Art’s New Frontier | Acute Art


Neil Koenig, former Senior BBC producer and current ideaXme board advisor and guest interviewer, interviews Daniel Birnbaum, artistic director Acute Art.

Art’s New Frontier

Daniel Birnbaum, Artistic Director, Acute Art
Daniel Birnbaum, Artistic Director, Acute Art. Photo credit: John Scarisbrick.

The pandemic has had an impact on most aspects of our lives, and the art world is no exception. With many galleries and museums closed, there’s an urgent need for new ways to experience art. Technology might provide some answers, and one enterprise at the forefront of developments is Acute Art, which collaborates with artists on projects involving virtual and augmented reality.

Acute Art

Acute Art has already worked with many high-profile artists, including Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramović, Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg, Olafur Eliasson, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Bjarne Melgaard, Jeff Koons and many more. The most recent project that Acute Art has been involved in is NEW FICTION, the first major solo exhibition in London by KAWS (Brian Donnelly b.1974). The show, which opened in January 2022 at the Serpentine gallery in London’s Hyde Park, includes new and recent works in physical and augmented reality. A parallel digital version of the exhibition launched simultaneously in Fortnite, the hugely popular video game developed by Epic Games. In addition, an app developed by Acute Art will “offer a bridge between the virtual and the physical worlds”.

All the paintings and sculptures in the exhibition, as well as a miniature version of the entire show, will exist as AR works on the app, which can be viewed at home by audiences around the world, and shared on social media.

In this interview, producer, journalist and ideaXme board adviser Neil Koenig talks to Acute Art’s artistic director, Daniel Birnbaum, about his career in the art world, the creative challenge of curating the NEW FICTION show, and what part technologies such as augmented and virtual reality might play in the future development of art. Before joining Acute Art in January 2019, Daniel Birnbaum was Director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Previously, he curated the 1st Moscow Biennale (2005), “Airs de Paris” (with Christine Macel) at the Centre Pompidou (2007), the 2nd Yokohama Triennial (2008), and “Zero” (with Tijs Visser) at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin (2015). In 2009 he was director of the 53rd Venice Biennale. Daniel Birnbaum co-authored ‘Spacing Philosophy: Lyotard and the Idea of the Exhibition’ with Swedish philosopher and professor Sven-Olov Wallenstein published by Sternberg Press in September 2019.

KAWS: NEW FICTION in Fortnite. © Epic Games.
KAWS: NEW FICTION in Fortnite. © Epic Games.

The interview:

ACUTE ART | Daniel Birnbaum

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:00:00] We’re here to “idea” everyone. To fire up your curiosity and connect you with the people and ideas that shape our world. Watch, listen, understand, connect, create. Let’s move the human story forward together.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:00:19] Welcome to ideaXme. I’m Neil Koenig. For more than 50 years, the Serpentine Gallery in London has shown work by some of the world’s most famous contemporary artists, but it does not normally have figures like this (blue creature sits on top of the Serpentine Gallery) on top of it? In fact, this creature is a product of augmented reality and is only viewable through a smartphone app provided by an enterprise called Acute Art. It is all part of NEW FICTION, the first major solo exhibition in London by the artist KAWS, and it features paintings and sculptures as well as digital elements. Not only that, but a parallel digital version of the show has also been launched simultaneously in Fortnite, the hugely popular video game developed by Epic Games. The artistic director of Acute Art and the curator of the NEW FICTION show is Daniel Birnbaum.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:01:18] Daniel, many thanks for joining us. Perhaps we can begin by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up working with Acute Art?

