Gaia Tedone

CO-CURATING WITH CASSINI: FROM THE ABYSS OF COMMODIFICATION TO THE EXPLORATION OF SPACE CURATION

Gaia Tedone is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image, London South Bank University and an independent curator with an expansive interest in photography and in the technologies and apparatuses of image formation. Amongst her recent projects: Dispositifs d’occasion, Comédie de la Passerelle project, Paris (2016); Twixt Two Worlds, Whitechapel Gallery, London & Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne (2014-15); Shifting Gazes, Guest Projects, London (2013).

On the 27th of April 2017, Google celebrated the end of NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn with an amusing Google Doodle featuring the spacecraft swooping between the planet and its rings. This is how the world’s most popular search engine paid homage to a thirteen year mission in outer space, which collected valuable information on Saturn and its rings while also advancing the search for alien life in the universe. As I am writing, the Cassini spacecraft has begun the twenty-two orbits around Saturn that constitutes its mission Grand Finale, leading to its self-destruction. In what follows, I will explain the relevance of this information for eBay and project #exstrange.

Cassini is not only a NASA spacecraft named after Giovanni Domenico Cassini, the famous Italian-born astronomer of the Seventeenth Century. Crucially, it is also the name of the eBay search algorithm, which was enhanced in 2013 to improve the platform’s overall performance, selling standards and costumer satisfaction. Whether the choice of renaming the algorithm after Cassini was the in-joke of a geeky eBay programmer or marked a new trend in algorithmic anthropomorphism is still to be determined. What is certain is that I knew little about Cassini’s human and machinic identity when I accepted the invitation to
participate as a guest curator of the project #exstrange. I suspect Marialaura and Rebekah ignored the relevance of Cassini too. Nonetheless, the project #exstrange appealed to me as a groundbreaking curatorial mission for its willingness to take up great risk and explore uncharted territory. I was eager to join the team and be launched into orbit.

As a guest curator, I was asked to select three artists and produce a curatorial statement. The invitation resonated with my research interests, previously concerned with the entanglements between image circulation, commodification and curation. I was keen to collaborate with three artists whose practices imaginatively responded to the challenge: Niko Princen, Eva and Franco Mattes and Garrett Lynch. However, I soon became perplexed about the kind of curatorial role I could have within this specific context. Clearly, the project was already overtly curated. Marialaura and Rebekah had carefully orchestrated its framework, timing and documentation. The other invited guest curators, spread across the globe, were also bringing their distinctive perspectives. On top of this, an extra curatorial layer was embedded in eBay’s technological infrastructure as its selling categories and standard operating protocols reveal. Such a state of affairs begged several pressing questions: What is left to curate here? And what kind of language is appropriate to frame my own curatorial statement and intervention?

Hence, I decided to dive deeper into eBay, starting from digging into my own email correspondence with the platform over the years while noticing the specific language it employed. I then moved onto the website, browsing through its history, glossary, forum, community, and customer service pages. EBay was officially born in 1997, a few years after founder Pierre Omidyar wrote its code. Soon after, the platform established itself as an honest and open marketplace dedicated to bringing together buyers and sellers and producing “an army of bubble wrap entrepreneurs.” [1] As evoked by the title of the #exstrange project, eBay was one of the first online communities where people were exposed to ‘strangers’ and mingled—all in a pre-Facebook and pre-Tinder era. Since the year 2000, eBay has even run its own University course teaching users how to become master sellers. As my investigation moved from the general to the particular, I focused on two specific elements: the role and currency of images on the one hand, and of online curating on the other. Images play a key role on eBay as they support the functioning of the whole marketplace, acting as interfaces among different users and enabling multiple economic and social transactions. Specific criteria determine what is a ‘good image’ according to eBay standards so that everyone can become a photographer if tips and instructions are followed to the letter. One could go as far as arguing that eBay contributed to the creation of the standards of digital stock photography: its detailed guidelines command the use of plain backdrops, diffuse lighting and close-ups in order to best frame, scale and optimise the depicted objects. On the other hand, the currency and role of curating seems more ambiguous on the platform, as different kinds of items materialise when the word ‘curator’ is typed into the search engine. Amongst many other items, these include: a vintage postcard addressed to the Photography Curator of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum; protective oil for wood; humorous T-shirts; gadgets of Dr. Who TV series. Additionally, the whole spectrum of the literature on curating surfaces from the website, including books about art curating, new media curating and content curation. However, when it comes to the activity of curating on the platform, this seems to be associated, fairly conventionally yet predictably, with the creation of bespoke online collections. While easily available to all eBay users, members of staff strategically employ this function for marketing purposes. There is even an Office of the Chief Curator, which selects the most interesting, story-worthy and spectacular items on eBay. So, who is a curator online and what it means to curate on eBay and beyond?

