Short Circuit

The art world’s connection problem at Silicon Valley Contemporary


In my continuing Philip-Marlowe-with-a-laptop quest to track the convergence of the art market and the tech sector, I spent part of this past Sunday reading through recaps of the inaugural Silicon Valley Contemporary art fair. I found the most informative to be this one from Andrew Goldstein of Artspace. Although his thesis question is whether SVC could become the next Art Basel, my takeaway from Goldstein’s summary was that gallerists participating in the festivities treated the fair as more of a fact-finding mission than the traditional industry convention that established entities like Basel tend to be. I got a similar sense from a few of the other reports I read, and Goldstein agreed with my thinking when I asked him about it on Twitter.

I’ve written about the friction between the art world and Silicon Valley before, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that the prevailing dynamic at the fair was one of cautious exploration. However, what did surprise me was how readily people were willing to admit it. In quote after quote, gallerists and dealers at the fair seemed to regard tech collectors in much the same way that human characters in sci-fi movies regard aliens after first contact: They come from somewhere else. They’re not like us. And we don’t know what they want yet. For a visual aid, picture the scene in which an unsettled Elliott tries to lure E.T. into his room with a trail of Reese’s Pieces, except insert Doug Chrismas from ACE laying out a series of Peter Alexanders to see if the techies will follow the bait back to Beverly Hills.

There’s a serious point underpinning that ridiculous image: Gallerists acknowledged the reality of a cultural divide at SVC, but mostly decided that it could be bridged if they simply offered the right type of work. This seems to have led to two predominant strategies. The first hinged on the core premise that tech collectors might want to escape from the digital realm into something more grounded (or more transcendent) — hence ACE’s mini-exhibition of classic Light & Space sculptures and Mark Borghi Fine Art’s traditional blue chip paintings booth.

The second strategy revolved around the idea that the way to connect with tech collectors was through tech itself — hence a locust swarm of new media and post-Internet art, ranging from Rob and Nick Carter’s digital still lifes at the Fine Art Society to street artist Katsu’s paintings made via drone at The Hole to Mark Flood’s distorted depictions of video gaming and computing logos at UNTITLED.

Rob and Nick Carter, still from Transforming Nude Painting (2013).

Still, I’m left wondering if most of the galleries at SVC were trying to decode this commercial cipher based on the noise rather than the signal. Goldstein quotes gallerist Claudia Altman-Siegel as saying, “I understand that there’s this whole myth of the tech collector. But I never let collectors decide what I do, and anyway I think people try to separate art from their profession—for instance, in New York everyone works in finance, but it’s not like everyone wants to have pictures of money on their walls.”

I’m always wary of making blanket statements, but having read a fair amount from and about tech entrepreneurs, my impression is that Altman-Siegel’s words meaningfully underestimate the degree to which their work and their world view are laced together — and that as a result, gallerists may be stopping short of what could be the true skeleton key to the tech sector’s overflowing vaults.

Tech entrepreneurs tend to see their ideas and innovations as much more than products. Whether an app, a device, or something else entirely, they generally regard their brainchildren as crucial steps in mankind’s evolution. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg declared in the opening paragraph of his letter to potential shareholders during the Facebook IPO that the platform was “not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.” Regarding everyone’s favorite of-the-moment tech topic, Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen recently wrote in a New York Times op ed that “Far from a mere libertarian fairy tale or a simple Silicon Valley exercise in hype, Bitcoin offers a sweeping vista of opportunity to reimagine how the financial system can and should work in the Internet era.”

Crucially, one of the underpinnings of Andreessen’s argument is that crypto-currencies like Bitcoin eliminate the need for transactional middlemen and allow the participants in any deal to fully trust one another. A hedge fund manager’s daily business may color his perspective on tax rates or the percentage of earnings his ex-wives should be awarded in the absence of a prenup, but that’s a far cry from the lofty work-life implications thundering out of Silicon Valley these days.

In previous generations, successful people in traditional industries often began collecting because they saw fine art as an oasis of substance and meaning in an existence that could frequently feel crass and hollow. They wanted to get away from their work, because it was only work. This generation has also seen the rise of the group I’ve previously dubbed COINs (Collectors Only In Name), who view art as no more than a game show lever they can pull to make quick cash spray out of a fire hose, provided their timing is right. Art is a part of their world view only insofar as it creates another means to a financial end. They could not care less what the art is, who creates it, or how the industry selling it behaves as long as their speculation inside the sector continues to pay off.

Doug Aitken, Vulnerable (2008).

Tech entrepreneurs may indeed be a third category — one whose evangelical views on their profession could make them wary about collecting not because of the type of work being offered, but because of how the business of the art world is done. As I’ve written before, the art market thrives on the asymmetry of information. Gallerists and dealers perpetually know more than their clients, and to protect that information many would be willing to eat another human’s face like bath salts users. Meanwhile “information wants to be free” is one of the battle hymns of the tech republic. Silicon Valley’s rabid pursuit of openness transcends their business; it is the skeletal system that structures the entire rest of their lives.

With those diametrically opposed attitudes, it’s hardly a third act plot twist that these two industries were uncertain of one another at SVC. Goldstein implied later in our Twitter exchange that the data sleuthing at the fair went beyond gallerists to include dealers, advisers, curators, and journalists — essentially everyone with a role to play in the art world. All of them were trying to dig up information on tech collectors’ tastes and habits, yet he characterized the actual amount of information available as “scant.” That’s totally characteristic of the art world, but much less so for the kings and queens of Silicon Valley. Then again, when in Rome…

All of this returns us to the point I teased earlier. Since information and openness are the foundation of the tech sector, I wonder if the strongest, most effective mousetrap a gallery could set would be to adopt a policy of radical transparency about their business — or at least to make some overtures in that direction. Don’t try to speak to tech collectors through the work; try instead to speak through operations, through ethos, through actions.

For instance, KM Fine Arts was the only SVC booth set up to accept Bitcoin as a form of payment. While it doesn’t make the business any more transparent, it at least strikes me as a more consequential attempt to connect with the culture and beliefs of Silicon Valley than, say, UNTITLED’s inclusion of a Brad Troemel mixed media piece containing actual Bitcoins.

However, with so much of the current art market built on treating data itself as proprietary, I can’t envision any major gallerists shredding their tires in a breakneck U-turn to open their books. That may present a huge opportunity for anyone willing to accept the first-mover risk… or it may only mean that the inevitable union between the art world and the tech sector will continue to proceed through the awkward series of teenage gropes on display at SVC rather than the passionate seduction of experienced adults.