How Covid-19 forced art institutions to take New Media art seriously, but not holistically.
By Alex Czetwertynski
Photo courtesy of Hovver, “Liminal Scope”
The Serpentine Galleries have released a fantastic new initiative called “Future Art Ecosystems” — which does something I’m quite sure has never been done before. It takes stock of the conditions and infrastructures behind the productions of New Media Arts, or, as the briefing coins it : “Art x Advanced Technologies.” This is an important effort, not only because it manages to fill a complete void in the field, but also because it tries to understand some of the defining tendencies and through lines behind this type of art production and it’s potential futures, which, coming from a venerable institution such as the Serpentine, carries its weight in the way people will continue to think and discuss this elusive ecosystem.
Why is it important to examine and critique this briefing? As I said above, there has never been such an effort in the industry. It has been evolving at such a fast pace that no real breathers were available to take stock and really examine the tendencies and infrastructures at play. Covid-19 has forced a good amount of soul searching within the contemporary art world, pushing it embrace more digital strategies and rethink it’s models . But the bigger incentive is that the briefing positions itself as a sort of “strategic” document (it was co-produced by a strategy consultancy) that outlines possible futures for the field. These strategies are somewhat flawed, potentially re-iterative (as in they don’t produce any radically new ideas) or too techno-capitalistically enthusiastic. More importantly, I don’t think either of the more “novel” approaches the authors suggest are what artists are fundamentally interested in. These approaches might be tied to forces at play within certain institutions and large corporations, which would certainly benefit a specific type of artists, the ones who ambitiously pursue a career leading to great partnerships with established institutions or corporations and who see success as social and financial as much (or more) as critical and peer-driven. And I’m not denigrating these desires, I’m suggesting these paths are not for everyone.
On a more personal note, as an artist, curator and commentator in the field, I have a vested interest in the success of the right strategies to effectively harness the forces at play in the AxAT field. For myself and for the communities I am fostered by and care for. This community is vast, complex, multi-directional and diverse in its strategies and recipes for success.This is where the document misses the mark : it’s sampling of the industry is too small to encompass artists who’s practices don’t align with techno-optimistic and capital driven agendas. It is too oriented towards a vision of “success” and “growth” that isn’t shared by the majority of artists in the field. Allow me to explain.
Technology and industry.
The briefing was co-authored by Ben Vickers (CTO of the Serpentine), Sophie Netchaef and Victoria Ivanova (with assistance from the aforementioned strategy consultancy). In his twitter post about the launch of the initiative, Vickers thanks a small group of contributors, many of which are intimately part of the Serpentine’s ecosystem.
The briefing sets the stage with the following :
“The view presented here is based on the Serpentine’s experience working with artists in the field, as well as ongoing conversations across broader networks as part of the organisation’s commitment to sector-convening around art and technology”….“But today, a new generation of artists working directly with advanced technologies is emerging, and analysis of their activities and approaches suggests an urgent need for a long-term strategic vision for art x advanced technologies(AxAT)”
This is indeed true that we need a long term strategic vision. However, it isn’t the field or its practices that are new, but rather that the art world only recently, particularly post-covid, is having to adapt, and find ways to monetize these typically hard to “gallerize” pieces of work.
The authors continue“Importantly, this[Long term strategic vision] must necessarily be a shared vision, because the challenges and opportunities in play are systemic; they extend beyond the interests of any one cultural institution, tech corporation, government agency or other individual actor in the sector.”
This couldn’t be more on point, as AxAT is a splintered field, with as many systems as there are practitioners, commissioners, exhibitors and patrons. Nothing is established, expected, standardized, and the rules vary from country to country, state to state, city to city etc. Trying to create a shared point of view across this patchwork would be challenging to say the least.
So how does the briefing propose to solve this? Before answering this question we have to examine the lens that is used across the entire briefing to describe the practices of AxAT artists. Far from providing a clear definition of what AxAT really is (which, despite searching for many years, I have not been able to find either. It prompted me to curate a show with about 20 media artists called “That’s not it” to illustrate this lack of definition in AxAT practices), it dives into the relationships of artists with a variety of other industries and more particularly tech industries.
For example, in its study of the conditions needed by artists to create work, it explores work spaces and residencies among other things. Two of the examples presented here are New Inc and Google’s art driven initiatives respectively. New Inc. is a membership based paid “incubator” program that advertises itself as geared towards “creative entrepreneurs” (the inclusion of “Inc” in the name teases this business centric approach). Google’s Arts & Culture and AMI provide some financial support and residencies to artists, but typically with a tight focus on Google products or processes (Machine Learning for example). Neither of these examples are the types of free roaming, financially supportive environments that one would get for example at The Hive in the south of France or what was called the “New Media Program” at Mana Contemporary. The Serpentine has close ties to Google Arts & Culture and AMI, and the founding director of New Inc. is cited as one of the contributors to the paper. I point this out because when an art institution references commercial institutions as examples of places where art practices can thrive, one has to raise an ear (not a suspicious ear, the right ear).