The deeper I dove into my research, the more obvious it appeared that the project #exstrange itself had been swallowed up by the abyss of eBay’s stuff and the auctions were very often difficult to find. I could
encounter them only when following the links shared daily through social media and the #exstrange website. I began reflecting upon the actual visibility of #exstrange within the platform: Was it nil? Or was the project considered a potential threat by eBay, hence falling into the category of “breach of security” that appears in the company’s recent SWOT analysis–that is, its strategic business assessment based on market strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? [2] I pondered how such analysis could assist in situating the value of curation within the platform. Above all, I was curious to discover who were the project’s audiences and participants and why the works were not appearing on top of my search. It is at this point that I started to explore eBay analytics, its “Best Match” system and search engine. I soon discovered that there is no golden rule to succeed on eBay today, but certain steps can be taken to “be competitive and stay competitive” in the market place.3 The arrival of the ‘intelligent’ Cassini marked a new era in the platform’s history: the system has become more difficult to ‘game’ and rewards those “best practices” that boost customer engagement and enhance image quality standards.

Thanks to Cassini, I was finally able to produce a curatorial statement—a hyperlinked text where the highlighted keywords refer back to a page or acronym within the eBay website and its vast glossary. I described eBay as a self-contained universe of data and meta-data, where countless images are governed by the ratio of visibility. Here, the connection with astronomy rescued me from the deep abyss of commodification and instead launched me into the exploration of space curation. Alongside the curatorial statement, I created an exhibition leaflet, which was produced solely by using the headings of the emails I had been receiving from eBay over the years. If I wanted to truly engage with the eBay universe, surely I had to start by speaking its own language—one that is humorous, intimate and reflexive of consumers’ behaviours. Not surprisingly, the quantity and quality of my correspondences with the platform has magnified since I embarked on the project, culminating on the 25th of April 2017 with an unsurpassable headline: “You are always on our mind Gaia.”

Because of my interest in exploring the value of curation on the platform, Marialaura and Rebekah invited me to produce an auction myself, which I saw as an opportunity to sell the curatorial expertise I had accumulated on eBay and become more ‘intimate’ with Cassini algorithm. With the support of the visually rich imageries associated with Cassini available from the NASA website, I drew together the languages of astronomy, search optimisation and curation. Thus I chose to sell a bespoke curatorial consultancy in partnership with Cassini for the bargain price of $15. I placed my auction, titled Curatorial Consultancy with Cassini on #exstrange, in the category “Specialty Services > eBay Auction Services > Appraisal &
Authentication”. This category of service only exists in the US website so I had to sign a special international agreement since my account is UK-based. My service mixed human and algorithmic curation. It was reliable, efficient and creative. Being immaterial, web-based and buyer-specific, it aimed at increasing the latter’s visibility within eBay universe of ‘Happy Transactions.’ Although available to all eBay users, the consultancy was particularly fitting for artists interested in exploring the currency of their name and work on the platform. My auction offered an online report, the co-creation with Cassini of an eBay collection tailored on the buyer’s listings and tastes, and a special mention during a public event entitled Posthuman curating: curating authenticity or the question of content online held at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, UK. On this occasion, I announced that my service had been purchased, warmly congratulating user Afaja, the buyer of my auction, for his winning offer.

