A New Art History: How Digital Lineages Change How We Make and Own Artworks
Blockchain is changing how we care for art. Critic Orit Gat discusses how the technology reframes the creation, conservation, and curation of artworks online.
Commissioned by Hyundai Artlab
Artworks exist within countless lineages, ranging from networks of stylistic influence, art history, market and collector provenance, and technological development. With the ascend...
Artworks exist within countless lineages, ranging from networks of stylistic influence, art history, market and collector provenance, and technological development. With the ascendance of NFTs and Web3 technologies, we add a new lineage to the mix: the blockchain. In order to explore how digital artworks function within today’s networks, critic Orit Gat considers how our understanding of authorship and ownership continue to “shift and intertwine.”
What does it mean to own currency? Made by an artist? Out of a fictional mineral?
Agnieszka Kurant’s Sentimentite is a series of 100 NFTs, each aggregating data about human emotions from a list of topics including the Covid-19 pandemic, natural disasters, and world economy. When minted, the data is shaped into a 3D sculpture and cast in Sentimentite, a material Kurant invented, which is made of matter such as gold, books, USB sticks, and cocaine.
Image by Agnieszka Kurant via Zien
The Sentimentite works, like other artist-made NFTs, are an example of new forms of art, where the final product—be it an image, an object, a currency, a line of code—propose the necessity of a new art history that marries the age-old tradition of charting the provenance of artworks, the contexts in which they were produced and the ones in which they were shown, along with a history of new technologies.
This new art history will have to constantly adapt. In Ed Fornieles’s Finiliars (2016–) and Sarah Friend’s Lifeforms (2021), NFT artworks are living entities: the finiliars, which Fornieles first introduced in 2016, are cute little creatures representing the changes in Ethereum’s token, the US Dollar and the British pound—the idea was to give these invisible currencies or forces a visible shape—and the result is continually changing figures, shown in exhibitions on LED screens and owned as tokens. Friend’s little lifeforms can only be held for 90 days: if the person who owns a lifeform does not give it away within three months, the entity dies.
Image by Sarah Friend
These works challenge ideas of what an artwork is—not a fixed entity, perhaps a relation, always an expansion of our ideas of what technology is and could be—and offer something specific: an expanded and critical way of imagining the aesthetic possibilities of technology (like Fornieles wanting to give shape to invisible financial forces, like Kurant imagining new forms of minerals, the natural becoming fictional). And like Friend’s work suggests by making ownership part of the work’s life, the distributed NFT-based system means these artists do not only offer new ways of making, accessing, and distributing work, but also new ways of thinking about ownership and authorship.
Image by Ed Fornieles
Artists stretch what we imagine is possible. Before many people considered how some technologies might be used (or may be useful), artists are already challenging us to think about how they can be in dialogue with the history of art and also how we may engage with them in the future. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in its Art + Technology Lab virtual exhibition “ECHOES,” made one suggestion for these different forms of engagement: the show, including artists like Lawrence Lek and American Artist, was minted as an edition of non-fungible tokens on the Algorand blockchain, in what the museum has described in its blog “Unframed,” as putting into practice the conversation about the application of NFTs and blockchain technologies.
Image: © EPOCH Los Angeles
Image: © EPOCH Los Angeles
Lek, in another recent project, had made a collection of NFTs from the landscapes and environments he designed for his virtual reality work Nepenthe Zone (2021–ongoing). The collectors of the NFTs will then be invited to participate in meditation and breathwork sessions, with the goal of translating ideas of care to a digital Web3 environment. In different ways, these two examples take the physical practices we associate with art—viewing an exhibition, collecting an artwork—and challenge how they can be decentralized. This is a thought process that draws on blockchain technology itself: the language around it, the different ways in which it is used and its different imaginations of the future, and the way it rethinks structures of value and value-making.
Credit: © Lawrence Lek, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
The discourse around NFTs has largely related to new possibilities of ownership: like Friend’s proposal that ownership could be time-sensitive, or like in Kurant’s work, where the physical object is only cast when the work is minted. But the blockchain could also inspire new ways of thinking about authorship. The technology itself involves some values that relate to the production and display of art, such as participation and decentralization. And so we can think of the value of the works discussed here (value in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the word) as something that is co-produced. Hence that the life of the work, or what I refer to as its art history, does not end at the moment of its creation, but continues throughout its distribution.
To own, display, or engage with these works comes with a renewed sense of responsibility to keep them accessible. It may be impossible to know exactly what these forms of access and conservation will look like: documenting what the work looked like originally, for example, or what its chain of ownership was like. These works do not remain static in their form but rather respond to the time and place in which they are produced and traded, as well as to how they then move through the world (when minted, when exchanged), and how they are discussed. As a result, our ideas of authorship and ownership will shift and intertwine as well. Thus these works remain meaningful not only as an account of the new, or how artists and viewers engaged with technology at a certain moment, but also as part of an age-old knowledge: that humans produce art in order to explore the changing world around them. This is not changing in the future.
Orit Gat is a writer and art critic living in London. She is a contributing editor at The White Review and at Art Papers and she has written about contemporary art and digital culture for magazines including frieze, e-flux journal, ArtReview, art-agenda, the Times Literary Supplement, the LA Review of Books, The World Policy Journal, Flash Art, The Art Newspaper, VICE, AIGA Eye on Design, The Brooklyn Rail, Apollo, Art in America, Spike Art Quarterly, Camera Austria, Review 31, and Cultured. She won the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant in the short-form writing category in 2015 and was a finalist for the Absolut Art Writing Award (2017) and the International Award for Art Criticism (2017, 2018). She regularly gives talks in museums and cultural institutions around the world, including the New Museum and MoMA in New York, Chisenhale Gallery in London, NTU CCA in Singapore, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Shuhua Xiong is a Shanghai born artist now based in NY and NJ. She enjoys sincerity and raw honesty in any expression form. She seeks an intangible feeling and transfers it down to canvas, digital and textile.