Above: electron ticket (Kate the Cursed, 2021)

TAKING UP SPACE: aGENDAdao AND THE UNAPOLOGETIC POWER OF TRANS WEB3

The founders of the mutual aid DAO for trans and non-binary artists discuss their work and what it means for trans creators to take up space on the blockchain.

Jun 1, 2022 Cover Stories

4 weeks ago

THE QUEER DISCONNECT

“Oh, you can’t tell TikTok you work at SuperRare,” my partner advised me. To be fair, she was only agreeing with a concern I had expressed to her: that the queer people I knew on the app, particularly my trans siblings, would respond poorly if they knew I wrote about NFTs for a living. In September 2021, when I was still a freelancer with SuperRare Magazine, I interviewed Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonikova and learned the hard way what happens when you’re a queer person in the vicinity of NFTs. After posting my article on Instagram, a friend of a friend, connected to me only through the queer Web2 grapevine, commented, “the article is about how they’re using the stunt arrest for money, as proven by their selling of NFTs, which are fundamentally a scam, right?” I didn’t respond, but a friend came to my defense. The resulting exchange burned hot and fast, and ended with the implication that I was a bad person for writing about NFTs. Similarly, when I came to SuperRare full-time, a friend of mine, also trans, quipped that he couldn’t believe I, of all people, had taken a job in the NFT space. 

When I go to queer parties or gatherings and meet new people, I tell them I work for a digital arts publication, because if they know me before they know the specifics of my job, they’re more willing to keep talking. I’ve even come across queer Discord servers with “this server is anti-NFT” written into the rules. Queer people as a whole, particularly in the leftist, socialist, somewhat anarchistic creative circles in which I move, don’t like NFTs, and I understand why. For most of them, non-fungible tokens connote rich people who collect NFTs like Pokémon cards, or cryptobros who flex their assets on dates and become irate when you dare to disagree over the aesthetic merits of their PFPs. To them, crypto just means digital capitalism, repackaged and dangerously unregulated, a waste of energy and a strain on ecosystems. 

I think these are hasty generalizations. Plenty of good exists in the NFT space alongside the bad, and the refusal to learn remains (somewhat ironically) prevalent in queer scenes–no imagination, no optimism, no sense of exploration. Ultimately, blockchain is a technology, technology is a tool, and a tool’s moral compass isn’t inherent, but rather dependent on whose hands it falls in. Except everyone’s trapped in their algorithmically-generated Web2 echo chambers, their For You Pages and Youtube recommendations, Instagram stories shared among the same 500 people who all follow each other, unwilling to disrupt what they think they already know. 

This is a pattern in leftist queer spaces, with the most performative individuals vying to be the most ideologically pure. The echoes of Your Fave is Problematic culture have endured. Engaging with crypto is a bigger sin than engaging with traditional finance, and engaging with NFTs is more egregious than engaging with the traditional art world, despite abundant problems with both. If I worked at Facebook (oh, I’m sorry, Meta), the offense would likely be forgivable–a job’s just a job, after all. A kid’s gotta pay rent. Yet, the perception that NFTs are inherently evil, and also more evil than other evils, collapses under educated scrutiny, especially when separated from the perspectives of queer champagne socialists in the Global North. I would argue that late stage capitalism, facism, and the rising wave of techno feudalism actually produced the conditions that birthed demand for crypto and NFTs–blockchain is no more or less symptomatic of systems of power than anything else around us (I’ll spare you a full analysis for the sake of brevity). But NFT hatred persists in queer spaces, isolating queer Web3 creators from IRL sources of support and solidarity.

“Ultimately, blockchain is a technology, technology is a tool, and a tool’s moral compass isn’t inherent, but rather dependent on whose hands it falls in.”

Screenshot of aGENDAdao’s current pinned tweet, featureing art by Kate the Cursed.

“Many people are getting pushback from their own communities, IRL queer communities, for engaging with Web3,” Sarah Moosvi told me over a call. I had the opportunity to speak with her and Aria Faith Jones, both founders of aGENDAdao, alongside artist Katherina “Kate the Cursed” Jesek. My introduction to the NFT space shocked me; it wasn’t generative PFP projects or watching art flippers make millions–my first experiences were following queer (mostly trans) artists minting affordable artwork on the Tezos blockchain, most of which had an underground, early computing aesthtic to it. When I first tip-toed in, I expected a sparse trans landscape after hearing other trans people espouse the dangers of NFTs, or at the very least roll their eyes when the topic arose. With IRL and Web2 spaces unwelcoming to trans people in Web3–and with Web3 spaces frequently falling victim to the same pitfalls as Web2 in regards to harassment, transphobia, and systemic biases–transgender people in Web3 needed a place to connect. 

