Each year, the IK Prize brings great inspiration to the museum world. It highlights innovations stemming from designers and creators, born between the walls of Tate where it grows in the public eye before being assessed and evaluated.  We were fortunate enough to have Tony Guillan, IK Prize Project Manager with us last June at We Are Museums 2016 in Bucharest to talk about the last multi-sensory project called Tate Sensorium, and are even more delighted to have him answer follow-up questions on next IK Prize project “Recognition“.

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Recognition is a project that can reach well beyond Tate to other museums and collections and also has a very clear online extension. Did it play a role when you chose them as IK Prize winner?
Recognition makes art relevant to people anywhere and everywhere, twenty-four seven. It really is a project born out of the digital age, technically (in terms of A.I.) but also culturally in terms of our fast-paced, information-filled lives. Humans have never had so much information about what’s going on in the world, and much of this information comes in image form. As soon as something happens on the other side of the planet you can see an image of it online. So, how do you make works of art, such as history painting, relevant and interesting in this crowded visual culture? You go with the (information) flow.

Fabrica’s proposal really stood out because we immediately realised the potential to engage a truly global audience – the project is limitless in the kinds of ideas, themes, subjects or places it could touch on. By comparing 500 years of British art to photojournalism from around the world, anything could come-up, but it would always have an immediate and often emotional relevance to lots of people. You can imagine someone saying: “I have never seen that artwork, and I don’t know the artist, but I know about that news story and isn’t it interesting, or funny, or strange (or whatever), how the two subjects have been depicted…” That’s a great way in.

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What are you attempting to show by matching art with recent photojournalism?
First and foremost the project is very accessible – when you see two images, potentially centuries and miles apart, but they look remarkably similar or the comparison is humorous, you get it. People immediately want to discuss and interpret the material, which is what we’re all about, getting people to discover and look at objects from our collection.

On the other hand, the project engages with some very complex issues. By asking ‘can a machine understand images like humans?’ you’re forced to ask the question ‘how do humans understand and respond to what they see?’ The machine’s process of objectively analysing images (based on objects, composition, faces, source context, etc.) produces matches that humans would perhaps not have made. Exploring why the machine thinks pairs are comparable makes you look at each image more closely, searching for formal similarities between the images that otherwise you might have overlooked. Whereas, in contrast, viewers often project thematic links or messages onto specific pairings that may or may not exist in reality, based on their knowledge or opinions of particular subjects, their memories, opinions or experiences. It reminds us that ‘meaning’ cannot be ‘analysed’ like a code, but rather stems from the viewer themselves.

Comparing the attributes of two very different categories of image, art and photojournalism, reminds us that the latter also consists of authored perspectives on the world. We’re used to thinking about artworks composing and transforming subject matter, but we rarely question the neutrality of the ubiquitous news image.

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On the website, Recognition is presented as an experiment about AI. Why is it interesting for Tate to turn its collection into a resource for a tech experiment?
Recognition is not as spectacular for the visitors as Tate Sensorium was but is fully accessible online. How does it make sense for a museum to support a project that won’t directly attract visitors?

The IK Prize is about experimentation – experimenting with new ways of exploring and understanding a collection of art that reflects our shred cultural history. Cutting-edge technologies not only provide us with new tools with which to navigate our crowded digital and physical environments, but these technologies can themselves offer new and interesting contexts in which to view our past, present and future. Can training an A.I. to analyse historical artworks make us look at them in new ways – make us reevaluate what they mean to us today?

The IK Prize is open to projects that use technologies in creative ways both online and in site-specific settings. Museums are no longer confined to their walls but have huge global audiences with whom to communicate; they are not only holders of objects but conduits for ideas and information. It is important that we use technologies to allow ideas to travel outside of the confines of the museum itself.

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What could be the takeaways of this experiment for the Tate teams? Is Tate planning to integrate AI in their research process?

The IK Prize is a great way to expose staff and audiences to new ways of doing things in a museum context. We’ve all learnt a lot about artificial intelligence, its current realities but most importantly its future possibilities. A.I. technologies are already changing the world around us – from medical advances to search engines, business to transport. What has become clear is that technologies like A.I. will undoubtedly become both medium and message for artists and museums wishing to engage with the biggest issues in our world today – so watch this space!

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