View On the Appearance of Noncircularity in the K21 gallery here →
It seems inevitable, in retrospect, that Liam Gillick would have produced an NFT. In an artistic career devoted to the interrogation of modernism and the flows of capital enabled by it, he has probed the abstract systems that sustain modernist thought. IKEA and the International Style, corporate culture and factory structure, the global summit and universal pre-k, folklore and the formulaic equation are all fodder for his multidisciplinary practice. Gillick weaves a complex web of references and associations in his work that subtlely reveal the gaps and fissures in prevailing ideologies — not to dismiss them, but to revel in the inconclusiveness (and potentiality) embodied by them. He sees the “disruptive status of the NFT as a form of art” and understands its “complex position regarding the history of Conceptual art, production and exchange.” So, for Gillick, the time for experimentation with this burgeoning medium is now.
It is only fitting in a practice deliberately defined by detours and digressions that Gillick would choose a logical paradox for his first NFT. Paradoxes come in all forms — linguistic and numerical — and they stretch logic to the outer limits of plausibility. Logical paradoxes are an intellectual extreme sport that date back to antiquity. At their simplest they are solvable riddles, but when really complex they hang in the balance between rational resolution and pure speculative thinking. Gillick’s variation, “An infinite queue of artists…. Each artist thinks at least some of the artists behind them…are thinking an untruth,” plays on what philosophy professor Roy A. Sorensen has called the “designated student paradox,” which describes a group of students standing single file trying to determine which student has a gold star on their back when they can only see in front of them. Gillick’s paradox imagines a line of artists stretching in both chronological directions suspecting that the ones who came before them have not told the truth, but they could also be, themselves, the very artist suspected of deploying untruths. To claim otherwise might be a lie. This mental conundrum raises art’s nebulous relationship to truth, puts Gillick himself in the dubious position of suggesting he, too, could be a liar, and reminds all of us that while art may seek a form of truth, it is not bound by it.
Gillick’s NFT compounds various threads in his practice — the always remarkable mind games he plays with accepted aesthetic systems, the adoption of forms from the “real world,” and an embrace of abstraction through readymade elements. Here, those elements are the hexadecimal codes of the two hundred or so different colors he has utilized in his sculptures, installations, prints, graphics, and the like over the years. While not immediately visible, these Hex codes drive the speed and direction of the NFT’s revolving rings of text. Never one to mystify for the sake of affect, Gillick makes these codes accessible to the viewer with the simple press of the “I” key, which reveals the inner workings of the algorithm powering the motion of the paradox. The space bar reveals new Hex code colors and changes the speed and direction of the rings of text. To reflect its direct ties to the blockchain, the cycle is stopped and restarted every time an artist burns an NFT on SuperRare, an act that is usually the result of a mistake that is made during the process of minting a work. This represents an error and a redo, a reflection of an artist having minted an untruth, a mistaken manifestation of their intentions, to the blockchain. Because everything is preserved with full transparency, the burns itemize an inventory of untruths told by artists. This is a shared memory of miscalculations and their corrections. Dead addresses are perpetual reminders of the need for forgiveness and recalibration. Collectively they constitute a cemetery of decommissioned NFTs, haunted by untruths that exist in parallel to their corrected iterations.
In the interview below Liam Gillick discusses his work, the notion of truth in art, and his approach to producing his first NFT with K21.
What led you to devise a logical paradox for your NFT?
I have been working with various equations and algorithms as artworks for many years in very specific situations. I am interested in the way they function beyond spoken language. To be more precise, they are an international language available across all linguistic borders. These equations and algorithms relate to things in the world. In the past I have looked at pressure, information compression, and global climate models in Istanbul, Paris, Frankfurt, and Melbourne. Faced with the chance to make an NFT I just extended this part of my practice and during quarantine in Korea earlier this year I had a lot of time to think about what kind of work I could produce that would have some resonance with the complex potential of an NFT. As with a lot of my work I also wanted to think about the implicated role of the artist as producer. My desire was quite extreme;initially I was looking for something that could set into motion a mathematical paradox that might bring down the whole system. As I read more papers about paradoxes I was drawn to a more interesting idea, that of the logical paradox. Within that reading I discovered a more elegant way that I could express my skepticism about the role of the artist in this new creative ecosystem. Not just myself, but also all the other artists who are producing NFTs. I wanted to work with an idea that suggested a context and a continuity and a resultant difficulty.
Do you see a correlation between the blockchain, cryptocurrencey, and nonlinear thinking?
I see ruptures and contradictions and new languages of excessively obscure ecstatic projection. Maybe that’s a new form of nonlinear thinking. But the actual processes involved in creating and minting are quite logical and have to be error free.
What is art’s relationship to truth? Is your paradox solvable, like a riddle? Are you one of the artists potentially telling an untruth?
