Love in the Time of Crypto-Art

“Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” (Benjamin)

Right now there are a bunch of very loud voices from the digital/art power structure trying to insert themselves into the middle of the crypto-art conversation. Out-of-touch curators are gathering on Clubhouse to assert their importance and the digital art mean girls club on Twitter is circling like a pack of piranhas.

Simultaneously, there are scores of amateurs trying to quit their day job because they just minted a few pieces of NFT crypto-art. There are the legions of Twitter evangelists who are falling over themselves to worship the ability to monetize something new. Beeple is suddenly an art world superstar and a financial startup in Bushwick is turning a Banksy into a flame broiled whopper in order to convert its provenance to an NFT.

Some of the artists in my extended circle, well meaning, are trying to get in on the action.

Then there is the academic art scene, who obviously hates all of this. There has been an ongoing conversation through the Moneylab community for at least five years about art and blockchain which is overwhelmingly critical. I mostly feel like an outsider, but I’m now probably closer to the conversation happening through Moneylab than the others.

Some of the voices are competent, like Everest Pipkin’s article about the environmental impact of NFTs and Joanie Lemercier and Memo Atken’s articles. I am not good enough at math to confirm or deny those assertions, but it’s fairly obvious that the blockchain is using too much energy to power its computational wood chipper. Cryptoart.wtf raises some alarming statistics but I won’t get into the problematics here of the literal “carbon cost” of creating distributed consensus protocols to reinforce the illusion of property and ownership. And yes, proof of stake will solve many of those issues, while potentially opening up a lot of others. I can hear the frenetic keyboard clacking of many-a-digital humanities doctoral student, of which I will soon be one, trying to tie these pieces together.

No, instead let’s talk about what all of this could be.

So we understand that NFTs are short for “non fungible tokens,” which means that it is a unique instance of a crypto token. Most NFTs, for now, live on the Ethereum blockchain. A blockchain is a distributed database ledger that uses really complex math to make sure that nobody is cheating. Ok good.

In 2016 I started working on a platform concept with Benton C Bainbridge called MovingPictures Gallery. The idea was to “instantiate” realtime video performance as a network object which could be sold with resale royalties, two things not available to media artists before the advent of the blockchain. This was designed pre-NFTs and therefore started from a different assumption about art and value.

Yes, there are services like Electronic Arts Intermix which charges exorbitant fees to college art programs so we can watch Vito Acconci masturbate underneath a table. But this model was largely antiquated in the age of the internet. Our MPG concept was 5 years premature, and the technology wasn’t really ready for primetime. Frankly, it still isn’t.

What interested me about this concept was the ways in which we could create structural interventions using technology to mediate our labor with the larger speculation economy. It’s the equivalent of the Situationists installing a speed bump on the handicap ramp of capitalism. In much the same way that Jaron Lanier in “Who Owns the Future?” describes the history of the middle class in the USA as a history of structural inefficiency (e.g. labor unions), we sought to introduce artificial scarcity and contractual mediation into a space that previously had none. Or at least none that was enforceable.

Artists need to eat too but why would we want to do this? Data just wants to be free, man. Right?

The long story short is that “data freedom” is just as much an artificial construction as scarcity. The internet was based on a concept of open information sharing that benefits academics, but that was not the only assumption (see Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu) available when these protocols were being designed and isn’t the most appropriate one for all situations. Sometimes being able to track a piece of media as it propagates across the net is good if you want to protect the labor of the person who made that thing.

What I didn’t like about the Moving Pictures idea was that we were being forced to consider how we were to make money off of this platform, when the whole logic of disintermediation is that there can ultimately be no mediators. Digital art needs to live independent of any one platform.

In 2019–2020 I spent part of my MFA thesis trying to articulate the concept for the Distributed Art Object Framework, so that I could theorize my vision of what I think a distributed art could be.

The DAOF is a technological and legal stack giving rise to emergent notions of digital property. It is designed as a procedural legal protocol; something that performs structural retrofitting from the inside of capitalism, a virus encoded into the semiotic container of an asset. The model uses NFTs but is not reliant on them, in that the model was developed pre-NFT and takes several other factors into consideration — most notably this idea that art has legal precedents and processes to establish what it is and how it gets transmitted over space and time.

