Since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, arts organizations have been grappling with a forced migration to the digital realm, while simultaneously reorganizing their internal operations to meet the demands of a new reality. Budgets were frozen, staff put on furlough, programs and exhibitions postponed or canceled, and business plans and fundraising campaigns were severely undermined.
Given the contemporary art field’s heavy reliance on physical spaces, in-person networking, and crossing of borders, lockdown presents a devastating disruption. But while COVID-19 may be unprecedented, it has brought to the surface underlying issues and forced us to face a series of uncomfortable realities and big questions concerning the future of the sector.
Yesterday, the Serpentine Galleries launched the “Future Art Ecosystems: Art x Advanced Technologies” report, produced in collaboration with the strategy studio Rival Strategy, and focused on technologies’ impact on the arts. It offers alternative propositions for rebuilding the sector in the near future.
An Art Basel visitor uses a VR headset to view work by Jacolby Satterwhite in 2018. Photo by Harold Cunningham/Getty Images.
The scramble to embrace the digital space as—temporarily—the only site available has made clear that a strategy of mirroring offline programming online is risky, and doesn’t necessarily yield quality results or the desired levels of engagement. It’s clear that the arts have generally suffered from underinvestment and slow adaptation to the digital world in comparison to other sectors, even as the temporary de-centering of the physical gallery has made it obvious that advanced technologies such as AR and VR have a major role to play in shaping alternative pathways to experiencing art.
Galleries are now reopening, but without a reliable vaccine or treatment and with the specter of repeat lockdowns looming, it’s clear that a serious change is necessary for longer-term survival and relevance. As exhibitions and art fairs go digital and cultural experiences flatten, the immediate challenge is in competing for audience attention with the likes of Netflix, Fortnite, and Animal Crossing. The need to reposition the art organization within this landscape is an existential necessity. The fact that no institutions have yet joined forces (and budgets) to drive traffic to shared online programming is just one example of a lack of necessary strategic thinking in the sector.
Over the course of the last few years there has been a rapidly increasing engagement and investment in the development new technologies for art, both within the art industry and outside of it: Apple’s [AR]T Walks, Hauser & Wirth’s ArtLab, TeamLab’s Borderless museum, and a rash of VR artworks peppered across group shows and biennales. What seems different this time is the infrastructural change that is being orchestrated, and the overlapping transformation across industries as a result of a “technology first” approach.
It’s no exaggeration to say that we are in a moment of history in which all layers of our art systems face active and necessary revision. The use of advanced technologies by artists—and the increasing interest of the tech sector in developing its own contemporary art infrastructure—are destabilizing the systems of art as we have known them (and perhaps taken for granted).
Below, we summarize the three non-exclusive models our report offers for how the interfaces between art and advanced technologies are likely to be shaped over the next decade and the big questions that they leave for the present moment:
1. Art Could Be a Source of Opportunity for the Technology Sector
Ralph Pritchard. Courtesy of Serpentine Galleries.
Today, the tech sector is expanding into finance, healthcare, and education as tech companies require absorption of existing industries in order to expand their market share and meet mid-term revenue projections. For example, Amazon is poised in the next year to make a major push into healthcare, as highlighted by New York University marketing professor Scott Galloway in his recent talk for the Digital-Life-Design conference, “The Four Horsemen Post-Corona.”
We should expect to see an integration of the cultural sector, specifically those heritage institutions that are either repositories of historical knowledge or producers of niche contemporary experiences. In the age of advanced biotech, for example, natural history museums face a coincidental pivot from custodians of lost species to vast biological data warehouses, from which active scientific enquiry and biotech startups can build. The recent appointment of David Gurr, the head of Amazon’s UK and Ireland operations, as the director of the National History Museum in London may be seen as a step in the direction of tighter ties and latent pivots.
Or will tech build out its own cultural infrastructure on the back of its entertainment wing? Google, Apple, Samsung, and HTC have all shown aspirations for bespoke cultural programs or institutions. However, for cultural programs to succeed, they require a buy-in that isn’t based on a commercial value proposition. Given the growing public suspicion toward big tech, the question is: Can public arts organizations and artists come up with viable strategies to keep their work going without undermining their own integrity?
