First published in Italian in 2021, Surfing with Satoshi. Art, Blockchain and NFTs - the book this blog borrows its title from - is now available in English! Edited and published by Aksioma, Ljubljana, and designed by Superness, the book comes in a special edition of 300 copies, and is available for preorder on Aksioma’s web store (free shipping until May 25). A long pdf excerpt is available here.
The craze for Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) that erupted in early 2021 thrust the art world into the debate on the blockchain, the decentralised public ledger that holds these tokens, as well as cryptocurrencies, and promises to make “verifiable digital scarcity” a reality. Born out of the 2008 financial crisis and seen by many as the cornerstone of a new, more private, more secure Web3, the blockchain has changed the global economy and is now reshaping the digital environment in which art is increasingly being created, distributed and exchanged.
Written amidst an explosion of technological hype and a speculative frenzy, Surfing with Satoshi sets the promise of the NFT market in a historical context, investigating the technologies it is based on, the role of certificates and contracts in contemporary art, and the evolution of the media art market over the last thirty years. Riding the wave of the ongoing debate, the book tackles a series of as yet open questions, including: what does art have to do with the blockchain? Does it make sense to talk about “Crypto Art”, and if so what can be said to define it, apart from the way it is traded? Is speculation the be-all and end-all of this trend? How on earth can an infinitely reproducible digital file be deemed “unique”? Will the blockchain’s promise of disintermediation destroy the art world as we know it? And how is the art world reacting to the situation? Are NFTs an opportunity for artists or a scam perpetrated against them? Who are the collectors willing to pay millions for a certificate of authenticity, and why are they doing it? And why do the visual arts seem to have acquired such a central role in the crypto economy?
Sometimes I feel like a weather vane, unable to take a clear stand for or against anything. By attitude, I’m more prone to take a neutral position, to evaluate pros and contras. This has happened to me several times over the course of this odd year. My book Surfing con Satoshi. Arte, blockchain e NFT, soon to be translated into English, is all about that.
Make no mistake: I’ve made my mind very clear over the last few months, about what I like and what I don’t like about blockchains and crypto. I don’t like 99% of what people call “crypto art”, which is for the most part the result of the crass choices of investors who pretend to be collectors, and who have persuaded makers unable to win a call or pass an admission test to be great artists with the weight of their money. I’ve never felt very comfortable in the art world, but I feel totally out of touch with this art world, that talentless artists, start-ups with no history and investors with no culture are giving birth to. I don’t like and don’t use the term “crypto art”, which ties art to a currency and an exchange system, and robs it of the right to be, as it should be, something absolute. I don’t like the assumption that NFTs certify the authenticity and uniqueness of a work of art, when the only things they can really prove are its ownership and provenance (mostly traceable to an anonymous crypto wallet or a verified nickname on Twitter). I don’t like the fact that, in the NFT space, you only count for what you have in your wallet, in terms of cryptocurrency, social tokens, assets. I don’t like that, to participate in this space, the first move you have to make is to invest and trade in cryptocurrency. I don’t like the pyramid structure where those who enter, with the promise of autonomy and financial success, mostly end up funding the success of those already at the top. I don’t like that success is always and only tied to sales, and that the latter depend on hordes of individuals who raid rather than collect, to immediately put back for sale what they raided. I can’t stand that art is seen and used explicitly as a tool to promote and clear cryptocurrencies. I can’t stand cryptoevangelists because I can’t stand evangelists of all kinds. I can’t stand the false promises of web3, particularly the false rhetoric with which it opposes the Platform Economy and the exploitation of data in social media: when NFTs do nothing more than capitalize on the attention gained in web 2.0 spaces, and only achieve success through skillful, constant and shameless use of the self-promoting potential of the latter.
All of this makes me very sensitive to critical readings of blockchain culture. I read them avidly and, in most cases, feel them as my own. If I can’t completely sympathize with Brian Eno-like populist simplifications, I have no trouble recognizing myself in the informed analyses of Geraldine Juárez, Martin O'Leary, or the evergreen Gerard David. And yet, I feel in trouble when I reach their conclusions. O’Leary:
“The promotion of cryptocurrencies is at best irresponsible, an advertisement for an unregulated casino. At worst it is an environmental disaster, a predatory pyramid scheme, and a commitment to an ideology of greed and distrust. I believe the only ethical response is to reject it in all its forms.”
