BY Nick Currie in Opinion | 25 MAR 08

Metacritics and Strangers

A brief guide to the future of online contemporary art coverage

BY Nick Currie in Opinion | 25 MAR 08

Imagine it’s 2010. You’re planning a short trip to New York, and you want to see the most interesting exhibitions the city has to offer. Where to start?

Well, you need to know what’s on, so you fire up the web and hit New York Art Beat. This site launched back in the spring of 2008, four years after its invention as Tokyo Art Beat, the first bilingual integrated guide to the Japanese capital’s art scene. NYAB not only tells you what’s on, when and where (with links to online mapping systems), it also mixes staff and amateur reviews, ranking shows on its front page under the heading ‘Most Reviewed’.

If you prefer a wider range of professional recommendations, Metacritic is your site. Metacritic assembles press reviews of books, movies, TV shows and games, assigning a percentage rating to each review then computing an aggregate score for the products they’re assessing. Metacritic added art shows, you recall, back in late 2009. The problem before then had been print media’s long lead-times, which meant that by the time reviews appeared the shows in question had usually closed. (This was obviously a problem for readers too.) As the decade wore on, though, art magazines – seeing the need for topicality and feeling the competitive heat from art blogs like Artkrush and We Make Money Not Art – shifted topical reviews to their websites. It’s these, combined with the coverage on the more reputable blogs, which, here in 2010, Metacritic uses to compute its art scores.

Talking of art scores, you may want to know whether the artists you’re planning to see are going up in the world or coming down, and how they rank alongside other artists. For these kinds of quantifications, illustrated in handy charts, ArtFacts is your site. It assigns an algorithmic score based on frequency of exhibition to 30,000 contemporary artists. Just type in your artist’s name and you’ll see a number and a chart showing where he or she stands, and whether he or she is rising or falling on the stock exchange of reputation.

Subscribers to can also access more sophisticated – or at least more complicated and question-begging – ‘artist career analyzing tools’. Here, artists, dealers, buyers and interested observers can indulge their narcissism and schadenfreude by poring over how their artist ranking relates to their auction turnover. They can watch a plummeting exhibition ranking turning, a year or so later, into plummeting auction prices, or plot up to four artists’ auction and exhibition stats on top of each other to pick out, for instance, the winners and losers in a group show, or the high flyers from a bunch of art school friends who all graduated the same year.

In late 2009 ArtFacts licensed the technology used by YouTube, Amazon and LastFM to recommend similar artists, so now, in 2010, you can type in, say, David Shrigley’s name and get recommendations for Paul Davis and Marcel Dzama.

If you want a more touchy-feely pre-visit impression, you can always turn to YouTube itself. James Kalm has been vlogging his visits to New York galleries since 2006. Because of the intransigent attitude of many galleries and museums to video and photography, and their own increasing video surveillance of visitors, Kalm has had to become more and more skillful at disguising his camera – and his own features. ‘Would you switch off the camera, please, sir!’ all too often became, by 2010, ‘Is that you, Mr Kalm? Okay, where’s the camera?’

If Kalm’s video is too jerky and amateur, you might prefer Vernissage TV, or even the increasingly slick video presentations of art museums who – perhaps inspired by the Tate’s excellent Tateshots video page – began to get their vlogging act together later in the decade.

At a certain point, though, as you prepare your 2010 New York art trip, one of the following things will happen to you. You’ll get swamped with information and abandon your research. Or you’ll postpone it, remembering that
“ title=“Google Maps”>Google Maps offers a contextual information service by pinpointing your location and linking it to the websites of local business.

Perhaps, opting for the human touch, you’ll call a New York friend and ask her to guide you around the shows; much better than relying on algorithms, metacritics and strangers! Or you’ll just go to Chelsea and nose briefly into every street-level gallery between West 22nd and 26th Streets, then maybe do a few museums at the weekend.

You’ll decide, above all, that art and data are two totally different worlds, worlds that’ll never really understand each other. After hours tapping away at your computer, you’ll long for tactile encounters with three-dimensional objects that smell of paint and clay, scary confrontations with performance artists, video projections where you can feel the machine’s hot breath on your face, and hesitant circumnavigations (at your own risk, with your shoes removed) of mysterious installations.

You’ll find yourself valuing intuition, serendipity and the unexpected more than ever. And, nodding sagely, you’ll conclude that art is a round peg that all the algorithms in the world are unlikely to knock into the Internet’s square hole. And that this perpetual stubbornness is one of the reasons you seek art out – even on the Internet.

Nick Currie is a Scottish-born musician and writer based in Osaka, Japan. Recording as Momus, he has released 23 albums and is also the author of The Book of Scotlands (Sternberg Press, 2009) and The Book of Jokes: A Novel by Momus (Dalkey, 2009). He is currently working on a film script.