From Our Collection: SamJ’s “Transparency”
From Our Collection is a monthly essay series featuring analysis of the pieces in the Museum of Crypto Art’s Genesis Collection. All essays originally published on the MOCA Forum, where we invite you in to read, explore, and comment on our 240+ crypto art essays.
Date Minted: March 19, 2021
Artist Description: A commentary on the lack of transparency in digital art workflows, allowing for low effort work to be published with the illusion of cultural value or significance. | INCLUDES an Infinite Objects Video Display | 60:00 seconds | 24 FPS | 1920x1080 | MP4 | 2.8 MB
Oh yeah. This is full-blown conceptual art. This is antagonistic art. This is no-holds-barred art. This is art that knows exactly what it is, exactly how it appears, and understands exactly the effect it wants to have. I imagine Transparency, if seen by the right (wrong?) people, would cause quite the internal stir. This is artist SamJ taking aim at half-assed conceptual art through the same medium he’s critiquing. With Transparency, SamJ has crafted something equally meta and maniacal, the soft, gray, unassuming equivalent of a middle-finger flashed to a slow-moving car in the left lane while you pass, grinding the gas down hard as you zoom by on their right flank.
I’m going to try and match SamJ’s commitment to conceptualization and keep my actual description of the piece brief, focusing instead on the theoretical implications. Which should be easy, because there’s purposefully little to see here. Transparency is nominally a video, a 60-second loop, but of a completely static surface. I’ve been over it again and again, and there is no actual movement in the piece; the video-fication is a clever ruse, designed perhaps to capture one’s attention, keep them watching, awaiting the coming of some…thing — something interesting, something expressive, something metamorphic. Alas, keep waiting. This piece is a static checkerboard image captured in greyscale. Alternating white squares and grey squares in static lines stretching across the length and width of the piece; a monumental, unfilled crossword puzzle. There’s no more to see. Nothing more to uncover. Nothing more to sit still and find. And that’s the point.
SamJ takes aim here at “the lack of transparency in digital art workflows, allowing for low effort work to be published with the illusion of cultural value or significance.” In other words, SamJ is taking the piss out of so much conceptual art, things that, because they’re created in the digital space, thusly can hide the nature of their construction, thereafter relying heavily on observers to impose meaning, admiration, and value onto them, as opposed to emanating those things from within their ideation, construction, or composition. With physical art, there’s a certain amount of automatic transparency based on our ability to see the physical brushstrokes or chisel-marks or elements of construction which went into the physical creation of the piece. We can get a sense of how much work was done, and from that, we can intuit certain conclusions based on the intention, the attention paid to certain aspects, the artistic choices made.
Except in digital art, that physicality is obviously lacking. We cannot see the process, we can only see the totality. We have to trust in the images presented to us as they appear on the screen, unperturbed by reality. There are no perceptible brush strokes. There are no obvious markings where the artist’s hand is necessarily revealed. We take it on faith — optimistic creatures we are — that the art we’re being shown is art as we imagine it: the product of much thought, effort, talent, and intelligence, all culminating in a final product that matches our high-minded ideals about what art ought to be.
Which is quixotic by nature. SamJ, in challenging that notion, seems to imply that Transparency is not the product of endless work, that it is not some example of artistic genius, and that it is exactly what it appears to be: blasé and boring and immobile. The artist has excellent, thoughtful, groundbreaking work elsewhere, so clearly SamJ possesses the talent to make good on their unbelievable artistic potential. But Transparency stands purposefully in contrast to that, a piece of “conceptual” art in all the seemingly wrong ways, but subverted for the sake of the audience.
Perhaps we were not aware of anything inherently scam-y in the world of art. Perhaps we’ve had wool pulled snugly over our eyes. And here, SamJ –known for his irreverence, his savage honesty, and his unsparing opinionation– pulls it right off. No, he seems to say, not all art is automatically good art. Not all art is the product of effort and intention. Some of it is just bullshit, lazy and sloppy, and with digital art, there’s no inherent way to tell. So I’m telling you, my audience, in the best way I know how, to be more on guard, to not be so giving of your praise or your acceptance, to sniff out bullshit when it appears.
It’s ironic, of course, that to critique pieces of this style, SamJ has made a piece of that very same style. And it’s ironic, of course, that I’m even sitting here writing this glowing critique (I do love this piece), and giving in to exactly the same impulse that SamJ is critiquing. Look at all the praise I heap on this piece, despite its clearly (purposefully) lazy construction, its lack of movement or energy or spirit. I give this piece credit because it’s knowing and because it’s aware and because that alone lends it a superior air of originality. I appreciate its irreverence. I appreciate it in contrast to SamJ’s entire oeuvre. But may we be more aware, now and thanks to the artist, that the creation of an artwork does not necessarily imply the creation of art. It is an individual choice to decide which pieces are worthy of the title “art” — and any piece has that ability; there’s no such thing as art that is inherently not art — but we each must be deliberate when we imbue that piece with meaning and with importance, when we take it into our hearts and minds as worthy of appreciation.
And SamJ cautions us to think a bit harder, consider for a bit longer, what we give this privilege to. Are we giving it to Transparency? I’ll let you decide that for yourself.