Crypto Therapy for Mixed Crypto Feelings
Author: Julia Kaganskiy
Author’s Note: The following script is based on the virtual event “Crypto Therapy for Mixed Crypto Feelings” co-created by Kyle McDonald and moderated by Dr. Michelle Kasprzak for STRP Festival on April 8, 2022. To protect the privacy and identity of the participants, all names and personal details have been removed and the author has taken considerable creative license with the text. This is not a transcript of the conversation that took place but rather a fictionalized account intended to dramatize the mood of the event and the sentiments expressed.
THE OLD TIMER
A dimly lit YMCA rec room on a Friday night. A grief counseling group has gathered — five strangers and a therapist. The room is bare and empty except for a circle of fold-out chairs and a black card table with coffee pot, paper cups, a carton of milk, and some sugar.
THERAPIST [enters, carrying a clipboard and donning glasses]: Alright everyone, welcome, welcome. My name is THERAPIST and I’ll be leading tonight’s session. If you could please find a seat, we can go ahead and get started.
[Everyone shuffles towards a seat, some pausing to refresh their coffee along the way]
THERAPIST: Well, then, here we are. First of all, thank you for being here tonight. I know it’s not easy to ask for help and that many of us would much rather avoid examining our emotions or, worse yet, talking about them. But you’ve all come here today because you’re struggling and you recognize that you need help. I’d like to commend you for taking this first step. Why don’t you give yourselves a round of applause?
[THERAPIST starts clapping. A few people join in half-heartedly.]
So, as I mentioned, my name is THERAPIST. I’m a licensed crypto trauma counselor and I’m here to help you process any feelings of grief, trauma, anxiety, and depression that you may be feeling at this time. Whatever you’re feeling is perfectly normal, perfectly legitimate, and you are by no means alone. Part of what’s important here tonight is that we can share, commiserate, and support one another through this difficult time. Together, we are stronger. Now, who’d like to help us get the conversation started?
[Awkward silence. Everyone glances around at one another uncomfortably. A few people shift and fidget in their seats, avoiding making eye contact with THERAPIST.]
THERAPIST: Alright now, don’t be shy. Just say a bit about yourself and what brought you here tonight.
[THERAPIST turns to THE INGENUE who is sitting to her right.]
THERAPIST: How about you, dear? Go on and tell us why you’re here.
THE INGENUE: [Sighs] Alright, I’ll go. Hi, everyone. I’m an artist and an assistant professor of digital media and I’m here today because I am anxiety fatigued. I have so much anxiety about NFTs. In part, because there’s so much shit going on that I was frankly not ready to take on. It’s this whole new parallel world that I can’t even begin to wrap my head around.
THERAPIST: Great, you’re very welcome. It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious and overwhelmed. Is anyone else feeling this way?
THE SKEPTIC: Yes, I can relate. Hi everyone, I’m also a digital artist, creative coder, and sometime educator. My experience with NFTs has been challenging but also illuminating. I feel like I’ve been learning a lot from studying the space at a distance and it’s been helping me understand how I feel about the world and how I think art should be supported. At the same time, I feel like NFTs have caused a rift in the digital art community and that people have kind of taken sides. I guess I’ve done that myself because it feels like you need to take a position. The thing I’m trying to figure out is, what is the end game here? Is it that NFTs take over and that’s how we fund digital art? Or is it just one piece of the puzzle? I feel a bit scared and uncertain about where this is all headed.
THERAPIST: Welcome! Thank you for sharing your fears and uncertainties about the future of digital art. I’m sure many people here can relate. Who wants to go next?
THE OLD TIMER: I’ll go. I’m also an artist and a retired professor. I started showing my artwork 40 years ago. At first, I was making painting and installation-based work and I was selling a lot. But I was living all over the world and I had nowhere to store the stuff, so I switched to a digital practice because you could put your work on a hard drive… or maybe it was just a floppy disk back then? I don’t remember. Anyway, I did that. What I discovered and fell in love with in the digital art community was that, since we had no hope of selling our work, we were left with a strong sense of community. We would talk and research and be more idealistic. Our values had nothing to do with our sales. Some people sold sometimes, but it was like an anomaly. I think what happened with NFTs is that NFTs foregrounded the trade and the flip. It’s made me really upset. I feel trapped. And I am trapped.
