NFT AS MEMENTO

By Brian Droitcour

March 26, 2021 9:25am

A still of a video showing
The interface of the marketplace where ‘atoms’ of Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds Atomized are sold as tokens on the Ethereum blockchain.COURTESY SNARK.ART

In her essay “My Collectible Ass,” theorist McKenzie Wark shares an anecdote from her stint as an interpreter in a Tino Sehgal work, which involved standing in Marian Goodman Gallery and engaging visitors in conversation. Among the visitors she spoke to at the gallery were critics Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith, and when she later ran into them at another venue, she told them a fantastic lie: Sehgal had tattooed her buttocks, as well as those of other interpreters. She offered to show them, but they didn’t take her up on it, maybe because they didn’t buy the bluff. “I mention this because it is not just the information about the artwork circulating in the world that makes it collectible,” Wark writes. “It is also the noise. As with any other financial instrument in a portfolio, the artwork in a collection gains and loses value at the volatile edge between information and noise.”

Wark’s false rumor—her broadcast of noise—was a minor intervention in the conceptual apparatus that Sehgal devised for selling his performances. Sehgal prohibits documentation, so his works are known through word of mouth. “What is collectible is not the artwork, or even the documentation,” Wark says of Sehgal’s output. “What is collectible is the simulation of the work in the artworld and beyond.” Her argument seems applicable to NFTs, as a way of thinking through the exchange of digital art on the newly booming crypto market. It’s not always clear what a collector is actually buying—some say owning the certificate of authenticity coded in the NFT is not the same as owning the artwork, and the contracts written by various platforms differ in terms of the rights they accord to the artist, the collector, and the platform itself.

Wark ends her essay by speculating that it would be “uninteresting for the digital art object merely to mimic the forms of collectability of previous classes of art object.” The unresolved complications of NFT ownership make it an interesting topic, even if the hype for NFTs obscures these problems. Some artists are highlighting the question by minting adaptations or versions of older works in other mediums. They’re creating digital collectibles based on videos and sculptures—keepsakes that concentrate the tension between the information and noise that defines the value of ephemeral art.

Digitized Tape

A still from a video showing a diptych. On the left, pink blotches stain a red field. On the right, a pair of legs chroma-keyed white stretch upward through a pink field

Alima Lee: Meditations on Madness, 2019/2021, digitized video, 38 seconds.Photo : Courtesy the artist

Alima Lee’s mother made music videos. After watching a cache of them on VHS, Lee started collecting old mixers and other analog video hardware, using these machines to process found footage and tape she shot herself to create video installations with the rough, warm texture of obsolete technologies. When Lee first heard about crypto art, she didn’t think it comported with her analog interests. But she was drawn to the blockchain’s promise of building networks of support outside existing art world institutions.

Meditation on Madness (2019/2021), minted on Foundation, excerpts a two-channel video installation as a sequence of two diptychs. In the first, blotches of pink flicker and stutter across a red field alongside a shot of legs stretching from a bathtub into the air. Chroma-keyed white, the limbs pop on a sunset-colored screen. Superimposed text reads “falling head first,” with a cursor blinking at the end of the line, as if awaiting more input. In the second diptych, the same body sinks below the tub’s rim, this time chroma-keyed an angry red. The scene is doubled on the other channel, superimposed with text: “let the crushing weight of pressure cradle you.” The visual textures of static and tape make Meditation on Madness stand out among born-digital NFTs as an adaptation from the archive.

Sculpture as Proto-NFT

A semi-organic yellow form with limbs and protrusions hangs from a cable, illuminated from below against a brown backgroudn

Nate Boyce and Daniel Lopatin, Excess/Harvest, 2018/2021, video, 37 seconds.Photo : Courtesy the artist

Nate Boyce often makes digital models of his sculptures before they’re fabricated, and the solid works seem to retain the gooey malleability of virtual forms. With Excess/Harvest (2018/2021), an NFT minted on Foundation, Boyce returned one of his sculptures to its digital origins. The digital model was carved in polyurethane foam with a CNC milling machine and coated with yellow resin. This seven-foot sculpture was suspended over audiences at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, as part of Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Myriad” concert in 2018. (Boyce shares attribution for the NFT with Daniel Lopatin, the composer who makes music under the OPN pseudonym.)

Thick in the middle and tapered at either end, Excess/Harvest looks a bit like a carcass strung up at a butcher shop, an impression reinforced by the upside-down pig’s head that emerges from the top. Other shapes protruding from the body include a crushed water bottle, fruits and vegetables, and a façade of a wooden crate. But there are more abstract extrusions and dents, making the appearance of recognizable images feel uncanny. The sculpture rotates, like so many 3D objects do in NFTs, though in this case it’s a re-creation of the OPN concert experience rather than an acquiescence to crypto fads. A beam casts light and shadows on the sculpture through a light fog—another simulation of the show. The memorialization of the concert environment in Excess/Harvest is a new kink in Boyce’s negotiation of the boundaries of digital and physical experience.

