The Young Ones

Kevin McGarry on 89plus at the Digital-Life-Design Conference in Munich

The 89plus panel at the 2013 DLD conference. (Photo: DLD13)

“MUNICH IS ONE of the most uncool places,” warned a German curator at a mixer early last week welcoming speakers to the 2013 DLD (Digital-Life-Design) conference. Cool or not, since 2005 the stodgy Bavarian capital has hosted this three-day, invitation-only, digitally driven mini-TED on the cusp of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Previous years have drawn the likes of Arianna Huffington, Jimmy Wales, Marissa Mayer, Mark Zuckerberg, and envoys from Angry Birds to the intimate if overstimulating event. Themed “Patterns that Connect,” this edition’s bold-faced names included New York Times scion Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.; startup Renaissance man and Bilderberg member Peter Thiel; and founders of websites like Kickstarter, Airbnb, and Rap Genius. Scheduled to the gills, there was also a five-minute demonstration of the Twitter Dress: a gown spun of LED fabric that glows to display tweets in real time.

Of course, it was none other than Hans Ulrich Obrist—“a very connected person in the art world and a true humanist,” as DLD founding director Steffi Czerny put it—that programmed the art sidebar of the conference. (He’s done so since DLD06.) And thus it was no surprise that Artsy’s Carter Cleveland was around to discuss his finally launched website with Michaela de Pury, or that Luma Foundation’s Maja Hoffmann and Michelangelo Pistoletto conversed with HUO at the HVB Forum: a former bank transformed into a gleaming communications center complete with vegetable juice bars, Lufthansa-branded masseurs, and smartphone docking stations galore. But the most interesting panel comprised a group of lesser-known delegates: participants in a research initiative called 89plus, co-organized by Obrist and independent curator Simon Castets.

Left: Curator Simon Castets with architect Zaha Hadid. (Photo: Kevin McGarry) Right: Peter Thiel with DLD founding director Steffi Czerny. (Photo: DLD13)

The idea grew out of a blind spot for the pair: artists born after 1989. While this designation might seem as arbitrary as, say, Jesus’s age when he died, that year is overloaded with geopolitical symbolism. Castets outlined some of the major historic events, including, of course, the invention of the World Wide Web and the fall of the Berlin Wall, “but also, further from here, the protests in Tiananmen Square, the end of the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, and the beginning of the end of the apartheid.” One skeptic rolled his eyes: “No one cares about communism anymore.” To which another wag rejoined, “I think that’s precisely what this talk could be about.”

“Welcome to America’s Next Top Twenty-Three-Year-Old!” announced K-Hole’s Dena Yago, setting the loopy tone of the homeroom-like environment during Sunday’s technical run-through for the panel. It was a bit of a misnomer, though. The selection was international, with artists flown in from San Francisco, London, Chicago, Kuwait, and Johannesburg; Hangzhou, China; Van Nuys, California; and Gijón, Spain. And in this group, twenty-three is practically over the hill. A 1988er herself, Yago was aged out of the proceedings and was on hand as a commentator. After a quick round of introductions and some free-associating on the subject of heroes (they ran from Susan Kare, the user-interface designer responsible for the original Mac trash can, to the Qatari artist and writer Sophia Al Maria, who originated the term “Gulf Futurism”), Obrist suggested the presentations should be done in alphabetical order “because everything else is interpreted,” and concluded the meeting.

Left: Alvaro Pulpeiro, Abdullah Al-Mutairi, and Brian Khek. Right: The Chinese State Circus performs at a DLD dinner. (Photos: DLD13)

In lieu of a step-and-repeat, a three-dimensional model of a NASA Mars Exploration Rover sat outside the Chairman’s Dinner that night. (Its design was honored during the meal.) Inside, waiters stalled the main course with rounds of vodka shots, producing a ballroom full of drunk businesspeople—and some exasperated teetotalers. Then, in a display of globalized opulence (timed with the belated duck), performers from the Chinese State Circus took the stage, a frenzy of acrobatics, contortions, and unicycles. “May I throw this wineglass onto your head?” quipped Beatrix Ruf in the spirit of the spectacle, before darting off to bed.

“Where is Zaha Hadid?” the patient audience wondered the next evening. She was due at the podium to receive the DLD’s annual Aenne Burda Award for Creative Leadership. But snow in London delayed her flight, and with it the start of the 89plus panel by about an hour. Eventually, fifteen fresh-faced individuals filed onto the stage, and Brazilian entrepreneur Rony Rodrigues introduced the group by way of his business, Box1824, a market-research company specializing in eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds. Among his observations about the demographic, the one that stuck was the yearning of today’s youth not to identify themselves or their activities with labels but to exist in indefinite blurs. Beijing-based editor Ou Ning reinforced this idea with a selection of profiles from his new book, Young Asia: The Emergence of the Post-Cold War Generation, that features creatives from all over the continent.

Left: Rony Rodrigues and Niko Karamyan. Right: Dealer Karolina Dankow and curator Julie Boukobza. (Photos: Kevin McGarry)

Many of the artists were more than happy to evince this sense of fuzzy boundaries. Born in 1990 in Galicia, Spain, Alvaro Pulpeiro’s practice principally concerns architecture, and his recent research has taken him to the Salton Sea, Madison Avenue, and the heart of the Amazon. One of only a handful of programmers of any age to release an iOS app predating Apple’s App Store, Max Weisel (b. 1991) runs a software development company in the Bay Area. He paced the stage like a true CEO, explaining to the audience the tactile, electronic musical instruments he has been developing since building Björk’s Biophila app last year. Niko Karamyan’s (b. 1992) chameleon persona is called Niko the Ikon, and his three-minute presentation was a Los Angeles coming-of-age story told through hyperstylized self-portraiture. He led with a personal truism: “I am my best subject.”

Amalia Ulman (b. 1989) plumbed the aesthetics of the “selfie” before concluding her talk with a disjointed political footnote: “Your animated GIFS run on burnt coal, and your computers—they’re built by slaves.” These words were recycled from artist Daniel Keller’s presentation at the “Ways Beyond the Internet” panel at last year’s DLD, only, according to artist Simon Denny, his phrasing has since been scrubbed from any public record of the conference. Denny wasn’t there himself, but for his brilliant show at the Kunstverein München up the street, he pored over every second of the DLD12’s internal documentation, collapsing each session into a flat, canvas-mounted advertorial. Arranged along a winding, one-way path through the gallery, the head shots and pull quotes are a quick summation of the exigencies of “now,” as it was articulated twelve months ago. Of course, that was then and this is now—and soon too all “this” will be history.

Left: Vuvuzela Qu, Ou Ning, and Abdullah Al-Mutairi. (Photo: Kevin McGarry) Right: Steffi Czerny with a model of a Mars Exploration Rover.