Our first real introduction to crypto was through art. It was 2011 and we were visiting Brad Troemel’s studio at NYU where he was getting an MFA. He had amassed a loyal following on The Jogging, the notorious crowd-sourced Tumblr he co-founded. On its feed, conceptual art, advertising and memes were indistinguishable and being produced at the same frantic pace as fit pics by Instagram baddies. Troemel had been buying drugs—ketamine, psychedelics, amphetamines—on the Silk Road with Bitcoin (which was only two years old at this point), using Tor in NYU’s computer lab. For his master’s thesis he made sculptures combining materials related to these purchases: fake IDs, plastic baggies, dissembling shipping envelopes, mushrooms, and bump keys. The detritus of his anonymous drug purchasing and consumption became art to be discussed––and bought––at drug-fueled openings and art world hangouts.
Years later we had a conversation with Hito Steyerl, and she talked about how history isn’t uniform and moves in a non-linear way. You could say it started to slow down in the 80s, eventually stopping altogether for a while. If you went to high school in the late 90s or early 2000s you may as well have been in a John Hughes movie. Up until 2008, there was a blockage, the present just wasn’t happening, until suddenly we had this trifecta: the Financial Crisis, Obama in power, and the rapid expansion of the internet. We were flooded with innovation while the economy was completely off the rails. This is the context that gave way to DIS Magazine and dump.fm, Marisa Olsen coining “postinternet” and Troemel’s “aesthlete”, just to name a few. It was an explosion of creative energies and production online whose influence became so widespread and diffused in contemporary life and culture that it goes wholly unseen, just a given at this point. That said, we know that nothing should be taken for granted, that nothing goes without saying, that we’re still living in the 2010s or that the future disappeared.
If all this sounds familiar maybe there is a twisted parallel. That a different kind of trifecta gave us the eruption of NFTs: a global pandemic, a fragmented, financialized internet, and the mainstreaming of cryptocurrencies via friendly apps and relentless ETH bots on Twitter. While there was virtually no commercial market for the work we were making online in the 2010s, these new tools have completely changed the game. The effects of such a shake up are still unknown but we would gamble that they will outlast zombie formalism and other trends in art. In the meantime here are some of our favorite crypto-inspired, Web3, and NFT projects:
1. Backdated NFT/Ethereum Stamp (2016/2018/2021) by Simon Denny with Linda Katchev
While tech has been marketed to us as a neutral force—the embodiment of enlightenment notions of our species’ progressive march towards some telos—the nature and scope of tech, how and when we are able to interact with it, and as such, the power dynamics of our lives, all result from the ideological paraphernalia of those behind it.
Simon Denny had been exploring the narratives that nations, businesses and tech construct about themselves when we invited him to participate in the 9th Berlin Biennale in 2016. His work Blockchain Visionaries created a trade-fair-like information booth for three real companies—Ethereum, 21 Inc, and Digital Asset Holdings—all at the forefront of digital monetary platforms at the time. With Linda Kantchev, a postage stamp designer born in the former East, Denny created a postage stamp for each company. Through the stamp, a waning technology and a literal image-turned currency, Denny foregrounded these three startups as enacting supranational economic schemes. The stamps’ illustrative potential is instrumentalized to convey each company’s market ambition and implied systemic proposition for the future via different blockchain possibilities. The installation was presented in the vast conference room of a building that was formerly the site of the Communist East German Staatsrat (State Council) and now home of The European School of Management and Technology.
Last year, Denny took one of the stamps, the Ethereum one about Vitalik Buterin, and made it into an NFT, Backdated NFT/Ethereum Stamp for Sotheby’s Natively Digital auction. There was a twist, though: to make the NFT Simon actually changed the image of an existing 2018 NFT, confusing the timeline of when the “Backdated NFT” was created and highlighting the fact that while the link for an NFT cannot change, the image for it can. So what does this mean for the alleged “non-fungibility” of the token?
2. KNOTS (2022) by Emily Segal and Deluge Books
We all know about “normcore”—purposefully looking normal as a last-ditch effort to stand out in a sea of edgy, alt e-girlies. But not everyone knows that K-HOLE, a trend forecasting art collective, first coined the term in one of their annual downloadable PDF reports. Emily Segal, formerly of K-HOLE, recently caused a small revolution in the publishing world by being the first author to successfully use crypto to crowdfund her forthcoming novel, working title BURN ALPHA.
Segal’s newest project, KNOTS, is similarly an experiment in literary Web3. Knots in your stomach, knots in your back, knots in the jumbled jewelry at the bottom of your drawer. Situationship entanglements à la Jada Pinkett Smith. Difficult to tie and untie, sometimes impossible to unravel, knots represent the dilemmas that ensnare us and the psychic conflicts of the unconscious. They can tie us down but they can also moor us to the shore. Knots are also an ancient technology. They were used by primitive humans before the invention of the axe and the wheel, and possibly even before the use of fire. The first knotters may have even come before humans: gorillas actually tie “granny knots” by interweaving branches to make their nests. For KNOTS, Segal created 720 NFTs described as “unique three-dimensional knots, metaphysically activated and created with elements of chaos.” These glowing, hypnotic 3D objects are not only aesthetically beautiful but according to Segal imbued with “maximal holder harmony.” Each one is embedded in a perfect feng shui sphere, while a four-directional minting process ensures each knot is energetically attuned to the buyer’s personal aims. Upon purchase, the smart contract contains ancient formulae from a foundational text of Western magic, designed by the team’s diviner and ritual specialist, Chris Reppucci. A portion of each primary sale is donated to support queer, trans, experimental and otherwise undersupported publishing projects via Segal’s press, Deluge Books.
