an open letter to the Presidio
18 October 2001
Proposal for an Arts Lab in the Presidio
a unique hybrid
arts center + research
"It's a funny situation right now, because there isn't an N.E.A.
to support experimental work, and there's so much money and activity
in high technology. The question is, how do artists fit in? Nobody
really has the answer."
Tech Is the Art in San Francisco"
New York Times, March 16, 2000
An extraordinary opportunity exists in the answer to this question.
Actually, several opportunities converge, including 1) filling a
open niche in the U.S. arts community, 2) creating value for industry
and commerce, and 3) demonstrating not-for-profit financial sustainability.
This is a proposal outlining initial steps to pursue these opportunities.
The Presidio is ideally situated for this pursuit.
The above quote from the New York Times is mine. I am a professional
media artist and researcher based in San Francisco for over two
decades. Prior to that I was a graduate student and research fellow
at M.I.T., where I was on the original design team for the M.I.T.
Media Laboratory. Since then, I've had similar relationships with
the major Bay Area "new media" research efforts, including at Atari
(1982-4), Lucasfilm (1986-90), the Apple Multimedia Lab (1987-90),
and, for the past eight years, at Interval Research Corporation,
the for-profit "think tank" funded by Paul Allen. I teach, publish,
and exhibit regularly. This past spring I exhibited a 3D interactive
installation here in the Presidio, as a unique collaboration between
the San Francisco Film Festival and SF MOMA. This installation,
called "Be Now Here," was itself a unique collaboration between
Interval Research and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris.
II. Art and Technology Today
Over the past 20 years, we have seen public arts funding in the
U.S. shrink to a fraction of what is spent in other countries. According
to the N.E.A., current per capita arts spending by local, state,
and national governments is $57 in France, $85 in Germany, $46 in
Canada, and $6 in the US. This is not likely to change in the foreseeable
But during this same period a revolution has begun with no end
in sight. Computers have gone from large institutional machines
to laptops carried by children. Digital cameras are available at
drugstores. And the Internet and Web have ushered in the era of
a wired planet.
Virtually everyone involved in these industries acknowledges the
need for creativity, exploration, and new content. But artists are
often suspicious of commercial enterprise for choosing profit over
integrity. Not-for-profit arts institutions rarely have adequate
funding models. The options, unfortunately, naturally gravitate
to the extremes, toward high-return "blockbusters" or donation-based
III. Arts Lab Concept
The basic concept of an "Arts Lab" is to serve as both an art center
and research lab, structured as a not-for profit corporation and
managed as a commercial enterprise. The goal is to be sustainable
with little compromise of artistic or research values.
The Arts Lab would be a project-based laboratory with space and
technical resources for working with computers, audio-visual media,
and the Internet. Projects would be exploratory in nature and not
exclusively driven by finding solutions or maximizing profits.
As such, the Arts Lab would be created as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit
corporation, whose charter is based around art-making, risk-taking,
and exploring new media technologies.
But unlike most not-for-profit corporations, the Arts Lab would
protect and market what it creates as a means for financial sustainability.
Examples range from intellectual property licensing, to limited
edition art and mass consumer products, to services such as commissioned
research and events.
The Arts Lab would be commercial, aggressive, and competitive.
It would recruit, hire, pay, buy, sell, market, and advertise just
as a for-profit corporation. But as a not-for-profit one, all revenue
would go back into the Arts Lab.
This approach would attract the dedicated, the ambitious, and the
young. It would serve as a mid-career perk and be an outlet for
senior citizen masters in the field. It would be a great place to
"do time." (Imagine doing time in the Presidio.)
IV. Existing Models
A. Art Centers
What makes a great art center is community, with a balance between
permanent staff and visiting artists in-residence. Art centers involved
in technology require additional resources, which can be expensive
and difficult to maintain. Several such art and technology centers
currently exist, but all rely on external funding from governments,
universities, or corporations.
Among the most well-known of these centers are: the Ars Electronica
Centre in Linz Austria; the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie
(ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany; NTT InterCommunication Center (ICC)
in Tokyo; the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences (IAMAS)
in Gifu, Japan; and the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada.
Perhaps the best single model for an arts center, from the point
of view of the Presidio, is the Banff Centre for the Arts in the
Canadian Rocky Mountains. First, its set in a beautiful natural
location. Artist residencies consist of 1-2 dozen artists and last
several months, with regular theme-based "summits" usually
lasting long weekends. The art and technology programs are components
of a larger whole, which includes other art forms such as music,
theater, and Aboriginal arts, as well as non art-related activities
through the Banff Centre for Continuing Education.
No such art and technology center of similar scope and impact exists
in the U.S.
B. Research Labs
The research labs most associated with the computer and media revolutions
had "peak periods" characterized by lively communities
and the freedom to take risks. Funding ranged from government (itself
ranging from N.S.F. to D.O.D.) to university to corporate, with
a variety of novel hybrid approaches. The M.I.T. Media Lab, for
example, relies on corporate sponsors that pay large annual dues
for access, get-togethers, and general inspiration.
Most labs in and around Silicon Valley are corporate-based, with
"leash lengths" ranging from focussed development to "blue-sky"
research. The linkage between research and profit also has a wide
range - legends exist such as how Xerox PARC invented the Mac/Windows
interface but didnt commercialize it. Policies surrounding
confidentiality, intellectual property, and I.P. protection have
changed drastically over the past two decades, and continue to remain
The latest such "grand experiment" was Interval Research
Corporation in Palo Alto. Founded in 1992 with a $100 million commitment
from Paul Allen, its charter was to look ahead 5-10 years. Its CEO,
David Liddle, recruited a diverse group, which included designers,
artists, musicians, psychologists, ethnographers, and mathematicians
as well as computer scientists and engineers. It was loosely modeled
on Xerox PARC of the 1970s, but with a strict I.P. protection policy
and an "advanced development" group ready to commercialize.
In the spring 2000, after several unsuccessful spin-off attempts,
Paul Allen decided to abruptly shut down the lab.
Interval filed for over 140 patents, whose value, many believe,
at least approximates the original investment. Its too early
to know. From an investors point of view (particularly in
April 2000), Interval may have been considered a failure. But from
a sustainability point of view, Interval may be the first existence-proof
that creative research labs can "break even."
V. First Steps
The single biggest hurdle getting started building an Arts Lab
is the "cultural difference" between the art and research
communities. Hence the first task is building bridges between relevant
members of each group.
Models need to be investigated. Looking for symbioses between art,
technology, research, and business is timely, and several new initiatives
are emerging from governments, corporations, universities, and art
centers worldwide. These need to be tracked and reviewed.
Initial support for an Arts Lab in the Presidio can be found. Many
of the large U.S. foundations are currently developing their strategies
for high-tech arts funding. They are looking for new approaches
such as the Arts Lab.
These first steps can begin immediately. But this proposal is for
the long haul. Many people with many talents will be needed. Such
people exist: a lively community both locally and internationally
would fervently welcome such an initiative. I am merely offering
this outline as a starting point for discussion and feedback. Any
and all comments are welcome.