THERAPIST: Thank you for being so vulnerable with us. We’re right there with you. Let’s see if we can find a way out of this trap together.
THE CYNIC: [Rolls eyes and crosses arms]. Yeah right, as if that’s even possible.
THERAPIST: I understand it seems like a tall order, but let’s keep an open mind, shall we? Why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself and say a bit more about how you’re feeling today.
THE CYNIC: Well, like most of you I’m also an artist but, in my personal life, I’ve become a bit of a climate activist over the last few years. So with NFTs, I tend to dismiss the so-called “good parts” like the micro-economy and its ability to fund art because this stuff is boiling the oceans. I’m also deeply uncomfortable with the way big Silicon Valley companies, like the NiftyGateways and SupeRares and others, are bringing capitalism into our communities and into our lives, the way these powers are separating people from each other by creating tensions — economic tensions or ethical tensions based on different values and perspectives on the world. My main takeaway from the big NFT platforms is that capitalism is not just going to contaminate the world outside but also use us as artists, and our work, as speculation assets. In the past, I felt like I could be in my little bubble and go on creating my work, living an amazing life flying to festivals and biennales, before I stopped for ecological reasons. Now the situation is SO bad. We’ve given so much power over to billionaire tech CEOs and tech companies in general. There was a time when I felt that maybe tech companies were bringing something positive into the world and were somehow “neutral” but now I realize that they are at the core of the fossil fuel industries and the ideology of these big companies is going to probably destroy us all.
THERAPIST: Wow, those are some very big concerns. Why don’t we all take a deep breath together? Ready? Let’s inhale-one-two-three-four and exhale-one-two-three-four. And again, in-two-three-four and out-two-three-four. It must be heavy to carry all that responsibility around. I can understand why it’s stressing you out and making you upset.
[THERAPIST turns to THE ENTHUSIAST.]
THERAPIST: I guess that leaves you. Who are you and what brings you here tonight?
[THE ENTHUSIAST shifts uncomfortably in his seat and looks nervously around at the rest of the group]
THE ENTHUSIAST: Well… I guess I’m the outlier of the group because I’m somewhat cautiously optimistic about NFTs and the blockchain. At least, my experience so far has been largely positive. I’ve done pretty well for myself selling NFTs online and I’ve met a bunch of great people. The reality is, interactions online can be strange, especially when people are behind avatars, but I love being able to go somewhere and meet real people from the internet, primarily other artists, and be able to talk and hang out together. As a generative artist, I feel like I’m in a pretty interesting position because there’s like maybe a few hundred people who have done this kind of work seriously for more than a decade and all of a sudden our work is seen as really interesting. In some ways, we actually have a lot of power in the space. So, in my experience, it’s been quite interesting and empowering, especially getting to meet other artists and support them. But success breeds its own difficulties, I suppose, which is one of the reasons I’m here.
THERAPIST: Thank you. It’s actually quite refreshing to have a more positive perspective in the room. I’m sure it’s not without its nuances and complications and I hope we get to dig into that here today. Going around the room, we heard quite a lot of fear, uncertainty and anxiety expressed. Let’s go a little bit deeper now and see if we can uncover the root of these issues.
[THE INGENUE starts tapping their foot nervously and takes a big swig of their coffee]
THE INGENUE: This is a safe space, right?
[THERAPIST nods and makes an open hand gesture as if to say, but of course!]
THE INGENUE: Right. Well, I just feel so much anxiety over the arguments. I feel anxiety over the ecological impact. I feel anxiety over some of my friends and peers and mentors becoming multi-millionaires. I feel anxiety over the fact that maybe I’m missing a train. That maybe I could be a millionaire and that I’m going to feel stupid when I’m not. I’m someone who has never sold their art and, to be honest, I never really planned on making money from my art. My day job as a professor allows me to make my art and put it out for free. Initially, when this whole NFT craze started, I was on the side that this is dangerous, it’s stupid, it’s harmful, AND it’s ugly — so why would I be into this? Yes, there are some people who are making money and getting recognition that is long overdue, but for the most part, I don’t see a lot of NFTs that I would think of as art. I also don’t see a necessity for most digital art to be an NFT, other than the fact that NFTs are now popular with a certain group of people who are willing to fund and pay for them. I have a couple of NFT ideas that I think could be interesting because they use the medium itself — they can ONLY be NFTs, and I would like to see more of that kind of work. But I also feel anxious that I can’t make those works. I’m afraid that as soon as I say “NFT,” then I’ll lose all my credibility and people are going to hate me. Do I really want to be drawn into that? At the end of the day, I really think that the way something is used is what we have to contend with, not the aspirational ideal. Like, I think of Pepe the Frog. Pepe the Frog was created by an artist and it was initially this kind of cute, harmless cartoon. But then it got taken over by the Nazis. So, at some point we have to be like, “Ok, I guess the Nazis have this now.” Right now, NFTs are a bunch of fucking ugly monkeys for trashy assholes so… am I trying to get into that space? And when I make my amazing conceptual NFT project, who’s going to love it? Elon fucking Musk? So then I’m just like, “Nope. I’m going to go back into my hole.” Because there’s just so much going on here. I’m exhausted!
THERAPIST: Thank you for that. I think we’re all a little anxious and exhausted. Thank you for articulating it so well. [Turns to the rest of the group] I know many of us here are also artists and digital content creators who are struggling to navigate these issues, especially as it concerns our credibility amongst our peers — you mention NFT and half the people in the room are going to hate you. As digital artists who may be genuinely interested in the technology but who are afraid to engage with it because of the polarizing culture around NFTs, how do we navigate this issue?
THE ENTHUSIAST: I know it may surprise some of you, but a lot of what was just shared resonates with me. At the same time, another way I look at it is that the NFT market has offered me the flexibility to make the work that I want to make and get paid for it. I’ve made a lot of friends through NFTs, some of my collectors have even turned out to be good friends. It’s like anything else — it is, in some ways, what you make of it. It just so happens that what I was already doing, making art and writing software, is now something that is desirable and sellable. I can give someone my work, they’ll pay me for it, and it can be traced back to me forever. I do have a problem with the ecological issues around crypto, but I have a bigger problem with the fact that Russia is attacking Ukraine right now. So, let’s put this stuff in perspective. Let’s chill out a little bit and try to understand what it is we’re trying to do. At least, that’s what I’m trying to do for myself. Personally, I’m having a bigger problem with the fact that the art world is freaking weird and people are predatory. You want to talk about NFTs being problematic? Well, this is a longer topic, but try getting paid through NFTs and then try getting paid through a gallery. You think NFTs are bad, but maybe the alternative is actually worse.
THERAPIST: Yes, I think it’s great to point out the relativity of things and that we need to keep all this in perspective. We’ve applied this intense scrutiny to NFTs and their carbon footprint and to the dark side of crypto, the huge criminality in the crypto market, but at the end of the day, people are still driving their diesel cars, and flying all over the world for their holidays, and nefarious dealings happen in lots of different markets without the blockchain. Is it really fair to hold artists to such an impossible standard? I like that you touched on some of the positive experiences you’ve had with NFTs, the friendships you’ve developed, the sense of community you’ve found. Does anyone else want to talk about the relationships?
THERAPIST: No? Nobody else made a friend?
THE CYNIC: For me, community and friendship is something that I feel lucky to have had through code and art my whole life. And when I hear bankers and flippers use the word “community” in the Discords or on Clubhouse or whatever, I get really confused and a little embarrassed, and I wish they’d use a different word or something. Flipping tokens that you don’t really care about is not community to me. On some platforms like Hic Et Nunc or Feral File, it’s a little bit different because it’s kind of for artists by artists and we know why we’re there and we know the basis for why we create those relationships. But I really have a hard time when I see some friends or people who used to be part of our community and have now turned into millionaires and they basically sell stuff for hundreds of thousands of dollars but continue to use these words like “friendship” and “community” even though they no longer connect with us because they’re too busy making millions. I guess I just feel massive disappointment when I see people from our community being really happy to pretend that something amazing and groundbreaking is happening when they are basically just selling tokens and have left the community to make tons of money. Part of me wishes I could make a bunch of money, but I decided not to sell my work on Ethereum and I’ve left huge sums of money on the table as a result, mostly for ecological reasons. But the disappointment is really that some of my friends now use the words “community” and “friendship” when they talk to random bankers and flippers and that makes me feel weird and sad.