3. RR/BAYC (2022) by Ryder Ripps
Ryder Ripps has a long history of messing around on the internet, making art, and ruffling feathers. DIS Magazine and Ripps played in the same sandbox between 2009 and 2012, when it felt like no one was looking. When Mark Zuckerberg had sole proprietary ownership of our data—before every MIT and Caltech dropout figured they could make billions mining our personal information for everything it's worth.
Ripps is a conceptual artist with a knack for getting attention. Among his recent accomplishments, he managed to briefly convince his ex-fiancé Azealia Banks to convert to Judaism last year. He also sold a copy of a CryptoPunk as his own work, for which he was slapped with a lawsuit by Larva Labs claiming copyright infringement (he won). Ripps’ interest in appropriating PFP projects goes well beyond proving that since NFTs are by definition non-fungible, any “copy” of one is legally a new NFT. PFPs, the most outward-facing element of any social media profile, are tools for identity building: whether you select a hot selfie, a meme, or a BAYC, you are making a public statement about what you identify with, your values, how you want to appear to the world. In selecting an NFT, you are asserting your membership in a community built on the dichotomy between aesthetic and investment value, asserting your tastes, knowledge, and financial standing. According to Ripps, NFTs are “extremely powerful and palatable for the use of cult building and disseminating ideology.” His latest project, RR/BAYC, replicates the insanely successful apes one-for-one but gives them new context/meaning. When Foundation wouldn’t sell them (following a DMCA takedown notice) he started his own marketplace. Created for educational purposes, the RR/BAYC copies are grotesque mirrors, calling out what Ripps sees as the racist undertones and Nazi imagery embedded in the apes and the 4chan troll culture they emanate from, which has gone largely unchecked online. Since they are copies they of course lead us to ask: what is ownership in the NFT sphere? Does holding a token give someone a unique claim over an image’s use or not? What is the value of satire? Apparently, a lot: RR/BAYC is selling fast.
4. Lifeforms (2021) By Sarah Friend
Lifeforms is a blockchain-based artwork in which you have to give away the token you purchase in order for it to survive. If you don’t give it away, after 90 days it will disappear from your wallet, becoming irretrievable. In this way the asset is anti-speculative—you can’t hold and wait for it to hopefully increase in value. In the current digital art ecosystem, displaying your PFPs and your wallet is a way to flex and prove your wealth and taste, so it can feel like the art and concepts of the NFTs themselves are peripheral to the identity and status of those who own them. Friend’s project eschews this, placing an artificial limit on the time frame in which an owner can “enjoy” and show off their NFT, as if to say that to hold an NFT for longer than 90 days would be to no longer look at it as an art object but as a speculative asset or personal signifier.
5. Yeche Lange
Online gallery Yeche Lange, organized by Milo Conroy, Jared Madere, Wretched Wurm and developer Miles Peyton, recently launched their first exhibition: Tournament for Swollen Hearts Round Un. A merrily ornate mashup of aesthetics reigns, evoking the eclectic composition of a Tumblr or Pinterest feed but without corporate borders framing the chaos of visual information. Here, language is used as an evocative texture to add to a layered collage of signifiers that collide in frenzied celebration: trippy landscapes, ethereal bulbous hearts, grainy candy strips, extravagant deep dream imagery. Kinda feels like you took a bunch of Adderall to do your homework in 2009 but ended up getting hyper and browsing bands on Myspace instead. Artists include Amalia Ulman, Jared Madere, Nomemene, Spiky DJ, and Wretched Wurm.
6. Dotcom Séance (2021) by Simon Denny, Guile Twardowski and Cosmographia
In the past several weeks, the fall of Luna and the market-wide sell-off has led many tech writers to point out similarities between the current crypto market and the 2001 Dotcom bubble. While we remain bullish, Simon Denny, Guile Twardowski and Cosmographia’s 2021 project Dotcom Séance may appear to those with paper hands as prescient of the current predicament. For this project, Denny and his collaborators created an on-chain Ouija-board-like “spirit session” where they revived 20 Dotcom Era companies, including the infamous Pets.com, the failed early 2000’s online pet supplies store that spent tens of millions on marketing, including paying millions for this SuperBowl commercial, despite their mere 600,000 dollars annual revenue. Dotcom Seance not only brings up the perennial question of whether crypto is a bubble, but mines the nostalgic and slightly naive aesthetics of early corporate internet imagery.