Moosvi, who also works in film distribution, began establishing a blockchain-focused gallery program in 2020 while movie theaters were closed during COVID lockdowns. Using the unexpected free time to pursue an early passion for art, she came to NFTs because they bridged the literal distance between her and artists she knew in Asia. Eventually, between summer 2020 and 2021, she started thinking seriously about how to support artists in Web3, but didn’t “want to do it on the backs of artists, just capitalizing on their work.” The result was twofold: she now works as the director of TDC Gallery and as one of the founders of aGENDAdao. “My relationships with the artists really kind of developed in that year,” she said. “I had my own role as someone who collected the work of queer artists, but wasn’t really out in the community.” Kate the Cursed approached Moosvi with the initial idea for aGENDAdao, originally called transnbDAO, because the artist saw an opportunity to support trans and non-binary people in Web3. “That was the moment I actually decided to really be visible. Aria was in the early calls, and that initial group became aGENDAdao.”

Aria came to Web3 as an artist–originally a musician, her work on music videos expanded to other forms of visual art before she eventually started experimenting with Blender. After developing her skills and uncovering a knack for teaching, Aria began to upload Blender tutorials to Youtube and garnered a following. When she realized her viewers were minting and selling art made with those tutorials on the blockchain, she wanted to learn more, and ended up discovering a community of trans artists. “When I got into NFTs,” Aria said, “I right away found people like Kate, and it was just like, oh my goodness. People are so out…To have that community saying, yeah, it was okay, look, I’m doing it. This person’s doing it. Not only that,” she continued, “but they’re having success.” Before she found a space for herself in Web3, she didn’t address being trans online, except through her art. “It was really an amazing thing for me where I was like, you know what? I don’t need to–it wasn’t even hiding, but it was just avoiding it. I’m just not going to talk about that stuff. But it was such a big part of me and my art that it was hugely releasing when I was able to do that. I was like, oh my gosh, I feel so much more like myself, and I can express myself more inside my art.”

MUTUAL AID ON CHAIN

“Digital Graffiti” (Kate the Cursed, 2022)

“As a transgender tech artist working with non-standard mixed media processes, my unapologetic existence often feels like a powerful act of creation in itself. Taking up permanent space in the digital world with my words and artworks feels even more compelling.”

When it launched in August 2021, aGENDAdao’s original purpose was mutual aid. But more broadly, Moosvi told me, “it was about really kind of banding together and making sure that artists could be their true selves and not have this disconnect…It’s really just saying that if you wanted to be visibly trans in this space, there was a community there for you.” Initially, the DAO’s treasury was funded by selling Kate the Cursed’s art via TDC Gallery’s Mirror account–in a piece titled “Digital Graffiti,” the artist asks what it means to take up space online, writing “As a transgender tech artist working with non-standard mixed media processes, my unapologetic existence often feels like a powerful act of creation in itself. Taking up permanent space in the digital world with my words and artworks feels even more compelling.” Another early fundraiser was the sale of thirteen editions of her “electron ticket,” minted on OpenSea; holders were entitled to a private tour of Kate’s studio via livestream (an “electron ticket” is now in the Queer Museum of Digital Art’s collection). One of the first uses of DAO funds was a stipend for aGENAdao artists traveling to Miami Art Week, offsetting the cost enough to assure transgender people could take up space at a major art industry event. While trans people would always find each other in Web3 (we always do, everywhere), having a source of financial support strengthens the community and expands possibilities for trans artists. 

We often talk about community when we talk about Web3, and trans people understand the importance of community better than most. There’s no single universal trans experience, but I think most of us feel pushed to the fringes of not only cishet society, but queer spaces, too. Trans community is about more than just connection–it’s about solidarity. It’s about taking care of each other when no one else will. A huge part of that is financial support–if you’re trans you’re likely no stranger to the idea that the same $20 gets passed around from trans person to trans person, Web2 style, in the form of GoFundMes for gender-affirming health care or people in urgent need of housing. Those situations can mean life or death, but the same attitude carries over to less dire moments. IRL, we go to crowded bars to watch each other read poetry and we buy each other’s artwork, not only because we want other trans people to flourish, but because art made by other trans people is where we most see ourselves. This aspect of community is replicated on the blockchain–aGENDAdao has donated to queer Web3 organaziations, who have at separate points in time donated to aGENDAdao. It’s common for trans artists to make sales and put their earnings back into the community economy by actively choosing to buy art from other trans creators, and aGENDAdao provides a forum for those artists to find each other (Aria said that, as an artist, the prospect of buying from other trans artists is so important to her). When we’re low on fiat or crypto, trans people still follow each other online, like and retweet and share and stitch and reblog each other’s achievements, take joy in the successes of our siblings and share in their sorrows and setbacks, even when we’re virtual strangers, strewn miles apart. We’ve even seen times when the Web3 trans community has fought back with wallets by choosing not to financially support those in the space espousing hateful rhetoric. And while there are divisions in the trans community (I think referring to trans communities in the plural is more accurate), Web2 brought trans people together in a way that never existed before. aGENDAdao carries that spirit into Web3. 