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:01:27] Thank you so much. Happy to join this. I am an art world person in the old sense, maybe. I’ve been working for museums and biennials and art schools all my life. So, the art part of things is nothing new. The whole AR VR art and technology conversation is also perhaps not new in my life. It’s only three years ago that I joined this endeavour here in London. I have a background in, well, in philosophy and art history and started to work with artists when I was relatively young, and curation back then wasn’t really a profession. Of course, it was for people who worked at museums, but to be, you know, an accomplice of an artist, or a friend. You know, you write a little text, and you help the artists installing things. That’s how it all began for me, and I became more and more involved with artists. I am Swedish, so I lived in Sweden. I live in Stockholm. But I have also been living in the German speaking world. That’s why I sound like this. I lived in Vienna and in Berlin. I started to work with artists, more on the kind of hobby level. Maybe. But it grew into my profession somehow, and I started to teach at art schools and one thing led to another. My first job real job, so to say was, well, an art critic for a big daily paper. And then I worked for a kind of studio program in Stockholm, and at some point, I became, you know, involved with one of the better-known art schools in Germany called the Städelschule in Frankfurt.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:03:25] And to my surprise, I was asked if I would run the whole school. And I was a relatively young Dean. Not that young, but most Deans in Germany are, you know, elderly gentleman with a beard. And I wasn’t that yet. But, you know, the school also had a Kunsthalle, which is quite well known. It’s called the Portikus, and it is not a major museum, but it’s one of the art world’s best-known venues and does not show students work, it was always invited guests, so we had the Gilbert and George, or we had the John Anthony Baldessari. We had major artists. So, I became a curator on a professional level, and I started to be involved with the biennials. There was a period in the 1990s when the art world seemed to grow. It used to be very; Paris centred the whole thing like a century ago. And then maybe New York became the centre of the art world. London was not very important back then, but you know, step by step, London became a very important new city. This is my big surprise for people in London. But you know, it happened in the nineteen nineties, I would say through the new Tate Modern and through Frieze Art Fair, of the magazine Frieze and I became very interested in London. And you know, in that maybe through technology and cheap flights and all of that, the art world seemed to grow and suddenly there were biennials all over the world.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:05:11] And with a few friends, I was involved with many of them in Moscow and in in Yokohama, outside Tokyo and in Italy and. And then in 2009, I was then suddenly, you know, involved with the Venice Biennale as the artistic director of the whole thing. And that is a scary task, but also a symbolic, important job to do once. If you’re if you have chosen, this strange career of being a curator. It’s when you are attacked by everyone. But it’s also when people take you seriously because it is an important moment. And so, I’ve been, a writer and a curator, a very, very small and then occasionally a very large project. After that, I kind of slowed down, one may maybe say, but maybe I also became a little bit more serious, and I became the director of a museum called the Moderna Museet.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:06:06] It’s not as influential and big as the Tate or the MoMA, but it’s a paradigmatic museum of modern art. Actually, very important one in my hometown, Stockholm. I did that for almost a decade, and actually, that may be a little bit of importance for the for our conversation today, because Moderna Museet, I must say it was in the 1960s, perhaps the most experimental museum in Europe and also rich and kind of, you know, Sweden had not been part of World War Two and it was relatively open to new impulses from the US and the Moderna Museet was the first place to show Andy Warhol in Europe. The whole pop development happened there.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:06:55] There was an interesting development that had a little bit of the Swedish link called EAT, Experiments in Art and Technology. It was a Swedish engineer, but he lived in the US, called Billy Klüver, who became the kind of pop engineer in the art world. It’s maybe surprising that there would be an engineer in the art world, but he helped a Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage and even Warhol to do, you know, experimental things involving new tech. Moderna Museet had a great collection of such strange things. We always looked at that and did shows and conferences about EAT that is art and technology.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:07:36] Then I met the group of people who were interested in new digital possibilities, that are also visually interesting — VR virtual reality and AR augmented reality. We will speak about those concepts. And there was a conference in Stockholm with the humbly named. Brilliant Minds. And it did involve quite brilliant minds from Obama to, you know, important writers and whatnot. And I was asked to kind of make a conversation there, so I started to invite (it happened a number of times) very important artists. I was asked by a little group to propose artists that would use these new technologies, and these are the people who are founded the place where I now work called Acute Art.

KAWS, SEEING, 2022, augmented reality sculpture at Serpentine North Gallery. Courtesy of KAWS and Acute Art.
KAWS, SEEING, 2022, augmented reality sculpture at Serpentine North Gallery. Courtesy of KAWS and Acute Art.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:08:33] But at the beginning I was simply an advisor. So, we have done projects with a number of artists, and they said, let’s see what happens if very important artists and not just techie nerdy specialists, but major artists use this new technology, and I asked, what do you mean by important artists? They said, we mean Jeff Koons. So, we did approach Jeff Koons and Marina Abramović and Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor, and they all did projects, very different works, but they did VR works. And I thought that was very interesting that they would be willing to do this. These are all fantastic artists normally known for other things. Marina Abramović, maybe the most influential performance artist in the world. And Jeff Koons, a perfectionist who is, you know, a sculptor, basically. And so, we had the Marina Abramović, Jeff Koons and Olafur Eliasson on stage with me. And then I thought, this is interesting. Maybe I should move on. I’ve been a museum director now for a decade. There are other options in life. And they asked me if I would do this, and here I am three years later, and we are still exploring art with artists like that. But of course, not only with the kind of monsters of rock. I mean, we work with lots of artists now, young artists from all over the world. It was a good beginning.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:10:03] Just before we go any further, let’s just be clear about what we mean by these terms’ virtual reality and augmented reality. Virtual reality may be slightly easier to grasp in this often involves the viewer having to put on a kind of headset to experience the work that they’re looking at. And augmented reality is slightly different, isn’t it?

