BLOCKCHAIN ART AS PERESTROIKA OF THE FINANCIAL AGE
by Stefan Peetri, originally published in Müürileht
The experiment with the first Estonian institutional NFT art project Mutagen to develop an autonomously earning artistic financial organisation highlights both the ownership cult of the crypto art boom as well as the potential of sustainability in contemporary art.
In March, a digital collage titled “Everydays: the First 5000 Days” by Beeple or Mike Winkelmann was sold for 69 million dollars at an online auction. By today, the digital artist has earned over a hundred million dollars with his NFT artwork. The crypto territory has proved to be a fertile ground for pop music as well — Deadmau5, Kings of Leon, Pussy Riot, The Weeknd, Snoop Dogg, Imogen Heap, Amnesia Scanner are only a few examples of pop artists or collectives, who have entered the NFT market. The US popstar Grimes developed “WarNymph”, a work based on her digital persona, creating revenue of six million dollars. The hustling even involves the NFT art of humanoid star androids like Sophia, not to mention the unfathomable flock of anonymous digital artists and small investors, who continue to hype the crypto market in the art world. The stock market shock involving GameStop in January is one of the most notable attempts by small investors to rattle the financial market in the past few years, which lead to defeating the venture capital fund Melvin Capital in their own game. We can look at the spread of blockchain art or NFTs (non- fungible token) in connection to the rise of small investors, start-ups and crypto assets all of which are trying to create a kind of perestroika in the financial logic of venture capital funds and stock market giants.
It must be said, of course, that the artistic or critical value (including Winkelmann’s) most of the NFT based art works have so far been extremely questionable. This year’s boom of the NFT art has mainly been based on enthusiasm. The hype of the NFT art market has been successful, which has made the market grow 800% within one year, which, in turn, means a profit of 429 million dollars. During the peak of NFTs trending, in total, over two million dollars have been earned. In comparison, the proportion of the new Mutagen project by Temnikova & Kasela gallery with its nearly 600 collectors is 536 ETHd (1 ETH stands form the cryptocurrency Ethereum, currently worth 2689€) or 1.5 million dollars.
We can look at the spread of blockchain art or NFTs (non- fungible token) in connection to the rise of small investors, start-ups and crypto assets all of which are trying to create a kind of perestroika in the financial logic of venture capital funds and stock market giants.
The catchphrase of contemporary art, post-internet that the Mutagen project tries to carry over to web 3.0 is an aesthetically suitable conceptual tool to test out the crypto landscape — to what extent can the institutional position of contemporary art be maintained as it adapts to the NFT market?
Everything that the post-internet movement predicted already ten years ago is amplified in crypto art, meaning, the object of art, the role of the author, the difference between production and consumption, spread and circulation become increasingly indefinable. It would make sense to add owners or collectors to this list as well. The Mutagen project tests out the durability of (contemporary) art within the context of the financial logic of crypto assets, asking if contemporary art can also play a role in its democratisation.
NFT as a mystical game
It has been 12 years since the Bitcoin protocol was established and there is an increasing number of start-up initiatives and companies in the art field and dealers of blockchain art, only discovering and testing out the capabilities of the second generation blockchains, such as Ethereum. Ethereum is a further development of the Bitcoin blockchain. Blockchains function as digital ledgers, meaning their goal is to record each transaction, crypting all traces of activity in a decentralised distributed database. It is precisely this capacity that allows creating all kinds of smart contracts within the Ethereum blockchain, making it possible for artists to earn from all transactions pertaining to their work.
NFT is just a virtual certificate, an index or a non-fungible token for an object, placed on the blockchain. So NFTs are collections of files with extensions such as .jpg, .mp3, .mp4, .gif or another format. The blockchain writes a code into these files, which makes them unique (this is the non-fungible part of the token).
The Mutagen project tests out the durability of (contemporary) art within the context of the financial logic of crypto assets, asking if contemporary art can also play a role in its democratisation.
The space of the blockchain and the NFT is attracting innovative art agents not only conceptually but also as a source of additional income. Countless possibilities to digitally reproduce images appeared already in the 1990s. Digitally produced art has been made readable to machines by default. In its form, it is comprehensible to artificial intelligence or to blockchain. New media and internet art has had trouble with selling art works for the past 20–30 years, leading to their marginalisation within the art world or contributed to their migration to physical galleries. The NFT market allows lounging at home, being online and make money off of that. Ideally, this could perhaps be a version of fully automated luxury communism, a vision of self-regulating algorithms producing images and making money. In reality, it is currently difficult to define crypto magic with such a chaotic hype timeline as NFT, the co-creator of the Mutagen project, Edgar Aronov has also called it “a mystical game”.
Blockchains entail the web 3.0’s attempt to use cryptography (kryptos meaning “hidden” or “secret” in Greek) to cut out the intermediaries, however, this, too comes at a price. So we should also discuss the energy cost of Bitcoin, which is equal to that of a country of the size of Argentine. When it comes to Ethereum, its operating principles relying on energy-intensive crypto mining have been criticised as well. Yet, the artist Katja Novitskova participating in the Mutagen project and the gallerist Olga Temnikova point out that exhibitions and biennials are just as resource intensive — bubble wrap, transport and petrol, flights, dry walls etc. And there is also hope that next year, Ethereum will convert from the intensive proof-of-work system to the holdings-based proof-of-stake system, where transactions are not fixed so much by crypto mining but by proving the value of the stake, which would lead to a considerable reduction of blockchain’s ecological footprint.
