About curation (in the NFT space and beyond)

Curation in the age of massive scale digital platforms is a challenge, but full of opportunities to nurture human growth with the help of new technologies.

About curation (in the NFT space and beyond)

(above, the author's collected artworks at Hic Et Nunc, his favourite NFT art platform and the one where he also published his works; artworks displayed are, from left to right, by @liasomething, @mvscmnt, @1x1_NFT, @svada8).

I attended a Clubhouse event yesterday about curation in the NFT space, hosted by Verticalcryptoart and with a magnificent list of speakers (@colbornbell, @sambrukhman, @flakoubay, @aljaparis, @habitual_truant, @DianeDrubay, @pointline_, @artnome). It is humbling to look at the people in the debate and daring to say something about it, but here I go. Curation in the NFT space is a very broad topic, and it was addressed from the point of view of NFTs and art, art NFTs or however you'd like to phrase it.

There were interesting comments amid a debate that approached the question mostly from the standpoint of what I am going to call traditional curatorial practice. There was debate around the curator as gatekeeper, the curator as the facilitator for artists incoming into NFT space, what does a curator need to know to get started (I loved Jason Bailey's comment that to curate you just need to do it), and so on.

I am an outsider, not a curator in the art world and hardly a curator of anything at all in my life in general. Probably because of that I missed some points in the discussion yesterday and maybe this whole comment that I make is worthless. But my point revolves around this thought: traditional curatorial roles have traditionally existed in the physical space. But when we consider the scale that digital platforms can reach, how can we bring the advantages of curation to said platforms at that scale? What is the role of technology there, how can we assist curators, can we even automate some things? Considering the very own nature of NFTs, the decentralization that underlies every model based on blockchains, how does that apply here?

Digital platforms to showcase art, creative work, etc. have existed probably since the day the internet was born. From early pioneers exchanging images through bulletin boards to the Dribbbles, Deviantarts, Behance, etc. where many of today's NFT artists have been breeding for some years now, or where some of them at least have been taking inspiration from, those platforms have had to fight with the issue of relevance, which I understand is one of the curatorial's tasks. Algorithms to come up with some kind of reputation have existed since the very beginning too, from basic follow counts to more advanced mechanisms. Projects like @muratpak's Archillect have started to find new, interesting avenues, although encountering certain surprises (perhaps not so surprising) along the way, like seeing how your trend-seeking algorithm ends up becoming a trend-setting thing. Still, they seem to me like a very interesting proposal, not to substitute human curation but rather to augment it in the face of unprecedented scale. Both in terms of art production as well as in terms of interest in art.

I say this because what NFTs bring along in this space is, among other things, a more widespread opportunity to live off your content / work / art (and beyond, but keeping the point close to the art world, as in yesterday's conversation). This, in turn, makes more people interested in creating artworks, to see if it works for them. The end result is more artworks available, more heterogeneity & diversity in terms of the styles / quality / themes / narratives of the artworks. This brings more people than before interested in buying because these digital artworks have now a market value and also as a direct consequence of the broader & richer diversity, which makes the purchasing of art appealing to a wider part of humanity (soon also machinity, but let's leave that for other occasion). This in turns makes other people be interested in building marketplaces to help with all that. All this makes the problem of proper discovery all the more complicated: more artworks to search or browse through. Artworks that, to some, may be "nothings", as Jerry Saltz commented on an aspiring artist shilling their art in a Twitter thread (note: up until two months ago I had no idea what "shill your NFTs" actually meant, for those of you not in the know it seems to denote the act of promoting one's own works in a public debate, forum or otherwise place with some kind of audience).
So we face a potentially never-seen-before scale of interest in buying and selling and owning and enjoying and (fill in to your taste) art. This is where I see new formats and opportunities for curation. Traditional models don't scale to the rhythm of decentralization and digital. They are still needed, though. Perhaps a mixed approach, where new mechanisms can find cooperation with established models, is something we can explore a bit further.

I believe in viewing a human-curated collection as an expanded work of art: it includes the intent of the artist, plus the commentary of the curator. All forms of expression enrich the viewer's experience and it's own human existence. It helps me understand the art better. It educates me. I don't want to loose that to recommendation algorithms who still know nothing about what really moves me (I wrote about that briefly here, and will try to elaborate more in the future), and will have a hard time doing so. There are possible approaches to this.
One possible approach is to arm curators with AI-assisted tools to curb the massive art production. Sure, algorithms can indeed make wonders today regarding an artwork analysis. And we can teach them to deal with abstract art in better ways than today (it's easy for an algorithm to go through the content of an image when the image itself is descriptive; abstract art is not so easily interpretable) (ok, not by humans either!). Curators in their role of "filters" to showcase "relevant" artworks, and also in their role of "narrators", can use these to find what they think is relevant to their own curatorial intent, and have what we could call a "higher productivity" (talking about productivity here feels a bit wrong to me, but let me use that word for lack of a better concept right now - English is not my native language anyway). Note that the curatorial intent is actually key here: the curator puts up a collection together because of a reason, and that reason is in many occasions as important or more than the artworks themselves, at least in terms of viewer experience.

Another approach, which I would have high hopes for, could be to distribute the role of curators. As it was mentioned in the Clubhouse session, we see artists acting as curators right now in the NFT arena. I have met some of these artist-curators, sometimes curating their own art, sometimes acting as points of entry for others into this explosive movement. Both roles are highly necessary. But currently there are few incentives for who I will refer to as "people with interesting criteria" (not calling them curators because perhaps they sometimes don't see themselves as such) to dedicate more time to that activity. Yet they have highly interesting curatorial intents, and they would do much good if given more audience. So why don't we bake in the possibility of having some kind of a marketplace of collections curated by these people? And some algorithms to tame the whole thing. I really like the editorial content in platforms such as Superrare.co and all the other platforms, and the importance of it is beyond the fact of whether I like it or not. But perhaps there could be another part of the site where users could create "exhibitions" where they put up a collections of pieces with a given narrative. I could perhaps suscribe to some of these other views onto the vast collection of artworks being generated. I may like generative art, 3D futuristic neon-punk renders, digitized oil on canvas or mixed digital-analogue illustrations. No matter what I like, there are surely people who can build interesting collections to me, and who can actually take me from my comfort zone into discovering other things. Basically a p2p curatorial system, rewarded in cryptocurrencies (since it's already baked in). Perhaps smart contracts that split rewards between artists and curators who help the audience get there. And many other models.

I mention all these things because I am working in these concepts, thinking about how to make them a reality over the Tezos blockchain and in or around art markets present there. But I'd love to see this ideas spread and improve, and breed solid concepts with more experienced minds.

I have explicitly avoided getting deep into what we can do with algorithms. To reach the scale of the whole platform, I believe we need to use them in one way or another. But I prefer to keep the human in the loop in this discussion and leave how AIs can help us for another moment. Human in the loop is essential here for reasons I have already touched upon. As I see it, one of the most important aspects of curation is to educate, to help others learn, to help appreciate art. This directly adds to the human dimension of all those involved, and opens opportunities for so many people, directly and down the road in everyone's lives. So far, and until cognitive machines understand us a bit better, it's only humans who can hold hands with other fellow specimens to walk this road of letting art imbue our souls, or whatever we have inside, with the highest forms of self-realization.

Thanks, curators.

(Just to end with two thank you notes: one goes to Jason Bailey, @artnome, for all his curatorial work, and most importantly all his writing. I have learned much and hope to keep doing so. The other goes to Sally J. Rhudy, @sjrhudy in Instagram, an artist herself who operates the account @nft_fineart there, a great effort to curate fine art within the NFT space. The idea of creating rewarded distributed curatorial roles kind of came to mind thinking about what she and so many others do in digital platforms).