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:10:35] Yes. VR has been around for a few years, or even decades, I think for specialists. But you know, real people, you know, who are, you know, specializing in these fields, maybe at MIT or similar schools in across Europe. But as a kind of more mainstream possibility, it’s only, I would say five years old, perhaps that big companies started to produce headsets. They were very clumsy at the beginning. And I have to say ugly and, you know, not very appealing, and you don’t want to put on that thing. But when you’re in it and you forget about the ugliness of your headset, there you are in a world that is a perfect illusion of real three-dimensional space.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:11:27] We’re only talking about sound and vision. You know, we’re not talking about taste or smell or, you know, that would be a perfect simulation of the world and people. Of course, in a science fiction like, you know, or philosophical context would speculate about such possibilities. But right now, with sound ambition — the optical system seems to be the dominant. You know that if you see something, it’s stronger than the smell or the taste.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:11:58] So it takes over, it becomes a more or less perfect illusion. You may think that you are in a rainforest, or you are catapulted into a sci fi like context, or you are on the Moon. And then artists started to explore this a little bit. The gaming world is maybe the biggest one. Historically, even with photography and with the film, you know, also entertainment. And I should mention it, probably pornography is always a driving force because, it’s been like that, you know, also historically in the 19th century with photography. And I think the gaming world is the biggest one when it comes to financial power. Also, that young people love these games and VR is a possibility for the gaming world. Also, real estate, if you want to build an amazing building, but you’re not 100 percent sure you can do it in VR and walk around in your building. So, there are there are many applications, and I should maybe mention that some of our works are almost hallucinatory fantasies.

KAWS: NEW FICTION at Serpentine. MIRROR (2018), SLEEPLESS (2018), GETTING THE CALL (2018) AND WHAT PARTY (2020). © Jonty Wilde (courtesy KAWS).
KAWS: NEW FICTION at Serpentine. MIRROR (2018), SLEEPLESS (2018), GETTING THE CALL (2018) AND WHAT PARTY (2020). © Jonty Wilde (courtesy KAWS).

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:13:15] And we did something with Anish Kapoor, as I mentioned, and it’s an unbelievable journey through spheres item. I think it’s; you know, you’re falling into yourself and that’s how he talks about it. So, you’re somehow in in inside your body, but then you enter spaces that I don’t know what those spaces are, but I would say, maybe there is a soul and possibly it’s about, reincarnation and that you pass away and that you that you reappear. And so, we’ve done very kind of, visually strange things that are almost like hallucinations or dreamlike. But we’ve also done very direct, I would say political works. We did a piece with Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, and that is a straightforward and technologically not so, so impressive. But we simply used 360 cameras to produce, the sense of immersion that you’re in another part of the world. And it’s a piece about refugees and about wild animals or, homeless elephants, basically. And it’s a very, authentic piece for way where it’s at the centre of his interest in the issues of migration and basically the predicament the condition of life on the planet.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:14:33] So VR, because of the technology, because now you have to wear a headset. It’s kind of only practical if you go somewhere. If you go to a space, you go to a gallery, you’re going to put this device on. There are going to be people there to show you how to access it and so on. But there’s this other phenomenon — augmented reality is a rather different case, isn’t it?