Each company includes an ENS domain, a new logo-NFT designed by Twardowski—the artist behind CryptoKitties—and a suite of hidden text-to-image AI logo-NFTs created by Cosmographia that Twardowski drew inspiration from. Minting any NFT allows you to claim a subdomain on the company's new ENS domain. Owners of the Twardowski-designed NFTs earn the title of CEO on each company's profile page. Cosmographia’s lo-res AI-generated logos often appear interchangeable with the original logos for these companies while Twardoski’s interpretations of these bridge the gap between the simple, lo-fi aesthetics of early 00s internet imagery and the maximalism of contemporary internet art. While creating NFT merch is somewhat controversial, appearing to some to defeat the point of non-fungibility or as an overly-aggressive assertion of community membership, we would be happy to make an exception for Dotcom Séance’s logos: Supreme collab anyone?
7. Finiliar (2022) by Ed Fornieles
All money is really a fiction that we agree to live by, a perverse and haunting figment of our collective imagination. What is money, really, and how can we understand it? Finiliars are adorable, techno-animistic, Tamagotchi-inspired creatures whose moods and behavior is linked to the ups and downs of a particular coin—BTC, ETH, BNB, SOL, etc. Using the ERC-721 token standard, each finiliar reacts to data about market changes, received via an on-chain oracle. Like humans, finiliar become happy and joyous when the value of their coin is up, and sad and dejected when it is down. Different finiliar operate on different timeframes: some adjust their mood every hour, others every day, week, or even month.
On a different but related note to RR/BAYC, the finiliar project asks: what does your wallet say about who you are? Money talks, and so does your crypto wallet. Even your personal perception of your wallet changes with the market: a purchase that is doing well might look alluring and enticing while an NFT that is tanking might look repulsive and unappealing.
But no matter the status of their coin, each finiliar’s soft and colorful kawaii features are a palatable anthropomorphization of the mysterious, harsh reality of market value fluctuation. With their bubbly, sometimes sheer, chubby bodies, they are charming little crypto bubbles. Tuning into our biologically hardwired emotional reaction to the cuteness of babies, the finiliar remind us that anything can be repackaged as endearing with the right branding. Even the abstract, often invisible data of the volatile markets can become cozy and inspire parental instincts. McKenzie Wark talks about this in relation to the work of theorist Sianne Ngai in one of our dis.art videos. She sees cuteness as an insistent aesthetic category used to market commodities that create a sense of intimacy with their purchasers. With their cuteness, such products elicit meta-fetishistic feelings of ownership while helping the purchaser forget the precarious labor that goes into their making.
8. 3FACE (2022) by Ian Cheng
What’s your sign? Credit score? The last ten items in your search history? Instagram PFP? The NFTs in your wallet? More importantly, what do these data points say about you? How do you understand them? How are they used by others? While we can attempt to project a certain outward-facing image to the world via signifiers like NFTs, there is often much more information hidden behind and within our decisions than we are consciously aware of. Ian Cheng’s 3FACE, an upcoming collaboration with Outland, attempts to bridge these two dimensions of our self-presentation. It reads an owner’s public wallet (including transaction history and diversity of holdings) to generate their psychological portrait. Of course, your wallet changes as you buy and sell, and so does your 3FACE. Its visual content, composition, and metadata will be updated to reflect the evolution of your identity as reflected in your wallet.
Tapping into our navel-gazing obsession with taking and exhibiting the results of personality tests, Cheng developed a personality model framework to create a visualization of the wallet holder's psychic composition. We can’t help but ask: if we don’t like what we see in the 3FACE mirror, can we return it? Can we hide an unflattering reflection from others peering into our soul, erm, wallet? Or will we find ourselves curating our wallet until our 3FACE shows us the desired expression of the moment?
9. Our favorite NFT fail: @jack 2006-03-21 20:50:14 (2020)
The history of our online selves, and the history of the internet for that matter, is hard to catalog. It’s easier and more cathartic to just scroll to the very first post you made and consider how things have changed. That’s what Twitter founder Jack Dorsey seems to have done when he turned the first-ever tweet––which he wrote––into an NFT listed on Valuables. The tweet is “just setting up my twttr.” Following a bidding war, Iranian-born entrepreneur Sina Estavi purchased the NFT for 1630.6 ETH (around 2.9 million dollars at the time) in March 2021.
Then in early April this year, Estavi announced on Twitter that he wanted to sell the NFT, and pledged 50% of its proceeds––which at the time he assumed would exceed 25 million dollars––to charity. We can only assume that he was in need of a significant tax write off.
But after being listed at 48 million dollars, the auction closed, with just seven total offers ranging from 0.09 ETH (277 dollars at current prices) to 0.0019 ETH (almost 6 dollars). Some people might think that’s still too much. Most perplexing was the absence of any effort on Estavi’s part to artificially create a bidding war. He was under legal scrutiny at this time, having just been arrested in connection with the growth of his exchange, Cryptoland, so it may be safe to speculate that he did not want to give further ammunition to the Iranian authorities. While we fail to see any aesthetic value in Dorsey’s first tweet, it is unsurprising given Twitter’s own questionable behavior and legal troubles over the years that Estavi felt a certain connection to it.