On September 20, 2016, Aksenov Family Foundation and Avesta Group co-organized a conference ‘Is There a Future for Museums?’, which was hosted by MuseumsQuartier Wien and took place within the viennacontemporary week.
Having acknowledged the unpromising condition the traditional museum has found itself in, the organizers suggested taking a unbiased look on its problems – not from museum specialists, but from specialists from technological and scientific communities. Nowadays information technology is the fastest growing industry with the potential to keep up with contemporary global changes (technological, social, and even biological); it is this industry that will most likely define the future of museums and the evolution of art world in general.
The conference gathered five speakers from different countries to cover various aspects of museum activities and present the most up-to-date achievements of their cultural institutions, as well as outline possible future development paths for museums.
David A. Edwards, inventor, scientist, founder of a unique contemporary art & design center experimenting at frontiers of science Le Laboratoire, talked on the role of experimentation in art and on the boundary where art and science merge. Professor of the Practice of Idea Translation in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, he is author of two books devoted to the concept of laboratory work: The Lab: Creativity and Culture (Harvard University Press 2010) and Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation (Harvard University Press 2008).
‘The Lab’ became the key concept of the whole discussion, encouraging the participants to reflect on the experimental dimension of art and culture. Laurent Gaveau, director of the Lab at the Google Cultural Institute, spoke on the new ways of thinking of art and dealing with it via using new technologies developed by Google engineers in London and Paris.
Another cultural lab, ArtLab Initiative at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), was represented by Head of Content Luc Meier, who described the foremost ways of big data treatment in the sphere of cultural heritage.
David Zahle, architect, partner at Bjarke Ingels Group involved in many of their iconic projects, including the Stavanger Concert Hall in Norway (Venice Biennale of Architecture 2004 Golden Lion Award), touched upon another very important aspect of museum development, i.e. the architectural aspect. He shared his experience of using architecture as a means to solve various tasks challenging a contemporary cultural institution.
Michael Breidenbrücker, partner at Speedinvest and founder of Reality Jockey that has published an innovative and extremely successful application RjDj, expressed his view on the interconnection of art and technology and the directions of progress in the cultural field.
The speeches were followed by a panel discussion moderated by Paul Alezraa (Avesta Group) and Ekaterina Perventseva (Aksenov Family Foundation).
It has been said before, but it is worth saying it again, that the future has never existed. So we are going to talk about now, and the relevance of now to the future is related to experimentation. In 2007, I opened Le Laboratoire cultural center in Paris, and the same year two more venues exploring interaction between art and science opened: the Wellcome Collection by Ken Arnold in London and the Science Gallery by Michael John Gorman in Dublin. The three of us published an article in Nature Magazine, and all of us were in unrelated ways interested in cultural centers where vocabulary was artistic and the questions were at frontiers. In my case I was interested in a true lab.
A lab is a transitional place where an experiment leads to a completed project. We have made over 20 experiments so far working together with a Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta interested in psychology of political terror; with a Harvard neuroscientist Mahzarin Banaji; with a New York artist Mark Dion exploring the future of the ocean; with Doug Aitken who invites us to his underwater pavilion to open in early November off the coast of Catalina Island; with Random International whose project exploring the notion of human movement and something which is called ‘the uncanny valley’ is opening this September in Pace Gallery in New York in collaboration with Le Laboratoire.
All this really does not fit into museums as we think of them today but it creates experiences, and I think that the content of cultural exchange now is experiential.
A lab is a transitional place where an experiment leads to a completed project. This really does not fit into museums as we think of them today, but it creates experiences, and I think that the content of cultural exchange now is experiential.
As a professor at the Harvard University I can tell that what is definitely not driving students to come and listen to me is what I say. The information content of the university professor is increasingly discounted. The experience is what matters. When on a frontier, people feel ambiguity. They are not in the tool mode, rather the experiment, and it becomes difficult to say who is an observer and who is an actor.
