[International Space Station] The Shift to the future Art Ecosystem Has Launched

Interview: Ben Vickers


Ben Vickers(BV)

Ben Vickers is a curator, writer, explorer, publisher, technologist and luddite. He is CTO at the Serpentine Galleries in London, co-founder of Ignota Books and an initiator of the open-source monastic order unMonastery.


Despite so many hype discussions around the idea of art & technology, it’s still valuable to do an “anatomy” and reveal what’s really behind the scene and dive into the details. Could you tell us a bit about your background and the initial point for the Serpentine R&D project?


In terms of my personal background, as a teenager, I learnt to program and spent all of my time playing a video game called “Ultima online” - it’s a big online virtual world. At the same time, I was looking at art. Those worlds converged when I went to art school. I was working for a corporation called “Sky” for data-mining 15 years ago, during which I got interested in the intersection of areas of art and technology, and began producing artworks that work with technology. 

Generally, I had some dissatisfaction at the economy of the art world, its function and the narrowness of its focus. One way or another though, I ended up at the Serpentine, as a result of a series of conversations with Hans Ulrich Obrist (the artistic director). I was firstly involved in a process of digital transformation for the institution, and specifically focusing on producing projects that took software as a medium with the artists. Over time that evolved. 

There was a certain point when there was a transition within the institution, I became Chief Technology Officer (CTO), which is an odd title for an art institution. But it was a strategic response to what had gone before in terms of institutional digital transformationThe framework was looking at the decade when a lot of institutions - in the UK, Europe and North America - to move away from the departmental silo’d model of change and instead focus on high level changes within the organisationwere going through a process of digital transformation. Previously these strategies in the decade past focused exclusively on Usually that meant upgrading systems, having websites, thinking about audiences…basic technical interventionslevels. Whereas I began this work I came in at a point when the “digital transformation” was hitting a state of maturity. I was able to identify that - one of the challenges that had been setup inside the art institutions was, typically when a new team had been created for this purpose, primarily they were concerned with digital communication or marketing, they weren’t necessarily crossing over with the curatorial. I came in as a curator, and my focus was to establish revisit the “hierarchy of the needs” whereas looking at a holistic approach: curationprogram, overhaul underlying systems, address staffing more broadlythe staff, focusing on digital skill sets, etc. We went through a systematic process of upgrading in each area, a networked focus that the latter “Future Art Eco-System” and “Creative AI”, are a later developmentdrawn from. 

Specifically, the thing we’ve identified is that: through doing a number of large, high-risk projects, things like augmented architecture (where we created an AR experience in the park with Jakob Kudsk Steensen), and we spent a year with Ian Cheng to develop his project BOB (an artificial lifeform that took over the gallery). All of these projects were actually high-risk. We realised we needed morethe space within the institution fors of thinking, taking risk, and also allowing failure. That was some of the foundational thinking that led to the creation of the Serpentine idea of R&D PlatformDepartment at Serpentine. From there, we’ve developed labs with innovation strategies from an infrastructural perspective. We started very small, and each area it grows as we get more partners. Future Art Ecosystem our annual strategic briefing developed in colalboration with Rival Strategy is an acknowledgement that as a singlen institution, we can only do so much. So wWe consolidate the knowledge and expertise within our network, and publish strategic guidance that other people and institutions can pick up and learn fromfollow. 


Still from forthcoming ML/AI Interfaces Tutorial Series, 2020. Image courtesy of Trust, Berlin and Ricardo Saavedra


Strategically, how do you design/curate the theme of the labs, ranging from Creative AI, blockchain and recently the direction on “Synthetic EcologiesGeneral Ecology”? In addition,  A&T exhibitions/projects sometimes title the theme after a certain type of technology, what is your viewpoint on this?


At the heart of the strategy is the focus on “advanced technologies”, in particular an interest in the intersection of these technologies. Something I reference quite frequently is Gartner’s “Hype Cycle”. The basic observation is most institutions enter at the point called “Plateau of Productivity”. The issue with that is most decisions about what technology will be, and how it will exist in thea world has been made aton this stage. We attempt to - it’s difficult, we’re not like MIT, it’s not like we are “developing” or playing at the “fundamental industry stage” - we are looking at “can you actually build things with these technologies?” “Are artists beginning to do it?” The labs try to get into areas of “early stage technologies” - which isit’s much driven by the desire to play a role in shaping advanced technologies. In the instance of this new lab led by Yasaman Sheri, the focus is on questioning how and what is needed infrastructural and practically to enable artists to work with emerging innovations in synthetic biology and adjacent fields.

