The comic mask is ugly and distorted but does not imply pain.
– Aristotle, Poetics 1.V
From Ancient Greek mosaics to medieval murals to the wojaks and pepes that populate our Twitter timelines, art succeeds when it inverts the expectations of the spectator, playing with irony and the macabre. The history of visual aesthetics is nothing without the obscene, the comic, the absurd.
Perhaps no medium lends itself so well to the comedy inherent within art as NFTs, a medium that was initially easy for many (but not us!) to write off as a joke—“nice NFT, mind if I screenshot???” While CryptoPunks and Miladys are funny in a vulgar way, it is unclear exactly who is the butt of the joke. Artists usually go after norms, institutions, or art itself, but it’s ambiguous who (or what) these NFTs are after, if anyone at all.
With the saturation of content—the constant flux of ads, posts, and personalities—it’s necessary to compete for every last second of jittery, dry-eyed attention one can acquire. Humor stands out as perhaps the best way of accomplishing this—adding levity to the stream of conflicting narratives and tragedies, making the user feel included within an in-group. You may be doom-scrolling but you’re not alone. One of the most appealing promises of NFTs is just that: that you’ll never have to be alone again. A Discord mod or bot will be there to react to your post, and every time you refresh your Twitter feed the accounts will be faithfully posting. This isn’t to say that humor in NFTs is nothing more than a cynical marketing ploy, exploiting our weakness of will under the cognitive load of the internet and our primal desire to feel included. Humor can be a vehicle of critique, a way to explore new aesthetic forms, or just a needed respite from the intense stress of modern life.
It’s no surprise that some of the best NFT projects are those made by people familiar with the aesthetic language and references of internet art—those who have spent more face-to-face time with PNGs of four leaf clovers and blue birds than they have with their own families. As Elon Musk has best exemplified, people are all the more willing to take out their wallets when something makes them chuckle. Without endorsing the rest of Musk’s antics, we hope that these following projects induce a similar disposition in you.
The pipeline to becoming a professional contemporary artist (grants, juries, MFAs, residencies, group shows, legacy media, critics) encourages the production and reproduction of a certain kind of art, a serious art. It looks to us as though Twitter, Discord, and other online channels might be doing the same in their own way: supporting the production of a certain kind of art. So what traits, what commonalities, can we perceive in this space? One trait is spending enormous amounts of time online, to the point where one’s perception and sense of self are affected by it.
1. Spiky DJ (2022) by FPBJPC
Spiky DJ is a DJ that is spiky. He also has the ability to fuck with your mind. The collective FPBJPC is behind this project. And yes, one of them has, in fact, actually DJed. When asked if they feel freer when operating under the more anonymous umbrella of Spiky, they hesitate before finally giving us a “flat yes.”
Apparently a “real painting” by one of their members was the inspiration for Spiky. Spiky is coy and coquettish, eluding categorization and interpretation. Rather, he invites projection and collaboration.
Our personal projection onto Spiky is that he reminds us of an acid trip, Black Metal, early 2000s PlayStation ads, Nietzsche, a Marzipan cookie, your uncle at Berghain during the day, and Ikea paintings. From 4chan to Martin Kippenberger, references include parties, painting, and music. At one point the collective, none of whose members play the guitar, toured Europe as a guitar band. Why are musicians and artists so often trapped in opposing worlds? Spiky DJ brings together the visual, the DJ, and the Twitter rant.
In many anthropomorphic NFTs, each iteration is a separate character, prompting the buyer to choose the one they feel best represents them. Spiky DJ, however, re-represents a single character again and again. In purchasing a Spiky, you become a part of the singularity.
