PIG: Plain Art Text


Plain Art Text

Team Member Names

Zoe Cooper, Saurabh Datta

Short summary of your improvement idea

Our improvement idea looks to decentralize the flows of communication in the art world and works to reduce the biases that are baked into its hierarchical, exclusionary structures.

The institutionalized art world’s top-down structures run on unspoken rules of etiquette and codified language (often referred to, pejoratively, as ‘artspeak’) meant to confer value to others in the network. Purposely opaque, and often out of step with the way art is produced and disseminated today, these rules are in need of a system update. Inspired by the architecture of computer networks, we aim to a) render these unspoken rules explicit, then b) make adjustments to the system which account for new methods of artistic production and distribution which traditional models ignore (the growth of social media, the proliferation of private viewings, etc).

We’d like to explore the possibilities here by prototyping new operational protocols on top of existing infrastructures for sharing information among its various networked players: the art market (galleries, fairs, auction houses, online marketplaces), the critical art world (museums, foundations, survey events, publishers), and the individual actors who move between those different spheres (artists, curators, critics, collectors, art professionals) to keep the system running. We will explore analogous, robust network protocols like MQTT as a helpful metaphor for designing a mediation protocol.

Our project should allow for both individuals and organizations to contribute to - and sort through - a shared repository of artworks and accompanying descriptions that adhere to our protocol, and not artspeak. We’d like to counter hierarchical, institutionally-driven structures that are marred by bias and exclusivity, and instead equip artists and other players in the system with a visual and verbal vocabulary that we hope will clarify - and therefore broaden access to - the mechanisms that produce art and define its historical relevance.

Important elements:

  • Infrastructure for artwork that allows for great transparency, consistency, scalability, and traceability
  • Easy-to-use interface designs built into tools already in use (for ex. Artnet, catalog mastheads)
  • Codified etiquette: a designed manual for how to interact with the system
  • Data models that allow for multidirectional linking and referencing across different sources
  • Educational resources for artworkers
  • Research into different milieus in the art world, as they layer their expectations onto a particular work and filter its reception
  • Data visualization that gives a bird’s eye view of an artwork’s provenance journey, or an artist’s career


What is the existing target protocol you are hoping to improve or enhance?

The existing target protocol we hope to improve is unspoken art world etiquette. There is an implicit set of social norms around how people in the art world present themselves and communicate with one another. Artists and art professionals are often expected to dress a certain way, art spaces are expected to be designed in a certain way, and art is often described in a certain language (ie. artspeak) that is purposely opaque; academic terminology find itself drained of meaning through overuse and misapplication) meant to convey seriousness, conceptual rigor, and ultimately, economic value.

What is the core idea or insight about potential improvement you want to pursue?

Our core insight is that unspoken art etiquette is both the result of - and an enforcer of - exclusivity in the art world. The art world’s narrow, implicit modes of visual and verbal communication often entrench the biases it often claims to want to counter.

In response to this problem, our idea is to prototype a protocol with clear standards of verbal and visual communication so it becomes clearer for a wide range of emerging artists, curators, critics, and others to present their ideas and ultimately gain entrance to the ecosystem. We hope to surface these unspoken social expectations, standardize them, and improve them for more people to interact with. Instead of facing constant, unexplained rejection - or the feeling of not even knowing where to begin - we hope people will be equipped with clear standards for communication and entrance into the system.

This guide could take a few different forms. It could involve a glossary, a constantly updated collection of standards, and flexible visual formats, too. Equipped with this standardized guidance, we hope it will be easier for people to communicate the value of their work and tell their stories without expecting fluency in the language of artspeak, access to a generous budget, or previous exposure to its norms.

What is your discovery methodology for investigating the current state of the target protocol?

This protocol improvement builds on our own experiences as artists, critics, and editors in the art world. The discovery phase will include field research at institutions, galleries, artist studios, and editorial settings, taking a look at how they define their own sense of taste, and how they define what it is they look for. We’d also interview practitioners - artists, gallerists, critics, editors, curators - and analyze how their experiences fit into the picture. Our interviews will span fresh art school graduates, artists with no formal artistic education, and more accomplished artists who navigated challenges breaking into the field.

We’d also like to do an in-depth historical analysis of how art world tastemakers have defined historicization. The rise of the mega-gallerist, the celebrity artist, the curator as public figure, and the proliferation of expensive art education in many countries (the MFA industrial complex as it’s referred to in the US) - these are relatively recent developments in history. We’d like to better understand: what have they cost the wider art community, and how have they defined its boundaries?

We’re also interested in the development of keywords in artistic discourse and the actual language of cultural transformation. In order to think about how language (visual or verbal) can become more expansive, we need to first grasp how keywords have been formed, altered, influenced, redefined, confused, and reinforced in the historical contexts in which they appeared to give us their current meaning. We’d like to understand: how do these nuances change, and how have they defined artistic practices and institutions?

In what form will you prototype your improvement idea?

Following the research phase mentioned above, we’ll create a map collating our findings - key quotes from interviews, overarching themes that emerge - that will inform the improved communication protocols we prototype, then test. Our prototypes will take the form of paper tests, then digital user interfaces, that we refine with continuous user testing and rounds of feedback involving several players in the system. Once we have our improved protocol together, we’d like to then create a live event in a gallery space.

How will you field test your improvement idea?

We will field test our idea by orchestrating a scene in which all the actors in a given scenario - say one gallerist, one artist, one critic - are all brought together to use our improved protocol to communicate with one another. The gallerist will have never met the artist, and the artist will have never encountered the critic (and vice versa). The results of the live experiment will be logged and fed back into the system, and we will document the operation and include a reference book for the protocol. The reference book will be a version-controlled, live document that lives online and improves over time as more people collectively contribute to it. It can also be exported in other mediums as needed, like a code reference book, or perhaps text linters.

Who will be able to judge the quality of your output?

We’d like to invite artists, critics, curators, gallerists we know from our own involvement in the art world to help judge the quality of our output. That includes Critical Engineering Group, members of the Trust community (of which Zoe is a member), Mediengruppe Bitnik, artist Aram Abrtholl, artist Emily Edelman, art critic Eliza Levinson, art journalist and editor Josie Thaddeus-Johns, art historian and professor Irene Caravita, and several other artists.

How will you publish and evangelize your improvement idea? Eg: Submit proposal to a standards body, publish open-source code, produce and release a software development kit, etc.

We will publish the standard book (a living document that will continue beyond the residency), the reference book, and version-controlled Github.

What is the success vision for your idea?

Our vision of success is to develop a network of art world players who are invested in staying in touch with another via our network, and to have an influx of new talent who feel informed enough to attempt to join in via our protocol. Developing a community around the project will strengthen the project and keep it relevant over time. Our goal is to empower art professionals in all corners of the ecosystem and levels of experience and exposure. We hope our work will make an opaque world more accessible to all the talent out there.

To spark discussion here, we’d like to ask:

What protocols of the art industry feel most accessible to you? Which feel the most inaccessible?

What protocols have been the most beneficial or impactful? Were they hidden, and how did you find them?