November 19, 2022

On Crypto Art’s Mexican Roots

NFTs continue to offer hope for a fairer society in Mexico argues Alonso Cedillo
Credit: Moxarra, (Still from) VIISA, 2021. Courtesy of the artist
Now Reading:  
On Crypto Art’s Mexican Roots

Mexico City is a promising hub for contemporary art. It’s relatively cheap to live in, especially for the expat community, and restrictions are non-existent. However, this reality shouldn’t be romanticized. When the expats started calling Mexico City the “New Berlin” a few years ago, outrage spread as this couldn’t be further from the truth. Our city is extremely violent and dangerous outside of its tourist areas, where Mexicans are being displaced by rising rents, some of them even dollarized. The national homicide rate is frighteningly high, while more than half of the population is unbanked. It might look cheap if you earn in dollars and spend in pesos, but here the minimum wage is approximately 1.09 USD per hour. 

Fighting against precarity is common in our local artistic community, which is precisely why some of us have found new hope in crypto.
​​Martha Maya, (Still from) The City Devours Me, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

The writer Fran Ilich is a pioneer of this movement, which followed the emergence of tactical media and post-internet art alongside the Zapatistas (EZLN). In 1998, the Electronic Disturbance Theatre created FloodNet, a virtual sit-in to protest against the Acteal massacre. A year later, Ilich relocated to Berlin, where he became part of Nettime, developing long-term collaborations with figures including Natalie Bookchin, Ricardo Dominguez, Geert Lovink, Florian Schneider, Pit Schultz, and Alexei Shulgin. Seven years later, Ilich was living in Mexico City when the EZLN announced via their Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle that they had become an educational guerilla. That was the beginning of The Other Campaign to recognize and support indigenous rights in Mexico, which adopted the motto “Another world is possible.” 

To this end, an open call for projects was put out to imagine new worlds founded on togetherness. Ilich ran the Zapatista servers and in 2005 created the Digital Material Sunflower (DMS) — a digital coin — and Spacebank, a rebellious virtual bank and exchange that offered credits, commodities, and stocks to the unbanked. In 2009, he was a keynote speaker at the First World Festival of Dignified Rage alongside leading members of the Zapatista army, as well as artists Francisco Barrios (“El Mastuerzo”) and Roco of Maldita Vecindad

I encountered Ilich in 2012, when his research into financial insurgency was ongoing. Alongside DEBIT (Delia Beatriz) I became an immediate adherent, joining his CyberPunk Party in Second Life (SL) in an attempt to forge “another narrative,” adopting SL’s Linden Dollars (L$) as our token and DMS as our currency. By this point, I had been working with video games, webpages, and virtual reality for a long time, but tokenization radically changed my artistic practice. In those years, we worked off chain, storing everything on our servers and hard drives in order to maintain our alternate realities and narratives. 

Fran Ilich, Diego de la Vega Flyer for Seed Money at Museo de los Sures, NYC, 2017. Courtesy of the artist

My project for the CyberPunk Party was Buen Web Inc, a company that offered web development services to connect the unconnected, charging Mexico’s minimum wage of 0.35 USD per hour at that time. It was a huge failure. Small stationers, car dealers, depots, and diners were not interested in owning a web page. For such businesses, web pages are becoming obsolete, and most are satisfied with Instagram and Facebook profiles. 

It’s no coincidence that financial and technological insurgency happens more often in the Global South. Take a look at the Sarafu-Credit network in Kenya, Túmin in Veracruz, as well as the global trust-based hawala networks. Insurgency is born from precarity and oppression. 

The question for Mexico City’s local community is: how can we connect in a more effective, diverse, and inclusive way to establish true freedom, not simply true ownership?

Juanna Pedro, Blockchain House, 2022. Courtesy of the artist   

The first artwork I encountered that used blockchain technology was a conceptual performance co-created by Fran Ilich and Artistic Bokeh. While looking for commodities to raise the DMS value, Ilich came across Ai Weiwei’s Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) (2008) on the black market, which had been exhibited at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. For Blockchain Performance (2012), Artistic Bokeh and Spacebank purchased 20 of Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds using Bitcoin via the transaction hash: 61e545ea577e4a3ff5b98e845bc0671c2a08bc3b95b07a8c9b10833314158f8b. As a consequence, the value that derived digitally from Bitcoin materialized into the seeds, whose value was then transferred to Ilich’s coin through tokenization — storing value through mainstream works of art to support his own insurgent financial instruments. 

