An Algorithmic Future: Can Computers Curate?

by Will Brand on September 9, 2011 · 20 comments Opinion

Duncan Alexander, "Brion Gysin Internet Circulation Project", 2010, animated GIFs on HTML page

A few weeks ago, an AFC reader commented on the potential of Art.sy, the still-theoretical “Pandora for art”. They were, it seems, underwhelmed:

Anyone who’s seriously suggesting that software algorithms can replace humans in their interactions with art has overstayed their 15 minutes of fame and should be treated as such. Enough said.

AFC staff were quick to point out that Art.sy's probably not going to put anybody out of work, but then I got to thinking: why not? Art.sy's suggestion engine model is easy enough to swallow, but Google's new Search by Image feature imagines something more revolutionary: computer-assisted curation.
Now, we're not there yet. The images accompanying this post are the ten images Google Image Search found to be “most relevant” [for me] to Duncan Alexander's Brion Gysin Internet Circulation Project, and it's apparent that visual similarities are still far more heavily weighted than semantic information.  The results are even delivered under the heading of [merely] “Visually similar images”, even though visual similarity is only a small part of the algorithm: search with a black-and-white line drawing of a goat, for instance, and you'll get lots of black-and-white line drawings, but only of domesticated animals.

So what, exactly, would be necessary to turn this indexing and organizing into curation? Well, what exactly is curation? If we strip out the myriad social and administrative tasks of the real-life curator – the connections, the negotiations, the shipping and hanging and lighting and writing – we can arrive at a pretty simple job description: good curation is the discovery and display of unexpected or heretofore unknown patterns and flows in visual culture. So why can't a computer do that?

The principal requirement of curation is a knowledge of human associations, both visual and cultural, and it seems inevitable that computers will soon understand those associations as well as we do. Each time we search, create, or organize online, we go some way towards ensuring this: the algorithm is always listening. Through our actions and choices, we're continually adding to the body of information available concerning the patterns of human visual culture. Today, simply including an image on AFC creates a network of connections and datapoints recording the possible presence of subjects known to be common to the site: contemporary art, for instance, or GIFs, or even “hipster pussy” (which, incidentally, is a significant traffic driver). Once formed, those connections can be systematically tested for their strength by returning these images as search results, and tracking the responses of users; soon, information emerges about which images humans judge to make sense together. As our actions produce the raw material of machine curation, our presence online funds its production. Even as we produce data, we financially reward the class of information-sellers and ad-placers who have no more pressing or profitable aim than the successful modeling of human culture. There are simply too many interested players: human domination over visual and cultural pattern recognition has an expiration date, and this very post is drawing it nearer.

So what would computer curation look like? In the short term, probably very boring. After all, search algorithms start from calculations of a mean human, and the mean human wouldn't make a very interesting curator. In the long term, though, that problem will be overcome: differentiation is a known goal that Google, among others, is working hard at, because well-targeted ads can pull in much greater profits than mass broadcasts. The same algorithm that ensures my searches give me results tailored to a 20-something male in Brooklyn can, by definition, approximate the choices that would be made by that 20-something male in Brooklyn: the very images accompanying this essay, though taken without omission or alteration from Search by Image's results, reflect Google's (probably very thorough) understanding of who I am, what I do, and what images I might have chosen without the algorithm's help; when I search in a browser without my identifying cookies – the bits of code that identify me as a particular Google user, with known interests and habits – I find a different set of images, and a distinct curator at work. Increasingly, algorithms can be prodded to produce convincingly eclectic “personalities”, whose viewpoints and decisions would be interesting to a public.

That said, perhaps the construction of a convincingly unique curatorial voice is counterproductive. There's a certain tyranny to the curator's role, a certain privileging of one individual's taste, that runs counter to the potential of the medium. Curation's value as an expressive medium, the part of its potential that cannot be replaced by, say, art historical writing, is its Socratic nature – the manner in which an answer is prompted but not completely given. Juxtaposition can imply but not state, so in every exhibition the viewer's participation is in some way essential to completing meaning. There is consciously participative curation – I'm thinking here of Mark Wallinger's “The Russian Linesman”, which toured Britain in 2009 and was set up more as a game of connections than an authoritative statement – but this is equally true of ostensibly objective historical projects. There's always some work left to the viewer.

This sense remains present when the curator – the plotter of points to be connected by the viewer – is an algorithm. The Google-curated images throughout this essay have this power: the lampooned politician’s weary steed on a cover of Puck echoes in a Dutch drawing of a man riding an elephant, while the latter’s digital watermark of “authentichistory.com” snaps us back to a recognition of our digital gaze as quickly as the flashing rainbow in Duncan Alexander's Brion Gysin piece. All of this is unstated, but available to the viewer; the connections we draw as spectators complete an understanding curation alone can only approach.

