The Labors of the Data Curator

One of the many side effects of what I call »teenternet culture« is applicable to a new dimension of the term »curator.« In order to work from the position closest to the dissolution of the categories established by the artistic tradition, it is necessary to continually rethink all kinds of activities and contemporary terminology, to compare their functions and possible applications to the culture permeabilized by the Internet.

The figure of the curator was born within the context of the conservation and the valorization of artistic resources, but nowadays his mediating position between institution, artist, and spectator is evident. I’d like to propose a term that deviates from the idealized figure of the artistic curator to apply it to tasks and processes exercised in everyday areas. It may be risky to enhance the distinctions between the term »curator« and the proposed term. Increasing the significant boundaries of the original term may fall into its banalization or, on the contrary, into enrichment. For this reason it may be more interesting to add a tributary to the river and to use the previously discharged waters to re-contextualize them in previously unforeseen environments. At the same time, looking for a term that moves away from its semantic tradition can be useful to maintain a certain linguistic autonomy and allow spaces of creative freedom in which to model and prove its democratization in everyday life. The central framework of the applications of this term will be applied for the most part to digital processes, especially those related to Big Data. I thus propose here to refer to these tasks with the term »data curator« – the linguistic adaptation of the two terms »data« and »curator.«

The word »data« has been used since 1946 to refer to computed information transmittable and storable in devices. These are fragments of information concerning a subject. However, the terminological use of »data« is, to a greater degree, related to the information stored in databases of unsurpassed size for the human rhythms. This information is therefore usually subject to either algorithmic or human processing. When there is too much information to understand with the naked eye, selections of contents are generated referring to a topic and are articulated in organized groups of information using criteria established by the programmer or curator.

The traditional curator always acts for an audience, so I am interested in creating the distinction between two types of curatorship; personal curation and public curation. This dichotomy seems necessary to me because of a clear difference of manipulation in these two types of contents. All content emerges with the same relevance to the heteropoetic device that contains it. The only variables that distinguish the machine – for the moment – are superfluous to the function and meaning of the file it can distinguish between different formats, sizes, or durations. A clear example: The camera does not see what it records, but rather captures reflected light through a series of mechanisms. It should also be noted that the machine can currently recognize and distinguish between different objects; computer vision algorithms are becoming more effective. Despite the increasingly complex processes of understanding by the machine as artificial intelligence, it is the user who, based on his or her criteria, selects, excludes, disposes, and ultimately elaborates on the meanings of content. These processes of selection and resignification are what really interest me to investigate, although it can be considered something that can not be escaped. In the era of the synthetic image, we are continually selecting, distributing, and giving meanings to images or generated contents, founded and appropriated.

With the term »personal curation« I mean the personal tasks of distributing content in spaces of the producer’s own use. The private organization of elements does not mean that they remain always hidden to third parties; nevertheless, they have been conceived as their own and, therefore, their meaning or disposition always depends on personal criteria. For example, a teenager’s bedroom is made up of a series of elements with private meanings and uses; a cork board with pictures on the wall, a desk to study, a bed to sleep in, or a place to put dirty clothes or posters of their idols. The memory of mobile phones is another ideal example. A mobile phone is an unfiltered diary; the true record of the user’s activity. A non-selective accumulation without pretense that projects a true subject: the user’s personal archive. This personal curation has the incentive to be more faithful to what is represented, and if it is technically manipulated (to project it to an audience) it changes its reason toward what I call »open curatorship,« an exhibition of formalized creations. I struggle to exemplify this first meaning with artworks because if they leave the personal circuit to which I refer above, they lose their personal authenticity. However, there is an artwork that I would like to comment on. Anthony van der Meer is a film director who was robbed of his cell phone while eating in Amsterdam in 2016. Anthony stored a wealth of private information on his phone – photographs, videos, and conversations that defined his face, his private interests, and even his location. After the theft Anthony decided to launch his short film Find my Phone. [1] In it, he buys a new mobile and installs an application to remotely access his device. Once the application is installed, he leaves his smartphone out until it is stolen. Anthony then spies on all the thief’s conversations, movements, and photographs to analyze what kind of person the thief might be and thus quantify the identity construction that his first phone’s thief could make of the artist. I consider this process interesting because, through hacking, you can gain access to personal information not intended for viewing to third parties.

