Telepic: Translation Collaboration from Verbal to Visual

Telepic is a project based on mixing conceptual art with digital media to portray the idea of visual translation from words and sentences by using the viewer to accomplish this.  The idea is based on a game that a group of my friends used to play we called “Telephone-Pictionary” which combines the idea of the games Telephone and Pictionary.  For Telephone-Pictionary the players are sitting in a circle each with a stack of papers equaling the amount of players in the game.  Everyone starts by writing a sentence on the top piece of paper, there are no limits as to what the sentence can be, it does not even have to make sense. When everyone is finished each person passes the entire stack of paper to the left.  When the new stack is received, each player reads the sentence on top and then places that piece of paper at the bottom of the stack.  On the new piece of paper, the players then draw a picture based on the sentence they just read.  After everyone is finished the whole stack of papers in each players hand is again passed to the left with the picture they drew on the top and the sentence the picture is based on “buried” at the bottom of the stack.  After all the stacks of paper are passed, each player views the picture and then puts it underneath the stack, without looking at the piece of paper with the original sentence.  Each player then writes a sentence on the next piece of paper based upon the picture they viewed.  The game continues in the same manner, if a sentence is passed a picture is drawn based on that sentence, if a picture is on top a sentence is written.  The previously passed pictures and sentences are buried at the bottom each time they are received until the stacks reach original writer.  When the stacks are in the hands of the person that wrote the first sentence, each person gets to share the “story” of what happened to their sentence as it passed along the circle by reading the sentences and showing the pictures based on the new sentences.

When playing this game I realized that the “story” of the sentences as it travels around the room and is interpreted by each different person is an interesting concept in visual and verbal translations.  The art of this game is not the pictures drawn or the words written, but the translation of the ideas shared and the interaction people are having with a stream of thought on a piece of paper.  Each person participating is involved in the artwork by sharing their perception of what the drawing should look like based on a sentence, or how to sum up a picture into one sentence.  It reminds me of my art history classes where the professor explains what paintings mean by the gestures they portray, the historical background of the time and artist, or through the elements of the work of art even if no words are necessarily there to tell you if the professor is right in their accusations.  The fact that the only two rules to the game are to draw a picture or write a sentence without having someone looming over their shoulder to say who is right or wrong, gives the participants freedom to do whatever they choose.  Ideally, the sentences and pictures are related to their previous flow of consciousness from person to person, but if a player decides to disrupt the flow, for example writing a completely abstract sentence that has nothing to do with the picture they see, or drawing a picture that they think is funny but has nothing to do with the sentence they saw, then they have the freedom to do so.  To say that it destroys the purpose of the game, or messes up the story would be incorrect, because the artwork is about how people react when given complete freedom around two simple requirements.  The art made from Telepic is the interaction people have with each other to create a stream of thought described from the translations of a verbal thought into visual images and the documentation of such creates a “story”. The “stories” that are portrayed in the gallery are visual evidence of the art that has already taken place.

This kind of participatory action in artwork dates back to the Futurists movement starting in Italy in 1909.  They would enact short avant garde plays and monologues that would require audience participation creating an absence of boundaries between the audience and the artwork instead of having the artwork as a physical object to be viewed.[1]  These kinds of performance pieces inspired Allan Kaprow in his pieces Happenings.  In Happenings each participant was given a script of tasks they were asked to improvise or complete.  As the show progressed there were so many people that the script was pretty much thrown out the window.  People were bumping into each other, distracting each other, and altogether doing whatever they wanted to.[2]  The show was repeated in several different environments with different people interacting in all of them, so no two shows were ever the same.  The contradicting part about the idea of giving people complete freedom to create randomness and creating art out of it is the fact that they were still given a script to follow and they were confined to the gallery to do it.  In the same sense, the Telepic seems to give people complete freedom by saying they can draw or write whatever they want, however they are confined to only those two actions and have to complete one or the other in order to contribute to the gallery.    However, the main difference between the performances in Happenings and the storylines in Telepic is documentation of how people interact with the piece.

The idea of visual collaboration in Telepic comes from the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpses. This game was started in a similar fashion to Telepic in a parlor game where a sentence was written, the paper was folded to hide part of the sentence, and then passed to the next player for their contribution. The game was considered poetry under the concept that poetry is made by all, not by one. [3]  This also relates to the Dadaists and who believe that art does not have to exist in the traditional forms of art.   They relied heavily on chance as to how the art is created mimicking the absurd aspect chance dictates in life.  As a painter, I thought it an interesting concept to do a project where I have no visual hand other than organizing, the visual part is being done for me by the viewers, as a comment on how the idea of art has changed to the extent that it is the participants making art, and the artist is more of an orchestrator.  Telepic embodies the theories that the Futurists, Surrealists, and Dadaists represent by being a piece of art that is completely participatory, collaborative, and random in outcome.  But in being completely participatory, it brings up the recent debate of internet labor in the digital economy.

