Harm van den Dorpel's Subdued Iconoclasm

The Berlin-based conceptual artist on being an ambassador between traditional art ecosystems and the promise of crypto

Text Zine
Published 20 Dec 2021

It’s a formidable sight in the dark and cavernous auditorium: in the background, a towering projection of the famed Renaissance painting “Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza” by Piero della Francesca; in the foreground, a shimmering mound of golden candy by the late artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres in homage to his dying partner from AIDS; and situated between, four seated individuals: Eike Schmidt, Harm van den Dorpel, Clémentine Deliss, and Kolja Reichert. They are in the Bundeskunsthalle, one of the most visited museums in the western German city of Bonn, to participate in Studio Bonn’s “To Whom Does Art Belong,” a panel investigating collecting, ownership, provenance, and more, from 15th-century contexts to the decentralized climate we are witnessing in real time.

Reichert moderates, and after introducing van den Dorpel, the two engage in a pre-agenda riff on the business of art: “[The system] was based on opaqueness,” remarks the Dutch-born, Berlin-based conceptual artist.

“Or a place for money laundering potentially,” responds Reichert, “but also a place of trust and personal relationships that can’t really be digitized.”

“Yeah, and it’s still completely unclear what this means for taxes,” adds van den Dorpel. “For institutions, what does it mean if, in some smart contract, it says you own something? Who owns and who pays taxes? Is a smart contract a company?” These are valid questions, and one that can’t be answered simply. “Unwantedly, I’ve spent the last three months researching this with legal help—lawyers and accountants—to find out what it means,” says the Post-Internet artist. “But it also made me think a lot about the metaphysical meaning of ownership.”

Harm van den Dorpel

Within the realm of video-or-audio recorded panels that have proliferated out of the NFT boom, it’s not too often there’s an explicit discussion on the un-sexy topic of taxes and regulation; one is more likely to hear folks eulogize the utopian potential of Web3, of which there too is plenty of evidence. Of course, taxes are a notorious, but necessary, bore: Benjamin Franklin didn’t mince words when, in his 1789 letter to French physicist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, he articulated that despite life’s uncertainties, the two things one can be sure to expect are death and, yes, taxes. Moreover, it’s not an everyday occurrence when an NFT artist is sandwiched between the Associate Curator of KW Institute for Contemporary Art and former Director of the Frankfurt Museum der Weltkulturen (Deliss); and the Director of one of the most significant museums in art historical canon, a resting place of Renaissance masterpieces, the Uffizi in Florence (Schmidt).

Truth be told, the participants might not have even uttered a word for the talk to be meaningful; the sheer, collective presence of these figures in one room said enough. In this case, optics were everything, and the optics said: ‘If you can get a progenitor of blockchain art to publicly break bread with the custodian of, say, Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”, then maybe, perhaps, wagmi.' Naturally, there will be legions of crypto-natives that will insist they don’t need institutional cosigning or academic shoulder-patting to legitimize the movement; indeed, it’s exactly the traditional frameworks these giants represent that most players in Web3 wish to eschew.

Nonetheless, there is an argument to be made that figures like van den Dorpel—whose career has straddled both traditional art-world ecosystems and the growing promise of crypto; and who isn’t shy to vocalize real financial questions and consequences (i.e. taxes) from real-life perspectives versus the echo chamber idealisms we sometimes hear—are essential in establishing that, not only do these spheres not have to remain mutually exclusive, they could, in fact, exist in harmony; maybe, they could even learn something from each other.

In a ZINE feature from November, Monarchs artist Eric Hu stated “90% of the people who are going to bring the most value to this [Web3] space are not here yet.” Van den Dorpel doesn’t need to be on a crusade to ascribe legitimacy to a world in which he already thrives; his value rests in giving that one extra push, that sliver of confidence, to enlist those who still aren’t convinced. And if they’re still not convinced, giving the calming assertion that that’s okay, too.