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:15:04] Augmented reality is similar, but the imagery or, the digital components that have been created they don’t show up in a space that is closed off from the rest of the world. So, you can see it through a telephone or, through an iPad or, through a kind of half transparent headset if you want that. So, you look into the world, but there is stuff there that is not real. It’s digital or virtual. But and it shows up in the environment so, you can weave digital components into the social sphere. For instance, you look into your street and there’s your well-known street corner, but there’s some object there or there’s a creature there, or maybe a person that you recognize or, or a sculpture or, a monster and that’s AR being woven into the real environment. So, of course, it’s less spectacular. Perhaps because, you know, VR, when you’re totally closed off, becomes the most powerful visual medium that has ever been. It can be stronger than cinema because it takes over and you’re in it. You’re totally immersed in a kind of fictional world and there you are, and you can’t escape it because wherever you go, you have to take off the headset if you want to escape it or, turn it off or something and you are overwhelmed, basically.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:16:35] AR is a little bit less that, of course, because everything that shows up on the telephone, even if you have a very large telephone. You’re never going to be frightened. It can be a little bit gimmicky. Some of the AR things out there are more like fun smiles or, things that you can place there or, something. When we work with it, we have done collaborations with institutions all over Europe and other parts of the world, and we have worked a lot with some places here in London, for instance, the Serpentine Gallery, and then we have installed, you know, perfectly functioning VR headsets in their space. And we’ve done it at Frieze, and we’ve done it at many, many places.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:17:20] There is a lighter form of art. You know, you can put your iPhone or smartphone or, whatever, into a little cardboard box and have it in front of your eyes and this may not sound very convincing, but it functions surprisingly well. That would be mobile VR.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:17:48] When we launched the Ai Weiwei piece 2 years ago, it gave me a little glimpse of things to come. We produced that piece directly with Weiwei. We also had an agreement with The Guardian, the newspaper. They were doing a big story about him, and they had a little conversation here in London at the cinema.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:18:11] We launched it at that time and in the first hour, I think it reached like 50,000–100000 people. It was on YouTube. YouTube now carries the most primitive form of VR just, you know, 360 films. But if you put them into a headset or into your telephone and put it into a cardboard box, it is already immersive. So, you know, things are developing, but in principle you’re a 100 percent right. VR is the heavier, more complex technology. And for it to be great, we have installed it in institutions, and you go there, and you look at it. AR could be on anyone’s telephone. And we started to work with that, a little bit some years ago already. But then during the pandemic, all our beautiful VR productions were kind of meaningless because every institution in the world closed. Every museum here in London and across Europe was closed and I guess everywhere in the world. People were looking a bit for things to do, and we had a few ideas about AR.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:19:28] And we launched something with a very well-known artist who has a background in street art and graffiti, but he’s become a very successful artist in the normal art world. His name is Brian Donnelly, but he is known as Kaws. He had a kind of graffiti background, as I say, but he’s become someone who is visible all over. He has incredibly successful collaborations with commercial brands in the fashion world and in sportswear. And we did this kind of classical, well-known figure called Companion. It’s looks like a mixture of Mickey Mouse and some other components from the world of comics, but it’s become his kind of almost alter ego like character. And we launched that as a kind of AR object and placed it in different parts of the world such as Piccadilly Circus and Times Square in New York and a well-known site in Tokyo. I think we had 12 cities. And the interest was huge. It was only up for a few days. CNN ran a story about it, and it showed that, you know, AR is something that could be an art form.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:20:57] How did the audience experience it this, this this event?

