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January 9, 2023

How To Do Your Own Research

Nina Roehrs shares what it takes to curate crypto art history with Nancy Baker-Cahill
Credit: Installation view of “DYOR” — Digital Space at Kunsthalle Zürich, 2022. Photography by Julien Gremaud. Courtesy of Kunsthalle Zürich
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How To Do Your Own Research
I am the nothing that makes everything happen.
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

Nancy Baker Cahill:DYOR” is an historic exhibition for so many reasons and I’m curious what prompted you to embark on such an ambitious, rigorous, and (pun-intended) well-researched curatorial endeavor? What about NFTs and blockchain appealed to you as a curator and to Kunsthalle Zürich as an institution? 

Nina Roehrs: Little more than two years ago, a new art world appeared, and for many it came out of nowhere. This new world ignored museums, galleries, curators, and critics — in short, the entire establishment — but it arrived dripping with money and generating a lot of interest. This new art world was based on a new technology (blockchain), had its own distribution system (Web3), unregulated aesthetic concepts (evident through NFTs), digital currencies (cryptocurrencies), new spaces for discussion, critique, and promotion (Discord channels and Twitter) and new forms of participation. 

The reaction to this new art world has been fierce, ranging from unbridled enthusiasm to categorical rejection, from exaggerated hopes to dark doomsday fantasies, from fascination with overnight wealth to criticism of energy consumption.
Installation view of “DYOR” at Kunsthalle Zürich — DYOR logo by Andreas Gysin (aka ertdfgcvb), 2022. Photography by Julien Gremaud. Courtesy of Kunsthalle Zürich

Nevertheless, in the last few months, people have been coming round to this movement. It is an extremely vital, young, dynamic, contradictory, fascinating, problematic, creative, critical, and critiqued field that many people want to know more about. The hunger to learn is there, but many haven’t had access to the right information. For this reason, Kunsthalle Zürich developed one of the first ever institutional exhibitions on this emerging field.

To quote the historian Martin Lukas Ostachowski, who contributed his own installation, Cumulonimbus Murus, to the exhibition: 

Crypto art “is a movement of values over aesthetics. As such, it is essential to remember and promote the concept of the self-sovereign crypto artist. [...] Blockchain technology created tools for artists to challenge their role in the traditional art world, [where] the entire art market is built on their backs.” 

“DYOR” is designed primarily to introduce the traditional art world to this brave new world. It was important to me to present that world in such a way that the artists in the exhibition and in the crypto art community would find themselves reflected in it. This involved creating a kind of artistic overload — symptomatic of how this world presents itself in Web3. I therefore adopted a curatorial strategy of more is more, letting as many actors as possible have their say through their work. The exhibition represents a starting point and an inclusive platform. My hope is that we can infect as many visitors as possible with the Web3 virus, while at the same time honoring the original and ongoing contributions of the crypto art community.

Moxarra Gonzales and Adina Glickstein, “DYOR” Crypto Glossary — Do Your Own Research, 2022. Courtesy Kunsthalle Zürich

NBC: “DYOR” predates the FTX debacle. Why is it crucial to “do your own research” in this space?

NR: Like most things in life, it helps to understand something in order to tap into its potential, but also to be in a position to protect yourself. In an increasingly digital world, there is no way to avoid dealing with underlying technologies. If you want to work with blockchain technology, which is initially difficult to use, you have to deal with it.

DYOR (do your own research) is a dictum of the crypto scene. The principle is that one should do one’s own investigation rather than believing all that is read. In connection with the exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zürich, the title “DYOR” was chosen deliberately for its multiple meanings. On the one hand it is an acknowledgement of the complexity of the blockchain and NFT technology and thus also of the difficulty of accessing art in that context. When the hype began in early 2021 and the traditional art world cottoned on, many reacted with indignation. But people had the same response to Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol once upon a time. “DYOR” is therefore also a prompt to engage this world with an open mind.

Installation view of “DYOR” — 24 SEEDERS (Left to right: Botto, Matt Kane (featuring Alotta Money, Bård Ionson, Coldie, Giant Swan, GISELXFLOREZ, Hackatao, hexeosis, Josie Bellini, Lawrence Lee, Matt Kane, Mlibty, Oficinas TK, Shortcut, skeenee, Sparrow, Vans Design and XCOPY) at Kunsthalle Zürich, 2022. Photography by Julien Gremaud. Courtesy of Kunsthalle Zürich

At the center of the exhibition is an installation of 24 “seeders”, comprising 24 rotating panels dedicated to different pioneering creators and platforms who have laid the foundations for new artistic concepts and standards. For the uninitiated, a seed phrase acts as a crypto wallet’s unique password or private key, allowing the owner to gain access to their wallet and to transact digital assets such as cryptocurrencies or NFTs. In the show, visitors can use the 24 SEEDERS as the starting point for their own research journey. Everybody is invited to seek out their own point of access to this new paradigm in the arts. DYOR!