The basic idea is this: since art dematerialized in the mid 20th century, the legal system had to catch up and specify exactly what was being sold and conserved in the case of people like Sol Lewitt, and later on the Fluxists and Conceptualists. How in the hell do you sell a mound of dirt? Is this mound of dirt the art, or is it any mound of dirt created with this specific intent and at the direction of the holder of the certificate of authenticity? In other words, art became a legality. Tape that fucking banana to the wall, we’ve got a contract.

This becomes interesting when we start thinking about the contract as a creative medium. This idea goes back to the beginning of modern art, with Marcel Duchamp releasing his own “Monte Carlo Bonds.” Yves Klein made a different sort of dematerialized artwork where he sold empty space to a collector which they “redeemed” by dumping a certain amount of gold into the Seine river while a gallerist watched. Sol Lewit’s paintings were literal sets of instructions, anticipating the advent of algorithmic computer art.

The primary contract for dematerialized art was created in 1971 by Seth Seigelaub and Robert Projansky called the “Artists Reserved Rights and Transfer Sale Agreement,” which basically stipulated all of the things you would want to stipulate as an artist to retain control of your artwork after it was sold. It was an early attempt at co-opting the mechanisms of private property to impose a collectivity that would benefit artist-workers. This however, was never enforceable because most artists don’t have the cash necessary to sue an art collector if they break the contract. Lauren Van Haaften Schick has written extensively about this.

Enter the blockchain. We have a trustless system of asset creation and distribution that is mediated by procedural smart contracts. We can create contracts that are relational computer art, and relational computer art that are contracts.

In this, we find a collapsing of containers. This can be compared to the way digital media flattened the hierarchy between different creative disciplines like filmmaking, music production, graphic design, animation, game design and code. These mediums started becoming fluid, because we’re working on the same interface for all of them.

Similarly, what is a legal construction? There are many different types. I’m not a lawyer or economist, but we have contracts that mediate work for hire, we have contracts that mediate the ownership and profit distribution of companies, like stocks, we have contracts that create corporate entities like LLCs and S-Corps. We also have money. State issued currency is also a type of contract, in that the state backs the validity of that currency with the implicit threat of state violence. We have marriage contracts, and wills. In many ways, all of these ideas are arbitrary constructions, and they change depending on what society and time period you are in.

These separate ideas are starting to collapse on the blockchain. They are all programmable media. Let’s think about this carefully.

Starting with bitcoin, you have a digital asset class (not a currency) being created and maintained by a consensus protocol called proof of work. This is the hugely energy intensive computational wood chipper I referred to earlier. What this means is you now have tradable assets as a store of value, without the need for a centralized authority like the state to step in and mediate it. Second step, enter Ethereum. Ethereum takes this idea, but goes one step further, and allows for the entire network not only to store value, but execute small programs called smart contracts. Smart contracts mediate relationships stipulating on how and when value gets created, transferred, and what its use value is. In other words, you can program contractual relationships. This extends from contracts creating an escrow account to how whole organizations function with various flavors of democratic voting rights. You can create auctions for digital assets, and program those digital assets with unique characteristics. You can create tokens, backed by the “network asset” of ether which can be programmed for specific use value, and finally you have NFTs, or non-fungible tokens which are individuated forms of crypto tokens which can present as a stand in for a digital asset, like a piece of art.

Dust off your relational aesthetics textbook, throw some pages into your blender with some gifs from the new aesthetic tumblr and a splash of La Croix (can we just call it fucking seltzer already?) and you have a new art form that draws on the histories of conceptual, systems, algorithmic and performance art.

However crypto-kitties is not what I am talking about. Non-fungible tokens are not “Art.” They are maybe possibly a type of art. But a token is not a stand in for art in the general sense. A network object is actually a much more complex thing that requires a few different types of cryptographic technologies to work together in order to exist.

What an NFT does is make it easy to buy and sell something. What that thing is is largely irrelevant. It can be a picture of your cat or a bologna sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise or any type of digital image or image sequence.

