Above: Mixed media arwork by Austin Lee at Jeffrey Deitch. Notably not an NFT, as the hardware setup is equal part of the art. Photo by Vittoria Benzine.

Blockchain as a medium: NFTs at Art Basel

How did NFTs fare at one of the most recognizable art events in the world? Vittoria Benzine puts you on the ground floor at 2022's Art Basel.

Jul 27, 2022 Art / Events

2 months ago

The international art scene descended on Switzerland last month for Art Basel’s renowned annual event. Schisms opened by the recent arrival of NFTs prove there are art worlds within the art world. At the nexus of name recognition and cultural acclaim, Art Basel sets the tone for market trends with a global survey spanning styles and scale. 

Art Basel hosted an abbreviated flagship fair in Switzerland last September, but this June’s 52nd edition marked a return to pre-pandemic grandeur. Less than a year since Kenny Schachter debuted NFTs at Basel with Galerie Nagel-Draxler, how did Web3 fare?

Two floors of winding walls in Hall 2 at Messe Basel comprise the fair’s central spectacle–galleries from around the world showing…what? In some cases, a snapshot of their current curation. In others, the best of their artists’ recent work. But ultimately, for all their cultural clout, art fairs are trade events. 

I arrived on Wednesday, June 15, for the Vernissage–the night before Art Basel opened to the public. Technically I was late–all the most important sales had gone down by the end of Basel’s first VIP day on Tuesday, June 14, “including a $40 million ‘Spider’ sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, by far the fair’s most expensive publicized sale,” according to Bloomberg. 

There are even different Art Basels within Art Basel itself, with billionaires at its core.

“Spider” by Louise Bourgeois. Photo by Vittoria Benzine.
The NFT collecting panel drew a large crowd. Photo by Vittoria Benzine.
Tezos generative art exhibition in Hall 1. Courtesy of Tezos.

Hall 1 hosted the event’s more educational, interactive features, like Unlimited–a gargantuan hall of large-scale projects including an immortalized explosion by Leonardo Drew and an oversized hardware shelf by Theaster Gates. This kind of showcase could only coalesce through Art Basel’s might. However, NFTs were absent.

Each Basel event also hosts a Conversations series where industry experts discuss timely topics. This year’s series, curated by Emily Butler, presented nine panels, three of which explored Web3: collecting NFTS, “Exhibiting in the Metaverse,” and an artist talk by the team behind Balot NFT. Reflecting on the organizational choices, Butler told me, “I chose to foreground three issues: climate change and how museums are addressing this pressing question; technology in the artworld including collecting NFTS and exhibiting in the Metaverse; and finally showcasing artists from the African diaspora.”  

Nearby, Vive Arts offered immersive artworks on HTC’s own VR hardware. Tezos exhibited generative pioneers like Herbert Franke along with their own Tezos Talk series–eleven panels total, headlined by Marina Abramović.

That all kicked off Basel’s first public day. The night before, I glided through the Vernissage to see who brought what. Basel may have been my biggest rodeo, but it certainly wasn’t my first–five art fairs in Miami last December, EXPO Chicago in April, Dallas Art Fair later that month, NADA and Independent in NYC at the start of May, Frieze at the end of it.

How would you scope out NFTs in a sea of art? I searched for screens.

Booths on floor one were larger and more expensive, populated by the weightiest institutions. Many felt like museum shows, all heavy marble and mood lighting. Pace Galleries stayed buoyant with a mixed media display centered around blue chip artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Nevelson. Though Pace only featured traditional artworks on VIP day one, by the Vernissage they’d incorporated NFTs culled from their own platform, Verso–launched late last year.

Visitors stopped in their tracks throughout the days that followed to marvel at teamLab’s interactive six-channel work “The World of Irreversible Change.”

Still, screens proved a red herring–an NFT can be anything. Backed by Jay Z, sLABS is building the metaverse of things alongside Americana, a blockchain marketplace for sports cars, designer handbags, even Picasso canvases. In fact, the most impressive NFT at Pace’s booth didn’t even live on a screen–it gleamed within a glass case.

There, Pace premiered “Moon Phases,” the genesis NFT project by Jeff Koons, displaying one stainless steel moon sculpture from the series. Each reflective replica pairs with a twin that will actually live on the moon. “Like the other stainless-steel sculptures that will remain on the Earth as part of the project, the work in Pace’s booth features a small precious stone, positioned to indicate the location of the landing site of the Moon-bound sculptures,” their release explained.

“The World of Irreversible Change” by teamLabs. Photo by Vittoria Benzine.
Moon Phases: Leonardo da Vinci” by Jeff Koons. Photo by Vittoria Benzine.

