How to Look at Artist Networks, 2015

Web project illuminating the collapse of art historical canons in the age of Google’s algorithmic associations.   

How to Look at Artist Networks is a web site that considers how the name associations that follow artist web search trends reinforce the public’s tendency to equate name recognition with artistic quality or importance. If you search for artists on Google, a feature called  Knowledge Graph connects your search to suggested artists and others. These connections are sometimes artists with similar styles and mediums, but more often they are the artist’s social networks, collectors, past relationships, and even people with similar names (i.e. a search for Leonardo da Vinci suggests you might also like Leonardo diCaprio).

The incongruent associations devoid of context are reminiscent of the artist Chris Burden’s television commercials in the mid-seventies. One commerical critiqued the way name recognition and name association can lead to fame regardless of context. The format was simple: a blue screen with typed names of well known artists zoom in and fade out. Burden can be heard reading along with the names: “Pablo Picasso,” “Marcel Duchamp,” “Leonardo Da Vinci”… At the end of this sequence the name “Chris Burden” appears as if it belongs in the context of these “old masters.” Burden’s use of the television commerial critiques and recreates the phenomenon of media’s influence on fame and power in the art world. His intention for the commercial to be rebroadcast multiple times so that it would become part of the viewers’ subconscious resonates in the age of trending algorithms like Google’s Knowledge Graph.

For this project, over 60,280 names and connections were scraped from Google’s Knowledge Graph’s “people who searched for this artist also were interested in these artists” feature. The artists searched were initiated from lists of artists in recent museum exhibitions and artists listed on Wikipedia by decade and mediums (such as performance artists). Each name was searched in Google and the names Google associated with them were recorded. This starting point not only led to other artists, but also politicians, art collectors, musicians, Hollywood and internet celebrities. 

Screen shot from search on the site. Perform your own search here:

Burden was quoted as saying that all artists decide on a direction of either Picasso or Duchamp. (I first heard him say this to his class I TA’d but he also said this in an interview with The New Yorker.) Inspired by this observation (or quip), the thousands of names and links were categorized by how closely they are connected to Duchamp or Picasso in a similar fashion to the popular meme “six degrees of Kevin Bacon.” This division between figurative abstraction and conceptual serves as a measure to compare the audiences previous judgements and to assess ambiguities. (Side note: it turns out that the most connected node was actually Friedrich Nietzsche.)

The web projects title and design borrows motifs from the painter Ad Reinhardt who published funny and scathing editoral cartoons in the 1940’s about the influence of collectors and populist art on exhibitions and the art world at large. In his “How to Look” series, wilted artist family trees are weighed down by the problems of his time like abstraction competing with traditional figurative works. The How to Look at Artists Networks site features a similar but simplified tree featuring small elves (as a stand in for computer engineers) working on the interior. The leaves of the tree are not labeled with artist names, but instead their metadata: commercial galleries, internet platforms, social networks, and SEO tagging libraries. 

Visit the site to see the artists and celebrity connections that arise on the Knowledge Graph. There is also a secret button that will push my personal rankings on par with the old masters in Chris Burden’s commercial.

How to Look at Artist Networks is a 2015 commission of New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc. for its website. It was made possible with funds from the Jerome Foundation.

Data scraping, programming: Jonathan Butterick

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