Art and the Algorithm
Patterns of association based by content, that feverish mechanism of the algorithm embedded within all online social platforms and products today, has for centuries been grappled with by art and art exhibitions. Curation is a code, and schools of discourse have surfaced and fought textual wars for the consciousness of art particularly during the last century. The possibility of the avant-garde in art has always been proposed by the curatorial association of works, necessitating an institution with which to house or speak of artworks and contain and promote their arguments. This has been done by curators in the field of art as well as by artists themselves, down to the point where a critique of curation itself became a model of production for certain artists. Even institutional critique, a discourse of art that ostensibly strengthened the power of the institution by highlighting its paternal talons, relies on associative, serial works to distinguish a legibility of a whole body. From Benjamin’s Arcades Project to Bataille’s Documents to Dan Graham’s Homes for America to more recent resurgences of associative linguists like Matthew Brannon’s practice, the exploration of inter-relational associations, constellations of ideas and the deferral of meaning into the mix of serialized production is a well traveled terrain in the history of art and the history of curation.
The sway of the world, its post-Fordist marketplace, and our new online behemoth of connectivity now provide a recontextualization of the consciousness of art. A well-funded stab (which includes Peter Thiel of Facebook and Russian oil-magnate daughter cum art-magnate Dasha Zhukova) to correlate what happens with new smart algorithms and the ease of surfacing content particular to your desire has appeared in art.sy, a general database and commercial venue for art. Here, you can purchase art, follow artists, and generally browse within what art.sy calls the “Art Genome Project: an ongoing effort to map the characteristics that connect the world’s artists and artworks.” It works like this:
A team of art historians and art professionals evaluates each artist and artwork on Art.sy and assigns them between 30 and 40 genes on average. Gene values range from 0-100, and capture how strongly a gene applies to a specific artist or artwork. These exact numbers (meaningless in themselves) allow us to make nuanced connections between works of art that are not possible with a simple tagging mechanism.
We enter once more into the realm of algorithmically produced experiences, and this time the objects are correlated by an undisclosed database of bio-metaphoric “genes.” The extent that this homogenizes the trenchant associative capacity of a specialist or a even a fan is sacrificed to provide the base sum best guess. And where clearly this mode of search and employ—those algorithmic animals we’ve enchanted to entice our new world—provides a pleasurable and very successful commercial experience, what equally becomes rearticulated is the argument, experience, and education of art. It goes without saying that qualitative diagnoses and explorations of any content type are continually becoming marginalized at the stake of “getting it in front of you” or to create a culture of discussion around a specific piece of content: the viral climate of prosumers, wielding a continual blast of fodder to decrease bounce rates and increase time on sites and impression rates. It is a hectic haze.
Whether this form of culture-building based on algorithms is a necessary baby step on the future horizon remains to be determined. These implied meritocracies are working, but the tools to distinguish how much we are in fact creating the need as opposed to fulfilling a need aren’t available just yet. The idea of a value proposition still remains lodged in the eternal battle with what in fact a proposed, consumed value mediates for a consumer.
Art.sy by nature is forced to categorize, term, and tag artworks and art movements. There is no unfulfilled project of modernity a’la Habermas to contend with, but rather a very easy list tailored to help navigate your buying experience, to help balance your aesthetic portfolio, lest you buy too much Otto Muehl. As a database, it’s a remarkable source, porting in museum and gallery works around the world, especially for very recent contemporary art. This will be a normative index for many lecturing professors in art to come.
As an interface, the private beta of art.sy has been designed extremely well by IDEO veteran Robert Lenne and is intuitive and adaptive. Bold strokes are accented by the use of Avant Garde Bold, the interaction is ridiculously smooth and the experience overall is smart. As perplexing as it is to “follow” artists, especially dead ones, art.sy helps easily dispel buyers from misbelieving that artists are not franchises in themselves, that indeed they are buying beyond a single person—that an artist is mediated by a number of sources, from galleries to museums, and that in fact your purchase does not necessarily touch the artist who created the work. The old, steadily bureaucratic model that establishes provenance and the positioning of art into smart collections and museums is transformed by art.sy—it adapts the Etsy model with Svpply’s ease of use while extinguishing “just anyone” from its network of content providers. I can add any art.sy artwork to my virtual collection, which in turn helps art.sy push through its genome what I may want to see. I can inquire with a specialist to purchase art, which immediately personalizes and perhaps buffers with qualifications the buying experience. I have yet to purchase anything through art.sy, but this no doubt is a resounding reformation of the commerce of art and probably even more so for the practice of consultants, if they will be needed much longer.