Frieze Los Angeles: Beneath the Beach Lies the Blockchain

Courtney Malick reports on the rising presence of NFTs amidst the market-driven delirium of Frieze Los Angeles.

Text Courtney Malick
Published 01 Mar 2023

In addition to all of the art for sale at any number of different venues throughout Los Angeles during Frieze week—meaning not just what was on view in the actual booths at the four (that I counted: Frieze, Felix, Spring Break, and ALAC) fairs that peppered the area, but beyond that, the many, many, many exhibitions of all shapes and sizes that took place at commercial galleries, pop-up spaces, and public sites—there were also a surprising and significant number of projects focused on those less tangible artworks: the ever elusive NFT. Beyond the weekly Silver Lake event NFTuesday LA, which has already become a staple of the LA digital art scene (such as it is), there were a string of other NFT-adjacent projects that made their IRL debuts. Kicking off the week on February 14, NFTuesday hosted a special night at El Cid bar with talks by New York-based curators Charlotte Kent and Tina Rivers Ryan (though sadly Tina could not attend in person due to a last-minute positive Covid test result—typical!) As for Kent, she touched upon the work that she continues to delve into in relation to the absurd (an apt notion to consider with regard to something as nascent as NFTs, if I do say so myself). Kent brought up questions of how the concept of the absurd factors not only into art-making and art markets—whether they be more explicit, as is the case in the traditional primary and secondary art markets, or more equivocal, as is often how anything to do with cryptocurrency continues to be perceived—but also how we can more generally appreciate the absurd within the context of the existentialism that seems to grow ever more relevant in society as we live more and more online. Certainly, it was all the more apropos (and was mentioned widely at the event) that just earlier that day a public announcement had been made noting that works by new media/AR artist Nancy Baker Cahill originally shown at Vellum LA late last year had been acquired into the permanent collection of LACMA.

NFTuesday LA. Photo: Courtney Malick

NFTs and their intriguing, if not murky, waters, were not only relegated to their own isolated events throughout the city but also took something of a leading role at Frieze as well, with a well-attended champagne reception in a sizable sectioned-off room where the Korean LG Electronics company was featuring the imminent release of new NFTs that they commissioned in collaboration with New York-based sculptor Barry X Ball.

As for other shows about town, a sensory-overload exhibition by Chinese artist Lu Yang curated by Barry Threw and Alice Scope was presented at Vellum LA in collaboration with Fabricatorz and Feral File. Befittingly titled Material Wonderland, the space was jam-packed with brightly hued new video works, which were for the first time in Lu’s practice, NFT-backed. The show featured eight looping videos rendered from Yang's signature video game, The Great Adventure of Material World (2019), as well as the large-scale triptych Material World Knight (2018), which illuminated the dark space. Together, they encapsulated the frenetic and youthful energy that one would expect from those who are knowledgeable about the gaming world and the blockchains that increasingly accompany its complex microcosms. The eight video works on view will be purchasable through Feral File and are minted on Ethereum, while, with a nod to the real world, several of Yang’s other video installations will be available to collectors as, what is now perhaps going to have to be the new term, known as “non-NFT digital files.”

This week also offered something of a more discursive moment for those of us still unsure of how these NFTs cropping up all over the place may change, for both better and worse, the whole world of art as we’ve known it. During a talk held at the Santa Monica Art Museum, an under-frequented venue, at least for this art critic, nuanced discussions were had regarding issues related to institutional collecting and exhibiting. These issues stood in contrast to the clear overall theme of most art fair weeks: showcasing what people desire for their very large homes. The talk was, rather blandly, titled, “What is an art museum?” and in such fashion, a good chunk of time was taken up with trying to define—or perhaps, from a more contemporary perspective, redefine—not only what the word has meant and what such a space does, but furthermore, what demands are made upon it, and by whom. The conversation confirmed that, above all else, any place that wants to call itself a museum must first and foremost be in the service of its society. This involves telling stories of the past, through methodologies like research and archiving, the present, through exploration and experimentation, and even the future, through some yet-to-be-agreed-upon combination of these preceding methodologies.

However, when considering all of this in juxtaposition to the undeniable presence of NFTs and new media that clearly staked its claim during this week’s art-centric festivities, the question of whether a physical space need exist at all becomes more pressing. This is to say nothing of the fact that NFTs in particular stand out as a boon for artists in that they allow creators to continue to profit from their work as it accrues in valuation (both financial and otherwise), a distinct feature that seems somewhat nullified when placing the quintessential NFT into the context of a collecting institution. Such institutions are usually bound by the requirement to never deacquisition, and are acquiring work, in the first place, to preserve and further the cultural discourse rather than beautify a personal space.

It seems evident that NFTs and their still shifting sands will continue to edge closer and closer to the primary market-driven center stage of all of the forthcoming art fair weeks in whatever flashy city the next one pops up. If nothing else, their prevalence continues to place into even starker contrast the differences between living with art and considering it from the most objective vantage point one can muster.

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