Uncanny Valleys, Glorious Mistakes:
Computing Curatorial Sciences
Galaudet Gallery Curators Strike Out Into the Open Field
Curating art shows is akin to alchemy as much as it is like computer programming—both are creative efforts which utilize what is known as much as what is unknown experimenting with both to create something new. As algorithms overtake coding in import to keeping our virtual dreams afloat, so too spiritual alchemy has usurped the metallurgic alchemy showing both to be uncomfortably similar. Curating is much like these two pursuits when it is done right. Intent upon eliciting reactions is the main similarity as much as creating a new space in time and outside of time. Once any reaction is gotten then there is a waterfall of ideas, sensations and pure enjoyments that can befall any viewer experiencing a well curated art show.
Galaudet Gallery seeks the impetus of these chain reactions in their curatorial work. As Jerry Saltz writes in “The Alchemy of Curating”, these “chain reactions are thrilling and uncanny.” [i] The hope of alchemating math beyond even 1+ 1 = 3 to maybe 4 or 5 drives us in our research and analysis of history, our thinking and theorizing, our joy in art and aesthetic experiences. And now with our space in downtown Eau Claire, Wisconsin, these calculations include a 1905 Victorian Mansion that is a work of art—an aesthetic experience, unto itself. Even the shifting sunlight through each room agrees as it equally caresses the patinated maple floors and pieces of artworks through waved, leaded and beveled windows creating stilled moments, sacred spaces and a light show choreographed by nature and architecture. The conservation issues and solutions are worthwhile time spent to host these natural expressions within the space. These experiences can be held in the imagination for years and called upon to provoke more ideas, more enjoyment and more pleasure— like fantastic parties that hold their attitude years after the last guest has left. Combining this space with curated art exhibits has been a challenge with rewards vast and mistakes glorious.
It is in those glorious mistakes that we find more reason and less sense—sometimes even unknown paths forward which are disclosed instantly or over time such as utilizing the rounded tower in the tower room as a sub-curated place –a show within a show. Glorious mistakes catch us off guard and can be seen even weeks after a show has been installed when a ray of light catches a certain piece of art or an attentive gallery worker notices how people seem to walk past certain parts of the show too quickly to see anything. One mistake was found when working with exhibit images two years after the show. The mistake? That everyone loved a small painting so much we placed it alone on a wall and enjoyed seeing it there throughout the show even though we all agreed it brought on a sense of loneliness. Viewing a photograph of this wall through the distance of time and sales we saw how lonely the moment was. When we returned the painting to another show armed with this knowledge we placed it as part of a group and it instantly sold. Since the first value of our exhibits is unfortunately that we sell art we felt we had learned from this “mistake”. Or is the mistake in placing a high value on selling and hence marketing? Without sales though we cannot exist.
We also look for “uncanny valleys” in our exhibits. First theorized by Masahiro Mori [ii] as the response humans have to a human looking robot, Mori theorizes that there is a valley (equated as revulsion) between humans and robots that look human. The uncanny experience of seeing an almost human looking robot appears to Mori to be unsettling to humans. We extend this theory in that an uncanny valley creates a distance between humans and those robots which in turn could make it harder for that type of robot to function in society. Extending Mori’s theory even further and into our curatorial work, we look for uncanny valleys—places where visitors may not enjoy, understand or even hate a part of an exhibit. Sometimes we use an uncanny valley to create disharmony in order to show the harmony of certain pieces. But we do not want an uncanny valley that we have not consciously placed there. An example of this is our love of Pierre Redoute’s art and our lack of knowledge about the 1970’s budget art market in the U.S. We have found Pierre Redoute’s 18th century botanical work can create uncanny valleys because of associations visitors bring to exhibits with Redoute’s work primarily since his works saturated the 1970’s U.S. market as low cost, bad prints and so at a glance many people dislike them; but upon further inspection of our museum quality lithographs, often hand painted, those who take the time are entranced by Redoute’s artistry just as we are.
Being able to learn from our mistakes makes them glorious ones and seeing the uncanny valleys created by missed opportunities and perhaps malaise draws us closer to alchemy and algorithms. We understand the lack of surety around art that exists in a town like Eau Claire, WI. The two forces creating this lack of surety are a town that boasts about its “local artists” (a phenomena around the U.S. in towns of this size which requires more research) and a lack of awareness. Supporting local art is one reason we decided to open in Eau Claire, but we have been met with a community which “says” it supports local artists but does not understand the professional, full-time artist at all much less how to really support them. We have yet to meet a self supporting artist outside of the college professors who are supported by their teaching and a couple of graphic artists who are employed as graphic designers. We have been slow at coming to this realization because we hope a self employed artist will appear, magically at this point, to dispel any notion that the local artists are all making money doing something else and not really spending any time on their art or in looking at others’ art.
We have begun to see this as a lack of surety in the general community in and around Eau Claire when it comes to art which has made our curatorial visioning more abecedarian since we are trying to understand how outwardly a community supports art but inwardly they do not. The usual boosters found in all towns across the country (and possibly the world as our globe increasingly becomes smaller and more uniform in certain areas) make matters worse since they instill arrogance into this equation—that their “local artists” are the best even if these artists cannot support themselves through their art making, do not exhibit outside of the community or beyond a ring of say 100 miles and are not a part of the larger art world much less have a practice that equates to the making of art. We will leave off the quality of the art being made for another time. It is in this learner state that we mix it up quite a bit to see how things work, we experiment yes but that idea seems a bit too clean cut for how things seem to dance to music that hasn’t been written yet as we go through our curatorial process. At times it seems that much of the art shows seen in towns like Eau Claire simply retell old history that may not even be accurate much less in service to the current and future communities. Shoring up the “local artists” who have not found a way to shore themselves up seems counterproductive to art, to those artists and to artists who are not in that group since the “local artists” really describes a clique that is prone to exclusion more than inclusion.
