[Special Issue] An Interview with Ben Vickers from the Serpentine Galleries

Editor / Li Ruixuan 


Ben Vickers

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

Ruixuan Li (RL): How would you define the term "future collaboration"?

Ben Vickers (BV): I think the future of collaboration is simply the pulling together of threads that have not been well explored in a longer history of collaboration. Whether that's more cooperative forms of coordination and collaboration in the art field, such as guild formations or more recent movements. I think that collaboration is changing radically on every level, whether it's from an institutional perspective where you have very new types of partnerships happening. So, at the Serpentine, for example, we did a large project with the K-pop band BTS about a year ago, which was part of the project “Connect, BTS” that involved different institutions globally. That's a new type of collaboration between a pop band and an arts institution. I think that's an extreme example of the types of partnerships that are emerging in terms of working with tech corporations like Google and HTC, et cetera. And those are creating very different outputs due to alternative motivations and capabilities of the respective industries. 

But what's more interesting and what we talked about in future ecosystems is that the definition of artists is shifting into organizational or collective scales of cooperation, rather than foregrounding the individual artist. Historically it has been quite difficult for groups to succeed because so much is driven by the art market and its reliance on the idea of the individual artist genius. But now we have things like teamLab and technologies such as NFTs showing that it's possible for new types of collaboration, works, and studios to be recognized. And I think that's really exciting. 

This feels to me to be a precursor to a more radical change as a result of crypto and blockchain technologies being taken up by artists, where particular things like decentralized autonomous organizations will make it possible for not only groups of artists, but also anybody to create organizations very quickly at very low cost, but instantly operate at a transnational scale and the ability through decentralised trustless mechanics to grow to enormous scale. And I think that has huge implications for art as well as global society.


Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Catharsis 2019-2020 Supported by CONNECT,

BTS Outdoor installation at the Serpentine Galleries

Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning Courtesy of the artist.

RL: Since you're working for a leading gallery with the title of CTO, you might be the best person to answer this question. In our foreseeable future, for what purpose and on what level may creators collaborate? You mentioned crypto and NFTs. Is there any possibility that we have collaborations between art and other industries in an even more avant-garde way?

BV:My view is that that is already happening, but it's not well recognized by the more traditional institutions, such as museums and 20th century institutions. They haven't been able to accommodate those new ways of working. I think this extends into journalism, newspapers, et cetera, any example where gatekeeping and a centralised method of information aggregation are the defining aspects of the business model.

So often these things are predicated on two kinds of areas. One is having a brick-and-mortar physical institution that the majority of your operating costs are going towards. So, you have to prioritize that physical experience. That's limited to a specific geography. And then also your business model quite often is very difficult to augment toward the affordances of decentralisation, because it requires a redress to its own power structure. So in a way, I think that there are significant risks in play for traditional institutions that are akin to that of carbon futures, the risk of becoming a stranded asset within culture. Similar to the way in which in the near future, oil companies will become unprofitable because of carbon taxes and divestment because of a shift in norms and social attitudes toward these entities, I believe there is significant risk of legacy cultural institutions becoming stranded due to their lack of preparedness to adapt to more open models of cultural construction.

There's a risk many institutions will become stranded because they're tied to their physical location. As a result, digital-first organizations will emerge. I think the majority of these will run on blockchain technologies and will operate on the basis of rapid user driven evolution. And because of the way that they will initiate, they will have collaborative governance structures at their foundations. And a more general expectation is that, when you participate in an organization, you're not just a visitor or a consumer, but you're actually participating in the development of that organization. I think we're already seeing some examples of that emerge.

An interesting early example of this was in the last couple of weeks, there's an initiative called “PleasrDao.” They created a decentralized autonomous organization in order to purchase the Edward Snowden NFT. And that I think signals a fascinating prelude to what's going to come in the following years. But I think other examples are not necessarily tied to the blockchain. Entities such as teamLab, where a group of more than 500 people work together with a shared vision, with some degree of equity between them is producing something very different than what we've known historically and has the potential to transform the contemporary norm of artist studios.


Living Digital Space and Future Parks(teamLab,2016),Pace Gallery, Photo by Ruixuan Li

RL: Do you have any recent examples of collaborative work in the Creative AI Lab or the R&D Platform?

BV:Yes. I think all of the work that's developed under the R&D Platform is innately collaborative. It takes a network's perspective that you need to be working in collaboration with different types of organizations and actors right now. Initiatives like the Creative AI Lab were created as part of the R&D platform in collaboration between the Serpentine and King’s College London, instigated by Mercedes Bunz at Kings and Eva Jäger from the Serpentine side. And so that starts as two organizations coming together to share capabilities and produce research and insight that focuses on the idea of artists as an innovator in the AI field, due to the way artists create new interfaces for working with AI as a medium. Additionally, Platform itself is open and collaborative through the invitation to different curators and individuals to share the resources that and texts that have influenced them. Most recently releasing a curated collection of resources by an artist and theorist called Suzanne Kite. Collaboration has been the main modality through which that the Arts Technologies team functions in.

Another example is that last month Kay Watson, the Head of Arts Technologies at the Serpentine, initiated a new online project called “Artist Worlds” with the artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen and co-presented with UBS. The idea is to create events and happens that enter into worlds created by artists, often utilising videogame engine technologies. Jakob had previously created this artwork of a virtual Island, which was a real Island in French Polynesia that he had never visited, but he'd constructed it from information he'd found online. He made that work about five years ago, and we worked with him to create an event in the world in which it became a multiplayer platform so that other people could log into that world. And Kay curated this gathering of different artists and theorists in that world. And then we streamed it as a live event to Twitch. So, it included the video game theorist Alenda Chang, writer Mikkel Rosengaard and the artist Rindon Johnson. And this event unfolded in this virtual world with these different readings and performances.  