“Those moments where even though the community is an online community, that it could kind of materialize when you need it, and create safe spaces where needed, was incredibly powerful.”

Financial support comprises only one part of the community formula–the others are interpersonal, emotional, intellectual, and conversational. aGENDAdao’s Discord server, and the spaces that DAO members have built on other platforms like Twitter, allows artists to find one another, to build relationships, and to support each other in ways that are less immediately tangible, but vital all the same (the Discord is also where you can request your DAO token). Aria said she has a few comfortable online spaces, “but aGENDAdao specifically, where if I’m feeling a certain way related to my identity or queerness or transness or whatever it is, that’s the place I can go and be like, ‘Hey, this is exactly how I feel.’” These conversations happen not only among the founders, but everyone involved in the DAO, and the flow of support is organic because there is a community understanding. Moosvi added that she thinks of aGENDAdao alongside “this idea of a portable community, and it’s something that inspires the grant programs as well.” For example, the stipend that helped send aGENDAdao artists to Miami Art Week saw the translation of online community IRL. “Those moments,” Moosvi told me, “where even though the community is an online community, that it could kind of materialize when you need it, and create safe spaces where needed, was incredibly powerful.”

TRANS POWER, TRANS LOVE

It’s fitting that aGENDAdao blurs the binary between IRL and online communities. During our conversation, I noted that it seems trans people are frequently at the forefront of culture and tech, as creators, as early adopters, as both (Wendy Carlos, pioneer of electronic music, comes to mind as an example, her legacy contextualized by the numerous trans and non-binary musicians leading the hyperpop scene). While no data I’ve found documents the demographics of queer NFT artists, anecdotally, I feel comfortable asserting that a majority of openly queer people I’ve encountered in Web3 are trans. Moosvi described Aria’s willingness to dive into NFTs as a “quickness to embrace this new kind of identity online,” and I think that also speaks to the inherent nature of transness. A significant aspect of transness involves the reconstruction of the self, the reassessment of identity, and the willingness to embrace what you uncover, even when external pressures try to grip you tight and hold you back while you thrash. Moosvi continued, stating that “maybe for me, it’s about how being trans is really about creating your identity in your own terms.” Trans artists in Web3 are doing that twice over.

“As a collector and a gallerist, I really look forward to that day where we can collectively support the creation and then the conservation of trans cultural output,” Moosvi mused. I asked Moosvi and Aria what their most idealistic visions were for aGENDAdao’s future—”it’s unlimited, honestly,” Aria answered. The preservation of trans cultural heritage in the digital space sits at the apex of their plans for the DAO. It’s especially relevant now, as trans people and issues relevant to us have risen to the top of cultural conversations in ways both affirming and harmful. Too often, the legacies and achievements of trans people are swept out of sight, and while Web2 rapidly accelerated our visibility, the ability to mint work on the blockchain feels more meaningful and permanent. 

Moosvi is passionate about exploring DAOs as models and tackling the challenges that arise as they’re more widely adopted. How can DAOs be further deployed at the service of communities? What does it mean to run a DAO like a non-profit when it’s not one? What happens when even a DAO, used as a democratized community space, unintentionally excludes people who could benefit from its resources? “When you’re dealing with a community that is more at risk,” she explained, “I never assume that people have the time to donate, to just be a member of the community. Putting forward proposals requires time to put that proposal together. Contributors need to be compensated. Those details need to be worked out.” Operating a DAO requires labor, and that fact isn’t lost on Moosvi. As solutions are found and implemented over time, the hope is that trans people in Web3 will flourish even more. 

identity creation matrix (Kate the Cursed, 2022)

“I grew up with the mentality that if I’m going to ever have success or money or whatever, I’m going to do it on my own,” Aria told me. “I’ve always been very secluded that way, so seeing it work in a different way is really cool. Being like, oh, you can be part of this Community and it will lift you up. I think it’s really incredible,” she concluded. Moosvi then added that the DAO has been “an incredible way for me to discover trans artists that I want to work with and whose careers I want to support, because I have a skillset that can help them with visibility. So it’s mutual aid all around.” 

aGENDAdao has made its name as a space that both embraces queer people in Web3 and gives trans and non-binary arists the tools they need to cultivate successful creative careers. Taking it even further, they’ve built a space that separates the experience of being an artist in Web3 from the idea that a creator’s worth lies in art sales. Something bigger than that exists. Community is powerful, and trans people, when banded together, can accomplish incredible things. When one trans artist succeeds, we all win. That’s the beauty of what aGENDAdao draws attention to: the power of trans and non-binary people. It’s about the power with which we love each other, with which we support each other, and, ultimately, the power we have to make or break a culture, one piece of art at a time.

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Oliver Scialdone

Oliver Scialdone is a queer writer and artist based in Brooklyn, NY. They earned a dual-MFA from The New School, and their work can be found in Peach Mag, ImageOut Write, and elsewhere. They host the reading series Satellite Lit and they're the Associate Editor at SuperRare.

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