This year, at the Northside Festival, I attended several of the international tech pitch/demo sessions. I had a chance to chat with Alexandre Catsicas, Co-Founder & CEO, ARTMYN, which has developed a technology that allows you to have a 3-D visualization of a painting on your computer/tablet/mobile screen. In these excerpts from our interview, Alex shares his thoughts on art and how technology can serve it.
Liz Daly (LD): Tell me about ARTMYN in your own words.
Alexandre Catsicas (AC): ARTMYN mixes art and high tech. Art and technology have been evolving together since the beginning of mankind, starting with the first handprint on the caves in Lascaux, France and continuing up to today when you can create art with digital instruments. With ARTMYN, we hope to transcend this barrier between physical art and digital art. For the past two decades, art has been represented using 2-D static images, and it hasn’t really changed until today. We are trying to enhance the way art can be spread and democratize access to culture.
LD: How else are you applying this technology?
AC: While we started with paintings, we are also looking at using this technology on other media. We’ve already used it to take a closer look at the first photographic formats, the daguerreotypes and ferrotypes – it’s used by the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne.
LD: Some years ago, I led a project in which the participants embroidered a flower onto fabric squares, which were then sewn together to make a quilt. As I moved from sketching, to pattern making, to embroidering, I saw first hand the thread that runs through ancient tapestries and modern day digital pixels.
AC: We haven’t done textiles yet, but it would be interesting to apply ARTMYN to a tapestry and then compare the weave with the digital pixels.
LD: Let’s talk about you for a minute: you’ve studied and worked in Lausanne, London, Glasgow and New York.
AC: After high school in Lausanne, I studied in an exchange program in California, which I really enjoyed, as I had a chance to mix art history classes with business classes, with biology classes… Then I returned to Lausanne to study economics, but realized I wanted to study other subjects as well, so I transferred to Fordham University in the Bronx, where I majored in business and finance, with a minor in medieval history. After working for a commodities trading company in Switzerland for a while, I realized I needed to pursue my passion, which is art, so I studied art history at Glasgow University. That was when I decided to combine art history and the business world. Then I worked for Christie’s in London, where I had access to museum-quality art, and could talk to art experts and collectors – it was a fascinating combination of art, business and passion.
LD: What brought you back to Switzerland?
AC: I knew that the digital world was something auction houses couldn’t avoid, but the environment wasn’t right.
In Switzerland there was a growing interest in new technologies, as well as research on materiality, on texture, which fit in with what I wanted to do. Ms. Adrienne Corboud, Vice President for Innovation and Technology at EFPL (Ecole Fédérale Polytechnique de Lausanne), introduced me to two great scientists and engineers, Loïc Baboulaz and Julien Lalande, who were also passionate about art – we connected immediately. It’s a funny story: When I told Adrienne about my desire to connect the business world and the art world, she gave me two contacts: one, a famous Swiss gallerist, the other, these two unknown engineers. The gallery never replied to me; the two engineers did. We laugh about it now, but back then I was wondering “why would I want to meet two engineers” and they were wondering, “why should we meet with an art historian” but we met, and magic happened.
Loïc and Julien have almost become art experts because we interact so much with curators, museum directors, art experts… actually one of my partners has now decided to start a coin collection, after digitizing a collection of ancient coins at the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Geneva.
LD: I noticed on your website you list several government agencies and academic institutions as partners.
AC: There’s now a nice hub in Switzerland that helps start-ups get exposure. The Swiss government gives a lot of help, backing very tech oriented projects that can have a global impact. They’re helping us build better scanners and enhance our technology. I think there will be a domino effect: once you get attention from one of these institutions, then you’re eligible for bigger grants. We won the IMD (International Institute for Management Development) competition. We’ll meet with some of their faculty and executive MBA’s, who will review our business plan, tear it apart, and rebuild a stronger one with us. We’re also among the finalists in the MASS Challenge (which is also in Lausanne), so for the summer we’ll benefit from mentoring by experts in specific industries. These competitions are helpful because they bring you money, mentorship, expert advice, and visibility; these are all things that a young start-up like ARTMYN needs.
