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The Tech Disruption Series: ArtTech

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In a brightly lit conference room at the co-working space Fora Borough, a panel of experts gathered to discuss the development and destination of tech innovation in the artworld for a live recording of The Tech Disruption Series podcast.

Presenter Georgie Barrat posed questions to Anna Lowe of Smartify and Tom Elsner of Art Rabbit and Open Culture, both heading platforms that have revolutionised how we consume art. Where cultural engagement used to be a matter of time-intensive research or passing hearsay, tech is becoming increasingly savvy about providing a quick and individualised stream of easily accessible content.

Through his work at a digital agency producing webpages for cultural institutions, Tom was well placed to understand the difficulties in disseminating useful information when he set up Art Rabbit as a side project in 2006. What made the site radically different from the projects that filled his day job was its open forum structure, which harnessed the democratic potential of the internet through which traditional hierarchies between established museums and underground art movements can be erased to provide an all-embracing directory of cultural events. Most pop-ups and emerging spaces had audiences that were limited to those ‘in the know’, but Art Rabbit puts them and the latest blockbuster exhibition from the Tate on a shared platform.

This concept is so powerful that the problem facing internet users today is how to make sense of what often feels like a superabundance of images and information, some of which may be false. When Anna co-founded Smartify, which allows users to scan artworks and swiftly receive background material, it was in the hope of giving gallery visitors more control over the information they receive.

Without the hassle of providing the technological infrastructure themselves, galleries would also have more resources to focus on quality content. Innovations range from digitised audio guides to vivid immersive experiences with augmented reality, a horizon recently broadened by the newly available tools in Apple’s latest AR kit.

The idea that tech companies can provide platforms in collaboration with existing cultural production is at the heart of the debate when it comes to organisations that are often poorly funded or steeped in tradition. Many may need the external support, but might still be tentative about embracing tech in a humanities sector that champions work that risks sacrificing nuance in meaning or sentimental value to the power of the algorithm.

For Anna, it is an ideological gap that can be bridged by challenging stereotypes surrounding tech and promoting meaningful engagement, with these aims greatly impacting the app’s design: ‘instead of using your phone to take selfies or wandering through looking at your phone, we tried to have a design that’s eyes up, very clean, super fast’. The data collected has commercial value for the sales of audio guides and books, but it is also used to make personalised suggestions, creating an ecosystem of larger, more involved audiences.

Tom is cautious about institutions treating technology like a fad: ‘If it sits within a general internal strategy that’s great news… [but] generally what happens with these projects is they get launched and funding runs out, it’s not embedded in their culture, there isn’t a digital transformation that comes with it, they can’t operate the tech well… the impact of something like that can be really small if its not integrated well’. The warning comes in response to the news of Sotheby’s recent acquisition of Thread Genius, a company working in image recognition.

Both panelists acknowledge that the art market operates quite separately to museums,  although the struggles it faces with its infamous opacity and high incidence of forgery provide an even bigger opportunity for constructive disruption. The most relevant technology so far appears to be blockchain, and bold attempts to introduce it have come from Nanne Dekking’s Artory, which stores an object’s sales history, and Mark Lurie’s Codex, which focuses on providing reliable records of provenance.

However, the strength of blockchain’s immutable design relies entirely on the accuracy of any data inputted, which will require a dramatic shift in the market’s transparency that could take time. Still, Tom believes that no matter the actual success of blockchain, the emerging concepts of decentralisation and secure anonymous transactions will be transformative.

For Anna, the potential use of blockchain is highly flexible and could equally apply to more ethical or philosophical questions such as that of artists rights in the age of AR: ‘If we’re using machine vision to overlay data in the world how do you understand what you are allowed to see and not see… and if an artwork is copyrighted do you show a grey square?’ Ownership itself stands to be affected by the rise of tokenisation, through which artworks are sold in portions in the manner of financial shares, a system introduced by the company Maecenas.

Both Anna and Tom are keen to reframe the introduction of tech to the artworld as a matter of enhancing engagement rather than causing disruption. Tom muses on the growing numbers of inventive cultural tech startups and suggests, ‘I think “transformers” is a good word’.

By Jo Lawson-Tancred