Spiky doesn’t seem interested in revolutionizing the NFT space—and for that reason, it just might. Some people have suggested Spiky has no goal. But we think otherwise. After all, there is a Pynchonesque manifesto suggesting that the “Avant” NFT space can serve as a paradigmatic example of how the automation of production can allow the “revolutionary gamesters” of the world to revel in the surplus value of doing whatever they please and living the game of life without being confined by the necessity of work and debt. What exactly the “Avant” space refers to, we don’t know. The manifesto ends in a prayer, a liturgical musing: “Hope and Memory have one son and his name is Spiky [...] O beloved son of Hope and Memory, be with me for a little.” That’s apt, because what many of us are looking for and have found in crypto and NFT communities is a sort of religion, something to believe in and fill the gaping hole of spirituality in our lives. The strongest thing, Spiky tells us, is having an idea and carrying it through—whatever the idea.
2. Tojiba CPU Corp
In their first business venture, the Tojiba CPU Corp made 5,000 algorithmically generated PFP Toji 100s, or computers. While those have all been minted, their follow-up project, companion Disc Buddies—anthropomorphic software for the Toji computers—is still available for mint.
This project is not about utility. Instead, it aims to explore the Warholian mass production of artworks using a delineated and curated pool of references—among them old video games, defunct software, esoteric sacred art, literature, and pop culture. With elaborate narratives and folklore about the Tojiba factory, there’s something both meditative and nostalgic and also alive and palpably current about the Tojis and Disc Buddies. Projects like this follow in the ancient tradition of epic narrative story-telling, of passing on lore from generation to generation, in a new way. For more information, there is a fascinating Contain podcast episode with the artists.
In the thriving Tojiba Discord, you can share confessions such as “impossible yearning. what am i thinking (/ω＼) [8:21AM]” and “I got frustrated trying to torrent pro tools yesterday and gave up and then I gave myself a stomachs ache eating Kratom (edited) [6:28PM]”. You can also play games. In one of the (currently unavailable) games reminiscent of management simulation games, you “work” in the Tojiba factory developing a new product before coming back an hour later to buy items from your shop. Another game allows you to battle your Disc Buddies against one another. Within Tojiba CPU Corp, the artists are the bourgeois owners of the means of production while collectors become the proletariat, working in the Discord for remuneration—except this proletariat loves to show up at the factory.
3. Wiiides (2022) by Sterling Crispin
Sterling Crispin has always been interested in mining the connections between technology, culture, and art. For his 2014 MSc thesis and exhibition Data-Masks, Crispin reverse engineered facial recognition algorithms to create uncanny biomorphic 3D-printed masks which revealed how these algorithms “see” human faces. The unsettling result questions how surveillance technology is changing human identity, and how humanity interacts with technology. More recently, Crispin launched his debut NFT project, NFT Concepts, where he placed text over computer-generated marble slabs, sharing some of his views on the ideology and function of NFTs.
Many artists who explore these topics view technology and its inevitable march forward as a threat, the specter of a capitalist dystopia yet to come. As our cultural attitudes, political beliefs, and life opportunities have rapidly come to be determined by algorithms that we can neither see nor truly understand, it is easy to be fatalistic. While Crispin is keenly aware of these dangers, he eschews a fear-mongering approach in favor of a more neutral exploration of the current phenomena and the different possibilities that lie before us—the march of technological progress is our future, but we aren’t necessarily screwed.
Crispin’s most recent work, Wiiides, utilizes a single intuitive mechanism: each time one of Crispin’s 10,000 repurposed CryptoPunks is traded it gets wiiiider, eventually becoming unrecognizable—looking more like a pixel-art take on a Rothko than the goofy cartoons that serve as its foundation.
Built into the concept of NFTs are the ideas of immutability and ownership, both of which partially developed in response to the distortion and loss that often occurs when images are shared. Wiiides references the good old days, following in the lineage of memes whose most desirable fate is to be so screenshotted and shared as to become distorted through stretching and compression artifacts beyond all readability. While meme transmission exemplifies how images are distorted over time, physical art has always been subject to a similar passage. Through transportation, counterfeiting, storage, and restoration, physical art objects are also subject to degradation, loss, ambiguous authenticity, and questions over ownership. Although NFTs purportedly solve this “problem,” Crispin asks what we really gain from this solution. Who actually cared about that painting of Christ until Cecilia Giménez left her mark on it?
