Common Objects in Context delves into the grammar of machine vision and the shifting nature of photography in the algorithmic age. The exhibition title comes from the state-of-the-art dataset of the same name, better known as COCO, commonly used for training computer vision tasks such as object recognition. The exhibition examines the logic of object recognition—one of bounding boxes, discrete objects with clear outlines, crowdsourced labor, and distributed seeing.
COCO consists of more than 300,000 photographs scrapped from the photo-sharing site Flickr. Each image contains five captions written by cheap crowdsourced human workers. The workers are instructed to follow seven strict rules in describing the depicted scene such that the captions are clean, direct, and ‘objective’ for machine learning.
Describe all the important parts of the scene.
Do not start the sentences with “There is”.
Do not describe unimportant details.
Do not describe things that might have happened in the future or past.
Do not describe what a person might say.
Do not give people proper names.
The sentences should contain at least 8 words.
The exhibition renders the logic of rule-based seeing into different media. The metal objects are re-shaped according to the seven rules, smoothened and polished, with captions etched onto their surfaces. Upon closer examination, the captions reveal that human vision is full of errors, assumptions, and subconscious interpretation. Others exemplify the irreducible complexity of visual understanding. Computer vision sees objects in all their shiny sheen, without the memory of the past or imagination for the future.
The installation, composed of a boulder, three sledgehammers, and three smartphones, focuses on another aspect of computer vision: labor. The collection and cleaning of data for machine learning require labor. To look is to labor. The rock is encircled by shutter-triggered hammers activated when the audience presses the capture button or automatically according to a pre-written program. As the smartphones snap a photo of the boulder, the installation translates the non-manual labor into manual labor in the form of hammering, changing the shapes of the very boulder they are photographing.
The exhibition speculates on a world where the logic of rule-based seeing is indiscriminately applied to everything. Every object shown in the exhibition reveals the reciprocal relationship between human and computer vision—humans’ train’ computer vision to ‘see,’ which, in turn, shapes the objects we can see.
Pekko Vasantola (b. 1994) is a visual artist based in Helsinki, Finland. Common themes in his work include personal data, new technologies and portraiture. He often makes data-based portraits, which reflects on today’s technologically enhanced perception. Mediums he uses ranges from granite sculptures to AI software to cell culturing and bioprinting.
Sheung Yiu (b. 1991) is a Hong-Kong-born, image-centered artist and researcher, based in Helsinki. His work explores the act of seeing through algorithmic image systems and sense-making through networks of images. He ponders how the posthuman cyborg vision and the technology that produces it transform ways of seeing and knowledge-making. Adopting multi-disciplinary collaboration as a mode of research, his works examine the poetics and politics of algorithmic image systems, such as computer vision, computer graphics, and remote sensing, to understand how to see something where there is nothing, how to digitize light, and how vision becomes predictions. His work takes the form of photography, videos, photo-objects, exhibition installations, and bookmaking.
We want to give special thanks to the people who help bring our vision to reality in different capacities and forms: Annika Nyström of Nordfalk for generously donating the boulder, Heikki Pullo from Teijo Makespace for your work, Teemu Lehmusruusu and Matti Niinimaki for your guidance.
We want to thank Arts Promotion Center Finland Taike, the Finnish Cultural Foundation, and the Olga and Vilho Linnamo Foundation for their kind support of the project.
Pekko Vasantola & Sheung Yiu
Common Objects in Context
5 –28 August 2022
Photographic Gallery Hippolyte & Hippolyte Studio