The cover of Future Art Ecosystems (courtesy Serpentine Galleries)

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forces institutions and galleries into the digital realm, it’s inevitable that a form of disaster opportunism would emerge. Enter Future Art Ecosystems, a recent digital commission from Serpentine Galleries promising strategic foresight for a sector now reckoning with technology’s impact on the arts. 

The online publication’s first issue, Future Art Ecosystems: Art x Advanced Technologies, takes the form of an annual briefing tracking the “new infrastructures being built around artistic practices engaging with advanced technologies.” Since it’s freely distributed, this pseudo-art market investment report reads less like a sector survey and more like a case study of Serpentine’s own assets and future markets. Basically, it’s a humble brag of how the British contemporary arts center has evolved its own infrastructure via their Research and Development Platform, which produced this document with the consultancy studio Rival Strategy

This doesn’t mean Future Art Ecosystems’ proof of concept isn’t useful. Many art organizations lack resources for long-term visioning of how future technologies can be integrated in their programming and own infrastructure. The audience is the sector, the main actors are the artists. Curators are largely invisible, but this is by design. The Serpentine’s “collective intelligence” is what is on display, burnished by the curatorial authority of its artistic director, super-curator Han Ulrich Obrist.

So there are HUO-branded hallmarks all throughout: a flexing of interdisciplinary collaboration, and a closing conversation between Obrist and Ben Vickers, Serpentine’s Chief Technology Officer and a Future Art Ecosystems co-author. Artspeak manifests in the naming of new processes, like “Art x Advanced Technologies”, shortened to “AxAT.” (Never mind the lower-case x is the oft-used signage for fashion brand collaborations.) In naming conditions and strategies at the intersection of art and technology, there’s this willful drive to bring centralized “narrative structure” to decentralized internet concepts.  

Take its online format. Future Art Ecosystems can be downloaded as a pdf, or read as a Google Doc. In positioning this report within a typically collaborative medium used this past year for COVID-19 mutual aid organizing or open-source BLM reading lists, it’s odd how the document remains a closed distribution system. Users’ ability to download, print, and copy the file have even been disabled. 

A diagram from Future Art Ecosystems (courtesy Serpentine Galleries)

Expectedly, Future Art Ecosystems is concerned with how artists challenge or disrupt the centralized art world: they develop community networks outside its field, even collaborating with scientists and those with “non-art backgrounds [who] will also become audiences.” In doing so, they construct narratives rallying these varied “non-art” collaborators together; the artist becomes a critic or even a curator because they “generate variations on a central story about what the work is and what it is ‘doing’.” The emphasis here and throughout the text is on the product, not the process.

As a basic, market-driven explainer, then, Future Art Ecosystems suffices. Troy Conrad Therrien’s 2015 Guggenheim exhibition, Åzone Futures Market, discussed herein, is a rare acknowledgement of a curator’s “deep use” of online spaces — namely, the curation of online artworks within an immersive, internet-mediated space. That space though? The online prediction market. Meanwhile, artist-created software like James George’s Depthkit — highly regarded as a critical immersive media “building tool” in the emerging field of volumetric filmmaking, where game engines like Unreal or Unity are allowing filmmakers to quickly visualize and tweak 3D interactive imagery — is an example of an artist spinning off byproducts from their creative practice. This form of production has a buzzy neologism primed for the tech conference circuit: “The Art Stack.” It’s basically a vertically-integrated update of the traditional artist studio model, where a research lab meets design studio meets artist-run space to monetize artists’ “bespoke technologies.” 

While Future Art Ecosystems acknowledges its focus on art world infrastructure isn’t divorced from “critical issues of class, colonialism and climate crisis,” it’s selective in its engagement with the pandemic’s conditions. When discussing how the tech industry can act as an art patron (beyond tech residencies like Google Art and Culture) the report muses, “what would a museum fully owned and operated by a technology company look like and who would be its audience?” As much as museums have their institutional baggage, this seems blithely unaware of the tech industry’s own blindspots. There’s no unpacking of how neither the art or tech industry are fully equipped to dismantle the racial and gender biases embedded within its infrastructures. 

It’s also telling what future market disruptions aren’t forecasted. Like other institutions, Serpentine Galleries has been forced to confront toxic philanthropy. In 2019 alone, the institution saw the resignation of its former CEO Yana Peel in response to her and her husband’s links to an Israeli cyberweapons company, and announced it would turn down donations from members of the Sackler family. (One wonders if this document is also a development road map for how aspiring Silicon Valley patrons can make their philanthropic mark.) But Future Art Ecosystems doesn’t necessarily spell out what the tech world has to gain from the art world: new beta testers? A cohort that can staff and helm their own creative labs, helping tech companies uncover emerging markets? In a way, this is exactly what Serpentine is doing with their R&D Platform, and the publication of Future Art Ecosystems: they are beta-testing what a creative lab from a cultural institution looks like, and most importantly, exploring its revenue generating potential.

By the time I hit upon the closing conversation between Obrist and Vickers — staged on January 12, 2020 during “Pluto-Saturn Conjunction” — it felt like a self-congratulatory iteration of Paul Rudd’s “Hey, Look at Us” meme. At one point, Vickers asks Obrist how the art institutional approach can build upon “narrative structures that render speculative artistic projects with advanced technologies a reality.” There was only one project HUO could list: his own AI bot, HUO9000. Situated within the super-curator’s archive of interviews and curatorial projects, the neural network is a product of Serpentine’s own Creative AI Lab with the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College. Even as art meets technology, centralized curatorial authority continues to be on display.

Future Art Ecosystems: Art x Advanced Technologies (2020) is a digital commission produced by Serpentine Galleries’ R&D Platform (Ben Vickers, Sophie Netchaef, and Victoria Ivanova) in collaboration with strategy studio Rival Strategy (Marta Ferreira De Sá and Benedict Singleton). It is available online.

Rea McNamara is a writer, curator, and public programmer based in Toronto. She has written extensively on art, culture and the internet for frieze, Art in America, The Globe and Mail, VICE, Art F City,...