4. Rare Pepes By Matt Furie
Watching Matt Furie’s looped MP4s, you really do almost forget that Pepe was co-opted by the alt-right. The original creator of the character since has re-appropriated it to spread love and LOLs. Meanwhile, pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong used it as a symbol of resistance. “To me, Pepe is just a Hello Kitty-like character,” said one Hong Kong protestor, according to The New York Times. What a life this frog has had!
Pepe the frog, as an alt-right calling-card, a pro-democracy war-banner, a Twitter meme, a backdrop to a 4chan green text, an NFT, is perhaps the perfect symbol for our times. Pepe is in constant search of a purpose and identity in a world of images and references. He is both subject and symbol, meme and being. The frog’s simple, malleable features—its large emotive eyes and mouth—lend themselves perfectly to the expression of any of the hyper-specific yet deeply relatable discontents that have arisen in our lives. These anxieties and inconveniences, often too new to have yet been put into words, stream towards us with every technological innovation and cultural development we are faced with. The colorful and surrealist aesthetics of Pepe and its offspring exist in the feedback loop between internet memes and popular culture, existing on a continuum between SpongeBob and Rick and Morty, forming a bridge between the cartoons of our childhood and the world we find ourselves in today. We think it deserves to be made into an animated series for Adult Swim.
It is unsurprising that those who find themselves swept up by this current, unable to maintain proper footing, might look towards Pepe, seeing its expression of our anxieties as a rejection of contemporary society. Pepe does not belong to them. As Furie’s ongoing project has shown, Pepe is for everybody! Each Rare Pepe consists of a trading card and a short animation featuring Pepe.
Some of our favorites include:
- 058 Pilgrim Pepe, in which Pepe is seen steadfastly pilgriming with a walking stick and donkey when a giant monstrous Pepe comes up from behind with an axe, but providence protects the pilgrim from harm.
- 045 Dom Pepe reveals a tied-up Pepe’s perky butt in assless chaps and bondage gear, ready to be whipped by a sexy female frog as he clenches onto a mouth gag.
- 038 Raid Pepe, where a group of cop frogs bust in on Pepe, to find him peeing in a corner.
5. Ghozali Everyday (2022) by Sultan Gustaf Al Ghozali
Looking through your phone for your vaccine card picture to show the guard, you scroll past hundreds of casual, unflattering selfies that you would never post. But what if each one could actually be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars? Would you show them to the world?
Sultan Gustaf Al Ghozali is an Indonesian 22-year-old comp-sci student who took selfies regularly between the ages of 18 and 22, and then decided to turn them into NFTs. His Twitter bio says “just wierdo person who take a everyday photo and turn it into nft.” He first posted them for three dollars each, as a fun joke. Ghozali himself shared that he doesn’t understand why people like his NFTs so much. But we think we can explain their popularity.
Ghozali’s face has an abrupt honesty to it that is missing in most selfies we see on our feeds. This is in some ways an anti-selfie, there is a starkness to it that does not seek to be beautiful or convey anything in particular; it doesn’t beg for a like. Although they have been dubbed “expressionless,” they are not exactly so. If you plumb the depths of Ghozali’s eyes, you can see vulnerability, ennui, a hint of irony. What’s more, you can witness the passage of time via selfie by looking through all the NFTs. As Ghozali tweeted, “every #NFT photo I take has a story behind.” There is a poignancy to how Ghozali stares back at us, looking inside our soul from the same position in the same red computer chair in front of the same bare, green-walled background. He is all of us, in front of the same background every day on Zoom, at the same desk in front of our laptop every day, experiencing life and time pass us by in and around our screens.