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:21:02] Yeah. So again, one can do AR in different ways. And so, these big sculptural works were located, geolocated. So, through GPS systems, one can say it’s going to be, you know, outside of Buckingham Palace or it will be hovering above the White House. I don’t think anyone could stop us from that. Maybe they can. But then you have to go there and there’s nothing you can see with the naked eye. You have to be there. And if you look at that site through a telephone or rather through an app on a telephone, something will appear. So, you have to know what you’re doing. And normally now, when we do things like that, we’re asking people to download the app through a QR code and to point the camera in a specific direction. I have to say it’s still not perfect. The technology is still full of challenges, but young people seem to understand this better than people my age.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:22:12] We did a show, the first time we did something that we pretended would be a real art event in the normal sense was something we did with the magazine here in London called Dazed. Dazed is this well-known lifestyle fashion pop music magazine. And our offices are on the Strand. So, they are neighbours, and we know them, and we said, let’s do it kind of low budget or, no budget experiment.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:22:42] We take a lot of art pieces that we produced and place them somewhere and pretend that this is a biennial or something. And that’s in a way what we did. So, along the river between Waterloo Bridge and Tate Modern, we played, I think, 35 objects and one could walk there and look at them through the camera and then in the middle of the lockdown or, rather not complete lockdown, but when you were not allowed to do much, and all institutions were closed. We had thousands of people there looking and playing around. I don’t know if everyone loved it, but you know, there was nothing else. So, it was a good moment. And we had some very well-known artists there, like Olafur Eliasson, the Danish Icelandic artist who many people remember from the Tate, where he did a big, big sun that was probably his most successful show ever. And now the Sun reappeared. But it was an AR object, and it was hovering outside of the Tate, and you could see it on the phone, and you can, of course, take photos of it or even film it and send it to your friends. So, it’s a digital or social media based artform.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:23:52] It’s another way that the audience can experience the thing. The screen of a phone is quite small, but if you take a picture, maybe you can look at that later on your laptop, put it on your TV.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:24:06] And you can involve yourself. So, you know, as with the world of social media as we know often, the same psychological forces that created the kind of the selfie craze can be in place again and you can be in the picture yourself. You can ask your friend to film your underneath Olafur’s AR Sun and then put it on your Instagram account. And that, of course, wouldn’t maybe be experiencing the art. It would be experiencing images of the art, but it has a possibility to reach audiences far outside of the normal art world and totally outside of the structures that I have been working with, like galleries, museums, art fairs, Biennales, all of that. So, in a way, one can talk about this as a kind of popular, or populist possibility. But it’s also, you know, somehow an interesting democratizing possibility that, not only people who live in a major city like London or, Berlin or, New York or where there are fantastic museums can experience this. AR and VR — if this develops the way I think it will, can be anywhere. If you have access to the internet, you can be in these spaces. And it’s still early days, of course. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this develops into a very, very strong alternative to the classical art forms.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:25:42] I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the production process because it sounds a little bit like making film, making video, which can get incredibly expensive and involved. And you know, you need some serious funding if you’re going to keep doing that repeatedly on a large scale.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:26:06] Absolutely. I think the comparison with film and television, all of that is very correct because when people ask me: How do you do things or, artists do this? And the truth is, of course, that some artists, younger artists, I would say, who have grown up with digital devices, who are at home in this in these worlds, maybe have a background in gaming or something like that. They do it themselves. And then there are specialists, and we work with some of these people who are, you know, who would work maybe for the big, big commercial organisations, you know, Warner Brothers, Disney, whatever. But they also want to do things in a more, let’s say, artistic environment. We put together small teams when we do VR works. So, if someone wants to do a very, very shiny surface like Jeff Koons, we have people on the car industry who know how to do very shiny surfaces. And it’s true that it’s, you know, a collective studio thing. On the other hand, if you produce a little pop video, or a film, that’s how it’s done so. Very few people would be capable of doing this alone, and it’s true that it becomes rather expensive to produce a sculptural work in AR is not the same as demanding as to produce a kind of illusion like what we did with Anish Kapoor or, Marina Abramović. But of course, some artists are at home in these worlds, and we are working with some artists who could have done it themselves. But they can do more ambitious projects if they have a whole team helping them.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:27:55] There is a Chinese artist with whom we work, called Cao Fei, well known now. She had shows across the world and she’s at home in the digital world. As far back as twenty years ago, she was experimenting with something that we all forgot about, called Second Life. It was a kind of early virtual reality like project and now she’s doing AR and VR.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:28:23] We have a few other younger artists who are very at home in these things. We even did something with Antony Gormley who is very much in the classical sculpture world, from Rodin to Henry Moore to Anthony Gormley. That’s where I would see him. So, it’s kind of surprising that he would do a virtual reality project. But he did something with us, together with an astrophysicist called Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan, a great scientist working in the US. And we did a kind of journey to the Moon, and Anthony Gormley was very interested in the Moon as a sculptural object. He more or less claimed the Moon as his piece. He was very interested in its texture and the density of that object. And then, of course, they could not have done this and would not have done this had we not offered them the possibility. And so, some people say, is it not a bit strange? But we thought it was very interesting to see what happens to artists (and their work — how both they and their work evolve), who are well known for other things when they get access to visual tools that they wouldn’t normally have.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:29:44] So, what is Acute Art? What is Acute Art doing? Do you suddenly find yourself kind of joining the artist’s studio or, are you a gallery or, are you a museum? I mean, it’s quite difficult to find an analogy in the classical world, isn’t it?

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:30:06] I totally agree. I would say that we’re some sort of studio with curatorial ambitions. We don’t just produce, and then we leave it because we think that we want to do things with artists and then we want to find great artists, not just people who are, convincing us or paying for it or something. It should be an important art and then we try to find places to show it. So, the Ai Weiwei thing with The Guardian would be a typical example. From a more financial point of view — I’m not the CEO. I am the Artistic Director. So, I see it primarily as a curatorial, fantastic possibility, very experimental and an incredible chance to see what happens when a new medium arrives. But it is like a start-up company that people put private money into it. The art world is full of people who are willing to spend a lot of money on buying things and selling things and paintings and sculptures. And we haven’t really developed a financial income model, but we have always thought that if we produce important things with such important artists, they are not worthless. To be totally explicit, we have also worked a little bit with commercial brands just to find ways to make this sustainable in the long run. We did a very beautiful book that had an AR component with Chanel. We did all BMW art cars in AR. And we are now working with Fortnite, the gaming company. And we have produced an interesting thing with the wonderful British artist David Shrigley for a champagne brand called Ruinart. So, just like the art world somehow has to find ways to make some money, not only spend money. We have been looking into these things. We haven’t gone super far in that direction. But I mean, these were strong examples. We are willing to do things if someone else pays for it occasionally.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:32:27] Are you looking into the phenomenon, the NFT phenomenon?