Further in the text, the authors develop a thread around “Products and Services” as “new financial mechanisms to support AxAT practices”. There are very few artists who exploit this vein to finance their projects. In fact it is a rare phenomenon for artists to actually develop “products” (software, hardware etc..) or exploit by-products of their artistic practice (R&D) to finance themselves. Artists making their discoveries, tools and practives freely available to other artists is a much more common occurence. The most prominent example, which will become a key strategic point as the briefing unfolds, is the creation of “ticketed experiences”. Aside from Simon Birch’s Fourteenth Factory and Teamlab’s various experiential palaces, there are, to my knowledge very few other artist driven ticketed experiences. Studio Drift and Random International are mentioned as well, but neither of them run their own spaces, they are represented and commissioned by others who leverage ticket sales to pay for the exhibition of the work. The world of artist driven ticketed experiences is quite varied. In the majority of cases, independent producers take it upon themselves to create these spaces and then engage with artists to fill them with installations. In some cases this is done relatively well, where artworks are presented properly, money and credit are assigned, and artists feel well served. In others artists are whitelisted and underpaid while their work is subsumed in the fantasy that drives the narrative of the space. Recently, as the briefing mentions, Pace Gallery, a revered institution, has started working on similar approaches, but with more “art world cred” and bigger names.
Nevertheless, the briefing seems to think that this model is interesting enough to be considered a successful method for artists to finance themselves. This is in part because the authors see the AxAT practices as something much more commercially driven that it really is. For example, when discussing artist studios, they explore the idea that these will become more and more like businesses, filled with a variety of different talents and experts, somehow blurring the identity of the individual artists and putting forth an amorphous group. I do wish this was closer to reality, because it would be a welcome approach to do away with the artist as rock star and go back to a more medieval “cathedral mason” ideal. There seem to be a trend towards that in the field, but the briefing gives examples that are closer to “art corp” than “art collective.”
“Rather than associating AxAT with an individual artist, they present an emerging standard of collective action, as indexed by their common adoption of impersonal labels rather than individual names.” Strangely this comes right after a quote from someone who seemingly runs this type of multi-disciplinary studio, Refik Anadol, but who clearly does not attempt to hide himself in his studio’s identity at all.
I’ve written elsewhere why it is hard to consider him as an artist rather than a designer (or a marketing director and CEO of his own brand), but that is different topic. It is only relevant in the sense that when one runs a large studio, large commissions are needed, and the practice becomes part of a sort of for-profit enterprise. To do this, or to develop and manage sell-able products for that matter, one needs lawyers, business advisors, vehement gate-keepers, and one needs to churn the capitalist hamster wheel at a much great speed.
It should be noted that what does seem to be a real, widely adopted model in the field, is the one where artists provide “services” to brands and agencies to create versions of their work for “activations” or commercial initiatives. This type of work can be soul-crushing, but allows funds to be re-directed towards personal pieces or R&D.
To wrap up the focus on industry that seems to underlie most of the briefing’s strategic thinking, let’s look at the three suggestions made in the final chapter, entitled “Strategies for Art-Industrial Revolution”. The choice of title here seems a bit poor, if we are to think of where the industrial revolution has left us today. But it becomes crystal clear at this point that the briefing is not about artists, but rather about what artists in collaborations with corporations, business advisors, industry partners etc. can achieve. At no point is the achievement framed as “great art”, but rather as financial success. The first strategy, “Tech industry as Art Patron” needs little unpacking. Aside from the already familiar notions of sponsorship, patronage, or philanthropy, the briefing does hint at the idea that it is probably inevitable that we will see a tech corporation owned art institution. The ramifications of this are hard to fathom, so let’s not go there.The second strategy is more complex, but not different in it’s approach. It suggest artists develop as “Art Stacks
”. For those not familiar with the term, a “stack” is typically defined, in the programming world, as a series of technologies “stacked” on top of each other, allowing for a set of skills to freely swim up or down this column of knowledge. The suggestion is that art stacks already exist. Teamlab is a prime example, with their blockbuster ticketed experiences in Tokyo, Singapore and elsewhere.“This demonstrates the potential of art stacks to expand to a larger scale than many well-known current museums – an observation that has precedent in the power-law distributions that have emerged in other media across the cultural sector accompanying a shift from a craft-based model to an industrialised one : Hollywood movie studios, major record labels, the Italian development of the fashion house system, videogames and social media.”
Once again, how many artists aspire to this type of success? Or even define success in this way? Are we confusing artists and art “entrepreneurs”? “Art stacks require a very particular negotiation of the relationship between commerce and art, and this may filter both the practitioners and the practices that are able and willing to generate them.” Indeed.
The third and final strategy describes the ways in which cultural institutions can support AxAT practices to a larger extent than they currently do, but this seems like more of a natural evolution than a new idea. It is necessary, and I couldn’t agree more.