For Your Eyes Only is a group exhibition I curated for the online platform Feral File, where it is currently on view. Featuring works by 13 international artists, the exhibition investigates the future of human visual culture amid the ubiquity of machine vision. I’m posting here my curatorial essay and information about the works in order to link, at least ideally, two extraordinary communities I’ve been part of along this year.
Participating artists: Morehshin Allahyari (U.S.), Sara Bezovšek (Slovenia), Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion (France), Anna Carreras (Spain), Petra Cortright (U.S.), Francoise Gamma (Spain), Theodoros Giannakis (Greece), Kamilia Kard (Italy), Jonas Lund (The Netherlands/Germany), Lev Manovich (U.S.), Petros Moris (Greece), Katja Novitskova (The Netherlands), Jon Rafman (U.S.)
Feral File is a one-of-a-kind online community and platform with an embedded marketplace – “a space for the new media community to co-create the future of art making, exhibiting, and collecting”. It has been conceived by artist Casey Reas and it’s built over the Bitmark blockchain. All works are presented in large editions at accessible prices, in order to be able to involve a larger audience of collectors.
The term NFT (Non-Fungible Token) became widespread in the year 2021 to identify various digital art forms sold online via dedicated platforms, the uniqueness and ownership of which may be verified using blockchains. This definition, which came into common use on March 11, when Christie’s auctioned off the jpg file of “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” by Mike Winkelmann (better known as Beeple) for more than 69 million dollars, is incorrect in a number of ways. In technical terms, first of all, the NFT is not the digital file which is bought or sold, but the bit of code uniquely identifying it on the blockchain. A blockchain is a register, or database, which is decentralized and encrypted, a combination which makes any information recorded on it unalterable and tamper-proof. This has made blockchains the perfect ecosystem for coining and exchanging crypto-currencies. Digital currencies, like all currencies, are fungible tokens, that is, they may be exchanged for any other token of the same value. A Non-Fungible Token, on the other hand, represents something unique: a collectible item, or a right attributable only to the holder of the token. The behavior and exchange of an NFT are governed by a smart contract, a program which implements – and automatically makes operative – the clauses in a contract, which is also registered on the blockchain.
In other words, the NFT is not the artwork, but the certificate of ownership identifying it on the blockchain. Even the concepts of uniqueness and authenticity, often superficially attributed to NFT art, are an approximation: a work of art is only unique in that it is associated with a unique certificate (in actual fact it can be freely copied and downloaded, but only the owner of the token can claim ownership of it); the work is authentic because it is assumed (often incorrectly) that the person who registered the token is its creator, or its first owner.
The second simplification regards the type of property that may be associated with an NFT. Digital art is, in effect, a minority category – however visible it may be – among the goods that can be “tokenized”. The definition of the ERC-721 standard, the technological innovation that made it possible to register NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain, refers to «collectible objects, access keys, lottery tickets, numbered seats for concerts or sporting events, etc.» The category of collectible items alone extends well beyond artworks. NFTs first became popular among fans of collectible cards, who saw them as an opportunity to extend the concepts of rarity and ownership to the digital environment; and among gamers, attracted by the possibility of certifying their property within a game (weapons, gadgets, abilities, avatars, plots of virtual land) and exchanging them on various platforms. Another popular form of collectible goods associated with NFTs is sports memorabilia.
All these clarifications should be enough to prove that there can be no such thing as an aesthetic of NFTs. Yet someone might object that there is, in any case, an aesthetic of Crypto Art. The expression “Crypto Art” has gradually emerged since 2017 among the community of creators who started using general platforms such as OpenSea or specialized ones like SuperRare to sell their work. The academic paper “Crypto art: A decentralized view” (2019) defines it as follows: «Rare digital art, also known as crypto art, is limited-edition collectible art cryptographically registered with a token on a blockchain”. In my book “Surfing con Satoshi. Arte, blockchain e NFT», published in June 2021, I provocatively state that there is no such thing as Crypto Art; here, I would like to subject this provocation to scrutiny, in order to understand whether it should be confirmed or renegotiated.
This short piece was written for V-SPACE, a regular - curated by Gianluca Gramolazzi for the Italian magazine Made in Mind - with a focus on the relationship between digital and real. While the article is available both online and in the paper magazine, the selected images have been posted only on *Made in Mind’*s Instagram account. They are both archived here for the sake of history ;-) Enjoy!
