Underneath the curvy, swirling white roof of Zaha Hadid’s futuristic new building, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, the voices of a future generation were heard as the Serpentine Gallery hosted their eighth Marathon session. This year’s theme was 89plus, and for two days, emerging practitioners born in, or after, 1989 were brought together with influential thinkers of other generations.
The founders of the 89plus project, Hans Ulrich Obrist (Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine gallery) and Simon Castets (Director of the Swiss Institute/Contemporary Art, New York) selected the year 1989 for particular reasons. In that year, the Berlin wall collapsed, marking a new era of the post-Cold War period and the introduction of the World Wide Web, which saw the beginning of the universal availability of the Internet. The idea behind the Marathon, though, was not to organize an ‘Idols for Artists’. The organisers were not seeking to forecast artistic trends or predict future creations; rather, they wanted to bring together individuals from a generation whose voice is only starting to be heard.
During the summer of this year, at the Manchester International Festival, Obrist curated the ‘do it 20 13’ exhibition which included an Homage Room, as he explains. “We conceived a room that featured living artists’ reactions to instructions originally created by artists that are no longer with us. For example, Tracey Emin did an homage to Louise Bourgeois, Wade Guyton to Richard Hamilton, Tino Sehgal to Felix Gonzalez Torres and Olafur Eliasson to Francesca Varela”.
In Obrist’s view curating is as much about the future as it is about the past. He quotes the German art historian, Erwin Panofsky, who once said: “If you want to build the future you very often build the future out of fragments from the past”.
“I am also interested in the idea of how to curate the future, in a very different way than ‘do it’, more in a generational way,” he continues. “What fascinates me is that this truly the moment where a completely new generation emerges, i.e. those born in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They are the first generation to grow up with the Internet. About three years ago, whilst Simon Castets and I were both in Yokohama, we had a discussion about the fact that we were not familiar with many artists, designers, or composers of the generation who are now 23, 24 years old, or even younger. In the intervening period, as it continued to arouse our interest we started to systematically map out the arrival of this new generation”.
I asked Castets if they made a list of criteria for which 89plus voices would be included in the Marathon. “89plus is fuelled by an ongoing open call for submissions to 89plus.com, where we maintain a private database of work by innovators from all fields. When selecting participants for the Marathon, there was no specific ‘criteria’ per se. Instead, we were interested in bringing together some of the most exciting 89plus innovators and creative practitioners from all different fields – art, music, design, technology, literature, science, mathematics – with international experts who are major influences for this generation”.
I attended the second half of the Saturday afternoon Program. This included readings by a new generation of poets of their work, an interview with a teenage ‘tech’ entrepreneur and presentations on the Internet and digital technology – turning the Marathon into a mini ‘Wired’ magazine conference.
In 2009, the Serpentine organised a Poetry Marathon but, then, none of the speakers narrated their text by reading from their mobile phones, as they scrolled through the ‘pages’.
Some of the poems’ content was confrontational, including some profane language, but provocative. The public’s favourites – including mine – were Crispin Best (who once wrote a poem called “Dick”, that goes: “My dick is so big, it looks like a close-up of a dick”) and Rachael Allen. Best’s delivery was vivid as he read out his witty poems. Allen stood out with her heartfelt poems, her incredible diction, as she delivered the densely written paragraphs, and a dazzling cadence of sentences.
The poetry block was followed by an onstage interview between Castets and Nick D’Aloisio, a 17 year old ‘tech’ entrepreneur, who first came to the fore with his iPhone app ‘Facemood’. The app predicts the mood of a user, on the basis of their Facebook status update. Previously, no one had looked at Facebook in a context of sentiment and mood, so it was an unique app. It gained D’Aloisio recognition from Apple and they featured the app as a stock favourite on their curated list. Castets asked at what age he developed the app, suggesting twelve. D’Aloisio answered: “no, that was when I was bit older, about fifteen”.