2. Ambitious Large-Scale Art Projects Can Soon Be Brought Directly to the Paying Public
teamLab’s Universe of Water Particles on a Rock where People Gather (2018). Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.
Our report identifies a new type of actor on the art–tech horizon: the art stack. An art stack is a vertically integrated art studio that resembles more a corporation than it does a traditional artist studio. Employing specialized staff, developing bespoke technologies and business models, art stacks present a fascinating hybrid that has more agility and capital than most traditional art institutions. Examples are teamLab, the likely soon to be announced re-articulation of Pace X, Acute Art, and the early stage potential of artistic practices such as Refik Anadol’s and Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s.
Scaling artistic practice and art institutional offerings is at the heart of the art stack model. Scaling is also what is required for a more leveled engagement with the tech industry, yet scaling carries a risk of reducing sophistication and nuance that good art is generally credited with. Could creative scaling then become a pursuit in and of itself for arts organizations and artists?
3. Art Is a Strategic Cultural Asset
Ian Cheng, Emissary Sunsets The Self live simulation and story, infinite duration, sound (2017). Courtesy of the artist, Pilar Corrias, Gladstone Gallery, Standard (Oslo).
How should the historical value of the public art field be preserved and strengthened in this moment of accelerated change? One path might be to consider the role of art in a more holistic and mission-oriented approach to innovation and public good, advocated by the likes of Marianna Mazzucato, an economist and the founder and director of the University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. Aligning art’s potential for creative research and development with the need to develop a more systemic understanding of value around societally disruptive technologies opens up a new vista for art as a bridge between worlds.
While, historically, the art field has been wary of having its work evaluated on the basis of metrics for measuring impact, this rejection is also what has led to reduced say in their framing and implementation by national and private funding bodies. If cultural infrastructure is to be transformed, systems of measurement must become an area of innovation in and of themselves. With new approaches to understanding the impact of measurement in a more holistic way, the highly charged matter of “metrics” needs to be finally tackled head on in order to evade another wave of cosmetic changes that don’t actually address the foundations.
The path toward a fully functioning 21st-century cultural infrastructure requires an honest questioning of implicit assumptions, underlying biases, and, crucially, substantial investment and transformation of existing systems of art. A question becomes ever more prescient in a moment when countries are issuing significant bailout funds to their cultural industries. Perhaps this is the biggest choice of all: to bailout or invest in rebuilding?
Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Catharsis (2019-20). Supported by CONNECT, BTS Outdoor installation at the Serpentine Galleries. Photo: Hugo Glendinning, courtesy of the artist.
None of these developments represent quick-to-implement solutions to the myriad of challenges that now face the art industry as it begins to move through a necessarily challenging period of history. But what this process of interrogating the impacts of advanced technologies on the arts has shown us, is that the underlying infrastructure and the platforms on which the art field runs today are what is at stake in defining its mid- to long-term trajectory and potential.
At present, there are other industries and “outliers” that are redefining and building systems, and should there be no concerted action to take a proactive stance, the art field will be remade by them. Arts ecosystems as they exist today must either learn to see, understand, and make decisions that act on these developments, or these decisions will be made for them.
Here’s a sagacious Harvard Law professor named Elizabeth Warren writing about bankruptcy in 2009: “There is some evidence that Chapter 11 is used as both emergency room and morgue.”
A decade on, let the triage begin.
COVID has put more than 100 U.S. companies on court-assisted life support and hundreds more are destined for a similar path. All told, Chapter 11 business filings increased 26% in the first half of the year and the pace does not seem to be slowing. In the past few days, Brooks Brothers, Muji, and Sur La Table joined the somber list, which already includes Chesapeake Energy, Cirque du Soleil, Hertz, and J.C. Penney.
To Sen. Warren’s point, for a lot of these companies bankruptcy court will be a short stopping point before they dissolve into the ether. Only about one-third of Chapter 11 filings manage to have a restructuring plan confirmed. More than half of the companies Warren studied never even got around to proposing a restructuring plan; they were essentially dead on arrival. More recent research shows that about half of companies with a reorganization plan go bankrupt again within five years.
The wave of filings is particularly troubling because Chapter 11 cases have slowed to a trickle in the past decade. A bullish economy accounts for much of the swoon, but so too does a burgeoning crowd of turnaround pros and M&A opportunists. Lately, any beast that lumbered into bankruptcy court tended to be a dinosaur on its last legs (see: Sears).