Whether or not something is profit driven, if it requires input from a user or player on a digital platform it is contributing to the idea of free labor over the internet. [4] The internet has become a place where corporations shop for free information from anyone.  The information then becomes a resource for target marketing to a degree that would be considered stalking if it were a regular person accruing that much knowledge about individuals.  They gain this knowledge from a variety of places that people commonly use every day, freely giving away information and labor on things such as games, web communities, and shopping sites.  With all of these ways of providing information, social participation has become suspect for many artists who are trying to create collaborative works.  Because of this, though Telepic requires a login, it is completely anonymous.  The user ID is not next to their submissions, there is not an email hassling the viewer about the latest trend in storylines, and there is no information being shared with big corporations.  This is one of those things where the viewer is only being asked for their input for collaborative purposes only.  The rules for input are simple and limitless.

The contradicting aspect about creating a piece that has only two simple rules on how it is played, in coding, you have to clarify numerous rules in order for the program to function.[5]  In order for the game to work correctly, computer engineer Nick Boudreau and I had to figure out which parameters we could set up without hindering the experience of the viewer and creating more guidelines. One way we thought of is to ask the viewer to create a user ID and password.  Having the user ID will keep track of how many submissions they make and prevent them from submitting to the same storyline twice.  Another problem we came up with is what if someone sees a storyline and decides to skip over it, should they be allowed to view the same storyline, and also does the act of skipping over something mean that they are still playing because they are interacting with the piece.  I decided that if someone sees a submission, they should not be allowed to see that storyline again until it is completed and in the gallery view, because seeing a previous submission and then going back to the storyline later on would decrease the chance that the story would change into something new.  Also, if someone decides to skip to the next one, they are still participating in the artwork by the action of no submission so to record this I want to add a count of those submissions to the gallery view of the storylines, however the engineer helping me do the programming for Telepic says that there would be no way to accomplish this for the release time.

Another problem was what if the viewer left their browser open, and went to do something else for a while, should we let the storyline stop to wait on them, or should it go to someone else after a certain amount of time.  What we decided was to have a timer counting down from 10 minutes, if the person does not respond in anyway on the program within that time frame, then the storyline will be filed as skipped under their profile and given to someone else while the view on the procrastinators computer goes back to the home screen displaying play or view. Another area I want to focus on in the future is allowing people to create visual entries to substitute for drawing pictures such as uploading photographs and video.  Though I would like to grant total and complete freedom to the audience in making their submissions, there has not yet been a way to work that out with coding.  I would like to eventually add onto this project, but to get it started it is going to have to be kept simple.

In order to access the project now, it is the link http://warm-ridge-3646.herokuapp.com/.  When the participant goes to the website, they will have a screen with two buttons one that reads “View” and the other that reads “Play”.  If the viewer hits the option to “View” they will be taken to a gallery of previously played storylines.  The story lines will be represented by the first sentence of that storyline and they can click on the sentence to view the progression that storyline became.  The sentences will be arranged to look like one very long paragraph, joining to look like a continuous story. Considering it will be set up with multiple storylines going on at once, the gallery will constantly change.  Each storyline is set up as a separate file from another, and the only thing that the viewer can see is the previous entry, whether that is a picture or a sentence.  If it is a sentence, they click on it and have a white board come up that they can draw, erase, or start over. If it is a picture, they have a view of the picture and a textbox to write their sentence in.

I am eventually going to install multiple “starter lines” that will show up on the white board randomly.  These starter lines are going to be a multitude of shapes, random lines, maybe even partial pictures that have to be incorporated in the picture and cannot be erased.  These lines are not based on the sentence rather they create the idea of direct collaboration with the artist, similar to the idea of the surrealist exquisite corpses, except in this case they still have a sentence to base the picture on if they so choose.  Also in the future, each sentence entry will have a random word that will have to be incorporated into the sentence in some way.  This ensures that the translation between the sentences and pictures will be completely different from the first sentence, and will actually make it grow into something completely new.  The random factor of the computer from the input of words and starter lines from the orchestrating artist (me) create an interesting collaboration between artist, machine, and viewer.  Once the story line has reached a certain amount of entries, it is automatically stopped and uploaded to the gallery viewing which can be viewed by anyone who has participated in at least one entry.  This creates mandatory participation for the actual storylines to be viewed.  The pictures and sentences are not considered art.  It is the idea of collaborative translation that is the artwork.


[2] Judith F. Rodenbeck, Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention of Happenings. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011). introduction

[3] William S Rubin. Dada and Surrealist Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969),

[4] Trebor Scholz. The Internet as Playground and Factory. A conference on digital labor. Digitallabor.org

[5] Nick Boudreau. Collaborative computer engineer on this project.

2 responses to “Telepic: Translation Collaboration from Verbal to Visual

  1. That was great advice, I realized a whole other side to my project that I did not really think about. I went in and wrote another paragraph, but I really want to go back to my project later on and somehow insert the idea of free labor. Maybe I’ll have a message that says “Brought to you by: {insert made up company here}” or after a submission is complete it might read something like “Thank you, minions, now do another!”. I’m really excited about this project, and I think it will grow later on.

  2. I’d like to see a little more about your overall idea concerning a distributed narrative. See Trebor Scholz on distributed creativity.

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