What I am talking about is the ability to reprogram economy and relationship from the inside of the machine. As media artists this is something we need to take very seriously, as this is in direct conversation with our history of democratic media interventions dating back to early video art. We can program whole economies. We can program new behaviors. However we need to do this from the vantage point of the communities who are potentially affected by these technologies.

I created a speculative project in 2017 called “Distributed Autonomous Katamari,” which was an attempt at creating a “social sculpture,” out of the blockchain. The basic idea is that there was a blockchain artwork which is represented as a token that is programmed to only go up in value. This anticipated what are now known as “Bonding Curves.” Fractional collectors of the artwork are obligated to constantly trade the token for increased value or else they lose their ownership share. Gradually more money is pumped into the system until a switch gets flipped and the artwork becomes a self aware art world singularity, eventually obliterating earth and projecting into outer space so it can colonize Mars and hold a career retrospective.

This is stupid, yes, but I was attempting at finding a poetics of praxis within the framework of an automated legal container for value. It’s like a fluxus score was encoded into a space where a set of organizational protocols reflects a poetics, rather than the architecture of the landlord.

Around the same time, I started a project called, “Normcorp,” which used the concept of a crypto-art startup as the medium for an art object, i.e. an organizational art object. The tagline was, “We’re starting a startup. We value value.” Needless to say it was a monochrome.

What we need here is more artists experimenting with liberatory economics, rather than attempting to compress their art into trading cards. We need art to expand into the entire infrastructure of the emerging network to re-imagine how society works.

I want you to encode liberation into the network.

There have been a few attempts that I like. One being Grayson Earle’s BailBloc project, which got a lot of attention back in 2018. His project installs a small piece of software on your computer that mines the “Monero” blockchain to raise bail money for incarcerated people waiting for trial.

My favorite example was an early project called Terra0, in which an entire forest is given autonomy through the blockchain, otherwise called “sovereignty.” The forest is owned by an organization which is controlled by a smart contract. The contract hires humans to sustainably log the forest so that the forest organization can purchase more of its own acreage.

Furthermore, the blockchain is way, way more than just a medium for trading speculative assets. It is part of a much larger web3 infrastructure that promises to transform the web in some really interesting, and really terrifying ways.

Decentralization means that we can avert the attention economy and prioritize engaging with new social interfaces that have better ethics.

Some of the projects you should be paying attention to are things like Holochain, which is a modified distributed network architecture for building distributed applications and creating new forms of liquidity.

Ruth Catlow at Furtherfield in the UK has been on this trip for quite a while, and is looking into Distributed Autonomous Organizations to help support artist communities.

The Economic Space Agency is a global network of theorists and technologists who are attempting to theorize an entirely new economic framework and then build a technological infrastructure around it.

The DISCO Cooperative is one of the more compelling and thoughtful platform cooperatives out there, pioneering multiple types of currency and collaboration tools for unlocking value within communities and mediating collective ownership.

Trojan Dao is trying to create new funding models for artist communities on Ethereum.

If we don’t engage with this, we run the risk of letting these technologies totally enclose us. However if enough people start imagining alternatives now, there is a real possibility that we can encode a different future.

Starting in 2019 I worked with a blockchain research group, trying to think about ways of encoding access to these tools as a type of distributed, open source commons. I learned a lot from working with them, as many of those folks have been working with distributed computation longer than I’ve been alive. However at a certain point it became apparent that they were interested in me formalizing a company to drive traffic to their network. This would effectively “tax” my community, for using that network, much in the same way “gas” prices are currently choking the ethereum network. I stopped working with them in the fall of 2020.

Since 2017, when the first wave of crypto-art started rearing its head, I have been extremely suspicious of it for these very same reasons. The reason why has largely been the people who are involved with creating this. Who are they? What do they believe in?

Part of the issue is that none of them are artists, know artists, or care about art.

In early 2018 what became known as Rare Art, or Crypto-Art exploded with the launch of the Crypto-Kitties project, followed by the first Rare Art festival in NYC. Crypto-Kitties was the advent of the NFT protocol that enabled people to exchange trading cards of pixelated cats and it almost broke Ethereum.

