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“Future” derives from futurus and from fuo, i.e. “I am”: fui,that which will be, that which is to be. I am, therefore, in a temporal space that projects us forward, into an unpredictable future. This unpredictability is what characterises our current existential condition, especially if we look at it from a broader perspective, the last three years between pandemic, post-pandemic, and so on. Not by accident, “future” has been one of the most frequently used terms in recent years. We may ask, what do we mean by future, today? What we want to show here is that today, more than ever, looking at art, and the work of artists, can be fundamental in finding new future directions. But that also means an art must be investigated from a new perspective, one that weaves art together with innovation.

If we look at what the term “future” is related to in our language, we realise that it encompasses terms such as “innovation”, “technology”, “progress” and  “science”. “Invest in scientific and technological progress, in innovation, to boost economic growth”, we often hear — a line that sounds almost like we can take it for granted. It is no coincidence that this line has also been linked to the question of COVID-19, as if to say that its advent has accelerated innovation processes by making technology fundamental to our lives, even more than it had been before. If previously we had fears around artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, the Internet of Things, or data tracking, today these become the weapon to defeat the virus or to pull ourselves out of socio-economic quagmire. If previously we feared them and kept them at bay, today we hold them so close that we can no longer do without them: they are the raw material of our work, of our education, of our social life. These are the data that emerge from the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2020, which monitors Europe’s overall digital performance and tracks the progress of EU countries’ digital competitiveness; the report, compiled by the European Community, will guide the economic investments of the future.

While the report makes no mention of art, it is indeed a key asset today. Art can be not only a site of content for the contemporary art world, but a real engine for scientific innovation and technology. As soon as technologies entered the art world, artists immediately worked with professionals outside of strictly artistic circles: technicians, engineers, creatives etc.: “In parallel to their use of existing tools, artists developed their own in order to enable forms of creation that were not possible before or to achieve independence from corporate distribution models” (C. Paul, J. Toolin, 2014, p. 76). Since the end of the ninseteenth century, the image of the solitary artist locking himself in his studio, caught up in the pathos of creation, was overturned by a more “entrepreneurial” image, which offered collaborations with technicians, engineers, investors, and meant seeking patents and financing. The constant work of experimentation on technological media makes it possible not to take any invention placed on the market as a given, constantly giving new dynamism to the media environment in which we are immersed.

Here, we are not talking science fiction, or about something out of reach. Rather, we are talking about very concrete issues and entrepreneurial approaches which are already in operation. Many companies and research centres are already incorporating artists into their production processes, as for example in the case of many Silicon Valley firms. We are talking about companies such as Adobe with its creative resident programme in which the selected artists are allowed to stay in their usual studios but have to go to the company’s headquarters in San Francisco once every three months, spend a quarter of their time travelling to participate in creative events and — most importantly — have to share their work process. In return, they receive salary and benefits as if they were employees and are supported by mentors in various disciplines: the company’s Planet Labs satellite programme allows artists to receive $1,000 a month and a space in the company’s offices where they have to work at least three days a week for three months, interacting with other employees; Google’s 89Plus project, devised by Simon Castets and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, only invites artists born after 1989; Autodesk invites artists to work for three to six months in its digital manufacturing lab, paying them a salary and the cost of materials needed for their work; Microsoft’s Studio 99 “aims to introduce artistic perspectives, processes, and values into the work of our organisation”.

Many other cases could be mentioned; many other companies that have seen a marketing potential in the artist, free to create. An artist who finds within private companies — that is, in a world completely outside the classical ambits of contemporary art — dynamics very similar to those of museums, art foundations, and galleries. In such cases, the firms take the initiative for artist residencies, prizes for artists, shows, and exhibition venues; they accompany artists on their creative journey, give them materials, involve curators; they open up possibilities for exhibitions, create new synergies and enable new contacts and relationships.

