Working with the Turks, again

I can’t stop myself from working with the Mechanical Turk workforce. As a digital media artist with a participatory, collaborative trajectory, the Turkers—as they call themselves, are reliable and willing collaborators in the form of an online “crowd.” Perhaps wisdom is to be had. I consider my Amazon payments to be the price of “art supplies,” in the same way a painter has to buy brushes and paints…And as far as the Turkers are concerned, I think that much of the work they do on the site basically constitutes a digital sweatshop. The laborers are far underpaid and work in conditions that go undocumented. No one keeps track of the time they spend working or if computing-related health hazards occur as a result of their work on Mturk. So I hope that my projects, which mostly get them off of the screen and encourage some kind of in-body experience, are worth their time and the payment.

So I was trying to think of a way to work with the Turkers again in 2015, seen as how it is not an Olympic year (for those years I host the Mechanical Olympics and the Turkers perform athletic, sometimes silly, Olympic-style events). I had a bit of an “aha” moment one night this January, as I was reviewing events of the week with the Turkers tucked away somewhere in the back of my mind. During that week I had an incredibly fruitful meditation session. I can’t say that I meditate regularly. I try to do it everyday but it often doesn’t happen. However, there was this one day, one time, that I felt truly rested when I came out of the meditation. I thought: Wow, that’s what this is all about. I felt my body gain something tangible from just resting for several minutes. As I revisited that experience I had the simultaneous thought: That’s it! The Turkers should rest! So…off I went to my requester account to pay the Turker workforce for doing: Absolutely nothing. Please, let me pay you to do nothing. Let me pay you to rest and experience what it is like to just sit for a few minutes with nothing to do but be.

In the instructions, I asked the Turkers to set a timer and rest for 1 to 5 minutes. Then I collected their thoughts. I encouraged them to write 10-100 words about their experience. Here are a few thoughts from the Turkers on being paid to rest or just on resting, in general:

  • I rested for 3 minutes. To be honest, it wasn’t as restful as I would have liked, since I have a horrible stomach ache, and I don’t want to be working right now, so I spent the time wondering how to avoid these situations in the future.
  • Well, my rest consisted of sitting here and fidgeting. I have a hard time just sitting still with my eyes closed. Also my cat started using my leg as a scratching post and my fiance asked me why I was sitting there with my eyes closed and if I was all right. It wasn’t too terrible though. It was nice to not do any hits for a minute (well 4 minutes) Thank you.
  • My rest was a much needed break from all of the stress I am under right now, so thank you! I closed my eyes in bed and the few minutes that went by passed so slowly. It really was great!
  • I went and relaxed on the sofa in my office for three minutes. It was nice to take a break from staring at the computer screen, though I wish had it been a bit longer. It was a short, but enjoyable break that I appreciated.
  • i laid on the couch with my cat for two minutes. then thought i’d fall asleep and forget to submit this. now, i’m going to go take a nap since i was so comfortable there.

Vote! The Mechanical Olympics Start Today

Videos made by the general public are competing against those made by Mechanical Turk workers at You can vote on the blog or log into your YouTube account and press the Like button to vote for your favorite videos on the 2012 Mechanical Olympics playlist.

Let the games begin!

New Media Festival Los Angeles @ LACDA

This Monday from 4-5pm stop by the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art to create your own Mechanical Olympics video. I’ll be there with a camera (probably just a flip or my iPhone camera, as it is a low-fi project) and some goofy props. All you have to do is show the camera your best Olympic-style performance. You can swim, play baseball, tennis, soccer, hockey, or make up a new sport. Anything goes.

For the duration of the exhibit I have put together a “best of” video reel featuring highlights from past Mechanical Olympics. It’s hard to believe this project has lasted as long as it has, but it’s fun to review some of the creative videos made for the 2008 and 2010 Games.


New Media Festival Los Angeles @ LACDA
102 W. Fifth Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Workshop: 4-5pm on Monday, 7/9/12
Opening: 6-10pm on Thursday 7/12/12

Mechanical Olympics 2012

Mechanical Olympics website screenshot

The Mechanical Olympics will take place this summer during the Olympic Games from July 27 to August 12. This year the video competition is open to anyone, just use the simple submission form. The contest is free and there will be prizes for the most liked videos on YouTube. There will also be a virtual competition between the general public and videos made by Mechanical Turk workers.

Mechanical Games 2012

The Mechanical Games (2012 Edition) finalé took place in MediaCity, UK at the Looping the Loop celebration at the Quays. Voting concluded on May 18th and the winners were announced to start the London 2012 Games creative cultural festivities in the Great Britain Northwest on Saturday, May 19th. I was certain the big hula hoop was going to be a distraction for our awards ceremony, but hula participants were kind enough to walk over to our area in support of the Mechanical Games. Some of the participant actors were kind enough to carry out the awards ceremony. The video of their performance follows.

Mechanical Games review on Neural

Chiara Ciociola wrote a nice review of the Mechanical Games for Neural today. I especially like this idea, “Choosing the Mechanical Turk service (also featured Burrough’s previous work “Mechanical Olympics”) is not new in net art. But here its mechanisms are not exaggerated to emphasize the rotten side, as in Sheep Market by Aaron Koblin. The use of such tools as the Mechanical Turk platform and viral video (this one already a standard in the internet marketing business) here is an ironic trick. The goal is to restore a spontaneous production network, as a strong place for virgin ‘immaterial labor’, able to sublimate the frozen and heavy capitalist logic.” Cheers, Chiara.

Mechanical Games Awards Ceremony

The Mechanical Games ended with an Olympic-meets-the-Oscars style awards ceremony in Manchester, England, at Cornerhouse last Sunday. Here are some of my favorite photos from the event. Super huge thank you to Debbie Chan for organizing so many project details. The event was a success, and meeting the participants was even more fun and gratifying than I expected it to be.

Gearing up for the Mechanical Games

Mechanical Games Poster

Voting begins next month at the Mechanical Games website. Part of the Abandon Normal Devices (AND) Festival, this version of the Games is produced by myself with a lot of help from Cornerhouse. New to the Games: a real, live award ceremony, to take place on October 3rd from noon – 2 at Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK. Even if you can’t make it to the awards ceremony, you can vote on the gold medalists from September 1 – 30th.