NFT as Personality Trait

A chandelier glows behind a grate, between two faceted black balls that stare like beady eyes

Detail of Neïl Beloufa’s NFT B, trying to reach out to its audience, 2021, video, 20 seconds.Photo : Courtesy Verisart and the artist

Neïl Beloufa’s exhibition “Digital Mourning”—currently installed at Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan, though closed to the public—includes three “hosts,” figures that give viewers tips on how to navigate the show. They’re modeled from wood, but video projection-mapped to their surfaces makes them look like glowing, transparent vessels, with objects arranged on interior shelves. “Digital Mourning” is about hope, paranoia, and other feelings amplified by networked communications—the ongoing theme of Beloufa’s work. He conceived the hosts as NFTs long before minting them as such, intrigued by the value that status confers on digital media.

B, trying to reach out to its audience (2021) is the first of the three actually to be realized as an NFT. It was released on SuperRare through a partnership with Verisart, a company that offers blockchain-based certification for fine art. In the NFT, B is no longer a projection on wood but a 3D being. The camera angles toward it, following the crooked, halting path of a tentative viewer, revealing views of its Pikachu-like shape. Through B’s transparent golden skin you can see a Coke bottle and a smoking cigarette in one leg, a classical bust on a pedestal in the other. A feather boa stretches across the central shelf, over a staticky monitor lodged in the crotch. Behind a barred door, a chandelier illuminates everything from within. B stands on a balcony, the lights of a dense city skyline glittering on the horizon—a departure from the physical B’s position in the art hangar. B is both inviting and imposing, transparent and mysterious, more solid and dimensional than it is in the gallery but more ephemeral, too.

Plunder vs. Auction

Two pixelated digital paintings, one of a blue owl sitting on a branch and one of cacti silhouetted against a starry sky, hang side by side

Two pixel paintings by Jason Rohrer, titled Owl (left) and Sky, for his game The Castle Doctrine, 2014.Photo : Courtesy the artist

The Castle Doctrine, by indie game designer Jason Rohrer, is a brutal multiplayer game. You set up traps in your home to protect your possessions and your family, then try to rob the homes of other players. They, of course, have trapped their homes too, so you might end up electrocuted, or mauled by a pit bull. When you die, you lose everything, but then you can start over with a new name and a new home, ready for another brief cycle of violence and greed. The Castle Doctrine’s scenarios are the stuff of grisly horror, but the chunky pixelated artwork and the 2D bird’s-eye view abstract them. Rohrer prefers simple, provisional visuals to immersive spectacle, in part because he’s interested more in game mechanics than realism, but also as a practical matter: he’s a one-man studio.

When The Castle Doctrine was released in 2014, Rohrer invited artist friends to contribute pixel paintings that players could buy with in-game currency to decorate their fortress-homes. These paintings are symbols of skill and dedication: it’s hard to survive long enough, and steal enough money, to buy them. In February, Rohrer created an out-of-game auction, minting the paintings as NFTs on OpenSea. He drew criticism for selling works that others had contributed to his game, though he promised to share revenue, should any of them sell for big money. So far that hasn’t happened. When the Dutch auction ended March 14, most of the prices were at 0.01 ETH, less than $20. The results seem to demonstrate that the paintings got their value in the game as loot, and that kind of value doesn’t translate neatly to the NFT market.

Community Ownership

A reproduction of Velazquez's painting Las Meninas where several squares are missing

A poster for Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds Atomized.Photo : Courtesy Snark.art

Eve Sussman’s video 89 Seconds at Alcázar (2004) reconstructs Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) in a Williamsburg garage. Exquisitely costumed actors play the infanta, her retinue, her royal parents, and the artist himself. They carry out carefully choreographed movements, the delicate bustle of the moments before and after the one captured in the painting. The critical discourse around Las Meninas has often attended to the space the painting creates in front of the canvas by situating the viewer in the figures’ sightlines, somewhere near where the king and queen must be standing as the artist works at a royal portrait. Sussman inverts the focal point by venturing inside the painting, stretching the work in time against Velazquez’s expansion of its space.

89 Seconds at Alcázar premiered at the 2004 Whitney Biennial and sold out its edition of ten. When approached by Snark.Art to create a project for their crypto art platform, Sussman decided to sell her artist’s proof of the video in fragments, under the title 89 Seconds Atomized. She has long been engaged with new media; whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir (2011), made with the Rufus Corporation, is a video that is edited live as it plays. An algorithm shuffles scenes of an inscrutable mystery shot in the bleak post-Soviet landscapes of Central Asia. 89 seconds Atomized breaks up linear continuity as a commentary not on narrative structure but on ownership. If 89 seconds at Alcázar penetrates a painting’s interior, the atomized version goes inside the video, exploiting the modularity of digital media to break the work up and ask what it means for the possession of an artwork to be shared.

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