The wisdom of the many

23 May 2023

LMU’s ARTigo Social Image Tagging project was honored with an ”Honorary Mention“ at the inaugural ”European Union Prize for Citizen Science“ at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria.

What do art historians do to find digital reproductions of artworks for their research? Mostly, they trawl through databases that often contain millions of images. Descriptive text tags would be needed to make such searches more focused and efficient. Which is precisely where LMU’s ARTigo Social Image Tagging project comes in: Created back in 2010, the online platform adopts an innovative and playful approach to collecting keywords with which to tag works of art. In the process, it is proving instrumental in optimizing art history search engines.

The search function on the website of the ARTigo project

© ARTigo-Projekt

The aim? Collect as many points as you can!

ARTigo is a social software tool whose playful approach is designed to appeal to a wide audience. The new version, upgraded by Stefanie Schneider, Digital Art History Assistant at LMU’s Institute of Art History, honored with an ”Honorary Mention“ in the ”European Union Prize for Citizen Science“ awards ceremony at the Ars Electronica. The European Commission has asked the world-famous media art festival to host the inaugural presentation of what will be a yearly award in support of outstanding projects and initiatives that place research, innovation, commitment and creativity in the service of society. The awards ceremony will take place this September in Linz, Austria.

In each round of the ARTigo game, users see a random selection of works of art. They then have a set time in which to attach keywords or ‘tags’ to these works. For the user, the aim is to collect as many points as they can. Five points are awarded if a tag has already been attached to an image in a previous round of the game. Five more points are awarded if another player uses the same tag and thus creates a match. The first person to tag a picture also gets five points per day. The overall goal is for matching descriptions to earn as many points as possible.

ARTigo is a fun way to put yourself to the test. Whichever picture you see – be it Rome’s famous Barberini Palace, the Raising of the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens, an architectural study by Frei Paul Otto, a red velvet chasuble embroidered with a crucifixion scene or The Vagabond, a portrait by inventor and photographic pioneer André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri – they all want to be tagged quickly and win you as many points as possible.

Die Schlagwortseite auf der Artigo-Website. Zu sehen sind Bilder von Gabriel von Max: Schmetterlinge und Raupen, zwei tote Igel, Häckel-Urmenschen und ein Ruß-Abdruck von Händen.

The players can assign keywords to each picture and receive points for it.

© ARTigo-Projekt

61,000 images, 45,000 players, 10 million keywords

The project has already come a long way: As far back as 2008, Gerhard Schön, a staff member at LMU’s Humanities IT group, developed the first prototype of the platform as a proof of concept. From 2010 through 2013, ARTigo was then funded by the German Research Association (DFG) and largely engineered by LMU Professors Hubertus Kohle and François Bry at the Institute of Art History and the Institute of Informatics, respectively. More recently, to get the platform in better shape for the future, Stefanie Schneider redesigned and expanded it in 2021 and 2022. In the current version, tags can be attached not only in the form of written text, but also by dragging them with a mouse cursor or swiping them with a finger. “Since 2010, more than 45,000 players have attached nearly ten million keywords to over 61,000 images,” Schneider says.

The underlying stock of digitalized artwork reproductions is sourced primarily with the Artemis database, which was assembled at LMU’s Institute of Art History in collaboration with the University’s Humanities IT group. Other works of art originate from the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe (State Art Gallery in Karlsruhe), the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Department of Art History at the University of Cologne. In the new version of ARTigo, a drag-and-drop function also allows users to upload their own image collections. These are then reviewed by hand prior to publication.

The creative force of play

ARTigo is intended to be fun. However, in keeping with the ethos expounded in Johan Huizinga’s 1938 magnum opus Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, it is also supposed to be a productive tool. The one does not exclude the other: Playing is itself a form of cultural education, Huizinga wrote, asserting that without play there would be no culture. In his classic work on cultural history, the Dutch researcher made it clear that play is a creative force. The platform itself is the fruit of close collaboration between the Institute of Art History and the Institute of Informatics at LMU. Assistants from both institutes – Ricarda Vollmer and Maximilian Kristen – are still working on the project. In the given context, this collaboration itself is thus a fascinating and practical example of open research where knowledge about art history is acquired via a playful approach. As such, ARTigo is a classic example of a citizen science project in which the public at large can contribute actively and directly to the advancement of research and science.

Schneider stresses the democratizing function of the project: “ARTigo provides access to a field that is traditionally regarded as elitist. It draws on the wisdom of the many by putting collective knowledge to good use. It vividly illustrates that cultural heritage is not the exclusive preserve of experts: It can also be the outcome of everyday human activity. The honor as part of the ‘European Union Prize for Citizen Science’ likewise underscores the singular importance of ARTigo in the context of participative science, while also affirming the success of the project. This prestigious accolade highlights the importance of citizen science in the digital art and culture space. It also emphasizes LMU’s stand-out role as a pioneer in this field.”

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