Creating an arts-oriented lab at EPFL was triggered by a number of applied research projects related to digitalization of specific strands of cultural heritage. One of the most recent of these projects is the Venice Time Machine, an attempt to build a digital model of the city of Venice over a span of 1,000 years.
What we try to do in relationship with cultural heritage is to step in and help ‘traditional’ cultural institutions interface with digital technologies – from the acquisition of data through its integration (organizing and modelizing the acquired data) all the way to restitution (bringing back this additional data to an audience, in specific spaces, and in calibrated balance with the original works of art).
Venice is one specific example of what we attempt to do, working in a ‘big data’ mindset around complex cultural heritage and topics: in this instance, hundreds of years of history preserved in the State Archives of Venice. We have to analyze the subject matter, organize it, and bring it back to a large, unspecialized audience.
The steps we follow in this project are those that any museum is confronted with regardless of the type of cultural heritage it is tasked with preserving and sharing: raw acquisition processes, integration of data, then restitution of data and questions about which tools and settings are the most conducive to their exploration by an audience in specific spaces.
If there is a future for museums, it will be an atomized future where museums will have to work hand in hand with institutions that can take up or share the burden of experimentation for them.
In the case of Venice again: we make our way through material that we digitize; we slowly build models, and convert the city and its history into data points that build gateways across Venice through the ages, and relate to each other and to themselves through history (buildings, cadastral plans and documents, pictorial representations, owners and dwellers). The same approach applies to any cultural heritage we might approach, and always comes with the same intent: making rich spans of culture more accessible to the largest number, by empowering experts with new tools to navigate and narrate the stories they were tasked with preserving.
While ground research can happen in typical ‘lab’ environments, in the cultural domain it is important to extend the research infrastructure so that it features public spaces: no research in the field can hold ground if it has not been confronted with an audience. This is why we have decided to create a dedicated public building and platform on campus to showcase and push forward several of our cultural projects, including Venice, extending to audiovisual archives and specific projects with public and private art collections: our ArtLab building design by architect Kengo Kuma is to become a public interface for experimentation around culture and technology on campus.
We are team of engineers based in Paris and London whose mission is to build digital tools and platforms for our cultural partners. We are working on technologies that would make cultural heritage accessible anywhere. Two years ago we were thinking that we need a physical space for a deep conversation, which could unite engineers and museum experts, artists and curators. So we created a lab, which is not open to public, but is open to our partners that are welcome to come and prototype with us. We ran a residency program for artists curated by Simon Castets and Hans Ulrich Obrist called 89plus. And the prototyping is essential for the whole program.
I have a feeling that museums have already been through many revolutions. I am pretty convinced they will cope with what comes now. There was an interesting study in the north of France: which speech is the most trusted now? Policy makers? Media? Business? Everybody was very low in trust and the museums were very high. I think this is extremely precious for the museums to be ranked as the most trustworthy institutions today.
The most successful prototype is Cardboard by David Coz and Damien Henry. This is a virtual reality made of cardboard which we brought to California and which is now used across the world for virtual reality by people not even knowing it was created at the Lab at Google Cultural Institute.
A very interesting application, especially for engaging a younger audience, is the Expedition project, where you have a room of kids transferred, like through a teleport, to the pyramids of Egypt, Versailles, Angkor Wat.
Digital can bring people not only to far or destroyed places, but also to completely new spaces that are only yet to be created. In such a way works another new Google software Tilt Brush, which we invite the artists to create with.
Important is the fact that our lab is a platform and we work in a collaborative way, but we do not curate the content.
