Virtual institutions? Audience-led curatorial programming? Buying art with bitcoin? New technology is emerging across the globe, producing innovative ways of interacting with art yet also challenging our historical practices. Author and cultural strategy consultant András Szántó, who moderates an Art Basel Conversations talk on the subject, helps us crack the code. The Digital Museum of Digital Art doesn’t exist. Then again, it does. I went there on a warm afternoon last July. My body was at Transfer, a gallery in Brooklyn. But my mind was on a different planet. I strapped on an Oculus Rift headset. With the gallery’s owner, Kelani Nichole, gently guiding me, I approached a crystalline palace made entirely of data. The entrance looked like a Greek temple, and the museum edifice was perched on a piece of interstellar rock. Farther in the dark space beyond hovered an array of luminous planets—each one a work of pixel-based art. Entering DiMoDA, I heard footsteps, presumably mine. Alfredo Salazar-Caro, a working artist and a cocreator of DiMoDA, added that touch as a nod to the sensory conventions of the real world—like fake engine noise in electric cars. Soon I was floating inside Theo Triantafyllidis’s Self Portrait (Interior), a piece consisting of the artist’s giant head. I slid down his larynx into a stunning virtual-reality landscape—a teeming tableau of pink stalactites, snaking microbes and oozing lagoons. This is DiMoDA 2.0. It’s new, slightly weird, and pretty awesome. “It was born out of necessity, back in 2013,” says Salazar-Caro, who is 28. “I was frustrated that I rarely saw works like this in regular galleries. That’s when Will Robertson and I launched DiMoDA as a way to create a purely digital museum.” HACKING THE MUSEUM Is this the future of the museum? Even Salazar-Caro doesn’t see DiMoDA as a substitute for traditional institutions, but as something that “complements and enhances them.” Still, it offers signposts to the future. First, this museum is created by artists—and it’s high time they had a say in how art is presented. Second, the visitor is in charge: I could go wherever I wanted and stay all day. Third, the museum could adapt to its subject. No legacy architecture here. DiMoDA could assume different visual attitudes for each exhibition. All of which made me excited about the road ahead… except for one thing: I felt lonely. The experience was locked in my brain. And I felt dizzy. It’s still early days for the virtual museum and the generational project of digital transformation in the art world—but it’s finally really happening. Innovations like DiMoDA are poised to change every facet of the museum, from how a curator plans a show to how a visitor navigates through it. Soon, we can expect plausible virtual-reality gallery experiences. A new world of possibilities is opening up, and at the same time it’s shrouding the museum sector in a mist of cultural anxiety. To be frank, we’re not really prepared for what comes next. CHANGE IS IN THE AIR It may seem a paradox that the art world came late to the digital party. Art may be rebellious, but its institutions are conservative. I have a theory for why disruption has lagged: It’s because art is the most complex form of data. Finding a deal on a plane ticket requires a relatively simple database search. Figuring out the meaning of a picture—that’s an algorithmic challenge of a different order. But with recent leaps in computing power, big-data analysis and artificial intelligence, technology is finally catching up with art. Mind-boggling things are happening. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is developing a portable particle accelerator that can reveal molecular traits in forgeries. Google, with 500 million art-related searches a month, has added more than 440 museums to its Street View map function. Meaningful relational picture-searching technology is around the corner. The digitization of museum collections is opening the door to unfettered sharing of art. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has made its more than 375,000 high-resolution images of public-domain artworks freely available since February. (Disclosure: I oversee a leadership institute there.) Museums are deploying Bluetooth tracking and digital beacons to gather data about their audiences. Augmented reality— when digital information is overlaid on realworld images—is helping visitors see animal flesh around fossil bones at natural-history museums and revealing how Antoni Gaudí imagined his interiors at the Casa Batlló in Barcelona. At the Cleveland Museum of Art, visitors watch screens as they match their bodies to the pose of an ancient sculpture—a visceral and fun way of engaging with the art form. Change is afoot on the commercial side of the art world, too, as more and more of the trade is transacted digitally. Bitcoin is making inroads. The BBC reported that in 2015 the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art (MAK) became the first to use the digital currency to buy an artwork. Despite all this bubbling innovation, museums remain predominantly focused on delivering analog experiences to live visitors. Defining change will come when “digital museums and virtual audiences”—the theme of an Art Basel Conversations talk I am moderating on December 8 in Miami Beach—advance from a peripheral to a core mission concern. Eventually, as with shopping, dating, news, entertainment and learning, an ever- larger share of visitor engagement will shift online. Physical and virtual experiences will blend in surprising ways. No one quite knows what that will look like, but I believe it’s inevitable. OPENING UP, LETTING GO How, then, should institutions adapt? No one wants to see visitors with heads down in devices, or worse, staying at home (as happened after the advent of high-definition opera broadcasts). A great deal of money and cultural authority is at stake. Concerns converge on three areas: content, staffing, and the relationship with the public. When it comes to content, museums are already developing a new vocabulary of digital storytelling around their collections and programs. Lessons will need to be learned from entertainment and experience design—fields that museum professionals often view with disdain, at their peril. As a 2017 report titled “The Digital Transformation of Museums,” from INSEAD, the international business school, bluntly warned, “Faced with changing customer demographics, evolving expectations and an explosion of competing new entertainment options, museums must increase their digital proficiency to offer a more engaging journey for their audience.” In staffing, new skills are emerging. Here’s one that already exists at DiMoDA: virtual installer. That’s someone who works with a digital artist, adjusting a work’s alignment, plasticity, luminosity and other variable characteristics. Even in museums that eschew electronic art, digital experts are destined to rise higher on the org chart. The most wrenching adaptations call for new attitudes. If there is a lesson of the digital age thus far, it is this: Gatekeepers are seeing their information monopolies erode as people access content directly, unfiltered. The audience is demanding a voice. They want to be part of the conversation. People are no longer content being passive recipients of programming. Just look at today’s newspapers. Should museums fully embrace the digital opportunities around them or fence off part of the experience to create an oasis of reflection and calm? Can acquisition and programming decisions involve input from the public? Will the virtual museum end up pandering to popular tastes or will it maintain academic standards? As online visitors fill the virtual galleries of the future, will institutions invite the public, in ways we do not yet fully fathom, to cocreate the museum? THE APPEAL OF ANALOG Understandably, such questions unnerve traditionalists. The good news is that museums hold a trump card in our digital predicament. As life shifts relentlessly onto screens and all that’s solid melts into air, the authentic experience of a live encounter with a tangible object—in the company of other living, breathing human beings— is becoming more sought after. “Art is best experienced first-hand, unmediated and unencumbered—in context, with narrative and history,” says Jamie Zigelbaum, an artist with tech credentials from the MIT Media Lab. “Just as you don’t want Google glasses on your face while having an intimate conversation with a lover, you don’t want some screen intervening between you and a Rothko.” The fusion of technology and art will become more seamless and satisfying as new applications— augmented reality in particular—are matched up in smart ways, so that technology supports, rather than overwhelms, the encounter with art. For Zigelbaum, that will happen when digital innovators figure out how to “weave context into in-person direct experience, in transparent and minimal ways—that is, if we design them properly.” This is the challenge of digital innovation in museums. Next come more trials and failures, surprises and disappointments, until technology finally lives up to the nuance and complexity of art. As for the Digital Museum of Digital Art, version 3.0 just came out in November. “Faced with changing customer demographics, evolving expectations and an explosion of competing new entertainment options, museums must increase their digital proficiency to offer a more engaging journey for their audience.”
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