1. Know Your Bounce Rate
Published: 16.09.2019
in the series Photography Must Be Curated!
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In February 2011, Google released “Panda”, the first of several updates to its PageRank algorithm. The release aimed to discipline rogue webmasters, and prevent sites with poor quality content from polluting Google’s top search results. With it came the imposition of a new metric of value: freshness. Those seeking credibility within Google’s scopic regime were advised by specialists to generate new and dynamic content that’s ‘engaging, entertaining, enlightening and/or inspiring’ across all available media channels. Overnight, fencing suppliers added blogs to their websites, spare parts dealers developed YouTube channels, and cultural institutions started tweeting, in an attempt to win in the game of online attention.

Screenshot taken by the author

While webmasters had always embraced the internet trope ‘content is king’, the concept of freshness introduced an important temporal element to search. However, as even the most evangelistic figures in the digital marketing world admitted: the creation of beautiful photographs, thrilling videos, insightful white papers, and astute blog posts was both time-consuming and expensive. Instead, Curation, not creation, was posed as a tactical response to the demands of contemporary cultural hyperproduction. The selection, evaluation and re-presentation of pre-existing content would mitigate any gaps in the 24/7 content feed – hypermodern curation for hypermodern times. ‘Curation’ here was embraced as an authentic creative act, a step up from mere aggregation because, according to the Content Marketing Institute: “Aggregation is algorithmic. Curation is handpicked. The human element of curation is a huge source of its value.” More importantly, it supported search – the arbiter of visibility and economic power in network culture. Content curation was therefore celebrated as the primary means to cement ‘business power’ and position oneself as a tastemaker who can influence the flow of online traffic and keep an audience engaged.

Photography Must Be Curated! takes as its starting point this contemporary condition of cultural hyperproduction and the annexation of curating by digital marketing. Over the coming weeks, I’m hoping to speculate on the vectors between the ‘curation economies’ of the museum, web and cloud. In doing so, I want to sketch a much larger set of issues concerning photography’s cultural value which remains largely unaddressed by those charged with its collection and exhibition. At the heart of the matter – which content marketers exploit – is that the capacity of the singular, enframed image to ‘speak’ and survive as a semantic unit is being exhausted. The digital image – materialised on screen in the cultural form of the photograph – slips past in a series of swipes, likes and volleys. Its liquidity and malleability demands fixity – it demands to be curated, valorised, cared for and shaped into aggregations that in turn generate new vectors of attention and value. Or, put another way: After the massification of photography comes the massification of curating. 1I’m borrowing here from Pedro Alves Da Viega et. al, “Chapter 10: Toward a B-Society Model: The Digital Media Art Experience”, in: User Innovation and the Entrepreneurship Phenomenon in the Digital Economy, ed. Pedro Isaias and Luisa Cagica Carvalho (Hershley, PA: IGI Global, Business Science Reference, 2018), 194–216, here 201: “After the massification of artistic creation comes the massification of curating” (who in turn borrow from David Balzer, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, 2014).

Screenshot taken by the author

At a time when there is an ongoing semantic war being waged about the usage of the term curate, it’s worth pausing to consider how curating has been both diffused and operationalised in contemporary culture. As a technical practice born in an analogue world, curating has largely been freed from its administrative role to care for, preserve and order the objects in colonial institutions, stopping the flow of time. In recent decades we have seen how curation has become a form of artistic authorship in itself; one in which the artwork is mobilised as raw material for the production of new experiences and encounters. What is being glimpsed through the present celebration and ‘democratisation’ of curation is that curating is now on the one hand indistinguishable from consumption, and on the other, indistinguishable from identity – because identity is increasingly shaped through products and realised through consumption. This might explain why shops increasingly look like museums, art galleries, and antique stores: and, conversely, why galleries are becoming more like lifestyle brands in the fight for the public’s attention.

