Humanity’s Largest Art Project

Which art project have we spent the largest amount of cumulative time on? The one thing we can look at or experience and think: “wow, nothing else has taken as much effort as this to make me feel this way”.

Let’s define “art project” broadly as anything that is designed to make people feel rather than do. Something that’s designed to entertain people and help them find meaning rather than achieve anything tangible and directly useful. (It may do both, but we’ll consider it as art if it was primarily driven by the feeling side – more on this later).

Let’s take this medium by medium and try to get a (very) rough sense of scale (in person-years) of the most time consuming project of each medium. Then let’s wonder about how this might evolve in the coming decades, as the world’s creative output is increasingly getting channelled into online worlds.

Books

Tolkien spent 12-17 years writing Lord of The Rings (ending up with 9,250 pages of manuscripts) but it was a solo act. The largest collaborative books that fit our “art” definition is probably The Bible, which sources estimate 40 people wrote. Let’s assume they each spent 10 years writing, we’re at 400 person-years.

Theater

Credit: Matt Crockett

I didn’t think this would even be worth checking, but Les Misérables – the longest running theater show production in the world – has been running for 35 years in London, clocking in over 14,000 performances. To the extent that the production is evolving over time (and not just a repeat of something that has been written once), we could consider it an ongoing art project. Let’s assume that they have 150 people on staff at any one time (actors and broader crew) this gets us to 5,250 (and counting) person-years. (I really should go see that show, when we’re allowed.)

Movies

Credit: ITM

Apparently the biggest production size ever by number of people in the credits (not budget, which is often skewed by marketing and actor costs) is Iron Man 3. There are 3,310 crew members in the credits. Assuming they all worked throughout the whole 2 year production (which is probably a bit high, but it covers those who were working pre-production e.g writers) we get to around 6,620 person-years as a high-watermark for the movie medium.

Video Games

Credit: Rockstar Games

Red Dead Redemption 2 is likely most expensive video game made of all time. The game was in production for 7 years until release in late 2018, and is still being developed for the Red Dead Online mode which has been up for 2 years. There are 2,800 names in the credits. Let’s say the first 3 years were focused on writing and prototyping with a smaller group (say 300 people per year on average), then production started and there were 4 years with 1,500 people on it on average, and then back down to 100 for Red Dead Online over the last 2 years. This gets us to 7,100 person-years.

TV Shows

Credit: HBO

Game of Thrones was the most expensive TV show of all time to produce. 3,589 people were involved, and again, it’s very hard to tell who worked over which timeframe. Let’s assume all of them worked during the 8 years of filming – an exaggeration, but let’s say it offsets those who worked more than 8 years such as designers and writers. This gets us to 28,712 person-years.

Religious sanctuaries

Credits: Archeological Survey of India, Incredible India!

Churches, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques, shrines, temples, tombs (sorry if I missed out anyone) all fit my definition of art project above. And they seem to be our biggest category by far:

  • the Great Pyramid of Giza took 20 years and 10 to 20,000 workers
  • the Taj Mahal took 21 years and 20,000 workers
  • (St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow took 144 and 123 years to build respectively, but I can’t find how many people were involved)

Taking the Taj Mahal as our high-watermark, we get to 420,000 person-years to build it, and probably another few tens of thousand for ongoing maintenance.

Looking Forward

So, our religious sanctuary (the Taj) took about 15 times more effort as the next biggest category – a TV Show (Game of Thrones).

But what could this picture look like in a couple of decades?

It doesn’t seem to me that we’re likely to make religious sanctuaries that will surpass our current winners in terms of overall effort. The relative priority and funding for building these seems lower now than it was in the times of pharaohs, emperors, and empowered monarchs. More importantly, we’ve got centuries of engineering efficiency to reduce the human toil involved.

(This touches on an angle I didn’t explore. Each project stands on the shoulders of giants, namely the research, tools, practices, machines, which enabled them to build as they did. The cumulative effort for these foundations could also be counted. The effort to me of doing that threw me off.)

Similarly, movie and TV show production is becoming increasingly efficient. For example, productions no longer need to travel around the world to shoot: they can render any environment in realtime on LED sets.

The Mandalorian Set. Credit: Ars Technica

So it seems that medium that can clinch our coveted prize would be one in which there’s an increasing and unbounded number of contributors over time.

Online communities fit the bill – there’s no upper bound to how many people can contribute, and the incentives can be made to encourage voluntary contributions.

With our “art project” lens on, this might look like games evolved by user-generated content.

You could look at the persistent MMO Eve Online and argue that every hour played (on top of the hours to develop the game) has contributed to what you get now when you log in – the existing power structures, the space debris from past battles, etc.

Snapshot of the Eve universe. Credit: jeffy-g on Github

Another pointer in this direction is Roblox, on which more than 2 million people are currently developing games (and 150 million are playing every month). Roblox developers are making different games inside the Roblox “universe” rather than cohesive experience. But if you squint you could look at this Roblox universe as one art projects, which just happens to have lots of different experiences within it (but a shared avatar, design style, currency, etc).

Roblox Error Code 524: Unable to Join Games Hosted on VIP ...
 Credit: Roblox Corporation

Another pointer in this direction is Decentraland, a virtual world owned by its users. Rather than a company holding the data of what you might own in-game (say, Rockstar holding your Red Dead inventory), with Decentraland your properties are stored on a public blockchain. This is a snapshot from 2017 of land ownership in Genesis City:

Image for post
Credit: @carlfravel on Medium

Decentraland is very early in adoption but it has a longevity advantage built in. Because the ownership data is on a public blockchain, any number of implementations of the game can be built on top of the data, and if you don’t like one (or it stops being maintained) you can move to another one. So it’s conceivable that in 100 years the Decentraland blockchain is still active, and the experience you get logging in is the culmination of all the ecosystem’s efforts to keep it going over that time (scraping by as an art project defined above).

In any case, it will be interesting to keep an eye on the creativity and collaboration in cyberspace, and any new Pharaonic constructions in meatspace.

Thanks to Rebi Marocco and Hector Alexander for reading drafts of this.

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