Art and Technology
Not for Nothing: A New Perspective from Peer to Peer
’Tis the season of giving, and artists—more than most—donate works for auctions and benefits to support schools, charities and institutions. They donate work that represents their hard earned labor in the name of exposure, by complicated requests from current collectors or supporters, and for the possibility of being brought into significant collections. For most, it’s a wary offering, aware that indifference even in this out-of-market context can nevertheless be a mark against their markets. As many have noted before, lawyers don’t donate their services nor doctors their treatments. What if it didn’t have to be this way?
The newly rebranded Buffalo AKG, formerly Albright-Knox Art Gallery, offers a more equitable proposal with a benefit auction to support their reopening that not only shares a percentage of sales with the artists but is also accessioning works by the artists into the collection in a real gesture of commitment to their value. Peer to Peer opened November 21 and the auction closes on December 2, though the works will continue to reside for all to see on Feral File, one of the premier blockchain galleries. That’s right, this is a show presenting some of the leading artists whose creative efforts have contributed to the rise of NFTs. Here, they dynamically engage works in the museum’s permanent collection. There is much to say about the works themselves, and I will shortly, but first this represents another arrow across the bow of mainstream contemporary art’s market practice. Except this time it is being done by a clear member of an established art world institution.
Curator Tina Rivers Ryan is a respected art historian at the forefront of art and technology. She writes for Artforum and was one of ArtNet’s 2022 Innovators list in the Web3 World-Builders, those who “are cutting through the hype cycle to bring meaningful artistic contributions to Web3.” The AKG was founded in 1862 as a museum of contemporary art and presented the first “major museum” exhibition of photography in 1910, as she states in her curatorial essay, indicative of the museum’s own history showcasing emergent technologies’ potential to produce more than just new forms of visual culture, but art. Peer to Peer, conceived and launched during a slump in the crypto craze, can’t be claimed to ride a new fad. By accessioning works into the collection, this curator and this museum establish for all of us a more serious acceptance that this technology, whose economic, environmental, and even socio-political flaws have been well articulated, nevertheless enables some really good art. And, there’s the rub.
Oil painting has fifty years of discourse about its relations to power. Photography is produced using minerals with devastating environmental impacts as the photographer and installation artist Mary Mattingly has eloquently expressed. Our computers and mobile devices depend on mining and factory labor, while our posts and apps depend on content moderation, that implicate us all in human rights issues.
No practice is innocent and we are all culpable.
Blockchain raised some important issues for our moment, for example becoming the lightning rod for conversations around energy consumption, carrying the weight of a discourse that the mainstream contemporary art market had been having—especially as regards the carbon impact of fairs— but which it abandoned when attention shifted elsewhere. Even though one of the most popular blockchains for the arts, Ethereum, greatly reduced its impact in August 2022, the point isn’t to mitigate and minimize such problems but rather to acknowledge and address that they are pervasive and require every industry to change. And then change again as improvements appear. Blockchain is a technology that is here to stay and presents a mechanism of interest to those artists whose creative play comes forth in conversation with a technology’s potential. In Peer to Peer, we see some examples of how that can be done.
Peer to Peer does not represent an exhaustive display of styles or practices used by artists engaged with NFTs. And yet, the quieter marketplace has allowed some strands of an iconography to emerge, which may eventually reveal an iconology of what this technology has propelled socially as well as how it fits into other discourses. Peer to Peer provides examples of generative art—a practice with a sixty year history much celebrated this year across exhibitions of early practitioners like Vera Molnár, Harold Cohen, Manfred Mohr, and Herbert Franke— in works by Itzel Yard (known as IxShells) and Casey Reas, co-founder of the important open-source software Processing, a Professor at UCLA and an ArtNet 2022 Innovators List in Web 3 World-Building for co-founding Feral File. LaTurbo Avedon, an anonymous artist and curator who presents as an avatar and was also selected for ArtNet’s 2022 Innovators as one of The Disruption Artists, produces web-native work typically about internet culture—in this context through an abstraction based on the AKG’s Orange and Yellow (1956) by Mark Rothko.
