Curatorial A(i)gents

A metaLAB exhibition of interactive projects exploring machine learning in, around, and about the Harvard Art Museums
Time
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Host
Location
Cambridge, USA
Picture of Curatorial A(i)gents

Curatorial A(i)gents presented a series of machine-learning experiments with the Harvard Art Museums’ digital collections and data developed by members and affiliates of metaLAB (at) Harvard. The exhibition ran from March 1 through May 15, 2022 as part of an extended metaLAB residency in the Harvard Art Museums’ Lightbox Gallery. During this period, four panel discussions among the artists and designers of Curatorial A(i)gents were offered on Zoom and remain available with closed captions on Vimeo.

WORKS:

RECORDED ZOOM EVENTS:

  • March 2: Investigative Panel, Kim Albrecht, Lins Derry, Jeffrey Schnapp, Jeff Steward, and Annette Jael Lehmann
  • April 6: Choreographic Panel, Lins Derry, Hiroshi Ishii, Ozgun Kilic Afsar, and Sydney Skybetter
  • April 13: Critical Panel, Minne Atairu, Giulia Taurino, Lins Derry, and Sarah Newman
  • May 11: Panorama Panel, Sinan Goknur, Keith Hartwig, Dan Newman, Dario Rodighiero, and Jeffrey Schnapp

ABOUT:

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 explored 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 used the museums’ own data to expressive ends.

Some projects were playful: in Sympoietic System, Philipp Schmitt uses machine vision to connect paintings and prints with current weather conditions outside the museums; 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 were 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 algorithmically explore the sketchbooks of interdisciplinary cross-media artist Otto Piene (1928–2014).

Several projects took 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; in Ocean Amplification, Francisco Alarcón, Stefan Helmreich, and Boris Konik infuse sublime experience with questions about the environmental costs of AI computation; and in Igún, 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.

A few projects provided a panoramic view of the entire museum: Dario Rodighiero, Douglas Duhaime, Christopher Pietsch, and Jeffrey Schnapp set out to visualize and curate the entire universe of the museums’ collections in Surprise Machines; and Sinan Goknur’s reprisal of metaLAB’s Object Map showcases imagery and metadata for objects currently exhibited in the museum across a populous grid.

As part of Curatorial A(i)gents, Lins Derry, Jordan Kruguer, and Maximilian Mueller researched how a choreographic interface could enable visitors to interact with the show’s projects via a dance vocabulary. Also in support of the exhibition was an accompanying publication edited by Michael Maizels that was developed less as a catalog and more as a prologue. Reflecting emergent conversation rather than settled knowledge, this prologue combined project descriptions 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. 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.

The Zoom panel discussions explored the above playful, analytic, critical, and choreographic themes. The Investigative Panel, moderated by Annette Jael Lehmann, featured a discussion between the artists and designers who took a particularly forensic approach to digitally exposing the collections; the Critical Panel, moderated by Sarah Newman, heard from those who applied a critical eye to machine learning and collection practices; and the Panorama Panel spurred dialogue among those who applied panoramic and playful perspectives to the entire collection. Lastly, the Choreographic Panel peeled back questions on dance, embodiment, and human-computer interaction by examining the show’s choreographic interface and adjacent research by Hiroshi Ishii and Sydney Skybetter.

As a prolific project, research stemming from Curatorial A(i)gents has been disseminated at Ars Electronica 2020, the Information+ Conference 2021, and the Movement and Computing Conference (MOCO) 2022. Related papers are forthcoming in the Information Design Journal | Information+ Special Issue and MOCO ‘22 Proceedings.