Paul Hobson has a lot of questions. The Director of Modern Art Oxford began by offering his thoughts on the future of arts programming and audience engagement, thinking that has been sparked by recent excavations of MAO’s archive as it approaches its 50th anniversary. Paul made reference to a particular image from the 60’s that resurfaced a number of times during the talk, a grainy black-and-white photograph of people with cigarettes and flares standing around in Oxford looking at objects on plinths and things on walls, and how anachronistic that image looks to the contemporary eye.

This has prompted him to consider the bizarre practice of looking at art in galleries, the efforts we go to – travelling to spaces to look at objects staged in a room – and whether or not people in the future will even understand what we were doing. What will people think of this cultural construction? Will we even be talking about art in 50 years time?

So what is art in this moment, in the second decade of the 21st century? To row back a bit, he took us on a journey through time, through the legacy of modernism, of post-modernism, and reminded us that we’ve lived through 50 years of conceptualism, where art has become ideas.

What will art do in the next 50 years? Paul speculated on five areas of artistic concern:

  1. SPACE: In the last 50 years artists have searched for new and radical forms of visual representation that respond to and capture our changing perception and experience of space. Artists have frequently developed new spatial systems to express contemporary existence, and artworks have moved from being fixed and contained to being environmental, fluid and shifting structures and situations. As we consider the next 50 years, in which space is becoming increasingly commodified, augmented, privatised and policed, due to a high level of demand and decreasing availability, what can we anticipate in terms of the evolution of art that reflects these wider conditions? In which kinds of spaces will art be produced and experienced? What effects will these new spaces, both physical and virtual, have on the shape and the forms of art as we look into the future? As technology continues to shape the way we think and experience the world, how will artists capture the new spatial territory of the 21st century?
  2. THE BODY: Over the last 50 years our bodies, and their imagined and real representation by artists, have been sites for increasingly politicised artistic exploration. As our bodies and our senses respond to new environmental and technological developments in the 21st century, what ethical, moral and political choices might we be faced with, and how might these choices be explored through new forms of artistic production and activism?
  3. TIME: The exploration of the physical and the conceptual qualities of time have become more apparent in the development of time-based media – film, photography and performance, etc – during the 20th century, reflecting the increasingly accelerated pace and globally connected nature of our lives. However, even these new types of media share with older visual technologies a singular point of both production and experience. In the future, we might envisage an art, and other forms of cultural content, being created and experienced in multiple temporal dimensions and durations simultaneously. What effect might that have on both the consumption, as well as the production and mediation of art in generations to come?
  4. MATERIALS: We are now in a post-industrial era, in transition from an economy based on material goods to one based on knowledge. In this new information society, big data captured by the proliferating new technologies that are increasingly integrated into our lives, are used to predict patterns and trends, to manage risks, and to seek out new markets. Artistic ideas and forms have likewise reflected this wider development through conceptual art practices over the past 50 years, where the primary value of the artwork has shifted to focus on the ideas it contains rather than exclusively its aesthetic or material qualities. What happens to materials in a world of ideas? The digital realm has its own visual surfaces, spatial and dimensional characteristics, often blending reality with augmented and adapted realities, and ideas. Artists have always used contemporary materials to capture the visual and the physical essence of the present, whilst looking to the future. What new forms of visual matter, both real and virtual, will evolve? How will artists and other producers use these new materials, and how will artistic practices evolve in relation to other disciplines where visual materials and data are being generated outside of the field of art and culture?
  5. IDEOLOGIES: Political theorists, economists and philosophers anticipate a century to come marked by ideological conflict, fuelled by an increasingly populated world with scarce resources, lived through the dynamic environments of new technologies. Environmental depletion, terrorism, surveillance, civil war, viruses, body augmentation, heightened globalisation, and late consumerism are recurring themes in these speculations. Art responds to and even anticipates wider social and political concerns, offering a prism where contemporary conditions become visible. How will artists and the cultures they make respond to these contemporary issues as we look to the next 50 years? How can art compete in this super-saturated society of spectacle where ideas circulate freely, where the author died many decades ago, where visual imagery is produced by a globalised network of editors, broadcasters and producers for an anonymised world of ambivalent consumers?

Paul Hobson’s talk was a provocative exercise in opening up space to consider the current historical situation – “Contemporary art is showing a tendency to retreat into over-theorised and discursive forms, away from the chaotic forms and visual surfaces of mass culture, and in opposition to the highly exclusive networks and cultures of the art market” – and the shape of possible futures… Will we even be talking about art in 50 years time?


Sarah Bowden