The Future of Artistic Research
by Gary Zhexi Zhang (SMACT ’19)
From the April 2020 issue of ArtReview. Republished with the author’s permission.
Is the future of art a form of Avant-garde, Inc?
It’s no secret that the utopian impulse of contemporary art has long found itself alternatively seduced and repelled by the efficacy of business. Business organizes society and shapes regimes of value in ways that art has seldom been able to claim for itself. Incapable of meaningfully negating or acknowledging systems of power, Western contemporary art resigns itself to an institutional landscape sustained by the dubious largesse of the Zabludowiczes, Sacklers, Kochs, Googles and BPs of this world, all the while rehearsing its structural critiques. Meanwhile, its most valued possessions – its critical autonomy and its political identification with the public sphere – have become a space of refuge and self-denial that merely legitimizes its capture by those very same powers.
What would it mean for artistic practice to reorient its relationship to business and society, from negative postures of criticality towards a generative mode of critical negation? What this amounts to, in the crudest terms, is that artistic practice would not only explore, subvert or engage, but would practice in substance what it preaches in theory – to ‘be the change you want to see’, to quote a popular bumper sticker. The 1960s and 70s – a more optimistic era of art, science and industry – saw a number of pioneering programs that sought to position the artist as cultural researcher and instigator within society at large. These included the Artist Placement Group in Britain, which inserted the artist – conceived as an ‘incidental person’, a disinterested interloper – into the midst of government and business, and György Kepes’s commitments to ‘art on a civic scale’ at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a period of intense social and technological transformation, these initiatives sought to expand ‘artistic research’ beyond gallery walls, integrating artistic labors with those more obviously productive domains of advanced industrial society.
In the decades since, the hope that artists would become ‘[makers] of esthetic decisions’ in the new ‘systems-oriented culture’, as CAVS fellow Jack Burnham once proposed in his essay ‘Systems Esthetics’ (1968), remained largely unrealized. Meanwhile, with the ascent of platform capitalism, the contemporary technology sector has become a powerful player in the systems that produce culture, as well as in shaping the epochal narratives and desires of that culture. Cognitive dissonance notwithstanding, art, culture, technology and business become ever more intermingled in a system without discernible edges, only semiporous membranes. Indeed, the notional artist who offers incisive critiques and radical visions has been partially superseded by the management consultant – mercenaries hired in to tell C-level executives just how bad they’ve been – and the startup founder – today’s heroic ideal of the starving entrepreneur, burning out in pursuit of cultural ‘disruption’. For artists, negotiating this terrain simultaneously as creative, critical and economic agents demands a comparable degree of cynicism, agility and entrepreneurial plasticity.
The past decade has seen rapid iterations of the ‘art and business’ genre. At some point, poetic, performative entanglements (such as Goldin+Senneby’s Headless, 2007–15, an odyssey into offshore finance) and studiously ironic ambivalence (such as the 2016 DIS-curated Berlin Biennale) gave way to strategies of assimilation and acceleration, whether by inclination or necessity. The canonical example of the 2010s was probably the trend-forecasting agency K-HOLE, which was formed by four art-school friends who, while grifting fashion-industry jobs in New York, became ‘interested in the total collapse that comes with being the thing itself’. As it turned out, they were exceptionally good at ‘the thing itself’ – publishing punchy trend reports on emerging youth cultures – while their status as impostors in both art and business engendered a double-agency that saw them lauded at both Frieze Art Fair and the World Economic Forum. Briefly, their activity as precarious artists hustling at the coalface of culture became both valuable and profitable. ‘Business LARPing’, as cofounder Dena Yago later reflected in an article in the e-flux journal, reached its limits in the boardroom: ‘We conceded that seeing the future [does not equal] changing it. Networks of power and influence remain the same.’
But what comes after the LARP is over? Perhaps the real thing. In 2017 curator Victoria Ivanova and philosopher Armen Avanessian called for an ‘institutional realism’ that ‘[explores] the gaps between what institutions think they do and what they really do’. In a short text under the moniker ‘Bureau for Cultural Strategies’, they argued for a redressal of the failure of institutions to capitalize on the cultural value they produce, by ‘locating and harnessing institutional capacity to increase value, influence pricing [and] play into geopolitical and ideological agendas’.
Is the museum a thinktank, a platform, a consultancy? Ivanova now works as part of the Serpentine Galleries’ Research & Development Platform, a relatively new arm of the London institution. In March the platform published its first report on ‘Future Art Ecosystems’ (coproduced with consultancy Rival Strategy), in which it envisions art institutions as innovative early-adopters of emerging technologies, with section headings like ‘Tech Industry as Art Patron’, ‘Strategies for the Art-Industrial Revolution’ and the ‘Art Stack’. Headed by the Serpentine’s ‘chief technology officer’, Ben Vickers, the platform is aligned with the likes of the Berggruen Institute, a Californian global governance and cultural thinktank founded by real-estate billionaire Nicolas Berggruen. The rhetoric of R&D favours the actionable over the theoretical, reflecting a desire to escape the paralysis of what theorist Suhail Malik, in his forthcoming book On the Necessity of Art’s Exit from Contemporary Art, has characterized as contemporary art’s ‘[substitution of] the identitylessness of the present with its own indeterminacy’. With its deep connections to both public and private networks of money and power, the Serpentine is well positioned to experiment with, and benefit from, the supply chain configurations of contemporary technoculture. The emphasis on ‘strategy’ is a tacit acknowledgement that compromises will be made in the pursuit of resources and relevance, presumably regarding the optics of patronage and complicity. In a recent talk, Vickers argued for art’s value to be considered historically – including its histories of patronage – and that ‘art institutions cannot be on the right side of everything’. While this shift towards a cultural realpolitik is in many ways welcome, it is difficult to imagine how the Serpentine would retain any semblance of autonomy, however strategically, as a muse to Silicon Valley. After all, this is the institution that appointed Yana Peel, an ex-Goldman Sachs executive, as its most recent CEO. Peel subsequently resigned after an outcry over investments made by a fund managed by her husband, Stephen Peel. The precipitous arc of Peel’s eager hire and contentious resignation is a reminder that contemporary art’s relationship with business remains predominantly transactional: exchanging access to wealth and influence in return for trust, prestige and meaning. Conceivably, the Serpentine might leverage this transaction to cultivate a generative symbiosis between the ‘art stack’ and the ‘tech stack’ in the common pursuit of cultural innovation, so long as the outcomes serve, in the final analysis, the shareholders.