Specifically to the curatorial perspective on that, we believe that thee narrative formation emerging around technology, is as much as a “part” of that technology as the actual software. AndThe artists are very good at narrative formation - telling different stories. Taking Ian Cheng’s BOB as an example, the “hype curve” is driving a lot of interest in AI, but it’s more logical base system. How Ian architects thearchitects it is the idea of BOB is not as a singularle AI, as often depicted in the framing of AI, but instead it is many AIs inside one entity, which is drawsn a lot from psychoanalysis, Carl Gustav Jung’s ideas of archetypes: within the AI, there are multiple identities competing, like in the mind. It’s an approach that idea to disruptsdisrupt this narrative around a singular, totalising AI. 

To your questions on technology prefix: from infrastructural and strategic perspective, definitely technology is guiding where we are moving. In a way, the “new school of curation” we are attempting to develop is much more infrastructurally focused. It’s not about content or always what is seen in the public output of art, it’s about “what are the platforms?” “what are the areas, different perspectives and actors, stake holders and things that actually shape our art world?”, what Victoria Ivanova who has been key to the development of the R&D platform calls the “back-end of the artworld”. There’s enormous amount of infrastructures and contents that shape a white cube and this complexity has only grown since digitisation, it important that these things are consider artfully within the production of new work.

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Screenshot of the Creative AI Lab’s database,


The science and technology industries have long term had backstage “preference funding” schemes, i.e., funds flowing towards certain directions to lead the “wave” of the field.  Regarding artists working technologies - how can you encourage them to be critical instead of carrying the hidden, existing ideologies of the tools and platforms they operate on?


I think there is a deep impoverishment of imagination within Silicon Valley, that requires intervention on the part of artists and creative practitioners…there are too many bold claims made by the most powerful individuals that are shaping and building technology todayof projects that are “unimagined”, but if you really had that level of power and the “visionary mode” that is too often claimed, you would be inventing new time systems not disintermediation of taxi services and food delivery apps! You would be doing things that are much much bolder. Sometimes putting a thousand satellites in the sky would instantiate a type of new time system. On the flip side, I also understand the economy established within the Silicon Valley ethos - venture capital focused on returning of investment. As a result of that, there is a very slim viewfinder through which interesting ideas can pass. The emergence of artist led technology scene that is increasingly maturing offers alternative visions and ways that technology can be built.

A lot of our work is focused on opening up the space in-between, in many ways the distance between is so great, so challenging. Where would we begin to focus the attention now? I do think things are changing - there’s a number of artists that I know who are now receiving a number of platforms, whilst the art world would locked them out previously. New media art - this has been around for a long time - is not well canonised within art history, but now you can really see this area of e start of the art history being patched opening. A lot of tech-artists operating on a high level are also getting recognition within major museums, giving them opportunity to speak more directly to those audiences. Whereas before, I was on the advisory board of Transmediale, a great incubator of ideas, it’s also quite hostile to that area. 

The translation is starting to happen. The area where very real new possibilities might open up is in we think can hold such translation is the space of video games. A lot of projects we produce use video game engines, that quickly showing that they will be theoften “glue” between all kinds of technologies in the future - AI, block chain, etc. It’s becoming an interface layer. We see a lot of potential there also because the vocabulary between arts and experimental video games can bring all types of technological elements, into a fertile space. Particularly in the COVID context, where everything is digitised, artists working with these technologies can directly speak to audiences. That’s something we are focusing on Future Art Eco-systems Vol.2 as well.(18:40)


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Image courtesy of Furtherfield, 2019


The next question is about the existing tension between the “white cube” are artists who work with technologies, or more precisely, the nature of digitality/technological way of working don’t necessarily fit within the white cube production mode/format. What do you think will be a pathway to navigate between the two fields?


The white cube is great technology: it has the ability to create a space for contemplation and contained discourse where ideas don’t necessarily have platform anywhere else within society, were able to play out new concepts that are not otherwise easily thought. In the same way, when people created cathedrals and churches, they created silence as an easily accessible technology. Those things should be recognised.

But, I think the issue inherent with the institutional framework in the museums etc, comes more down to the social hierarchy, gate-keeping, taste making and those things that make culture inaccessible and defined only by a few. To some degree I agree that’s a “necessary part” of the technology of the white cube, but it’s also deeply inhibiting. There was an opportunity for “rapid adaptation” in the past five or ten years, that’s not really been taken. Now I think we’re seeing a moment of “deep maturity” of network infrastructure, previously a total blind spot for cultural institutions. That can be summarised in the development of w3, blockchain, new support structures…as well as the video game landscape, all of the new spaces, in the next 3-5 years, we’re gonna see a deep transformation of where artists go to and I think that institutional infrastructure that is already far behind this curve will become less and less relevant.

