Born-Digital Art Institutions: TEDxMet

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With New York's Whitney Museum of American Art officially decamped to Lower Manhattan, the encyclopedic Metropolitan Museum of Art is slowly revealing its ambitions for their 8-year lease of the Whitney's former home, the Breuer Building. The Met has labeled this satellite "The Met Breuer" — but what will it be? According to early messaging, the space will house "a new series of exhibitions, performances, artist commissions, residencies, and educational initiatives," relating to contemporary and modern art. 

The museum just announced the space's first program: an affiliate version of the technology, entertainment, design lecture series, TED Talks, called TEDxMet: The In-Between. The subtitle and theme refer to the status of the institution itself; per the promotional text, "no longer the Whitney Museum, and not yet open to the public as The Met Breuer, a building in-between." In keeping, its an interdisciplinary affair, with speakers from the visual arts, theater, and literature.

Though a consistently popular platform for "creative class" topics in digital culture, TED is a frequent whipping post of Twitter media people, and the subject of real critical address by the likes of Simon Denny and Daniel Keller and Benjamin Bratton, all of whom have shed important light on TED's uneasy associations with "Silicon Valley Logic." (The TED Talk is often held as the pseudo-messianic start-up founder platform of choice.)

Enxuto & Love, Art Project 2023

With TEDxMet as the inaugural event, moreover, the artist duo João Enxuto and Erica Love's Art Project 2023 is feeling particularly prescient. This is a video and a performative lecture (originally given at the Whitney on the occasion of the Shared Spaces conference the two co-organized) which foretells the fate of the Breuer Building. In its dystopian tale, due to a financial crisis, the Met can't renew its lease, so Google steps in to purchase the building for its Art Project. Not tech-friendly enough for their use, the building is then razed and a state-of-the-art facsimile is built on the site, the Breuer becoming a database and architectural shell for individuated, on-demand VR experiences of art.

We're not there yet, of course, and I'm not here to critique this program—in fact, I'd be thrilled to hear someone like Dawoud Bey speak in the context. Rather, I'm writing to highlight how TEDxMet reflects a shift that is at issue in my current editorial undertaking, The Born-Digital Art Institution, a Rhizome publication to be published next year by Sternberg Press. (I'll be speaking on the project at MuseumNext in late September in Indianapolis, and in London at the Goethe Institut in October.) 

With the new space, the Met is in many ways following a well-known playbook—if an institution wants to signal its forward-looking perspective and general audience bona fides, and fill a program vacancy without the resources or the time traditionally afforded to primary museum projects, they often look to education programs, performance, residencies, and, perhaps, social practice artworks. 

That the inaugural event is a TEDx event is notable, however, in that it evidences the ongoing transformation of the traditional curator-led art institution (centered on the production of exhibitions) to the more amorphous, admin- and programmer-led art institution, a shift coterminous to institutions thinking through the prism of digital distribution. (Enxuto and Love will be writing about this more in the forthcoming publication.) TEDx is an ideal format for museums looking for options beyond traditional curatorial production, really, in that its production costs can be kept minimal, in that its built for broadcast and circulation, in that it suggests cross-pollination with the sort of bold creativity thought to dwell around San Jose, a bold creativity highly valued by mass culture at the moment (as well as donors, sponsors, executives, etcetera). 

The Breuer won't be razed anytime soon, but it's clear that, following the work being done institution-wide under Chief Digital Officer Sree Sreenivasan, the Met is open to a "digital-first," or perhaps really "digital-culture-first," program. We're all born-digital institutions now.