The Future/s of Art
A Report by ATOM FUTURES
Art is an important form of cultural currency, and a key area of strategic engagement and activism for future-facing brands and organisations.
From June – August 2021, ATOM FUTURES conducted a live exploration of the physical and digital evolution of the art world. This process included curating and opening The Post Code Exhibition (a physical art exhibition in a residential property in London), creating and putting a non-fungible token (NFT) on digital auction site Open Sea, and conducting a cultural analysis of the ways brands and organisations are innovating through art today. The themes of space, healing, the metaverse and change-making were studied.
This report captures the insights gathered and is intended to help brands understand the landscape ahead. In a future world characterised by multiple crises (a global pandemic, structural inequality, climate change, biodiversity loss, among others), there are ample opportunities for brands to cultivate leadership in cultural engagement and brand activism through the arts.
More Equal Worlds
Closed during the pandemic, the physical art world of traditional art galleries and museums re-opened amidst big questions about a lack of diversity, representation, the return of historical artefacts stolen during the era of colonialism, and sponsorships from the fossil fuel industry.
This impacts how brands engage with the physical art world going forward because of the growing expectation on cultural institutions to self-reflect and help find solutions to problems both within the art industry and in society more broadly. Brands hoping to forge partnerships with cultural institutions have an opportunity to fund innovation for the common good. In March 2021, for example, CHANEL launched a Culture Fund which will see the luxury brand partner with several cultural institutions globally, on projects focussed on increasing representation and advancing ideas beneficial to society. Among them are a partnership with the London Portrait Gallery to bring more visibility to women in portraiture, and a partnership with the Centre Pompidou in Paris that will bring together artists, designers, and scientists to explore ecological solutions for cities and communities.
There is also a role for brands to help democratise the art space by directly driving innovation. As part of BMW Group’s celebration of 50 years of cultural engagement, for example, several of their Art Cars are now available to see digitally via Acute Art’s augmented reality app. Taking art outside of traditional spaces allows for more diverse audiences to interact with iconic creations like Esther Mahlangu’s art car, a BMW 525i covered in Ndebele house painting designs which were symbols of resistance during colonialism and apartheid in South Africa.
What should brands consider?
Define your role in bringing about a more equal art world and society. Establish partnerships and collaborations with cultural institutions that focus on innovation and finding solutions to global issues such as structural inequality. Follow the digital evolution of the arts as it offers new avenues to engage with more diverse audiences.
Connecting to the Metaverse through Gaming
Gaming is an evolving space of creation and curation influenced by, and influencing, arts and culture. It captures the imaginations of nearly three billion people on our planet. It is also a key entry point into the metaverse, a place of emerging digital realities and virtual spaces where future-facing brands and organisations are already expanding their presence and connecting with people.
One of the main appeals of gaming is a player’s ability to ‘live through’ an avatar or character, in other words a digital version of ‘themselves’. Like in the real world, people take the time to create and self-express visual identities in these alternate universes. Brands such as Louis Vuitton recognised this early on, partnering with Riot Games’ League of Legends to create in-game skins and a capsule collection in real life in 2019. It was a pivotal moment that demonstrated how virtual and real-life choices and behaviours can influence each other.
In May this year, Gucci explored this interplay with its virtual exhibit, “Gucci Gardens”, which gave Roblox members an immersive experience coupled with the chance to purchase in-game, Gucci-designed digital items for their avatars. One of the items, a virtual handbag, sold for more than the physical bag it was modelled on. This may be an indication of a broader shift in how digital items are being valued, and further confirmation that gaming holds immense potential for brands to connect with younger audiences.
With this potential also comes an opportunity to positively influence societal behaviours and actions outside of gaming worlds. In July, supermarket chain Carrefour announced its new presence in the metaverse; an in-game, “Healthy Map” in the popular game Fortnite, where players can recharge and gain energy by eating fruit, vegetables and fish. The environmentally and animal-welfare conscious virtual supermarket was designed as part of their “Act for Food” campaign, which promotes healthy eating and sustainability in the physical world.
What should brands consider?
Think beyond in-game ads and sponsorships; the gaming world offers limitless creative possibilities for brands to support individual self-expression and become part of a game’s ecosystem.
Influencing behaviours in the gaming world has already proven to have real-life consequences, meaning that gaming is fertile ground for building activist movements online and offline. Future-facing brands and organisations should consider creating and expanding activism campaigns into these realms.
Collective Healing Through Art
In the early stages of the pandemic, many brands took notable and concerted steps to support global and national efforts to protect people. Acts ranging from producing PPE equipment to supporting frontline workers and charities with donations showed the extent to which brands were a key player in the response phase. As we enter the pandemic recovery period in some parts of the world, and face other global issues of concern, there remains an essential role for brands to continue contributing towards our collective healing, including through the arts.
