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“The art world is becoming more transparent and democratic”

In 2020, Merel van Helsdingen founded a museum where science, technology and art come together, home of new media art. A place completely dedicated to the art of the future, far away from the traditional white cubes. “Where it feels like you have ended up in a 3D world without wearing virtual reality glasses, where you are in the middle of the art.”
Rahi Rezvani

Text & production Bart-Jan Brouwer | Photography: Rahi Rezvani | Make-up & hair: Chantal van 't Hoff

This interview is part 2 of the triptych: “Pathmakers”. Three young entrepreneurs look through the darkness of the current era to the future in their industry. In this triptych, museum director Merel van Helsdingen shines a light on the art of the future, while GO Sharing CEO Raymon Pouwels and GoSpooky founder Tim van der Wiel (both Forbes 30 Under 30) discuss the development of mobility and social media respectively. , advertising and social tech. “There has never been a better time to have a good idea.” 

What is your history with art?

“Art has always been a hobby of mine. I studied Media & Culture with a focus on film and new media. I then did a Business Masters in London and moved into digital marketing and tech. But I have always retained an interest in film and media. When I lived in London and Paris, I often went to an exhibition. It was a great inspiration The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, with a gigantic screen, mirrors all over the ceiling and a kind of mist underneath that gave off a soft yellow glow. Sound, image and light made me completely absorbed in that work of art. I thought that was so special. Since then I have started pursuing installation art with digital technology.”

How did you come up with the idea to open a revolutionary museum?

“After a seven-year career in London at Apple, advertising agency BBH and tech startup Crowdmix, I returned to the Netherlands. There I spent two years at PVH working on e-commerce strategy for fashion brands Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. I increasingly felt the itch to become an entrepreneur myself and set up a museum around art and technology. This art form was on the rise, but there was often too little room for it in the traditional museum world. That is why this movement moved very much towards festivals. During the period that I worked for PVH, I worked on a business plan in the evenings, did research and talked to people. When it was clear in my mind what it should be, I quit my job. You also have to dare to take risks and just go. Raising financing, approaching artists, determining budgets, starting construction. We opened on August 29, 2020.”

You talk about 'we', because you don't do it alone.

“That's right, I really have an amazing team and Natasha Greenhalgh is my business partner. She trained as an architect at the Chelsea Art School in London, but made her mark in the commercial world of shop design. She thinks in terms of customer journey and you can see that in the museum.”

What goals have you stated?

“The most important thing was that we had a dedicated home wanted to create specifically for the art of the future, far away from the traditional white cubes. Artists who create virtual worlds or video games need a very different infrastructure to showcase their work. A place where it feels like you have ended up in a 3D world without wearing virtual reality glasses, where you are in the middle of the art: that is what we wanted to achieve. And why? Because we strongly believe in researching, exhibiting and questioning topics about the future, to make people think about the times we live in now and where we are going. Art is often activist and very innovative, art raises questions that other industries remain far away from.”

You opened during the corona crisis. Do you notice that artists express themselves differently in such a time?

"Absolute. Like everyone else, digital artists were also at home. There has almost been an explosion of dream worlds and digital identities, as a reflection on that negative period. You can't go outside, so you create another world that you can visit. Shortly after the First World War, when influenza was prevalent, you saw the emergence of surrealist art. What is also striking is that there is more self-taught are artists, makers who have taught themselves how to make digital art. Of course, it helped that a revenue model emerged outside the gallery world: digital artists could sell their work online as NFT.”

How has that NFT art developed?

“On the one hand you have the collectibles or PFPs (profile pictures, ed.), the Bored Apes and CryptoPunks. There was a lot of money involved, there was enormous speculation and fraud in the world of collectibles in 2021 and early 2022. On the other hand, you have digital artists who use the technology of NFT to influence the artwork. Harm van den Dorpel, for example, stipulates in a smart contract that a work of art, once it has been sold, can mutate a number of times a year. Such fine art pieces I find relevant. NFT technology is also sometimes used for the (re)sale of physical works of art. In this way, ownership, price and specifications of the work are recorded in the blockchain - a kind of certificate of authenticity - and there is clarity regarding the right to royalties. The art world has always been in the hands of an elitist group: a handful of galleries, auction houses and institutions determined what art is, its value and which artist would create it. Ultimately, I hope that NFT technology will make the art world more transparent and democratic.”

The art of the future does not hang on a nail, but can be seen in the metaverse.

