Research & Development at the Art Institution

Why shouldn’t the same logic of care that curators are taught to apply to artworks also extend to the operational processes?

Victoria Ivanova and Ben Vickers

By Victoria Ivanova and Ben Vickers

What would it mean for a cultural institution to make their programmes matter not only artistically, but also infrastructurally?

Today, it may seem banal to state that the core function of cultural institutions specialising in contemporary art resides in providing general audiences access to art that is relevant to the current moment. Yet it is precisely today, when the pace and impacts of accelerating technological change are comparable to – or even outstrip – those in the period of industrialisation, that it is worth pausing and asking whether a renewed sense of purpose and new beneficiaries may be emerging for cultural institutions in this transformative process.

It is no coincidence that in the case of the Serpentine, a possible direction of travel may be gleaned from artistic engagements with advanced technologies that have ultimately taken the shape of new artworks. For the months spent in production mode, the Serpentine becomes a site where technical, critical, curatorial and artistic capabilities are intertwined and augmented in small but highly ambitious teams. Such processes generate copious amounts of both deeply practical and conceptual knowledge, most of which ultimately remains invisible when the final artwork is presented to the public. Something similar may be said about the back-end (i.e code) or collateral tools that have to be devised in order to make such artworks a reality.

While general audiences may not require this ‘background information’ in order to appreciate the artwork on the terms set up by the artist, the possibility to export and further develop some of the insights and capabilities developed in prior projects, or to re-engage with an issue that presented a block or a gap, would mean that cultural institutions could be making their programmes matter not only artistically, but also infrastructurally. In fact, within most other industries, building new infrastructural capabilities by leveraging new technologies is a standard practice.

“Thus, within companies or state projects, R&D labs are typically driven by risk-taking and experimentation in pursuit of industry-specific innovation.”

Thus, why shouldn’t the same logic of care that curators are taught to apply to artworks also extend to the operational processes, nascent technologies and especially networks of people that make these artworks possible? If anything, this turn has been prophesied since at least the advance of computational technologies in the 1950s and 1960s. In his 1968 ‘Systems Esthetics’ article-manifesto, curator and theorist Jack Burnham stated that ‘we are now in transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture [where change] emanates not from things, but from the way things are done’. (1) Somewhat ironically, Burnham’s now largely obscured vision finds more resonance in individual artistic practices than in art-institutional agendas.

Is the time finally ripe for art institutions and cultural organisations to take Burhnam’s proposal seriously? Judging by the appearance of new or revamped initiatives in recent years that echo Burhnam’s organisational agenda, we may be finding ourselves at a critical juncture in the practice and (self-)perception of cultural institutions. (2)

R&D as a Step into the Future?

In the Serpentine’s case, such new initiatives take the form of an R&D Platform — a dedicated operational space where care for and development of internal and external infrastructures that support innovative cultural production can consolidate, find new shape and flourish.

The term ‘R&D’ was first coined by American officials in 1947 and quickly spread across international policy contexts. Referring to company activities that did not need to yield immediate (or even mid-term) returns on investment, research and development (or prior to 1947, just ‘research’) R&D was seen to be essential to scientific and technological advancement. Thus, within