“Some people have a more revolutionary approach where they say, ‘Fuck the old system, we are going to just start from scratch,’ remarks van den Dorpel, in his interview with ZORA a few weeks before the panel in Bonn. “But that is really not my attitude…sculpture-making, painting, photography—I think all the arts are digital nowadays. So I think we should stop making this distinction, which also means stop making a distinction between digital art and art in a physical brick-and-mortar gallery.” This perspective, of course, is a direct byproduct of van den Dorpel’s curriculum vitae: a whirlpool of startups, blockchains, psychoanalysis, and conceptualism.

Hailing from Zaandam, a town just outside Amsterdam, he attended school for computer science, studied AI, but the instructors didn’t care for his artistic endeavors; and when he went to art school afterwards, his professors weren’t happy about his dive into generative algorithms. “It was pretty unclear as a digital artist, how to relate to the art world, which used to be very, and still is, object-driven,” recalls van den Dorpel. “At some point I thought I should never try to live off the arts and just be, on one hand, an inventor or software developer.” After a few teaching gigs and a period in New York, van den Dorpel moved to the German capital, where his encounters at Ascribe, a startup revolving around digital rights management, exposed him early-on to blockchain mechanics. “This was 2015,” he shares. “There was no Ethereum yet, as far as I know, and it was an amazing idea; I had heard of cryptocurrencies, but I didn’t have money, so what was I going to do with them? That didn’t really connect with me.”

While Ascribe’s model served as a milestone in harnessing decentralized technology, the startup pivoted to become a database company, owing to the blockchain’s infantile stage and difficulty in monetizing. Luckily, van den Dorpel already recognized the immense, latent potential. In 2015, the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, in association with Ascribe, became the first institution in history to purchase a digital artwork with Bitcoin. “They bought twenty editions,” says van den Dorpel, whose NFT, Event Listeners, was originally an edition of one hundred. “Then, because of this institutional recognition, all one hundred sold out; that was the first encounter with crypto resulting in some financial gain.”

Steeped with vindication, van den Dorpel set out to found left gallery with Paloma Rodríguez Carrington: an artist-and-curated run blockchain gallery, initially powered with Bitcoin, which he describes as “more or less successful”. “You have 2017, 2018: there wasn’t much interest in tokens, and especially in the art world, people were like, ‘That was a nice fad,’” he states. “Early this year, I basically woke up one morning looking around and see the whole world trading NFTs for high prices.” The doldrums in the years leading up to the current boom had led the artist to assume NFTs were a highly niche bubble. “It took me a while to relate to that again, because the enthusiasm and excitement that is going on, I had also witnessed on a smaller scale years ago, but then it stopped.”

Mutant Garden

In works that seemingly reference the creative vacillation van den Dorpel experienced in school for computer science (where teachers discouraged his artistic imagination) and at art school (where instructors expressed distaste for his algorithms), the Mutant Garden series are a portal into van den Dorpel’s psychology: a prime example of what context—mixed with the zeitgeist—can produce. The pieces, powered by Cartesian Genetic Programming (representing a computer program as a two-dimensional grid: nodes and layers), are sublime: colorful, compartmentalized, and satisfyingly complex. “I am fascinated by psychoanalysis,” he says. Under his literary belt was Carl Jung and his psychological research: all the different religions in the world and the different cultural rituals, ideas, and fantasies of people. These empirical models stood in contrast to his own upbringing. “I’m coming from a very strong religious background,” he admits. “My father has run a church at some point; theology has always been in my life.”

The conversation transmutes into a meditation on agency, the human element, and the unconscious. “Theology is interpreting scripture or deciphering language,” ponders van den Dorpel. “As a literary writer, you have power by creating worlds; when you’re a coder, you write conditions; and with generative art, you are, on the one hand, a creator, and [because] you cannot fully prepare yourself for what is coming out of this algorithm…you’re also a bystander.” Van den Dorpel’s fluency on the matter underscores his zeal for the philosophical. “By creating conditions that have certain outputs that are not fully predictable, I think you can even say that the unconscious is manifested through that.”