Across cultures, art has long been a tool for individual and collective healing. It can prompt difficult conversations about trauma and induce self-reflection about our identities, helping to pave the way forward for community-building and restoration. In the face of the pandemic, artists took on the part of healer, with works such as “The Breathing Pavilion”, a public art installation in Brooklyn by artist Ekene Ijeoma, which this spring offered a meditative space for introspection during a time of grief and hardship. When Londoners could start moving around the city again in April, they were met with artist Morag Myerscough’s outdoor installation, intended to uplift and encourage gratitude for the small things after a long time in isolation.
Brands can play a similar healing role through the arts. To mark World Health Day in April this year, for example, Google and several partners, including the World Health Organisation, launched the Arts+ Health & Wellbeing online experience for the public, described as a toolkit of art and culture for your health. Activities including viewing artworks up close, virtually ‘walking through’ museums from across the globe and learning about different art forms give users the chance to discover, play and heal in immersive environments.
What should brands consider?
Future-facing brands are increasingly expected to play an important role in collective healing processes, and the arts are a powerful tool through which to encourage public dialogue about the visible and hidden moods of the world. Explore collaborations with artists and institutions who can tap into these currents of thinking and feeling, and create public healing spaces and experiences.
Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)
NFTs offer future-facing brands and organisations an exciting space in which to engage with and shift cultural discourse in the age of Web 3.0.
An NFT is a unique digital asset of value that is created and stored using blockchain technology and has verified ownership. Almost anything can be turned into an NFT and auctioned for cryptocurrency; a piece of digital art, a tweet, a physical letter, even a fragrance. Celebrity proponents like Paris Hilton and Grimes, and the success of NFT artists like Beeple, whose NFT collection sold at Christie’s for USD 69 million in March, have fuelled much interest and innovation in this space, with many people and brands now experimenting with NFTs.
One noteworthy area of expansion is in the fashion industry. With the success of designer digital clothing in gaming worlds, NFTs are a logical next step for luxury brands wishing to expand beyond in-game experiences and reach other audiences in the growing metaverse interested in 3D clothing. In July 2021, for example, Dolce & Gabbana announced the launch of its debut luxury NFT collection. It will be showcased at upcoming fashion shows, giving its traditional base both a physical and digital experience of their creations for the first time.
Beyond creating and selling NFTs, there is a real opportunity for brands to engage with the discourse happening within the NFT community. There are important conversations taking place, including about making a digital art world that is more inclusive and democratic than its physical counterpart. For example, concerns about underrepresented artist groups have spurred on activists like 17-year-old Diana Sinclair, who in June 2021 launched a physical and NFT exhibition entitled, “The Digital Diaspora”, which celebrated the work of black NFT artists. Sustainability is another key topic of discussion; NFTs’ association with blockchain and cryptocurrencies open them up to the same concerns about the huge amounts of electricity used to operate the technology. These concerns will define the evolution of the NFT space, meaning brands have the chance to co-create a culture of sustainability and equality.
What should brands consider?
NFTs remain a dynamic digital space in which brands and organisations can experiment with the new frontiers of creativity. Many brands are already there, creating and curating NFT collectibles to engage new and traditional audiences. As the metaverse grows, NFTs will also play a central role in the ownership and exchange of digital assets.
Support efforts that make sure the digital art world does not inherit the problems faced by the physical art world, such as underrepresentation of artists from marginalised groups. Find ways to support initiatives to bring about sustainable blockchain technologies.
Change-making and Art
Art provides future-facing brands with a versatile and powerful medium through which to articulate their commitments to solving global challenges.
Brand-artist collaborations, for instance, can be an effective way to bring attention to, and prompt conversations about issues like climate change. In July, toy maker Mattel, in collaboration with artist and activist Shepard Fairey, launched an environmentally themed, fully recyclable UNO deck. Not only was this move in line with Mattel’s own environmental commitments, but it also took the issue of sustainability into people’s homes and into the minds of families.
Brands can also be agents of change when they introduce new ideas of artistic expression and representation. Since its inception, for example, Rihanna’s lingerie brand Savage x Fenty has consistently defied dominant and outdated portrayals of beauty by celebrating diverse bodies through powerful, artistic visuals. Protagonists with bodies of all shapes, genders and ethnicities characterise the brand’s image and show the world as it really is; beautiful in its variety, and for everybody. Its latest campaign, a short film released in July featuring a black women’s biker group from New Orleans called the Caramel Curves, again demonstrates how sexiness and power are not limited to one definition and are expressed and enjoyed in more ways than one.
What should brands consider?
Brands will be expected to be agents of positive change in the future, going beyond fulfilling inward-facing company commitments, for example on sustainability, and adopting an outward-facing activist stance and voice.
Art is one of the most powerful tools in an activist’s toolbox; as brands develop their activism strategies, they should explore collaborations with artists and activists from diverse backgrounds whose creations trigger conversations around critical societal issues.
Innovative brands and organisations are already playing a role in shaping the evolution of the digital and physical art world, demonstrating the many different avenues available to engage new and traditional audiences through arts and culture. The many future/s of art also provide new and exciting ways for brands to cultivate leadership in activism and bring about changes for the common good.