New exhibit highlights differences between algorithmic and human curation

Thursday 8th Dec 2022, 10.32am

In the past months, the rapid deployment of generative AI technology such as DALL-E2, Stable Diffusion and Midjourney have led to fever-pitched speculation about the future of art in the face of automation. Whilst generative AI technology has received plentiful attention, little is known about the cultural impacts that algorithmic recommendation platforms have on visual culture. Though these platforms are not creating art, they are curating it.

As we enter an increasingly AI-driven world, what can we do to understand algorithms’ impact on our society? Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, part of the University of Oxford, are investigating the use of algorithmic models in visual art curation by exploring the differences between human and algorithmic curation. To study this, the Oxford researchers are launching ‘The Algorithmic Pedestal,’ a public exhibition taking place at J/M Gallery in London from 11-17 January 2023, which will highlight differences between human and algorithmic ways of seeing. Artist Fabienne Hess is bringing her human perspective, while the Instagram algorithm adds the machine perspective.

Laura Herman, doctoral researcher, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford said:

‘As generative AI tools allow anyone to make ‘art’ with the snap of their fingers, we will come to rely even more on algorithmic platforms to sort, search, and display this content. The ever-expanding sea of content will be impossible to traverse without the ability to consume thousands, if not millions, images in a nanosecond. Of course, no human has this ability, leading us to become completely reliant on the discernment and decision-making of algorithmic platforms. Our research seeks to unpack how algorithmic ‘ways of seeing’ are different from human perception.’ 

Drawing on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s open access collection, the ‘Algorithmic Pedestal’ will showcase a selection of images curated by both artist Fabienne Hess and Instagram’s algorithm. Instagram’s curatorial decisions were captured by uploading images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Open Access collection to @thealgorithmicpedestal’s Instagram account. The exhibit demonstrates which images Instagram’s algorithm chose to display—and in which order. 

Herman adds, ‘In recent months, Instagram has publicly announced that the content displayed in users’ Home feed will increasingly be decided by a “black box” algorithm, rather than what friends or family have recently posted. This means that we do not know exactly what Instagram chooses to prioritise, though these prioritised selections drastically influence users’ experience of visual culture. In this exhibit, the algorithm reveals its own ways of seeing, providing the audience with an intimate lens into its perceptual mechanisms.’

The artist-led portion of the exhibit showcases Fabienne Hess’ image collection, the Dataset of Loss, which she has created over the course of three years as a resistance to the dominant algorithmic ways of seeing. Hess believes that loss is a uniquely—and universally—human experience, inescapable in human lives. Her curatorial process is driven by the human experiences of time, curiosity, and patience. In this way, Hess’ curation represents both a very human process and a very human selection criteria. 

Sorting through thousands of images, the two curators have each chosen a collection of images to display in a particular order and layout. Members of the public are invited to consider the differences between machine and human curation at the interactive exhibit, which is free to the public. 

‘Many of these algorithmic platforms, such as social media platforms like Instagram, were not created with the intention of artistic display. They have very different goals: enabling connection between friends, selling ads, gaining attention, serving as a marketplace, and so on. This means that the underlying formulas according to which they operate (that is, the algorithms) are not tuned to artistic considerations of aesthetics, beauty, novelty, or even creativity. We are outsourcing decisions about our visual culture to an inanimate machine with very different ways of seeing. Our upcoming exhibit, The Algorithmic Pedestal, seeks to foreground these urgent considerations.’ Herman concludes.