The Johnny Cash Project

In the latest in a series of works exploring crowdsourcing, American artist Aaron Koblin, with director Chris Milk, has created a lovely collaborative piece – a collective portrait of musician Johnny Cash.

The Johnny Cash Project invites fans of the country musician to share their visions of Cash, who died in 2003, “as he lives on in your mind’s eye.” Each contributor is offered a choice of three frames from a video accompanying one of Cash’s final recordings “Ain’t No Grave”, and a drawing tool to create their portrait, working with one of the frames as a template. The thousands of contributions that have now been created are combined into an animated image track, “a collective whole… rising from a sea of one-of-a-kind portraits”, as the website describes it. Take a look, it’s very effective – a terrific idea, beautifully executed.

Koblin is perhaps best known for his data visualisation works – Flight Patterns, which pictured air traffic over the US, and New York Talk Exchange which provided a visualisation of phone and internet communications out of New York. His previous explorations of  crowdsourcing include For Ten Thousand Cents for which thousands of people worked separately using a drawing tool to jointly create a representation of a hundred dollar bill, and  The Sheep Market, for which he commissioned workers through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to draw “a sheep facing to the left”, turning the process of each animal’s creation into an animation.

Koblin said in relation to The Sheep Market, “There is so much humanity online but it currently exists in such a visually sterile form”. He’s interested in expressing, “the individuals within the vast dataset.” He’s certainly pulled that off in “The Johnny Cash Project”.  The video/s combine a vivid sense of the multiple artists involved with a surprising aesthetic coherence. The project is a moving tribute to “The Man in Black”, bearing witness to the continuing power of his music. And it’s going to continue to grow and evolve. As new people contribute, their frames will be added, so the project is an emergent, open-ended piece.

I have one criticism from a contributor’s perspective. I drew a frame, which I found quite hard to do – the instructions are minimal, and drawing’s not my thing. When I submitted it I found that there was a vetting process that wasn’t mentioned at the start. Were they just weeding out potentially inappropriate content, or were submissions being selected for quality? Either would be fine, but it should be clear at the outset. As Clay Shirky observes in “Here Comes Everybody“, the terms of engagement will vary in these collaborative projects, but what matters is the transparency of the deal, and that applies even to great projects like this one.