One of the examples of how a museum can successfully respond to challenges by architectural means is the construction of the Danish Maritime Museum in Elsinore. For 100 years it had been located on the first floor of the Kronborg Castle. However, when the castle was proposed to be declared as part of the UNESCO heritage, it was demanded that it would throw all the functions that had nothing to do with the history of the building. The Maritime Museum needed to move in an old ship dock that was decommissioned 20 years ago. When we were looking at that dock, it was completely filled with water so we could not even see the space that we would have to design as a museum. When we read the brief we learnt that UNESCO claimed the area with a radius of 500 meters around the castle to have no buildings higher than 1 meter out of the ground. But between the lines we read what they really wanted: they wanted a Guggenheim in the hole – a place which would create tension, which would attract more people to Elsinore. The question for us was: how do we create an invisible icon? When we started working with the dock, we intuitively decided to insulate it from the outside. The way was to build a new wall all around the dock, dig it out, pump it, clear it of water, insulate it on the outside, fill it up with earth, put on the urban area around it and by doing this we could have a nice historic texture of the dock's wall which we were looking for. And then we thought: if anyway we had to build a new wall around the old dock, why not put the museum out there? Thus, actually liberating the dock from its functionality, we could make it an iconic structure. We were acting like an archeologist digging around the relic to preserve it. The museum became an exhibition box around the biggest exhibition piece in the museum, namely the 150 meters long, 20 meters wide, 8 meters high concrete dock. The museum became the vehicle for the preservation of the dock itself.
There is so much information, it is everywhere, and what you need to do is curating fewer things. The fewer things, the better. What you need to do is to think how by going to museums you become better at choosing and saying no to ten million things. The museum is the place where the choice is so sharp. We are getting bombarded by images. The luxury is to focus on very few things. And being immersive. It sounds superficial, but the real experience is spending more time with fewer things.
One of the problems with big world expos is that most of the time you are waiting in a line, spending around an hour before you go into a pavilion for ten minutes. In 2010, at the Danish Expo Pavilion in Shanghai we decided to show different aspects of forming a sustainable city space, since sustainability was declared as the theme of the expo. We wanted to provide a real experience of a Danish city if you look at it from sustainable point of view. In contrast to Chinese current experience, where streets are always under traffic jams, we decided to show a Danish way of commuting which in 40% involves cycling. We took a 1,000 Copenhagen free bikes and designed a pavilion as a bicycle street: bicycles were outside (on the roof) and inside the pavilion.
There is so much information, and what you need is curating. The fewer things, the better. What you need to do is to think how by going to museums you become better at choosing and saying no to ten million things. The museum is the place where the choice is so sharp.
Another sustainable thing in Copenhagen is the harbor, which is so clean that you can swim in it. Which is definitely not like it is in Shanghai, though it is a harbor city. So at the heart of the pavilion we put a pool with an opportunity to jump into clean water, so desirable in the hot Chinese summer. There the little Mermaid from Copenhagen was installed. It was surveilled by a small surveillance camera brought by Ai Weiwei – an exact copy of the one that surveilled his own house. As the pavilion is the Danish soil for the time of the expo, we had the only live feed in China from this camera out of the country. And it was streamed to the place where the Mermaid in Copenhagen initially belongs.
I would like to talk on how the technology world and the art world are connected. Peter Thiel wrote a book Zero to One, and I think it's a very interesting model to think of innovation. There are two directions of progress. One direction is horizontal and is driven by globalization. That means you take the existing subject (e.g. water), then you put it in a bottle, which is innovation, but it is still water. Then you transport it to other countries. This innovation is not new, Thiel says. What is really new is vertical innovation. It is doing completely new things, it is called the vertical innovation ‘0 to 1’, contrasting to the horizontal innovation which is ‘1 to n’. However, the big question is where 0 – 1 innovation is coming from. One answer is certainly technology, but another answer is art, culture and the humanities. I would agree with Steve Jobs’s famous words that technology alone is not enough. It is the technology's marriage with liberal arts, with humanities.
The ear is a new tech frontier. We are currently witnessing a big technological shift: from eye to ear.
My final project at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna consisted of a headset with two microphones on it. I processed all the sounds which I heard with these microphones in real time. I had a backpack with a computer, I was walking through the town having all this sonic experience. I later developed this idea into an application which basically did the same processes: everything you hear is in real time. I published it without marketing and a week later it had 150,000 downloads. The tech world is currently solving one of the next big frontiers which is hearing, and consumers are starting to engage with the new acoustic-based user interface models.