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How Collecting Was Born

It all started with a routine gene “clean-up” of the Group of Objects gene. Clean-ups are one of the many ways we maintain the integrity and accuracy of The Art Genome Project. They entail looking at every artist and artwork with a value for a particular gene, and ensuring that the application is correct, i.e. that the artist or artwork presented has a connection to the gene and its definition. Clean-ups often lead to ideas for new genes, since what does not fit correctly in one gene might be better explained through another.

Group of Objects had originally been conceived as a gene for capturing two-dimensional depictions of multiple objects whose arrangement did not conform to compositional strategies of traditional still lifes. Yet it turned out that there were a number of three-dimensional works with this gene applied that were not depictions of groups of objects, but real-life groups of objects themselves, such as this diorama by Gianfranco Baruchello. In fact there were so many instances of this that the human error of our genomers alone could not account for it; instead it indicated that there was a significant need to capture such works via some yet-to-be-identified category. This was now a whole other problem. Our plan of attack was to first identify the many different ways to describe different configurations of physical objects. We sifted through lots of related genes, such as Commodity (currently being re-worked), TypologiesAssemblage, and Use of Everyday Objects, and ended up proposing three new genes along with working definitions. They were were as follows:

Collections of Objects:

What Umberto Eco has called “poetic visual lists.” In their organization, they are indebted to the Baroque cabinet of curiosities, and their organization is specifically personal and oftentimes whimsical. Example: Fos, A Collection of Dark to Light Greens, 2008. 

The Archive: 

Refers to works that explore the configurations of knowledge as embodied by the archive, which is defined as a collection of historical documents or objects and/or the place where such records are stored, oftentimes as a means of critiquing or destabilizing the supposed objectivity, authenticity and authority of the archive. Significant examples: Dieter Roth, Flat Garbage, 1975-6 (a series of file cabinets housing 1160 files of refuse) or the Atlas Group Archive.


A concept first proposed by Karl Marx in the 19th century as a behavior endemic to capitalist production. As a process, it involves amassing or gathering objects or documents as part of a continual, additive process, often to convey a sense of excess, cornucopia, sheer volume, or even infinity. A recent example: Dash Snow and Dan Colen, Nest, 2007, installation at Deitch Projects.

These ideas were all interesting, and, arguably, very relevant to contemporary practice. Yet “interesting” is not a sufficient criterion for inclusion in The Art Genome. Instead, we always consider the following: A gene needs to be concrete enough for its definition and application to be clear to both our users and genomers. A gene has to be broadly applicable so that we can use it to make connections amongst different artists or artworks. If only two artworks on the site have the gene “The Archive,” it may say a lot about their work, but it doesn’t relate them to anything else. A gene has to be grounded in reality, i.e. what artists are actually doing. Here we have to guard against considering contemporary theoretical frameworks as genes without making sure they relate to specific works of art. It should try to capture one aspect of artistic production at once. Otherwise, there should be more than one gene. It should not overlap too much with existing genes. 

Accordingly we made the following decisions: Collections of Objects, though interesting, did not satisfy the 1st, 3rd, or 4th criteria above. It combined both a concept, “Collecting,” with a definition we imposed on the concept—collecting solely as the “personal” cabinet of curiosities. Though The Archive was a more concrete idea, we found it did not satisfy the second criteria; there were not that many works to which this would have applied. So we decided not to introduce this to the site, but to return to it at a later date should the need arise. Accumulations was, like The Archive, deemed too rare. It was also too theoretical and arguably did not fulfill the 3rd and 4th criteria. Also, some artists produce works that one could describe as an accumulation of things, but in fact have little to do with the process of accumulating or the concept of excess. In other words, as conceived, this gene combined a physical property of objects (the accumulation) with a concept (the pathology of accumulating), and thus was doing double duty. We decided to table this for the time being. 

So on one hand, we talked ourselves out of all of our “new” genes. On the other hand, in the process of rejecting these genes, we realized one thing these proposed genes shared was an interest in collecting. Collections of Objects were about personal collections of naturalia and_artificialia_, The Archive was about an official and rational collection of documents, and Accumulations focused on the seemingly unchecked collecting of mundane things. Collecting as a concept gene was also inclusive enough to fulfill the 2nd criterion, it also captured one concept at a time, it was relevant and concrete, and it did not overlap with other genes. It additionally allowed us to avoid making speculative judgments regarding artistic intent.

That is how Collecting was born.

As implemented, Collecting now encompasses both depictions of and critical approaches to myriad types and spaces of collecting, from museums, libraries, and archives to collections of scientific specimens. It includes artworks like Marcel Duchamp’s seminal Boîte en Valise—a selection of miniature renditions of the artist’s own works presented in a box. It also includes images of collections, such as this early photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot, The Articles of Porcelain, 1844, and artworks like these five plaster casts of the artist Terence Koh’s head. Housed in glass vitrines, their mouths open as if they are moaning. I like to think of Koh’s work as a macabre cabinet of curiosities that makes trophies of the beheaded artist. The sound of his voice is muffled by the vitrine. It functions as an apt reminder to leave the work of art the space to speak, even if it does get put into a box. 

-Jessica Backus, Researcher on The Art Genome Project

Sources and Further Reading:

Umberto Eco. The Infinity of Lists. New York: Rizzoli, 2009.

Charles Merewether (Ed.). The Archive. Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art: 2006

Jeffrey Slonim. “Consummate Consumption – artists’ collections.” ArtForum, Dec. 1994. 

Philip Ursprung. “Who’s Afraid of Accumulation?” College Art Association Annual Conference. Los Angeles Convention Center. Feb. 23, 2012. Part I and Part II.

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