THE SKEPTIC: I know what you mean and I often wonder: is there any way to double back down on community and relationships? Because I think a lot of what scares me about this moment is the financialization and transactionality of NFTs and the way they re-emphasize the commerce side of the arts. When I see that, it makes me feel like these are relationships emerging from transactions instead of the other way around. I don’t want to say blockchains are evil or something but I do want to start with the relationships as the foundation instead of hoping that some sort of beautiful thing blossoms from the blockchain. I’m scared of the transactional nature and financialization and the way it will impact and transform the digital art community.
THE OLD TIMER: In the days before NFTs, really all we had was the community — we had each other. I would release work and all I really cared about was what the community thought, that was the only metric. There really wasn’t a market. I sold some things sometimes but the norm was to spend a year and a half working on a solo show, it’s up for one month in New York and nothing sells. And then maybe five years later one thing from that show sells. Having people interested in collecting the work has been radically different over the last year. But, for me, the most important thing with it has been making opportunities for other artists. I’ve been teaching for a long time and a lot of my students work with file-based media, there’s no physical stuff at all and it’s work that doesn’t really make sense in a gallery. A lot of my students were putting their work on Tumblr and had huge followings but no way of supporting themselves with that. So NFTs have allowed artists who work in this way to begin to spend more time making work and making a living from their work. One thing that’s striking to me about this is that if I were a ceramicist or a painter, I could make a choice to put my work in a gallery, to pursue capitalist dreams. That’s a choice and a lot of painters I know don’t do that, they may paint in their studio without any kind of careerist ambitions. For digital artists, there’s never been that choice before and part of me is excited that now people can make these decisions for themselves.
THE INGENUE: I’m not a person who’s anti-money. I get it, money is great. I think everyone should have it! We should all be able to not just survive but thrive. But I guess I wonder what the end game is. Because I’ve had that experience where I go into these Discord “communities” and I run away from them because there’s like 10 artists I love in there trying to have a conversation and then there’s like 50 people being like “where’s my thing that I’m meant to flip? where’s my investment?”. It just feels disgusting and demoralizing as an artist. But if you’re going to sell NFTs and understand that this is mainly a financial opportunity, is there a threshold when you say, “I’ve made X amount of money, now I’m done.” Or “I’ve made X amount of money, now other people can benefit.”
THE ENTHUSIAST: Do you want to get really real? Because I can talk about this. The reality of the situation is that different people want different things. In my case, I got really lucky. Yes, I think the work is good but I got lucky and, financially, it got pretty serious. When that happens, I think it’s important to ask, what are you trying to do? Maybe you’ve made enough money in one drop for the equivalent of your yearly salary. So then you have to think about, do you believe in this work long term? Do you care about what you’re doing? For some people, there’s this notion that each project you do has to be bigger and more lucrative than the last or you’re a failure. But I think that’s bullshit. You don’t have to do something bigger, you can think about how to use your power to facilitate something positive for others. I’m really interested in the long game — how do we get software art into more museums, more institutions, and get it to be taken seriously? So when I make decisions, I generally try to tie it back to that. In the past year, I’ve basically re-directed millions of dollars to charities and non-profit organizations. Some people are willing to give up that cash, some people aren’t. But it’s definitely a lot of weight on your shoulders because a lot of people start to see you as a bank account and not as a person anymore. It makes you put up walls because everyone wants something from you and you don’t know who your real friends are anymore. It’s hard. I started psychotherapy just to be able to talk about this stuff.
