Will.I.Am: Cultural Entrepreneur

Amelia Rowland

“I know my purpose is to continue to inspire young people because it’s just going to keep inspiring me back. I want to do my part. I want to invest in America’s future...” - Will.I.Am, I.Am.Angel Foundation President's Message


Will.I.Am, like many a musician, has a few side projects. Looking at his track record, some have been exceedingly unexpected – and some have shown his aspirations to be bigger than this universe. Literally. He was the first person to have a song broadcast on Mars in a collaboration with NASA in 2012. Imagine being a fly on the wall at that proposal meeting. In this project he reinforced some of the possibilities of digital technology: to help us understand the world(s) around us and also to create new modes of interacting with it. In 2014 he glided into the world of design, launching his own smartwatch ‘Puls’ (which received some pretty ugly reviews) and then seamlessly transitioned into fashion/product design with his 2015 collaboration ‘EKOCYCLE’. The international media are interpreting these projects as contained little side-pockets, as if they are curious, deviant moments in Will.I.Am’s music career. But take a look at Will.I.Am’s aspirations; you begin to see a man with a serious plan to contribute to the fluid world of contemporary digital art, and to become a vehicle for promoting it to new audiences.

Will.I.Am's first well-publicised collaboration with digital artists was at Vivid Sydney 2012  (25 May- 11 June 2012). Collaborating with Justene Williams, they produced a multi-sensory project that questioned how we interact with the Sydney cityscape. The visitor to Vivid was given the power to shape the visual structure of the projection and the music produced by Will.I.Am, via a motion-sensor interface. It was also intended to be playful – how it looks and sounds is entirely up to the visitor and if they’ve got any killer moves.

Yuri Suzuki, a sound artist and designer from Japan has produced works that have been exhibited and acquired globally from the Museum of Modern Art, New York to Nam June Paik Art Centre, Seoul. He was the next artist to collaborate with Will.I.Am. His sound art pieces focus upon how new digital technologies (including synthesizers, new modes of recording data relating to sound, and ways of analysing acoustics) can influence the sensory experience of the visitor. His work with Will.I.Am continues on with this theme. For more on Yuri Suzuki follow this way to his very cool website. In 2014 Suzuki and Will.I.Am collaborated to produce the installation 'Pyramidi'  for the Barbican exhibition Digital Revolution. A monumental Will.I.Am shining like an Egyptian-themed beacon overlooked visitors, as his synthesised voice accompanied pulsating beats and pyramid-shaped robotic mechanical instruments designed and produced by Suzuki.

Pharoah Will.I.Am sings here about celebrating the future, dreaming about the future (man, does he loves the future). Apparently this was what the ancient Egyptians did too. This is how he sees the future - one where objects with a utilitarian purpose (in this case, creating music) are also a work of art. 

What next for Will.I.Am? The Louvre, of course! I'm surprised that you didn't see this coming!

My interest in Will.I.Am as cultural entrepreneur began at this point. Will.I.Am and Nicole Scherzinger have produced a song called ‘Mona Lisa Smile’. Have you heard of the Mona Lisa painting before? Well, this is her smug little face re-imagined, and the video clip for this pop song is a masterpiece of cultural appropriation.
Will.I.Am’s singing figure is placed inside about a billion of the Louvre's most famous paintings, and the clip will inspire future uni students for years to come. This project coincided with the documentary, 'Will.I.Am at the Louvre', which follows the senior curator of the decorative arts and Will.I.Am around the galleries. By no means is the documentary comprehensive - instead it is gently introducing us to the significance of the collection, the architecture of the building... and Will.I.Am's own aspirations. He wants us to look to celebrated artworks from history to inform our future as he says:

I wish that we could get back to this type of designing and creating and building sustainable art that is functional.

If there's a man that could build a time travel machine and carry out his desire to go back to that type of art, it's Will.I.Am. And as we now see, this is the theme of his artistic aspirations - to become a promoter of a digital art that combines skill with design. And to start thinking about how we see this art fitting into our future. 
Will this be the last we see of him in our museums and galleries? I highly doubt it. Like Mona Lisa herself, his mysterious charm lingers...