LD: How do you want to move forward? Where do you want to go?
AC: ARTMYN needs to go where fine art is. Switzerland is interesting because it has very important art institutions. It also has the Freeport in Geneva, one of the largest storage facilities for fine arts, but it can be very difficult for the owners to access it, because they may be living in another part of the world, or moving between homes. Galleries also store works in free ports, which they need to show to their clients, who are all across the globe. Right now the only way owners and gallerists have of viewing their art is through the traditional 2-D image, which does not really render all the richness of these pieces. We hope to reduce the distance between the artworks and the collectors with our technology.
We would like to export this Swiss technology to places where art can profit from it. There are also other major art centers like Paris, London, New York. Asia is growing a lot…
LD: So, to turn away from technology for a bit, what do you think is the importance of art?
AC: I believe that without art, there’s no society. I think one of the things that differentiates humans from animals is that we can create; for me art is a way of better understanding our history. I hope that our technology will allow people to better understand different art movements, whether modern or antique. We provide various features allowing an art expert to really explain the details, the artist’s technique(s), and the historical background to the viewer. Take Brueghel, for example. In his farm scenes there’s actually a political message – this was the time when Spain and the Dutch provinces were fighting. If you don’t know this, you’ll just see a rural scene with lots of drunk people, and soldiers in the background. But if you have an art expert who can explain the references to you, then it all makes sense; then you can draw the parallels between different eras and today. You’ll also see that art as propaganda is not a modern invention, but was used in earlier times. So I hope through this technology to show how society has evolved, but yet how we’re still trying to answer the same questions, find solutions to the same problems as in previous eras. Artists can evoke, they can express these very things.
LD: So who’s your favorite artist?
AC: Brueghel, I really like Brueghel. I also have a fondness for Renaissance artists who traveled, like Albrecht Dürer – at the beginning he was copying prints of other artists’ work that were circulating in Germany, but then you see an evolution, bringing back new techniques from his travels in Italy, combining them with his strengths.
LD: You’ve lived, worked and studied in Switzerland, the US and the UK; what cultural differences have struck you?
AC: I’ll give you a very funny example that happened yesterday after the Northside demo. In Switzerland, it’s all about being humble; if you’re good at something, you don’t say it. When you pitch before European and Swiss investors, the first question is, “How much revenue do you generate?” Now if you say to a European investor, “I’ve just started making revenue, but I want to raise about $1 million,” he’ll look at you and say, “No, come back when you’re generating a million dollars in revenue and we’ll talk.” Yesterday, an investor approached me, asking “Alex, what’s your strategy, short-term, how much money are you aiming to raise?” Now I know I’m in the US, and I need to think big, so I said “I need to raise about $1 million.” Then he says, “A million, I’m not interested; but if you’re looking for $5 million, then we can do business.” So there’s a big cultural difference: in the US, it’s all about the vision; Europe likes facts, although this is starting to change.
LD: Over the years, entrepreneurs have told me pretty much the same thing: that it’s easier to raise $10, $15 million than five hundred thousand dollars.
AC: That’s true, American investors, they want big projects – it’s the culture of risk. They won’t wait for a company to start making lots of revenue and then say, OK, I’m interested.
LD: What is ARTMYN looking for?
AC: We’re looking for people who believe in us, will support our project, bring us the connections we need. We’ve been approached by VC’s who want to just inject money, but that’s not what we want– we want people who are passionate about art, who are passionate about our technology and what it can do, and people who can open doors for us. We just closed a round with angel investors, who will help us, introduce us to their networks – they’re almost like partners.
LD: What’s up next?
AC: We’ll be doing an interactive sale with the Swiss auction house Koller in Zurich on July 24th. There will be good press coverage. They’ll be selling Zinnien, by the German painter Lovis Corinth, who was important in the transition from Impressionism to Expressionism. I hope someday that in every auction house buyers will be looking at the artwork using tablets with ARTMYN software, instead of the catalogues.
LD: When will you be setting up your NYC branch?
AC: As soon as someone introduces us to the museums and auction houses – I would love to come back to New York! (actually if things keep going the way they are…2017 !)