R/place through the Lens of Relational Art
“Some have visited a canvas before. / A place where togetherness created more. / Now in numbers far greater, taking more space, / It falls upon you to create a better place.”
This short poem in the description of the r/place Reddit community perfectly describes the primary goals of the second edition of r/place, which ran from April 1st to April 4th in 2022. In the r/place experiment, originally conceived by Jason Wardle, registered Reddit users were able to place a single coloured pixel from a limited colour palette on a large online pixel board every 5 to 20 minutes. However, a solitary pixel could not achieve much on its own, which prompted Redditors to collaborate on larger images that represented internet culture, topical issues and the plethora of communities on Reddit (Lorenz, 2022; Rauwerda, 2022).
The first edition of the experiment which took place exactly 5 years prior, lasted for 3 days and was hugely successful. Over 1 million Reddit users edited the canvas during its run, which awarded the project its status as an iconic internet culture artefact in the collective consciousness of Reddit users. It was therefore no surprise that the project quickly regained attention when it was relaunched in 2022. Over 6 million users contributed to the artboard, and the massive increase in engagement prompted two expansions of the pixel board and one expansion of its colour palette (Lorenz, 2022).
It was not Wardle’s original intention to incite the creation of a global, collaborative, participatory art piece, but that does not mean that r/place cannot be interpreted as such. In this paper, I will argue that r/place should be considered a relational participatory art piece. Furthermore, I will contrast r/place with ‘The Million Dollar Webpage’ to explain how r/place’s re-democratization of the creation of community-based online pixel art sets it apart from earlier experiments.
R/place as a Relational Participatory Art Piece
Participatory practices are commonly understood as art, but agreeing on the aesthetic criteria of participatory art can be difficult; there is a large variety of practices and the aesthetic, ethical and social values of these different works can oppose each other (Finkelpearl, 2014). It is therefore not a stretch to assume that participatory practices like r/place can be explored through the lens of participatory art, even if this was not the original intention of its initiator.
R/place especially shares a lot of features with the participatory art category of ‘relational aesthetics’ or ‘relational art’ as described by Bourriaud. ‘Relational aesthetics’ “takes as its theoretical horizon the sphere of human interaction and its social context rather than the assertion of an autonomous and private symbolic space” (Bourriaud, 1998). This means that the work's main value is not the work itself, but the collective encounters of different social factions and individuals that it produces. With this, the audience who were once “autonomous beholders of static works” are transformed into “active co-participants and co-producers of art's meaning” (Dimitrakaki, 2013).
In the case of r/place, the main product of the experiment is not the dynamic visuals created by the various Reddit communities on the pixel board, but the social relationships and practices of community building that made these visuals possible in the first place. Unlike many other participatory art pieces, there is still a boundary between those who participate and those who simply observe, but the passive audience can never get to the true core of the project. This core was not necessarily to accurately represent internet culture (which could have been done by an individual), but rather to represent and encourage the collective efforts of co-producing individuals who are forming or strengthening (temporary) social relationships with one another to express what matters to them.
This creates, what Bourriaud calls, “temporary and small-scale convivial moments and experiments in interpersonal relations” (Finkelpearl, 2014). Not only did individuals band together to express their shared, collective identity, but unlikely alliances were formed between various communities in r/place dedicated threads and discord channels. A group seeking to maintain a small flag of Ireland, for example, collaborated with members from Purdue University to protect their mutual co-existence on the board. ““We put a little heart between the two, that represents the alliances between neighbouring factions,” Ian Jones, a software engineer in Chicago, said” (Lorenz, 2022). As the poem in the description of the subreddit suggests: r/place produced togetherness.
Micro-Utopias and Antagonism
Bourriaud favoured the creation of “everyday micro-utopias that explored small local stories and gestures over the greater ambitions and meta-narratives associated with modernity” (Dimitrakaki, 2013). Instead of looking to grand narratives to create a utopian society, we co-produce micro-utopias through our negotiations, interactions and coexistence with others in our everyday lives. This idea is reflected in the line “it falls upon you to create a better place” in the description of the r/place subreddit. It refers to the idea that those participating in the experiment can contribute on a small scale to a micro-utopia in the form of the r/place pixel board through their collaborations and coexistence with others. This, in turn, will create a more utopian micro-replica of the internet.
However, despite this encouragement to create a grassroots micro-utopia through small-scale interactions, r/place also has the potential to facilitate antagonistic actions or conflict. After all, space on the pixel board is limited and the act of claiming space to represent your community may entail the removal of another community from the board. This action is inherently hostile and may cause disputes between communities. By taking up space in dynamic, collaborative, social interactions on the pixel board, communities end up replicating both the positive and negative aspects of their relationships with other communities that can be found on a larger scale offline and online.
For example, in 2022, a collective of streamers united their audiences to create a pixelated meteor of destruction that eventually landed on the image created by the Brony community. (You can view the path of the meteor in the video above.) The Brony community primarily consists of male adult fans of the popular children’s television series My Little Pony and is oftentimes looked down upon or made fun of by other online communities. Although this event was played for laughs and no long-term harm was done to the Brony pixel territory, it does speak to the wider -and often far more insidious- hostilities that exist between online communities.
Another instance of an antagonistic force entering the field is ‘the void’, which manifested in both the 2017 and 2022 experiments. The void was a destructive project that users contributed to by placing black pixels next to each other in order to destroy any and all communities in its path (Lorenz 2022). It was often accompanied by creepy imagery such as disturbing faces, black tentacles or blood. Its aim of covering the entire board with darkness may be antagonistic in nature, but it also had the opposite effect of bringing users even closer together.