The curatorship open to the public is the one that, personally, seems to me to be more interesting. The narration is established with the desire to export knowledge to third parties and, therefore, requires that it maintain certain codes with the public. Organizing files with the intention of making them understandable to third parties occurs in multiple processes of social networks. We can relate it to typical actions of life in society, such as choosing clothes to wear or things to post on any social media.

Early works by Cindy Sherman, especially the Untitled Film Stills (1977) perfectly exemplify these aspects in which, through artificiality, solid identities are generated in which the artificial and the natural are conjugated at the same time. In this photographic series, she creates doubts between the interpretation of a script and the revelation of an existing identity. These are photographs as self-portraits of current society, and the cliches linked with the women, which, due to their high degree of artificiality (related to magazines and cinema), are preconceived for their exhibition attending to the formal aspects of the technical visuality. The specific case of Cindy Sherman is curious because she now has an Instagram account [2] with about 600 published photographs. Here we can see selfies with Snapchat filters that deform the subjects’ faces (perhaps related to generational portraits of millennial society) to videos caressing a parrot (projection of their personal and ideological context). In this way, it is possible to consider whether there are relevant differences between the series Untitled Film Stills and those made for its Instagram account. At a glance, Sherman’s timeline is similar to any other user account, so it is worth considering whether her Instagram is in its entirety a portrait of society; a sequence of patterns and formalizations that describe the artificiality and the ideal proposed by social networks.

The incorporation of the user into online curating processes increases daily through the compilation, selection, and elaboration of narratives that configure a profile in social networks. When the cost of camcorders dropped in the 1960s , anyone could match the image resolution level of a video artist. With the addition of smart phones, equipped with cameras and the Internet, everyone participates in the distribution and mass production of images. It has generated a visual education that separates the high definition from the low resolution. If television and film has educated us in technical quality, the content close to the user usually develops with poor quality photographic resolutions or in vertical format. This fact creates an affinity for content in smartphone format and can even generate mistrust about the veracity of the facts presented in formats of high definition due to unconscious relation that we establish with fiction and cinema. The user is a potential creator; not only does he or she have the ability to generate content, but the user can also intervene through services built into the applications themselves that allow the image processing through filters or other artistic retouching. This mass participation in the processes of intervention, diffusion, or download generates poor images, low resolution, and constant degradation. As Hito Steyerl explains in The Wretched of the Screen:

»Poor images are the contemporary Wretched of the Screen, the debris of audiovisual production, the trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores. They testify to the violent dislocation, transferrals, and displacement of images their acceleration and circulation within the vicious cycles of audiovisual capitalism.« [3]

With the incorporation of the user into aesthetic processes, the image is intertwined with writing; the user is the one who produces, intervenes, and accelerates images. Through these processes the image acquires aesthetic and stylistic values, but does not completely replace the textual. Image and text are in continuous relationship, inseparable in social networks where even the text can come to be presented as an image or as a mixture of both as in the case of memes or emoticons. A personal observation that interests me is that the generational distinction with the use of social networks is palpable between the Baby Boomers (born after World War II until 1965), Generation X (born between 1965 and 1977), Millennials (born from 1977 to 1995) and Generation Z or iGen (born after the mid-1990s) . In the case of the older generations, the most common social network is Twitter, in which the content stands out for its greater degree of textuality. The most representative social network for Millennials is Facebook, which mixes text and audiovisual elements. In contrast, the younger generation favors visual social networks like Instagram and Snapchat in which communication is mainly established by images. I consider this fact key to understanding the generational evolution toward aesthetic processes and the mutation of the language toward graphic aspects like emoticons.

The format with which the Internet operates always responds to Big Data sizes. Overflowing content makes it impossible to structure information if it is not responding to the use of different types of analysis, predictive behavior, and hierarchical construction. These operations established by the platform’s database consist of organizational models that work as a compilation of contents relating to various formats. The information is stored independently in structures that generate automatic narratives based on their content. Hierarchies are established by the sum of contexts in which the word appears or their popularity. The classic dictation of dictionaries is increased to its maximum when it is defined by almost infinite contexts where the term is presented. In our time the great part of our dialogue with the world is established through the Internet. We interact in the medium and it responds to us with content, so our linguistic relations are constantly adapting.

