Above: “Whitney Biennial: NFT as It’s Kept”

The NFT (Un)guide to the Whitney Biennial

Aug 9, 2022 Art / Events

2 months ago

Typical criticisms of art and NFTs are so vague as to be applicable not only to all the arts, but to life in general. Fraud. “I could do that.” Vapidity. Vainglory. Etc. On the flip side, claims of NFT ascendency are equally spurious, as unlikely and cultish as the Salvator Mundi itself. The prevailing objection is one of hierarchy; art NFTs won’t introduce new girders of power, they’ll only rebuild or buttress what’s already there. Maybe, but a truism of everywhere/thing else. The digital music revolution of the ‘00s? Taken over by the “industry.” The democratized speech of social media? That’s a top-down, algorithmic no. The decentralization of finance? Alas, centralizing.

Rough tally of the 60+ artists/collectives of the 2022 biennial: seventeen painters, fourteen sculptors, fourteen film/video artists, seven photographers and twelve installation / mixed media / performance artists. Zero NFTs.

Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept,” courtesy of the Whitney

If the Biennial representatives were individually extraordinary, the overall set of categories was meh: the category of the boring moving image; the category of still photos of decaying places; the category of abstract art that isn’t quite abstract art. Digital was across the board (WangShui’s paintings, for example, are collaborations with AI), and NFTs lend themselves beautifully to digital media: Multiples can be simultaneously authenticated and infinitely reproduced. Same with performance and conceptual art; through NFTs, the primary impediment (material) is de-emphasized, as it should be, and the moment is historicized, made conscious. Before the Crypto bust (if it’s really that) and the revaluation of the NFT (if it’s not just a sale), the expectation was that museums and galleries were gonna go there. But with no NFTs in the current Biennial, the temptation is to downgrade the NFT in the contemporary art world, and maybe to cast blame. Were the Biennial curators, who declined to comment on NFTs for this writing, making a point about the digital form? Or could we more rightly blame galleries for the slow adoption of NFTs?  (Larry Gagosian, recently enough, has seemed not quite so ready for NFTs.) Were gallerists reluctant to open the discussion to resales percentages for their artists? Were the new markets too plebeian, too hard to control?

Or, hmm, maybe the gallerists aren’t to blame; since 2020, at least, the galleries have been ready to reap in the crypto. Among the mega galleries, even Gagosian is now accepting cryptocurrencies. Tina Rivers Ryan in Artforum, May 2021: 

The growing market for tokenized art is often described as a vindication of digital art’s aesthetic value. It is certainly the case that NFTs have allowed some digital artists, and especially those without traditional fine-arts backgrounds, to profit from their work as never before. But most NFT collectors seem motivated more by financial opportunity or fandom than by connoisseurship and appear unaware that digital art is an expansive field with a decades-long history.

Ryan, summarizing the normative art world rap of that moment, goes on to cite the history, and a few of the many contemporary artists who have been engaging digital arts and contracts. The issues conjured by NFTs are particularly twentieth century, in regards to the conceptualization of art (it’s art once it’s called art) and the nineteenth century, in regards to mechanical and cultural reproduction. NFTs are such a natural outgrowth of the past two centuries of creative thinking that almost any representative artist that comes to mind is a case in point. Andy Warhol. Kara Walker. Take your pick. Seemingly every other gallery is partnering with an NFT platform, or launching one of their own: Jeff Koons is going to the moon with NFTs; Christies and Sotheby’s have specified NFT divisions. The ongoing reportage is one of disruption; the art world, a-tremble, as the tsunami nears, but NFTs have already happened, and, as with other multiples (prints, photographs, etc.) have been readily absorbed by existing financial and cultural systems. If anything, NFTs provide an answer to the multiple; an all-in-one image that can be original and dupe, with provenance and authentication.

In a Mashable article dated to March 2021, Amanda Yeo decries the bro sensibility and environmental disregard of NFTs: “We don’t need NFTs. We don’t benefit from NFTs. The only anemic value gained upon purchasing an NFT is the ability to truthfully say, ‘I own this NFT’—a sentence with so little significance it’s laughable.” And yet, that’s the art world. Unnecessary and narcissistic: as a justification of value. 

Or is that the professionalization of everything? Whatever graphing lines we live within—capitalism, communism, TBD—there is no ideal Platonic state of anything. To do is to be compromised, and to stand aside is to falter in the exercise of your principles. NFTs are ordinary to the ongoing negotiation. Yes, more inclusivity. Yes, more exclusivity. Yes, an artist can sequence and sell her DNA (Alicja Kwade). Yes, gazillion dollar NFTs can look startlingly simple-minded. If, as reported in the Washington Post last August, tech entrepreneur Justin Sun believes that NFTs will “revolutionize the existing trading model in the art market,” curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, speaking to the Post in December, shrugs off the inevitable, “NFTs have already transformed the art world, regardless of whether the boom continues.” 