Each startup in the space seems to be getting something wrong, conflating art with tokens and tokens with value, either constraining the idea of the art to fit their system, or even worse fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of digital property while simultaneously trying to position themselves to monopolize an aspect of it.

Super rare is one of the more prominent of these platforms, as well as Dada, Known Origin, and more recently Foundation, which turns artists into assets which are speculated on in a mini financial market. The most interesting among them is snark.art, which is working directly with artists to develop works for the blockchain, however they are doing little in the way of re-envisioning art itself.

This group has since congealed on a type of free-market liberterian ethos, fixated on enumerating ways of buying and selling “rare” digital art artifacts, while spewing false rhetoric about freedom for artists and the benefits to artist communities. This is blatantly false and a thinly veiled apologism for unfettered greed while staking out their territory in the emerging distributed economy. They talk about “disrupting’’ pre-existent power structures in the “art world,” while having little to no contact with real artists, artist communities or grassroots spaces that cater specifically to those excluded from elite institutions.

Through their ignorance they seem to forget that all perceived “value” in art comes from its association with communities of practice and history, and that those same institutions that they seek to disrupt are vital in ascertaining what the value of the work is to collectors. Curators, Museum Directors, Art Critics are important members of the ecosystem. Art’s historicity is important. Discourse is important, and you can’t separate art from its history of cultural and aesthetic critique.

Instead they peddle in glorified memes of badly drawn fascist frogs and other nonsense that lacks any critical viewpoint or connection to the larger history of culture. They baldly worship profit and profit alone, as various figures attempt at vaunting themselves into the hyper capitalist avant garde. They try and launch startups dealing with digital provenance and creating currencies out of art, enabling them to create secondary markets that have all but eschewed artist’s secondary resale royalties. Libertarian trolls have convinced them that free market ideology should be applied to all communities and spaces, as if no alternatives can or do exist.

In trying to explain myself and my reasoning towards a decentralized art, part of my frustration stems from understanding the limitations of current blockchain projects dealing with art, and attempting to apply corrective measures to them. The creation of a market for tokens is not a solution for art. The DAOF was intended to reinforce and re-instantiate notions of a critical art practice and open up new vistas for how the work could interact with a market, reprogramming the notion of economy from the inside. This has a rich and historied association with the Conceptual and Systems Art movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, as well as more contemporary critical art interventions that deal with finance and media ecologies.

However, the creation of a market collapses the information available, (to quote Hayek) and while useful in determining a certain form of value, has the indirect effect of collapsing meaning. In other words, part of what makes art important is that it opens up space for interpretation and analysis and FEELING. Tokenizing artworks so that they can be speculated on is like applying a compression algorithm to a piece of music that erodes the bandwidth on the upper and lower ends of the frequency range. Moreover, we then start creating artworks to fill the narrow bandwidth that is available to us. The platform determines what type of art gets created.

In many ways this explains the failure of what can be referred to as “Crypto-art.” Crypto art touts itself as disruptive of the “art world,” with little understanding of artists, artist communities or the other institutions that form its fabric The aesthetics of the work produced on these platforms reflects little else other than its status as a speculative investment vehicle; meaning is only a reflection of the market’s ethos. Any attempt at redirecting this towards a more critical or art-historical notion of media has failed because the status of the “object” as a speculative investment vehicle supersedes the art as a semiotic container. In many ways, this is similar to the architecture of the large commercial galleries in NYC, where the enormity of the space engulfs the artworks.

I have come to the conclusion that the impulse to create a market is ultimately a project of the right wing imagination, and should be resisted, especially when it comes to culture and freedom of thought. In appealing to the impulse to try and reform the market as a reflection of more communitarian ends, the ultimate outcome is that we wind up emulating the systems we hope to reform.

This is the art of fascism. Banal, disruptive, meaningless.

If what you care about is art and art’s power to change society, I would urge you, dear reader/artist, to resist participating in these modes of exchange until you can wage agency over them.

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Eric Barry Drasin is a media artist and researcher, currently based in Buffalo NY. Find him on twitter @ericbarrydrasin