In Boris Groys’s thesis »Google: Words Beyond Grammar,« he exposes that the operating structures of Google’s search engine govern our dialogue in universally applicable propositions. Propositions are understood as a sequence of words that make up a meaning, but Google constructs these meanings based on the sum of contexts in which each of the terms appears, which eliminates the hierarchy between words and they lose their grammatical power. Words are formed by constellations of meanings contributed by users, thus becoming providers of information that stores each constellation of the term. It is a struggle for access to truth understood as the sum total of all materially existing contexts. »Thus the basic linguistic operations of affirmation and negation become irrelevant and are substituted by the extralinguistic operations of the inclusion or exclusion of certain words in certain contexts – which is precisely the definition of curatorship,« states Groys.

An interesting piece that uses these extralinguistic operations related to those described by Groys is the Listening Post (2003). This piece, formalized by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, is considered a dynamic portrait of the online communication. Through the real-time arrangement of text fragments written in chat rooms, an installation of about 200 small LED screens is generated in which words from different conversations are superimposed. Through this textual restructuring, a new narrative is generated, which seeks through contingency to represent the relationships established in the network.

However, if our dialogue with the world is mediated by this language that isolates words and gives them meaning based on the previous contexts contributed by users, perhaps we could talk about #hashtags as a new redefinition of this structure proposed by Google. Hashtags were born the same year as the Internet for the purpose of creating categories and finding content easily, but their popularization and use within social networks did not begin until 2007. The question that arises is the following: Is not a hashtag another more powerful form of taxonomy that contains constellations of contexts raised by its users? In a way a hashtag can fulfill the same role as the search engine, but it establishes a closer relationship with the user. All subjects actively participate as providers and data classifiers that facilitate the correct operation of the platform through these hashtags or labels that enclose the post in categorized and constantly reviewed files. I would not apply Groys’s approach to words alone; isolation and categorization occurs in almost all current communicative elements. With the #hashtag model, transmedial definitions are collected. Instagram would be responsible for the graphic representation of what accompanies #hash and Twitter to the sum of opinions that relate to what refers to the label.

I thus consider hashtags a form of collective curation. A mass selection of images, sounds, and texts that generates an endless representation of an object, situation, or fact. The theory of cherry-picking is related to this type of categorization in non-operative contexts through human rhythms. This proposition refers to the act of selecting the best of something – or the worst – to collect data that confirm the veracity of a position or proposition. That is, to select evidence and related cases that support the initial theory ignoring an important amount of evidence that contradicts the individual position. Through this fallacy of selective attention one can articulate theories, or confirm propositions by using examples that reinforce a proposition. This way of operating reaches its maximum in Internet, where all the information is perceived at the same level of truth and is articulated and distributed by its own users’ operations.

This categorization of the environment also falls in the categorization of the subject. Within this dynamic the user tends to be labeled in established categories. The hashtags of each user represent a sum of descriptions that reflect the self-knowledge and self-construction of the subject and reflect their fears and desires. The hashtag #selfie would become the clear evidence of the self-knowledge of the individual subject in front of his world and his algorithm environment. If a category is generally used to facilitate access to other users and make content accessible, this complaint made by users to expose themselves to the world is interpreted as a necessity of belonging to groups or communities that allow the individualization of the subject and its possible adaptation to different customized contexts. The continuous social interaction is one of the many causes of »teenternet« anxiety marked by the rhythms of production and assimilation produced by neocapitalism through the control of the times – fashion, body worship, or programmed obsolescence, among other things. According to Kenneth Goldsmith, »Our online lives are saturated with affect, our sensations amplified and projected by the network.« [4] In my opinion, this relationship between anxiety and affection – or need for approval – is what will set the pace of production of contents by the user. Lev Manovich also refers to this need for approval and belonging to groups with whom to identify:

»… Cultural identity today is established via small variations and subtle differences […]. ›Subcultures,‹ food preferences, and fashion styles give people basic tools to establish and perform their cultural identities. However, digital cameras and editing and publishing tools as exemplified by Instagram provide the crucial mechanism to further refine and ›individualize‹ these basic identities.« [5]

These anxieties and searches for the exclusivity or group membership produced by the big data fluid rhythms have direct repercussions on the user. now is necessary to select and accumulate the contents that interest him to build his world. This factor translates into a new nature of the subject, everything becomes files and continuous management by the user. The user’s sensitive experience as a contemporary artist or curator manifests itself through various post-production, remix, or appropriation phenomena, however, this continuous manipulation of files has resulted in an archival drive by the subject, which is in a cumulative inertia of data.