As a result of my consultancy, user Afaja, who turned out to be the artist Alessandro Sambini, produced the successful listing entitled Portable Wildlife Image Instance, since it immediately appeared at the top of the eBay search. I suspect this was due to its original title, witty description and high quality photographs—three key features that Cassini is known to reward. The auction inventively played with the tropes of contemporary landscape photography and Dada ready-made. It sold an “image instance” in the form of half of a shopping bag of the multinational retailer Tesco. Sambini adopted the term “instance” from the software Adobe Flash to refer to an image that has been manipulated and thus differs from the original although remaining closely connected to it. A ‘Bugiardino’ (i.e. an index invoking, as per name and design, the fact sheet inside Italian drugs) accompanied the half-bag, tracing the genealogy of other instances of the same image. After fierce competition and thirty-two different bids, Portable Wildlife Image Instance was bought by user Temporama at the price of $44.00, for an increased market value of 40.5%. User Afaja greatly appreciated the bespoke online collection I co-created with Cassini, which explored the potential of the listing to be curated into a collection of sellable items. Being impressed with Cassini’s ability to capture his eclectic interests and hidden desires, Afaja compared the algorithm to Santa Claus in a conversation with me: “Mr. Cassini, you are better than Santa, next December I am going to ask you: what do I want for Christmas?” However, not all the items in the collection I co-created with Cassini were available in Afaja’s location–Italy, perhaps revealing some cyclical planetary misalignments that Cassini needs fixing. In fact, similar problems occurred before; for instance, when I sent a link to a test collection to Marialaura, who is based in Bangalore, India, and accessed it through eBay India. This was a crude realitycheck about the invisible side of the eBay Universe of global online transactions: the custom restrictions and
bans that block the free circulation of material goods between countries. Crucially, it was also a reminder of the falsity of the old myth cyberspace shares with outer space, that of being an environment which belongs to the whole of humanity, beyond national appropriation and control.

Cassini, as NASA observed, “is a mission of firsts,” which, over time, has continued to surprise its planners with astounding observations, irrevocably changing ways of thinking about the universe.4 Within the operation mobilised by #exstrange, no other ‘mission’ has explored the mysterious synergies of human and algorithmic curation so close. This might at first appear peculiar, considering the wealth of contributors involved in the project and its experimental ambition. However, I deem this as revealing the art world’s diffused resistance towards imaginative forms of engagement with the commodification (and consequent demystification) of the curatorial function online. As my first collaboration with Cassini, the ‘Commodities Chief Curator,’ comes to an end, it leaves behind a rich visual imagery, documented interactions and some preliminary reflections on the value of curation on the platform and beyond. When artists and curators collaborate under the supervision of an ‘intelligent’ algorithm, roles are bound to hybridise and new magnetic fields are mapped. Reflexive methods might emerge whilst the machinic performances of online platforms are scrutinised from the inside. Hence, curation can be seen as an opportunity for daring discoveries, as it produces “disruptive innovation,” engages in “diversification,” and forms “strategic alliances.” [5] These are the kind of alliances that are needed today, as a new generation of algorithms mutate from being explorers to invaders. They are pioneered by Google, which after having appropriated all terrestrial forms of cultural value is swiftly moving into the colonisation of space curation too.

References:

[1] Lewis, E. The eBay phenomenon: the story of a brand that taught millions of strangers to trust one another. London: Marshall Cavendish Business, 2008, 7.
[2] Dudovskiy, J. eBay SWOT Analysis. 2016. http://research-methodology.net/ebay-swot-analysis/
[3] Alexander, T. eBay: Understanding eBay Search with Todd Alexander. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6znSUKtKH0
[4] Green, J. Cassini First Dive Video Transcript. April 26, 2017. 2017. https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/resources/7664/
[5] Dudovskiy.

This text was written for the book #exstrange: A Curatorial Intervention on eBay (2017) published Maize Books, an imprint of Michigan Publishing, pp.180-185.
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