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User-Generated Curation: the Pittsburgh Edition

The NYTimes offers this excellent account of an exhibit that opened recently at a gallery at Carnegie Mellon University:  “Whatever It Takes: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions.”

It’s an assembly of unlicensed black-and-gold artifacts that express and embody the passionate relationship between Pittsburghers worldwide and the Steelers’ NFL franchise. The curator of the exhibit noted that only fan-generated works qualified for display.  As a current resident of the Steel City, I could not imagine a better illustration of the complex relationships among trademark law (the source of the “unlicensed” reference), the meaning of commercial and nonc0mmercial symbols (“black and gold” is not only the color scheme of the Steelers — and the NHL Penguins — and the MLB Pirates; black and gold are the official colors of the City of Pittsburgh) and individual, collective, and communal expression.

From the exhibit’s website:

Steelers culture is Pittsburgh’s popular culture, and the fans are its primary producers. Often overlooked in discussions of pop culture, much less “high” culture, sports fans are portrayed as immature, uncritical, and passive consumers blindly following a branded product. Whatever It Takes: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions looks at the particular and ingenious methods Steelers fans use to construct their own personal and social identities in relation to the team, and in the process, create an active community of cultural producers. Through countless fan sites, gameday rituals, costumes, tattoos, videos, unlicensed merchandise, and more, Steelers fans brilliantly remix and meld the team’s identity with their own.

The exhibit makes a second point, too, one that is often overlooked in user- and fan- generated “content” enthusiasm:  As important as it is to recognize the interests of users and fans and technologies of access and control that enable or disable process of content creation, it is equally important to recognize what are increasingly — but usually metaphorically — referred to as “curatorial” practices:  preserving and stewarding that content and studying the relationships between that content and the practices and communities that produce it.  Whatever It Takes makes the curatorial role literal.