As institutions concerned with preserving history, museums have had to think of new ways to approach emerging technologies. So far, most major museums have done that largely by incorporating digital elements into physical exhibitions, creating a flurry of interactive displays, specially designed apps, and campaigns to connect with visitors over social media.
Troy Therrien, curator of architecture and digital initiatives at the Guggenheim, has a different approach for thinking about the role digital technology plays. He believes rather than incorporating digital works into the analog status quo, museums should be rethinking the architecture of exhibitions altogether. This is why last week, Therrien launched Åzone Futures Market, the Guggenheim’s first digital exhibition that allows visitors to invest in technologies of the future.
“A lot of museums have gone the way of introducing more gadgets and gizmos into their exhibitions so that people can experience [the technology] firsthand, but that doesn’t give you a sense of the effect of those things,” says Therrien. “It’s too direct, and it’s not interpretive enough. The idea for the Åzone Futures Market was to create something that would itself display the dynamics of the way that technology is controlling parts of our lives.”
To that end, Åzone isn’t just an exhibit about technology, the exhibition is the technology–and the digital architecture upon which the exhibition is built is constantly morphing and changing as long as visitors are participating in it.
Here’s how it works: Upon entering the Åzone site, you receive 10,000Å of the local currency. Therrien has worked with several contributors–artists, architects, theorists, strategists–to create 36 “futures” that you can invest in, such as Algorithmic Government or Drug Decriminalization. Rather than trading money as in a financial market, Åzone users trade information in the form of articles, or “hot tips.” The more valuable others find your information–i.e., if other users trade on that tip–the more coins you receive.
To build the marketplace, Therrien turned to Studio Folder to design the site and data science guru Hugo Liu to create an algorithm that would allow the market to reflect supply and demand. The site is powered by the collaborative platform Are.na, conceived by programmer Charles Broskoski, and took about three months to complete. (By contrast, a typical exhibition for the Guggenheim can take years to plan.) An accompanying physical exhibition, the Åzone Terminal, shows the online activity in real time in a space that mimics the immersive Bloomberg terminal.
The other key difference between Åzone and a physical-only exhibition? The former doesn’t have an end date. When the exhibition launched in late October, the empty gallery space was waiting to be filled: The architecture had been built, but what users and contributors do with it has been determining the course of what’s presented visually.
“Now that the market seems to have a healthy group of users, we’re about to turn it over to the contributors to say, ‘What would you do with this architecture?'” Therrien says. He compares this next step to giving an artist a blank wall in a gallery and full rein to do with it as she pleases. “Now they have to respond to something that’s dynamic and has real needs.”
The Åzone Futures Market demonstrates another way intelligent design might play a role in the shift to technology-driven exhibitions. Other major museums have been addressing the digital landscape in varying ways; the Cooper Hewitt, for example, recently acquired an app for its collection in an effort to preserve digital culture. Last year, the Google Cultural Institution digitized 6.2 million objects and artifacts from museums around the world, making them available to anyone with an Internet connection.
Though Therrien’s approach is to move exhibitions online, he doesn’t see the digital space replacing the physical exhibition any time soon. Instead, he says, he’d like to see the physical museum remain a place of respite from a hyperconnected world, and the digital realm as a place for experimentation.
“I think being able to step out of the world for a moment is important, and physical museums provide that function,” Therrien says. “If museums can harness technology, not just to replicate the explosion of notification and tracking and surveillance that happens increasingly everywhere else, that’s where I think they can get really interesting.”
Pay a visit to the Åzone Futures Market yourself by going here, or checking it out at 181 Front Street in the Seaport Culture District, New York City* through December 31.
*A previous version of the article incorrectly stated that you can visit the Åzone Futures Market at the Guggenheim museum. The physical extension of the exhibition is actually in a gallery at 181 Front Street in NYC.