Another reason this popped off is that people enjoy giving money to something that wasn’t made with profit in mind. Unlike many other NFT projects, there is no doubt that Ghozali did not intend to make much money or receive a lot of attention. It feels wholesome. It feels good to reward someone for doing something as speculative as an NFT without profit or artistic pretensions in mind. You can’t fake this. People can tell.
6. Mother of Creation (2022) by Madonna and Beeple
We couldn’t decide if Madonna’s recent collab with Beeple, Mother of Creation, was a fail or iconic. While it's hard for us to condone any of Beeple’s NFTs, the collab was a breath of fresh air in the sea of boring, forgettable celebrity *cough cash grabs cough*… I mean… NFTs. Do you remember Snoop Dogg’s NFT? Lindsay Lohan? Paris Hilton? Mark Cuban? Cara Delevigne? Ellen Degeneres? Lil Baby? Bella Hadid? Did you even know they had NFTs? Briefly check out one of these projects and try to remember anything about it after three days. Even if you somehow succeed in this difficult task, you will yearn for your days of ignorance, prior to this information taking up space in your head.
While Mother of Creation might also leave you with some yearning for ignorance, it is shocking, brazen and not as easy to forget. In this series of three videos, we sit wide-eyed as bugs and plants blossom and crawl out of the vagina of a 3D rendering of a—noticeably younger and cyborgian—Madonna. Over the course of these videos, Madonna recites poems discussing the interconnected themes of womanhood, technology, and nature. Yes, these poems are somewhat corny, the animation style stagnant and lifeless, and the videos affected and self-important. Yes, the video descriptions provided on the website are written with egregiously poor grammar (maybe providing evidence that Madonna might have actually written them herself, which is cool). If Madonna’s PR team stumbles across this and is interested in hiring someone, please reach out on Twitter: @dis.
The result of these brief video essays is a hopeful take on each of the subjects tackled. The first video featured a newly written text by Madonna, the second featured lyrics from her song “Justify My Love,” and the third a poem by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. All of the proceeds from this project (over 627,000 dollars) were donated to charities selected by both Madonna and Beeple.
Something about the combination of celebrity and NFT clout, impressive budget, and hairless bionic vulva with the spirituality connoted by the Rumi poetry and Madonna’s singing, feels off. Nonetheless, it’s nice to see a female celebrity participate in a project that explores womanhood in some way, and reminds us that women are divine and the sacred source of life.
7. Kudzu (2021) by Folia
Finally, a moment when we can laugh about giving someone a virus. Kudzu, by Billy Rennekamp, Dan Denorch, Everett Williams, and Sam Hart via Folia, consists of mischievous green creatures that infect your wallet when you interact with another one that holds the virus. The actual plant Kudzu—also known as Japanese or Chinese arrowroot—refers to a species of climbing vines that are native to parts of East Asia and Southeast Asia. The vine grows and coils itself over other plants and trees and thrives so rapidly that it smothers and kills them by blocking sunlight. It’s also known as ”the vine that ate the South” because it was mistakenly planted for soil control in the American South in the 1950s, where it devoured native grasses, fully mature trees, houses, cars, and buses in its path.
If you wish, you can infect yourself with the digital virus by buying one of their genesis tokens. A wallet can only be infected once. Kudzu also co-opts many of the aesthetic features of blue-chip NFTs, mimicking the rarity features found in projects like CryptoPunks and BAYC, but there is no discernable profit incentive behind this specific project. Sure, one can purchase the genesis token to infect themselves, but one can just as easily interact with another already infected wallet. As these tokens cannot be sold, the only reason someone might intentionally do this is because it’s an amusing and enjoyable prank. NFTs are financial tools, built upon the idea of smart contracts for the purpose of allowing the sale of tokens between one wallet and another. Kudzu rejects these purposes, and in doing so it brings in the element of art that seemed most unlikely to take hold in the NFT form, that of disinterested aesthetic and intellectual exploration.