Established digital artist, Anne Spalter showcases the contemporary interest in neo-surrealism with The Bell Machine, responding to Magritte’s La voix des airs (The Voice of Space) (1928). The nostalgic tendency when artists adapt prior models underlies the work of Sarah Zucker, who frequently uses analog electronic media like VHS and older editing equipment in producing gifs or face filters, to transform the iconic tools and gestures of pop culture into archetypes that transform our understanding of their significance. For Peer to Peer, Zucker produced four muses in response to the four dedicated to painting, sculpture, architecture and music on the AKG’s east portico made by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1906-1907. She offers Vision, Thought, Wink, and Recursion as four rainbow, glitchy self-portraits that humorously display the way we configure our connection to these necessary twenty-first century muses. Amir H. Fallah is a painter who has advocated for a more rigorous discourse around the digital art associated with NFTs, and brings a knowledge, training, and appreciation for the materiality of a medium to his digital images that cull from the aesthetics, colors, and objects of high and low Middle Eastern and Western cultures that proliferate across the internet, beautifully exemplified here in Wheel of Life.
Prince Jacon Osinachi Igwe, better known as Osinachi, is a Nigerian artist whose stylized images have been acclaimed partly through the market interest produced by NFTs but more importantly positioned within the discourse on figuration as his unexpected use of Microsoft Word adapts depictions of Black skin. Simon Denny complicates notions of landscape in Metaverse Landscape 1: Decentraland Parcel -81, -17, questioning the “wild west” rhetoric of virtual realms in his take on Bierstadt’s Laramie Peak (1870) that enabled notions of an empty American expanse to be settled.
Auriea Harvey’s glorious and colorful 3D sculpture, Marisol/Daphne/Auriea, based on photogrammetry scans of her body—akin to Venezuelan Pop artist Marisol’s drawing of her body for untitled drawing (1978) on which Harvey’s work is based—represents the expansion of sculpture into 3D modeling softwares. Entangled Others, a duo comprising Sofia Crespo and Feileacan McCormick, used neural networks for their contribution Swim to “take a dot for a walk” as Paul Klee once described a line. Sarah Friend extends a cybernetic conversation with Evolutionary Games and Spatial Chaos, Letters to Nature, 1992, expressing the Prisoner’s Dilemma while riffing on Sherrie Levine’s Equivalents: After Stieglitz 1-18 (2006); its seeming simplicity belies its layered conceptual rigor engaging how technologies visualize political and natural dynamics.
Mitchell F. Chan’s Winslow Homer’s Croquet Challenge introduces a dose of humor into the realm of high art with his physics game, accompanied to a peppy banjo iteration of “Oh Suzannah.” Users position and strike for the ladies against the computer-operated Benjamin and Arthur who debate various women’s rights issues, which leads (highly coincidentally, I am sure) occasionally to one of the ladies’ croquet balls in their manly nether regions with subsequent expostulations; this is all in the context of the original game’s novel willingness in the 19th century to allow both genders to play together. Chan also disrupts the serenity of Homer’s 1865 painting at the end of the Civil War by reminding audiences how leisure games—like chess, croquet, or video games—often sublimate political and military tensions.
The Buffalo AKG collection includes Joseph Kosuth’s Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) (1968), an exemplar of conceptual art, which Rhea Myers stunningly restages for the blockchain by presenting the “null address” on the Ethereum blockchain in Titled (Information as Property as Art) [Ethereum Null Address]. This is the address that cannot be owned, where many send NFTs to be “burned,” that is made inaccessible, and so the vault grows greater even as its value cannot be accessed. Myers’s work also shifts the discourse from the language of philosophy to mathematics and the strange, complicated history of zero. Familiar as we are with it, the number had a troubled entry into the Early Modern mind. As Robert Kaplan explains in The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, that informed much of my own thinking, zero was a dangerous, ungodly concept in the medieval period (even the Mayans called their god of death, Zero). It undermined God’s generative agency; this empty figure did not fit established moral visions, and contributed to a radical reordering of the social and political space.
