STARTS Prize Exhibition

Cleaning Emotional Data

Elisa Giardina Papa (IT)

| | |

Honorary Mention STARTS PRIZE ’22

„Elisa’s work serves as a beacon to direct the development of a European AI, grounded in our naturally given diversity of cultures and languages.“
Excerpt from the statement of the jury

Cleaning Emotional Data is a three channel video installation that addresses new forms of precarious labor emerging within artificial intelligence economies. Specifically, it focuses on the global infrastructure of microworkers who “clean” data to train emotion-recognition algorithms. These workers label, categorize, annotate, and validate large amounts of data, thereby enabling AI to function.

In the winter of 2019, while living in Palermo 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 taxonomization of emotions, the annotation of facial expressions, and the recording of her own image to animate three-dimensional figures. 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 recognize 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 implications of this demand for emotional legibility are further explored in the embroideries of the textiles of the installation. The embroidery juxtaposes the abstract lines of facial micro-expressions detected by the algorithms with untranslatable emotional vernacular from the Sicilian dialect. This joint “fabrication” of computational and human language demonstrates how emotional sensibilities exceed reductive categorization.


Elisa Giardina Papa (IT) is an Italian artist whose work investigates gender, sexuality, and labor in relation to neoliberal capitalism and the borders of the Global South. Her work has been exhibited at the 59th Venice Biennale (“The Milk of Dreams”), MoMa (Modern Mondays), the Whitney Museum (Sunrise/Sunset Commission), Seoul Mediacity Biennale 2018, among others. Giardina Papa received an MFA from RISD, and she is currently pursuing a PhD in film, media, and gender studies at the University of California Berkeley. She lives and works in New York and Sant’Ignazio, Sicily.


Elisa Giardina Papa, “Cleaning Emotional Data”, 2020. Installation view, “Algotaylorism”, Kunsthalle Mulhouse, France, 2020. Courtesy of the Artist. Commissioned by Aksioma, Institute of Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, and Kunsthalle Mulhouse. Photo Sébastien Bozon

Video stills:
Elisa Giardina Papa, “Cleaning Emotional Data”, 2020. Still frame from video. Courtesy of the Artist. Commissioned by Aksioma, Institute of Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, and Kunsthalle Mulhouse.

The STARTS Prize has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No 956603.