe he is going through some personal drama involving his immediate family. With the recent turmoil I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I know that life can change instantly. Maybe he has mental issues that have completely overwhelmed him. Some of you are keen to the details of my 2009-2010 and know that I almost didn’t make it.

Perhaps Ary’s life was a bit like the closing scene in Dumb and Dumber, he was just walking to the gallery (via desert detour with Jim Carrey) when a bus full of Tropicana Swimsuit models pulled up.

These lovely, barely clothed damsels in distress are lost, they are in need of someone to apply sun tan lotion, and Ary is the only guy they’ve seen in 100+ miles.

But instead of giving them directions to the next town, Ary got on the bus and tried to impregnate all of them! If that was the case, I would have said “Man forget this Girls and Guns bullshit. Forget painting for at least 18 months. I want to see if it’s possible, if I can actually run out of sperm, aka I’m going to have so much sex, with all of these swimsuit models, when I ejaculate only water comes out!”

Any of those reasons would have been valid reasons to walk away from the gallery. But is it too much to ask to leave a note? Or call? Or email? The answer is no, it’s not too much ask.

Here is was kills me about Ary; when he was active on FB, his posts were always rants about the flaky nature of artists, the unprofessional nature of people within the art realm, and when the revolution comes, people won’t be ready bla bla bla.
“ I can’t wait until I work with people who can do this…” and “ Man I wish artists knew that 10:30 means 10:30, not 11” or " Being a professional is…” or “ I’m so excited to be working with…SF won’t know what hit them.”
Maybe Ary is going through some tough times. If he is, I wish him the best of luck. But don’t be a hypocrite; you make artists like myself look bad. Luckily for me I reached out to the gallery a few days before the opening. The way Ary just disappeared, my instincts told me I shouldn’t just arrive the day of the opening and expect everything to be smooth. 

When I did call the gallery to let them know of my arrival, the conversation went how I had imagined it would go; the person the other end had no fucking clue who I was, nor did they have any idea that Ary had curated a show with non-member artists!
Ahhh good times.

Luckily for me, they had room in the show and all I had to do was send them an image and they would honor the commitment that Ary had made. And a special thank you to Rick Kitagawa (orange tie) for being professional and giving me the green light to be included in the show. 

Everything after that phone call went according to plan: I showed up, dropped off my work, signed paper work, walked around for a bit, arrived at the reception and enjoyed the rest of the night.

Thank you Bailey Nguyen for the sharing photos from the opening with me:

There some details from opening night that I’m leaving out:
1. Like being propositioned by a homeless guy in Alamo Square,
“I’ll show you my downstairs for 50cents or give you a hummer for $1 !”
Now I do love me a sale, but sorry guy I'm not into getting BJ's from random men* who smell like dumpsters in July.

2. The joyous time I had walking over 5 miles up and down 45 degree hills just to save a $3 atm fee, but seeing some immaculate property and amazing city views in the process.

3. There was the artsy party I attended with friends after dinner where the people and atmosphere reminded me of how much I hated 90% of the parties I attended will I was a student in Chicago.

Although I enjoyed my time there, I never really fit in at SAIC. I just never vibed with people who tried waayyyyyy too hard to be different and be “artsy” because they bought into the notion of what people see artists as.

I knew I wasn’t going to have fun at this party when 30 seconds after I arrived, I spied a woman/man who looked like Pat from Saturday Night Live dancing like she/he was having a seizure, drinking a 40oz of Mickey’s, dressed in a full size, novelty hot dog outfit.

4. And as much as I love animals, cats that don’t allow me to sleep and do so by jumping on me constantly during the night while I’m trying to catch some zzzz’s on a hardwood floor, are assholes and should be put to death! But all of that will have to wait until a future blog post.

And yes this picture is blurry, but it’s only photo I have of the new work, better photos soon.

Acrylic, pencil, and collage on paper, roughly 18 x 24 inches in size. Here is a side shot:

Stay tuned for more fun stuff, and if you haven't subscribed yet, get on it! :)

*I'm a Vagatarian.