This year, when the Mutant Garden exhibition launched at Upstream Gallery, a brick-and-mortar space in Amsterdam, the first 64 editions were reserved for collectors. “For the majority of these people, this was the first NFT they ever bought,” states van den Dorpel. “We gave workshops, we’re like ‘Bring your computer! Write down your seed phrase (don’t forget it)!’ They were hooked. Then my NFT is next to a painting by some artist or a sculpture, which is very good for me artistically.” Once again, optics take the helm, and the optics of an NFT emblazoned next to other hallowed works in a revered, contemporary gallery render the works more valuable. “These collectors learn, when they get an email from OpenSea, ‘Hey, your Mutant doubled its value a hundred times’, it’s unexpected [for them]. Let’s hope they wrote down their 12-word seed phrase.”

While presenting an NFT within a physical gallery context might make some decentralized purists scratch their head, van den Dorpel doesn’t mind the conundrum. “I find that brick-and-mortar galleries are still extremely important,” he says, in a gesture that might beg the purists to reconsider their traditional counterparts. “They have clients; they store work; they sell it. ZORA or left gallery, we sell tokens, or are a marketplace. It’s interesting to find connections between these two worlds.”

And not only are there connections, but historical precedences, too. One segment of NFT art that many traditional gallerists become squeamish at is the PFP, pixelated, avi projects which helped promulgate the medium’s popularity early this year. “I don't relate to it aesthetically, but I'm also not against it,” van den Dorpel muses. “I mean, I also don't like soccer, but it exists.” Touché. “These PFP projects remind me more of a cartoon world, or street art maybe; street art has a complicated relation to the gallery, where the institutionalized art world is really hesitant to let it enter that conversation.” Graffiti, which had visually colonized a decomposing 1970’s New York City, witnessed an heir of visibility, when, in 1980, the Times Square Show saw the outside walls turned inwards, arguably sealing the legacies of artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jenny Holzer, Keith Haring, Nan Goldin, and many others. Downtown artists on the vanguard organized the gallery show, not Soho insiders. After years in relative obscurity, the group exhibition is widely considered one of the most consequential moments in New York art history. “If we indeed assume that a lot of early NFTs are made by people who are close to the technical side, then it also makes sense that people who are working that in that technical side also appreciate buying NFTs because it’s close to the world they find interesting,” van den Dorpel remarks. “I think we can already see NFTs are becoming more common to people who are not active in that space.”

What’s most refreshing about van den Dorpel, ironically, is his almost mundane predisposition to this whole Web2-Web3 enterprise, in conflict with the fervor of Web3 speculators and the gatekeeping of haute gallery bubbles. “I hope we can maintain an open NFT ecosystem with well-described standards for metadata,” he says, “making standards together and not ending up with an Amazon of NFTs, figuring out what it means to own an NFT.” And, in a pre-Bundeskunsthalle moment, “...figuring out that all these peripheral legal and technical questions will be standardized and answered in relation to taxes.” And while it all, according to van den Dorpel, might sound like “boring things,” these are the topics du jour to examine.

As for what’s next on the horizon, he’s working on revisiting Death Imitates Language, a 2016 project that deployed genetic algorithms—van den Dorpel endearingly calls them “chromosomes”—to create compositions which would spawn other compositions derived from the initial sequences of information. “My chromosome was too long to store on-chain,” he remembers, wistfully. “It still hurts that I didn’t do that back then, because crossbreeding NFTs, generating offspring, is very close to what CryptoKitties is. I’m looking to see if we can bring the project back and make it fully on-chain, because now more things are possible,” he adds. “It’s 23,000 tokens, so it’s a bit unclear if that should be an airdrop or very low price, but this is in the works.” Van den Dorpel pauses. “I hope people don’t start emailing me when they read this.”

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