April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

The API As Curator

Aaron Straup Cope, Flickr, USA


Artists and master-printers have a long and rich tradition of collaboration and it is instructive to consider the Internet through the prism of printmaking. The art and craft of printmaking affords a collapsing of barriers not only between production and distribution but also between the traditional role of "craftsman" and artist. We will always have master printers and continue to be the better for it, but no one begrudges an artist the effort of learning the same skills solely in the pursuit of their own work.

Computer programming is the acid bath of the Internet. In its purest form it can be harsh and threatening but it is also the vehicle that allows a cold sheet of metal becomes a lush and absorbent canvas. All artists operate in the space between being experts in the mechanics of their medium -- few printmakers are also chemical engineers -- and merely consumers of prefabricated tools.

We are still a long way from finding the craft in computers which isn't to say that we all need to learn programming; only that we should afford the practice more attention in order to give artists the tools to explore and shape a networked world and to bend those tools in to newer one just as artists began doing with photography two hundred years ago.

By encouraging the same latitude of understanding to the gory details that govern the Internet we explode the bottleneck that has distorted a vast horizon of creation, collaboration and above all mystery.

To borrow William Gibson's phrase, to help artists "find their own use for things."

Keywords: API, community, internet, practice, programming, theory

"She gestured for the living room, phasing past what would've been the door to her mother's bedroom. She'd barely wire framed it, here, and there was no there there, no interiority. The living room had its sketchy angles as well, and furniture she'd imported from a Playmobil system that predated her Sandbenders. Wonkily bit-mapped fish swam past monotonously around in a glass coffee table she'd built when she was nine. The trees through the front window were older still: perfectly cylindrical Crayola brown trunks, each supporting an acid-green cotton ball of undifferentiated foliage. If she looked at the tree long enough, the Mumphalumphagus would appear outside, wanting to play, so she didn't."

William Gibson

"The painter Philip Ernst, father of Max Ernst, when painting a picture of his garden omitted a tree which spoiled the composition and then, overcome with remorse at this offense against realism, cut down the tree."

Barbara Tuchman

Ceci N'est Pas Un Marteau

These are not the trumpets sounding. This is not the call to smash the clocks. This is not a rebirth; not a death; not even a policy paper. This is no more asking a sculptor to become a painter than it is to ask someone to believe the tired old saw that, once more, painting is dead.

It is not a story of what we will do but of how we do it. To some people there is no difference. The tools are the art. The skill is the craft. These are long conversations but the common ground in every point of view is that we recognize and value the "craft" in a work of art, whether it is the intellectual rigour that underlies the piece or the mastery of technique.

An even longer conversation surrounds the unresolved dilemma we struggle with trying to open up arts institutions  or explore people's expectations of what constitutes art while still recognizing excellence. I am going to make a claim, tossing it out unanswered because I don't have the answer, and also to make that the point that I am not here to tell anyone how to create, judge or fund the place where artists meet computers: only that they should explore it and strive to understand it.

When I say computers I really mean programming because it is the equivalent of painter's pigment. When I say artists I really mean art schools and museums first, and artists second. But they are all linked, and the mechanics of computers and increasingly the Internet have collapsed the barriers to creating and sharing works, making it easier to encourage and foster discussion and participation – and to share the vision of the artist or the curator with more people, more easily and on good days with more feedback.

This is a story about plumbing.

Experts and Consumers

One way to think about an artist’s relationship with computers and computer programming would be to compare it to printmaking.

There is a rich tradition of artists, from a whole range of disciplines, working in tandem with Master Printers and creating pieces authored by the artists but produced by the print-maker. Born of the not always competing desire to produce works that could be seen by as many people as possible and the ability to sell multiple versions of the same image, printmaking has evolved in to a proper "art form" all it’s own.

But Is It Art?

Another way to think about an artist's relationship with computers and computer programming would be to compare it to printmaking. is a website that solicits designs from users all over the Internet and then after a selection process produces limited edition print-runs of those designs on t-shirts and sells them to the public at large. This is printmaking by any other name and you would be hard-pressed to find another medium, in contemporary Western society, with a reach as pervasive as the lowly t-shirt.

I don't know whether the people involved in Threadless consider themselves artists first, or designers or technologists and I don't care. There is an authentic desire on the part of the people who submit their designs to communicate an idea and an aesthetic. These are pillars that underline all art whether it speaks to us personally or not. (By all accounts it is also fantastically profitable for the company founders but, then again, Andy Warhol hardly went lacking either.) What interests me are the affordances that the Internet — and the tools and skills used to shape it — allows a craft like printmaking to use to investigate new territories.

Math Is Hard

The Miura Ori was invented by Prof. Koryo Miura at Tokyo University's Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science. The primary intent of this fold was for solar panel arrays on satellites: since space comes at a high premium when transporting satellites into orbit by rocket, the solar panels must fold very compactly. But this must not compromise structural soundness or ease of deployment once in orbit.

