May 30, 2022

EPOCH Gallery and Blockchain’s New Ecology

On the occasion of EPOCH’s new show “Cryosphere,” Charlotte Kent considers the value of community curation
Credit: Alfredo Salazar-Caro, SOL: Statue of Liberty/Statue of Lies AKA Last Days of Babylon (detail), 2020. Courtesy of the artist
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EPOCH Gallery and Blockchain’s New Ecology

In their seminal study, Blockchain and the Law (2018), Primavera De Filippi and Aaron Wright reveal blockchain’s roots in the very neoliberal individualism that underpins Web2 and devastates the planet:

Blockchains are disintermediated and transnational. They are resilient and resistant to change, and enable people to store non-repudiable data, pseudonymously, in a transparent manner. Most — if not all — blockchain-based networks feature market-based or game theoretical mechanisms for reaching consensus, which can be used to coordinate people or machines.¹

This has critical implications for Web3 galleries that are looking to reject toxic ecologies. The endless flatness of NFT marketplaces resists hierarchical models, while their volume is overwhelming and alienating for newcomers to the space. This defeats the theoretically inclusive proposition of blockchain. Indeed, many popular NFT platforms require invitations for artists to join, thereby reinstituting forms of gatekeeping from the legacy art world. 

Carolina Caycedo, Corazon de Oro/Heart of Gold, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

While disintermediation is fundamental to blockchain, this doesn’t apply to the corporate operations utilizing it, including DAOs. Participants may be transnational but, with proof-of-work chains demanding crippling fees that disproportionately impede artists from the Global South, the vast share of critical attention has been directed at North American and European artists. I am equally guilty in this respect. Given blockchain’s resilience and resistance to change, deploying it in the service of established ideologies risks reiterating the hegemony of urban art centers. And yet, centralization is also a useful weapon when trying to dismantle old regimes. 

As I have discussed previously, the principle of decentralization appeared alongside the civil rights movement (as well as post-structuralism) as a framework for rejecting previous subject-centered studies that valorized individual biography and psychology. Those historically marginalized sought out nodal positions to advocate for social, economic, and political change. As Jayne Wark wrote of conceptual art:

...in order for hitherto silenced voices to find a place from which to speak, the dominant cultural narratives and discourses must be dislocated.

New voices often need centering in order to bring about equitable decentralization. The question now is whether Web3 modes of curation and exhibition can resist old verticalities.

EPOCH Gallery’s latest exhibition, “Cryosphere,” engages directly the shifting relations between natural ecologies and the art “eco” system. The gallery utilizes Algorand — a layer 1 proof-of-stake blockchain that has never forked (or failed) — created by an MIT cryptography professor. In the exhibition, general environmental concerns are focused on Matanuska Glacier in Anchorage, Alaska: land primarily pertaining to the Ahtna and Dena’ina Athabaskan peoples.² Matanuska Glacier is one of the few in the US that retains its Indigenous name rather than a title bestowed by collegiate explorers. 

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Terratic Animism, 2016. Courtesy of the artist

Peter Wu+, EPOCH Gallery’s founder and guiding curator, worked with Anchorage native Nathan Shafer, who now lives and works in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, to render the show an act of support rather than appropriation. Given the growing number of NFT fairs, recognition of the lands and peoples on which participants descend through royalty remuneration would ensure blockchain’s commitment to those sidelined by corporate capitalism and its platform oligarchies. Charitable support is often claimed by blockchain advocates but less evident than one might hope and certainly not standard practice yet (though Art Blocks includes it in every curated offering). 15% of the sale proceeds from “Cryosphere” will go to Cook Inletkeeper, an Alaskan organization that works with communities to advocate for and help steward the assorted species within Cook Inlet watershed. 