Blockchain creates connective tissue. In proving ownership, it can make the ephemeral tangible. Koons famously interrogates the delineation between art and commodity. Here, he also challenges the perception that blockchain’s sole value stems from its ability to  conduct transactions, exposing the possibility of Blockchain as a Medium (BaaM). The art world loves to hate Jeff Koons and his money grabs, but this one’s real. NFTs lend concrete meaning to “Moon Phases,” forging a real connection between human beings and enigmatic outer space. 

Pace’s private sales report said they sold numerous “Moon Phases” editions at Basel–for $2 million each. Every year after the event, the international fair set jets from there to Hydra, Greece, where Koons then presented more NFTs via a big boat bash. 

At the Vernissage, Pace’s Director of Online Sales Christiana Ina-Kimbe Boyle told me about an afterparty at citywide staple Zur Magd to celebrate Verso’s latest drop of generative artworks by John Gerrard in partnership with Art Blocks. It took fifteen minutes to score the invite. A good omen.

At the party, I sat down with some people I’d met while shoveling burrata and mushrooms on my plate. Art Blocks founder Erick Calderon and Pace CEO Marc Glimcher hushed the patio to toast the arrival of NFTs as pure art. 

Afterwards, Calderon told me that Glimcher first connected with him anonymously on Discord over their mutual admiration for the artist James Turrell. “Conversations with Marc have revolved around the technology, and how it can empower art to be created and consumed in a novel way,” he said. “We both agree that NFT tech is not a medium in and of itself, but a tool empowering the generative medium.” Then Calderon added, “from a technical perspective, the fact that generative enables the storage of the code, not the final output, on the blockchain, creates a new paradigm in permanence.” At NFT.NYC the following week, he attended a Samsung event where Art Blocks displayed works on a three-story screen. The resolution agnostic nature of blockchain storage allowed those works to render impeccably, even on the oversized surface. 

Pace x Art Blocks party at Zur Magd. Photo by Vittoria Benzine.

“As someone that has spent thousands of hours now looking at generative art in all display types, seeing these projects full screen that large and that crisp was actually something that exceeded my expectations,” Calderon said. Is blockchain part of the medium in this instance?

I kicked Thursday off with a deep dive into the first floor of galleries, still looking for screens. Hubris. I took the same approach Friday, on the second floor. 

There, conversations with gallerists taught me the prevailing model for selling video works still relies on the physical–a signed USB stick, even display hardware itself. When lending films to museums, some galleries rely on file size to differentiate loaners from the master copy. I asked one gallerist what would happen if a collector went rogue and dispersed a million master iterations. They went silent. 

Another London gallerist opened up anonymously: “If you are trading digitally, with a strictly digital asset, then using blockchain makes sense,” they said. “Video artists create works that need to be installed and viewed in a specific way, under guidance by the artist or gallery.” 

“The information that constitutes the art work is digital, but the means of exhibiting the work is analogue,” they continued. “NFTs can be viewed on YouTube, or a phone, and can be viewed by anyone anywhere, without any loss of their essence, or clarity about ownership. Video and film art need certain conditions to be viewed. And generally they aren’t traded like an asset, but they are maintained in a collection for years, if not in perpetuity, by a collector or an institution.” 

Armed with new insight, I returned to the first floor to confirm which editioned digital pieces were actually NFTs. As it turned out, none, except for at Pace. Still, artists with blockchain experience did abound–Jacolby Satterwhite at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Jordan Wolfson at David Zwirmer until his work sold, and at Marianne Boersky, Sarah Meyohas–who hosted a salon for her Bitch Coin token at Art Basel Miami last year.

Meyohas spoke on the first panel I saw Thursday afternoon, discussing how to collect NFTs with art advisor Fanny Lakoubay, gallerist Kate Vass, and RiseDAO leader B. The Art Newspaper’s Editor-at-Large Anny Shaw moderated–she has written about relationships between aesthetics, the art market, and revolution. It was a conversation about financial liberation through technology.

Multimedia works by Jacolby Satterwhite at Mitchell-Innes & Nash. Photo by Vittoria Benzine.
PLAYRECORDMINT flier. Photo by Vittoria Benzine.

Later on, Ced’art Tamasala and Matthieu Kasiama gave a talk about their Balot NFT project, which appeared on the fair’s second floor with Berlin-based KOW. Technically, the gallery didn’t present the NFTs themselves; instead they showed a documentary on the project’s origin story: the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League and its struggle to reacquire an ancient sculpture of Balot, a spirit who protected the Pende people from colonizers not so long ago.