Some art worlders adapt more easily to the medium, and one might have expected to see Biennial NFTs in, for example, the live ruins from Mónica Arreola’s “Valle San Pedro” series of photos; or installation elements from “06.01.2020” and Alfredo Jaar’s consideration on the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin; or the literal tokens and slugs of Rose Salane’s “64,000 Attempts at Circulation”; or the American dream nightmare of Danielle Dean’s Fordlandia series; or documenting stills of Dave McKenzie, falling and falling again, in “Listed under Accessories.” If what distinguishes the art world from the NFT world is the futuristic inclination of the NFT/digital space—gaming aesthetics, AI, robots, and so on—we might have expected NFTs from the sci-fi leaning characterizations in “Three Critiques” of Daniel Joseph Martinez. But despite the utility of NFTs, whether in speculative realms or realms of documentation, emotive and/or archival, two rounds of research and outreach yielded only three NFT projects ancillary to the 2022 Biennial: 

Jane Dickson

Certificate of Authenticity from Real Collection

December, 2021, “Real Collection,” an NFT trading platform, launched with initial offerings for seven New York City East Village artists, Jane Dickson, Rick Prol, Stephen Lack, Jim Radakovich, Mark Kostabi, Choi TongYull, and Andreas Sterzing. The NFTs are minted on Ledgis, which reached its market height at that time, and has dropped in price fourteen fold since then. The Real Collection site is currently semi-functional, with twelve NFTs live and six more coming in June. Dickson’s “Paradise Alley” (digital art based on oilstick on canvas, 90” x 40,” 1983) is listed as having last sold for $40,000 to @goldenboi, one of the five current collectors on the site.

In March 2022, the South South Platform, founded by Liza Essers, owner of the South Africa headquartered Goodman Gallery, transferred ownership of Fusco’s “The Empty Plaza/ La Plaza Vacia” (2012, via Alexander/Gray Associates) to New York City’s El Museo del Barrio. Essers told the Financial Times: “There is a complete disconnect between art and the blockchain world, but look what it can do for a museum that wants to buy a video work. For me, this is what is meaningful about NFTs, and is largely ignored by the crypto traders.” Information about the blockchain/s employed by the platform is not publicly available (South South did not respond to queries for this writing.)

Andrew Roberts

Andrew Roberts, La Horda (The horde), 2020 (detail). Eight-channel video installation, color, sound; each channel approx. 3–4 min. Collection of Mauricio Galguera, currently part of the Whitney Biennial. Image courtesy the artist and Pequod Co., Mexico City. Photograph by Sergio López

In July, 2021, the Terremoto platform (founded as a blog in Mexico City, in 2013, and expanded to a magazine, exhibition program, publishing house, outreach, and subscriber/sustainer network) announced a NFT edition with Tijuana-based Roberts and Columbian Carlos Motta as part of Club Terremoto’s 2021-22 membership campaign. Details of that drop have yet to be disclosed.

Depending on your perspective, since the Biennial opened in April, crypto has either gone on sale or commenced meltdown. Innumerable tokens have failed, as have exchanges and associated services/offerings, many of which replicate the shadiest of transactions in the financial arena. But are they legal to crypto? The lawsuits and arrests have only begun. Is crypto to be treated like a security? And if not, will it be regulated with the same random legislation and enforcement of online gambling? For the normative art world, the primary fear is likely one of comparison; if Nate Chastain is an insider trader, then what about the auction houses? Would the same safeguards apply? Securities-like holdings of art will face similar scrutiny; Inigo Philbrick’s fraud was as base as that of OneCoin—sell nothing, repeatedly. Counterargument? Major financial institutions are still betting on crypto, because digital assets require digital infrastructures. NFTs can be forward-thinking and diversifying and egalitarian, or crass, elitist and dunderheaded, just like the art world, which summarizes all the reasons the art world should stay away, or shouldn’t, and won’t.

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John Reed

John Reed is the author of numerous books including A Still Small Voice (Delacorte Press/Delta), The Whole (Simon & Schuster /Pocket/MTV Books), the SPD bestseller, Snowball's Chance (Roof Books/Melville House), and All The World's A Grave: A New Play By William Shakespeare (Penguin Books/Plume). His work has been published in (selected) Artnet, the Brooklyn Rail,Tin HousePaper Magazine, Artforum, HyperallergicBomb Magazine, Art in America, the PEN Poetry Series, the Los Angeles Times, the Believer, the Rumpus, the Daily Beast, GawkerSlate, the Paris Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the Wall Street JournalElectric Literature, ViceThe New York Times, and Harpers.

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