However, this also brings up ethical issues. We cannot leave direct communication with the art world to big companies; the role of the cultural mediator is crucial to ethically preserving the work of artists. We should not demonise these connections; after all, art that experiments with technologies can represent not only an innovative sector for the contemporary art world, but also an engine of innovation for society more generally. One way to navigate the great challenges that humanity will face in the twenty-first century, such as genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, and today, our post-COVID future. This is not to forget that the artist remains an artist; her aim is not to create software or applications, but to create works of her own for museums, galleries, etc.; but by necessity there are cross-contaminations with the world of innovation. To put it briefly, a painter can represent the world alone in her studio, an artist using artificial intelligence must work with technicians, engineers, in companies and research laboratories, she must, in short, encompass a new world, that of innovation.

This is evident when Quayola works with the robotics company Kuga to create his sculptures. Here, the robotic arm is used in a completely new way: not to insert bolts, but to sculpt matter, giving a new interpretation of the technology itself. Or in the use of artificial intelligence by artists such as Lorem, who creates new audiovisual narratives through AI.

The same goes for many other artists who make technology the raw material of creation, like when Federica Di Carlo works with scientists to create works about climate change, or Luca Pozzi’s works with CERN in Geneva. We think of a collective as a chromatic number already in its very interdisciplinary structure, composed of scientists and artists, from experimental aesthetics to neuroaesthetics, from literature to visual communication. We also find the collective in the work of FUSE, who have been exploring and experimenting with technologies for some time. 

Looking at these artists from a new perspective can help us find a new role for art in a hyper-complex world, one that not only makes us reflect on society, but also assists its ethical development.

In all these discourses, however, art is never mentioned. It is generally closed within the world of culture and linked to economic problems: little money for culture, little investment, cultural workers with economic difficulties, and so on.

If we shift our point of view, we see how the issue of COVID has raised a crucial question, indeed one that ought to set artists in a leading role for society and its future. To do this, we need to put artists at the centre of the processes producing technological and scientific innovation. We should note how artists who have used technology have — more indirectly — always given clues, prefigured futures that later happened and stimulated the economic system of innovation itself. On the other hand — this time, more directly — they have invented real visual machines that were later put on the market, or promoted future technologies.

That is why it is crucial that the artist is seen today, beyond the art system, as a driving force for society, for the understanding and production of our future. That is why I think it is crucial that artists play an active role beyond the art world, such as in government task forces, in advisory strategies for innovation. Just as it should also be important that companies, research centres, and universities, can look to art as an opportunity for new research scenarios.

Giving new meaning to the word “future” — that is the challenge. Not only, and not so much, to talk about the future, but rather to give a new meaning to this word, that can offer future generations a true operativity. This is where art comes in, in the sense we are giving it now. This is where I believe a true operativity can begin: the inclusion of artists in innovation projects, and providing, through structural funding, for their participation in projects related to sectors such as innovation, economy and development, education, etc.

Only in this way will art shed its weak image of passive welfare dependence and gain the strength it once had as the driving force of society and guide for a new imaginary.

Let’s think about remote working, previously a distance horizon, today almost the only possibility for work: “Technology is tearing down all those taboos that were present in many of us in different areas, starting with the world of work. How many believed that remote working was difficult to achieve, that it was not suitable for everyone, and that it did not give work depth? Well, today we have proven that it is possible”, explains Carlo Panella, head of direct banking and chief digital operations officer at Illimity.

Bibliographic references

Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), European Community
C. Paul, J. Toolin, “Impulses – Tools”, in The emergence of video processing tools, edited by K. High, S. Miller Hocking, M. Jimenez, Intellect, Bristol-Chicago, 2014 p. 76
C. Biasini Selvaggi, V. Catricalà, Arte e tecnologia del nuovo millennio, Electa, Milan 2020
V. Catricalà, The artist as inventor, Rowman & Littlefield, London 2020
P.D. Keidl, V. Hediger, L. Melamed, A. Somaini, Pandemic media. Preliminary notes toward an inventory, Meson Press, Lüneburg 2020
M. Mancuso, Arte, tecnologia e scienza, Mimesis, Milan 2020
E.G. Rossi, Mind the gap, Postmedia, Milan 2020
D. Quaranta, Media, new media, postmedia, Postmediabook, Milan 2020 (latest version)
V. Tanni, Memestetica, Nero, Rome 2020