It is important to me not to demonize the crypto world. Fraud is fraud, it’s not native to crypto. 

Like everywhere else, human nature is the problem. There’s a reason libertarians love a lack of regulation. This show is an open invitation to transparency — to search and re-search. The reward is knowledge and, of course, knowledge is power.

Installation view of “DYOR” — 24 SEEDERS at Kunsthalle Zürich, 2022. Photography by Julien Gremaud. Courtesy of Kunsthalle Zürich

NBC: One of the things I admire about how you structured this exhibition is that it lives up to the inclusive ideals of Web3. But given all of the ways Web3 has failed to disrupt the social, economic, and gender inequities of platforms and markets, what made this exhibition different in terms of community engagement and audience participation? 

NR: To curate an exhibition about a world whose principal ideal is decentralization involves a certain contradiction because curation demands selection, exclusion, and gatekeeping. Most people would, I think, accept that we need curators who have done their research, and who can identify works and contextualize them thoughtfully. The question is “how?” For “DYOR” the solution was to involve as many artists, curators, collectors, visitors, and even traditional galleries to ensure diversification, decentralization, and inclusion. The exhibition is therefore structured according to several subsections managed by different creators. There is also a strong emphasis on projects that invite participation. 

With Silvio Lorusso and Sebastian Schmieg’s project, A Slice of the Pie, we were able to create an ongoing and ever-expanding exhibition. Artists from around the world were able to purchase one or more slices via the work’s dedicated website and fill them with their own artworks. Since the beginning of the exhibition, over 100 named artists (and many others who remain anonymous) have added their names to the initial list of over 150 participants.

Generative art is especially suited to involving the audience in creative processes. Playrecordmint is another project that involves artists in interactive experiments, bridging physical embodiment with the creation of digital artifacts on the blockchain. For “DYOR”, playrecordmint featured the artists Leander Herzog, Sasha Stiles and Nathaniel Stern, as well as Zach Lieberman, with each presenting their own generative works for five weeks, offering visitors a novel playing field in which to co-create NFTs.

Installation view of “DYOR” — A Slice of the Pie at Kunsthalle Zürich, 2022. Photography by Julien Gremaud. Courtesy of Kunsthalle Zürich

NBC: We’ve talked a lot about how hackneyed and tiresome so many of the conversations around NFTs quickly became — whether mired in techno-utopianism, market obsession, or shameless self-promotion. How did “DYOR” break away from those well-trodden discursive paths and forge new ones? 

NR: In my opinion, a lot of that was driven by the 2021 superstorm when crypto hit the mainstream. For a long time, it was difficult to separate signals from noise. Where capital flows freely, craven behavior of all kinds often follows. Combined with all the discourse forced online because of the pandemic, so many conversations — some contentious, some relentlessly utopian — were stuck on repeat. Kenny Schachter has gone so far as revising his “NFTism” tattoo to read “Post NFTism,” indicative of how the crypto and collectible art arena quickly devolved into a free-for-all cash grab characterized by greed and scams. 

However, there have also been rigorous and thoughtful conversations going on all along, which we have sought to champion throughout the exhibition. There is also an historic community that continues to work hard to protect the ghosts and fearless experimentation of the early days. At “DYOR” we put strong emphasis on the origins of crypto art and especially the work of artists, creators, and platforms who pioneered the crypto art space. As the ecosystem expands, we hope artists will continue to look to these original “seeders” for ongoing guidance and inspiration. 

I happen to believe that the current market conditions are actually favorable to a reboot and a shakeout. Many artists remain committed to putting blockchain to creative and conceptual use in ways we haven’t yet seen. 
Manuel Rossner, Spatial Painting (Kunsthalle Zürich), 2022 and Nancy Baker Cahill, Contract Killers (Handshake), 2021. Courtesy of Kunsthalle Zürich

NBC: You also created a hybrid VR experience at Kunsthalle Zürich, which is the part of the exhibition in which I am lucky to be involved. Why did you decide to do this and were there conceptual reasons for locating many of the works in an overtly metaversal context?

NR: The sudden development of the NFT market is closely linked to the COVID-19 crisis, which lent digital exhibition formats and marketplaces prominence in times of physical isolation. Over the past three years it has become very clear that while physical works can be presented digitally, digital spaces are not their natural habitat. Key characteristics such as texture and materiality are often lost in translation. 

The situation is quite different for natively digital works that have been developed using hardware and software and visualized on a monitor throughout the creation process. We’ve included such works in the show within their native environment. Spatial technologies such as VR seem to be the logical environment for digital art, especially three-dimensional work. However, visitors may well ask why we did not locate this part of the exhibition fully in the metaverse. The answer is simple — because the metaverse has not yet advanced to enable a good enough visual display and experience of many artworks. Also, the metaverse is generally experienced via a screen and is therefore not immersive.