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: Yes. In a way, it’s interesting how much certain tendencies or, processes were speeded up by the pandemic. We believed in the visual possibilities here and in the general development of the world and that this will come and become more and more important and visible. I was always thinking that in the future, with the climate crisis, the art world as I knew it is not a sustainable kind of structure. People flying to another continent to look at art that was also taken there by airplanes and then you fly home. And I mean, now I’m talking about the commercial art world with the big fairs in Hong Kong, Miami, and L.A. They will survive. But that whole world of total globalism seems a bit crazy now. Also, the world of biennials. I was never actually in the commercial art world, but I mean, I was probably one of the worst people in the world when it comes to flying to another continent to install something and then fly back home. I just thought that art world will not survive. Thank God and other parts of society are more important than the art world.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:33:56] But the art world is sometimes, what John Cage called, an early alarm system. But you know things happen there and you can see where we’re going. And in the art world somehow shows the best and the worst of humanity, you know, incredible pathological greed and fetishes, but also full of visionary people thinking of other models and all of that. So, you know, I thought all of this would become very important. And but maybe in a few years and then came the pandemic and we were all locked into our apartments, and no one could do anything. And clearly, things changed, and people became very interested in these things. And part of this development is also that the commercial art world somehow joined in not the normal art world because these were only artists working in the digital sphere. But suddenly there was a possibility to commercialize digital assets. And that’s what you referred to the NFT nonfungible tokens. It’s not an art form. It’s more like a way to secure digital objects and create editions and scarcity in the digital sphere. And some of these things became cult objects and were sold for immense sums.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:35:18] Of course, most of them are not, but you can produce a little an AR component and you can secure it as a unique object with blockchain technology. And it’s yes, an NFT is something that someone can own. We have produced an NFT, but it was never in the marketplace where people could bid. So we’re already looking into this and we are of course, thinking that a lot of the stuff that we have produced at some point, we’ve always said it will be additions and the blockchain technology that I didn’t know so much about but now I’m learning and people in this world have always said that at the moment, you want to create an edition and say there are five of these videos or there are two of these objects you will use that. Then, came the NFT craze, which is still going on and we will see how it develops. But if artists are going to continue doing this, they have to be able to make some sort of money from it. And will explore that more in the future, of course, not only through, associations with brands, but to see if they can enter collections of digital art.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:36:35] Now you mentioned just now collaborating with Fortnite. Tell us about this project.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:36:42] Yeah, so it’s been a bit secret because working with Fortnite is a little bit like working with the Vatican or something. And it’s Brian Donnelly, that is, Kaws who has a relationship to that company. But there’s been a lot of talk about the metaverse. It’s almost like, an alternative universe for some people, but some young people maybe spend more time in Fortnite or, in Minecraft in these different games, than in their schools, unfortunately. But it’s an interesting development. Brian, Kaws was asked to do a more ambitious project and asked if we would be part of it. I asked my friends at the Serpentine Gallery if we could reproduce the entire museum, the whole gallery in a game.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:37:38] So we created a replica of the Serpentine Gallery. And it looks very real. It is open now. And so, people in the gaming world — when they enter the game, they enter something called the hub. At the centre of the game, there is a replica of the Serpentine Gallery. Hyde Park looks very strange, but the building itself looks perfect. And so, you can go into a replica of an exhibition of paintings and sculptures. I have curated a physical show and that physical show has 25 paintings in it. An exact version of that now shows up in Fortnite.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:38:31] 10 years ago, when I was the director of the Venice Biennale, I think we reached half a million of people. I think we will have 20 times that in the first day. So, it’s, an incredibly strange thing that it will be without doubt the best attended exhibition that I’ve ever been involved with. I would say that I think it’s going to be the best attended exhibition ever produced. Maybe someone else would do something even stronger in the future. The numbers are never official. My guess is it’s like 10 million people a day or something. And you know, whatever that means, people are in it as part of their gaming. It’s a nonviolent zone. They cannot shoot and kill each other in the art world. Well, that was our requirement. Well, some of these games, of course, are playful, but they are also very brutal, and people kill each other that there’s no killing in the exhibition.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:39:38] I should hope not! What kind of work is on show in the Serpentine in both worlds?