The archival need produced by the mass production of content has resulted in a new kind of job. The term »content curation« refers to the act of finding, collecting and presenting specific digital content on a topic. This way of operating is gathering momentum through the marketing of many companies that want to maintain a successful online presence. Therefore, each blog or web page could also be considered a project curated by the page manager. These tasks are not only related to marketing. In the field of education there are teachers who select content for their students through processes of what they call content curating – the same tasks traditionally done by a tutor. Expanding this idea can affirm that curated content is present in all areas related to the Internet. Any user performs inclusion or exclusion exercises, generates his own narration and archive and builds meanings through the compilation. That is why I propose the term »data curation,« since I consider it more appropriate to refer to the individual management of the Big Data that seeks to create worlds from unfathomable environments.

Extrapolating this to the subject of study, the differences between content provider and consumer are insignificant. The user receives products from others and vice versa. Regardless of the medium used, the externalization of memory has caused accumulation to be perceived as a necessary act for knowledge; everything deserves to be stored in the memory of the device. Obvious examples can be the photographs stored on the mobile phone. They function as a scrapbook, the timeline of social networks, a sequence of actions performed previously, or any other type of archiving that the user employs. The truth is that every file belongs to the past, and the subject carries out processes of selection and organization to build memories. If they belong to personal environments- or knowledge -if they are projected to the rest-. This condition of archiving the past can be reversed through postproduction or through recontextualizing the element within other environments; it would then be perceived as new and with the ability to generate other knowledge not predetermined in its previous circulation. The user is his or her own content curator. Navigation becomes an autobiographical research project through selecting and arranging files. [6]

Contemporary postproduction may be seen in content accumulation and restructuring. The user establishes his own mechanisms of articulation of meanings through the sum of the content collected individually. This form of remix exerted by the contemporary subject responds own criteria – to a great extent influenced by neocapitalist rhythms – which is why personal curation becomes a process of construction of the subject itself. The production model that opens the way is the self-commissioning of the environment. The translation of content and its inclusion in other more complex constructions may be the contemporary strategy to construct adequate structures for propagating knowledge.

In Wasting Time on the Internet, Kenneth Goldsmith studies – through several examples – the perceptible relations between the subject and the Internet. Through different experiences, our continuous archiving of the present is evidenced: »Like quilting, archiving employs the obsessive stitching together of many small pieces into a larger vision, a personal attempt at ordering a chaotic world. [7] The user defines the subject and finds in social networks the perfect cataloging structure for this represented identity …. This accumulation is social media’s capital, a symbolic currency for which ›I‹ is the metric of valuation.« [8]

This social accumulation translates and also adapts to the platforms on which the content is available. With Instagram this fact becomes evident, the figure that indicates the number of hearts the image received is translated into samples of affection and feedback (dopamine) for the administrator. The user is involved in the dynamics of popularity in which everything is measured in flat likes and lacking in expressiveness. These processes lead the user to perfect and adapt their techniques and creativity in favor of an audience and a language. In this light, the data curator should move away from the construction of egolatric environments – of a continuous generation of identity – to contribute to producing knowledge. The effective data curator could be someone who selects and manages relevant content with the aim of serving as a source of knowledge for him or herself and the audience, and that, in relation to this public or in isolation, predisposes stimulating mnemonic devices for recall and creates knowledge for the perceiver.

  1. Jump Up Anthony Van Deer Mer: Find my Phone Subtitled. YouTube. 13/12/2016.
  2. Jump Up @_Cindy_Sherman_
  3. Jump Up Hito Steyerl: The Wretched of the Screen. In Defense of the Poor Image. Berlin 2012, p. 32–33.
  4. Jump Up Kenneth Goldsmith: Wasting Time on the Internet. New York 2016, p. 38.
  5. Jump Up Lev Manovich: »Instagram and Contemporary Image,« in: Notes on Instagrammism and mechanisms of contemporary cultural identity [and also photography, design, Kinfolk, kpop, hashtags, mise-en-scène, and cостояние]. 2016, p. 20.
  6. Jump Up Boris Groys: »Google: Words beyond Grammar,« in: 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts, no. 046. dOCUMENTA [13], Ostfildern 2012, p. 12.
  7. Jump Up Goldsmith: op. cit., p. 97.
  8. Jump Up Ibid., p. 122.