Bankruptcies, like so much of the economic landscape, come with a big asterisk these days. Many of the companies seeking protection now would likely have been relatively fine if not for the pandemic. But therein lies the problem. Who knows when commerce will return to something resembling normal?
Hertz can come up with the sharpest reorganization plan on record, but it won't be much good without business travelers at its counters and kiosks. The sickness is systemic. Same goes for a circus, an airline, or Bounce For Fun, a Texas outfit that rents those inflatable playgrounds for kids’ parties.
Brooks Brothers, apparently, has some prospective buyers. And there's plenty of brand equity left in Muji, if social-media sadness is any indicator. Of course, that's never in short supply; if only it could pay the rent.
10 Korean Artists Who Are Shaping Contemporary Art
jul. 8, 2020 11:30am
Park Chan-kyong, still from Citizen's Forest, 2016. Courtesy of Art Sonje Center and Kukje Gallery.
Across cultural disciplines in Korea, contested memories and trauma ruptures both past and present—from the division of the peninsula and Japan’s enslavement of Korean comfort women in the Pacific War, to the deadly 1980 Gwangju Uprising, to the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster in which more than 300 passengers, mostly high school students, drowned after the ship capsized.
In 2016, it was revealed that 9,473 prominent artists, writers, filmmakers, and actors who were critical of then-president Park Geun-hye’s lackluster handling of the maritime tragedy had been blacklisted by the administration. The artists had been denied state grants and international opportunities, including participation in the Gwangju Biennale and cultural exchange programs. The exposing of Park’s clandestine blacklist, among the administration’s other corruptions, eventually led to her impeachment, but the repercussions of years of restrictions and censorship are still being felt today.
Internationally, the work of artists engaging with Korean history is routinely subcategorized or even oppressed. For example, at the recent Aichi Triennale in Nagoya, an exhibition containing sculptures of Korean comfort women was shut down, representing the ongoing sociopolitical tensions between Korea and Japan. In the United States and Europe, where media narratives around South Korea are dominated by K-pop and K-beauty, artists of the Korean diaspora might resist or surgically dissect such superficial definitions.
How can a Korean artist—however one identifies as such—shape their own narrative? I often think of a quote by author Min Jin Lee, which was repurposed by curator Hyunjin Kim for the Korea pavilion presentation at the 58th Venice Biennale: “History has failed us, but no matter.” As such, the practices of these artists often grapple with issues such as colonization, diaspora, collective amnesia, division lines, gender, and notions of an East Asian identity or transnationalism. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it loosely assembles a cohort of art practices that embrace—and prod at—a conflicted definition of “Korean art.”
Park Chan-kyong, installation view of “Gathering” at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, 2019. Photo by Hong Cheolki. Courtesy of the artist, MMCA, and Kukje Gallery.
It is said that a ghost only appears on Earth when there is an unresolved conflict. In Park Chan-kyong’s three-channel film Citizen’s Forest (2016), viewers slip in and out of a comatose state of collective amnesia as they see ghouls from Korea’s past: young students in uniform, resembling those who died in the Sewol Ferry tragedy; men bearing glossy, skull-like helmets, presumably victims of the Gwangju massacre.
The polyphonic practice of the artist, critic, curator, and film director is rooted in these discontinuous histories, which haunt the image of an economically prosperous, modernized Korea presented by international media. Using the screen as a generational surface for memory, he addresses the lack of reparations for such victims of history and proposes institutional critiques of social and political organizations. (His brother, Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, was one of the artists blacklisted by the Park Geun-hye administration.)
In his most recent large-scale solo exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, Park reimagines the museum space as a sensitive promoter of regional histories in Small Museum of Art (2019), instead of the so-called “world views” presented by Western institutions.
B. 1971, Seoul. Lives and works in Berlin and Seoul.
Portrait of Haegue Yang in front of her installation Mountains of Encounter, 2008, in “Haegue Yang: ETA 1994-2018” at Museum Ludwig, 2018. Photo by Marius Becker. Image via Getty Images.