It was in this uncanny valley that we found ourselves when visiting the first art show in Eau Claire’s new art center. The exhibit was named erroneously as something that had been ongoing but was acknowledged as a “first”. This began the confusion. We stood in front of a nice abstract painting that seemed off so we walked on to the next. As we went through the overly crowded exhibit with no sense of space or traffic flow with the usual suspects lining the walls as subservient newcomers turned out to be in the clique after all, we noticed how no one really looked at the art—which unfortunately is not a new thing at shows. But it was this one abstract painting we had to return to since it seemed good but bad at the same time. When we saw it was done by an artist we know to have talent this bad/good push/pull seemed increasingly strange. This artist was not part of the “local artist” clique here but he was a part of the “local artist” clique in his town which is about 50 miles away. Luckily when we left the main “gallery” space we saw another abstract painting displayed alone on a wall outside and we saw how it sung as we knew that artist could. It was then that we recognized that it was the curation of the exhibit which had made this artist’s work seem bad. Mori also suggests that through exploring these uncanny valleys we can come to understand what makes us human. [iii]
We returned again to that abstract painting inside that crowded room where all the people had left, after walking around for less than 5 minutes, and stood in front of the painting acknowledging how the placement of this painting with others and within this show had somehow downgraded it and made it seem amateurish when it was really the lack of any curatorial vision or sense which caused this perception. It wasn’t until this epiphanial moment that we “understood” the power a lack of curation holds. Sometimes people who don’t understand curatorial processes end up with shows that are an exercise of simple organization with no hope of creating, supporting or using art to arrive at a goal. These types of shows often look cluttered, pieces are placed together with no artistic integrity involved and fake walls are used as turn-arounds or worse forces which make you have to walk back through a show because quite frankly no one working on the show knew what they were doing. When this happens the art on view, the show itself, can be undermined or worse art itself can be suggested to be meaningless or just plain bad. A badly curated show can make good art look bad. Filling rooms with artists one knows without even trying to curate the rooms is like telling these kind people you know that they are not artists, that their work does not mean or matter much less create a pleasurable experience.
“…partly because curating is becoming less of a dark art and more of a science or profession.” Jerry Salz
Curatorial alchemy is like making art, it is an art form when done right, and in the end sometimes the sense of a show is remembered more than individual pieces. When the alchemy is done with intention and with real ideas presented courageously, even ideas that may challenge the community or public that is destined to visit; art exhibits can produce profound change in society, in individuals, in art. New York art gallery owner Richard Taittinger says that the art world is designed for individuals to discover things about themselves and share those stories with the world. The art market is a platform for learning, innovation, and conversation. Curators work within these bounds and more times than not use these tenants to break open ideas, space, time and sometimes hearts. Artists who work with skilled curators walk away with a sense of having been a part of something or better of having been an ingredient in the alchemy of art. Notwithstanding the glorious mistakes which teach more than they ruin, quoting Yoda from the Last Jedi seems fitting, “We are what they will move beyond”. Each show is a chance to place a marker so that we don’t have to return here, to fit a sounding for depth and reality so that we can move past it with a good amount of knowledge about measurements, experience and beyond. Each show is a way of saying, “We are here, next time we will be there or at least not here again.” Art means not having to repeat what’s been done before, hell it means not to repeat. If curators work to create alchemical reactions for the viewers of their shows then they are working on art. There can also be curators who purposely work on creating confusion, chaos or other elements of disorganization in order to make a point, tell a story or simply let each artwork sing—its own song and as part of the chorus of the show. At the very least curators should work to create shows with meaning, at least as deep as the meaning of the most fluff art within the show, and in working to create meaning they may learn quite a bit about themselves. And here then is the rub—are most people scared to learn new things about themselves? Do they prefer to go through life thinking they have figured it all out? But where is the fun in that? Where also would the pleasure be?
Here then lies our thesis—that art exhibits are both alchemy and algorithms that happen to create a sure way toward understanding self, community, and art better. Just as computer coding is giving way to algorithms as the A.I. is learning to teach itself, write its own code and then write algorithms that are incomprehensible to humans, so too we can bridge that chasm with a way to see past the incomprehension and possibly bring a sense of comprehension through looking at art. Curating derived from experience can create conscious uncanny valleys assisting others to view art in new ways and understand the artists’ intentions. Curating with perspective, goals, fortitude in delivering a shared experience more easily brings about Galaudet Gallery’s idea of The Partnership of Sight.
“If curators can embrace alchemy, uncertainty and chaos,” then art shows bring back the pleasure of art viewing and these shows can still be “zones of aberration, maps of the present, theaters of doubt and palimpsests of perception. They can still produce pleasure, tension, surprise and revelation.”—Jerry Salz with our interjection.
By Vicki Milewski
with help from Mike Milewski
[i] “The Alchemy of Curating” an article by Jerry Salz
[ii] An Uncanny Mind: Masahiro Mori on the Uncanny Valley and Beyond Translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki