Even though we are indeed building a curation protocol, writing an article about curation while trying to not alienate any of the very diverse stakeholders that form part of the JPG microverse, was a really hard task.
Of course, the fact that the word curation is used for so many things, doesn’t help when it comes to the task of writing an article about it:
“A restaurant near my apartment sells “curated salads”; a home goods store sells “carefully curated sheets”; a babysitting agency offers “curated care”; my inbox bulges with curated newsletters, curated dating apps, curated wine programs.” - Jason Farago, Curation as Creation (2019)
JPG, its exhibition making platform, our educational initiatives, and our core product the JPG Canons sit at the very memed intersection between technology and art. NFTs are versatile, networked digital objects that can be art, game components, property deeds and financial instruments, to name a few. So, if one considers all of this and their corresponding communities/stakeholders and their view on curation, that’s a lot of people to cater to. Instead of doing that, we’ll explain JPG’s point of view, backed by different thinkers, movements, institutions and platforms we appreciate, and open lines for further discussion on the matter.
“At its most basic (the act of curating) is simply about connecting cultures, bringing their elements into proximity with each other - the task of curating is to make junctions, to allow different elements to touch” - Hans Ulrich Obrist, Asad Raza, Ways of Curating (2014)
Although art exhibitions date from the middle ages, the profession of Curator, is a fairly new one, consolidating around the late eighteenth century, preceded by collectors that arranged and selected items for their wunderkammern (German for cabinet of curiosities). Around the 1960s, two figures came to prominence that embodied the contemporary art curator that we all envision when we imagine someone that has chosen this career path: Walter Hopps in the USA, and Harald Szeemann in Europe.
In Ways of Curating, Hans Ulrich Obrist observes that there are four functions that a curator can or might have:
Preservation: cultural objects need to be safeguarded as they tell history and stories, reflect communities and moments in history
Selection of new work: cultural institutions need to update their collections in order to continue evolving their legacies.
Contributing to art history: research allows the curators to pass on knowledge about the cultural objects. Conversely, this research is only possible through curating the raw information.
Exhibition making: displaying and arranging the art on the walls and galleries (IRL and virtual, of course!)
Obrist also claims that nowadays “the idea of curating has become associated more and more closely with the modern cultural ritual we call the exhibition”. At the same time, Obrist highlighted the ephemerality of the exhibition and the cultural constellations it produces, due to the lack of comprehensive literature on them, and the “extraordinary amnesia about exhibition history” - now, hold on to that last statement, because this is something that JPG Canons might be able to work with :)
“Curation for me is the mediation and translation of an idea or a concept, through a set narrative that might be conceptual, historical, or another approach that is deemed suitable for what you want to convey or contextualize.“ - Stina Gustafsson, Curator
Truth be told, defining curation in the art sense, is not a one person task, not even an institutional task: curation is about assembling, preserving, and surfacing constellations of information and objects, and most importantly, creating different forms of dialogue, from object to object, to object to communities, and between people. And at the same time, what curation actually means can only be loosely defined through dialogue.
Within the digital art realm, dialogue has been most visible within the field of networked co-curation (most specifically, surf clubs). Networks of people connected through websites have been pushing dialogue between objects and communities forward since the early days of the internet.
In her book Curating Digital Art, Annet Dekker interviews digital art/new media curators in 2021, in the same form Obrist interviewed contemporary art curators in A Brief History of Curation (2008) to define the history of the profession, and comes to the conclusion that none of her interviewees were really interested in discussing terminology, most specifically around the word curation. For them, terminology was irrelevant, seeking to break free from belonging to a certain category where they would need to defend digital art. The museum’s presence, and therefore, exhibition making in the traditional sense, was unexciting to them.
C@C (Computer-Aided Curating) was one of the earliest curatorial endeavors on the web, starting in 1993. “A prototype system concerned with the production, presentation, documentation and distribution of contemporary art”, C@C’s website stopped functioning in 1995. However, Eva Grubinger, one of its creators, continued to do lectures and installations on the topic for a long time, and there’s plenty of documentation about it.
“In museums, software art is mostly only presented on the institution’s website, if anywhere at all. The decision to fragment art into object-based art, which is presented in an exhibition space, as opposed to immaterial art, which should be contained within the format of the website – gives a clear indication on its valuation. It mirrors the institution’s own domination by trustees, who unfortunately do not collect this kind of art.” - Eva Grubinger, C@C – Computer Aided Curating (1993-1995) revisited Lecture, Tate Modern, London, 4.6.2005
After C@C, many different ways of curating proliferated the internet: link lists, surf clubs, and many forms of online exhibitions. Most part of this collective labor has been preserved and archived by the trailblazing institution Rhizome, that continues to date, to perform the first three of the four aforementioned tasks Obrist mentioned when he tried to explain the curatorial labor. Rhizome is a new media art organization based in New York City that was founded in 1996 by artist Mark Tribe. The organization has been affiliated with the New Museum in New York City since 2003, and has presented exhibitions and events at a variety of venues around the world. Its mission is to support the creation, presentation, preservation, and critique of emerging artistic practices that engage technology. To achieve this mission, Rhizome creates and implements a variety of programs and initiatives, including commissions for new works, exhibitions and events, a digital preservation program, and an online community for artists and audiences. The organization also maintains the Rhizome ArtBase, an online archive of digital art that is accessible to the public. Through its various programs and initiatives, Rhizome aims to foster a critical understanding of the ways in which technology shapes contemporary art and culture.
“Rhizome is interesting because over the years, we have become a node of connection for a lot of people in a lot of different industries. In our new chapter, our role is to get everyone in the (virtual or IRL) room and get to know and talk to each other, and for us to get out of the way, and let people be able to make those connections with each other. Ideally, Rhizome wants to give people the tools/ access/ platform to decide and ensure the legacy of what's important to them. Digital culture is an enormous field. Institutions need to decenter gate-kept expertise and lean more towards facilitating a distributed network. focused on the stewardship of ideas, concepts, critical conversations and art objects/assets.” - Makayla Bayley, Co-Director, Rhizome
For instance, Rhizome’s landmark project, the Net Art Anthology (2019) has identified, preserved and presented a hundred exemplary works, with the aim of devising a canon within the net art realm. The anthology had an “irl” presence, an exhibition called The Art Happens Here, with an eponymous catalogue that’s become a relic, reaffirming the importance of the curatorial profession, both in the role of cultural preservation and exhibition and canon creation. The curation and initiative was led by Michael Connor (then Artistic Director, now Co-Director of Rhizome), in cooperation with Assistant Curator Aria Dean, Dragan Espenschied (Preservation Director), and Lyndsey Jane Moulds.
“This initiative was inspired, in part, by the Essential Cinema Repertory Collection, a list of films compiled by James Broughton, Ken Kelman, Peter Kubelka, P. Adams Sitney and Jonas Mekas between 1970 and 1975 as an attempt “to define the art of cinema”. (...) To their credit, the Essential Cinema listmakers did assume that their efforts would simply be a starting point, that the list would continue to expand. In fact, this expansion never happened (...) resources were limited and Essential Cinema became a time capsule. Nevertheless, it is still actively used (...) on an ongoing basis at Anthology Film Archives, the cinema that was founded to house this collection” - Michael Connor, Net Art’s Material: Making an Anthology in The Art Happens Here: Net Art Anthology (2019)
With the advent of NFTs, and the hyperproliferation of these cultural objects, online communities started talking about the need for curation to enhance discovery and ordering, as well as creating taxonomy, and a variety of platforms were born claiming to do or let others do the curatorial labor. We are yet to see, however, if these curatorial efforts will end up being “ephemeral” due to lack of correct documentation and the preservation of such.
“The current vogue for the idea of curating stems from a feature of modern life that is impossible to ignore: the proliferation and reproduction of ideas, raw data, processed information, images, disciplinary knowledge and material products that we are witnessing today” - Hans Ulrich Obrist, Asad Raza, Ways of Curating (2014)
Before the Mosaic browser and later the Netscape Navigator made the internet available and mainstream by bringing online information available to the masses, in a more user friendly way than previous browsers, the internet was a pile of text, raw information, seldomly ordered. In 1993, the first proposal for an online encyclopedia was born, further formalizing the need for open, ordered information. In 1998, Richard Stallman published The Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource, an encyclopaedia formed by writings by everyone (although he mentioned that students and teachers would be prioritized in the reach out process to achieve this endeavor), without the control of a central entity in charge of its edition. Stallman highlighted: “the universal encyclopaedia should be open to public access by everyone who can access the web” and encouraged small contributors to participate in it.
Wikipedia, the most well known and long lasting example of an encyclopaedia accessible to all, that everyone is able to contribute to, was launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. After the dotcom bust, and the separation of the co-founders, Wales proposed and instituted self governance and bottom-up self direction for the editors, taking a step back himself from moderation and community development and direction. Wikipedia administrators are the curators and custodians of the contemporary library of Alexandria, and the aforementioned direction has been adopted widely by online fora, most notably, Reddit.
“Intermediation constitutes important processes in culture and economy, and intermediary actors such as gatekeepers and taste-makers, are said to perform crucial roles in-between producers and consumers.” - Johann Jannson, The online forum as a digital space of curation (2019)
With the advent of social media, even more information and more need of curation arised, this time, however, each user would become the “curator” of their own feed, and the algorithm, fed by questionably legally transmittable data would continue to add layers of curation to our “information highways” and online lives and personhood.
“The attempted pollination of culture, or a form of map making that opens new routes through a city, a people or a world.” - Hans Ulrich Obrist, Asad Raza, Ways of Curating (2014)
“Rhizome's preservation program advocates for social memory for internet users. Our goal is to maintain the integrity of networked cultures by ensuring ongoing access to digital artifacts in our care. Rhizome offers free and open source software tools that support the creation and maintenance of self-determined, decentralized, vernacular archives.” - Makayla Bayley, Co-Director, Rhizome
As it was observed in the previous section, Wikipedia, Reddit and other online forums and social media propose collective curation, accessible to all.
Every subreddit (themed fora within Reddit) has its moderators, ordered hierarchically, that impose previously agreed rules on their domain. Further to this, the mechanisms around upvoting and downvoting of posts on each subreddit, place attention on certain subjects above others - adding another, yet more inclusive layer of community curation to the message board. To avoid sybil attacks, and upvote farming, algorithms and different measures were implemented, improving the mechanics of collective curation.
Communities gathering in their fora, building relationships, creating subgroups and spinning off new ones, are some of the building blocks that continue to build and order information as well as form an online society.
The art world version of curation is no different than this. As mentioned earlier, curators establish dialogue, relationships, and surface cultural objects, while contextualizing it all.
“Relationships between people and the curatorial labor are very important, as you’re working with humans, both with artists and also with an audience that needs to be considered in the work you’re doing. I consider it to be a constant balancing act based on trust, between finding the right setting and narrative between the art, the location and the context (which usually happens in dialogue with the artist/s), at the same time as you’re considering your audience.” - Stina Gustafsson, Curator
Curation in the online realm is most valuable when it’s done by humans interacting with each other and the information produced. In this regard, Wikipedia continues its reign as the web’s most valuable source of information - however not without controversy. Wikipedia administrators are free to edit, delete, and contest all information within the encyclopedia, as long as they are backed by their guidelines and community. They all have a sense of duty and, in theory, work for free, and their only reward is the reputation awarded by other administrators and moderators within the community. As mentioned, editors are self-directed and self-governed, they gather and discuss online, and over time, have formed their own hierarchical system, alongside with community-supported values and of course, biases and prejudices. Given that the work is performed for free, and reputation is non systematized, it is widely know that being a Wikipedia administrator might come with a possible burnout in one’s horizon, and that at a point, one might encounter hostility, prejudice or harassment.
“Speaking from a curatorial perspective, the idea of preserving digital culture at large is about upkeeping the changing environments in which the objects exist. A question that I've been sitting with a lot right now is: what differentiates digital art from content? Especially when we have an abundance of free, high-quality content? I think the difference lies in the fact that good art can destabilize your ways of seeing, even if only by a few degrees, and only for a few moments.” - Makayla Bayley, Co-director, Rhizome
Web3 is much more than the ownership of one’s creative practice, or assets. It also transcends blockchain and cryptocurrency. It is both a technological stack, and an ideology based on the core tenets of decentralization, openness, permissionlessness, resistance, and trust minimisation (when while you should trust your peers, systematically, you could go well without doing so, since the mechanisms are designed to not require this human quality). It has its own, multiple subcultures and communities, spread out across the world, sometimes bound by cultural objects (NFTs), decentralized organizations (DAOs) or simply around cryptocurrencies.
Web3’s cultural objects, aka NFTs are currently in a state of disorganization, much like the early versions of the internet. They are valuable pieces of data marking moments in time, they can be artworks, they are networked and as mentioned above, versatile, complex and (if built right) immutable legacy that can survive for millenia on the blockchains we build. Cultural objects that still need to be treated with more gravitas, however, the lack of supporting infrastructure to archive, preserve, order, curate and discover them better, makes a hard case for them within our contemporary society.
How we build this much needed cultural infrastructure, in a society that’s bound by the tenets mentioned above, matters, since these tenets are not only guiding values, but ways to preserve, distribute and bring to light information. If we believe in the web3 world, in free information, in decentralization and open source software, then we should build our infrastructure in the same way.
Without going into much detail, Hyperstructures , the much-shared blogpost by Jacob Horne, fleshes out how we should build our cultural infrastructure:
Unstoppable: the protocol cannot be stopped by anyone. It runs for as long as the underlying blockchain exists.
Free: there is a 0% protocol wide fee and runs exactly at gas cost.
Valuable: accrues value which is accessible and exitable by the owners.
Expansive: there are built-in incentives for participants in the protocol.
Permissionless: universally accessible and censorship resistant. Builders and users cannot be deplatformed.
Positive sum: it creates a win-win environment for participants to utilize the same infrastrastructure.
Credibly neutral: the protocol is user-agnostic.
In short, and taking the opinions and conclusions expressed on this essay, JPG proposes networked co-curation under a governance structure bound by a custom designed reputation system, to facilitate mechanisms for the creation of on-chain lists (JPG Canons) to help order, contextualize and discover NFTs, while at the same time, since the Canons are stored on-chain, it aids in the archiving and preservation of history.
At JPG we believe that humans building relationships among each other and with cultural objects and information, should sit at the core of how curation should work. Crowdsourcing knowledge, in the same fashion Wikipedia or Reddit do, and wide accessibility to the platform, whether for viewing or participatory purposes, are incredibly important elements of cultural infrastructure.
JPG surfaces NFTs, but before that, it gives its stakeholders the possibility to surface other people as tastemakers and curators, experts and sources of knowledge.
“Curators have the opportunity to mitigate and mediate complex ideas and concepts through exhibitions, writings, education or any other medium that might be suitable within the context. Creating a certain openness around the space and the topic might open up for further exploration and new interest from groups and sectors that have been hard to reach.” - Stina Gustafsson, Curator
To achieve this, JPG proposes a protocol that’s an evolution of Token Curated Registries (TCRs), crowdsourced and trusted lists of data - in our case NFTs - that can be contested, changed, or contributed by the stakeholders. The creation of each list (let’s call them Canons from now on) is also in the hands of users. And in order to adhere to the positive-sum environment and credibly neutral infrastructure posed in the Hyperstructures essay, we’ve instituted an upgradeable governance and reputation system alongside voting mechanisms aimed to reduce asymmetries and biases found in most systems. No system is perfect, and no team has the ultimate truth in terms of mechanisms, so the first iteration has been designed to the best of our ability and values, however we look forward to iterating based on community feedback for many years to come.
It’s worth noting that both of JPG’s platforms, Exhibitions and Canons, are stored permanently on Arweave, generating an important primitive, a building block to preserve and archive web3 culture.
At the time of writing, JPG’s launched three initial canons, Dynamic, Conceptual, and Crypto-Social, and the efforts to categorize NFTs in these two canons have resulted in co-creating, alongside the JPG community, the most thorough lists on both categories that are currently in existence. Moreover, a grassroots movement has taken over the JPG Discord chat, resulting in months long discussions about conceptualism, smart contracts and art history, among other topics.
Finally, but quite importantly, we like to think about our stakeholders as people that understand the curatorial labor from the perspective mentioned in the first section (preservation, selection of new work, contributing to history, and exhibition making) and at the same time, are able to approach the task of contributing to the JPG Canons from a similar perspective to that of a Wikipedia administrator/editor: the JPG Canons being a public good, a knowledge based open to everyone and curated by all, and there is a great responsibility to build them. At the same time, we want this to be a positive sum game for everyone, so creating a user friendly, fair, harmonious and interesting portal where people can meet, dialogue and collaborate is core to our mission.
If you have read this far, we are safe to assume you are interested in safeguarding the future of NFTs and to allow them to grow and accrue cultural value and gravitas, both in our web3 world and outside of it. We are building the tools to allow you to contribute towards achieving this. Your contributions to the JPG Canons will not only be recorded on-chain permanently, but they will also allow you to be seen by others as a tastemaker, a mediator, a curator and a contributor to contemporary culture. This is all achievable now, a click away from you - so join us!
Notes: due to Mirror’s default formatting, citations have been converted into links.
All books linked are excellent, and I highly encourage anyone who wants to deep dive into curation to read them. Most can be ordered online.
Makayla Bayley and Stina Gustafsson have been interviewed especially for this essay, thank you for your time and words :)
Thanks to Trent Elmore and Simon Denny for your comments and reviews :)
Thanks to Tim Whidden (MTAA) and Rhea Myers for allowing me to right click save and share your artwork