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Art and computing collide in Pink Art, an exploration of color at Williams College Museum of Art
Philip Guston (American, 1913-1980), Game, 1978. Oil on canvas, 81 1/8 x 95 1/16 in. Bequest of Musa Guston.

WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS.- The Williams College Museum of Art debuted Pink Art, an exhibition that unpacks the color pink through works of art in the collection, on September 15, 2017. Pink Art delves into the multiplicity of human perception, the definitions and practices of curation, and the deeply personal and subjective nature of both curation and computer programing. A collaboration with the Williams College Department of Computer Science and the Office for Information Technology, the exhibition makes manifest the overlaps and tensions between these two creative practices.

What is pink? Because color perception is highly subjective, the exhibition team developed a mobile web application to gather a crowdsourced definition of the exhibition’s signature color. As participants decide which colors in a group are pink, they produce an evolving visual definition of the color. Five algorithms took this community-sourced color definition and used it to select works of art from across WCMA’s collection. The “Islandize” algorithm (Jordan LaMothe ’17), for example, divides each image into 300 discrete shapes, and ranks it based on the percentage of shapes that are pink. But these algorithms, created by different students, each make particular assumptions and produce radically different results. Seen on the gallery walls, their outputs are often surprising and don’t always mimic what our “human eyes” consider pink. Computer-based practices of curating turn out to be distinctly subjective, perhaps even more than human-based ones. Were the algorithms more correct than our own perception of pink, and were they any more “objective”?

Set against the computer-based selection of works of art are a trio of pink paintings, two of which were judged very “un-pink” by the algorithms. Seen together, these three works assert the fleshy, material, and sometimes gendered qualities of the color pink in works of art. Philip Guston’s painting Game from 1978 faces Monica Baer and Richard Hawkins more recent paintings, whose palettes and sense of ambiguity evoke Guston’s in certain ways. “The algorithms are a foil for curation. Pink Art is about the subjectivity of both computational and curatorial processes. Both emerge as dynamic forms of exhibition making” says Christina Olsen, the outgoing director of the Williams College Museum of Art.

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