Who Needs a Curator When You Have A.I.? A Group of Artists Trained a Machine to Curate 64 Possible Whitney Biennials

Each biennial is characterized by art speak that straddles the line between high-brow reflection and utter incomprehensibility.

UBERMORGEN, Leonardo Impett, and Joasia Krysa, The Next Biennial Should Be Curated by a Machine(2021), screenshot. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Ubermorgen, Leonardo Impett, and Joasia Krysa, The Next Biennial Should Be Curated by a Machine (2021), screenshot. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Could the next Whitney Biennial be curated by artificial intelligence? A new online art project based on data from the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Liverpool Biennial attempts to imagine 64 different curatorial statements and artist lists for future exhibitions, all “curated” by a robot.

“The Next Whitney Biennial,” reads the description of biennial number 45, “should reflect the vacillation of New York right now—unable to connect both its manufacturing and financial back-rooms—and operate within the bureaucratized discourse of de-postcapitalization…”

Each alternate universe is characterized by art speak that straddles the line between high brow and utter incomprehensibility and is based on data drawn from actual Whitney and Liverpool Biennials past.

“It uses the exhibition descriptions, art spreadsheets with demographics, all of the materials we had available in the database,” Christiane Paul, the Whitney’s adjunct curator of digital art, told Artnet News. “So many of them are interesting in their approaches. I like the kind of absurdist mix.”

UBERMORGEN, Leonardo Impett, and Joasia Krysa, The Next Biennial Should Be Curated by a Machine(2021), screenshot. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Ubermorgen, Leonardo Impett, and Joasia Krysa, The Next Biennial Should Be Curated by a Machine (2021), screenshot. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

The project is hosted on Artport, the Whitney’s website devoted to commissioning and displaying web-based art that Paul has curated since it was founded in 2001.

A collaboration by artists Ubermorgan, digital humanist Leonardo Impett, and curator Joasia Krysa, The Next Biennial Should be Curated by a Machine is the second joint commission from Artport and the Liverpool Biennial, and is also part of the biennial’s current edition, “The Stomach and the Port,” which, after a year’s delay, opened its outdoor installations on March 20.

Entering the website, viewers are greeted by a swirling black-and-white Op art animation covered with spinning gears. Clicking each one opens a new biennial universe, with a new video background and an accompanying musical clip, each of which comes from a TikTok playlist. (Selections include “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice, “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga, and a clip of Alfalfa singing “You Are So Beautiful” from the 1994 film The Little Rascals.)

The A.I. curator runs on B3(NSCAM) software, a group of technical machine-learning processes programmed by Impett.

UBERMORGEN, Leonardo Impett, and Joasia Krysa, The Next Biennial Should Be Curated by a Machine(2021), screenshot. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Ubermorgen, Leonardo Impett, and Joasia Krysa, The Next Biennial Should Be Curated by a Machine (2021), screenshot. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

“We ran into some interesting challenges,” Paul said. “We noticed the language the A.I. wasn’t very interesting. It had this kind of academic, curatorial voice to it.”

To spice things up, the artists added articles from Rolling Stone to the dataset.

“We definitely wanted to investigate what curating can learn from A.I., and what A.I. can learn from curating,” Paul noted. “You have a reflection of curatorial desires and goals that are embedded in the data.”

From recent biennials, for instance, the machine learning picked up language surrounding identity politics. And it was easier for the A.I. to pick up on trends from the Liverpool Biennial, rather than from the massive stores of data from the much longer-running Whitney Biennial.

UBERMORGEN, Leonardo Impett, and Joasia Krysa, The Next Biennial Should Be Curated by a Machine(2021), screenshot. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Ubermorgen, Leonardo Impett, and Joasia Krysa, The Next Biennial Should Be Curated by a Machine (2021), screenshot. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Each biennial features a list of fictional artists, often with variations on the same first or last name—biennial 32, for instance, includes Lilijana Lieurance, Lilijana Gitlewski, Lilijana Tucknott, and so on—to ensure that real-world artists wouldn’t be the project’s biggest talking point.

“A framework of particular artists makes you judgmental by nature. You might say ‘oh, it’s all the usual suspects again,’ or ‘oh, it’s nonsensical because who would put those artists together?'” Paul said. “But all of these fictional artists are generated based on actual artists bios, so sometimes you can still see where that’s coming from. There may be moments where you can recognize an artist just by sentences from the bio.”

UBERMORGEN, Leonardo Impett, and Joasia Krysa, The Next Biennial Should Be Curated by a Machine(2021), screenshot. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Ubermorgen, Leonardo Impett, and Joasia Krysa, The Next Biennial Should Be Curated by a Machine (2021), screenshot. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

The Whitney has no plans to stage any of these A.I.-generated biennials in the real world, but an A.I. named Jarvis has been tapped to curate next year’s Bucharest Biennial.

Does that mean actual human curators are in danger of being obsolete? Paul isn’t worried.

“I think A.I.-curated exhibitions, which will happen more in the future, will be artworks in and of themselves,” she said. “As curators, we have no desire for machines to replace us, and an A.I. could never have the granular contextual frameworks we as curators have through our interactions with artists.”

Famous last words?


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