“Why do galleries die?”

The connection between the arts and the start-up scene is intriguing. Both entrepreneurs and artists are in the business of creating something out of nothing, but in Tel Aviv the art scene and the tech scene do not mix, explains “art entrepreneur” Sarah Peguine.

Rainbow flags cover the facades of skyscrapers, running down lampposts and blowing in the wind. Look around, wherever you might be in Tel Aviv, and you will probably see a rainbow flag.

If you believe in clichés – and who doesn’t – you might easily reason that the large gay population and numerous gay-positive establishments has led to a vibrant nightlife. And you’d be right. Tel Aviv after dark is booming with internationally renowned DJs and bands that can only truly be appreciated in person. You might live a dog’s life during the day just to be a party animal at night.

Given a blossoming nightlife and a prolific gay culture, who else is likely to come to town? The entourage known as the creative class. Artists like Guy Ben-Ner, Yael Bartana and Omer Fast. Techies like Shahar Matorin, Jason Barzilay and Sivan Ya’ari. No wonder Tel Aviv is full of contemporary art galleries and start-ups. It is a story well known from Berlin, London and New York. But Tel Aviv has two things those places don’t: a beach and a climate that doesn’t stop people from taking off most of their clothes. Some call it Sin City, and at first glance, it may appear that they are right. To a certain extent, it almost feels like a deliberate provocation of Israel’s neighbours.

Nowhere is the creative clustering stronger than near Avenue Rothschild, on the fringes of the rapidly gentrifying area called Florentin. Do not be mistaken, this area is not as sleek as Shoreditch or Prenzlauer Berg. The buildings are wanting for paint. Workshops and shacks abound. But within a 10-minute walk – which for most Northern Europeans quite suffices on a midday in June – lie The Floor, Start-up Nation Central, SOSA, galleries like Dvir, Rosenfeld and Sommer, and theatres like the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater. The bars and restaurants are simply too numerous to mention.

Florentin, Tel Aviv – Wikimedia Commons

The connection between the arts and the start-up scene is intriguing. Both entrepreneurs and artists are in the business of creating something out of nothing, but Tel Aviv also highlights a paradox.

‘The art scene and the tech scene do not mix. They are generally two quite separate business worlds,’ explains Sarah Peguine, founder of the art guiding service Oh so arty, which operates in Tel Aviv.

This does not mean that the people in the art scene and the tech scene are unaware of each another.

‘Jobs in the art world are not well paid. Therefore, you’ll find quite a few people who used to work in the art world, who now want to make some money starting to work for tech companies.’

Peguine is trying to bridge the gap.

‘The people in the tech and art scenes are young, creative, and work close to each other. And I would like to make these two worlds meet.’

One thing is getting the people from the tech scene interested in art.

‘There aren’t many collectors from the start-up scene, but I think that will change over the next five years. These are educated, liberal people and they have money. But I think we have to foster an interest in art among them.’

Daniela Arriado works with Israeli start-ups and artists. She is a Chilean-Norwegian curator and director of the Screen City Biennial in Stavanger, Norway, and believes that the lack of interaction between creatives and engineers seen in Tel Aviv can be found in most cities.

‘A couple of years ago, I wanted to figure out how Berlin, the artistic hub of Europe, dealt with the city’s tech boom. In 2012, Soundcloud and other big creative companies where establishing their offices in town. At the same time, in other lofts around Berlin, the start-up scene for tech was cooking, pumping out apps and platforms for this and for that. I thought, “Wow, something absolutely amazing will come of this; it’s a new time and we are in the middle of it. Berlin is the place.”

‘Keeping in mind what technology has done for the film and music industries, there is without a doubt an unexplored market for the arts and the tech scene. There are bound to be interesting opportunities in collaborating with the creative scene – together they can empower innovation, perhaps creating complete paradigm shifts when it comes to exhibiting and mediating art.’

Foreign connections
Sarah Peguine says that the twin reasons the art scene in Tel Aviv is booming are migration and foreign collectors.

‘A lot of art in Tel Aviv is sold internationally. The home market is weak. The most successful galleries, like Dvir and Sommer, work internationally. Several well know Israeli artists abroad are not well known here.’

Ironically, a weak home market and export-driven culture are typical of other cities with a strong art scene, such as Lisbon and Berlin. In chapter four, we will look closer at how Israel’s tech scene is largely export-driven.

‘Right now, there is quite a lot of immigration from the US and France to Israel. They come either to avoid anti-Semitism or to live the liberal life of Tel Aviv. These are people with a tradition of collecting art, and I think it is that kind of culture we must foster.’

NIIO: Why do all the galleries die?
One such migrant is the CEO of NiiO, Rob Anders. NiiO’s aim is to make media art a part of people’s everyday life, in the same way that Netflix has brought films into every home. Like Peguine, Anders does not see any strong connection between the art scene and the tech scene.

He moved to Israel because he liked the culture, but how did he end up working with art and technology?

‘I was CEO of a display technology company making digital billboards. From a business perspective, the company was cool, but the content was shitty.’

