Artist Oliver Warden on Getting His Conceptual Social Network Project GLOBALL Rolling

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Brooklyn-based conceptual artist Oliver Warden may be best-known for his dazzling paintings of overlaid maps and patterns, and his participatory performance pieces, but his next project is something on an entirely different scale. For GLOBALL, Warden has envisioned a kind of embodied and international social network based on participants sharing seven wooden sculptures — the GLOBALLs — with their friends, thereby creating a network of real-life encounters. We asked Warden to share some insights on the globe-spanning participatory art project, which is still at its development (and crowd-funding) stages.

GLOBALL seems to combine aspects of performance art, social media, chain letters, mass gift-giving, and something like a Guinness World Record attempt; What inspired you to launch this project?

With GLOBALL there was no one point of origin for this idea. It’s the first thing I posted about on my GLOBALL Facebook blog page; there is no memorable “eureka” moment. Instead, I think this is a combination of a lifetime of interest in environmentalism, humanitarianism, and exploration as well as art, interactivity, and new media.

My background in interactive art extends since school at SVA in the 1990s. For many pieces like my interactive performance “Untitled Box 2.0,” there was a clear inspired moment that lead to the work. I admire Jacques Cousteau, Nellie Bly, and Thor Hyerdahl as much as I admire Chris Burden, Jenny Holzer, and Marina Abramovic. I think the odd combinations of these interests stem from my parents who were part of the ’60-70s counterculture around Kent State University, and subsequently pursued storm-chasing and geography (dad), and medicine and exploration (mom). All these things were smashed into me as a kid and now are coming out in GLOBALL.

With video games as my last artistic medium and now social networking, I realized I could use them to make contemporary art and communicate ideas. Ultimately, I’d like to usher in a healthy dose of dissent and criticality to those mediums by proposing my own takes on them. I enjoy them, but I feel I have a point of view to bring to the table as well.

The project has several elements, from the wooden sculptures to the exchanges between participants and online documentation of the GLOBALLs’ progress; is there one portion of the project that you consider the most important, or are all the elements dependent on one another for success?

I think they are all equally important. The “art” of this project doesn’t lie in any one part but in the total accumulation of experience. Like many video games and in a sense social networking, it requires participation, is narrative, and the outcome will be determined by those who partake. The story of GLOBALL hasn’t been written and the “art” of it will transform as the project unfolds. That’s exactly what’s exciting about it.

For instance, there are seven wooden balls, one for each letter in GLOBALL but also one for each continent. The wood that each solid GLOBALL will be made from will be sourced by friends of mine on those continents (the Antarctic wood will be sourced from wood that migrated to forests in the southern hemisphere millions of years ago). The great thing about wood is that it comes with its history woven into its rings.

The neat thing about GLOBALL is that our history will also be woven into the balls as we touch them. The oil will rub off from our hands and make each ball darker. So, as they travel, the oils, dings, scratches, and marks will serve as another type of analog story, record, and social network. That will also be mirrored by an online participation on the website. For the project to really work, both will have to exist.

In many ways, GLOBALL is an attempt to make an in-real-life social network; what aspects of such digital communities do you think merit being created in embodied, lived experience?

There are four terms commonly used on Facebook and Twitter; “like”, “share”, “friend,” and “follow”. I think they have been successfully redefined by those dominant social networks but they also have lost something. There is no sense of loss or sacrifice when you share something. You share information, links, pictures, and so on, but you don’t actually forfeit anything. With GLOBALL, I am giving you a unique piece of art in a time of recession but instead of asking you to keep it and enjoy it, I am asking you to reinsert your own meaning by giving it to a “VERY GOOD FRIEND,” as the instructions say. To fulfill that, you’ll have to ask yourself a deeper question about what “friend” means. I’m asking you to not only give away your GLOBALL but give your friend the gift of giving as well. In doing so, GLOBALL will ask you who you are truly connected to.

I found this agenda, in many different forms, amongst my own real-world friends too. From the hackers at NYC Resistor here in Brooklyn who help me do the laser-engraving work, to my friend Anne at her company Craftspring, which makes fair-trade felt ornaments with women business owners in Kyrgyzstan, each group had a real-world network.

My friend Ryan, who made the music for the GLOBALL video along with his bandmate Shanda (We Are The Wilderness) said it best, “connectivity is an act of service.” One thing I wanted to do with GLOBALL is figure out a way to bring them together and start the network immediately. So, I asked only friends to contribute to the Indiegogo campaign by offering their talents and goods as Indiegogo “perks”. The great thing about networks like Indiegogo is that it gives people like me the chance to do creative projects by connecting with people who can contribute to ideas that are unique and unconventional.

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Were there any particular participatory art projects that inspired you while you were developing GLOBALL?

GLOBALL has been milling around in my head since 2008 and several things happened over that time that were truly inspirational. The Plastiki is a ship that made a sea voyage led by David DeRothschild in 2010. During that time, he sailed a recycled ship made of 12,000 plastic bottles across the great garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on his way to Australia from San Francisco to bring awareness to our environmental hazards. His heightened level of social networking, live blogging, and updates made the voyage feel participatory and I realized how important of a role I played in the crew’s daily state of mind. I wouldn’t contextualize this as an art project, but I appreciated its creativity, thoughtfulness, and daring.

Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present” was a critically important masterwork. It not only asked real people to interact with her but used mediums such as video and social media to communicate the experience. She’s taken a lot of flak lately for her celebrity mingling and YouTube videos, but she has also fearlessly tackled social media more than any other artist I can think of, especially any one of her stature. I think she’s truly brave and engaging, and that work, more so than any in recent memory, captured people’s imagination. It certainly inspired me.

Sometimes inspiration comes more locally too. Artist Rachel Sussman, who I’m very lucky to have contribute to our Indiegogo campaign, was in the throes of creating her art project, “The Oldest Living Things in the World” when I met her. Although OLTW is more of a solo endeavor, she has reached mass amounts of people through her TED talk and social media.

Do you see GLOBALL as an open-ended project, or one with a definite timeline? Could the GLOBALLs just keep circumnavigating the globe?

In a sense, the GLOBALLs become more valuable as they get passed between more and more people, and go further and further. It won’t be monetary value, however, as they are not for sale. They can only be made valuable through meaningfulness. The interactions, stories, and connections that will be made will hopefully infuse them with content. This is why there can be no deadline and are no rules once they are released, aside from one: they cannot be mailed.

Once they have traveled great distances though, I hope they come home, if only for a minute. At “home” will be each GLOBALL’s twin. I am going to make 14 balls, 7 to travel and 7 to stay for an exhibition. It will be great to have them sit side by side and literally “see” the history of the traveling balls.

You’re placing a lot of faith and trust in the hands of the project’s participants, literally; what if one of the sculptures breaks or goes missing?

I expect one to sit in a closet or be thrown off a cliff, set on fire or be lost, for sure. That’s why there are seven. But there’s something else. I am handing them off to seven good friends. And they are doing the same. I think as they go on, people will see it as an opportunity to share in something bigger by connecting with the world. If they break or go missing then that’s part of the story too.

Yes, it’s a lot of faith and trust in art and people, but having both seems like the most exciting thing I can think of right now.

Read more about GLOBALL here, or contribute to its Indiegogo campaign here.

— Benjamin Sutton

(Photos courtesy the artist.)