Haegue Yang has utilized the humble Venetian blind in her practice since 2006. These banal window coverings, intended to block out light, are refashioned into kinetic, minimalist sculptures that she expands into maze-like horizontal or vertical formations—which visitors are encouraged to walk through or under—or enclosed cubic perimeters, a reference to
Yang showed these blinds, along with other works, at the Korea pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale, and at recent major solo shows at Cologne’s Museum Ludwig (in conjunction with her winning the 2018 Wolfgang Hahn Prize), the South London Gallery, and the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane.
There is an element of ludic interaction in her works, too, from the shamanistic series “The Intermediate” (2015–present), figures of artificial straw, and plants and fruits on wheels. Her 2019 commission for the Museum of Modern Art was made up of freestanding retro-futuristic shapes—Yang often references
Embedded systems—musical, spatial, performative—exist within Suki Seokyeong Kang’s assemblies of sculptures, textiles, and performers. The ambitious video-installation-performance project Black Mat Oriole (2016–17), which made its U.S. debut at the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia in 2018, takes as its starting point the codifications of jeongganbo, an ancient system used to notate Korean court music. Jeongganbo is made up of symbols within individual rectangular cells (instead of the Western latticework system of staffs and noteheads) to transcribe rhythm and pitch. These rectangular cells—and the temporal worlds evoked within them—are referenced in the similarly shaped traditional hwamunseok reed mats, which Kang sources from female Korean artisans, as well as the wooden frames, the small raised platforms, and even the enclosed grid of the video screen itself. Against these squares, performers dance, moving and expressing themselves within the limitations of these minimalist shapes.
Suki Seokyeong Kang
Objects from Black Mat or similar works delineating the passages of space, time, and rhythm have appeared at the 58th Venice Biennale, the 2018 Shanghai Biennale, and the 2016 Gwangju Biennale.
In the 1940s, you might have found yeoseong gukgeuk performers—all-female drag opera troupes—all around Korea. Confronting heteronormative traditions in theater, these performers would spend years embodying specific behaviors and speech patterns to encapsulate the fluidity of gender and androgyny. Unfortunately, this subculture was mostly erased from Korean modern history after the militant and conservative administration of Park Chung-hee shut down such troupes in the 1960s and ’70s. The artist siren eun young jung’s ambitious research project is an archival investigation into this scene.
siren eun young jung
For over 10 years, she has explored notions of gender performativity, tradition, and historical oppression via conversations with these performers, then creates works out of these interactions. For example, the video piece A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise (2019), shown at the Korea pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, features a younger yeoseong gukgeuk performer, one of the few who has continued the practice; a lesbian actress; a well-known drag king; and a disabled dancer. In tracing the history of gender roles in theatrical settings, she interrogates boundaries of performance, the body, and normativity.
In a description for Minouk Lim’s video work The Possibility of the Half (2012), the artist writes that the “possibility of community does not come from the reigns of media and ideology but the power of tears and fears.” Deconstructing this idea, the work shows archival news footage of people crying over the 2011 death of North Korean state leader Kim Jong-il and the 1979 assassination of South Korean president Park Chung-hee, conflating the two events and demonstrating subtle nationalist efforts, masked as emotion, in media.
In her practice, she aims not to rewrite or challenge historical convention, but to reveal the mechanisms of change and mourning via mass media. Similar connections of personal experience against larger political or global narratives appear in Navigation ID (2014), comprised of shipping containers containing the remains of victims of the Korean War massacres, and the installation Si Tu Me Vois, Je Ne Te Vois Pas (2019), an artificial shallow river filled with phosphorescent liquid and littered with a traditional Korean dress, a floating orb, and other various symbolic items, gesturing at the passage of time and the notion of fluid boundaries.
B. 1972, Seoul. Lives and works in Bristol, England.
Young In Hong, still from The White Mask, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and MMCA, Seoul.
South Korean critic Hye Jin Mun, in writing about Young In Hong’s work, once asked: “How can we pay attention to those who are marginalized without categorizing them as a specific group or embrace the marginal without differentiating or objectifying them?”
These sensitive inquiries and questions drive much of the artist’s work, from her explorations of the relationships between humans and animals in the performance-installation The White Mask (2019), or in narratives of uncompensated female domestic and industrial labor in Un-Splitting (2019). The latter is a live event in which actors perform highly choreographed repetitive actions and gestures of social assimilation, such as forced smiling and needlework, incorporating these with the movements of different bird species as a reference to the various oppressions in human civilization, whether environmental or gender-based.