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:39:47] Many people know Kaws’ work because it’s been so visible through his collaborations with big Brands. He’s also producing quite classical paintings, increasingly abstract. He has produced his own vocabulary of these characters that he has developed. They are, like a mix of everything known from American subculture or comic the world of comics, from Disney to The Simpsons. All of that has been broken down and, atomized them. And now it’s showing up just like shapes, as if you shoot all of pop cultural America through the canvas and the canvases are sometimes totally abstract, and you can only someone who would know what the background of these shapes are. Maybe, you know, get a glimpse of know those characters. So, it’s, you know, twenty-five more or less abstract paintings and the same paintings show up in the game. And then we have added one more layer and that will not be visible in the game. But for people who get into this and find out a little bit about it, they can get access to all the works and a small dollhouse version of the Serpentine on the acute art app, and you can then place those paintings in your living room if it’s big enough. Some of those paintings are big, but you know you can have them hovering in your garden also. So, in a way, it’s a world. Or rather, it’s an exhibition that lives in three worlds a physical exhibition in Hyde Park in one of the better-known art spaces in this country. You know, AR versions of all the pieces that you can have at home, or if you’re a gamer and some people are, a perfect replica in the game.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:41:44] Well, that raises an interesting question. I mean, you mentioned that there are actual physical paintings on show, as well as these additional digital layers. The paintings may well last for tens, possibly hundreds of years, without needing too much restoration work. The digital layers, though, are a different matter. Ok, you to store digital files, maybe now in the cloud and they’ll keep on being backed up. But the devices that you might, consume the digital files through — the headsets, the smartphones and so on. These are changing all the time. So how are you, particularly if you’re creating work that needs to be preserved? That’s a bit of a challenge, isn’t it?

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:42:43] Yeah, I wish you would have mentioned this. No, it is a challenge, of course, and it’s something that I’ve been thinking about. And there are a few different aspects to this question I feel. Some people would say, isn’t it a problem that the technology is so fast that, three years later, the work looks obsolete already, and that can be true. I would admit that some of the things that Acute Art made, before I even joined, and I was just a little bit involved as an advisor. These first works are perhaps already a little bit old, and they could have looked different and there are new possibilities. And at the same time, I don’t think that an Ingmar Bergman movie is bad just because you can see it was produced in the 1950s or, you know, a Russian avant-garde film made in the twenties is very interesting. Or to come closer to the art world, maybe early video work by Joan Jonas or Bruce Nauman I feel a little bit old, but they are beautiful. I’m not sure all the things that we have produced are on that level like Ingmar Bergman or Bruce Nauman, but I would think that some of them are because they are pioneering works with a new medium. And, you know, once or twice in every century, there’s a new medium that changes everything from photography to cinema through video and the television. And here we have a cluster of new possibilities and people are exploring this.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:44:18] And some of these works, I think, will be classics. The other question that you have is something of which is complicated. How should these things be stored? How do we know? I mean, I have an example that just shows how difficult it is in a world that is a little bit older. I think it’s now almost 20 years ago that I was invited to MIT, maybe the most important technical university in the world, to present a little show out of a video collection in the US. I could select whatever work I wanted. In the end, it was a small show with eight pieces or something. And many of the works we could not show, we simply could not find the devices. It wasn’t possible. It’s actually a very famous collection called the Kramlich Collection. The Kramlichs (Pamela and Richard Kramlich) are a very well-known art people. And one could have done it, but it would have been very difficult and expensive. I didn’t want to spend the budget just on trying to find a special device. And they had so many works that we did a beautiful show with the things we could show. But it did show that even with the MIT as a context, it was hard. So, it’s been around for a while that, you know, film video all this stuff not so easy. And now, with the incredibly fast developments in digital technologies, I think this is going to be a big issue.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:45:48] You spent a long time in the art world, both in the sort of more classical end and the more cutting edge, at least from the technological point of view end of it. How do artists who were not warm to the idea of technology, how do they respond to this? Do they think this isn’t a serious enterprise? How would you win them over?