The fold became more widely adopted by manufacturers of fold-out maps, which are notorious for binding and tearing if unfolded or refolded improperly. Since there is only one natural way the paper "wants" to fold and unfold in this arrangement, and since the horizontal folds are linked interdependently with the vertical folds, it can be easily collapsed and expanded in a single motion. This is therefore most commonly known as the Miura map fold.”

Dan Rosen

No one expects an Origami artist to be a rocket scientist. No one expects a photographer or a printmaker to be chemical engineer. Still, we teach each enough science to not only develop a roll of film or etch a stone, but also to experiment. We teach artists enough of the math and science and physics behind a process to give them room to experiment; to do more than automate creation.

My Five Year Old Could Do That

I attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. My time there was marked by a tortured relationship with the painting department, a love of the printmaking department (but a profound dislike of the actual printmaking process) and a feeling that, in 1995 when the Internet was just beginning to stretch its arms, maybe there was some room to make capital-A art with computers.

I had no idea what this meant; no idea where to begin. Eventually I started to create small multimedia pieces, frequently trawling the one computer with web access in the photo department for source material, and later more complex three-dimensional (3D) models of imaginary spaces and eventually the entire ground floor of the school.

Working in a computer generated space offered the chance to apply a painter's license to sculpture without also being bound to the constraints of the real world, but I still felt like I was learning only to colour by numbers. Eventually, I lost my way completely and now I work as a "senior engineer" (that's computer programmer in English) at Flickr, a popular photo sharing website.

The Shape of Content

NSCAD was still, then, one of the last bastions of Conceptual Art fiercely proud of the role the college has played in movement during the 1970's. One year, the school organized a retrospective including re-enactments of pieces, many transitory in nature. Or in the case of the shot fired out of a pellet-gun in to the plaster wall, reproduced with the "permission of the owner".

I have never warmed to Conceptual Art. I have always found it too dry and intellectual; a problem made worse by the temporal nature of so many pieces which were still so meticulously documented, as if only to mock my absence more with every passing year.

Recently artists have begun to recreate, with the help of programmers and 3D animators, many of those events and performances in Second Life, an online shared virtual environment. It doesn't necessarily make me like Conceptual Art any more, but it is a remarkable revisiting and reinterpreting of past work and seems strangely suited for virtual environments.

All Art Is Craft

Similar collaborations are happening in the world of textiles involving touch sensors and interactive fabrics. Many of these initiatives partner art schools with engineering departments or business.

Whenever I see talks about these projects I find myself asking: "So, are you teaching the artists computer programming yet?" The answer is invariably: No, and I'm always left wondering what the artists have gotten other than some shiny baubles to play with.

"API" and "Artspeak"

"API" is an acronym for "Application Programming Interface" which is computer-speak for the inputs and outputs that allow two separate computer programs to communicate with each other and exchange data.

Both Start With the Letter "A"

For example Flickr recently announced a partnership with the U.S. Library of Congress  to host a small collection of photographs with the hope of encouraging users to comment on and document the images. All the photographs in the project, known as The Commons, were published under a new "license" called "no known copyright restrictions" and to date, the project has been a huge success, exceeding both Flickr and the Library's expectations.

Not only did the Library import the collection in to the Flickr databases programmatically using the Flickr API but users all over the world can retrieve those photos, and the metadata about them, using the same API. The Library itself does this to create a view of both users’ contributions as well the metadata added by its staff.

There Will Always Be Master Printers

This sort of project is why I get up in the morning. I was not even directly involved in The Commons but that I am a part of the Flickr team and that Flickr was able to help bring this sort of collaboration to fruition makes me extraordinarily proud.


But We Are All Dan Catt

In 2005 Flickr already had an API to search for, modify and display photographs available on its website. In the spring of that year Google released a web-based mapping tool and shortly afterwards an API to display markers on those maps dynamically.

By asking people to people tag their photos with the necessary geographic information Dan Catt, then living with his family in England, was then able to stitch the Flickr API together with the Google API and create an entirely new way to visualize those photos, in a website called “”.

So we hired him and eventually build the "geotagging" and mapping interface that users see on the site today. It gets better.

 "Not wanting to distract the other engineers with questions, requests for php code, special database tables or queries to be written and so on, I used the public API, just like anyone else can."

More recently, we released a new feature called Places which is a gazetteer-style view on the iconic photos for places in the world that have been geotagged. It was a bit of a surprise at first since Dan prototyped the entire thing, in his spare time, using our own APIs. We had no idea this was coming but in a way that made it even more special. He was able to take all of threads that we expose to the world and fashion it in to something new and beautiful.

The lesson is this: Like me, Dan Catt did not study computer programming. He studied the arts and motivated by the desire to create and to share poked around at the edges of computer programming enough to make it a tool like any other.

What Does It Mean?

Computer programming can be pretty boring but all artists operate in the space between being experts in the mechanics of their medium and merely consumers of prefabricated tools.

By encouraging — not by mandating — exploration of the gory details that govern how computers and the Internet work the same latitude of understanding we can explode the bottleneck that otherwise distorts a vast horizon of creation, collaboration and above all mystery.

Cite as:

Straup Cope, Aaron, The API as Curator, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted