Lani Trock Wants to Update the Social Contract

Why site-specific works and Web3 needn’t be mutually exclusive, and when to cope with FOMO through mindfulness

Text Zine
Published 19 Nov 2021

Yana Sosnovskaya (ZORA): Share your story for those who saw you around on Twitter, but don't have the full picture of what it is you’re actually doing.

Lani Trock: I'm an artist, I live in Los Angeles, and my practice is multidisciplinary. I make immersive, site-specific installations, sculpture, audio-visual works, and I also have a social practice. So I make participatory experiences inside the environmental installations that I construct. A lot of my work so far has been centered around worldbuilding and imagining alternative realities, particularly heterodox ideas for new structures for society; how we might do things differently that re-centers us in a culture of care and wellbeing, rather than profit at the center of its design.

YS: As an artist, how did you transition into Web3? What was it that actually appealed to you in the first place?

LT: In 2017, I conceived of a project called the national peace service, which came about because I was in an exhibition and the National Park Service sponsored my installation in 2016. It was around the time of the Bernie Sanders campaign; there was all this very positive momentum about transforming society through government and the restructuring of government and social programs. I started thinking: if there's this national, governmental body devoted to cultivating and protecting wild spaces and natural landscapes, why isn't there a parallel body devoted to cultivating peace in society? And if it existed, what would it look like and what would it do? So the national peace service became the ideological framework underlying the physical practice I was engaging with, and it also became a research project.

Very quickly, as I was investigating these alternative ideas for how we might structure society, I came across this idea that peace is not just the absence of war, but rather having everyone’s needs met. So looking at everything, from 3D printing houses, the redistribution of food excess, universal basic income, transformative justice, and prison abolition, I happened upon blockchain pretty quickly. As soon as I started to understand what it was, I realized that it had the potential to bring all of these ideas into practice.

YS: For those who maybe don't know, you have a background in philosophy. It seems like it very much affects your perspective on what you're doing in your artistic career, and why you were even thinking about new models of society.

LT: Yeah.

YS: Because you have so much depth and knowledge and understanding about previous models from studying philosophy, does the current state of Web3—its values and philosophy—resemble any movement or ideas from the past? Have you studied how they actually evolved and what they ended up being transformed into?

LT: Historically, my knowledge isn’t very strong of those past movements. But the term ‘socialism’ was brought up a lot when I first started researching these ideas. I will say that there is a strong resurgence of these ideas coming forth in Web3 at this time, particularly in the conversation around public goods, which is something that I'm very much engaged in. I'm part of GitcoinDAO, specifically the Public Goods Funding workstream, and I feel like there's an opportunity in Web3 to totally reimagine how we structure wealth and social programs. We're not going to all have the same values, but we can find where our common threads lie to organize and create dynamic, flexible systems that allow for a diversity of viewpoints to be honored and respected. The beauty of decentralization, I think, is we don't all have to agree.

So back to your question, I think the fail point of a lot of these old models—when people were trying to create systems of equitable distribution—was that they were centralized. So there was the central point of failure, and if that central point didn’t facilitate access, or if someone was getting in the way of that ideologically, then it was very easy for that to get stuck. Now we're in this beautiful moment of decentralization where we can experiment with things on a smaller scale, prototype them, and then open source those prototypes for others to experiment locally  and create a version that is best suited to meet their needs.

YS: What are the current projects and usage of Web3 technologies that are most inspiring and give you the most optimistic feeling?

LT: Definitely the energy that's present in GitcoinDAO is very inspiring to me. We can really stretch the limits of how we can bring to life a really new vision for society. Even the way we structure the treasury and governance of DAOs, we can create a context where all the things that we hoped the nation-state cared for—housing or food—the DAO can provide to its core contributors to feel a sense of security and stability.

There's this one project I came across that I think was born out of one of the prior blocks of KERNEL. I'm also a KERNEL fellow in KB4, and there's this really beautiful project I came across called Pr1son Art, where they're working with existing prison art programs to mint NFTs of the inmates' artwork, and then using the revenue to pay down their debt. Frequently, when prisoners are exiting the system, they come out with a significant amount of debt, which is obviously a hindrance to reintegrating into society. I thought that was such a beautiful use case that could be used elsewhere in other beautiful applications.

YS: Thinking about the specific timing of capital being accessible in Web3 at the moment—specifically in the NFT community—how do you think that affects the economy out there? Will it create more equality or inequality—will that even be the case in a few years from now? With the way it works currently, there are just a few collectors who are willing to support a variety of projects, but the buy is much easier and it's easy to make money off NFTs. Do you think that's going to last and actually be adopted by the masses?

LT: This is a really important question and it comes up across all of the Web3 spaces that I'm engaging in. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing right now exactly how all of this is going to build out, and it's really up to us to choose intentionally to construct easy bridges to bring folks in that have been historically marginalized and to really proactively diversify our communities. Accessibility and onboarding are some of our biggest challenges at this moment. One of the most pressing challenges is: you have to have a certain amount of knowledge and time to sit and hang out on crypto Twitter or learn how to do all these things, and not everyone has that luxury.  There are beautiful initiatives like Mint Fund, and even KERNEL, that are free for women to participate in, working to bridge those gaps. I have a great deal of optimism for the future based on the people that I'm collaborating with.

YS: The community around Web3, specifically Ethereum, seems very optimistic at its core, and that's what makes it so unique and value-driven. Hopefully this optimism translates into action to fight already-established systems.

LT: I do have faith, I genuinely mean that. The way that I see blockchain tech—and I felt this separately from it for a time—is that we're evolving into unity consciousness as a species. That's sort of a term that gets thrown around in New Age spirituality and can carry negative connotations, but very simply, what I mean is evolving into an ecological worldview where everyone and everything is fundamentally interconnected and interdependent; the last few years have revealed that in a very palpable way. Blockchain technology is emerging at this moment in history as a reflection of that shift in consciousness: its purpose is to help us evolve into a society that transcends the limitations that we've been living in for so long.

YS: At the moment, the NFT space is still more suited for audio-visual mediums, but you have a history of creating performances and art that would be very tangible. Have you had any ideas to overcome solely visual art in NFTs in order to bring about more performances?

LT: When you buy an NFT you're saying, ‘I care about this thing. I want to support this artist'. So for performance and experiential art, I think there's a really beautiful potential with NFTs to transform the way we fund and support artists that are making work that's not necessarily quantifiable through the creation of some audio-visual representation of that experiential work from the physical world. The way that the traditional art market functions is so much around art as a commodity, and for me, I've always been much more interested in art as an experience, particularly how experiential art can shift our consciousness. From my perspective, the best artworks have this transcendent spiritual quality to them.

I've always been documenting my practice digitally through video or audio and taking photos, but I wasn't really doing anything with it. And I think with NFTs, there's a really unique opportunity to create systems of support for artists that have historically been unable to participate in the traditional art market—artists like myself that are engaged in site-specific immersive installations. There are grants and some arts nonprofits that would support your work project by project, but it's not a consistent nor reliable way of earning a living. So with protocols such as ZORA, there's this sustainable funding model for artists to create their own work on their own terms without worrying about commodifying it or not.

YS: With the space so open and novel, what are some models you haven’t explored yet or that you’re working with?

LT: For this show, I'm working with a developer that's building me a ZORA Auction House and also integrating the split functionality—made possible in smart contracts—where you can allocate a percentage of sales to different people. With the contracts he's writing, I can write in as many people as I want. The new ZORA Additions mechanism is being integrated as well. I'm interested in exploring abstractions of the physical work itself. I've been making generative artworks for the first time this year, which has been really fun, and so the release that I'm going to do in conjunction with this exhibition will have some generative stills and several video pieces listed as one of ones. And then the stills will be additions. I think it's really important to create multiple price points so that the barrier to entry is lower to participate in supporting and collecting the artwork.

That was one of the mechanisms that I was most excited about with Ethereum and smart contracts: because in the past, I've collaborated with a lot of different artists and there's not an easy way to monetize and share the revenue. There was this big performance that I did two years ago where 15 or 20 performers volunteered their time. I've been thinking about the retroactive funding of public goods, which is essentially this idea that we don't always know what's going to be useful until after it already exists. I've been thinking that I could mint an NFT of the documentation of the performance and write all the performers into the smart contract so everyone gets paid now, retroactively, for being a part of that performance.

For this release, I’m also helping a few friends I’ve known for years on projects they’ve been working on. One is a youth art education program, another is a project about amplifying Black voices in the arts, and another is a film festival centering women-identifying filmmakers. I'm working with them to hopefully get them set up with ENS and then be able to integrate them into the split so I can allocate a portion of the NFT sales to both the social impact orgs and also the developer that built the site for me. So there's this really interesting model emerging that you can write them into the contract and basically pay them as the work sells, instead of having to have these resources up front to have something created.

YS: Tapping so deeply and being so persistent that you’re developing splits on your own is actually a great thing, because it will change the whole landscape of charitable work. Very often we just find ourselves distrusting some of the organizations because we can never control where the funds are going.

LT: There is this idea of funding people instead of projects, and I've been playing around with that. I think it's probably tied to the whole idea around tax-deductible giving, that it only applies to nonprofit organizations. Charitable giving has been really limited to that mindset, but I think about the potential for splits, especially with the secondary market sales, as this fluid, ongoing, mutually beneficial ecosystem of honoring each other through this financial mechanism. We can say, ‘I value your contribution and I even value just your presence; I value your ideas and I want to honor you by contributing a percentage of this thing'. It's going to catch up quickly where it will be so easy. Even what this developer is building for me, he's building it so that other artists can use it, too. I'm already planning to set him up with these orgs that I'm writing into the contracts so they can make their own NFT Auction Houses with him in the same way. It can just totally liberate us from the old ways of doing things.

I tweeted this a while ago and got a little bit of pushback about it, but what if our entire taxation system was replaced with voluntary tithing? When everything is in public, what if it just becomes the societal norm to donate openly to the things we care about? And if we were contributing voluntarily to the things that we care about, would the old way even be necessary anymore? Does open transparency of financial transactions incentivize generosity? Only time will tell.

YS: Absolutely, and it changes the whole model of personal motivation—how much more productive we become when we're motivated by something more than just financial gain.

LT: Yes.

YS: In your recent essay for Autre Magazine, you mentioned Web3 being notorious for creating FOMO, especially in artists. As an artist, how do you deal with that? You bring out a quote from a contributor, Cyn Bahati of herstoryDAO, where she says that sometimes she just creates something for the sake of creative self expression without actually waiting for any market response. How do you personally feel about that? Do you experience FOMO?

LT: Yeah. I think it's a byproduct of Web2 amplified by the financialization of everything in Web3, especially on crypto Twitter when there's a new drop every day that might make you rich overnight. As a practice, art’s never been primarily a commodity for me, so maybe I come into this with a slightly different mindset than other artists that are NFT-centered. I think earlier in the year, when the NFT hype really exploded and the pressure amplified, this feeling of needing to get on Foundation was very palpable. There was a lot of pressure to participate and ‘Mint it now’. I think the way that my involvement with Web3 has unfolded this year has set me up for better success with longevity, because I've been participating in DAOs. So while I’d say I'm more involved in other aspects of Web3 development now than I am in NFTs, I am starting to understand the intersection of the two spaces and how I want to consciously work with NFTs for serving the public good and social transformation.

I'll say probably the greatest asset that one could develop in this space is cultivating practices of mindfulness and intuitive awareness to know what feels right for me and my physical vessel—to help me step out of the energy of hype and excitement and potential financial gain and into a deeper understanding of what's correct for me in my own practice. Cyn brought that forth so beautifully; sometimes I'm going to mint something and maybe it won't sell for a year—and that's okay. If it feels really resonant for me, if it feels really authentic to me, that's what's more important to me as an artist. And I think that as long as I'm staying in alignment with that vision of knowing what feels like my own and what feels really right for me, that's probably the strongest antidote to combat the very persistent experience of FOMO.

YS: Lastly, is there anything that you would like to tell young artists, or artists in general, who are just coming on and discovering the blockchain?

LT: To cultivate a deep relationship with your intuition and to know yourself really well. Love yourself, independent of external validation. I'll say that the greatest joy and success that I've found is to find like-minded spirits who are participating in this ecosystem with a parallel vision for the future of society and are invested in our collective liberation through this technology. Find your people, build with them, support each other, and know your practice, and keep engaging with your practice as a practice. If you have a physical art as practice, don't disband it for a digital practice to try and make NFTs; keep making what you're making and let the intersection of those spaces reveal itself organically to you through your own process.

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