The Crux Tide 4: A Bleary Backdrop

by Julian Brangold

“Still Life With Fruit and Dead Hare” by Frans Snyders (~1620)



July 2020. Fear blights the streets, we are in full-blown lockdown. I look out the window of my one-bedroom apartment and uncertainty tints the windows of the buildings outside. Inside, I’m getting into this new, weird, obscure thing where I go to sleep and wake up thinking about crypto art, this wild space where digital art and cryptocurrency intertwine. Nobody in my circle of friends, nor any of my colleagues, has ever heard the term NFT. Nobody in their circles have either. I’m accepted onto one marketplace; I sell a few works, maybe two or three. I’m ecstatic. Crypto Twitter, funny lingo, new weirdos to incorporate into my life.

But uncertainty riddles my thoughts.

In this new cryptosphere, I’m invited to be a part of a community, a small group of 10 to 12 unusual people who share ideas and exchange thoughts. Even so, some things are not easy to understand in this new world. I write an email to one of the four (maybe five) people running that marketplace I was on. I ask if he has time for a call sometime; I could use some advice from a person with experience in the field. Within hours, they reply “Of course we can.” The next day we have a call, we get to know each other, it’s fun, nice, warm, and we laugh and share opinions. He gives me priceless advice about having patience and valuing my work, advice to which I still stand by to this day.

It’s only a little under two years later. The same person who gave me advice back then is not replying to my DM’s. Instead, I’m exchanging emails with someone else who works for the same marketplace, one of the five or six people in the events committee of the company. I’m trying to organize a joint project. Our interaction is not friendly. There’s a lot of unclear, cloudy back and forth… and they back out of a sponsorship at the very last minute, leaving me and a collective of artists hanging. They unfairly imply that me and my artist colleagues are liars and not to be taken seriously.

I do not reply back.

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There’s a trend in which accounts on social media — especially but not exclusively the politically-inclined ones — repost other accounts’ media in a quiet, powerful way. The idea is they just repost, no caption, no hashtag, just the post sans any extraneous gloss.

Just the post.

Like an ‘objet trouvé’, or a repurposed piece of garbage displayed in an art gallery, the media item just lies there, deterritorialized and helpless. This gesture contains a vibrant stillness, quiet as an unexploded bomb.

The recontextualization allows for a form of critique that gives the media element an aura, the lack of knowledge about its origins giving it a patina of mystery, its reason for being there is now half an enigma. This new style of pointing out something, or even more accurately, the creation of a discourse through a powerful but quiet sort of critique, allows for a freer production of meaning, creating a space of humorous commentary where the spectator holds more power; the true meaning is being conveyed within the space of uncertainty created by the lack of a clear discernment on behalf of the initial post-er.

This speaks to the mighty power of context. I fancy the following thought, which delineates art’s definition within the canons of an ever-powerful context:

Art is that which has been placed within a context in which it is being perceived as art. It is in this colossally arbitrary decision of framing something (anything) within a certain purlieu that gives it THE ultimate status.

It’s always been like this: art has always resulted from human decision more than any imposition of nature, but this notion found intense grounding some time in the 1900’s when conceptual art began to appear as an alternative to tangible, craft-based art practices. It’s analogous to how various Twitter accounts will frame the same piece of media (political statement, meme, news story, artwork) in a specific way, with an individual implication bespoke for their audience.

The creative act of meaning-making arises from the intersection between those framing decisions and the interpretation of that media by the viewer based on the virtual location in which they have encountered it.

This is why context is so important in meme culture. Memes travel from account to account, from avatar’s pocket to avatar’s pocket, and as they do, they feed off of the contexts they roam within. They are increasingly conveyed alongside a cultural, orphic value of mysterious qualities. This, if we are fortunate enough, even gets stored within the visual element, where cumulative screenshot micro-errors depict fragments and borders of the social media accounts, platforms, or cyber-spaces from whence this splinter of cultural value has been stolen. The visual chronicle of the travels of a stray meme.



Digital art also suffers from this context-induced assimilation. One of the most fascinating things about tokenized pieces of artwork is that the more they circulate, and the more memetized they become, and the more people right-click-save them, the more cultural value the token accrues, which usually translates into more monetary value. Works like Right-click and Save As guy by XCOPY are excellent representations of this phenomenon.

This is inverse to the TAW logic where the scarcer an artist’s production is, the more value their circulating pieces of art amass. Some big galleries are known to scheme a rising artist’s productive output for them, delimiting the amount of paintings they must produce per month.

In crypto art, marketplaces have been, for the most part, the context in which works have inhabited (at least up until now). For a while, marketplaces functioned as a powerful tool for artists. In a world where the apparatus behind the exchange of NFTs is so technically complex, marketplaces were a bridge to smart contracts, tokens and profiles.

Today’s accessibility, information and tools are beginning to present a landscape where it feels like marketplaces’ only reason to exist is exposure. Artists can now create their own contracts, collections, and even personal marketplaces without much previous knowledge of coding or a significant understanding of complex blockchain infrastructure. But Twittershill-hussle mania evidences that exposure within the world of cryptoart is still the rarest of commodities. Artists are also becoming challenged with the task of sustaining a community, as audiences yearn for more and more instant access to the artist’s process and daily minutiae. This becomes more explicit in the model of artist as content creator, a route some artists have successfully embarked on.

Marketplaces today, two years after the NFT boom, feel outdated and very web2. Having a social-media-like profile with a picture and a bio, a gridlike portfolio of tokens people can browse, privately funded IPFS accounts and especially intermediary fees, all feel like things that could, at the very least, be improved upon.

But, if the marketplace’s only role is that of exposure, then flooded marketplaces where anyone can mint anything also don’t look like a viable option, since the uncapped influx of image production will proportionally wither the power of the aforementioned exposure.

The future of marketplaces looks to me more like a cultural contributor ((╯°□°)╯︵ ┻’’’institution’’’┻) than a social-media-like-intermediary/exposure-creator. Exhibitions, the endorsement (and support) of joint projects and collaborations, cultural contextualization in the form of curatorial, archival and commentary content, these are the things where the marketplace’s contributions will find relevance. And, if this is not done in a tasteful way that genuinely puts the artist’s needs first, then unfortunately marketplaces will indeed, at some point, conk for good.



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