The interview was short and sweet – just like D’Aloisio’s most renowned app, ‘Summly’, which he also developed when he was fifteen. The vision behind the app was “to simplify the way we receive information”. D’Aloisio explained: “Most young people consume content merely via their phone, but the ‘real estate’ makes it difficult to traverse through text containing huge amounts of information. People prefer to consume their news in concise, short, and easy digestible chunks. The application I developed took long form content and, algorithmically, condensed it into a short paragraph”. This time, D’Aloisio received the attention from Yahoo, who acquired Summly in 2013.
D’Aloisio is interested in the immediacy of information and, when asked about the future plans for Summly, he revealed he would like to bring a visual element to the content. “Consider a news article, or a piece of text: most articles are one dimensional, merely textual; others are two-dimensional, as they contain some images; some may be 3D, but not many. I’m thinking why can’t they be end dimensional? Why can’t you have 10/ 15 different ways of telling a story in a different context? I like this idea of seeing each one of those dimensions at a summary, in effect as it’s a short consumable piece that lends itself to a phone”.
Castets wanted to know D’Aloisio’s thoughts about the fact that screens are becoming smaller and smaller and whether it will affect the way in which we consume information? “The next step is a wearable computer, similar to a watch on your wrist or Google glasses. As the screen information will be adjacent to your eyes, it means that the content we can see has to become more and more concise due to the format of the screen’s ‘real estate’ and an [individual’s] attention span”.
Another talk that grabbed my attention was that of Leng Lee’s presentation on Codecademy, an online interactive platform offering free coding classes. Lee started with an rapid-fire question: “What will the world look like if we have a generation who can all code?” Lee commented that “the current coders are mostly men, ‘nerds’, who write programs that mostly appeal to them. Lots of apps and technologies are still supply driven. That can change if more people learn how to program”.
By 2050, Lee predicted, that the future coders will be kids and more women who can develop technology that is custom made to their needs. “That diversity of talent will change what tech we have and ultimately the world in which we live,” Lee attested. “Imagine disabled people who can code and create technologies that are more suitable for their requirements. Most technology is created by people living in the Western Society, focussing on their needs which does not, necessarily, meet peoples’ needs in the Third World. Imagine people living in the Third World who can code themselves, catering to their own needs.” Another insightful presentation that offered a glimpse into future.
As I was unable to attend the entire Programmes’ sessions, I ask Castets if he sees any common denominators in this new generation, and whether collectively they have a specific outlook on life? “89plus is conceived as a long-term project that will span 20-30 years, and as such, it is still very much in its infancy. It is too soon to make statements about this generation’s outlook on life, although we are beginning to see patterns emerge, which is very exciting. One of those patterns is the influence of poetry, whose importance has been transformed by the digital revolution. Following the success of the poetry participations in the Marathon, we are planning the inaugural 89plus exhibition, that will focus on poetry”.
The only remark I could make about the Presentations I attended was that I found them quite traditional, as most were given in the form of a PowerPoint show. I expected this 89plus generation to showcase innovative and dynamic ideas, delivering their stories in a more visually engaging and entertaining manner for the audience’s experience.
Of course, the stories are about the content and some of the topics that the 89plus Marathon wanted to explore, including “how new technologies can lead to a global dialogue that will engender difference rather than homogeneity” and “how the Internet has enabled new forms of political protest and activism”.
Thus, despite my remark above, I would rate the 89plus Marathon an A+.
Written by Thierry Somers, Image: Serpentine Sackler Gallery © 2013 Luke Hayes
A visual spectacle could be found at the inaugural exhibitition of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery with ‘Today We Reboot The Planet’ by Adrián Villar Rojas. Orginally, the building was a gunpowder store built in 1805, with two central vaulted spaces, the Powder Rooms. Bricks overlaid on the gallery’s stone floor were not cemented in place, which caused a scraping sound to be heard as you walked around the space. In one of the rooms, the Argentinian artist transformed the detritus of life, capturing them in earthy material, such as clay, concrete, wood and steel. Fantastical and, simultaneously, disconcerting as though you were visiting the earth two hundred years later to see the archealogical remnants of a world that was destroyed.