Another example is that we are about to announce a strategic partnership with University College London (UCL). That's focused on sharing knowledge between the work that has been happening at the Serpentine in these areas and how it can cross over and be informed by the expertise developed at UCL. The rapidly emerging spaces of arts and technology require new systems and practices to be developed to better support artists, and in order to play a role in guiding that we believe that it is only possible through these types of partnerships. 


Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Catharsis (2019-20) © 2020 courtesy of the artist.

RL: What do you think are the most obvious differences between future collaborations, interdisciplinary collaborations we already have, and independent creations?

BV:I guess what I would say is, under the directorship of Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Serpentine has always been interdisciplinary. So, it's always been about bringing together different worlds to meet each other. And so that's within the DNA of the organization. But specific to technology, I think because technologies are so disruptive to how we have understood the world, and new tools always change how we see it and what we can imagine, what we found in developing these projects is that you literally cannot do them without a diverse mix of skills. And this is making it obvious that the creative process is one of layered capabilities, increasingly akin to film making.

So, we have to find new formats and new ways of communicating the range of roles and positions within the construction of any one project that make them possible. And that's what drives a lot of research outputs and events because it's really important to give a platform and a voice to all of the people involved in projects, from the researchers through to the engineers that often make many of their own decisions in the construction of new work with individual artists. And I think the art world hasn't been very good at that, giving credit where it is due. When we were working with the artist Ian Cheng on his exhibition BOB, it was very important to him that all those involved in the creation of BOB be recognised in the credits, from the producers, the technical director, and all those that are too often hidden behind the artist or curator’s name. I think this new attitude and the requirement of highly skilled teams to construct technically sophisticated work will creating meaningful long-term change in the way we recognise teamwork in the artworld. We're moving to a Hollywood-style production, where the director is incredibly important but operates much more like a choreographer. 

RL: Do you think the artist-as-director, or the “choreographer,” would lose control when collaborating with so many experts and participants whose inputs might shape the project into something unaligned with the artist’s plan?

BV:Will they lose control? I think this will always operate on a spectrum. And I think that certainly within the Western canon of art history in which the individual artist is held up, and that's the model really emphasized. But even for the last 20 or 30 years, we've had artists’ studios where a hundred people may be more responsible for the creative ideas than the individual artist. So, I think it's less about losing control and more about embracing complexity, that is a worthy representative of the complexity we see in life. We often think of art as a mirror of culture, of what's happening in the world, or sometimes as an active catalyst for change. So, it's necessary for artists who want to make relevant work to make those changes, to adapt to how systems are shifting. So, in order to stay relevant, I think there will always be artists that have a very clear individualised vision that do require teams in order to construct the work, historically like Hilma af Klint, who need to channel a singular vision in order to produce. I don't think that's ever going to go away, but I just don't think it's going to be the dominant paradigm over the next century.


Pharmako-AI, K Allado-McDowell, 2021, Ignota Books.

RL: Can you think of other mind-blowing collaborations between humans and computers?

BV:I run a publishing house called Ignota Books with Sarah Shin, and we published the first book written with GPT-3. That book was written in two weeks and is completely mind-melting, it turns language into a literal psychedelic, consumed through reading. It's called Pharmako-AI by K Allado-McDowell, and it's an intense, trance-like experience questioning the nature of the universe, our existence and our future relationship as a species with AI. And it's very interesting seeing K’s the author’s experience of working with GPT-3 because it's not edited, in the sense that each chapter builds on the next, it is a journey through the AI. You can see K starts off with low expectation of what GPT-3 is capable of.

And there's maybe a moment a third of the way through the book where they realize how complex the relationship with the AI can become. It's a very strange experience to encounter that in book, it is perhaps the first example of living science fiction.

This seems to me to be one example of the types of transcendent and complicated experiences we’re set to encounter of the next decades. There is a great book called Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, which describes how disruptive the introduction of Zero was to society, I think with the advent of AI led discovery and vision, it is very likely will see a rapid proliferation of zero like discoveries over the next century.

RL: So, we see that reality can go extreme and be like magic. Can you imagine that in the future, if you can choose any project or collaborative partner, who or what, not necessarily the AI, do you want to collaborate with the most on what kind of projects?

BV:It's an easy question to answer. I grew up in video game worlds, those that are commonly referred to as massively multiplayer online role-playing games. I see video games and video game engines as the interface technology that will connect all other technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, et cetera into a common social space. These worlds will be the most important third place to emerge and will have a similar impact on society as the coffee house did in the advent of the industrial revolution. I think this will lead to a much deeper fragmentation of consensus reality. It is very likely in the next decade, there will be situations where you share the same physical space but are engaged in alternative reality to the person next to you, as a result of these ”virtual worlds” entering our world.

Given this type of impact I am very interested to work with video games, and those companies that construct these worlds. To assist in the creation of these worlds artistically.

There's a great short story by the science fiction writer Phillip K Dick, called The Trouble with Bubbles. The basic idea is that as a result of human civilization failing to find life on other planets, the entirety of civilization reverts to the art of creating these mini but super complex worlds. This becomes the predominant preoccupation of society. From my own experiences growing up, it is clear you can learn an enormous amount about governance, collaboration, and coordination in video game worlds and it seems self-evident now that videogames will now become our reality.


Exhibiton UNArt 2020 #5: Future Collaboration 2021.07.02-08.02
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