Of course, art is also a steward of ideas and futures. In “Cryosphere,” seven artists present complex works that entangle environmental and economic politics. Viewers enter the online exhibition at twilight, wind bracing, with the aurora borealis a shimmering green. In Alfredo Salazar-Caro’s SOL: Statue of Liberty/Statue of Lies AKA Last Days of Babylon (2020), a sigil-laden Statue of Liberty, half-buried in the snow, looms over her screen-based image in flames — setting out the unabashed intention of the show. Her lantern is visible across the exhibition’s metaversal landscape, a continuous reminder of the social politics that are integral to engaging rigorously with climate science. A red hand print stamped on Liberty’s mouth also serves as a forceful statement of the many missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and the US. At a minimum, one third of Indigenous women experience sexual assault with two-thirds of these attacks committed by non-Indigenous perpetrators. This show reminds us that the dispossession of Indigenous land begets such violence toward Indigenous women.

In Glacier’s Lament (2021), Jiabao Li worked with local musicians to produce a dance in response to data collected over the last sixty years about the recession of the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska. (Given that the Alaskan capital is named after a miner and gold prospector, please note that its Tlingit name is Dzántik'i Héeni.) The video of the work situates the dancer and musicians together on the glacier, incorporating local sounds. Much Alaskan tourism derives from those wishing to see the glaciers before they are gone, lending glacier recession the character of disaster porn. The danger of a title like Glacier’s Lament is that a lament mourns those who have died, whereas effort must not be abandoned. Language recognizes our responsibility. 

Jiabao Li, Glacier's Lament, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Nathan Shafer’s four Wintermoot (2019-2022) books, a series of augmented reality graphic novels, are scattered across the environment and can be read in full. Wintermoot 3 includes an index of glacier terminology for those who are ready to learn more about the intricacies of the terrain. These are brilliant texts. The last two were written with Melissa Shaginoff, an Ahtna and Paiute artist and curator, part of the Udzisyu (Caribou) and Cui Ui Ticutta (Fish-Eater) clans from Nay'dini'aa Na Kayax (Chickaloon Village, Alaska). The first Wintermoot book received a grant from Creative Capital but has been published by Łuk’ae Tse’ Tsass (Fish Head Soup) that presents Indigenous experiences in science-fiction. Shafer’s Arctic Adventure Sculpture Garden (2018) is a clever response to the frequent errors in cultural appropriation of Indigenous landscapes and practices. In this instance he corrected the many errors strewn across the 1994 video game Arctic Adventure (for example, Bigfoot is not a local figure, and penguins do not exist in the Arctic but rather the Antarctic). The placement of works across “Cryosphere” adds to their meanings and highlights concerns around how environmentalism isn’t an abstract duty but one that must be (g)localized. 

Matanuska Glacier is 27 miles long, occupying a valley of three rivers. This landscape makes its shrinkage more evident. Children used to climb Elephant Wall, a large mound near the glacier’s toe, but now it’s gone. A 2019 report found that Alaska’s glaciers will lose 30 to 50% of their mass by 2100. But engaging with climate disruption is about more than carbon neutrality, it’s about confronting issues of sovereignty, Indigenous rights, and capitalist individualism. The Ahtna and Dena’ina people have been trading on the glacier for thousands of years, as Melissa Shaginoff explains, and yet Cryosphere does not include any of them as participants within the exhibition. The artists collaborate but is that enough?³

Nathan Shafer, Pilot Bread Portals to Wintermoot, 2019-2022. Courtesy of the artist

Dark particles of cryoconite dust that are currently produced by global industry land on glaciers and accelerate thaw, releasing trapped elements with unforeseen consequences. Mild winters mean that frozen greens — grasses, sedges, bushes, and trees — dependent on icy temperatures die out, with the result that caribou and moose have nothing to eat. Berry bushes rely on cold to maintain their yield, but these days are ever smaller, impacting all who depend upon or choose to follow subsistence lifestyles. King Salmon is scarcer because it needs cold water for its cycle. Fisheries that net thousands of halibut — while also mutilating and discarding other aquatic life — decimate the marine population. By contrast, the local tourist trade is restricted to a catch of two fish per sea outing. 

