Alicja Kwade is, unquestionably, one of the most important contemporary artists working today. Having previously participated in the Helsinki Biennial, Desert X, Setouchi Triennale, and the 57th Venice Biennale, in 2019, she was selected for The Roof Garden Commission for The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Titled, ParaPivot (2019), her work conjured a miniature solar system in steel and stone.
A German artist with Polish heritage, Kwade creates sculptures, photographs, videos, installations, and now NFTs that utilize the alchemical properties of material to reveal the systems that underpin the world. Here, she speaks to Anika Meier about value and power in the art world, reflecting on blockchain as a medium through her first NFT project, Self-Portrait.
Anika Meier: When did you know that you wanted to become an artist?
Alicja Kwade: I made the conscious decision when I was about five years old. It has something to do with my family history. My father is an art historian and my mother a cultural scientist. My father ran a gallery in Poland when I was a kid. I was a shy and fearful child. I didn’t like talking to other people and preferred to be alone.
My parents sent me to art kindergarten because I was always drawing. I was good at it and found self-affirmation in it, so I showed [my work] to the other kids and earned their admiration, which was fantastic. There were many artists around me, and I had no idea you could do anything else with your life. When I arrived in Germany in 1986, after my parents had fled from Poland, [art] became a helpful tool for me, as I did not know the German language but had a means of finding connection and recognition.
Being diagnosed with dyslexia [also] meant that my spelling was no longer allowed to be assessed in any subject. But at the age of 19, after achieving surprisingly above average grades, I applied and was accepted to study medicine at the Humboldt University of Berlin. I studied the subject for two semesters, and then decided I wanted to do art exclusively.
AM: You wanted to work with a gallery while you were still a student [at Berlin University of the Arts]. Why was that, and are galleries still as important today as they were 20 years ago?
AK: It was a different era back then. There was no social media, and artists’ websites were relatively new. As a result, there was no way to be seen or communicate one’s own work. You had to rely on galleries to put on exhibitions and take your work to art fairs.
Because social media is a medium for self-expression, artists have become much more self-sufficient in recent years. My own infrastructure has also grown in complexity, and I now perform tasks that a gallery would normally perform.
However, that doesn’t mean that galleries are obsolete. The role distribution has shifted [and] the relationship must be reconsidered. The game changer is social media and the strengthening of the artist community that it brings. Many more inquiries [now] come directly to me, and not everything is requested through the gallery, [however] it always goes to the gallery. I’m old school there and loyal because I value the work and money that has been invested in me.
AM: Artists in the age of social media who are not represented by galleries do all the work themselves: PR, marketing, sales, accounting, and the art still needs to get made.
AK: When a new medium emerges, new opportunities arise for artists. [...] New technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and blockchain provide new mediums and economic tools for artists. Naturally, there is always a lot going on at the start. Everyone gets involved; there are many players, and there is a lot of excitement and attention. When a new medium is established in society and becomes the norm, it fades from view. Who, today, considers photography or video art to be adequate art mediums? [...] For me, art has a singular character, [and] artists build on centuries-old histories of art. Art needs to be classified and evaluated.
AM: Value in the NFT space is frequently measured in monetary terms. At least, this is the impression one gets from mainstream media coverage. Just consider the auction of Beeple’s Everydays: the First 5000 Days (2021) [for $69.3 million (ETH equivalent)]. People asked: “Why would anyone pay so much for a jpeg?” How do you define value as an artist?
AK: Determining value in the art market is a subjective process. The value is determined by the work’s uniqueness and recognizability, the number of museum exhibitions, [and] the charisma of the actors.
The cryptocurrency art market is similar to the stock market. When people buy and sell quickly, they are speculating. For me, that is gambling. Art in a new medium becomes valuable when it develops a new quality within the medium.
In my work, I deal with topics that are also of scientific interest, [but] I don’t have to prove everything like a scientist because I’m an artist. I am interested in themes relating to reality, which in our society also includes a preoccupation with “value.”
[...] That is why I am intrigued by the crypto art market. Who says things have a monetary value? Who says things don’t exist? Do they exist in the absence of us? Or is it just because we give these things names? What are our perceptions? What exactly is there? These are all classical philosophical questions that I approach from a philosophical standpoint. In an attempt to explain this to myself and to set myself rules that I do not abandon, I create formally reduced works of art, mostly sculptural objects.
AM: The human condition is a theme that runs like a thread through your work. Most recently, you did a self-portrait depicting your DNA.
AK: I’m also concerned with information and knowledge. What am I capable of knowing and recognizing as a human being? What tools do I have at my disposal to accomplish this? If I claim to want to make a self-portrait, I can’t do it any more accurately than by reading my entire DNA. That’s all I can offer.
Nonetheless, I am completely ignorant. So there are many Cs, Os, As, Gs, Ns, and so on. You could read which gene has a mutation if you are a bioinformatician. In stark contrast to the idea of the self-portrait in art history, you learn very little about the person themself, nor is the influence of the social included. The self-portrait of a classical artist is associated with personality, aura, and ego. What am I going to do with my self-portrait? I consider what is available to me and how I can best use it. In the end, the self-portrait almost vanishes. Because what constitutes the classic self-portrait is no longer available.
All people share 99.9% of their DNA. Our difference is only 0.01%. I believe that uniformity is far more powerful and motivating than individual differences.
AM: How did you get from your DNA to your first NFT?
AK: It began as a thought experiment for me, from which the concept for my NFT work evolved. DNA is non-copyable information that can always be traced back to an individual. So I suddenly had a lot of information about myself and decided to divide it into packets of 25 A4 sheets on which my DNA was written down. I divided myself and dispersed myself throughout the world. Everyone can only purchase a part of me, you can’t buy the whole Alicja Kwade, or it’s already too late for that. The first collector would have had to buy all 10,361 NFTs.
The crypto art market is also about trading NFTs and getting the exact NFT you want in your collection — comparable to trading cards.
So now if someone wants to have my eye color in their collection, that is possible, or the 0.01% that makes up me. Of course, I am interested in what the collectors are interested in. Is it the mutations or the similarities?
AM: Your eye color and body size are details that can also be found in traditional self-portraits. Are there perhaps overlaps?
AK: Exactly, my eye color and body size are illustrative — they are pictorial information, even if not simple in a scientific sense.
AM: Do you have plans to take the NFT project back to the figurative level in the second step?
AK: I’m not sure yet. I always need a compelling reason to use a medium, whether it’s sculpture or video.
In the case of my DNA, I felt compelled to employ blockchain technology as a medium. There is no better medium than blockchain to spread my DNA throughout the world. The concept and medium must complement each other.
AM: With NFTs, cultural and monetary value cannot be separated. When you sell your DNA, do you become currency yourself?
AK: That’s exactly what I like. That’s the abstruse thing. What is of value at all? Currency can be anything. In the past it was cowrie shells, then it was flower bulbs, then it was this, then it was that. Values change. My self-portrait on the blockchain goes back to an earlier work of mine.
I had been tracking the price of metal on the London Stock Exchange for years, at random times during the day. Within seconds, hours and days, the price of metals changed. I had translated these prices based on one or five grams of gold. How much would I get for copper and aluminium? The seven metals traded on the London Stock Exchange are, in turn, responsible for many other prices. The price of a can of cola, for example, is also influenced by these prices on the exchange.
AM: Do you feel that the crypto art market and the traditional art market are equally speculative? Do you feel more like a currency in the crypto art market than in the traditional art world?
AK: The traditional art market moves much more slowly than the crypto art market. Normally, it goes up continually. Of course, some of the old rules apply — don’t price your art below what it has previously sold for, unless there is a crash, which is usually caused by secondary market speculation.
Prices in the traditional art market move in linear fashion, but so far as I can tell, there is greater volatility in the crypto art market. Prices are heavily influenced by power and emotion. With a [work by] Basquiat or Warhol — which might cost two or eight million US Dollars — the collector owns a one-of-a-kind work of art, a moment, a fingerprint, a piece of the person, a touch of the lifestyle. NFTs are more associated with the 1960s and the idea of selling art in editions — of democratization. That’s how I approached my NFTs as well. My NFTs are $200 each. They are all one-of-a-kind pieces that are part of a larger project.
AM: In the traditional art world, when the price goes up on the secondary market, it also affects the prices on the primary market. That’s why artists try to make sure that their works don’t reach auction.
AK: Exactly, which is why controlling the secondary market in the traditional art world is critical. Prices must not be too high, or collectors who already own works will be encouraged to sell them in order to make a large profit. But if everyone sells, my market price falls again. High prices quickly lead to the market collapsing. Many artists’ biographies of the early 2000s — when 20-year-old painters were setting auction records — attest to this. That is why people try to avoid it. The art market is a volatile ecosystem.
AM: In 2015, Kevin Abosch, who is today a pioneer of crypto art, sold a photo of a potato for $1.08 million. He had the impression that he had been “commodified” and subsequently turned himself into a currency with his project IAMA Coin (2018). Don’t you still feel like a currency?
AK: This is exactly how it applies to my NFT work. I actually consciously sell myself in the form of my DNA, I exaggerate this theme and put it up for discussion. That’s what makes art for me.
Alicja Kwade lives and works in Berlin. Her work uses sculpture, installation, video, and photography to investigate universally accepted notions of space, time, science, and philosophy. Since graduating from the Berlin University of the Arts in 2005, she has exhibited globally at the Helsinki Biennial; Desert X, Coachella Valley, California; The Roof Garden Commission for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Setouchi Triennale; 57th Venice Biennale; and the 3rd ARoS Triennale, Aarhus. In 2015-2016, Public Art Fund commissioned “Against the Run,” an installation in New York’s Central Park.
Kwade has also had solo exhibitions at Berlinische Galerie and Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; Langen Foundation, Neuss; MIT List Visual Arts Center, Boston, Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Helsinki; Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; Haus Konstruktiv, Zürich; Yuz Museum Shanghai; Whitechapel Gallery, London; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt. Kwade’s works are part of numerous private and public collections worldwide including: Centre Pompidou, Paris; Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.; LACMA, Los Angeles; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek; Museo Mario Testino, Barranco; The Contemporary Art Museum of Luxembourg, Luxembourg City; Mumok, Vienna; and Yuz Museum Shanghai.
Anika Meier is a writer and curator specializing in digital art. She writes a column for the German art magazine Kunstforum titled, STATUS UPDATE, about the developments around the topic of NFTs in the field of art. She developed König Digital for König Galerie, collaborated with CIRCA on the first NFT drop by Marina Abramović, and with Quantum for Herbert W. Franke’s NFT drop, Math Art. Her curated exhibitions include: “In Touch. Art in the Age of Post-NFTism” (with Micol Ap), ART NFT Linz; “Tribute to Herbert W. Franke”; “The Artist Is Online,” König Galerie and at König in Decentraland (with Johann König); “Exercise in Hopeless Nostalgia. The World Wide Webb” by Thomas Webb at König Digital; “Surprisingly This Rather Works” by Manuel Rossner at König Digital; “Link in Bio. Art After Social Media” Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig; and “Virtual Normality. Women Net Artists 2.0,” Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig. She also sits on the curation board of Art Blocks.