Oscar Wilde, in his classic preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, writes, “Those who find ugly meaning in beautiful things are corrupt . . . It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” The future of art will magnify the individual spectator to an astonishing extent.
To understand the future, keep an eye on the maturing technologies of 2018: virtual reality, 3D printing and biometric measurement. The artists who intermix these technologies require, above all, advanced biometric data. The brain sings the body’s intent, if only you know what to listen for.
Scientists at Icelandic orthopedics company Össur can now intercept myoelectric signals, which carry the nervous system’s commands to muscles, and wirelessly communicate those orders into a robotic counterpart which obeys the body’s orders. Össur aims to introduce this tech to the public in the next decade.
When he’s not running operations at Arts One Collective Gallery, a short walk from the Seattle Art Museum and Pike Place Market, Tony Taj operates Boogio, a disruptive shoe technology startup. Boogio’s biometric soles collect pressure readings and design 3D-printable footwear individualized for safety and comfort. The artist of the future plays in tune with the body’s orchestra. “We’re seeing very specific things out of art and tech today,” Taj notes. “They are visceral, physical or emotional across different mediums. Either way, art needs participation and a way for people to access it.”
Museums See Ghosts
Yayoi Kusama broke attendance records at the Seattle Art Museum in the summer of 2017 with her traveling “Infinity Rooms” exhibit. I personally visited the exhibit a healthy two dozen times. Kusama mushrooms became my morning walkthrough, lunchtime retreat and evening repose. The swirling Kusama crowds all shared one thing in common: bubbling excitement for the fiasco of it all.
Kusama offered spectators photo-friendly communal interaction in a fantastic space. The exhibit’s popularity represents a moment when technology is enabling new forms of participation in art. Museums must eventually face the forces of decentralization that elevated Amazon and Netflix at the expense of Toys“R”Us and Blockbuster; the same old exhibits draw only the same old crowds, and museums will lose whatever existing monopoly they have on exciting participatory art, like Kusama’s “Infinity Rooms”.
Recognizing the gum on the wall, the Seattle Art Museum hired a chief technology officer (CTO) in 2018 to oversee a $1.4 million budget and advocate for the museum’s inclusion of technology. But is that enough? Couch potatoes across the world can already access classics like da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” in virtual reality. How much time will pass before a platform connects consumers with independent virtual art experiences? Will that platform enhance or outcompete our established cultural institutions? As Taj told me, “Museums have to ask, how do you stay relevant and appreciated beyond a sound bite or video?”
David Wells’ The Time Machine (2002) depicts a futuristic library lined by sleek smart- glass. A snide virtual assistant, played by Orlando Jones, glides between the panes. He dismisses our protagonist’s inquiries into time travel and sends him on his way. When the story returns to the library, 800,000 years have passed, and a haggard Jones now oversees a ruined, ghostly library—not because people are gone, but because people are different. In the words of H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine and great-grandfather to the film’s director, “There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change.”
It Belongs in a Museum!
…or does it? VR installations have caused quite a stir in the museum world, but are “traditional” museums continuing to attract crowds the way they used to?
62,172,274: Number of museum attendees in 2016 in the U.S., Mexico and Canada, as reported by the Association of Art Museum Directors; North American museums saw a slight uptick in attendance that year, with 61,386,062 visitors in 2015.
1.2 million: Drop in attendance numbers for the Louvre from 2015 to 2016; The Art Newspaper claims the museum saw 8.6 million visitors in 2015 and 7.4 million in 2016.
$8.54 billion: Dollars spent on cultural projects across the globe in 2016, as reported by AEA Consulting. $4.98 billion of that sum was spent on museums.
2015: The year one of the first VR installations was offered to the public. The experience, featured at The British Museum, displayed “Bronze Age objects . . . showing them in their original content,” according to The New York Times.
2017: Original year Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation, estimated we’d no longer need 3-D glasses to view installation holograms. As of publication, there are no museum VR experiences that don’t require some type of headgear.