- Corporate takeover
We’ve seen how the briefing is heavily skewed towards an understanding of AxAT practices as an ally and partner of other industries, defining it more as a bursting with potential to generate cash than bursting with potential to generate meaning.
This is where lies the briefing’s biggest blind spot. It should be mentioned that early on, the text announces that it concerns itself with the underlying mechanisms behind art practices, not with the discourse that stems from them. I would argue that, when it comes to art, that isn’t possible.“This document is largely focused on the infrastructure of the art world; it is concerned less with contemporary art discourse than with what is referred to in this document as the art industry – the set of‘backstage’ processes upon which the art world runs”There is one point in the briefing where the question “Is it art?” arises, specifically when it comes to Teamlab. If you have spent any time discussing the new media art scene with it’s cogniscendi, you will know that there is one thing everyone agrees on about Teamlab : no one, even Teamlab, is sure it is art. We don’t need to enter into a discussion of what “art” is and if Teamlab’s work falls in that category, even though I will venture forth that art excels at eluding us, it should not attempt to offer “satisfaction” or just entertainment. It should leave you overflowing or gutted, but not satiated or empty (or worse, indifferent). The 7th art (cinema) is full of these oppositions. Both Michael Bay and Andrei Tarkovski are practitioners of the field, but I would doubt anyone would consider both artists.
- Lack of critical apparatus
These critical questions need to be continuously debated because the line between art and “art-products” is so blurry that there needs to be an ongoing, tangential effort to focus it. Fragile small things need to be protected and put in the spotlight. Financial backers looking to make a profit shouldn’t be the ones to tell us what is to be considered as art. Additionally, critique is extremely important for the following reason : the AxAT industry is full of artists who wave a giant finger at a text written in all caps that explain why their work is interesting, what tech they used and how cool it is that their computer is so powerful. If we don’t have critical systems in place that debunk this hype-speak and expose commercial relationships, we will continue to find ourselves surrounded by people who buy into them. To avoid this proverbial Kool Aid we need the likes of Alan Warburton (see his critique of Jakob Kudsk Steensen here), the likes of Brad Troemel and as many others as we can find. This is important work, and it needs a platform. Critics are the white blood cells of the field, and a document proposing to find future strategies for it’s growth must include them.
3. A tight field of view
The second biggest blind spot of the briefing is it’s sampling of artists and discussion partners. The ones listed in the document masthead are fantastic people to speak to, but they are far from being representative enough of the complexity of the field. Understandably, they all gravitate around the Serpentine in some shape or form, and we all have our networks, but if you’re going to propose a briefing like this, it becomes your responsibility to speak to as many people as possible, to widen the field of view.
Some suggestions : Explore the models that have been put in place by European festivals like Sonar, Stereolux or Chroniques etc..Look at schools like Le Fresnoy in France or ITP in New YorkLook at places like Brooklyn Research to see how non-profit R&D and for profit products and services can co-exist in the same entity.Look at how the Mutek network supports itselfLook at places like The Hive for a very different way of blending tech “patrons” and artists. Look at the ticketed experiences like Zerospace and Meow Wolf that whitelist artists, and then look at places like Wonderspaces who don’t. Speak to artist agents who know all the tricks to get commissions in China, how to promote work, how to deal with grants and contracts, how to grow artists careers in full awareness of their ambitions and intentions.Speak to more artists, speak to Jon Rafman, speak to Rafael Lozanno-Hemmer,James Clar, Ryoji Ikeda, Matt Clark all examples of artists in the AxAT field who operate along completely different, yet compatible models.Speak to institutions like ZKM to see how they deal with complex issues of conservation.Speak to Gene Kogan who is creating intentional artist communities in the desert.Speak to Casey Reas and Ben Fry about creating tools that are open sourced to help other artists instead of being monetized and commodified (and those who made OpenFrameworks, Threejs and so many others)Speak to writers and thinkers like Domenico Quaranta and Lev Manovich about how we can define the field better.Look at the myriad models that exist out there, so many that one wonders how they could ever be synthesized.
4. The desires of artists
After all this, I find myself still a bit dumbfounded by the fact that the briefing assumes artists want to become enterprises. A lot of artists want to challenge existing systems, work outside of the coziness of money and spectacle, use old technologies in new ways, use technology and forget about it, find ways of supporting each other without becoming stacks, disappear for six months without having to worry about 30 people to feed, focus on themselves, nurture their ideas and communities. I believe the briefing is a necessary step towards uplifting the field, but its focus on the entrepreneurial drive and the link between artists and corporations, is surprising. Unless it is the product of an agenda yet to be revealed, it doesn’t line up with reality.If we want to strengthen the business side of AxAT we also need to prop up the critical, theoretical and societal underpinnings of the work. Without this ingredient, the strategies in place will feel like an incomplete agenda geared towards the creation of wealth rather than the creation of meaningful art.