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I Became An Algorithm At The Museum Of Modern Art

MoMA's "Archives As Instigator" workshop taught me that like every internet user alive, witting or unwitting, I am the curator of my own digital museum.

Data artist Mario Klingemann pores through the British Library’s Commons Collection, looking for trends and subsets for fun. By training and manipulating algorithms to pick out faces and analyze color, he’s able to make his own beautiful discovery. All images courtesy of the artists and the Museum of Modern Art.

All my life, I've been a collector of things. When I was young, I cataloged my worldly possessions into plastic bins: stickers, seashells, crystals, playing cards, and so on. I dreamed of rooms with floor-to-ceiling cabinets with millions of drawers, each compartment holding a body of objects. Even as an adult, I’m still ordering, grouping and sorting curiosities not too distant from my earlier collections. Now, of course, I no longer need physical boxes; I use intangible containers, fashioned from my digital cloud. In a tiny corner of the Internet, albums, folders, “boards,” spreadsheets, feeds, streams, listicles and inboxes, contain the pieces of my archive. Being online feels like I’m walking through the halls of my own museum; beyond the screen, my data unravels like it never even existed.

Once you start seeing the world in clusters and categories, you can never un-see them. And as it turns out I’m not the only one. At a recent panel discussion called “Archives as Instigator” at the Museum of Modern Art, other likeminded obsessives, including data artist Jer Thorp, writer Emily Spivack, code artist Mario Klingemann and MetaLab principal Yanni Loukissas, discussed the art of massive data. “If all human beings were to disappear and aliens would appear shortly after, one way they’ll understand us is through the data and databases we’re leaving behind,” says Thorp.

At MoMA, Klingemann talked about wanting to be a Victorian age explorer or a gold digger. He combines both roles now with his work with the British Library's Commons Collection. Here, he reminisces about about the glorious age of exploration, and the terrain he's exploring -- the world of digital archives -- is still full of hidden treasures.

Spivack, Klingemann, Loukissas and Thorp have all created and worked with archives at once as impossibly immense as they are microscopic, depending on the context. Spivack has collated over 600 stories from eBay descriptions, capturing snippets of the human condition in these micro-narratives; Klingemann has created algorithms with searchable tags like “maps” or “mustachioed men” to pore over a million Flickr image files from almost 65,000 volumes of the British Library’s collection; Loukissas organizes the ascension data of 70,000 plants from the Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University’s living collection of trees, vines and shrubs; Thorp is tackling over 140,000 records of objects obtained by the Museum of Modern Art in the form of a single piece of performance art.

Digital artist Jer Thorp runs The Office of Creative Research, a research group investigating and showcasing interactive data in beautiful and surprising ways. At MoMA, he led a workshop using their archives, a spinoff of an older project where he collaborated with a theater group to "perform" the MoMA database. Here, a group of participants are brainstorming what kinds of data they could collect, using pencil and notecards, from artworks while walking around in a gallery in a span of 25 minutes.

There are infinite numbers of ways to organize things, and within these motions, endless stories to be uncovered. To one who is not a computer scientist, data can be a cold and sterile stream— linked and intertwined, however, it can create narratives, meanings and reflections. Artists explore these numbers fields for compelling connections, much like reading the spaces between the words in a text. Klingemann describes this feeling: “The joy in finding something is hardwired in humans. Like when you find your keys or you strike a new idea. Because we don’t live in times with wide [unexplored] spots on the map, I have to find new places to discover something. So, I’m creating randomized serendipity engines.” Simply put, curiosity makes one want to take a shovel to a pile of chaos. 

A workshop participant studies Gerhard Richter's Clouds. One of the data points the group decided to collect was the first thing they thought of when they saw the painting. She may or may not have seen clouds.

In the workshops after the panel discussion, I discovered an example of the expansive possibilities of archival data in an analogue way: Painting and Sculpture Gallery 2, a sample set of content from the MoMA files, would be our target terrain. Alongside Klingemann, Loukissas, Thorp, and Spivack, participants focused in on the information cards beside the woks of art themselves. First, we brainstormed the kinds of data that could be placed onto a museum card. Thorp, who led the workshop, challenged us to divvy this data into three sets: the properties of the artwork, its measurable subjective experiences, and our observations of other people’s experiences. We measured their predominant colors, focal points, the numbers of people who read the information cards, the first words that came to mind when viewing pieces, estimated how far security guards stood from each piece, and gathered the research from eight different pieces.

In another workshop led by Klingemann, he printed out Flickr images onto individual cards with a QR code. Our job was to walk around and organize the random images into groups. This one I discovered, is called "men and women courting." At the end of the workshop, he scanned the images and created a tag. Search for the tag on Flickr and you'll see them all laid out in a gallery -- exactly like I arranged them on the table for this photo.

With all of our note cards strewn across a table, we examined a few data points in-depth. Using blue yarn to link index cards of with pieces of similar free-association words, and red yarn for opposing recordings. Post-it notes symbolized different percentages of people who stopped to check out a painting or a sculpture’s information. Then, it dawned on me: everything we were doing manually was a play on what algorithms can achieve in minutes— multiplied by the millions. And not one of us who participated approached the analog exercise in the same way. 

We used yarn and post-it notes to map the similarities and differences between the data points we individually found and observed during our 25 minutes in the MoMA gallery. When we finished, Thorp picked up a card that pulled up the other cards that were connected to it, creating an intricate mobile. This is the essence of data structures, he said.

“A lot of garbage has been legitimized by making digital,” admits Loukissas. I’ve only been online for way less than a quarter-life, but already the contents of my digital life are overflowing. That’s the curse of keeping things in a box with an unending bottom. What's meaningful? What isn't? With technology, everyone has an archive whether they decide to consciously curate it or not. It's dizzying to think about the reams of data you’ve accumulated over the years, but beyond that, what unnerves me most is that one day, everything I’ve collated, both knowingly and unknowingly— every click, tag, word, photo— will go on existing without me. Not only is an archive a collection of things, it’s a preserver of space and time.

Yanni Loukissas works with the ascension files of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, a “zoo of plants.” Taking data, and revisualizing its form (for example: concentric circles like tree rings), allows for new meaning. “Data are cultural artifacts. One of the characteristics of data is that they really have a materiality. We like to think of information as being ephemeral. But they exist in someplace,” he says.

As if reading my anxieties from my face, Spivak made a reassuring point, “Archives do not record experience as much as absence; they point where an experience is missing from its proper place and what is returned to us in an archive may well be something that we never possessed in the first place.” Archives are manufactured, but we are creatures of story. Perhaps in that way, like Thorp said, our digital libraries and museums will be a time capsule for whoever and whatever comes after us.

A participant stands in front of Sweet Cathy's Song, a work by American painter Joan Snyder. This piece, created from children's drawings, papier mâché and pastels, seems to radiate wonder and awe. It is the perfect reflection of the themes of MoMA's Archives as Instigator event.

Becky Chung attended the Museum of Modern Art's Archives As Instigator discussion and workshop. To attend an "Artists Experiment" like one of these, stay tuned to the events calendar for the MoMA

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