Screenshot taken by the author

Curating Ubiquity

For cultural institutions, curating has been mobilised both as the problem and a solution to photographic surplus. By the time Google unleashed Panda, the ontological questions that haunted 1990s post-photographic discourse had been swept aside by a not-really-new-crisis of democratisation triggered by the fusion of camera and phone. The question of how one might curate photography in the context of post-scarcity catalysed museums and galleries to reconsider their missions and their relationship to their audiences, with limited long-term effect. We Are All Photographers Now! proclaimed a 2007 show at Musée de l'Elysée; in the same year Tate’s marketing team inserted Flickr into the exhibition How We Are Now: Photographing Britain. By 2011, the field of photography reached peak curatorial introspection: Foam had a think tank on the future of the medium, and Erik Kessels’ 24HRS in Photos became the Google Image Search response to photographic ubiquity. The celebrated manifesto From Here On was launched at the Rencontres d’Arles, and in London I became the first curator of digital programmes at The Photographers’ Gallery. Intriguingly, 2011 was also the year in which Google launched its Art Project – in itself an ambitious photographic experiment in curating. And, somewhat prophetically, 2011 was also the year in which entrepreneur and ‘father of curation’ Steve Rosenbaum released Curation Nation, a bestselling book whose cover presciently proclaimed “the future of content is context”.

Despite these institutional experiments, the gap between cultural and historical knowledge of photography represented in photographic collections, museums and exhibitions and the formation and circulation of the image in computational culture has never seemed wider. The cultural task of caring for, decoding and making sense of a singular photograph has been usurped by the industrial challenge of making sense of millions of images. Whilst computational culture serves up an image received as culturally continuous with photography, the response by photographic institutions has been to embrace its analogue mirage even closer. Many museum educators have chosen to double down on their role as defenders of visual literacy, plaintively demanding that we just need to slow down the image, and bring the joy of semiotics to swipe-blind millennials who are apparently otherwise blank to the nuances of signifier and signified. In parallel, the flight of photographic value and expertise from cultural institutions has inspired a spirited defence of the museum which reinforces an ideological binary between the material world of the object and the spectral immateriality of the screen.

Meanwhile, whole fields of computer science have accelerated towards the problem of how to extract and mobilise meaning from billions of images: Photographs of faces, cars, bodies and cats are scraped into datasets in order to train the new algorithmic connoisseurs of network culture. Influencers clog the streets of London’s Notting Hill taking carefully crafted selfies to be weaponised in an Instagram content war. Amazon’s Mechanical Turkers sit in front of screens, tagging images under economic conditions which privilege the millisecond glance. Photography must be curated!

Whilst the problem of curating photography has migrated to the domain of the tech sector, Silicon Valley rhetoric is increasingly weaponised against cultural institutions who are repeatedly told they need to embrace the digital or face irrelevance. This advice is frequently couched in terms of the attention economy. Or, as an Arts Council England executive once put it to me: “if you’re a curator, you’re not competing with another mid-sized gallery down the road – you are competing with the cinema and the internet”. Based on these metrics, museums and galleries aren’t doing too well. A 2011 report by Hitwise revealed that a cross section of the UK’s forty biggest museums, galleries, and venues attracted less than 0.04 percent of the total UK domestic web traffic, or 5.71 million visits. As Jane Finnis observed in the Guardian, this represents the equivalent traffic in the same period to littlewoods.com, a minor British online shopping retailer.

Screenshot taken by the author

It’s no surprise, then, that the mania of mass digitisation which accompanied the digital turn in museums and galleries has, some years later, been replaced by a period of introspection and a crisis of audience: how do we makes these jpgs relevant and engaging to the public we serve? How can they be mobilised as content marketing? Who in the comms team can do some A/B testing to generate data on the impact of this work? How can we optimise our programme from this feedback? Over the past decade, tools such as Google Analytics have colonised museum websites, modelling engagement as clickthroughs, traffic and bounce rates in which equality and access is replaced by a democratic appeal to quantification and metrics. UK policymakers urge institutions to ‘dig into their data’ in order to become more market-driven and responsive to customer needs. 2See, for example Anthony Lilley & Paul Moore, Counting What Counts: What Big Data Can Do for the Cultural Sector (London: NESTA, 2013).
 This has led to the paradoxical situation in which museums are being pressured to hire data analysts, whilst data analysts are increasingly being asked to think like museum curators. In these debates, photography remains mobilised as either a transparent technology of reproduction and carrier of artworks – or as a lure for generating engagement. 

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