A managerial lexicon, more reminiscent of a Rand report than a museum press release, is echoed among emerging artistic practices seeking more ‘tactical’ engagements with culture, often operating doubly as consultants, thinktanks or businesses. A notable example is Primer, a ‘platform for artistic and organizational development’ formed in 2016 by the Copenhagen-based artist collective Diakron inside the headquarters of Aquaporin, a biotech company that develops water purification systems. Recalling Artist Placement Group, Primer resembles an ‘itinerant platform’ in semipermanent residence inside Aquaporin’s gleaming factory-laboratory. Its most visible output has been a series of exhibitions, inviting artists engaging ecological and technical themes to intervene in Aquaporin’s industrial research environment. Internally, the group also researches so-called hybrid organizations, transdisciplinary entities (like Primer itself) ranging from hacker spaces to the Ethereum Foundation, which cut across traditional silos of knowledge, influence and organizational protocol. Their relationship to Aquaporin is nonfinancial, with the startup offering free access and space. When I ask Diakron and Primer cofounder Aslak Aamot Kjaerulff about the power dynamics at play, he refers to a “navigational ethics […] sometimes you are more clean and sometimes in the real dirt, rather than trying to claim a solid ethical position”. Kjaerulff acknowledges that the project is likely neither permanent nor scalable, contingent as it is on the goodwill of the startup’s (current) CEO, who views Primer as one experiment among many. Nonetheless, like ecologists embedded in the lifecycle of a technology, the circumstances afford the artists an unusual intimacy with the comings and goings of technological research and corporate process. Like Vickers at the Serpentine, Primer invokes the motif of “pushing artists’ work upstream” in the supply chain, seeking to leverage a shift from passive consumer of technologies to an active role in shaping technoculture. For Diakron, Primer is a way to test the elasticity of artistic autonomy without sheltering it from other forces in society, instead seeking confluences with the organization: “No one would fail to see the good we do here”, Kjaerulff states.
Meanwhile in Berlin, the sight of artists-cum-consultants is already a familiar one. This should come as little surprise: in an art field struggling for institutional survival and cultural relevance, alongside a fragmented public sphere, client work might start to feel more like disalienation than selling out. One of the main characters in novelist Elvia Wilk’s near-future Berlin-based debut, Oval (2019), is a conceptual artist employed by a green tech company to teach it ‘how to think better, how to critique its institutionality’. Meanwhile, established in real Berlin, 2017, Nemesis is an ‘alternative design and strategy consultancy’ run by K-HOLE alum Emily Segal and architect Martti Kalliala. A self-described ‘Janus-faced’ business and thinktank, Kalliala tells me that their work involves “rethinking forms of luxury” and “the question of value creation under late capitalism”. More concretely, the pair consult with boutique brands on identity and strategy, deriving revenue, for example, as creative directors for the bedding company Buffy. Given the immaterial logics of branding, it is unsurprising that artists have carved out an interface of conversion between cultural and actual capital, sidestepping from the fluencies of cultural production into the business of consumer insight. Emphatically, Nemesis is not an artwork, but a practice that garnishes an established professional genre – the brand consultancy – with what Kalliala calls a “higher resolution of cultural literacy”. It resembles an ‘alternative consultancy’ in the same way that Primer might be considered an ‘alternative artistic platform’: both arbitrage their value across domains of knowledge and practice. Fittingly, the core of Nemesis’s appeal lies outside of Nemesis: Segal is a writer and artist, Kalliala is half of electronic music act Amnesia Scanner. In the interests of financial sustainability, the artist-consultant seeks to have it both ways, claiming the ‘incidental’ character of the artist-researcher against the ethical compromises of business (‘I’m gathering intelligence’), while serving that same outsider status as a value proposition to clients (‘I’m a connoisseur’). The avant-garde as a service, so to speak.
Such ethico-political acrobatics lie perhaps at the heart of tactics, suggesting new models of artistic agency through an accelerationist program while risking entrenchment within the dystopian configurations of the present. Even to the contradictions and indeterminacies of contemporary art – its practitioners, institutions and multiplicity of publics – there remain crucial differences between shareholders and stakeholders. A ‘navigational ethics’ will take delicate handling, but as Kjaerulff reflects, “It’s interesting to see how far upstream you can go”.