Young In Hong
Her work focuses not on the group but the individual within larger sociopolitical scenes. For example, her earlier embroidery paintings, all hand-sewn, present singular voices in rich detailed tapestry, as in Burning Love (2014), which shows a 2008 candlelight vigil to oppose the Korean government’s decision to allow the import of possibly diseased U.S. beef.
Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin, installation view of “Universal Skin Salvation 2.0: Strange Life: Beauty, Race & War” at Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
In her research for Microbial Speculation of Our Gut Feeling (2020), Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin discovered an interesting factoid—that immigrants may be more prone to metabolic diseases because of what happens inside of their gut upon living on foreign soil: The complex microbes developed within their home country are quickly replaced by those that are more commonly found in the bodies of their new neighbors.
In her practice, Shin considers these biopolitical and colonial interventions. Microbial Speculation includes the artist’s home-brewed lactic acid, the bacteria of which can fortify the gastrointestinal lining, literally creating a resistant barrier. She produced the concoction using an open-source method developed by an organic farming group in Korea.
Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin
At a recent exhibition in New York, guests were invited to imbibe samples of this acid for free, an act of anti-capitalist care, which she considers a significant facet of her practice. Her other products include makgeolli, an unfiltered Korean rice wine; K-beauty skincare products, which interrogate Western fetishization of Korean beauty; and hand-grown greens, which were foraged and consumed for a collaborative dinner organized with New York’s Spiral Theory Test Kitchen.
B. 1979, Paris. Lives and works in Paris and Seoul.
Soyoung Chung, Island for Fishermen, 2018. Photo by Tim Bowditch. Courtesy of the artist.
In the 1970s, the South Korean government built a small, rural village near the Demilitarized Zone, a strip of no-man’s-land that borders the North and South regions of the peninsula. Originally intended to entice South Koreans to migrate to the area—a plan that failed—the village has since been the site of various artistic explorations. It was here that Soyoung Chung engaged in a four-month-long residency for the Real DMZ Project, negotiating the political conflicts inherent in the physical materiality of land and space in works such as Ori Mountain (2016), a melting beeswax installation which mimics the geological ranges in the area.
Much of her work springs from similar geopolitical tensions. For a 2019 group show at London’s Delfina Foundation, she exhibited a sculptural installation created out of a 2018 residency at Gapado Island, Island for Fishermen, which utilizes found buoys possibly used to mark oceanic territory claimed by both Korea and China.
A live-streaming session of a video game play; a cautionary tale of a leaked sex tape; an online suicide club: These are the three intertwining stories in Kim Heecheon’s Sleigh Ride Chill (2016) that form a picture of contemporary Seoul. Juxtaposing filmed and found footage with animated sequences, he uses technology—video gaming, face swapping, virtual reality—to examine social issues in Korea.
To Kim, themes of loneliness, connectivity, and surveillance are intrinsically connected to the online world—temporal channels which he describes as revealing the “cracks” or “gaps” in our reality. For example, in Every Smooth Thing Through Mesher (2018), shown at the Gwangju Biennale in 2018 and produced by the Hans Nefkens Foundation, he pinpoints the phenomenon of a perceiving the world through our smartphones, presenting the screen as a literal processor that confuses timelines of past, present, and future.
Anthropomorphized animals feature often in Ji Hye Yeom’s work. A dolphin narrates a strange folkloric tale in A Night with a Pink Dolphin (2015), shown at the artist’s solo show at Art Sonje Center in 2015; in AI Octopus (2020), an artificial-intelligence octopus ruminates on its place within our human realm, gliding through the streets of European city. Engaging in our abject fear of the advancement of a hyper-sentient species other than ourselves—AI Octopus includes discomforting close-up scenes of writhing octopi parts—she conveys radical evolutionary messages that touch on our planet’s environmental devastation.
Ji Hye Yeom
In Le Soleil Noir (2019), an animated Casper the Ghost plays fetch with adorable animated seals against background footage of a major scientific research site in Antarctica, where real seals are subject to constant scrutiny and intervention. All the while, a somber voiceover asks: “Can I truly be a friend with you?”
Correction: A previous version of this article included the incorrect title for Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s work “Microbial Speculation of Our Gut Feelings.”