Curating the Quantitative Life The 1%, The Ambitious Middle-Class, and The Curatorial Politics of the New Aesthetic

by Patrick Lichty on November 22, 2012

Curating the Quantitative Life
The 1%, The Ambitious Middle-Class, and The Curatorial Politics of the New Aesthetic

This week (that is, the week of October 26, 2012) I heard a fantastic conversation about the ecosystem of galleries, curators and artists in the Chicago area on the local NPR station.  They laid out the sociocultural terrain so well that I had a moment of clarity, and it is that instant that I want to share with you. And yes, it also has to do with my thoughts about the New Aesthetic.  For context, as an independent curator, I had a tactical position that I would curate the shows that the mainstream institutions either did not understand or did not want to support, thus gaining the foreground.  The result of this was, in essence, a “pop-up” gallery, which is a prevalent form of curation in Chicago and many cities with extra storefront space. Therefore, what we have in Chicago now are a plethora of pop-ups, apartment galleries and the like that you can’t turn around without finding a new curatorial project or another.

The effect of this is to flatten the art world considerably – everyone’s a curator, gallerist or something.  While Jerry Saltz once said on his Facebook page that this is one of the best things to ever happened to art, it has raised the bar on competition to new levels.  What this shows is that as Jer Thorpe (visualization artist for WIRED and the NYT) recently said is that almost any interaction or consumption from donuts to cell phone usage can be placed in a “power curve”.  This is a logarithmic curve that begins near infinity at the beginning and stretches out into what Chris Anderson has called “The Long Tail”.  Bascially, there are people who talk and text 80 hours a week, and there are people who only text once or twice a week, and the distribution of usage translates into this curve.

But considering that the effect of the “new curation”, is the art world actually flatter?  Yes, because the flatness is only perceptual when you are out on the tail of the curve where the mass of “curatorial life” resides, with the tumblrs, YouTube lists, and so on.  With things like tumblr, Pinterest, et al, we live a curated life.  However, my theory of the flattening of the art world comes when you mirror the power curve/Long Tail into a asymptotic sort of spiked pyramid that shows a mass quantum noise of every day curation, the mass of pop-ups and residential spaces, web sites, etc., up the chain, a winnowed-down group of “middle-class” influential curators/galleries, and the “spike” of hyper-elite curators, artists, and designers, like Jeffrey Deitch, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Zaha Hadid, Anish Kapoor, Rem Koolhaas – you get the idea. What this is essentially a concentration of cultural capital into the upper 1% while the pyramid of fame/success is sagged down to accommodate the Long Tail.

So, what I am saying is that in the cultural era of the Long Tail, a few are concentrated into the Straylight-like crèche of capital, where the other 98% percent of the cultural world are forced to entrepreneurism, or to cultural production “for its own sake”, often scrambling from month to month between practicing one’s work and the day job down at the health club.  Or, taking it to a more extreme level, we could also say that Pinterest curated image boards are becoming curatorial quantum noise, as we swim in a sea of digital chaff.  If I were to go to the end of the Tail, we would go to 4chan.org, and since Rule 34 takes effect there in that anything on the Net shall have porn made about it, we don’t need to go there.
So, to summarize; 2012’s style of curation seems to reflect the financial paradigm – a couple percent with concentrated capital, a steep curve of established curators and producers, and then a widening saddle of aspiring producers, such as residential and pop-up galleries, widening out into a “culture of the everyday”, of massive free production which is gleaned by the social media companies as its content and curated by the masses for the effect of their own personal friend-niches.

This is the cultural model of Big Data as expressed in the art world and the curated life.

So what does this have to do with the New Aesthetic? Big Data assumes that in many cases that the power curve (the asymptotic curve generated by the Long Tail) is in effect in regards to relevance to a given question or correlation. Huh? That means that for a massive data set, only a small amount of it is really relevant to our purposes, a little more is close to what we’re looking for, and the rest steeply falls off into a sea of quantitative chaff.  Or qualitative; take your pick.

OK. New Aesthetic.