Installation view of “DYOR” — Pepe the Frog Space at Kunsthalle Zürich, 2022. Photography by Julien Gremaud. Courtesy of Kunsthalle Zürich

NBC: Your research was so robust that you now seem to be fully embedded in the earliest crypto ecosystems like the Rare Pepe community. Will you share the story of your own personal journey from curator to community member and how it culminated in the creation of the brilliant FAKECATTELAN (2022)?

NR: I should start by stressing that Pepe the Frog predates the brief and unfortunate misappropriation of Matt Furie’s memetic figure by the American alt-right, and thankfully has been reclaimed thanks to Furie’s herculean legal efforts and pro-democracy efforts abroad. As to my level of embeddedness, I’m not so sure about that, but my journey from curator to artist started as a joke with Fabian Wyss, Rare Scrilla, and Fake Annie. The group told me that “everyone is invited to be a Pepe artist,” whereupon I responded, “then I can make a Pepe too,” which is how FAKECATTELAN was born. The work is a nod to Maurizio Cattelan’s sardonic — and now iconic — Comedian (2019). 3D printed in vibrant yellow, my work is duct-taped to the gallery wall just like Cattelan’s original banana.

To many, Comedian — not just the object, but its sticker price — represented the absurdity of the art market: “you bought what for how much?” To the NFT community, such questions are par for the course. Outside observers have marveled at the cost of CryptoPunks and Bored Apes, but those inside the crypto scene are familiar with Comedian’s central themes of authenticity, reproducibility, originality, rarity, and value. 

The idea that I could replicate that is precisely the point in the NFT space, where anyone can be anything — artist, curator, producer, buyer. 

In the mainstream contemporary art world, such topics are less resolved. Heated debates over the meaning of art have been playing out in white cubes and critics’ reviews for over a hundred years.

Nina Roehrs, FAKECATTELAN, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

NBC: What role do humor and subversion play in this space and how do they challenge entrenched patterns in the traditional art world?  

NR: The Pepe community could provide some colorful answers to that. And, in a sense, Pepe’s spirit of accessibility, openness, and joy challenges the art world’s fixed delineations of artist, curator, and gallerist. While working on “DYOR”, I’ve witnessed a new level of camaraderie between artists, who in multiple cases chose to collaborate with others instead of operating on their own. XCOPY invited seven artists to present their copies, created in the spirit of the Creative Commons, alongside his famous work, Right-click and Save As guy (2018). 

Web3 playfully merges art, collectibles, design, fashion, and gaming. It disarms with wit such that critique can be delivered without didactic finger-wagging. It also holds a mirror up to everyday hypocrisies in a humorous but pointed way, while frequently occupying a glitch space that is uncontainable and uncategorizable. “DYOR” offers a glimpse into this world, which is still opaque to many. We are now witnessing a form of cultural liberation that I have never experienced in my life, but which is the central characteristic of crypto art. After all, it liberated me from “only” being a curator. 

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Nina Roehrs is an expert on art in the digital age who supports players in the cultural sector in their digital transformation. After studying business economics in St. Gallen and St. Andrews, she worked for UBS for 14 years before founding Roehrs & Boetsch in 2016. Both as a gallery and as a hybrid consultancy, Roehrs & Boetsch is dedicated to examining the influence of digitalization on art and society. This includes developing new forms of exhibition where conventional methods fail, often involving new technologies such as AR, VR, apps, websites, and blockchain technology. Dr Roehrs is the curator of the exhibition, “DYOR,” at Kunsthalle Zürich –– one of the first institutional art exhibitions on blockchain and NFTs, which opened in October 2022. She recently launched the Kunsthalle Zürich NFT edition program, which she will oversee in the future.

Nancy Baker Cahill is an award-winning interdisciplinary artist whose hybrid practice focuses on systemic power, consciousness, and the human body. She creates research-based immersive experiences, video installations, and conceptual blockchain projects rooted in the history of drawing. Her monumental augmented reality (AR) artworks extend and subvert the lineage of land art, often highlighting the climate crisis, civics, and a desire for more equitable futures. Baker Cahill is the Founder and Artistic Director of 4th Wall, a free, AR public art platform exploring site interventions, resistance, and inclusive creative expression. She ​is an artist scholar ​alumnus of the Berggruen Institute, a 2021 resident at Oxy Arts’s “Encoding Futures” focused on AR monuments, and​ ​a TEDx speaker. In 2021, she was awarded the Williams College Bicentennial Medal of Honor and received the C.O.L.A. Master Artist Fellowship. She is a 2022 LACMA Art and Tech Grant recipient and the January 2023 GAZELL.iO Resident Artist at Gazelli Art House in London.

“DYOR” runs until January 15, 2022 at Kunsthalle Zürich.