Institutional critique has a complex legacy in contemporary art—long canonized, the self-reflexive and participatory strategies of artists like Hans Haacke and Andrea Fraser have been thoroughly assimilated into the operations of many present-day museums. The emergence in the 1990s of movements such as relational aesthetics and New Institutionalism, which sought to replace the conventional top-down structure of art organizations with one that freely mingles curatorial, artistic, and social practices, has led to an increased ambiguity in the relationship between museums and their various publics today.
New York-based artists João Enxuto and Erica Love want to suggest that, increasingly, real power no longer lies with art institutions as authoritative gatekeepers but resides with digital technology corporations that are restructuring how art is viewed at the same time that they have become a significant source of institutional funding. The duo’s research-driven work takes up some of the original questions of institutional critique while keeping an eye on the recent entry of tech firms, born in Silicon Valley and steeped in its attendant ideologies, into museums and the art market.
Two of Enxuto and Love’s notable early works playfully examine the Google Art Project, which photographs the interiors of major museums with street-view cameras and makes the results available for online viewing. Anonymous Paintings (2011–) is a series of digital prints derived from works that were deliberately blurred in the Google Art Project due to copyright issues. These images might be viewed as the visual manifestation of a defense against Google’s attempt to comprehensively document the world’s visual art, their abstract forms an act of defiance on the part of the copyright owners.
Continuing their interest in the possible applications of such a database, Enxuto and Love produced the video Art Project 2023 (2013), a speculative narrative set ten years in the future, when Google purchases the Marcel Breuer-designed museum building on Madison Avenue after the Metropolitan Museum of Art declines to renew its lease from the Whitney Museum. Google then razes the structure and uses 3D-printing to construct an exact replica to serve as a Google Glass-enabled virtual museum. Both Anonymous Paintings and Art Project 2023 speak to a theme that recurs in the pair’s more recent projects—a loss of institutional autonomy that results from an incursion of new funding streams contingent on the introduction of new technologies.
Their latest project, “Beacons” (2016), examines the Bluetooth technology that plays a pivotal role in recent initiatives to integrate smartphone interactivity into the museum-going experience. At the Brooklyn Museum, Tate Modern, and elsewhere, Bloomberg Connects has sponsored programs that include the installation of location-aware beacons, allowing the museums to track users of a dedicated app. While there’s nothing inherently bad about this—in both cases, the technology is being used to better meet the needs of the museum visitor—Enxuto and Love suggest that the use of these location-tracking beacons is part of a broader ideological shift in which the museum-going public is reimagined as a customer. In an essay about the rapid adoption of these devices in the October 2016 issue of A.i.A., they note that many of today’s museums are exemplars of the experience economy. Initiatives such as the Brooklyn Museum’s beacon-enabled ASK app, which visitors can use to text a member of the museum’s Audience Engagement Team questions about the works on view, and their ready acceptance by museum boards and visitors alike, help to generate an event-based institutional economy that prioritizes visitor engagement and conceives of art as a socially interactive experience.
Rather than buy into the logic of participation that the use of these devices encourages, Enxuto and Love’s exhibition at Art Center/South Florida in Miami Beach last spring questioned the efficacy of such technological initiatives. Beacons, Nearables, and False Positives (2016) consists of a pile of three Estimote beacons and ten nearables—sticker-sized Bluetooth sensors—next to an iPad displaying their location on its screen. Although the objects they represent are immobile, the points on the screen indicating their position keeps changing erratically. The precision of the technology is undermined by what the exhibition’s press release calls “the noisy world of objects.”
“These beacons are being depended upon to gather data, to make decisions and to get grant money to pilot these programs,” Enxuto and Love said in an interview, “but often they’re not being employed correctly and are hard to control.” Instead of mimicking museums by gathering data from gallery visitors, the artists paid attention to the technology itself, turning up the sensitivity of the beacons in order to demonstrate their instability and prompt thoughts about what other purposes the introduction of this technology into the museum might serve.
In particular, Enxuto and Love are interested in examining how the ready embrace of these new technologies is reshaping museum funding structures. While the work of an earlier generation of institutional critique artists often proceeded by tracing financial webs of association—such as Hans Haacke’s seminal Shapolsky et al (1971), which documented the phony corporations that sheltered one prominent Manhattan slumlord’s sizeable real estate holdings, prompting the cancellation of the artist’s exhibition at the Guggenheim and leading many to speculate that the museum’s board of trustees was connected to the real estate group—this is no longer a straightforward or clearly useful task. It’s not clear what the economic interests of many tech firms involved in arts funding are. For instance, Bloomberg Connects has given $96 million to arts organizations since 1999 for technology that collects vast swaths of data on a potentially valuable demographic, the museum-goer. “Just because they’re not doing anything with the data now, that does not preclude them from doing something in the future,” the artists said. “At any point this data could be used or sold.”
Another recent project by Enxuto and Love examines the influence of Silicon Valley technology and ideology on the art market. Inspired by the emergence of companies such as ArtRank and Art Advisor, which use algorithms to provide advice to collectors hoping to speculate on the art market, Enxuto and Love have established the Institute for Southern Contemporary Art (ISCA). At this stage, the organization is a largely theoretical project examining the implications of an algorithm that assists artists, rather than collectors, who wish to enter the art market. The software would provide artists who live outside major art centers with quantitatively derived advice on the production, reception, and sale of art. In a promotional video for ISCA, a narrator with a lilting Southern accent imagines locating the institute in the refurbished Atlanta Public Library building–the last that Breuer designed before his death–after climate-change disasters have forced the relocation of ISCA’s headquarters from Miami.
Like many of Enxuto and Love’s projects, ISCA skirts the line between dystopian fantasy and a parody of impending reality; in this case, the building in question is still the Atlanta Public Library and the algorithm is currently in development. If and when any revenue is generated, the artists would put it toward funding a research institute dedicated to the practice and theory of new critical art. “Part think-tank, part experimental program to promote new terms for art production,” the video’s narrator intones, ISCA is based on the premise that “art is produced as a commodity, it doesn’t become one when it is sold.”
“It’s a way of rethinking these really extractive models that are just there to help collectors,” Enxuto and Love said in an interview. “We’re trying to create future applications for these technologies that put pressure on the assumption that it’s going to benefit the collector always, or the wealthy.” A server was shown at the “Beacons” exhibition as a “Collector’s Edition.” Housing the algorithm in an elegant aluminum and mesh frame, the machine becomes a freestanding sculpture. The work embeds a subtle critique of the analytical tools that purport to unlock the secrets of the art market for collectors but that are in fact as much a mystification as art itself.
Waiting for the Internet (2015) also addresses economic structures, though at a remove from the art world. The work comprises a forty-minute video and a series of photographic prints documenting poor, African-American patrons waiting to gain free access to the internet at the Atlanta Public Library. The building itself stands as something of a monument to the failure of modernism—having fallen into disrepair in the 1990s, it was slated for demolition until architectural preservation activists intervened. But the city lacks the funds to properly repair it, and the library remains in poor condition.
These interrelated projects position the Atlanta Public Library in a dual light, juxtaposing modernist architecture with the disruptive economies derived from Silicon Valley. Both ideologies seek to change the world through technology. But if the failure of inner-city neighborhoods such as downtown Atlanta in the twentieth and into the twenty-first century is any indication, the use of technology as a solutions-oriented tool may well obfuscate its larger social impact. Enxuto and Love’s work examines the limits of such technological fundamentalism, and, however ambivalently, declares it anathema to art’s critical function.