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This short entry is excerpted from an unpublished interview with a MA student, but it works nicely alone, as a statement.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 0x2a46f2ffd99e19a89476e2f62270e0a35bbf0756, minted on February 16, 2021) was sold for more than $69 million. In order to understand this exceptional sale, it is necessary to trace the historical path that brought NFTs, and Beeple’s work, onto the radar of Christie’s auction house; it is essential to delve into the explicit and implicit motivations that guided the choices of the two collectors — crypto-investors Justin Sun and Metakovan — who competed for the work, which was eventually awarded to the latter; it is vital to explore the cultural territory within which NFTs found, between 2017 and 2021, fertile ground to flourish.
Explaining the reasons for Everydays’ million-dollar sale is not the purpose of this paper, whose goal is rather to discuss the legitimacy of the expression with which Everydays and most of the works linked to an NFT are defined: “Crypto Art.” However, the two questions are closely related, and it is likely that by addressing the latter we will offer the reader useful tools to answer the former.
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.