Tamasala and Kisama tracked the sculpture through its previous owner–a private collector–all the way to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Arriving in the American South, they learned that Balot was on loan to a museum in Canada. Taking matters into their own hands, they started selling NFTs at $300 a piece, portions from their own intricate drawing of the former plantation. Every sale helps replant one hectare of biodiversity to combat eco-colonialism.

Kenny Schachter returned with Galerie Nagel-Draxler to present NFTs, too–this time on a larger scale. Kate Vass told me, “It’s important to see the difference between the ‘curatorial’ booth concept that he did last year and the giant step to exhibit independently under the gallery’s main program… That’s a huge milestone.”

Popular dialogues around blockchain technology and art tout liberation from the old guard over and over, but during her panel Meyohas pointed out how gallery representation actually serves her sense of agency, empowering her to focus solely on making the work–not on selling it. 

Jeffrey Deitch even dedicated an entire floor of his three-story booth to Austin Lee, an interdisciplinary artist harmonizing digital, traditional, and industrial media. “I’m interested when the art is compelling and original and has something important to say,” Deitch said, from his side of the table. “If artists are creating something in a new medium, galleries will get on board.”

Art Basel is a serendipity machine; I watched my luck as the weekend wore on. Calderon convened for a meetup with Art Blocks’ collectors the day after their party with Pace–I didn’t make that event since it conflicted with the panels, but I did cross paths with generative artist Richard Vignel the next night, when I stumbled on PLAYRECORDMINT’s pop up just steps from the fair. Vignel was playing with EDITION ZERO, an interactive generative NFT setup that they beta tested during Basel in an auto body shop with a secret skate ramp in a back closet. 

“As a small studio working on issues around technologically-driven changes in artistic production, we had been looking for an exhibition format that offered artists a bridge between physical interaction and NFT’s,” PLAYRECORDMINT said. “Most visitors noticed us by accident,” they continued. “Most didn’t know anything about NFTs. Nor did they realize that this was one of the first NFT-Editions based on a physical interaction of the artist’s work with the audience. But word of our project and its location quickly got around in the scene, and we had visits from some well-known institutions, collectors and artists.” 

Emptying my purse each night, I collected flyers for numerous NFT-adjacent satellite events.

The author at PLAYRECORDMINT.

“It’s always an interesting time for the whole city when Art Basel takes place,” mused the Swiss natives behind PLAYRECORDMINT. “There are a lot of parallel events, young galleries, offspaces, and parties. Many exhibitors and visitors to the fair hardly notice this, as they are working through an enormous schedule. Those who take the time often find new things off the fairgrounds–less polished, but often very interesting.”

Reporting on art fairs over the last year, I’ve learned that anyone except a collector who attends these events probably nurses a masochistic streak. I wondered if infiltrating with a focus on polarizing NFTs would intensify that effect. There were some hasty “no’s” when I double-checked to see if a digital artwork was sold as an NFT, but most of the folks I spoke with were down to dialogue.

“I don’t believe that the fine art world resists technology like blockchain,” Kate Vass said. Crypto moves fast, and fine art moves slow–Vass thinks their paces must meet in the middle. Jo Harrison of London-based The approach noted, yet, “there is still some skepticism about NFTs.” 

“The fine art world privileges the physical object and so the intangibility of an NFT might not have such a far-reaching appeal,” she said. “An NFT is perhaps more appealing to either buyers looking for investments or who are already collectors of digital artworks.” 

“I think that the fine art world is way too arrogant and doesn’t understand the potential of NFTs,” stated legendary Berlin gallerist Johann König. “I think that it’s very much because of the digital artists that we will see a change in the art market.”

Moments where I know I must hate myself for working amongst art fairs are usually eclipsed by community. No matter where in the world these events take place, I always meet new neighbors from down the street in Brooklyn. Art Basel and its cohorts are just high school classes, micro communities with more flash. Peers collaborating across the art worlds to co-create our culture. 

“You might encounter 20th century and contemporary masterpieces side by side, juxtapositions you might never dream to find in the best museum,” Butler said of Art Basel. An art fair can be anything–a shopping event, a family reunion–but most importantly, a momentary museum of our present milieu. 

This year, Art Basel portrayed a pretty picture of the open-ended questions that lie ahead for the potential of blockchain as a medium–even if this crypto winter was the prevailing talk of the fair floor.

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Vittoria Benzine

Vittoria Benzine is a Brooklyn-based art writer, personal essayist, and self-employed public relations professional. Her work has been published in Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Magazine, Whitehot Magazine, and more.

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