In the art market, originality and peculiarity is an artist's foremost capital. But what happens when an algorithm can calculate these properties better than the artist itself? 


A revolution is taking place at the Institute of Southern Contemporary Art (ISCA) in Atlanta. From its headquarters in the city's former public library – a modernist concrete building designed by the famous architect Marcel Breuer – the institute creates a completely new model for how to produce art. Building huser namely a giant supercomputer that analyzes a wealth of data from the art market and art history. This data is compared to assessments from contemporary art experts, financial analysts, artists and theorists who are employed by ISCA as research fellows. All the information is then fed into algorithmic models, and out comes recipes for artworks that will be successful in the art market. Art production is often a time-consuming and complex process, and it requires multiple attempts before arriving at a successful result. ISCA wants to put an end to this. With the help of analytical tools, production is automated and made more efficient, and the return is consequently greater.

Screen Shot at 2016 04-27-12.19.58To satisfy the demand for artwork with a certain human touch, the institute outsources the actual production of the works to a work reserve of artists, coders and 3D printers. In any case, putting out art production is already well-established in the art world, something the success of entrepreneurial artists Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst attest to.

ISCA-produced works of art also come in standardized form. The works are installed in a specially adapted box that fits perfectly into shipping containers, which can easily and cost-effectively be sent to biennials and art fairs around the world.

Spectacular irony. In the art market, originality and peculiarity is an artist's foremost capital. But what happens when an algorithm can calculate these properties better than the coast itself? According to ISCA, the result over the coming decades will be this: The art market is imploding, and contemporary art as we know it, will weather.

The art market is imploding, and contemporary art as we know it will weather.

Of course, this is a fiction, a kind of science fiction – if we should not call it one financial fiction. Behind the Institute of Southern Contemporary Art is the artist João Enxuto and Erica Love, and the promotional video that tells about the institute's business model is currently on display as part of the New Museum's online exhibition series First Look: New Art Online, as the New York Museum does in collaboration with the journal Rhizome. It is fitting that Enxuto and Love "exhibit" on the New Museum's website, for their work in recent years has all taken on the status of the artwork and the future of public museums in a post-digital world. In a previous project, Art Project 2023 from 2013, they presented a similar speculative vision of the future, where New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is looking to sell one of its display sites to Google in the aftermath of a major financial crisis. Before Google demolishes the building, they scan it – after all, virtual buildings are less expensive to operate than physical ones – and then use the digital architectural model to showcase their own virtual art collection.

Screen Shot at 2016 04-27-12.17.22Enxuto's and Loves' new video alternates between panning bird's-eye views filmed over the big city with drone-controlled cameras, and computer-generated animations moving through the institute building. We don't get to see what ISCA's algorithm-made artwork actually looks like, but the opening scene of the video gives an indication of what a calculated iconic piece of art can be: Damien Hirst's three-foot-tall gold-plated mammoth skeleton reflecting the sun setting at the Miami beachfront, where it stands permanently exhibited outside the luxury hotel Faena. Hirst is a master of this kind of pseudocritical sculpture that smiles mischievously and ironically and points the nose to its audience and its owners. "If an algorithm were used to create a sculpture that conveyed the most spectacular irony, it might look like this: a lavish symbol of extinction standing at the forefront of the climate disaster," the video's narrative voice suggests. Why shouldn't it be possible to exploit a market that prefers this type of art with great predictability?

Calculated originality. ISCA's business concept is not without precedent. Algorithm-driven models for art collectors already exist. For example, Art Rank's art consulting service offers quarterly published lists showing which artists are considered good investments and who the market has previously overstated. This year's Festival Artist of the Year in Bergen Fredrik Værslev had the dubious honor of topping the category for overvalued artists with expected price drops a year ago. Services like Art Rank are considered devastating to contemporary art, but in reality they do nothing but systematize that type of know-how that galleries and collectors use, in the same way that computers replace the financial world's brokers and analysts.

If one can calculate the innovative and original of the art with mathematical accuracy, it will eventually lose its meaning.

Art Rank's algorithms summarize qualitative art assessments, reducing them to "buy" or "don't buy." The algorithms in Enxuto and Love's fictional project, on the other hand, utilize the assessments in order to instrumentalize the production. This is the radical of the ideas introduced in the video: If one can calculate the innovative and original of the art with mathematical accuracy, it will eventually lose its meaning.

Enxuto's and Loves project shows an art market full of contradictions. The critic Isabelle Graw, author of the book High Price. Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, has written that the contradictions of the art market are mainly due to the fact that works of art are split in two – they have both symbolic value and market value. These two aspects are in a relationship of mutual conflict and mutual influence: the greater the symbol value, the greater the market value. The paradox is that everyone in the art world – both gallerists and art collectors and critical voices advocating that art is one of the last remaining free spaces in a profit-driven, global capitalism – emphasizes that artwork is priceless. And it is, as you know, little that is as valuable as the priceless. As Graw writes: Having an idealistic view of art is good for business. In such a world, the only resistance is to lay aside ideals.

Underwater mausoleums. The ideas presented in the Enxuto and Loves Institute of Southern Contemporary Art are provocative and enticing. But the video also contains an apocalyptic tone. The inevitable meltdown of the polar ice will submerge the entire southern part of the North American continent. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the video's opening and closing scenes have been added to Miami. Since the early 2000s, Miami has re-emerged as a capital of contemporary art, with a number of museums, gigantic art fairs and luxurious "cultural hotels". In the closing pictures we see the hanging gardens which adorn the characteristic entrance to the contemporary art museum Pérez Art Museum. Towards the end of the century, we know, institutions like this will be submerged. This is the fate that awaits the museums of Enxuto's and Love's vision of the future – to be underwater mausoleums for the seaweed-and-tar-covered artifacts that once belonged to the past genre of "contemporary art".

Watch the movie here: Enxutos and Loves Institute of Southern Contemporary


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