At this year’s Venice Biennale, Elena Soboleva—jet-setter with an insatiable artistic gaze—took a minute to be still.
The duration of that suspended animation was dictated not by Soboleva’s packed itinerary but by the vision of Vienna-based artist Erwin Wurm. Wurm makes limited resources work to his advantage, by integrating accessible materials into vivid tableau, then coercing participants into a brief moment of stillness for his series, “One Minute Sculptures” — revived for the Biennale’s Austrian pavilion.
Though Soboleva held her pose for the prescribed time, it took only a split second to follow another dictate of the age: capturing the moment on Instagram. Soboleva leads Artist Projects for Artsy, the site that is both encyclopedic in its command of the contemporary art scene and algorithmically precise in its ability to pair collectors and artists. And Soboleva’s social feed is correspondingly all-knowing, hopscotching between Art Basel and Bushwick’s gallery scene, with stopovers in Tokyo, to admire Yayoi Kusama’s take on the cherry blossom, and Marfa, Texas, for that city’s big-sky, big-swagger art scene.
The ability to place a movement in the context of history and theory is why artists, gallerists, and collectors alike trust her. And with the intersection of social sharing and international art destinations, Soboleva believes we’re witnessing the creation of a new ‘experience economy’. “Technology has fundamentally altered how we perceive art and images,” Soboleva says. “A proliferation of imagery has allowed a generation of artists to grow up and break down the divisions between how technology and art interplay.”
The tech world itself has also been busy breaking down divisions, in ways that collectors and the everyday art enthusiast find freeing. For example, blockchain technology—no longer only the province of bitcoin adopters—is being applied to verifying authenticity and enhancing traceability in art-market transactions. And for the homeowner who merely desires the option of displaying high-quality digital art on a screen that complements surrounding works like paintings and prints, Samsung has introduced the Frame, a 4K UHD television thin enough to hang like art. In “art mode,” the device also displays it, from a menu of respected artists whose work graces galleries and museum collections.
To use a tech-world term, Soboleva had momentarily stepped away from the art circuit for some processing. She was speaking from Brussels, the city she considers a second home, after New York. She retreated there after the irresistible convergence of Venice’s Biennale, Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and Sculpture Projects Münster, where large-scale jaw-droppers can promise a thrilling discovery around every corner in the German city.
The three events align only once every 10 years, an art-world comet whose brilliance requires some reflection time, precisely what Soboleva was up to in Brussels, dining nightly on oysters and strolling home under sunsets that these days can come as late as 10 P.M.
One might need the extra illumination to absorb works like Algerian artist Kader Attia’s “Narrative Vibrations,” which consists of pulsing the singing voices of women from the Arabic-speaking world through domed vessels of couscous, then projecting the reverberations via speakers. Or, in Kassel, Irena Haiduk’s installation resurrecting (and elevating to the level of modern “brand”) the Borosana Labor Shoe, a piece of footwear that in Socialist-era Yugoslavia enabled women factory workers to stand for nine hours of hard labor.
There was a time when works like these would have been no more collectible than Soboleva’s view of the Northern Lights. In her view, two seismic events changed all that.
One was the development of the jpeg, expediting and globalizing the viewing of work, compared to the method of sending physical slides via post. The other was the smartphone, whose effects—including Instagram’s democratizing of art-world access —have scarcely had a decade to take hold.
“If you look at that as a reference point,” Soboleva says, “it really shows you the velocity of progress.” She points to the pioneering collection of the Dusseldorf-based collector Julia Stoscheck, who for 15 years has exclusively assembled moving-image work.
“It’s hard to be a significant collector of contemporary art and not include video and new media in your collection,” Soboleva says. “You’d be missing out on a really big chunk of art.”
Such a bent presents challenges. File formats evolve, or go obsolete, a new-media equivalent of a broken kiln. A work that can be transmitted via e-mail attachment or flash drive can have trouble asserting its archival authority.
And the appeal of the ephemeral can’t be denied. As of-the-moment as a Snap or Instagram story, Russian artist Taus Makhacheva was tantalizingly withholding in Venice in her posting of coordinates of an art happening viewable only if one was willing to hire a boat for transport to the Adriatic. There, Makhacheva choreographed performers in a capsized boat, their very invisibility in Venice evocative of the artist’s workman-like background.
“Generally, art has been required to be this entity you can archive and collect and that stands for generations to represent society, so doing something that is in opposition to that can be freeing for the artist,” Soboleva says. “There is something very special in work that is there for a limited time.”
At the other end of the spectrum, she sees innovation in surrounding one’s self with art. New York’s New Museum, for example, has installed Rachel Rossin as a Virtual Reality Fellow, charged with exploring the creative possibility of immersive forms. One of the results is a guided meditation through the world of the first-person shooter game Call of Duty: Black Ops, where a painterly recalibration of pixels has substituted dream logic for bloodlust as the prevailing ethic.
Collectors of video and other new-media works are finally finding allies in the traditional auction-house system, which Soboleva points out is beginning to organize around sales of these formats. She singles out Daata Editions, an art-commissioning platform where limited-edition video, sound, and web-based forms can be acquired as digital downloads, often at prices attractive to novice collectors.
“Their videos don’t require a specific viewing format,” Soboleva says of the service, “so they’re really about bringing great art to everyone, and filling every screen.”
The ubiquity of home screens has been another stride in the march toward greater engagement with multi-media art. Device designers are themselves celebrated as a kind of 21st-century artist. Yves Behar, designer of Samsung’s Frame, contributed not only to the contours of the project but to its artistic integrity as well. For the art-mode setting he added a brightness feature that auto-adjusts to ambient light so that the digital work of artists like Todd Eberle, Luisa Lambri, and Barry McGee would neither dominate nor disappear in the context of a homeowner’s surrounding art.