Alibabaum Sortium
An algorithms' perspective on domestic products

Installation, 40m2 Cardboard objects, audio track

Mathilde Lemaire
Van Abbe Museum

Developed for the group show “Alibaba, From Here To Your Home” for Van Abbe Museum and Geo Design, this work was one of several elements describing the giant of e-commerce Alibaba and its effects on the world.

“The Alibaba and Aliexpress search bars are the gateway to the thousands items sold by Chinese factories and resellers. Algorithms control when, how many times and in which order the searched products appear on visitors screens. By looking at the Ali platform like naturalists, Arvid&Marie approached the digital platforms like ecosystems. They analysed several algorithms, narrowing in on the sorting algorithm and renaming it: Alibabaum Sortium.

In the process of exploring Alibaba, Arvid&Marie were drawn to specific products whose physical existence is a source of doubt: it is unclear whether they occur as purchasable items or if their role is to entertain customers and keep them browsing through Alibaba’s interface. Buyer’s Desires are a collection of object simulations, in paper, of what Alibaba claims are its most desired products. The other side of the reconstructed objects is printed with the metadata that writes their existence into the digital world.” (words from curator Martina Muzi).

(Narrator): “Extracted from their native e-commerce jungle, these artifacts teach us about Alibabaum Sortium’s understanding of objects. Varying from their material cousins, these items exist in a state of multilayered information. From their peculiar skin, Alibabaum Sortium can feel and order the potential of each, looking at price or keywords. These particular pieces are masters of delusion and know well how to fool algorithms. Although on top of the attention chain, they have supposedly never been made into material incarnations, making them truly unique and indigenous to this online ecosystem.”

Among the modeled products, the algorithm impersonated discusses its way of life in an interview while the visitors wander in the installation. (Narrator): “Alibaba’s ecosystem is buzzing with continuous activity, both human users and computer programs, all interlocked in a struggle for visitor’s attention. In the digital habitat of Alibaba, Recommendation Algorithms pair up with their symbiotic Trickster Hunters. We listen to the testimony of one Alibabaum Sortium and try to understand a successful specimen of the recommendation kind. This interview chronicles some of the most unusual, if not downright bizarre, behaviors that algorithms have devised to keep their species efficient and their habitat successful.”


Selected exhibitions