Curatorial A(i)gents

A metaLAB series of interactive projects exploring machine learning in, around, and about the Harvard Art Museums
Harvard Art Museums
Picture of Curatorial A(i)gents

Curatorial A(i)gents presents a series of machine-learning experiments with Harvard Art Museums’ collections and data developed by members and affiliates of metaLAB (at) Harvard. The program is scheduled to run March 1 through May 15 as part of an extended metaLAB residency in the Harvard Art Museums’ Lightbox Gallery.

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  • March 1–6: Kim Albrecht, Watching Machines Loving Grace
  • March 8–13: Minne Atairu, Igùn
  • March 15–20: Jeff Steward and Lauren Hanson, Processing the Page: Computer Vision and Otto Piene’s Sketchbooks
  • March 22–27: Philipp Schmitt, Sympoietic System
  • March 29–April 3: Francisco Alarcon, Stefan Helmreich, and Boris Konik, Ocean Amplification
  • April 5–10: metaLAB with latest iteration by Sinan Goknur, Object Map
  • April 12–17: Giulia Taurino and Jonatan Reyes, This Recommendation System Is Broken
  • April 19–24: Keith Hartwig, Dan Newman, and Kevin Brewster AIxquisite Corpse
  • April 26–May 1: Lins Derry, Second Look: Gender and Sentiment on Show
  • May 3–8: Jeffrey Schnapp, Dietmar Offenhuber, Todd Linkner, and Kevin Brewster, A Flitting Atlas of the Human Gaze
  • May 10–15: Dario Rodighiero, Doug Duhaime, Christopher Pietsch, Jeffrey Schnapp, Surprise Machines


  • March 2, noon EST on Zoom: Investigative Panel, Kim Albrecht, Lins Derry, Jeffrey Schnapp, and Jeff Steward
  • April 5–May 15, every Friday 12-2 pm at the Lightbox Gallery: Choreographic Interface Demos, Lins Derry, Jordan Kruguer, and Maximilian Mueller
  • April 6, noon EST on Zoom: Choreographic Panel, Lins Derry, Hiroshi Ishii, and Sydney Skybetter
  • April 13, noon EST on Zoom: Critical Panel, Francisco Alarcon, Minne Atairu, and Giulia Taurino
  • May 11, noon EST on Zoom: Panorama Panel, Sinan Goknur, Keith Hartwig, Dario Rodighiero, and Jeffrey Schnapp


Long before computers came to pervade every aspect of modern life, museums were collecting, organizing, and storing data. The art museum is a kind of vast machine for making all kinds of objects interoperable, from bronze-age figurines to Renaissance paintings to contemporary performance-art works. Like our digital machines, museums engender wonderful experiences—and they’re also engines of bias, power, and invisibility.

The term “machine learning” represents a family of systems that use algorithms to find patterns in data inferentially, without explicit instructions. Artists and media makers are experimenting with machine-learning tools to create new kinds of artworks. But roles for machine learning in the art museum are still rare in practice. Presented in the Lightbox Gallery, metaLAB’s projects explore emerging possibilities for machine-learning systems while exploring vital issues at the intersection of technology and culture. Variously playful, analytic, and critical, metaLAB’s experiments use the museums’ own data to expressive ends. The names and dates of works and their makers; curatorial descriptions and histories of exhibitions; colors and dimensions; images of objects themselves—encountering such data as these, algorithms chart invisible relations, forge new connections, and breed monsters.

Some projects are playful: in Sympoietic System, Philipp Schmitt uses machine vision to connect paintings and prints with current weather conditions outside the museum; Keith Hartwig, Dan Newman, and Kevin Brewster’s AIxquisite Corpse identifies body-like images in the collections, inviting visitors to construct their own strange hybrid beings.

Other projects in the series are analytic: through algorithms and visualization, Lins Derry’s Second Look reveals vital assumptions about gender and sentiment at play in art history; in Watching Machines Loving Grace, designer Kim Albrecht critically reflects upon commercial facial recognition systems; and in A Flitting Atlas of the Human Gaze, metaLAB founder Jeffrey Schnapp, working with Dietmar Offenhuber, Todd Linkner, and Kevin Brewster, uses machine vision to chart the ocular politics—who is looking at whom—across the museum’s coin, print, photo, and painting collections. And from within the museum, curatorial fellow Lauren Hanson and technologist Jeff Steward have developed an algorithmic exploration of the sketchbooks of interdisciplinary cross-media artist Otto Piene (1928–2014), which the museums received in an extraordinary gift in 2019.

Additionally, there are projects that take a critical perspective: riffing on the shopping systems found in streaming media and online markets in This Recommendation System is Broken, Giulia Taurino and Jonatan Reyes play with our museum-going expectations as consumers and viewers; in Ocean Amplification, Francisco Alarcón in collaboration with Stefan Helmreich and Boris Konik infuses sublime experience with questions about the environmental costs of computation; and Igún by Minne Atairu draws attention to the 17-year gap of artistic production in Benin brought about by the 1897 British invasion by generating conceptual sculptures of what ‘could’ have existed during this gap.

Lastly, a few projects provide the unusual view of the entire Harvard Art Museums’ collections: Dario Rodighiero, Douglas Duhaime, and Christopher Pietsch set out to visualize and curate the entire universe of the museums’ collections in Surprise Machines and metaLAB’s reprisal of Object Map (2016-2022) showcases imagery and metadata for objects in the collection that are currently exhibited in the museum across a populous grid..

The program for Curatorial A(i)gents is scheduled to run as part of an extended metaLAB residency during the Spring 2022 term in the Harvard Art Museums’ Lightbox Gallery. As part of the residency, Lins Derry, Jordan Kruguer, and Maximilian Mueller are developing a Choreographic Interface that will allow visitors to interact with the show’s screen-based projects using full-torso gestures. Also in support of the exhibition is an accompanying publication, that was developed less as a catalogue and more as a prologue.

Reflecting emergent conversation rather than settled knowledge, this prologue combines participants’ projects and reflections with critical writing from a range of experts and practitioners, including Wendy Chun, David Joselit, Shannon Mattern, Matthew Battles, Sarah Newman, Jeffrey Schnapp, Tim Schneider, and Jeff Steward. Unfolding from pamphlet to poster, Chelsea Qiu’s ingenious design for the prologue publication features a “combinatory” structure that emphasizes dialogue among cross-cutting perspectives. Chelsea’s demo video, below, offers a view into this lively work.

This beautiful poster is available for purchase via Printed Matter, the world’s leading non-profit organization dedicated to the dissemination, understanding and appreciation of artists’ books.

A collective headquartered at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, metaLAB explores the digital arts and humanities through research, experimentation, tool building, teaching, through publications in print and online, and via exhibition, performance, and social practice. Here at the Harvard Art Museums, as with partners across the university, and in the world at large, metaLAB’s work infuses traditional modes of academic inquiry with an enterprising spirit of hacking, making, and creative research.