Stewart Smith
Stewartsmith Work Transactions@1920

The Accelerated Art World

Twenty-five minute immersive data animation experience documenting the dramatic increase in the number of biennales of contemporary art and the rapid expansion of the global art market following the end of the cold war. Commissioned by the ZKM Institute for Visual Media in cooperation with Global Art and the Museum (GAM).

Museum visitors enter a large panoramic projection room bathed in animated data representing artists, curators, biennales, and market fluctuations as investigated by German art historian and curator, Hans Belting. trans_actions was commissioned as a centerpiece for the Belting-curated exhibition, The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989 held at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. The exhibition indexed the increasing entanglement of contemporary art with market forces and economic speculation. trans_actions endeavored to depict these complex relationships through a dynamic and physically immersive use of visualized data.

trans_actions is composed of three data narratives: Biennalization, Traveling Artists, and the Global Art Market. Each scene illustrates the geographic distribution of art practices that have emerged alongside speculative uses of the art market. (See also Deterritorialized Complexity—Visualizing Artworlds after 1989 and ZKM’s video documentation of trans_actions.)


The Biennalization narrative creates a comprehensive timeline of all biennales and art fairs throughout the 20th century. Each fair is depicted as a linear connection between its start year and end year, slowly unfurled chronologically about the panoramic room. Vertically, these bars of biennales and fairs are initially organized by their geographic latitude—the most northern ones appearing at the top of the wall, while the most southern ones appear at the bottom. As we approach 1989 and beyond, the increasing geographic dispersion of biennales and fairs becomes increasingly apparent. The room completes its unfurling of timelines up through the present, at which point they are resorted vertically by their start date to reveal the staggering exponential growth of biennales and fairs in the contemporary era. The data for this scene was hand-translated from a vast repository of art fair catalogs.

Traveling Artists

trans_actions’ ontological database contains a vast set of art fairs, contemporary artists, curators, art auctions, and economic data. The Traveling Artist narrative tracks the movements of several hundred artists and curators through the network of global art fairs. This narrative highlights a new unknown geography of the art fairs. Biennales often celebrate their function of introducing local artists to a global audience. Through our visualizations, another, unacknowledged spatial dynamic was highlighted. The fairs provide a circuit through which international curators circulate a select cohort of European, American, and increasingly, Chinese artists. This increases their visibility and ultimately their market value. Visualized as both a flow map, and as a dense and growing registry of artists, the repeated appearance of a small set of artists is readily apparent.

Global Art Market

The Global Art Market narrative explores the contemporary trend of purchasing art as a financial investment and frames this as a form of geographic speculation. A large collection of contemporary art auction catalogs from Sotheby’s and Christie’s were entered into the trans_actions database. Any catalog that mentioned a geographic region in its title was used to map over time when different geographic regions appeared in the global art work, and when purchasing contemporary art from those regions was determined by financial rather than aesthetic criteria. These findings were combined with macro economic indicators about the countries with the fastest growing number of millionaires and billionaires. These countries were mapped through the number of galleries and auction houses that have appeared in these countries as well as the monetary value of the art transactions occurring there.

Created by Stewart Smith, Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Bernd Lintermann. Visual design, software production, and rendering by Stewart Smith and Robert Gerard Pietrusko. Panoramic projection system created by Bernd Lintermann. Data and narrative assistance from Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg, and the Global Art and the Museum team. Audio compositions by ZKM’s Institute for Music and Acoustics team, lead by director Ludger Brümmer. Special thanks to each and every character who played a part in ZKM, GAM, and the hosting of two young, sleep-deprived Americans far from home. Mr. Bernd Lintermann in particular acted as a guiding light and voice of reason—as always.

To develop and render trans_actions’ 360˚ data animations (8192 × 1024 at 25 fps), Smith and Pietrusko employed Bronson, their bespoke data animation software initially developed by the pair for their exhibition piece Exit (2008) (commissioned by the Fondation Cartier in Paris) and Under Vine (2010) (commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Bronson was initially written in Java (with later experimental branches in Python and Ruby), OpenGL, and also made use of the Processing library.