Surfing con Satoshi. Arte, Blockchain e NFT — Introduction, English version

I heard of nfts recently

And i did not like it

Because it was a money thing

But then it kind of got interesting

And I do not know why

It just got interesting

And now i hope this is

The first poem

To be sold as an nft

It would be cool

Nikola Tosic 2021

Chris Torres, Nyan Cat, 2011. Video, 1400 x 1400 pixel, 12 frame

On February 19, 2021, Chris Torres, the original creator of the animation universally known as Nyan Cat, sells it for about $561,000 on Foundation, an online platform created a few months earlier. Actually, what’s being sold is the NFT (non-fungible token) associated with the work, a string of digital code that references the image and permanently identifies it on the Ethereum blockchain.

Three days before, on the same blockchain is recorded (minted) the NFT of Everydays. The First 5000 Days, a digital collage of 5000 illustrations by American graphic designer and animator Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple. Orchestrated by the old lady of auction houses — Christie’s — on a $100 auction base, the Everydays sale closes on March 11, 2021, totaling more than $69 million and putting the Nyan Cat’s rainbow trail to shame in just a few days — as well as placing Everydays as the third most expensive artwork ever sold by a living artist, after Jeff Koons’ Rabbit (1986) and David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (1972).

Stories like these have thrown the contemporary art world (and beyond) into the heart of what Anglo-Saxon journalism has called the “NFT craze” in early 2021. Those who have tried to follow it through the blizzard of news and articles produced by these and other events have probably had to disentangle themselves from complicated technicalities, enthusiastic declarations, slanderous accusations, tangled webs of money and interests, criteria of judgement and systems of value attribution that are difficult to understand and definitely not in line with those to which history and the art world have accustomed us. The questions raised by these stories are numerous, and the answers we can give them are not always as linear and obvious as those that the affirmative power of money would have us think. Is it possible, and under what terms, to consider a digital file authentic and original? Is it possible, and under what terms, to claim authorship of a meme, i.e. of a content that owes its popularity and recognizability to an infinite series of variations and a large community of participants, and to translate this cultural and social value into economic value? Are Beeple and the other artists who, like him, are obtaining increasing economic returns from the sale of NFTs really among the greatest artists of their time, and among the best representatives of what is — once again — being called “digital art”? What historical, economic, technical, and cultural premises explain the boom of a market that until December 2020 existed as a niche phenomenon and a nerd’s pastime, and in March 2021 reached the value of 390 million dollars?

Like many of the things I have written, this text stems from a belief in writing as a means of articulating and dissecting complex issues, and an effort to offer myself and my readers the conceptual tools they need to develop their own answers to questions that would otherwise remain unanswered. I have been exploring the slippery territory of “digital art” for several years now, even though I have always rejected this and other terms useful only to raise insurmountable barriers between artistic practices, and at the same time to generate useless and harmful associations between spheres of creation that can coexist only within a characterization as vague and generic as that offered by the medium (a medium, in this case, all the more indefinable since it is conceived and designed as a “metamedium”, which engulfs and transforms every other medium and language). Over the course of these years, I have had the opportunity to address the questions raised above several times, and also to articulate some answers. For me, the NFT boom did not come without warning; yet, I have been struck and shocked by its acceleration, energy, and sudden ability to rewrite or erase history, to bring new figures and realities onto the scene and transform others who have played pioneering roles into underdogs struggling to keep up. What I see happening bores me and surprises me, disturbs me and excites me, often for the same reasons. What I read rarely manages to give me a reason for these conflicting feelings, and to make me understand what position I should take between the opposite poles of these emotional reactions. Like the Japanese duo exonemo, I “randomly love/hate NFTs”. Like NEEN poet Nikola Tosic, I too have felt an instinctive revulsion towards the phenomenon dictated by the fact that “it’s a money thing”, but I am equally instinctively drawn to a number of aspects that remind me of the way the net has changed the destinies of art over the course of my life: developing horizontal and communal dynamics, setting aside the art system and its rigid articulation of roles and gatekeepers, favoring identity construction, breaking down boundaries and fostering hybridizations. Hence the need for this text, which far from proposing and arguing a taken position, intends to prepare the basis for developing one.