The scale and effect of that completion, though, depends on how well we understand the curator: we're more likely to “get” the curation of an organizer with a broadly similar worldview to our own, as we attempt to repeat the logic that generated this series of images. Here, the algorithm lies entirely opposite to the human curator: while a human can always prompt empathy, the complexity of Google's algorithms approaches incomprehensibility. While we can grasp the essential ingredients – keywords, image size, color sets, shapes and color distribution, network proximity – it's clear that the actual reasoning is beyond our grasp. I can determine a similarity in color between two images, or a similarity in content between two more, but I cannot possibly weigh the two relations in the proper proportion. Further, the data these algorithms rely on is generally unavailable to the public, since it constitutes Google's main product.

In this situation, we are faced with the challenge of Surrealist curating: there is a set of rules governing what is collected and displayed, but it lies beyond our understanding, like the laws in a dream-world; it is unknown and unknowable to our daily, waking logic. This is crucial: where a human curator's expressive attempts can be got or missed, i.e. can be understood with various levels of success, we can admit from the outset that all reactions to a machine curator are equal. Further, these reactions are in no way discouraged; we can continue to form our own connections in a machine-generated exhibition just as the religious can establish and enforce worldly laws: the knowledge of an unknowable governing force needs not diminish what it governs.

Indeed, algorithmic curation may well be the most democratic method of curating possible. Internet culture, as cemented in communities like tumblr, invites anyone to curate, but it does nothing to address the top-down nature of curating itself: the best tumblrs, like the best art curators, are known for a taste and judgment which is in some way distinctively superhuman, and itself a subject of spectatorship for the less fortunate (or less dedicated) masses. Democracy is perhaps not always a virtue, but so long as we live within it it must be confronted: is it what we want in our image juxtapositions? Is the viewer-produced meaning in anonymously-curated images less convincing, less moving, or less real than the singular, curator-produced meaning of human-generated exhibitions? Can we yet believe in the meaning we ourselves produce? Can we, should we, must we change that? The technology will be there; the real issue is whether we can accept the radical shift it makes possible.
  • Barbara Ann Levy

    Brilliant!

  • http://www.digitalmediatree.com/sallymckay/ sally

    Nicely worked out thought experiment, Will. But, I gotta quibble.

    “If we strip out the myriad social and administrative tasks of the real-life curator – the connections {{between the curator and the artists, between the curator and the institution, between the curator and the audience}} the negotiations {{as above}}, the shipping {{raising money}} and hanging {{working out pacing and temporal navigation of the space}} and lighting {{mood & atmosphere}} and writing {{activating, articulating and making transparent the connections listed above to facilitate audience access to connections with artworks, artists and institutions}} – we can arrive at a pretty simple job description: good curation is the discovery and display of unexpected or heretofore unknown patterns and flows in visual culture.”

    If you *don’t* strip out those social and administrative tasks, then the role of the curator can’t be reduced to some kind of oracle with their finger on the pulse of visual culture. The social dynamic that the curator provides is partly about weilding power and imposing personality, but it’s also about being a flawed and implicated participant in the facilitation of aesthetic interactions between specific human animals and the specific, historically situated artworks they create. That’s content that can, when it’s working well, help give depth to an exhibition and make it interesting.

    If all we want out of curation is new and unusual sets of images to look at, then sure, let the machines do the job. I feel like I already have plenty of access to trends, memes and weird juxtapositions of images, but what the heck, the more the merrier.
     

    • Will Brand

      Hi Sally!

      You’re absolutely right that that’s the core assumption I make – and one I readily admit is tenuous. History, research, and writing are crucial to any curatorial practice, and they can achieve complexities of meaning that juxtapositions alone cannot. You’re also right that the curator’s personality and identity – which I think I call tyrannous somewhere up there – can produce some really excellent shows: Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, for instance, is a whole lot more forceful (and I understand this might be problematic) when he’s black. 

      Maybe we’re looking at two situations: one in which juxtapositions are handed over to the image-consumer for filling with meaning, and another in which individuals proclaim their individuality and are rewarded for how well that identity fits with the show. The latter sounds a lot like the sort of post-medium critique we’re used to anyway – “well, yeah, it’s a painting, but why should it be a painting? Does that fit?” I can imagine asking the same questions about curation: “Sure, this is a nice set of objects, but what does this curator add to this juxtaposition that another curator would not?”

      • http://www.digitalmediatree.com/sallymckay/ sally

        Hey Will!

        I think you are stilling selling the human-curated exhibition short. A good curator (in my opinon) erases themselves from the equation as much as possible and hands the job of meaning-making, or aesthetic engagment is maybe a better phrase, over to the audience. Mining the Museum is a good example because it was decidedly not about Fred Wilson, but about the experience that visitors brought with them, and had opened up for them, in their encounters with the art.