In Donald Worster’s The Ends of The Earth (1988), the historian wrote:

The capitalists and their theoreticians promised that, through the technological domination of the earth, they could deliver a more fair, rational, efficient and productive life for everyone, […] People […] must regard everything around them — the land, its natural resources, their own labor — as potential commodities that might fetch a profit in the market [….] As wants multiplied, as markets grew more and more far-flung, the bond between humans and the rest of nature was reduced to the barest instrumentalism.  

Enthusiasm for NFTs, as well as blockchain’s “radical” potential, often shares this instrumental tone. At a recent NFT event I attended, people were taking selfies but instead of saying “smile” they were saying “utility.” The philosopher Martha Nussbaum identifies instrumentality as one of several forms of objectification, defining it as the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes.⁵ Groups are also instrumentalized through generalization. However, through collective action (rather than group think) they can also evade capture.

Nathan Shafer, Arctic City, 2018. Courtesy of the artist

EPOCH Gallery offers a novel mode of remuneration whereby collectors purchase the installation with all the works included in it. Launched during the early months of the pandemic, the gallery’s shows have often responded to contemporary politics in agonizingly timely fashion: “Wonderland” (2021) highlighted Chinese diaspora artists, seeking to unveil anti-Asian hatred just prior to the Atlanta massage parlor shootings. “Freeport” opened in June 2021 and sought to draw parallels between freeports and the elitism, elicit behavior, and tax evasion of the NFT market. All of EPOCH’s shows are group exhibitions and, as Feral File has also recognized, every artist in a group show contributes to the overall experience and sales potential for everyone else. For Wu+, this mode of communalist commerce eliminates the sale of individual works. By purchasing an edition of the entire exhibition, collectors enjoy all the works within Wu+’s environment, while the artists split sales equally. 

Wu+’s belief in co-curation with artists enables them to use the exhibition in part or whole during later presentations or future works. Later this summer, Nathan Shafer will be in Soldotna doing workshops and presenting on how the show operates. He describes how “artists working in new media that are inventing stuff are engaging methodically with making things better (culture jamming, reality hacking).”⁶ This includes examining how their medium can work for the betterment of all. 

Corporate capitalist practices are decimating the land while solutionist rhetoric stifles meaningful change. Alaska has 20 languages across four major language groups. In Dena’ina, “qeshqa” refers to a rich man who is nonetheless measured by how much he gives back. Curated spaces that engage with such notions offer the basis for real innovation, beyond the PR claims of tech capitalism. Through this show, EPOCH demonstrates that wealth is what we restore rather than what we extract. Web3 communities must heed this warning. As Roy Ascott wrote in 1993, “Cyberspace cannot remain innocent. It is a matrix of human values. It carries a psychic charge. In cyberculture, to construct art is to construct reality.”⁷ But one reality cannot be built on the ashes of another.

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Charlotte Kent is an arts writer and assistant professor of visual culture at Montclair State University. With a background in philosophy and literature, as well as in ophthalmic publishing, she brings an interdisciplinary approach to visual art and digital culture with a current research focus on the absurd. She is an Editor-at-Large for The Brooklyn Rail, and contributes to peer review journals and international magazines.

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¹ P de Filippi and A Wright, Blockchain and the Law: The Rule of Code, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. 33.

² The author and Right Click Save pay our respects to the Ahtna, Dena’ina, Paiute, and Tlingit peoples, and acknowledge their Elders, land, and cultural custodianship since time immemorial.

³ M Shaginoff interviewed by the author on May 30, 2022.

⁴ D Worster (ed.), The Ends of the Earth, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988. 11-12.

⁵ MC Nussbaum, “Objectification”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 24, no. 4, 1995. 257.

⁶ N Shafer interviewed by the author on May 18, 2022.

⁷ R Ascott, Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness, EA Shanken (ed.), Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007. 283.