I would turn this around and ask what is art’s relationship to lying? Or maybe better, art is a reflection of dissatisfaction with the state of things, a desire for an alternative truth wrapped in lies. My paradox is neither truth nor lie. It is a statement that has to be accepted as a proposition. It neither instructs nor suggests a solution. It is a statement of fact that has to be accepted as a possibility. I remember reading Philip Core’s book, Camp: The Lie That Tells the Truth, when it came out. All contemporary art has some relationship with Core’s depiction of camp. I don’t think about truth in a linear way. Art is full of projection, misdirection, sloppiness, sullenness, and denial. This leads to a kind of parallel set of truths. For something to be true it might need to be proved. I am quite sure good art cannot be proven. That’s what makes it art.
Your work is filled with paradox — as with your expressions of hypothetical thinking and the various ways you illuminate the false promises of modernist idealism. Do you consider this criticism or a kind of seduction?
I consider it to be both criticism and seduction. I don’t think critique lacks seductive qualities. And I am sure that seduction can embody critique, especially in relation to surfaces, lures, and the hypnotic potential of discourse. I am not sure that modernist idealism offered false promises. My position is maybe more paradoxical, as you point out. Modernist idealism emerged in direct relationship to historical traumas and battled the emergence of state ideologies that attempted to crush it or co-opt it. What interests me is the way the phantoms of modernism — as a direct critique of the trajectory of modernity — mutated under the conditions of globalization and neoliberalism. I am interested in illuminating the false promises of the present.
What is your relationship to the Hexadecimal codes? Have you always used them for the color elements in your work? Do they add a layer of abstraction?
I use them to translate the RAL color system into a computer representation of color that I use to create computer representation of works. I can type in a code and instantly see a color that I can use on the facade of a building or on a small, unique object. My relationship to coding and data is purely functional. I am looking for modes of translation where it is possible to find ways to conceive of ideas, colors, and forms across media and sites of production.
How much does the viewer of your NFT need to know about its inner mechanism: what makes the rings revolve and what determines the speed of their revolution?
It is very important. There are two clear aspects of my work. An attempt to create a contemporary abstraction, where I make use of the RAL color system. And a critical commentary on that activity via various graphics, texts, and films. These two unresolvable aspects play off against each other. With the NFT I have brought together both of these components. On the surface we see a statement that exists as a form of art. Yet underlying this graphic work is a code that drives a motion. The coding is derived from the activation of hexadecimal representations of the colors I normally use in the abstract works. The color is driving the motion of an expressed criticality.
Do you think that the decentralized promise of cryptocurrency is a true disruption of the prevailing economic systems, or could it become yet another form of control?
I don’t know. I think it is so wrapped up in the creation of its own language forms right now that it is often an expression of complexity as a fetish. Years ago I worked on an e-flux project titled “Time/Bank.” It referred back to yet another moment of American oriented neo-utopianism,the creation of time-based currencies in the nineteenth century. The American anarchist Josiah Warren, who ran the Cincinnati Time Store from 1827 until 1830 — and other time banks emerged to operate outside the main financial systems in the context of communal and utopist communities. To me cryptocurrency shares some of this legacy of American utopian attempts to create new communes without communism;at the extremes there is an odor of Randian neo-objectivism and at the same time a particularly American form of anarchism that Ayn Rand would not have appreciated at all.
Your work has always been rooted in constructed space, interrogating the history of architecture and design for the mechanisms of coercion embedded in them. Have you thought about how this phenomenon might be manifest in the metaverse, in all the virtual spaces that are being constructed for entertainment, community interaction, and knowledge sharing?
Everything I have made since the late 1980s has been developed on a computer. And for the last twenty years I have always built complex architectural models by myself on the computer before thinking about how to intervene in a space. What does this have to do with the metaverse? In some way my relationship to the metaverse is the same as a ditch digger’s relationship to the grand architecture of the past. It’s pretty basic. However, I am very conscious of the immaterial quality of digital space and what can be done with it. I have some degree of competence in the production of digital surfaces and simulations. This aspect of my production is not the art itself. It is the creation of models that I can inhabit while considering my next move — it is the fabrication of a context for thought. I am less interested in the large claims made for virtual spaces, community interaction, and knowledge sharing. None of these is a paradigm shift away from less virtual forms of the same and sometimes merely monetize via new forms of alienation. It is the border zones, of course, that are always fascinating. The way in which the promise of new forms of engagement develop their own aesthetics and find form. The metaverse produces a specific set of aesthetics that are often developed by people who do not have a critical relationship to aesthetics.
Given that you have designed the graphic interface for numerous galleries and museums, often as part of your exhibitions, have you considered also designing for the metaverse?
First I would think of a better word for it. Meta suggests self-awareness and self-referentiality. I am not sure the contemporary “metaverse” has an especially large dose of either. Or maybe it has too much.
What is your relationship to the history of Conceptual art? Do you see your work living in the lineage of Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner? How does an NFT extend or complicate this history?
I don’t think of it as a clearly defined history. There are and were artists attempting to make new forms of art with new ideas, media, and via the creation of new contexts. As a student I discovered these artists through Lucy Lippard’s books and exhibitions. There are many differences between them, and they were all trying to do different things. One common aspect was the attempt to use new forms and new ways to distribute ideas. I think the NFT fits with that. At the same time the NFT process rather removes the artist from controlling the means of production and distribution in some ways — or at least displaces them. So it could be described as anti-Conceptual. This might not be a bad thing.