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Guggenheim Ventures into the Future with Its Own Cryptocurrency

Åzone Futures Market screenshot
From the Åzone Futures Market (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Guggenheim’s latest online exhibition, Åzone Futures Market, is an indulgent science fiction that brings the future to the present. Exploring the role of strategy in future forecasting, the museum dresses up prognostication as a stock market game.

In truth, this exhibition has less to do with the future of society and more to do with the future of the museum’s position within society. Is it a coincidence that Åzone Futures Market embraces the tenets of technology and design as indicators of progress? Not when many major museums have begun huge campaigns to modernize their gallery spaces through research departments and media labs. These initiatives search for new ways to rethink and innovate the art space. Slowly, a consensus is building in the museum world to find new ways to actively participate in contemporary society. In other words: Museums are politicizing.

Although the Åzone (pronounced like ozone) only contains stocks with positive futures, it’s hard to parse what exactly the exhibition is trying to say. It’s unclear whether the exhibition is simply an academic investigation into neoliberal economics or a devilish example of New Age satire meant to jolt us from our slacktivist reliance on technology to decide the future. The whole thing walks a fine line between cultural stewardship and the marketization of ideas.

Åzone Futures Market screenshot
From the Åzone Futures Market

Of course, that’s the joy in engaging with Åzone Futures Market: its complete lack of an art historical agenda. If anything, the exhibition strives to be contemporary, dissecting what constitutes financial engineering and commenting on the global economy’s adoption of cryptocurrencies. The online format of the Åzone allows the Guggenheim’s curators to take more risks and create exhibitions with longevity, freeing curators and creators from the confines of gallery walls and deadlines. With this new freedom, curators have the ability to create worlds.

After joining the Åzone, users receive 10,000 cåin (pronounced like coin) as seed money. As with any good cryptocurrency, cåin is an arbitrary unit of wealth whose worth is determined by its autonomous market. Cåin is the currency of the future with which users can purchase stocks that influence the general direction of the Futures Market. These stock options have borderline ridiculous names and descriptions, like Legislated Luddism, Promiscuous Citizenship, and Algorithmic Governance, and each purchase can sway the direction of the future. As I look at the market forecast today, it says, “the future is looking slightly more safe than yesterday.” How these forecasts are decided is beyond me, but they play a role in influencing how users choose to invest their cåin.

Åzone Futures Market screenshot
From the Åzone Futures Market

And as with any good experiment in market capitalism, there are winners and losers in the Åzone. Adopting the language of digital marketing, users can aspire to become Forecasters, Influencers, and Activists. Unsurprisingly, the creators of Åzone Futures Market top all of these leaderboards. These contributors run the gamut from Dan Taeyoung, a professor at Columbia University, to Zoltan Istvan, a 2016 presidential candidate for the Transhumanist Party. The top Influencer, however, stands out for its name: ads-by-bernazone.com.

Apparently, ads-by-bernazone.com is a shell company created by a decentralized architecture collective called FOAM. Bernåzone cleverly describes itself as a “bespoke hacking and advertising agency” that exploits its cultural capital on Åzone’s leaderboard to create a “lucrative” opportunity for its clients. For a small fee — paid in USD, not cåin — the agency will place an advertisement on its website whose traffic is specifically drawn from the Åzone community. FOAM designed Bernåzone as the perfect outside insurrection into the fabricated world of the Futures Market. By introducing real money into the mix, Bernåzone legitimizes the Åzone as a site of investment in the same way that real companies are beginning to invest in bitcoin and blockchain, further abstracting our relationship to money and its value.

From the Åzone Futures Market
From the Åzone Futures Market

Given its positive outlook on the future and its embrace of cåin, the Guggenheim seems to be arguing in favor of cryptocurrency as a way for individuals to hijack the global economy. This is a strange position for the museum to take. Given that it is a successful cultural institution with locations around the world, we might safely assume that the Guggenheim appreciates the status quo, so why would they argue for something as controversial as cryptocurrency? One might even call Åzone Futures Market hypocritical, noting the Guggenheim’s recent decision to end talks with the Gulf Labor Coalition over the rights of laborers working at their Abu Dhabi site.

Large institutions such as the Guggenheim tend to change from the inside out. Curator Troy Conrad Therrien and his cohort are expanding what it means to do museum work, changing the pedagogy of digital curation as they go. The arrival of online exhibitions like Åzone Futures Market is inextricably linked to the rebranding of cultural institutions as think tanks of social progress. Through exhibits like this, we are meant to believe that the politicized museum can offer a sustainable, trustworthy approach to the future. And if Åzone Futures Market is any indicator of what’s to come, we are going to see more exhibitions embrace the world of digital design as this century’s medium of intrigue.

Åzone Futures Market continues online at the Guggenheim.

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