        That show was about identity to the extent that it was about reconfiguring artifacts in order to create agency for black audiences in owning the history that brought those artifacts into the collection. But that owning does not necessarily translate into a pedantic, informational if-this-then-that kind of reading. It also makes a space for people to open themselves up to aesthetic experience.

        It’s not easy to engage art audiences. Depth of aesthetic experience is rare because people come to art loaded with defenses. Those who
        feel disenfranchised from the art world are suspicious and nervous,
        those who feel empowered about art want to peg it down and slot it into preconceived categories. Aesthetic experience can be destabilizing, it can make you question your perceptions, and confront you with paradox that just will not resolve. If you want people to go into that kind of depth of engagement, you often have to seduce them a little, convince them to suspend their desire for understanding and really feel their way into their own dynamic relations to the art.

        I get why you are pushing for this computer generated curation because it seems that what curators do is provide legibility that forecloses on aesthetics (contextual texts, etc.). I think your sets of images might work aesthetically for some audiences, but I think for many (most?) they will either be noise or data. As an audience for artworks, that moment of choosing whether or not I am going to open myself up to the art is a necessary part of the process. What’s my motivation? I agree with what Johshua Johnson says about the potential for curation in the hands of machines to construe the exhibition as information.

        • Will Brand

          That’s a really beautiful comment.

          You’re right that telling people to just BYOAbilityToMakeAestheticAndHistoricalConnections isn’t going to get anything done; people will feel, as you say, feel intimidated. I wonder, though, whether there’s some way to fix that attitude.This is all reminding me a lot of Anthony Huberman’s “I (not love) Information)”. IIRC, his starting position was the idea that some information (here in the form of visible curation) is necessary to pique curiosity, but too much discourages it or simply makes it unnecessary: after all, if you already know all about something, there’s no need to do any more investigating. Anyway, on the idea of providing the audience with no information at all, which I suppose I’m advocating, Huberman says: 

          “One provides ‘no information’ either through secrecy or through refusal. For an artwork, secrecy will solicit no curiosity since viewers need to know it exists in order to care about it. Refusal is the punk strategy: fuck you, I owe you nothing, I make my own rules, leave me alone, I’ll do my own thing. It is also the Situationist strategy: to avoid definition, to strategically withdraw, to ‘never work’. As with most subversive acts, this approach of non-participation, refusal and overt opposition has been co-opted by the capitalist machine and is now a fashionable, marketable and historical style. In effect, no-information is its own kind of information, and a highly commodified one at that. After all, Hollywood loves the Sex Pistols.”

          …which is super interesting right now, because something marketable is something feasible without needing a sea change (though I do hate it when people call “CO-OPTED BY THE CAPITALIST MACHINE” on my shit). So I guess my question is, can we not make people approach aesthetics the same way punks approached music? Even if punk has been significantly watered down, the DIY-ness it preaches has clearly resonated, and it’s erased a lot of the intimidation of forming a band where nobody knows how to play an instrument. Why can’t we make that happen? How do we make this cool? 

          Moreover, does DIY-ness work without the ability to show off? How many punk bands only play for themselves? Is getting to the same status as punks only slightly enlarging the curatorial field, rather than making it universal?

          —-
          As an aside, I was thinking about the fact that, as you say, “those who feel empowered about art want to peg it down and slot it into preconceived categories”. That always gets such a bad rap – organizing is thought of as this cold, methodical activity, crippling artworks so that a privileged few, normally art critics, can be “over it”. I mean, it is, but I don’t think anybody’s really in the criticism business for the sake of the dead product – rather, it’s the richness, curiosity, and discovery of the process that makes it enjoyable, and I say that as somebody who really, really hates all this “living in the moment” shit. I guess my point is, every now and then something reminds me that I’m not producing categorization and fact so much as “self-education in public” (to take a phrase from Sven Lütticken). And that’s nice. Not quibbling, just thinking.

          • http://www.digitalmediatree.com/sallymckay/ sally

            This is a good thread, Will. As I said earlier – nice thought experiment! Some of the questions go to the heart of aesthetic inquiry. Huberman references Rancière’s Emancipated Spectator and that makes a lot of sense to me.  Rancière hates that “co-opted by the capitalist system” shit too. It’s not just commodification that makes punk widely acceptable today, is history. People didn’t come to it in masses at the beginning. It was a clique, and personality driven too. Nowadays its not transgressive because its not insidery anymore. All I mean, I guess, is that you can’t really make people have the kind of aesthetic experience you want them to have. Some will engage, some won’t, but even the ones who do engage may not engage the way you want them too, and in any case you (as an artist or a curator or a critic) will most likely never hear from them at all. That’s if you are doing something DIY where the audience is empowered and takes the experience off into their own life to do what they will with it. Thing is…this happens all the time. It’s not universal, but it happens.

