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Art Institute of Chicago and London’s V&A keep pace with digital creativity in their collecting and curation

Techno-design is go for museum collections

London

The interface between design and technology is becoming an increasingly interesting space for curators and collectors. With an emerging generation of digital design studios exploring new typologies and techniques, some of the eye-catching results were highlighted at Design Miami Basel and the London Design Festival earlier this year. But are museums switched on to the collectable aspects of technology-led designs?

“Museums are becoming increasingly interested, which gives credibility to collecting these designs,” says Steve Sacks, the director of New York- and Seoul-based Bitforms gallery, which specialises in new media art. “The precursor was video art which has been around for 30 to 40 years—a genre that also took quite some time to gain credibility—and there are a lot of big video collectors out there now making the transition to digital works of art.”

Museums are not only purchasing finished pieces: the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London has bought Random International’s interactive work Audience, first conceived in 2008, and Study for a Mirror, 2009, while New York’s Museum of Modern Art has Simon Heijdens’ Lightweeds, 2006, Dunne and Raby’s “Robots”, 2007, and work by John Maeda and Troika, but are also commissioning new work for specific shows. The V&A commissioned Daniel Brown’s interactive wall-panel On Growth and Form, 2009, and Jason Bruge’s Mirror, Mirror, 2009, for its “Decode: Digital Design Sensations” exhibition, which finished in April, while the Art Institute of Chicago has commissioned Shade, 2010, from Heijdens for “Hyperlinks: Architecture and Design” which opens in December (see What’s On p71). After that it will become part of the museum’s collection, which also includes Stefan Sagmeister and Ralph Ammer’s interactive piece Being Not Truthful Always Works Against Me, 2006.

“We are not deterred by a project because it is digitally based,” says Zoe Ryan, the design curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. “When we believe a project to be so inventive and an exceptional example of new thinking and practice it just prompts us to work harder in ensuring good care and maintaining the appropriate equipment and updating when necessary.”

Meanwhile “Decode”, which attracted 95,000 visitors, proved a key moment for the V&A to assess its programming approach. “Although the museum has collected computer-generated work since the 1960s, the “Decode” exhibition and the acquisition of Random International’s work marked the V&A’s embrace of the radical possibilities of new design technologies,” says Louise Shannon, the V&A’s deputy head of contemporary programmes and curator of the “Decode” show. “We’re building the infrastructure to increase our collection of digital work because it reflects what’s going on in contemporary design. But we have to identify which pieces are appropriate and take maintenance into account. This means pursuing an active relationship with the designers and our conservation department and keeping documentation of how the pieces are put together.”

“Some pieces require unique maintenance and storage,” says London gallerist Rabih Hage. “They need special installation and, in this respect, are closer to art installations than three-dimensional objects. But if a client is passionate about a design they will be prepared to have the designer instal the piece in their home, no matter how private they are.”

This is the case with a French collector (who wishes to remain anonymous) who is “very interested in new media art” and has collected designs by Dunne and Raby, Matali Crasset and Nendo. He lives in an industrial building where the work is installed and says “the technology can be maintained [in situ] but of course you need a specialist [to do this]. If new devices replace the older systems, the work can evolve accordingly while representing a specific moment in time in terms of preoccupations and ideas.”

“It’s a very new discipline and a very niche collectors’ market,” says Hage. How niche? “Around 200 passionate collectors,” he estimates. Subhas Kim Kandasamy of London-based Carpenters Workshop Gallery puts the figure higher at “500 serious collectors worldwide”. That figure is likely to grow, however, as museum curators endorse digital work.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Techno-design is go for museum collections'