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You are now reading the fourth part of a more extended series of updates (‘book’) about abundance and how our cultures’ legacy can shape a better tomorrow. If you’re new to this newsletter or missed an earlier update, here’s the index:
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The fault lines where new models of culture prosper do not exist exclusively in places of physical conflict. In fact, probably the most obvious place where globalization, urbanization, and digitization challenge old models of cultures exists in the opposite of the physical space: the digital.
As a word of caution and maybe a disclaimer, so much has been written and said about digital culture — by thinkers and doers much more knowledgeable than me — that whatever I write here will fall short. I entered the world of culture through a digital door and have had the honor to work with the world’s foremost experts and learn from the field’s brightest minds. Whatever I did and do stands in their shadow.
At the same time, I’ve often been skeptical of the potential of digitization for the organization of culture. And vice versa. There is a considerable gap between a handful of museums, theatres, and libraries that have fully embraced digital and a large majority of organizations that are still figuring out how to approach a digital audience. Some have made digital part of their DNA — ‘a dimension of everything’ as the iconic Tate strategy from a decade ago read — while others conveniently delegated it to the basement. Or worse: to advertising agencies.
At the moment of writing, we’re a year into a pandemic that sent societies around the world into lockdown. Weeks in, a considerable number of organizations still hadn’t figured out remote working. Months in, very few had even a modicum of presence in a now almost fully digital world. I’m not complaining. I’ve been part of the industry, and clearly, all the public speaking and blogging wasn’t enough.
I’m doubtful that organized culture will ever step up its digital gung-ho en masse. And I’m unsure it should.
For example, cinemas. Sure, absolutely, streaming services such as Netflix have changed the playing field. But so did television. Netflix has transformed visual story culture and created a new type of storytelling that is quite popular. All streaming services combined have in the order of a billion subscribers. Pre-Covid, however, US movie theatres alone sold over a billion tickets. In Europe, 2019 was the cinema’s best year since 2004. Cinemas and Netflix can exist alongside each other, each addressing a specific cultural need. Netflix can invest its billions in digitization while cinemas focus on community connections and ambiance and whatever makes them a valid cultural destination.
Anyway, I mean that digitization has created new models for culture that complement but do not necessarily replace old models for culture.
There is a global franchise of museums that are worth hundreds of millions of euros. Its collection inspires, engages, and activates millennials of all ages and younger generations. When I go on Instagram and start typing #museum… theirs is the first name suggested to me. Its exhibitions and concepts have been copied endlessly. They can charge over 50 dollars for a ticket. Do you know what museum I’m talking about?
This museum, of course, is the Museum of Ice Cream. This ur selfie museum currently operates in New York City and Singapore. They understand digital culture like no one else—the obsession with likes, the memes.
I’ve started many a presentation with an ode to the Museum of Ice Cream and then asked, “What’s not to like about this?” It doesn’t take people long to answer: this is not a museum, this is not culture, it is not art. Then, we talk about the why. The responses I’ve heard in a dozen different countries are beautifully summarised by Douglas Rushkoff in his book Team Human:
“Prohuman art and culture question the value of pat narratives. They produce open-ended stories, without clear victors or well-defined conflicts. Everyone is right; everyone is wrong. The works don’t answer questions; they raise them.”
The Museum of Ice Cream is entertainment — and good entertainment by the looks of it. It is not culture. It reflects but does not reflect upon the values, ideas, and practices of people.
At the first cultural conference I ever attended, Gillian Moore of the Southbank Centre spoke about her experiences in making classical music appealing to younger audiences. I had discovered classical music only recently. In Madrid, I had been going to a private jazz club where musicians regularly reinterpreted classical compositions. They taught me that music that has survived the test of time can be lively and current. Maybe, it survived the test of time because it can be reinterpreted endlessly. The music is not finished; it’s an invitation.
Moore’s story that day explained that to me. In my memory, she told us about how typically, to make classical music relevant to new audiences, we dumb it down. Concert halls program a pop group with an orchestra as a backdrop to make the music as accessible as possible. Instead, Moore urged us to stay true to the music, the composition, the art, and emphasize its open-mindedness, its participatory nature. She showed projects with artists such as Squarepusher that insisted on the currentness of the orchestra and the dynamics of classical music. Much like jazz did for me but on a much grander stage.
When done well, digital culture asks open questions. When done poorly, commercially, it creates echo chambers, bubbles, narrow-minded narratives. At best, the expressions of this culture are predictable, aimed at pleasing an algorithm rather than broadening the world for generations to come. It has become a cliche to talk about the Rijksstudio. They saw this super clearly back when Facebook still held a promise. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you know all this already.
Rijksstudio invites, through its platform, award, and example, a new generation of creatives to reimagine Dutch masters. Much like musical scores reinterpreted with every new generation, it has turned old art into new ideas. Rijksstudio is not a digital idea — it’s a beautiful idea enlarged by digital media.
The next stage for this is when cultural organizations associate even closer with future makers. Already, cultural artifacts and stories turn up in AAA games, and concerts are played in virtual worlds, but it’s all still relatively passive. Once the collective cultural heritage and artistic expressions of the world are made available digitally to any and every human challenge worldwide, creatives can truly show the power of culture.
The digital fault lines for culture are drawn where a dynamic, fast-paced, connected culture meets thoughtful, place-bound human organizations. What tends to happen at this fault line is that the organization tries to accelerate, cutting loose whatever is holding it back. That is not a bad practice per se. The digital world clearly shows what is holding us back: outdated power structures, narrowly educated experts, a desire to please peers and the press. Unfortunately, the cuts are often placed wrongly. Instead of copyright, careful consideration is ditched or comms silences the archivists; the media team only focuses on what gets the clicks.
I love it when a cultural organization dares to go against what online gurus claim is smart. When they dare to put expertise front and center at the expense of broad accessibility — NAC’s Explore The Symphony —, when they embark on long-term, highly ambitious projects in lieu of quick memes — Operation War Diary comes to mind —, or when they do something altogether different, not to please an existing audience, but to push forward values, ideas or practices that may inspire the future.
Thanks, as always, for reading, replying, forwarding, subscribing, etcetera. I highly appreciate the feedback you’re giving on this work. Thanks a lot.
This week has been crazy. On Friday, we tried out an art project that I developed together with and inspired by Merlijn Twaalfhoven. It was the cumulation of three months of work on top of everything else. I cannot wait to tell you more about it. For now, it mostly gave us a loooooong list of small and more significant things to improve. Also, lots of other things. As always, I will try to write about that soon, as soon as possible, soonish. Until then, stay safe, take care, see you next week!