The social media bots are flooding Twitter feeds with culture

The social media bots are flooding Twitter feeds with culture

Gustav Klimt’s Artificial Bone Andrei Taraschuk

Claude Monet has 73k followers on Twitter, Vincent van Gogh collected 66k and Gustav Klimt stands at 34k. The famous painters are extremely active, posting images of their artworks several times a day. These back-from-the-death artists have been resurrected on Twitter thanks to coder Andrei Taraschuk and his social media bots. These are software applications that automatically post to Twitter, and they have cornered a market. Hungry for culture, especially amid pandemic museum closures, followers find solace and relief in the daily dose of art. And other cultural bots are also becoming more and more known.

As Taraschuk explains to Observer, a bot is essentially a social media account that performs certain tasks on autopilot, without human control. Platforms like Twitter are full of accounts that users may never suspect are running automatically, including bots that share weather updates, stock quotes, and even vaccine information. In these cases, they are advantageous for their ability to post updates much more punctually than a human could.

Taraschuk, along with co-founder data strategist Cody Braun, specializes in bots that post art. “Art is a very visual medium and fits perfectly into the context of a social media feed,” says Taraschuk. “It’s beautiful, it doesn’t get old no matter how many times you look at it, and it doesn’t need any extra context.” Taraschuk and Braun now have a total of over 1,000 bots on various social media platforms that pump out content such as original artwork, relevant art news, and recommendations of stylistically similar art. If the artists weren’t dead, you could easily be fooled into thinking that there was a real person behind every account.

Taraschuk’s first attempt at creating bots was motivated by a desire to enliven his own Twitter timeline with attractive art. Over time, however, he realized he wasn’t the only one who had had enough of what he calls “all the negativity and politics on social media.” As such, he started making bills for everyone from Edvard Muncho until Mary Cassatt. The artworks the bots post come from various public sources such as Wikimedia and Wikiart and open museum collections such as The Met, MoMA and the Rijksmuseum. Taraschuk also works closely with the European collection of digitized images and texts and the OpenGLAM (open galleries, libraries, archives, museums) community. It’s not always easy to find open access content, something Taraschuk hopes can change. “The idea is to encourage museums around the world to open their digital collections and make their content available for projects like the art bots,” Taraschuk says.

Its bots have gained unexpected popularity and are now reaching millions of social media users. And with people around the world cut off from culture during the coronavirus pandemic, the numbers have soared even higher. “The combination of gallery closures and the fact that people were spending more time online contributed to the growing interest in the art bots,” Taraschuk says. In July of this year, the bots shared a whopping 237,125 works of art and received 3.1 million likes.

After seeing such a positive response, Taraschuk and Braun’s current mission is to “share all the art in the world and make social media the largest and most open museum in the world.” With no restrictions on hanging space or footfall, it’s not as overly ambitious as it sounds. The couple also wants to add contemporary artists, photographers and creators to the community. “The idea is to give creatives an easy way to launch their own bots on social media,” says Taraschuk, “Imagine how awesome it would be if every piece of art ever created was shared on social media!”

While Taraschuk and Braun’s bots are reviving the biggest celebrities in the art world, other art bot creators are using accounts to spark interest in more obscure moves. Queer art bot posts photography, paintings and drawings by LGBTQI+ artists, while soviet art bot tweets socialist realism. Equally popular are poet’s writer bots Sylvia Plath and author Virginia Woolfu. These accounts contain brief excerpts from the context of the writers’ work, poetry in Plath’s case and Woolf’s novels, letters, diaries, essays. Plath has nearly 25k followers while Woolf has reached nearly 36k.

When these snippets of poetry or intriguing artwork appear on a Twitter feed, it feels like a break from the usual doom scrolling and a chance to learn about some new cultural nugget. Another bot creator, John Emerson, tells Observer that this inspired him to create his museum and gallery accounts. “I had been following a few bots on Twitter, including the original from Darius Kazemi @MuseumBot, which placed random objects from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Emerson says. “This seemed like an excellent way to meander through the archives, to accidentally stumble through the thousands of objects that will never be seen in the limited space of the physical museum, or within the limited time of a typical visit.”

Emerson now has 16 museum bots, including the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York City, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. They post a random image from the website or collection four times a day. Emerson also has an account that posts Japanese woodcuts and another that posts randomly selected pages from an online comic book archive.

Like Taraschuk’s bots, they are extremely popular. But skeptics question the way all these bots encourage people to interact with art. Without the art-historical and socio-political context that a gallery collection offers, are the artworks in danger of becoming beautiful but pointless distractions? Emerson argues that the bite-sized pieces of culture the bots post allow users to dig much deeper into the museum collection than would be possible with a physical visit. His bots have even exposed all kinds of eccentricities within the collections of institutions. “I have found that the Cooper-Hewitt has a very large collection of match safes (which inspired) another bot project). The Tate has digitized every page of Turner’s sketchbooks, even the empty one and the Louvre seems to sit on top of a large pile of fragments of antiquities.”

Similarly, another bot for the artist Hieronymus Bosch, created by IT consultant Nig Thomas, gives users the chance to get much closer to Dutch master art than a personal viewing. The Bosch offered places segments of the monumental, action-packed Garden of Earthly Delights triptych that allows viewers to study specific elements of the painting in detail. A particular favorite of followers was a close-up of a man astride a giant fish with its rear end presented to the viewer.

While the art bots can never replace the experience of a gallery visit, they at least offer a new and complementary perspective on art appreciation. There is so much variety of content available that it can suit almost any individual preference. As Emerson says, people follow these bots because “sometimes” [they] want a moment of delight or humor, sometimes a creative spark or provocation, sometimes they need reassurance, recognition or nostalgia.” But to become the ‘open museum’ of Taraschuk’s dreams, they may need a little more (human) hand-on curation to guide virtual visitors through the image stream.

The social media bots are flooding Twitter feeds with culture

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