The Object, Offline

On Monday I spoke at the Museum of Modern Art at a salon to discuss “objects that are born in the digital realm and are then transposed to the physical world.” Here’s what I shared.


Millions of objects that started online have been physically created by people using Kickstarter. The transposing of the digital into the physical is a core function of Kickstarter, arguably the best example of it on the web.

Most people at this point understand how Kickstarter works. I’d like to share some thoughts on why.

MoMA is a particularly interesting place to talk about this. Last month, Kickstarter and MoMA’s curators collaborated to select 24 Kickstarter-funded projects to be sold in the MoMA Design Store.

We were invited to design displays for the MoMA Store windows in Soho and Midtown to celebrate the collaboration. We used the opportunity to do something we’ve always wanted to do: create physical versions of the Kickstarter site. Here it is on 53rd Street:

Here’s the responsive web version in Soho:

Expressing the site with wood and tactile materials captures the essence of Kickstarter: an online experience that creates physical ones.

Even for those of us who see little distinction between the physical and digital worlds, seeing the web physically represented is striking. I’m reminded of a series of works by Eitan Cohen.

The YouTube iconography transforms a physical location into a platform. It says that the web is all around us. In other contexts it suggests darker meanings.

One example I love of the physical and digital worlds colliding is the story of the Balloon Boy hoax.

In 2009, a small boy was believed to have been trapped in an oversized, UFO-shaped balloon and carried off by the wind. TV news covered the story with live, breathless, wall-to-wall broadcasts. Reporters did stand-up reports from outside the missing boy’s home.

While the media reported the story, members of the message board 4Chan conspired a prank: have pizzas delivered to the house while it was on live television. Here is the result:

The 4Chan prank was more than a good joke. It was a declaration of existence by the web.

Remember the Curiosity Rover landing on Mars? That amazing feat was lead by a team of scientists from Jet Propulsion Laboratories and NASA, livestreamed on the web.

On Twitter we responded with a celebration of a collective achievement. For those watching live, there was a feeling of direct participation. This was powerful. A small step for man, a giant leap for all of us.

One year later a group of scientists — including some who had been part of the Curiosity team — launched a Kickstarter to fund the ARKYD, the world’s first publicly owned and accessible space telescope. They understood this participatory feeling well.

The most popular reward by far was a space selfie. The creators promised to take submitted photos, put them on a display screen, and take a selfie of you hovering above the earth. For $25 you could exist in space.

The ARKYD reminds me of a project by New York City painter Molly Dilworth, called Paintings for Satellites.

Molly used Kickstarter to paint huge patterns on the rooftops of New York City buildings.

Molly wanted to make art on a grand scale. Her exhibition space wasn’t a gallery. It was Google Maps.

These projects echo our past. I think back to being in an electronics store in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and having my image caught by a camcorder and shown on a wall of TVs.

This was the first time we saw ourselves on a screen. It was magical to watch you watching you. Being on TV made you more real.

This isn’t new to technology. Self-portraits and collaborative creation have always existed. Arguably the first Kickstarter project was in 1713 by Alexander Pope, to translate the Iliad into English.

To fund the work, Pope received support from 700 subscribers. They got their name in the first edition.

This is exactly what’s happening on the backer page of every Kickstarter project. What seems new is often very old.

One development that technology provides is a feedback loop. The Mysterious Letters project is a great example of this.

Mysterious Letters is a project by two artists named Michael and Lenka to send everyone in the world a handwritten letter. They did a Kickstarter to fund a letter-writing campaign to a neighborhood in Pittsburgh called Polish Hill.

On a single day, 620 letters were sent to each address in the neighborhood. The letters were signed by Michael and Lenka, but their purpose was not explained.

The letters made some people nervous. Calls were made to the FBI worrying that it was terrorism. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the mystery.

That day I wrote a blog post detailing the project and its aftermath. One of the people who received a letter found the post, and discovered what the project actually was.

They left a comment. What started on the web returned to the web.

The best example of all was in 2011, when @MT tweeted to Dave Bing, the Mayor of Detroit, to suggest that the city should have a statue of Robocop.

A responsive public servant, Detroit’s Mayor replied.

Days later, a Kickstarter project was launched to build a Robocop statue in Detroit. It was the first viral project.

The Robocop statue is maybe the most successful trolling ever. It’s a very large memento of a viral moment.

But it’s more than that.

The Robocop statue gives its backers a kind of immortality. This thing they collectively created confirms that they exist.

We yearn for evidence of our existence. We want to claim something as our own.

IRL doesn’t just mean “in real life.” It also means “I’m really alive.”

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