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:46:23] Well, I don’t want to win them over. I think it’s fine that someone is a painter and should be a painter. I wouldn’t ask Constantin Brâncuși to join the NFT world. I think he’s perfect where he is. I don’t think that, you know, every artist should do television or video either, even if those mediums have been around now for half a century or more. And so, you know, we have conversations with artists who are close to these mediums already. But then we did do you a few things with artists who are known for other things like Marina Abramović did a beautiful piece about herself as her theme. You know, an interesting avatar. And Jeff did a kind of perfect, shiny ballerina. And, more shiny and more perfect than anything he could have done in the real world. They all had their reason to kind of explore it. But it could very well be that these artists are very interesting to work with once or twice. But they’re not going to be the defining artists in this world of new mediums.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:47:39] I think someone like Cao Fei, for instance, is more at home in these mediums. We’ve already done two or three works with her, and I think she’s going to continue. And there will be, younger artists who entered this world with the background that makes it feel totally natural for them. So, we’ve been going in different directions and at the same time, it’s been fun to work with artists who are known in other fields just to see what they can do in this medium that they couldn’t have done. So, in a way, we would never just want to reproduce some piece of sculpture or painting in this world, we would see can one do something that could not be painted that could not be an installation that could not be a piece of sculpture? That’s the challenge, and that’s the kind of fun of it. So, I think they all did things that are far beyond what they could have done in their classical mediums. Even, Anish Kapoor, who does these beautiful spaces, suddenly, he did this journey within. He couldn’t have done that as a shiny object or a sculpture. It needed this medium.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:48:51] Yes, you may be witnessing people moving from one medium to the other. You may find some young artists, who started in the digital world and end up in the physical world. It’s a fascinating time.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:49:05] The hybrid possibility or whatever you want to call it or things being, you know, both. I mean, this Fortnite collaboration is an example that there is. And that’s what makes it a bit special. It’s a small, dense show in one of the better-known classical art institutions. And then it’s everywhere and nowhere in the game. That is interesting. I produced a little magazine recently. There’s, you know, the street, Cork Street in Mayfair, where some of the better galleries, also historically very important galleries were located there, the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery. They have a little journal that I was asked to guest edit last year. And they always ask someone to come up with a theme and we placed a few AR works there in the street. That was not like a big blockbuster show at all, but it happened during Frieze. But the object, the physical object, the journal has QR codes that trigger these artworks, so whoever has that little journal has a little exhibition also. It makes me remember strange objects that you know, the founder of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp — he made these objects like miniature museums, and these are almost like, it’s almost like we produce a little version of something like that for the virtual age. You know that people can bring home a little magazine that they can read and, put in their next two books, but it has a secret world built into it. So, it’s a kind of hybrid object, a kind of physical virtual thing. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the more traditional art world, that always finds, they always find a way to make money, that there will be sculptural works that are also virtual, that when you put your camera or your iPad or whatever it is next to it. Something happens and there’s a hidden dimension. We’ve done a few things already. I mean, this magazine has a version. Maybe this is this is the future that the art world will not be virtual or digital. And but it will also not be totally physical. It will maybe be both. So maybe that hybrid world is the future of art.

Neil Koenig, ideaXme: [00:51:36] And that’s how you see it developing over the next five years?

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:51:40] Yes. I think some people will stick to what they do. I’m happy Gerhard Richter is still a painter. Some people love experimenting with new possibilities and why not? I think the whole art world is changing. You don’t have to be a philosopher, or a sociologist or Paul-Michel Foucault to understand that if you lock everyone on this planet into their apartments, you introduce a few new, very spectacular visual possibilities, new mediums, basically for art. And then on top of that, there is a climate crisis that makes you feel bad. You know, if you fly, things will change. Institutions will change. Artistic possibilities will change, our way of communicating with each other. And the art world being just microcosm somehow mirroring the whole the real world, I think, will change too. And there will be museums, and that’s a good thing. But there will also be entirely new kinds of platforms, I think.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:52:48] Daniel Birnbaum, thank you very much.

Daniel Birnbaum, Acute Art: [00:52:51] Thank you.

Interview credit: Neil Koenig.

Neil Koenig ideaXme guest interviewer and ex BBC Producer.
Neil Koenig, former Senior BBC Producer. Current ideaXme guest interviewer.

Video footage of Fortnite game courtesy of Epic Games © Epic Games. Video stills shot by Neil Koenig. Video and stills from Acute Art App. Links: Daniel Birnbaum

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Neil Koenig: @NeilKoenig

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