THE SKEPTIC: That’s really noble and all but are we OK that we’ve designed society this way? Are we OK with the fact that there is the potential for this huge wealth disparity and a few people get to decide whether they are going to be charitable, or not? To decide what happens with a few million dollars or which causes are worthy? It’s great when people want to give money away, but why is it up to an individual to make that decision? There are still huge ecological issues with NFTs, and I don’t want to sweep those under the rug or diminish them, but whether this is a force for social good or not is an even bigger question. This is about how we interface with each other and design social infrastructure, how we organize, and how we support each other. I feel like one of the things I’ve been learning over the last few years is my own position as an artist who wants to have some kind of involvement in social change. I’m still learning what that means and what my responsibility is as someone who is not a researcher or a scientist or an activist or any of these other people who are actually getting stuff done. As an artist, you kind of inhabit this middle space and I don’t yet quite know what it means for me to be a “good” artist if what “good” means to me is something about being part of some sort of social or environmental change.
THERAPIST: There is an immense pressure for artists to also be activists in everything that they do and that’s an awful lot to bear. Sometimes you are just making work and you’re caught up in your own process, and sometimes you want to make a more activist statement. It’s a difficult line to walk.
THE ENTHUSIAST: I think that however we may feel about it, crypto is going to exist in the future. Unless there is some government intervention, companies are going to build their own blockchains. They’re already doing that. We essentially live in an ersatz state where the companies run things, at least in America, so I think it’s worth understanding that this probably isn’t going to go away. Is there a bubble? Probably. But crypto is here to stay. For us, it’s worth thinking about what we do with that. Is there something we can do to make things better? I don’t know, actually. I mean, as an individual you can do something in your own sphere of influence, but on a larger scale? I’m not sure. A single person can’t compete with capitalism. NFTs right now are the hot button issue of capitalism and they get more attention than they probably deserve. In the US at least, it would probably make a bigger difference to go after something like tax loopholes. And let’s face it, for the past 20 years, the Sacklers have funded the art world and they also killed millions of people with opioids. So, are there going to be the blockchain Sacklers? It’s something to consider. You need to be careful about who you work with and this space has a lot of anonymity, but personally, I don’t work with anyone I don’t know.
THERAPIST: Some excellent points from both sides. Thank you. Since we’re running out of time, maybe we can all share a few words about our future direction to close out?
THE INGENUE: I want to use NFTs to express how upset I am about NFTs.
THE SKEPTIC: I’m trying to figure out some sort of more positive vision about what happens next because I’ve been taking a very antagonistic stance up to this point and it’s been helpful in allowing me to see what I would like, to better understand what I’m defending. But I think at some point I need to stop just defending and do something that I can feel like I’m contributing more directly. I’m still pretty skeptical that that’s going to be in any kind of crypto space but I’ve learned a lot from being on the sidelines and that’s going to come with me.
THE CYNIC: I think the only thing you can do if you’re going to participate in this space is just take the money and run. Better yet, just run.
THE OLD TIMER: To be frank, this session re-ignited my anxiety about NFTs. I thought I had put it to bed, but it’s flaring up again.
THE ENTHUSIAST: When you start feeling anxious, just step away. I’m on a 40 day social media hiatus. I haven’t seen Twitter since last month sometime and I’ll be offline until next week. Of course, I’m not completely offline — I’m emailing people, I’m texting friends. I can really recommend it. Because if you get offline, NFTs just disappear. All that you end up with is the work.
THERAPIST: That is some excellent advice. I think it’s worthwhile for us to remember that we don’t have to engage in market dynamics, in-fighting, or participate in spaces or communities that feel alienating or predatory. At the end of the day, as artists, what matters most is the relationship we have with our work, with ourselves and our own subjectivity. So why don’t we all practice distancing ourselves from the drama and the hype so we can focus on the important stuff? Thank you for the work you did here today and for showing up with honesty and compassion for each other. We’ll be back here again next week. Until then, take care of one another and I hope that you find peace.
Julia Kaganskiy is an independent curator and cultural producer based in NYC. She may or may not have experienced an NFT-induced existential crisis in 2021 for which she may or may not have sought professional help.