            “…can we not make people approach aesthetics the same way punks approached music?”

            Interesting question. If I was going to turn it into a curatorial project I’d rephrase it. “Who and where are the people who approach aesthetics the same way punks approached music, and how can we get them to the art? Who are the artists who approach aesthetics the same way the punks approached music, and how can we get their art to audiences?”

            note: I think “self-education in public” is a really nice way to characterise good art criticism.

  • http://twitter.com/joshuajnet Joshua Johnson

    I have to agree with Sally’s statement above, that stripping out those conditions impoverishes the role of the curator, but it also vastly underestimates, and/or assumes that there are no biases or “social” connections to the machine. As we know from Google, the magic secret algorithm is still programmed by

  • Amos

    Great thoughts, both in the article and Sally’s response. Two additional questions of intent: is it Google’s intent to “curate” or provide similar search results; and where does the intent of the artist/image maker fit in the algorithm or curation process?

  • José Raposo

    You mean, can computers curate outside the conceptual art wall? ;)

  • Paul Slocum

    In the database systems you talk about here, the algorithms rely heavily on user interaction data, so how is the algorithm itself the doer of the curating more than the users providing that data or the people building the algorithm?  It seems that even once you reduce the curator’s job only to selection of images, the algorithm curator is still sharing a lot of that job with humans.

    from the essay:
    “The principal requirement of curation is a knowledge of human associations, both visual and cultural, and it seems inevitable that computers will soon understand those associations as well as we do.”
    I agree with this somewhat controversial statement, but an algorithm that “understands” is a gigantic leap from, and arguably unrelated to the database systems that you talk about in the rest of the essay.  Once we have a computer that thinks and “understands…as well as we do”, then the implications of that on curators is the least of my concerns.

    • http://www.digitalmediatree.com/sallymckay/ sally

      I will not curate any more boring art. *bleep* I will not curate any more more boring art. *bleep* exterminate. exterminate!  

    • Will Brand

      We can’t ask a computer to come up with human culture from scratch any more than we can ask it what’s in the box in my closet, certainly. Maybe collecting the thoughts of billions of users is “cheating”, in a sense, but it’s a cheat that’s entirely necessary, and I think the compilation and calculation involved gives a mechanical mask to our own ideas that prevents recognition. I guess the curator wouldn’t be replaced by machines so much as it would be replaced by a little bit of everybody; there also used to be a class of ice-cutters and ice-shippers, but now we all make ice in our freezers.

  • http://twitter.com/jenninat0r Jennifer Chan

    I’m sure the last three things I said were already addressed in the x number of comments above… one of the guys who was programming for art.sy startup came to give an artist talk at my university last school year as he was alumni. He mentioned they were actually looking for an intern to do art historical research for them and add to their collection, so there’s still a human component required to organize/author/curate the system that curates.Seems like the computer-curator needs a curator (programmer), and meta-curator happens to be the algorithm… it’s sounds very categorical though. In terms of taste-making I wonder how neutral or “contemporary” the computer’s filtering capabilities might be… I also wonder what critieria they are analyzing/evaluating/classifying work on…

  • http://twitter.com/jenninat0r Jennifer Chan

    But to answer the question, yes computers can (curate). It might be more random than democratic… results more quantitative than qualitative…

    I use my twitter for research and link-aggregating, and decided I would try the http://awd.site.nfoservers.com/replicants/ b0t that an artist made as a project to mimic your twitter/facebook posts and also do your social networking for you by chatting to your top followers. So I had that b0t on my twitter for about 2 weeks. It was picking the worst things tagged with “internet” and “art” and it flirted with random followers. A lot of spam accounts started following me too. Wasn’t very becoming but my klout went up +3…

  • http://matthew-williamson.com Matthew

    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/curation

    I want a computer to HEAL me!

  • Christopher Reiger

    A fascinating conversation.  Thanks, Will, for getting it started.

    Joshua, I think that, while “computer networks can only work with the connections that they have available,” the available connections are always multiplying.  This isn’t dissimilar from our species’ attempts to contend with (and categorize) the explosion of information of the past few centuries (and especially the last 100 years).  Human curation is also limited by what the individual curator has or has not been exposed to…and by the reverse (i.e., an overload of information that might prevent the curator from formulating a compelling curatorial argument/thesis).

    That said, I think your point about the risk of “overproduction” is right on.  Perhaps that leaves space, though, for human-computer collaboration?  The algorithm’s start the job and the curator wrests meaning from the selection, in a fashion similar to Will’s approach in the post.  Could be fun; Will seemed to enjoy it!

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