Contacts And Traces: A Cross-Platform NFT Space Odyssey

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by KLAUS SPEIDEL

Whenever new artforms, media or genres emerge, some artists just embrace them and start producing work, while others do something more: They create art that reflects on the nature of the medium. It’s the latter that are remembered by future generations. THIS ARTWORK IS WORTH LESS ON FOUNDATION with its companion piece THIS ARTWORK IS WORTH MORE ON SUPERRARE is one of these works, an edgy reflection on the present moment in the NFT world, laying bare its foundations (no pun intended). It also casually connects to some of the most important art movements of the 20th and 21st centuries – all this without loops or fancy 3D graphics. As a handmade jpg and conceptual statement piece, the ensemble breaks new ground in a space dominated by the creations of graphic designers and 3D artists, and leads the way for more conceptual NFT art pieces that deeply engage with the nature of the medium.

The work quotes a tweet by Beanie, a prominent NFT collector, investor, and analyst: “Artists are doing themselves a disservice listing on Foundation. The prices are lagging big time and you will dilute your brand value. SuperRare has a distinct price premium because it is professionally curated, OG, and has an active secondary marketplace. FDN is mostly memes” (@beaniemaxi, Twitter, 2021).

After legendary NFT collector 888’s purchase of THIS ARTWORK IS WORTH MORE ON SUPERRARE (originally minted on Foundation), Nicolas followed suit with a series of drops on KnownOrigin. Following the story as it unfolded, I could observe how the NFT community picked up on the value of the work which resulted in Skye Nicolas taking the number one spot as top trending artist on KnownOrigin when he dropped RGB variants of the initial Foundation piece, leading to a sell-out of the blue edition in just 30 seconds. Theo on the Discord channel NFT MOON SHOTS, called these variant editions “a great long-term investment”. As anyone who manages to collect and HODL all three (+1 variant to come) for one year and airdrops them back to Nicolas, will receive a unique 1/1 piece after the artist burns the four editions, taking them out of circulation and shrinking the existing supply pool. 888 acknowledges Nicolas’ achievements with a thread of enthusiastic tweets, revealing the story of his relationship with the artist and his admiration for his work and ethics. THIS ARTWORK IS WORTH LESS ON FOUNDATION, drops this Thursday on SuperRare; completing the cross-platform odyssey.

To my best knowledge, this makes the ensemble the first where cross-platform minting is integral to meaning. Exploring one of the conditions of existence and circulation of NFT art, it also bridges the gap between the NFT artworld and contemporary art. It is therefore no coincidence that the RGB editions which fell into the lower price range of just 0.1 ETH, were perceived to be of great value not only in the crypto community, but also beyond, attracting new collectors with new wallet addresses. By addressing one of the conditions of existence of NFTs, namely the role of the marketplaces where they are displayed and traded, Nicolas brings greater attention to a point insiders are already well aware of: There is no neutral platform. Each marketplace is a leaky and sticky channel in which Locard’s Exchange Principle fully applies: Every contact leaves a trace. Whenever a work is traded on a marketplace, it picks up some sticky stuff from that place and also leaves some behind for the works that come after. This leads to a distinct scent for each work based on the places where it was traded, those who traded it and who created it. This scent can be as important as the content of the work itself – and is actually often more important. As marketplaces are aware of their stickiness, they try to attract makers who align with their values, as when Foundation recently got Edward Snowden on their platform. This in turn reflects back on the works and artists, attracting specific artists, who then contribute to the platform’s sticky stuff, and so on. While it may be difficult to sniff out the traces irl and it can take art historians many years to reconstruct the trajectory of a work, this is made easier on the blockchain where every contact leaves a trace for everyone to see – which of course doesn’t mean that the interpretation doesn’t require expertise. However, while the NFT space is aware of this, few works if any have so far tried to address this aspect explicitly rather than just roll with it. Doing so, Nicolas strikes new ground in the common endeavor not just of minting cool NFT artworks, but of exploring the fundamentals of this process. This is the kind of work we need to understand: what makes NFT art special in the uniquely human adventure of artistic creation that began over 200,000 years ago, and to assign it its proper place in the world of art.

