The Sheep Market

Aaron Koblin

29 August 2007


In a deceptively simple way, Aaron Koblin’s website The Sheep Marketraises layers of questions about automated production, ‘collective’ intelligence, and the value of labour and artistic production.

In the 18th century, Wolfgang von Kempelen created a famous chess-playing automaton named Mechanical Turk, which toured Europe and was enormously successful at beating its human opponents

Rather than being an early and advanced example of artificial intelligence, however, the Turk was a first-class hoax: a chess player was hiding in a compartment of the automaton and controlling its operations.

On November 2, 2005, launched the Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) as part of its Amazon Web Services. As the originalMechanical Turk, MTurk essentially provides an ‘interface’ for using human intelligence to perform actions or solve problems that are not easily handled by a computer.

People requesting services through the MTurk application (Requesters) can pose Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs), which are then carried out by people who choose to complete them (Workers or Providers) for an amount of money determined by the Requester.

Aaron Koblin used’s MTurk service to request the execution of a simple task, “draw a sheep facing left,” for a payment of $ 0.02. The resulting 10.000 sheep drawings are exhibited at The Sheep Marketwebsite, collectively providing a rather humorous structural analysis of approaches to drawing a sheep. Visitors to the site can roll their mouse over the miniaturized drawings to enlarge them and ‘play back’ how a sheep was composed by the respective ‘worker.’

The drawings themselves, forming one layer of the project, are an interesting study of the aesthetic and creative approaches to portraying sheep, from the representational to the abstract. It is Koblin’s use of the MTurk application, however, that puts the work into the context of ‘creative labour’ and raises more serious questions about the value of artistic production. Artists creating works for the Internet often establish a framework to which people can make a contribution, thereby creating participatory projects that blur boundaries between ‘creator’ and ‘spectator.’

While this type of art raises questions about authorship, it is usually framed in a positive way, as an opening up of the work to participation and shared authorship. The Sheep Market deliberately makes no claims for participatory art: people are hired to perform a creative task for an extremely low wage and the artist, in one section of the website, provocatively sells blocks of sheep drawings for $20 as adhesive stamps with a certificate of authenticity. (Not surprisingly, the project generated a lot of online discussion.)

Exploitation of creative labour, albeit in a humorous way, is built into this system of participatory art making. In a confrontational way and without taking an easy position, Koblin highlights the ‘exchange values’ that are involved in cultural production and collective creation. The ‘herd of sheep’ itself has become a metaphor for a mindless mass following a guardian and seems a perfect image for this particular exploration. With irony and humour, The Sheep Market questions the commodification of networked ‘human intelligence’ and cultural production.

The Sheep Market