The Cleaning of Emotional Data

Elisa Giardina Papa
Elisa Giardina Papa
The Cleaning of Emotional Data

15 January 2020–7 February 2020

Aksioma | Project Space, Ljubljana

Part of the programme
Hyperemployment – Post-work, Online Labour and Automation

In this exhibition for Aksioma  Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, Elisa Giardina Papa presents the third instalment of a series exploring how labour and care are reframed by digital economies and automation. Following Technologies of Care (2016) and Labor of Sleep (2017), this new video installation entitled The Cleaning of Emotional Data focuses on the human labour involved in categorising massive quantities of visual data used to train emotion recognition algorithms. The show also includes a series of large-scale textile pieces developed in collaboration with Michael Graham of Savant Studios (Brooklyn, NY) that prods and subverts normative and historical understandings of emotions.

In the video installation, Giardina Papa addresses new forms of precarious labour emerging within artificial intelligence (AI) economies. She examines the global infrastructure of microworkers who “clean” data to train machine vision algorithms. These workers label, categorise, annotate and validate large amounts of data, thereby enabling AI to function. In the winter of 2019, while living in Palermo and researching affective computing systems, the artist ended up working remotely for several North American “human-in-the-loop” companies who provide “clean” datasets to train AI algorithms to detect emotions. Among the tasks she performed were the taxonomisation of emotions, the annotation of facial expressions and the recording of her own image to animate three-dimensional figures. While performing this work, some of the videos in which she recorded her emotional expressions were rejected, as her facial expressions did not fully match the “standardised” affective categories. It was impossible to know whether this rejection originated from an algorithm or, for example, from another remote worker who might have interpreted her facial expressions differently due to cultural context. The Cleaning of Emotional Data documents these microtasks while simultaneously tracing a history of emotions that questions the methods and psychological theories underpinning facial expression mapping.

A number of AI systems, which supposedly recognise and simulate human affects, base their algorithms on flawed understandings of emotions as universal, authentic and transparent. Increasingly, tech companies and government agencies are leveraging this prescribed transparency to develop software that identifies, on the one hand, consumers’ moods and, on the other hand, potentially dangerous citizens who pose a threat to the state. The historical and contemporary implications of this demand for emotional legibility is explored in a series of large-scale textile pieces, Amiss Motifs, developed in collaboration with Michael Graham of Savant Studios. The textiles juxtapose the abstract lines of facial micro-expressions detected by the algorithms with untranslatable emotional vernacular from both Sicilian dialect and American English. This joint “fabrication” of computational and human language demonstrates how emotional sensibilities exceed reductive categorisation. The fabrics used in this work are sampled from remnants of commercially sold bolts which are typically discarded because the patterns have become distorted, uneven or broken. By working within the gaps of these “amiss motifs”, the overlaid embroideries create a new canvas for unruly and “incomputable” emotions.


Most of the academic and political discourse on post-work has focused on the relationship between automation and free time. That is, it has posited that automation has the emancipatory potential to free us all from work: to reduce necessary working hours or at least to devote ourselves to more intellectually rewarding jobs (immaterial labour). What is not fully convincing about this approach is that it is grounded in a hierarchical separation between machines and humans. What is missing is the acknowledgment of the human infrastructure that sustains automation and artificial intelligence. The invisible, precarious, alienated, low-paid and offshored workforce that automation requires in order to function properly. These workers and their tasks are the focus of this talk.


Domen Pal

Elisa Giardina Papa is an Italian artist whose work investigates gender, sexuality and labour in relation to neoliberal capitalism and the borders of the Global South. Her work has been exhibited and screened at MoMA (New York), the Whitney Museum [Sunrise/Sunset Commission], Seoul Mediacity Biennale 2018, the Unofficial Internet Pavilion of the 54th Venice Biennial, XVI Quadriennale di Roma, [Download Commission], and The Flaherty NYC, among others. Giardina Papa received an MFA from RISD and a BA from Politecnico of Milan, and she is currently pursuing a PhD in film and media studies at the University of California Berkeley. She lives and works in New York and Sant’Ignazio (Sicily).


Author: Elisa Giardina Papa

Co-produced by:
Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, and La Kunsthalle, Mulhouse, 2020

The solo exhibition at Aksioma | Project Space is supported by:
the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia and the Municipality of Ljubljana

The textile pieces were developed in collaboration with Michael Graham.


Jaka Babnik


7 November 2019–19 January 2020
MGLC – International Centre for Graphic Arts, Ljubljana

Curated by: Domenico Quaranta
Artists: Danilo Correale, Elisa Giardina Papa, Sanela Jahić, Silvio Lorusso, Jonas Lund, Michael Mandiberg, Sebastian Schmieg, Guido Segni

Automate all the Things!
14–15 January 2020
The Academy of Fine Arts and Design of the University of Ljubljana
Moderna galerija

Speakers: Elisa Giardina Papa, Sanela Jahić, Silvio Lorusso, Michael Mandiberg, Domenico Quaranta, Sašo Sedlaček, Sebastian Schmieg

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