Nicolas’ piece operates on two different levels. Stylistically and aesthetically, it points towards urban art, where dripping, striking out and overpainting play an important part as official messages are contested and works are created fast with liquid colors or spray paint. It also evokes Gestural Abstraction or Abstract Expressionism, championed by the likes of Jackson Pollock or Katrin Fridriks where the artist’s hand movements are directly inscribed on the surface of the work in the form of traces.

As we read Nicolas’ work like we read a wall with overlaying graffiti, the combination of seemingly more official writing followed by crossing out tells a story in a jpg where nothing literally moves. In a narrative which unfolds without showing any actors, the traces create the fiction of two different authors (or two completely different mindsets of the same author), where one opposes the doings of the other. This is not a gif or a video and yet is equally dynamic, including two states and events, and evoking three moments in time.

Using a woolly digital spray can brush for the black elements near the edges, Nicolas also references early digital painting programs like PC Paintbrush, tying his work to the history of digital art. The mindset of the work however, references a very different – even antagonistic – tradition, namely Conceptual art, a movement that rejected aesthetics as being superficial. Tautological self-referencing has been an essential element of Conceptual art since the 1960s, when artists like Joseph Kosuth or Sol LeWitt theorized tautology and started using it amply, with John Baldessari and others directly addressing the monetary dimension of art. To a large degree, Nicolas’ piece corresponds to LeWitt’s explanation of this kind of art: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” But while conceptual art can sometimes be so rigorous and precise that it becomes tedious, Nicolas takes a more spontaneous punk rock approach, better suited for our age and the crypto space. Resisting the temptation of a rigorist demonstration where the companion pieces on Foundation and SuperRare would have been exact mirrors, he introduces subtle variations and adopts a casually informal language which we would expect to see with Tracey Emin rather than Joseph Kosuth.

Another aspect ties Nicolas’ work to the tradition of contemporary conceptual art: It is a site-specific or in situ piece. Site-specificity has emerged as one characteristic aspect of art in the second half of the 20th century, with many artists creating works for specific locations, taking into account the context where the work is displayed. While site-specificity is often visual, it can, like here, interface with Institutional Critique where artists like Hans Haacke, Andrea Fraser or, more recently, Hito Steyrl critically engage with the policies of the institutions that invite them, addressing the mechanics of art world funding, curation or acquisition. Here, the locations are, of course, marketplaces where NFTs are minted. Creating different iterations of the work for different platforms – including editions on KnownOrigin – Nicolas arguably inaugurated a new genre of NFT art, namely “Cross-Platform Art”. As I look back on the story as a curious observer, one aspect that struck me personally was the support and enthusiasm shared by the actors of the NFT space, where artists and collectors interact on social media without the traditional gatekeepers and guardians of privilege that often make it so tedious to navigate the traditional artworld. The celebratory and supportive tone of the tweets conveyed a community spirit that has no equivalent in the old artworld. Not the only place where the old world has something to learn from the new one… TBC.


Author Profile

KLAUS SPEIDEL

Klaus Speidel is an art critic and curator. Holding a PhD in philosophy from the Sorbonne, he writes for the Centre Pompidou, the Schirn Kunsthalle and many other European museums and galleries and curated numerous exhibitions in France and Austria, among them„Drawing after Digital“in 2015 at XPO gallery in Paris and“Narrating Narrativity“ at Krinzinger Projekte in Vienna. Klaus teaches art history at Vienna University, transmedia art theory at the University for Applied Arts and the art of art writing at summeracademy.at. He regularly publishes art criticism in Spike, Art Newspaper France and other online and offline publications. His latest project is How Pictures Work with artist Vincent Broquaire. Connect on instagram: @dirtytheory

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SuperRare is a marketplace to collect and trade unique, single-edition digital artworks.

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