The Catholic Church was losing economic power to a growing class of merchants and bankers, who were engaged with this “dangerous Saracen magic” of algorismus, as William of Malmesbury described it. Increased trade required more complex sums and currency conversions that were expedited by new mathematical systems; many European traders sent their sons to Italy, where teachers had access to these foreign texts and could explain the systems to ready students, making education a foundation for success and not just a noble endeavor, much as people claim now about basic coding. Zero was crucial to double ledger accounting—just as blockchain has been proposed as a means to minimize double spending. The zero sum indicated the accounting books were right, but required that everything including intangibles like bad debt or reputation have numerical representation (one of the five principles of new media for Lev Manovich)—a practice fundamental to platform capitalism. It established a vocabulary of exchange and transaction that “lead in time to the framing in physics of its conservation laws: matter, momentum, energy neither created nor destroyed but exchanged—and to such insights as Newton’s Third Law of Motion.” As zero crept into exponents, it unleashed chaos again since anything to the zero had to be one, including itself! 0=1.
Let’s not forget that Galileo Galilei’s career started at the Florentine Academy of the Arts as a teacher of perspective. Optical perspective was based on Euclidean geometry, and had been proposed by thinkers like Roger Bacon as producing icons that would help reinforce Christian conviction after the massive failures of the Crusades. Given the Church’s ongoing anxieties about the year zero (not accepted until 1740), one can grin at the ecclesiastic rhetorical maneuvering around these issues. The difficulty with linear perspective is its vanishing point, a null, unless it can be reconciled as an unmoved mover; so, zero becomes the all-encompassing one. From nothing to something. The null address that is nevertheless full and able to keep getting fuller. Some thing, grand as no thing. Like art, whose greatest asset may well be all the ways that it is invaluable.
Zero exists as a concept as well as a numerical object, and flits around perspective and a radical new vision of art, and reappears here in Myers’s work at a similarly transitional moment for art, society, and markets, problematizing the binary notions of our time.Titled (Information as Property as Art) [Ethereum Null Address] flips the order of Kosuth’s title for the value trinity of our own moment and presents an object of thought that strips all excess from an idea that I’ve only begun to unpack here. Myers’s conceptual work with blockchain represents the kind of staggering intellectual project that makes this technology an artistic medium impossible to ignore.
All the works in Peer to Peer are admirable exemplars of contemporary art practice and concerns. They are materially and conceptually driven, requiring audiences to adopt new ways of seeing. This is crucial because they are digital art, which for too long has been dismissed from serious consideration by many participants in mainstream contemporary art, an attitude reiterated around NFTs because sales drove too many discussions. Tim Schneider’s recent Gray Market report argued that ongoing conversations about the boom or bust cycle of crypto must be set aside to recognize the actual work being produced, even if sold as or with an NFT, and should simply be discussed in the context of digital sculpture, AR, conceptual art, etc. as that is what these works are. There were many celebrations of collaborations between mainstream and crypto artists or institutions over the course of Art Basel Miami Beach week, but parties do not make a discourse.
To date we have had a collision of the art and NFT markets. A convergence can only occur when the ideologies of one stop speaking past the other, and seriously consider what they are saying about each other’s entrenched practices. We need shows like Peer to Peer where the curator engages meaningfully with the values that crypto art has tried to espouse, like equitable market participation, as well as those exhaustively expressed by art historians, like a rigorous tie between design and concept. Concerns about global economics have people already talking about how the year ahead will see galleries emphasizing known entities, but the ArtNet’s Back Room report on the fair, co-written by Tim Schneider and Naomi Rea, pointed out that many big ticket items at Art Basel Miami Beach remained unsold, while lower cost works at fairs like NADA led to sell-out booths. If one is committed to thinking of art as an asset, this is a great time to examine rising stars in any medium, including ones beyond your current purview. I see hybridity across artists’ studio practices and concerns, which may best be grasped by collectors coming at these works from prior collecting contexts. Bio-diversity is an evolutionary advantage that the art market may wish to consider, for a new year whose blank slate is full of opportunity.