By Beth Hillman
A bespectacled woman sits on a rusty tractor in Nebraska holding a sign that reads, in boxy green letters, “Anni Holm.”
A bald man in dark sunglasses stands on a deserted Chicago street, lifting a yellow placard with the words “Anni Holm” in huge purple type.
A woman in earmuffs stands in front of the Forbidden City, with the face of Mao Zedong peering stoically over her shoulder as she clutches a sign of her own. It too reads “Anni Holm.”
More than 50 people in locales as far-flung as Estonia, England and Antarctica have submitted photos of themselves brandishing artist Anni Holm’s name, which she then posts on her latest art project, a blog called “Getting My Name Out There.”
Holm’s goal is to gather people around the world in a creative, accessible and constantly expanding work of art. And she’s not alone. With the rise of self-publishing photo Web sites like Flickr, artists are taking their cues and soliciting photographs — often self-portraits — from strangers for their online projects. The goal for many is to bring art out of the museums and to make average people participants and not just spectators of art. This medium, some scholars say, is changing the very definition of art.
“We’re starting to blur the distinction between professional photographers and amateurs,” said Mark Amerika, an art professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “It’s not so much about getting the best aesthetic composition, but finding the right online social network.”
This is Holm’s goal — to make art by creating a space for others to make art. After arriving in Chicago from Denmark hoping to break into the American art world, Holm was repeatedly encouraged to “get her name out there.” She took the words literally and, last October, sent mass e-mail messages asking friends to join her.
While the concept of her project may seem egocentric, Holm says it’s just the opposite: She wants to show how much artists rely on others’ support and affirmation, as well as infuse her art with humor and accessibility.
The Internet provides the perfect space for creative, collaborative projects, says Charles Traub, a professor at New York’s School of Visual Arts.
“To ‘make art’ seems to be almost a 20th-century concept,” Traub said. As he sees it, today’s most important work is being done by what he calls “the creative interlocutor,” a person who “enables other people to be creative and creates something bigger than the sum of its parts.”
Traub’s own Web sites collect photographs as a means to document recent American tragedies. “Here is New York” gathers post-9/11 photographs of images from the falling towers to survivors’ faces. His upcoming “Do You Know How It Feels?” will do the same for life in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
Other artist bloggers request photographs that range from the stylish to the funky to the strange. Song-Soo Ahn collects and posts photographs of people covering one of their eyes with one of their hands. The Mirror Project, launched by Heather Champ and Aaron Straup Cope, features more than 34,000 self-portraits taken in reflective surfaces, from glass windows to hubcaps to spoons. And Ze Frank has convinced multitudes to submit photographs of themselves getting attacked by food or dressed in toilet paper.
While photographer Bill Wadman takes his own pictures for his online project, he relies on strangers to help by becoming his subjects. Wadman launched “365 Portraits” on Jan. 1, vowing to snap a different person each day. Afraid he would never find enough subjects, he posted an ad on Craigslist. That listing scored him the initial few, and he now has between 500 and 600 people viewing his site every day and is flooded with e-mails from hopeful participants.
“I see someone participating as doing me a favor, whereas a lot of people make me feel like I’m doing them a favor by letting them be involved,” Wadman said.
So what’s behind the impulse to contribute?
“Fame, recognition, the need to be noticed — it’s a tremendous drive,” Traub said. “‘Maybe I’ll be discovered. Maybe I’ll get on “American Idol.”’ The need to look also — that’s underlying the participatory nature of it.”
Some people are attracted to the chance for collaboration, like Swati Khurana, who posed in front of the Brooklyn Art Museum with a sign bearing her friend Anni Holm’s name.
“It’s fun to feel like part of something else,” Khurana said. “The one picture you take doesn’t mean a lot. It only means something in the context of the project.”
Margot Avery used Bill Wadman’s photography session as a way to celebrate her mother’s 95th birthday. Though her mother, who is blind, couldn’t see the photographs, Avery said she was delighted by the people who called with birthday greetings and said “how beautiful and radiant she looks.”
Lisbeth Nielsen, a teacher in a small Denmark town who found out about Anni Holm’s project when it was featured in a local newspaper, said participating in the project gave her the “thrilling” chance to display her hometown to the world.
“It shows how small the world has become,” she said in an e-mail. “It’s a get-together project, and that’s what the world needs.”
These projects are slowly invading the gallery circuit, too. Last year, Stephen Jablonsky curated “selfportraitr,” an exhibit of thousands of self-portraits uploaded on to Flickr, then displayed on 10 computers in a Manhattan gallery.
“From the art-world side, people need to appreciate the public’s creation,” Jablonsky said, “not in an aesthetic way, but for what it shows about culture.”
Indeed, while the images collected may not meet traditional museum standards, Traub says these projects have a different kind of potential.
“You take your dumb picture of yourself, I take my dumb picture of myself, but when they come together it does represent something about culture that’s more important than the face of any dumb schmuck on the street,” Traub said.
“One picture can tell 1,000 words, but 1,000 pictures can tell you something about something.”
Photos: (Upper) Tabita Jorgensen participates in Anni Holm’s “Getting My Name Out There." (Lower) Anni Holm displays a sign bearing her name in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.