Not only did it give users an incentive to be more active in the renewal of their community pixels and did it promote alliances between communities, but it also gave users who did not subscribe to any of the communities a chance to participate in something bigger than themselves. In other words: it provided a common goal and a common enemy. This phenomenon of communities banding together to face a common enemy can also be seen in online spaces outside of r/place.
It could be argued that the design of the r/place experiment is inherently antagonistic because of the limited space and the function of replacing someone's pixel with your own. Instead, I argue that this hostility is simply an aspect of the project’s relational nature that reflects the hostilities found in cross-community interactions in offline and online spaces. It would therefore not be appropriate to classify r/place as antagonistic art.
‘The Million Dollar Homepage’ and the Commodification of Collaborative Pixel Art
Although it is one of the most well-known instances of collaborative, online pixel art, r/place is far from the only project of its kind. This begs the question: What sets r/place apart from previous participatory, online pixel board experiments? In this section, I argue that what makes r/place unique is its ability to decommodify and re-democratize the participatory, online pixel artform. I do this by contrasting r/place with one of its largest inspirations: ‘The Million Dollar Homepage’, an online pixel board from 2005 that has become an iconic piece of internet history.
Www.MillionDollarHomepage.com was a website founded by the British student Alex Tew featuring a 1000 by 1000 blank pixel canvas on which companies and individuals could claim space at the cost of 1 dollar per pixel (Bowers, 2017). The page, which marketed itself as a soon-to-be iconic artefact of internet culture, became a self-fulfilling prophecy when it started to gain traction.
The page’s popularity intrigued and attracted a large audience, which tempted companies to buy up advertisement space on the website. Active viewers could hover over the pixel images submitted by collaborators to reveal links or hidden messages, which provided them with a direct connection to the products offered by collaborating companies. Purchasing a block of pixels on the website also granted a certain level of prestige. “To buy a block of pixels was, in theory, to leave one’s mark on a collective accomplishment reflective of the internet’s enormous power to connect people and generate value” (Bowers, 2017).
Like r/place, ‘The Million Dollar Homepage’ was initiated by an individual, but was realised by many collaborators who motivated the public to contribute as well. This arguably made it participatory. Without the audience or collaborators, there would not have been an artwork. Despite the similarities in their chosen medium and their reliance on collaborators, there are crucial differences between the two online pixel board projects that make r/place more democratic than ‘The Million Dollar Homepage'.
For starters, on ‘The Million Dollar Homepage’ there is a clearer separation between the artist(s) and the audience. It was ultimately Alex Tew, the initiator of the project, who reserved the right to place the pixel images submitted by his collaborators. This, in theory, put him in a greater position of power than his collaborators. This is very different from r/place, where the moderator team had given away all control over the placement of pixels to the userbase. (This excludes the power to determine the start and end of the project, as well as the power to provide additional canvas space and pixel colours.)
There was also a separation between collaborators and the audience on ‘The Million Dollar Homepage’. Many ordinary visitors could not afford to buy space on the website which created an implicit bar of entry. Participation was further limited by its spatio-temporal aspects; pixels could not be replaced and the canvas would not be expanded, which meant that the number of actors who would be able to participate was limited to those that fit onto the board. R/place, meanwhile, was freely accessible to all with a registered Reddit account and because of the possibility to replace pixels, participation was not limited.
Theoretically, the fact that the rules of r/place apply to everyone and that the service is free to use, means that all users on r/place should hold the same power regardless of their financial status. When compared to previous experiments like ‘The Million Dollar Homepage’, r/place severely decommodifies and re-democratizes the collaborative, online pixel board artform. But, in its reflection of the social dynamics found online, it also unwittingly mirrored the power relations between communities and individuals. For example, Twitch streamers held more power in r/place than other individuals through their reach as online personalities, which enabled them to rally their audience to create a pixel image determined by them (Lorenz, 2022; Young, 2022).
A Reflection of Online Sociality
Bourriaud was well-aware of the oncoming wave of art echoing the networked, do-it-yourself relations of the internet age. To him, “the network captured both how people operate within social systems and the open-ended circulation and mutation of objects, images and ideas in the information era” (Dimitrakaki, 2013).
R/place perfectly encapsulates this idea with its accurate reflection, as well as its generation, of the social dynamics and interactions that can be found online and offline. Furthermore, by providing every Reddit user an equal chance to participate in the experiment, it re-democratized and decommodified the online art form of the collaborative, pixel artboard, making it more accessible to all. In the end, r/place may not have fully become a micro-utopia because of its replication of unequal power relations and antagonistic interactions, but it did bring communities closer together.
Bourriaud, N. (1998). Relational Aesthetics. In C. Bishop (ed.), Participation (pp. 160-171). Whitechapel.
Bowers, J. (2017, July 21). A Million Squandered: The “Million Dollar Homepage” as a Decaying Digital Artifact. Library Innovation Lab.
Dimitrakaki, A., Perry, L., & Reckitt, H. (2013). Forgotten relations: feminist artists and relational aesthetics. Liverpool University Press.
Finkelpearl, T. (2014). Participatory Art. In M. Kelly (ed.), Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Oxford University Press
Lorenz, T. (2022, April 4). Internet communities are battling over pixels. The Washington Post.
Rauwerda, A. (2022, April 2). Reddit’s r/Place art experiment has already devolved into beautiful chaos. Input.
Young, R. (2022, April 3). Twitch Streamers Are Battling for Their Piece of r/place Subreddit. GameRant.