“The advantage of metaverses is that what you build there has no boundaries. There is no gravity, no storm, no rain: your infrastructure won't fall over and you won't be stuck with 'so high and so wide'. Metaverses offer infinite possibilities to express a vision, you can create entire dream worlds there – it's limitless. It's very interesting to see what kind of art is created in the metaverses. Artist WEBB has created a metaverse with thirty different creators - called Chain City, whose residents include CryptoPunks, Bored Apes and Goblins -, which also criticizes the crypto world. Chain City is a mix of art, criticism and gaming and offers the chance to log in and participate with your own Ape or avatar. Crazy!"

How do old-fashioned museum directors view you and your museum?

“I think that a number of institutions such as Eye Filmmuseum and Foam are in favor of Nxt Museum. We are actually an extension of what they have been doing for years – new media art is the logical continuation of film and photography. Because we are not dependent on subsidies, we can take more risks, operate more rebelliously and show artists who are not necessarily approved in the traditional art world. In the beginning there was some criticism from the idea that we might become the next commercial Instagram spot. What we show is immersive and sometimes looks crazy in the photo, but it is art that is made from the faith and activism of artists. That is separate from how visitors interact with it. You see them walking around in every museum with a selfie stick and cell phone in their hand. The Mona Lisa is more Instagrammable than our Lu Yang room, where visitors are challenged to play a video game: there you are not triggered to pick up your cell phone, but to get absorbed in the work.”

Tim van der Wiel, Merel van Helsdingen Raymon Pouwels

With Nxt Museum you also want to spread a message. What message does UFO – Unidentified Fluid Other, the current exhibition that loosens the fixed boundaries of the physical worlds, contain?

“One of our messages is that creating and engaging in virtual worlds can be a way to discover your own identity. An example is the young American artist Oseanworld, who has created an almost Murakami-like game world with lots of bright colors, fireballs that you have to jump over and commercial breaks. With his installation he criticizes consumer society in the US and Big Tech, but he also created this virtual world to break away from who he is. In the real world he feels locked up, in the virtual world he is free. And that has an impact on how he feels in the real world: he has become much happier. Many children are glued to the gaming computer, much to the annoyance and concern of their parents. But their manifestation in the virtual world can also help them break away from who they think they need to be in the real world, their awakening. For example, artist Harriet Davey broke away from the binary gender division by creating avatars that have both male and female features, allowing her to be herself in the virtual world – which she then applied to the real world. Her gender-sensitive avatars can be seen in the transition spaces of our museum.”

Do you also have an avatar?

“Yes, I even have several. I sometimes wear digital fashion, which is also reflected in our exhibition. There is a growth in digital fashion designers. Nxt Museum has a round catwalk with eight television screens on which visitors can see themselves in The Fabricant fashion. The virtual clothing is placed over a camera shot of the visitor with a filter, so that you wear the fashion. You can buy such digital fashion items as NFT or use them via Snapchat's fashion filters. Do you spend a lot of time online and is your avatar a big part of your identity? Then it may be that what you wear online is more important than fashion in everyday life. Nowadays there are also crazy AI collections. For example, designer Marco Simonetti has created the digital pop-up store Courchevel 1850 for Jacquemus x Nike based on artificial intelligence, with virtual ski clothing: from jackets to backpacks and hoodies to shoes. Old school material combined with modern techniques. I would like my avatar to wear this.”

Isn't art based on artificial intelligence already being created?

"Of course. Refik Anadol, the most famous AI artist out there, has been doing that for about fifteen years. The Turkish artist is currently showing an installation at the MoMA. To do this, he used 180.000 works of art from the museum's archive, from Warhol to Van Gogh, as input for a computer system that he developed himself – it is truly an AI engine. Using artificial intelligence, the data from two hundred years of art is visualized on a large screen. The constantly changing Unsupervised he sees as one 'machine dreaming of modern art'. "

MASTERS Magazine

Want to read the rest of the interview with Merel van Helsdingen? In the spring edition of MASTERS, three entrepreneurs shed light on the future: Raymon Pouwels (GO Sharing), Merel van Helsdingen (Nxt Museum) and Tim van der Wiel (GoSpooky). According to the latter, ever-accelerating technological progress offers enormous opportunities. “There has never been a better time to have a good idea. The technology is in your pocket!” Sports journalist Jaap de Groot outlines the contours of the new playing field of international sport after the resounding success of the World Cup in Qatar. And futurist Adjiedj Bakas also sheds light on the future. According to him, next year will be all about the search for the economy of happiness. “We are not just going to look at what makes us money, but at what makes us happy.” Perhaps this edition will contribute to this, with a look back at MASTERS EXPO, a road trip with the new Range Rover and interviews with horse pope Jan Tops, Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner, chef Margot Janse and visual artist Spencer Tunick. Luck!