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GROUNDBREAKING

21st
Century Art
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
the Art Basel Conversations event “Digital Museums,
Virtual Audiences” on December 8, helps us crack the code.

T
he Digital Museum of Digital Art doesn’t ex- stitutions, but as something that “complements and en-
ist. Then again, it does. I went there on a warm hances them.” Still, it offers signposts to the future.
afternoon last July. My body was at Transfer, First, this museum is created by artists—and it’s high
a gallery in Brooklyn. But my mind was on a different time they had a say in how art is presented. Second, the
planet. I strapped on an Oculus Rift headset. With the visitor is in charge: I could go wherever I wanted and
gallery’s owner, Kelani Nichole, gently guiding me, I stay all day. Third, the museum could adapt to its sub-
approached a crystalline palace made entirely of data. ject. No legacy architecture here. DiMoDA could as-
The entrance looked like a Greek temple, and the mu- sume different visual attitudes for each exhibition. All of
seum edifice was perched on a piece of interstellar rock. which made me excited about the road ahead… except
Farther in the dark space beyond hovered an array of for one thing: I felt lonely. The experience was locked
luminous planets—each one a work of pixel-based art. in my brain. And I felt dizzy.
Entering DiMoDA, I heard footsteps, presumably It’s still early days for the virtual museum and the
mine. Alfredo Salazar-Caro, a working artist and a co- generational project of digital transformation in the art
creator of DiMoDA, added that touch as a nod to the world—but it’s finally really happening. Innovations
sensory conventions of the real world—like fake engine like DiMoDA are poised to change every facet of the
noise in electric cars. Soon I was floating inside Theo museum, from how a curator plans a show to how a visi-
Triantafyllidis’s Self Portrait (Interior), a piece consisting tor navigates through it. Soon, we can expect plausible
of the artist’s giant head. I slid down his larynx into a virtual-reality gallery experiences. A new world of pos-
stunning virtual-reality landscape—a teeming tableau of sibilities is opening up, and at the same time it’s shroud-
pink stalactites, snaking microbes and oozing lagoons. ing the museum sector in a mist of cultural anxiety. To
This is DiMoDA 2.0. It’s new, slightly weird, and pret- be frank, we’re not really prepared for what comes next.
ty awesome. “It was born out of necessity, back in 2013,”
says Salazar-Caro, who is 28. “I was frustrated that I rare- CHANGE IS IN THE AIR
ly saw works like this in regular galleries. That’s when It may seem a paradox that the art world came late to the
Will Robertson and I launched DiMoDA as a way to digital party. Art may be rebellious, but its institutions
create a purely digital museum.” are conservative. I have a theory for why disruption
has lagged: It’s because art is the most complex form
HACKING THE MUSEUM of data. Finding a deal on a plane ticket requires a rela-
Is this the future of the museum? Even Salazar-Caro tively simple database search. Figuring out the meaning
doesn’t see DiMoDA as a substitute for traditional in- of a picture—that’s an algorithmic challenge of a   

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GROUNDBREAKING

different order. But with recent leaps in comput-
ing power, big-data analysis and artificial intelli-
gence, technology is finally catching up with art.
Mind-boggling things are happening. CERN,
the European Organization for Nuclear Re-
search, is developing a portable particle acceler-
ator 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 rela-
tional 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 im-
ages of public-domain artworks freely available
since February. (Disclosure: I oversee a leader-
ship institute there.) Museums are deploying
Bluetooth tracking and digital beacons to gather
data about their audiences. Augmented real-
ity—when digital information is overlaid on real-
world 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 an-
cient sculpture—a visceral and fun way of engag-
ing 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 cur-
rency to buy an artwork.
Despite all this bubbling innovation, museums

PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF DIMODA (VIRTUAL MUSEUM); COURTESY OF LOCAL PROJECTS (ARTLENS WALL)
remain predominantly focused on delivering an-
alog experiences to live visitors. Defining change
will come when “digital museums and virtual
audiences”—the theme of an Art Basel Conver-
sations talk I am moderating on December 8
in Miami—advance from a peripheral to a core From top: Guests immersed in DiMoDA’s virtual museum at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum; the ArtLens Wall
(formerly the Collection Wall), developed by Local Projects in 2013, allows visitors to browse thousands of artworks from the
mission concern. Eventually, as with shopping, Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection and create their own virtual tours to share with friends and family.
dating, news, entertainment and learning, an ev-
er-larger share of visitor engagement will shift on-
line. Physical and virtual experiences will blend
in surprising ways. No one quite knows what that
will look like, but I believe it’s inevitable.
“Faced with changing customer demographics,
OPENING UP, LETTING GO
How, then, should institutions adapt? No one evolving expectations and an explosion of
wants to see visitors with heads down in devices, or
worse, staying at home (as happened after the ad- competing new entertainment options, museums
vent of high-definition opera broadcasts). A great must increase their digital proficiency to offer a
deal of money and cultural authority is at stake.
Concerns converge on three areas: content,    more engaging journey for their audience.”

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GROUNDBREAKING

“Make a Face” at the Cleveland Museum of Art uses facial recognition software to match visitors’ expressions to those of artworks in the museum’s collection.

staffing and the relationship with the public. information monopolies erode as people access coming more sought after.
When it comes to content, museums are al- content directly, unfiltered. The audience is de- “Art is best experienced first-hand, unmedi-
ready developing a new vocabulary of digital sto- manding a voice. They want to be part of the ated and unencumbered—in context, with narra-
rytelling around their collections and programs. conversation. People are no longer content being tive and history,” says Jamie Zigelbaum, an artist
Lessons will need to be learned from entertain- passive recipients of programming. Just look at with tech credentials from the MIT Media Lab.
ment and experience design—fields that museum today’s newspapers. “Just as you don’t want Google glasses on your
professionals often view with disdain, at their Should museums fully embrace the digital op- face while having an intimate conversation with
peril. As a 2017 report titled “The Digital Trans- portunities around them or fence off part of the a lover, you don’t want some screen intervening
formation of Museums,” from INSEAD, the inter- experience to create an oasis of reflection and between you and a Rothko.”
national business school, bluntly warned, “Faced calm? Can acquisition and programming deci- The fusion of technology and art will be-
with changing customer demographics, evolving sions involve input from the public? Will the vir- come more seamless and satisfying as new ap-
expectations and an explosion of competing new tual museum end up pandering to popular tastes plications—augmented reality in particular—are
entertainment options, museums must increase or will it maintain academic standards? As online matched up in smart ways, so that technology
their digital proficiency to offer a more engaging visitors fill the virtual galleries of the future, will supports, rather than overwhelms, the encounter
journey for their audience.” institutions invite the public, in ways we do not with art. For Zigelbaum, that will happen when
In staffing, new skills are emerging. Here’s one yet fully fathom, to cocreate the museum? digital innovators figure out how to “weave con- PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF LOCAL PROJECTS

that already exists at DiMoDA: virtual installer. text into in-person direct experience, in transpar-
That’s someone who works with a digital artist, ad- THE APPEAL OF ANALOG ent and minimal ways—that is, if we design them
justing a work’s alignment, plasticity, luminosity Understandably, such questions unnerve tradi- properly.”
and other variable characteristics. Even in muse- tionalists. The good news is that museums hold This is the challenge of digital innovation in
ums that eschew electronic art, digital experts are a trump card in our digital predicament. As life museums. Next come more trials and failures,
destined to rise higher on the org chart. shifts relentlessly onto screens and all that’s solid surprises and disappointments, until technology
The most wrenching adaptations call for new melts into air, the authentic experience of a live finally lives up to the nuance and complexity of
attitudes. If there is a lesson of the digital age encounter with a tangible object—in the company art. As for the Digital Museum of Digital Art, ver-
thus far, it is this: Gatekeepers are seeing their of other living, breathing human beings—is be- sion 3.0 just came out in November.  •

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