NA is largely about gleaning interesting images from Big Data, as algorithms and robot eyes spew out images by rates as high as 30 frames per second in some cases, which makes images akin to grains of sand on the aesthetic beach.  But the New Aestheticist strides upon that beach, picking out a sparkly grain of sand or even the occasional diamond, ready-cut, and places it in their bucket (Tumblr, Pinterest) to show to other people on the beach.  Pay attention that there are a lot of people on this beach, and it is a very large beach- that’s why they call it Big Data.  Lots of data; lots of sand.
The thing that I see as problematic yet historically relevant to NA as curatorial model is that it there is not much agency involved beyond the human glean from visual Big Data.  It is a cross between banal Pinterest/Flickr/Tumblr posting and Duchampian readymade; a gesture of curating the Quantitative Life. If one thinks about it, it appears that the biggest difference between NA curating and screen scraping or pattern recognition is that of human agency in terms of aesthetic picking rather than algorithmic selection. This becomes an issue, as it creates a parallel power curve in terms of human versus machine terms of the qualitative.

Before splitting curves, let us describe the stratum of curatorial space that I see NA occupying.  Remember to consider the asymptotic curve of Anderson’s Long Tail, and consider it as one of investment vs. population (or amount of data.  At the uppermost, narrow end of the spike, we have a small amount of data, a huge amount of influence and money, flaring into the middle class, all of which equates from the top curators and major museums to the top galleries down into the regional art centers and mid-grade galleries.  The next major break that appears evident is the ‘emerging’ scene, with the pop-up and young galleries, and some independent curating, as well as genre shows and higher end art blogs at the upper end.  Where the power curve begins to truly flare out is in terms of self- or social curation, beginning with the Pinterests, Tumblrs, and Flickr pages.

As a note, keep that last sentence in mind.

Then comes the flood.  Curation (sic) in the age of social media must be made to include the posting of photos and videos to social media, with the gesture, constituting the greatest number with the least investment (the function of the Long Tail’s power curve – # involved vs. degree of investiture).  By that point, curation becomes Massive Data, not just Big, and we are awash, not in a sea of kitsch, but a sea of everything, with only currents of trend to give any direction.   This lower stratum from the pin board to the Like is the beach to which I allude earlier, with New Aestheticists doing slightly more than Liking an image by taking the time to find it and put it on their Tumblr, hoping for a Like.  And in a way, as the game Foldit allowed human beings to find a protein folding solution in far less time than it takes an algorithm, so does the New Aestheticist find an ‘image of interest’ faster than a parametric equation.  It makes us feel special to categorize galaxies in a crowdsourced application, is picking images of interest in the NA exercise much different?  In some ways, I feel like it is akin to 4chan-style image boards, just more intellectual.  But with the rise of art-based Internet Surfing Clubs like NastyNets and Double Happiness in the 2000’s, the aggregation of images of interest have become a function of quantum-level curatorial practice at the base of the saddle of the Long Tail.

In addition, other effects come into play such as similarities to arousal addiction to Internet pornography.  The prime motivator for dopamine release in net.porn is novelty, based on things such as the “Coolidge Effect”, where time to climax increases with a single partner, while it stays low for varied partners.  So it is with the NA; near-infinite seas of novel images in numerous genres.  Is it possible to say that New Aestheticists as becoming addicted to Robot Eye Porn?  According to Gary Wilson, the end result to hypofrontal burnout based on Internet usage, with turning away being the ‘climax’ of net.scopophilia.  Perhaps this is a bit ‘over-blown’ to compare the two, but in my opinion, it is a matter of scale on the power curve of intensity vs. investiture.

The point of all this is that it asks what the degree that NA as curatorial practice exerts in being a function of cultural production.  Somehow, I don’t feel like I’m going to see the famous Google Earth RGB artifacted airplane blown up to wall size in the MoMA.  But, on the other hand, we are awash in the generation of images and posting them for a moment of approval, shooting the aesthetic blunderbuss, hoping a pellet/image sticks here and there.  This creates tremendous ambivalence, as the ‘potential’ effortlessness of NA practices conveys a certain pointlessness except a certain fascination with the found machine/algorithm-made object/image.  However, we can see the emergence of image boards, and the aggregation from them as art practice, and it has led us here, but perhaps NA is a form of curation for the masses, a folk curatorial practice for cyborg times.

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