Museum-Design Bots Will Vanish When Twitter Charges for API
Photo-Illustration: Curbed, courtesy of @MuseumBot, @cooperhewittbot, @slam_decorative, @aic_architect
A weekday, working afternoon. The Endless Scroll: News Photos, Airbrushed Art, Animated GIFs, and What East This? Peacock blue satin, a royal touch. Click to freeze the image. It is a chair, quilted fabric with folded backrest on a flared red base. It resembles the stand-up collar of a frock coat. It looks like the skirt of a princess dress. It looks like a parka.
This is Gaetano Pesce Felt armchairs, designed in 1987 for Cassina and tweeted into my consciousness by @slam_decorative, a Twitter bot created by Twitter user @andrei that automatically shares objects from the Decorative Arts and Design department of the St. Louis Art Museum. The museum does not manage it.
Twitter bots like @slam_decorative explore public archives and public collections, tweeting historic, anarchic and beautiful images and text into your daily feed. They allow Escape Influencers, Escape Algorithm, Escape 2023 – or they will until Feb 9th as @TwitterDev announced yesterday that the service stop supporting free Twitter API access and start charging, apparently $99 per month for the basic tier. This latest “Twitter monetization” program from new owner Elon Musk is a loss for students and scientists who use Twitter data, a loss for third-party developers who have created useful add-ons, and a loss for design nerds. like me who just needed those small aesthetic hits.
There are robots for post Officerobots for every land in new yorkrobots for Brutalism, and (my favorite) robots for the decorative arts collections of various major museums. I’m more than I can count, and I salute their absolute lack of buy-in to what’s going on right now. When the news is bad or overwhelming or both, it reminds you that it’s not always the case and to take a break and look at something pretty, unique or weird.
I have a particular preference for decorative art robots. The “decorative arts” are what they called design – objects of use, but of fancy. The older the museum, the more likely the candlesticks, armchairs, snuffboxes and vases are to be classified under this heading with “design.” The range of scale, style and silhouette of these objects is vast, far greater than in, say, a collection of paintings or sculptures. Because many are tabletop objects, they read just fine at the modest scale of a Twitter image on a phone screen. You can see the silvery twist of the handle on a sterling silver and glass Art Deco teapot, the unnecessary streamlining of a 1940s pencil sharpener, or the dramatic flare (and flair) of the back of the Feltri.
The museum website describes the chair as “essentially a large felt blanket,” at least an inch thick, lined with quilted satin blue polyester. The felt base of the chair is impregnated with resin and baked in a mold so that it becomes rigid, supported on small felt feet. The upper half remains collapsible, able to support the arms and back like a giant piece of clothing. It is evident, as the museum notes, that “Feltri is a contemporary version of a traditional upholstered armchair”, as if chair, blanket and cardigan were combined into one. This particular version sings in Cinderella blue. Other editions look more Nordic, in white and red, or more underground, in shades of gray, or more Shaker, in a Pesce collaboration with Raf Simons for Calvin Klein which features vintage quilts.
My one click through the collection led me to this motley family of chairs and a side of Pesce – born in 1939, still making furniture – that I had never encountered. Pesce’s work since the 1960s, pieces that bounce, sag and crumble, still cut against the visual and material language of modern chairs, SO a lot of Who are hard. THE Up 5 lounge chair looks like a bunch of beach balls in a red bathing suit. Her ongoing experiments with colored resin, which range from child seats to regal high backs, embrace the chaos of mixed colors, drips and chance, like preschool paints turned into usable household objects. He retains enough juice to have designed a landscape of such chairs for Bottega Veneta’s Spring/Summer 2023 presentation at Milan Fashion Week.
@slam_decorative doesn’t care about all that, though. As an automated Twitter bot, it shares public domain images without reference to what’s hot, what’s cool, who’s a living legend or what 18th, 19th or 20th century design movement is enjoying a revival. Without a conscience, he simply tweets: a silver matchbox, a carved shot glass, a veneered piece of furniture, a hand-painted plate.
My friend Sarah Archer, a writer and design historian, described the fun of museum robots as similar to that of the art history lecture, sitting in the dark watching slides. But your art history class had an organizing principle (I hope). Bots don’t. It’s up to you, scroller, procrastinator, trendspotter, to find meaning in this teapot or this candle holder. For once, the algorithm doesn’t tell you what to like. It’s more like a flea market or a thrift store, where you have to trust your eyes and your instincts. One of the first online communities I became part of was #ThriftBreak, an informal association of people who visited thrift stores during their lunch hour in search of modern design. They tweeted their findings, usually with the price tag still on display, along with questions about the Russel Wright glasses or the illegible signatures inscribed in the sandstone. Every correct identification and price under $20 gave me a chill vicariously.
The first time I heard about bots was at a 2017 Microsoft Design conference held in a sparsely decorated warehouse in San Francisco. Darius Kazemi, the internet artist who used to tweet as @tinysubversions, told the room how he came home from work one day when he learned that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had released datasets of information about over 470,000 works of art from its collection for unlimited use. “It sounds like something you’d be interested in,” her husband said, and a genre was born. The museum was liberating art and it could open the door to Twitter. “My brain went, like, What about something curated, something that tries to bring out particular items of interest or popularity?Kazemi told me. “But I always try to push those boundaries. What if I choose something at random?”
It took him an hour to write the few lines of code that continue to power @MuseumBot, which since May 2014 has been tweeting a random high-resolution image of the Metropolitan Museum of Art four times a day to nearly 8,000 followers. (The most prolific museum-maker-bot is John Emerson, aka @backspace.) “There’s something interesting about the randomness of this one,” Kazemi says. “A spoon might appear next to another, more prestigious piece of art.”
Premonitory once, prescient again: in December, Kazemi told me that he was deleting his Twitter account and move all work to federated social networks like Mastodon. Kazemi invested for a long time into the possibilities of the decentralized web and found Twitter technically and politically hostile. Hip-hop radio archive bot, which Kazemi directed in 2018, shares 60-second clips from the hip-hop radio archive, little music blasts and commentary from the past several times a day. Home Movies Bot tweets excerpts from the Prelinger Home Movie Archive. “If there’s still an audience for Twitter bots, I’m sure they will continue to exist,” he said before news broke yesterday. “But it’s no longer a useful place to work in public.”
In a few weeks, we’ll probably even lose the fun of bots tweeting the sleek wares of former plutocrats in a feed that seems both increasingly deserted and increasingly junky. The open API of some of America’s greatest cultural institutions meets the closed mind of America’s greatest auto-mythologist, and the result is… nothing. No more Nakashima chairsmore Tulip tables, more textile samples.
Farewell, my robots.