Paint By User Or Computer?

Internet artist Matthew Britton and Lecturer in Advanced Technology Bertie Müller had a very simple idea. They wanted to make art more accessible to the average person, both in terms of participation and observation. Their method of achieving this was a collaborative project called PaintByUser.com, which enables people from all over the world to draw together on the same canvas in real time, and can produce some wonderfully playful results. I spoke to the creators in the wake of a newly found popularity of the site that began just over a year ago, initially approaching Matthew Britton:

PaintByUser.com is a real-time collaborative drawing website which allows visitors to assign a username to their mark on the virtual canvas. The users may also decide to change the colour and size of the line to accompany their desired username. This is seen as an evolution of life drawing, as the platform accumulates interactions between users and presents it as an ever-evolving, autonomous piece of art.”

The continual churning movement of colour is fascinating to watch, especially given that all the marks created on the canvas are by human beings and not a calculated algorithm. This really brings the site to life in a strangely intimate manner; the immediacy and fluidity of the coloured lines as they swerve and slice across the page suffer no lagging or buffering (depending on your internet connection, obviously) and create an unerring sense of proximity to those on the other end of the mouse. The constant competition for space as people scribble over you gives the feeling of an instantaneous interaction, one that feels even more responsive than instant messaging. It’s a lot harder to get your message across on PaintByUser.com though, unless you like to communicate through vivid colours. Matthew continues to fill me in on a brief history of the webpage. PaintByUser.com began as a platform called 1024by768.net (RIP) which was a space we conceived for the use of creative collaborations. This slowly developed into the collaborative drawing website we see today. The site is aimed at everyone. Art owned by the masses. The idea was to remove barriers from art, both in its creative and consumptive form. We were hoping for the whole world to join in and were ready for anything to happen and to make us laugh.”

It’s a lot of fun and certainly easy enough to be used by anyone and in true Internet forum style, the site is home to some oddballs who set questionable usernames, write obscenities and just generally troll. However, the scribbles by those who don’t speak html and java script can get lost underneath those that do, as the program leaves itself open to manipulation and hacking. What I mean by this is that it’s possible to code something into the website that will constantly redraw itself if someone tries to draw over it. More specifically, when I was testing the page, a red chicken would reappear repeatedly (which I later learned was Dick Butt). “Yeah, it seems to be a bot that keeps drawing the Dick Butt meme over and over. These kinds of hacks were what the platform was intended for. We applaud whoever did this. We imagined that the use for the site would grow autonomously and its popularity would fluctuate depending on its current usage. When I posted it on 4Chan, they seemed to want to show all the symbols of the world, which was really educational.” The attention that PaintByUser.com has received is still fairly modest, however the site once clocked up 40,000 hits in a single day, which is a little worrying considering that users only have access to one canvas in total. Advanced Technology Lecturer Bertie Müller tells me that “with regards to the number of users, there is (theoretically) no limit. The site is based on efficient broadcast across all active users. Only very small chunks of data are broadcast, hence there should be very little slowdown even with a large number of active users. We had considered implementing several rooms (and might still do that in the future), but for now it’s a single room only.”

Matthew and Bertie’s Internet escapades don’t stop there, though. “We’ve been working on a series of projects which explore the experiences of art through the use of technology. These activities have been mainly web-based and can be experienced through a web browser. Another project that we launched this year is Skip-Youtube.com. It’s a website that allows you to navigate through YouTube using only a SKIP button. We wanted to alter the viewing experience and make the encounter a much more random affair by reinstating the element of chance to enable the viewer to discover content that they weren't necessarily looking for. We’ve abolished titles, tags and descriptions as it is about limiting the control over information.” Unlike PaintByUser.com, this piece is entirely technological, and has very little human input. “You can view, but only randomly selected material. You can decide to skip contents, but only after an initial exposure to it. To a certain extent, you expose yourself to the decisions of an algorithm that you don't understand; you give up control over the media delivered to you, but you can still derive enjoyment and pleasure from it. Non-determinism rules the experience; you can view, sometimes you can skip, but you cannot search. You can’t determine what you watch.” 

If you’ve ever been slightly concerned about the fall of man and the rise of the computer, then that’s not a comforting sentence to read. Still, this unlikely duo produces thought provoking and interactive art forms, open for everyone to engage with, until an algorithm comes along and does it much faster and more accurate than you ever could. Sounds about right. 

Words by Patrick Benjamin