At the first Hackers Conference in 1984 Stuart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, uttered a sibyl- line sentence about information, which later appeared, in a more elegant form, in his book The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (1987): “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive…That tension will not go away.” (1)
Along the last decades, we experienced both sides of this tension, in ways that didn’t seem to be going to change. Despite copyright regulations, trials, obfuscated websites, hardware and software protections, digital or digitized information always found a way to circulate freely and for free: from cracked cartridges to scanned books, from streaming football matches to badly recorded movies, from commercial software to mp3 discographies to leaked classified documents. With Free Software, and later on Open Source and Creative Commons, a whole cultural movement emerged in order to adapt the idea of intellectual property to digital, networked modes of circulation. In an age in which “we copy like we breathe” (Cory Doctorow, 2011), we also got used to sharing our contents for free on platforms that grant us free access to them. (2) Markets for digital contents developed anyway, yet they were always based on the implicit assumption that they should be cheaper than material contents or experiences. But the value of digital information – its wish to be expensive – usually manifested in another way: through the impressive economies some companies were able to build upon scraping, collecting, mining, processing, elaborating huge amounts of free personal data and turning them into meaningful information that can be sold to advertisers. Something that became crudely visible along the pandemic, when we all became poorer except the likes of Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, or the companies behind Zoom and Tik Tok.
This text is imported from the Künstlerinnenpreis website blog, where it was published a few days ago. I post it here as a means of redistribution, and as a test of the “import” feature on Mirror. Enjoy!
In mid June 2021, Sotheby’s London announced that it would be auctioning off an NFT of the original source code for the World Wide Web, written by Sir Tim Berners-Lee between 3 October 1990 and 24 August 1991, when he was a researcher at CERN, Geneve, and later released as open source software. Appropriately labeled “This Changed Everything”, the auction offers a time-stamped archive of the World Wide Web source code accompanied by an animated visualization of the code being written, a graphic representation of the full code and a “Readme” file written by Berners-Lee in 2021 in the form of a letter. All these contents are provided with a cryptographic hash, uploaded to the internet and associated to a unique NFT, a “non fungible token” recorded on the Ethereum blockchain and regulated by a smart contract. The uniqueness of the NFT guarantees for the uniqueness and authenticity of the associated files, while the smart contract controls and regulates the transfer of the property rights to a new owner (and to all future owners as well).
With bidding starting at $1,000, the auction closed on June 30, 2021, when the lot sold at 5.434.500 USD to a (so far) anonymous collector. Traditional auction houses have not yet embraced the transparence of the blockchain, where every transaction can be tracked down, but cryptocurrency payments where allowed, and according to the press, half of the bidders were new to Sotheby’s, so we can easily say what happened: a bunch of wealthy collectors – most likely, crypto collectors – participated in the auction, excited to engage in a transaction with the father of the Web, and to become the owners of the code that “changed everything”, and that ultimately shaped the online, distributed environment that made blockchains and cryptocurrencies possible. Typically, there were a flurry of bids in the closing 15 minutes, with the winning bid scored in the very last, convulsive seconds. The sale benefited initiatives that Sir Tim and Lady Berners-Lee support, and the original code of the World Wide Web started a new life as something that can be privately owned, while staying open and publicly accessible at the same time.
This short entry is excerpted from an unpublished interview with a MA student, but it works nicely alone, as a statement. Cover image: Humans Dissecting Martian War Machines, from Henrique Alvim Correa's War Of The Worlds Illustrations, 1906
The way NFTs emerged abruptly didn’t allow us to see what’s actually happening: an infrastructural transition from Web 2.0 – where access to information is mostly offered for free while companies build empires upon data extraction and governments perfect a global panopticon – to Web 3.0 – grounded on a secure, crypto-protected, decentralized infrastructure (the blockchain) that could potentially destroy surveillance and the need of an intermediation, where data have a value and their property is given back to their owners. The problem is that, while we know the current dystopia, we have no certainties about this upcoming utopia. A war is going on, and paying 69 million dollars for a .jpg downloadable by anybody from a peer to peer network is an act of war: one in which the idea that scarcity can be applied to information, and the infrastructure that possibly allows it, is strongly supported.