Then he got to know the Dean for the Faculty of Interactive Arts at Tel Aviv Univsersity.

‘We’re having this conversation after the end of the year show. That year there had been even more digital work than before, and it begged the question: How do you display and play digital art works in a smart and meaningful way?’

Anders explains that the normal way is to use a USB drive and plug it into a screen, or send a copy of the digital files. Both ways are old fashioned and makes it very easy for anyone to steal artwork.

‘So, we started to talk with people – gallerists, collectors, artists, curators – and we realized right off that it was a big mess. You have a medium, which has existed and been appreciated since the 60s, where 1/3 of the works displayed at the Whitney Biennial are media art, while the genre, the artists, and the galleries that display all of it struggle financially.’

The highest grossing works of art are still physical objects like paintings and sculptures.

‘You can get video work at a fraction of that price. So, what is the problem with digital art?

‘Primarily – unlike in the music industry – you don’t deal with big companies. Set aside the auction houses that deal mostly with historical art, and there aren’t that many big companies out there. The art world is totally fragmented.’

There are tens of individual galleries in Tel Aviv alone, all with their own strategy.

‘Why do galleries die? I’ll tell you: It’s because they do not have a business model that works.

‘Then, there is the fact that playing the work is a headache. You have to plug it in somewhere. If an artist sends a piece to a gallery, they do not know how the audience will see it.’

In addition, artists often have a problem making sure that their work is in a viable format, a problem that many artists have experienced as various video players and streaming services have gone out favour and out of business.

‘We started to see that there was a good business opportunity here if we could create a centralized place for storing, exposing and sending media art.’

Building a larger market
‘The missing part was the player – so, we built the player. NiiO is a place to create, store, and display art. It’s a tool that can be collaborative or private. Since all the devices are connected to NiiO, an artist sitting in Lisbon can be sure that what is being shown in New York is the same as what he or she sees on their screen.’

NiiO also solves the problem of transmission. An artist who uploads art to NiiO can send art securely to a gallery that uses their platform. The artist can let the gallery view art for any given amount of time and then revoke permission. The same applies to a gallery that wants to show collectors pieces, or a curator who wants to send a whole show to a museum.

‘You curate the works for your exhibition at home. Then you press “send” and bang – the entire show is at the museum.

‘It also solves the problem of preservation. You store the master file and it will be upgraded through blockchain technology.’

Preventing people from making copies of the art is a key feature.

‘Scarcity is important in the art world. We use blockchain, which makes every transaction stamped. If you choose to sell a work it will be stamped, showing the provenience. If someone tries to steal it, everybody will see that it belongs to someone else.’

NiiO works as a B2B company for the art world, but their grand vision is to make media art part of our everyday life in the same way as music is now.

‘Two per cent of Americans are collectors, while 25 per cent have a yearly art experience. However, that 25 per cent will never buy a piece of art. We believe that if it’s done in the right way, there are models to create a larger market. People can own the art, but let others view it.’

Today, NiiO is installed on all Philips screens larger than 32 inches.

‘That means that companies, for instance, can rent curated shows for their offices, or that you will be able to buy or rent a work of art for 250 or 500 dollars a month.’

Far from disrupting and making galleries obsolete, NiiO has a different idea.

‘We want galleries to use us. The galleries are good at filtering quality. We are helping them to reach a market. We are basically underpinning the centre of the art world.’

Again, reaching a larger audience is the goal.

‘As I said, I grew up in England. I went to top schools and had a strong education. But during that upbringing I did not see culture. Culture was like sport. You were either into it – or not. Now, I believe culture is a core fabric of society; it is a way to tell stories and present different points of view.’

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the best, 2011. ©Omer Fast

And that is the essence of argument.

Critical voices from within
Israeli artist Omer Fast’s Five Thousand Feet is the Best (2011) begins with a man in khakis entering a room. The title refers to the optimum altitude at which a US Air Force drone can identify targets on the ground, which makes it easier for the pilot to drop bombs precisely – to avoid loss of innocent life. The film has a heightened sense of reality in that the pilot is not actually where the bombs are. After eight hours of sitting in his khakis, the pilot can go home.

What is real? The pilot steering or the bombs impacting? What is real, and to whom? All this is a product of the virtualisation possible with modern technology.

In the Palais Bellevue, at the fourteenth Documenta biennial, a screen shows a woman singing to her vacuum cleaner. The film, by Roee Rosen, is called The Dust Channel. In it, an Israeli family displays horror at the presence of dirt, dust, or any alien presence in their home, which results in a perverted devotion to home-cleaning appliances created by UK company Dyson.

The family, who are probably Russian migrants to Israel, think of the next wave of migrants as dust, creeping into their society. Rosen associates dust to sand, and thereby to the detention centre in the Israeli desert for political refugees, named Holot – the Hebrew word for sand.

What Rosen and Fast are doing is asking questions about our time and how technology works, about how we experience and interact not only with the world around us, but each other. Much like the start-up scene is doing.

Read more about technology and art in San Francisco.

The article is a chapter in the book Startup Israel by Hermund Haaland and Nicolai Strøm-Olsen

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