The Mutagen project as community-based creativity
On 1 August, the NFTs of the Mutagen project were released through the web-based platform and within three hours, all of the 4136 were sold. Based on mathematical randomness the 500–600 collectors were given 4096 mutagens and 40 rare geneses. Each image, biblically called genesis (this is how first projects are called in the language of start-ups) consists of four layers of mutations. Each layer of mutation is connected to different mutagens, which means there are 256 variations of NFTs of each genesis. In total this adds up to thousands of prints, or snapshots of particular moments of mutation. Every transaction made with an artist’s work in the blockchain guarantees a percentage for the artist as well, since all transactions will be recorded in the “ledger” of the blockchain preserving them in the protocol forever.
With Mutagen, artists were required to relinquish the control over the online activities, the financial logic and machine creation — they had to surrender to the processes that do not depend on them and are self complicating, altering and distributing their works. Even the second law of thermodynamics says that disorder or entropy in open systems can only increase and the blockchain space is a great example of that. Blockchain art and the NFT market are an attempt to make entropy economically profitable.
The NFT market allows lounging at home, being online and make money off of that. Ideally, this could perhaps be a version of fully automated luxury communism
Since the 1970s, computer technology has played a role in the globalisation of financial markets and in the relationship between social groups and their particular relationship with technology. The Mutagen project probes that ambivalence and also lets that carry itself. Olga Temnikova, the owner of Teminikova & Kasela gallery also seems to agree — she considers the work of Edgar Aronov, the co- creator of the project, and Hendrik Kaju, the technical architect of the project, as creative as that of the participating artists. The technological architecture created by Kaju is open source, that is, easily accessible to everyone. So far this has increased the popularity of both him and Mutagen.
In addition to Aronov and Kaju, other members of the Mutagen project include the internationally acclaimed Swedish post-internet artist Ilja Karilampi and the US artist Nik Kosmas. Estonia is represented by Katja Novitskova and Tommy Cash. Overall, the team includes over 16 collaborators. The Mutagen project required that the artists give up control in certain aspects. The construction of the genesis versions was inspired by the NFTs of the algorithmic music platform EulerBeats, in which the participation of the stakeholder determines the algorithmically produced music, also available for creating prints or sound snapshots of a section of the mutation.
Karilampi says working with blockchain means stepping away from the elitism of institutional art. After all, it is a decentralised network and its democratising influence allows all kinds of agents to impact the process, such as the fluctuations in financial flows, marketing, anonymous trolls and meme culture. Karilampi thinks crypto art should be fun, purposefully and stylistically superficial and rooted in participatory culture. The contemporary art that can be digested by the blockchain needs to simultaneously be popular, avant-garde, scientific and financially profitable. Karilampi and Novitskova claim that blockchain art has further future potentialities. Karilampi talks about computer animations and videos mutating in real time, filled with algorithmic filters and automated after effects, as if it were a visually alive organism. Novitskova highlights the processes already in motion, like Google’s artificial intelligence AlphaFold II that uses digital images to influence biological processes.
The communication in the crypto community crawls with filters, memes, ironic and perverse jokes, even conspiracy theories. The communicative ability of the collections by Ilja Karilampi, Tommy Cash and Nik Kosmas is based on their adaptation to the rules of the world of crypto — they use symbols like Pepe the Frog, emojis, manga, trolling etc. Katja Novitskova sneaks past the milieu of internet culture, researching instead, how digital art and science can synthesise a new kind of nature in the future.
The collections by Karilampi, Cash and Kosmas display a desire to create visual euphoria or strive towards anti-elitism by drawing attention to a communicative ecstasy present in the communication of NFT communities. These collections can be understood as digital hieroglyphs, filled to the brim with signs, references, memes and symbols that can even be contradictory at times.
Karilampi has said that he would like to achieve a similar visual euphoria with his work as listeners experience when hearing the hooks in Avicii’s tracks. Nik Kosmas looks for transcendental in frigid. Stylistically, Kosmas’ works include elements of both anime and manga, video game design and psychedelia. Similarly to Cash’s collection, we see here sexualised and surreal figures, such as the mechatronic biker bull from hell eating sushi. Cash’s collection is not much different from his social media imagery. His rarest genesis NFT, a full gold figure of Tommy Cash in lotus pose reminded me of Clement Greenberg’s words that avant-garde is inevitably tied to the market by a “golden umbilical cord”. It does, of course, raise the question that perhaps involving Tommy Cash was a marketing ploy to attract wealthier investors.
Katja Novitskova’s collection of biomolecular mutants are made up of monstrous faces, proteins or viruses created by the GAN algorithm or artificial neural networks, which, in the end, turn out to be light and utopian creatures. Novitskova has said that “genetic mutation” is an essential part of life. The human face that appears to us in a virus is a great image to very currently and aptly conclude the “mystical game” of the Mutagen project.
Mutagen is timely and generalising, conceptually trolling and experimenting with future technology, creating connections between biological evolution and technological acceleration, viruses and memes, financial tools and contemporary art. When the wealthier class is willing to pay 69 million for a single digital image by Beeple, even though it is freely available for downloading online, we should not necessarily see that as a problem. At the same time, Mutagen also reveals the downside of the blockchain: the crypto market amplifies the cult of ownership, where the art is valued less than the opportunity to trade it on the market. It is still early to define the artistic and critical value of the Mutagen project, however, it does set a precedent in the sphere of blockchain art. It is an ongoing and mutating art project in the increasingly decentralising financial field.
See more of the Mutagen project: mutagen.xyz.