Wikipedia printed for art

Michael Mandiberg (left) with his dog, Freddie Merckx, working on his Print Wikipedia project, which, will print some of the text from the reference website into physical books.
Michael Mandiberg (left) with his dog, Freddie Merckx, working on his Print Wikipedia project, which, will print some of the text from the reference website into physical books.
Michael Mandiberg with his dog, Freddie Merckx, working on his Print Wikipedia project, which, will print some of the text from the reference website into physical books (above).
Michael Mandiberg with his dog, Freddie Merckx, working on his Print Wikipedia project, which, will print some of the text from the reference website into physical books (above).

New York - The Wikipedia entry for "quixoticism" runs only about 255 words. But if anyone could argue for a personal mention, it might be Michael Mandiberg.

For the past three years, he has been fully engaged in transforming the English-language Wikipedia into an old-fashioned print reference set, running to 7,600 volumes.

Mandiberg, an interdisciplinary artist who teaches at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, describes it as half utilitarian data visualisation project, half absurdist poetic gesture.

"When I started, I wondered, 'What if I took this new thing and made it into that old thing?'" he said recently in his sparse studio in Downtown Brooklyn. "'What would it look like?'"

Today, he will find out, when the exhibition From Aaaaa! To ZZZap! based on his Print Wikipedia project, opens at the Denny Gallery.

There, a computer programme will begin uploading the 11 gigabytes of very compressed data from a Mac Mini to print-on-demand site Lulu.com.

The upload page will be projected onto a wall of the gallery, which will be open till the upload ends two weeks later. The technical operations will be tracked on a monitor and on printwikipedia.com.

For the print-minded, the gallery's other walls will be lined with wallpaper showing the spines of the first 1,980 volumes in the set, supplemented by 106 actual physical volumes, each of which runs to 700 pages. He will not, however, be printing all 7,600 volumes.

A seasoned Wikipedia contributor with nearly 2,000 edits to his name, he started batting around the idea for the project in 2009.

In 2012, he threw himself into what he called "a series of unending non-trivial programming tasks" necessary to formatting the data behind Wikipedia for upload and approached Lulu.com last fall.

"It was certainly a very interesting inquiry," said Mr Dan Dillon, vice-president for marketing at the company. "It's not every day someone comes to you and says, 'I'd like to make a printed inventory of the largest storehouse of human knowledge in English, and would like to use your website.'"

There have been other efforts to measure Wikipedia in terms of the printed page. But Mandiberg seems to have taken the most concrete measure yet of its size - at least as of April 7, when he harvested the data.

According to estimates provided by the Wikimedia Foundation, there have been some 7.5 million edits since.

His project, like the evolving digital encyclopedia itself, is really "a gesture at knowledge," said Ms Katherine Maher, chief communications officer at Wikimedia, adding, "The reality is that knowledge has transcended our ability to hold it in volumes on a bookshelf."

The installation at the Denny Gallery may be titled From Aaaaa! To ZZZap! but it takes a while for Mandiberg's encyclopaedia - the articles are set three columns to a page, mainly using an open-source typeface called Cardo - to get to the letter A.

First comes the 91-volume table of contents listing the nearly 11.5 million articles. Then come more than 500 volumes containing entries beginning with typographical symbols and numbers, starting with "!", "!!" (a notation for an excellent move in chess) and "!!!" (a dance-punk band from Sacramento whose name is usually pronounced Chk Chk Chk).

There is also a 36-volume contributors index, listing each of the nearly 7.5 million named users who have made even a single edit since Wikipedia began in 2001 - a statistic that Mandiberg may be the first to establish.

Any volume of the encyclopaedia can be ordered from Lulu.com for US$80 (S$108). Select ones will be on sale at the gallery for US$68, including those containing the entries for resonant terms such as "aesthetics", "appropriation", "entropy" and "time".

As each volume finishes uploading, the title will be posted to Twitter at @PrintWikipedia. When the entire upload is done, that moment - and the futile grand gesture it represents - will be celebrated with toasts and a projection of the confirmation page, complete with a "Buy It Now" button offering the whole set for US$500,000. New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2015, with the headline 'Wikipedia printed for art'. Print Edition | Subscribe