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Review of Twitter Picture: Johanna Basford's illustration project

Earlier this year Johanna Basford started a brave illustration challenge to create a collaborative piece of handmade art digitally. Inky sketch by sketch, the work grew accumulatively as the good folk of Twitter posted requests. Basford filmed the process, transmitting construction lines, rubbings out and all. After 24 hours of drawing it looked like this:

I watched Basford draw for a good few hours. But I must admit, I was looking at more than just the work that was being produced. What interested me about this project was the practice of creating art live and what aspects of the process the online community - being whoever had access to the internet and tuned in at the right time - responded to.

Being accessible as a short term project, broadcast live and available as a one time only 'experience' were all winning factors. The main hook was audience participation. Ideas were sent from around the globe and drawings appeared. Of course, I couldn't resist making a request: your favourite word spelt out in Scrabble letters. Here it is close up, beside a robotic Elvis, a Cornish pasty and Nessy. I'm quite fond the last two, spookily enough.

Apart from enjoying what has turned out to be a profitable project for Basford - who sells limited edition screen prints and illustrates the latest Edinburgh Fringe guide - what can other artists and poets, like myself, learn from this? 

Well let’s think about how the project could have worked differently. Retain the concept but switch off the webcam and extend the timescale and perhaps I wouldn’t be writing about it now. This largely points to the importance of innovation, timeliness and interactivity. To put audiences in the driving seat not only widens that audience, it diplomatically passes the baton for them to become the 'creators'. 

The internet is also an accessible archive of at this moment in time, mostly static information, so the popularity of such 'moments' of creation in real time speaks to a need for more engaging, personable and personalised experiences. Streaming online poetry would certainly make it more inclusive and accessible to those who perhaps cannot travel to certain venues, or where building access does not support their needs. 

The popularity of the Twitter Picture project highlights that the temporary and one-off sells better than the permanent and sustained. Capitalism places more value on the speed of production over the quality of product. Perhaps this is why rather than watching an oil painting gradually develop over four months, audiences responded to these 24 hours of illustration, which could be easily consumed. Dipped in and out of, clicking in and out until we move onto the next project.

As someone who likes to create, I should point at the success of Basford's idea with caution and celebration. Would I be write a poem in 24 hours and stream the process? Who would want to watch these scribbled attempts and lengthy pauses, flicking through the rhyming dictionary out of shot? Perhaps not. 

Such a task would test both my abilities and personal boundaries as a writer to produce consumable, online drafts. The thought of there being a large audience engaged and eager to participate in the making of a poem is an edifying thought. But the thought of one reader and a honed, considered poem that took months perhaps years to find its final form? There's the big picture.



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