Writing this book involves risks, of which I am well aware. When I used the term “blizzard” a few lines above, I was not making a rhetorical exaggeration. It has happened to me other times to intervene on hot topics, in the midst of an ongoing debate. But writing a book — thus, something that is assumed to be long-lasting — on a topic that every day produces dozens of news stories, comments, in-depth analysis of specific issues, discussions on social media, podcasts, television reports — can seem vague and presumptuous. At best, the result will be bibliographically obsolete within a few months. At worst, it will fail to report on developments and issues that have become crucial in the short time between the “imprimatur” and the moment it becomes available for purchase. We are surfing with Satoshi on the edge of a maelström, about whose developments many venture to make predictions, but whose fate is very difficult to guess at this time. Does it make sense to write a book in the midst of such turmoil? Wouldn’t it be smarter to intervene in the flow, as many others do, with articles, comments, short statements scattered over time, trying to influence it with one’s own stance or simply to write a story about it, like an attentive and curious reporter?

Without having anything against these more militant or chronicle-like modalities of intervention — which, moreover, nourish this reflection with continuous cues — I nevertheless consider the book form more functional for other purposes, which are the ones that motivate this work: to contain the complexity of the phenomenon in a single reasoning, and to root it on less precarious historical and methodological foundations. Moreover, I have always been interested in the influence of technological hypes on the developments of contemporary culture, and in particular on the peculiar temporality of media art: and the possibility of studying one in the middle of the peak was too seductive to miss.

Yung Jake, vitalik, 2021. emoji portrait

Consistent with these premises, this investigation is organized along two main lines: the first analyzes the relationship between cryptocurrencies, blockchain, and artistic practices; the second explores issues of authenticity and scarcity in contemporary art in general, and media art in particular. The first chapter (Utopia and Dystopia of the Blockchain) focuses on the functioning and history of cryptocurrencies and the technical infrastructure they rely on, the blockchain: delving into the visions that have nurtured their development but also the gradual departure from those ideal reasons. I consider this passage crucial, not only because the difficulty in understanding the blockchain is, as we will see, the main cause of the re-emergence of those intermediaries that it was intended to eradicate, and of their excessive power; but also because many of the contradictions of the blockchain are reflected in the phenomenon of NFTs, and because that dynamic balance between radical drives and capitalist realism, between impulses for change and adaptation to the status quo generates an interesting space of intervention for art.

The second chapter (Art and Blockchain) focuses precisely on this binomial, deepening it in a diachronic sense but also reversing the underlying question with respect to the way it manifested itself during the NFT boom. Here the question to be answered is not what blockchain can do for art (in terms of certifying the scarcity and authenticity of digital goods), but what art (as a territory of research, criticism, speculation in the non-economic sense of the term, development of narratives and aesthetics) can do for blockchain.

Jonas Lund, Control (Strings Attached), 2015. Painting, acrylic on canvas, 160 × 120 × 4 cm

The third chapter (Reproducibility, Value, and the Media Art Market) tries to historically and theoretically substantiate the current reflection on the issues of authenticity and scarcity, in reference to the digital but more generally to everything ephemeral, immaterial, subject to obsolescence or decay; not to oppose the arrogance of the old folks to the techno-determinist naiveté of those who believe that recording an authentication on a distributed database protected by cryptography magically solves the problem of reproducibility of a digital work, or to the interested solutionism of those who want them to believe so; but to investigate the historical roots of the myths of authenticity and scarcity, and to show how distributed consensus (one of the foundations of the functioning of the blockchain) has always been their enforcer.

Kimberly Parker, Number of Primary Sales at a Given Price on OpenSea, March 14 — March 24, 2021. Source

If the first three chapters set the stage, the last two ones get to the heart of the matter. The fourth (Crypto Art?) analyzes the phenomenon of NFT from the point of view of art (languages, contents, aesthetics) rather than of sales, and questions the appropriateness of a category that is convenient for discursive purposes, apparently useful for promotional purposes, but problematic when it comes to defining the relationships between art and blockchain in its multiple articulations. The final chapter (The NFT Craze between Utopia and Speculation) tries to retrace these recent convulsive months, and places side by side with a brief and inevitably temporary overview of the actors at stake an equally provisional assessment.

Alterazioni Video, Surfing with Satoshi, 2013. Production still

Surfing with Satoshi borrows its title from the homonymous “turbofilm” shot by Alterazioni Video in 2013. In this sort of bizarre mockumentary, the traces of Satoshi Nakamoto, the mythical inventor of the blockchain, are lost in a cave in Puerto Rico, where it seems that he was planning “the next revolution” in the company of hackers and artists. Are we experiencing the coming true of that conspiracy? What role does art play in the fate of the blockchain? In the following pages, we will try to find an answer to these questions.

Domenico Quaranta is a contemporary art critic, curator and educator based in Italy. He’s the author of Beyond New Media Art (2013). http://domenicoquaranta.com