Who’s the Better Curator: Man or Machine?

As debates about AI’s potential impact on the creative industries rage on, a new exhibition explores how both a seasoned artist and Instagram’s algorithm respond to a curatorial prompt about loss.

“The Algorithmic Pedestal” is on view at London’s J/M Gallery through Jan. 17. Photography by Fabienne Hess

As more is uncovered about the capabilities of AI systems like ChatGPT, Midjourney, and DALL-E, the debate about their potential impact on the creative industries continues to flare. Some proclaim the “death of art” and fear workers trained in analog skills will lose their jobs. Others theorize AI will spark an explosion of innovation if used correctly. That scenario, of course, hinges on artists finding inventive ways to make the AI work for them rather than against them. No matter one’s perspective, AI has reached a point of moral vertigo: “the uneasy dizziness people feel when scientific and technological developments outpace moral understanding.” 

Discourse is brewing about AI’s impact on creating art, but what about the curatorial process? The University of Oxford’s Internet Institute is seeking to answer this question through a new exhibition, called “The Algorithmic Pedestal” and on view at London’s J/M Gallery through Jan. 17, that juxtaposes Instagram’s algorithm with human curation by artist Fabienne Hess, who was invited to select images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Open Access collection corresponding to the concept of loss.

Over the course of three years, Hess physically explored the collection, studied each object’s history, and photographed them during site visits to create an image collection called “The Dataset of Loss” based on the distinctly human experiences of time, curiosity, and patience. Among the works are an anonymous 19th-century valentine depicting the silhouettes of two cherubic figures, carved ivory plaque fragments of a bearded male dignitary dating back to the 9th century BC, and Lovers Eyes, a 19th-century watercolor of a woman peering longingly through a rounded, mirror-like aperture. 

“Lover’s Eyes” (1840). Image via Open Access at the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Dale T. Johnson Fund, 1999

Her selects will be shown alongside those of Instagram’s algorithm, which were captured by uploading images from Open Access to @thealgorithmicpedestal in a specific order. “Instagram has announced the content in users’ Home feed will increasingly be decided by a ‘black box’ algorithm, rather than what friends or family have recently posted,” says Laura Herman, the Oxford Internet Institute researcher who spearheaded the show. “This means we don’t know exactly what Instagram chooses to prioritize, though these selects drastically influence users’ experience of visual culture.”

One of the most potent criticisms of AI-generated art involves the viewer’s perspective—and how the process of creation adds to its experiential value. Some argue that without understanding the human labor the artist has invested into their work, the experience is cheapened. “Part of what gives art and athletic achievement its power is the process of witnessing natural gifts playing out,” philosopher Michael Sandel once wrote in The Atlantic on the subject of genetic engineering. “People enjoy and celebrate this talent because, in a fundamental way, it represents the paragon of human achievement—the amalgam of talent and work, human gifts, and human sweat.” 

Image from “Album of Photographs of the Land and Summer Cottages Owned by the Montauk Assocation, Montauk, New York” (1883). Image via Open Access at the Metropolitan Museum of Art/gift of John C. Waddell, 2004

Though coding algorithms involves human ingenuity, these systems are unlikely to replicate the “artistic considerations of aesthetics, beauty, novelty, or creativity,” Herman argues. Rather, AI can be used to catalyze creativity—not unlike how Hilde Lynn Helphenstein, the art world’s most sardonic shitposter, explored how Instagram’s algorithm influences taste by curating an exhibition directly recommended to her on Instagram. Because “The Algorithm Is Always Right,” as the exhibition title declares, the artists featured are expected to come to prominence in the near future. (No pressure.) The AI’s curation indeed pooled a promising group of artists—most art-world heavy hitters follow Helphenstein, thus influencing the quality of artwork on her Explore page—though the decorated Marc Quinn seemed misplaced among the up-and-comers.

“Many of these algorithmic platforms, such as Instagram, weren’t created with the intention of artistic display,” Herman says. “They have very different goals: enabling connection between friends, selling ads, gaining attention, serving as a marketplace, and so on. We’re outsourcing decisions about our visual culture to an inanimate machine with very different ways of seeing.”

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