It’s also because the economy of the art doesn't’ work - as a result of the financial crisis, it’s kind of beginning to unfold. We haven’t really seen it yet. But you can see the carving out - the middle-tier commercial gallery system, there’re more artists than ever. At the end of the day, if people cannot generate income or receive enough support, in order to maintain their practice, they’ll open to new infrastructures - those elements will necessitate deep change. 


For this feature I’ve dug into the 1960s and 1970s when the E.A.T. emerged in the beginning, and the first wave of art & technology burgeoned. After 60 years, what kind of progress have we made?


In truth I think that the progress made since this period, at least on a institutional mainstream art world level is extremely limited, this is perhaps because it has taken too long for the institutional art world to metabolise what happened in groups such as E.A.T. But I also believe it is because the way in which the art world has operated since this time has broadly been in stasis, it has focused almost exclusively on expansionist strategies of existing cultural pathways as an ally to existing mega trends. This I think is beginning to shift and change, mainly as a result of a crisis of relevance and this in part is aided by technological disruption and affordances. FThe major (societal) force is changing everything - from the 1960s on the conceptual art world has expanded enormously. One of the reason was globalisation, witnessed by the opening of the Tate Modern in the 1990s. Now we are moving to a multi-polar world that model of growth cannot be sustained. Nation states have traditionally Culture builtds a museums and funded specific types of culture as an extension of its “soft power”, I’m not sure how viable this model is going to be in the future, already in many countries you can see as an effect of CV19 a huge defunding of culture. That’s an important thing to consider - this isn’t a “good” or “bad” thing. But I believe that “contemporary art” as we know it now, that expanded, is going to shrink back down to the community size it was in the 1960s, and that other areas will flourish and fill the space that it recedes from, those models that will take the space will be more distributed, and more participatory - very likely technologically proficient. 

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Screenshot of the website of Furtherfield,

Equally It’s individual led in the 1960s in terms of art and technology. tTthe economy of the art world is so reliant on individual genius artists, and this is too much of what we see in the resurrection of E.A.T and others, then being reproduced in Art&Tech programmes now, I think within this what is not being also under- recognised, is the transition to a more organisational approach. No individual artist is capable, on their own of, developing very advanced technological projects. Art has the additional issue of interfacing with the audiences. It also has “strategy” around that. That kind of toolsets require a team that has a great producer, a great creative director, all of the roles within it haves to be exceptional - what we do at the Serpentine when producing technically complex art works would not be possible without individuals such as Kay Watson and Eva Jager who have very different skills to traditional curatorsgood. 

We have the convergence of different technological forces and that caused us setting up an institution exploring all the implications of blockchain, w3…this is not entirely new, like artist collectives have existed forever. Where is the new Bauhaus? Teamlab can be an interesting model, but it has to have a bit more “social program” and not just producing experiences. There’re enough artists merging in the climate, have access to new types of tools, it’s just a matter of time for us to literally get a new Bauhaus.


I agree on the democratisation of tools and emerging co-production models. Art&Tech also has a lot of inspirations from the technological industry. But risks lies in the “tech-driven” or “tech-led”. What’re the future plans you have for Serpentine R&D - from the role of a CTO? What are your future visions?


We are partly in a reflection point right now, partially bought about by the pandemic. The question I always hadve from the start, was “Can you turn a legacy institution into a network formation?” That’s why we work with labs, and all programs, to try to understand how to make that transition, to become more distributed. That type of work and transition can take decades, institutions broadly move slowly.

My vision at this time has a lot to do with video games, a lot to do with “how you scale up”,how you create new institutional cultural foundations or formsorms and thereby create new roles for artists? There’s also a “form” for emerging artists.The contemporary art world that the serpentine is situated within, has not done successfully today. Together with the team wWe are at the moment are working on the next issue of the Future Art Ecosystems, attempting to understand and learn from the video games ecosystem what new potential might be afforded from itthat, and think through what are the necessary components are required to build a new type of ecosystem in its image that supports artistic practice. But we are very aware thatI think all of this is bigger than one institution - the territory is too vast, so you need to make the moves and build new alliancesand transitions, mapping out what the requirements are, what the different aspects are,  Perhaps in that sense our vision is facilitatory, to facilitate, to create necessary support structures and bridges. Yes, “facilitation” is key to ouralso the vision.


Expansion of potential impact on everyday life. Application of technology and the creation of technology.

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Ben Vickers

Project UNArt 2020 #3: Infrastructural Plays 2020.12.22-2021.01.31
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