In this scenario, art is functional to make the value of information visible and recognizable. Apart from a few conceptual explorations of smart contracts, NFTs are not a medium: they are a trigger, a mean to introduce a radically new idea – that information is valuable and digital property possible. Nothing more, nothing less. If you think that all the recent history of digital art has been built upon the premise that the digital challenges ideas of property and objectification, that online culture is free culture, etc., that’s indeed a huge shift that – I’m sure – will affect art making as well. At the moment, however, because of the way online marketplaces are designed, NFTs are mostly a diminished, simplified version of an art that can take much more complex forms outside of that space.
The following text is the unpublished draft of an essay I'm writing for an academic magazine, loosely based on chapter 4 of Surfing con Satoshi. If the title sounds confrontational, it definitely wants to be. I'm publishing it here as an attempt to start a dialogue with the Mirror community, which hopefully will leave its traces on the final version of the text. Comments, feedbacks and reactions can be sent to me via e-mail. I'm pushing the "NFT" button nearby "Publish" as a test, but as the final version will be different, it also makes sense to mark it as something "unique". Thank you for reading!
p.s. in the Mirror version, I removed footnotes but all bibliographical references are linked into the text. I don't add any image as most examples are widely known.
On March 11, 2021, Christie’s auction house made history by selling, for the whopping amount of $69,346,250, Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2021), a visual artwork that exists in purely digital form. The spectacular sale immediately placed Beeple, the pseudonym of Mike Winkelmann (a South Carolina-based graphic designer and 3D animator who was very popular online, but until then virtually unknown to the art world and to the primary art market) in third place on the list of the highest paid living artists, after the likes of Jeff Koons and David Hockney.
Technically, this result was made possible by the association of Everydays’ image file — a mosaic of 5,000 images made and individually published for free on his blog since 2007 — to a non-fungible token (NFT), governed by a smart contract and registered on the Ethereum blockchain. A blockchain is a public and publicly searchable ledger, distributed and protected by cryptography, two features that make it secure and tamper-proof: once registered, a piece of data cannot be modified, except by involving the majority of the blockchain’s nodes in the scam, and investing unimaginable amounts of money to break its encryption. This security makes it the ideal technology to enable the minting and circulation of a cryptocurrency — the primary function for which blockchains were created; but it also allows it to lend itself to a multitude of other applications where a high level of security and data invulnerability is required.
This second aspect became particularly evident upon the publication, in 2013, of the Ethereum white paper, which introduced the concept of smart contracts: computer programs recorded on the blockchain that translate an agreement between parties into software, automating its execution and making it inviolable. A specific application of smart contracts, non-fungible tokens are financial instruments that enshrine the uniqueness and non-interchangeability of a specific cryptographic token, and any digital assets associated with it through a cryptographic hash (a unique alphanumeric string that identifies a file). In addition to building “verifiable digital scarcity” around the digital file with which it is associated, the NFT makes its provenance traceable, another crucial aspect for the art market: since every transaction is recorded and publicly searchable on the blockchain, of a file associated with an NFT anyone will always be able to see who the previous owners were, right down to the one who minted the NFT on the blockchain (ideally the author, or whoever is authorized to manage their work).
Obviously, (artificially constructed) scarcity and provenance make a digital file finally marketable, in the same way as any physical artefact whose uniqueness is certified and whose authorship and provenance are traceable:; but they still don’t explain why this specific file (the .jpg file Everydays: The First 5000 Days, measuring 21,069 x 21,069 pixels, associated with token ID 40913 and smart contract 0x2a46f2ffd99e19a89476e2f62270e0a3
Surfing con Satoshi. Arte, blockchain e NFT (Postmedia Books, Milan 2021) is a book published in Italian in May 2021, exploring the relationship between art and blockchain in the light of the recent NFT boom. This blog will serve as a place where to publish English excerpts, updates, new short texts on the subject, as well as a warm up for an upcoming (September 2021) fundraising supporting a full English translation of the book.
“media art, like Bitcoin, tries to manage the contradictions of digital scarcity by limiting the illimitable.” Hito Steyerl 2016
At the beginning of 2021, the booming NFT (Non Fungible Token) market opened up in the art world the debate on the blockchain, the decentralized public ledger on which tokens coexist with cryptocurrencies, promising “verifiable digital scarcity.” In reality the blockchain, born out of the 2008 financial crisis and seen by many as the foundation of a new, more private and secure Web 3.0, has already changed the world economy and is reshaping the digital environment in which art is increasingly created, distributed and exchanged.