In 2013, José Miguel González Casanova made an open call to build C.A.C.A.O., an artist community with its own time-based currency. Comprising artists including Crater Invertido, Mónica Mayer, Nerivela, Daniel Godínez Nivón, and Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba as well as local communities and indigenous cooperatives, Casanova transformed the city’s iconic Museo del Chopo into a cultural marketplace. Ilich and I joined as C.A.C.A.O.’s time bank. However, it was a mess for all those who participated, not least because we were ordered to offer credit to unknown people. I remember getting the full address and details of a taxi driver who pawned 100 hours of driving to receive 100 C.A.C.A.O.s. Of course we never heard from him again. That was the basic problem — we lacked trust.

Banking requires either a large, highly developed infrastructure or else an automated one. To manage such a large conventional ledger between the two of us was crazy. When I heard about Ethereum, smart contracts, and blockchain tokenization, it changed my life. 
Gus Grillasca, ZOMBIE PEPES, 2016. Courtesy of the artist

In 2016, Gus Grillasca started selling memes on Rare Pepe Wallet, which was the first successful NFT marketplace. Built on the Bitcoin blockchain, it quickly developed its own devoted community. For Grillasca, originally a chemical engineer, “NFTs are strictly related to the meme culture,” so his work explores precisely that. He soon started collaborating with different individuals from the city’s Colonia Del Valle neighborhood. These included Moxarra Gonzalez and neurocolor, trained visual artists who became central figures in the crypto art movement. 

Moxarra began minting NFTs as part of the Dada community, establishing a unique form of crypto-cartoonism that critiques and celebrates the world through a memetic lens. Neurocolor started making digital images during high school, but was pushed into painting by the Faculty of Arts and Design in Mexico City. Ultimately, he rejected the culture of the established art world, and, operating under an alias, sought out alternative platforms like Big Cartel and Saatchi Art in order to sell his prints. Since discovering NFTs, he has collaborated with Moxarra to develop The NonNFT Summit, which seeks to revive the spirit of crypto art before the Beeple sale and the ascent of the PFP [profile picture] project. 

For neurocolor, “the fact that people talk about metrics, trading, scamming, or membership programs pushes us away from the original spirit of crypto art.” 

As an event run by artists for artists, and without VC funding, The NonNFT summit seeks no profit, but rather to reassert local artist communities at the heart of NFT conversation. 

Carlos Marcial, The Old Morelos, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

Probably the most successful crypto artist to have emerged from Mexico City is Carlos Marcial. The son of an art historian, Marcial recalls being “ready to die a poor artist…[before] NFTs came in and changed the whole dynamic.” In 2019, he was living in Toronto, where he had established a studio specializing in design services for blockchain projects and companies. It was there that he discovered NFTs and purchased his first CryptoKitty. At the beginning of 2020 he became one of the first full-time crypto artists. For Marcial, crypto art is “post-postmodern art” and crypto artists are “directly connected to the market.” The result is a new breed of creative entrepreneur who engages directly with their collectors and decides when to drop their NFTs. In his own words, “I’m the platform now…” 

In post-postmodernity, we’ve moved from being an artist-shaman to being a platform, to being a Christie’s or Sotheby’s ourselves. And that’s a double-edged sword: You get more of the money but you also become too much of a promoter or marketeer. (Carlos Marcial) 

In his work, Marcial inserts himself back into art history to create variations on works by Duchamp, Dürer, or Magritte. He also uses symbols like the jaguar and the serpent that reference pre-Columbian cultures. For Marcial, this intercultural imaginary is central to the NFT ecosystem, where “[a]rtists in the Global South also care deeply about our fellow artists. We are united. It doesn’t matter where we are, whether it’s Haiti or the Dominican Republic or Peru or Bolivia, for everyone this is a chance to leverage a financial vehicle perhaps for the first time.” Like other crypto artists based in Latin America, many of whom are also lecturers and researchers, Marcial teaches university students about how blockchain technology is engineering a new creator economy.

Helio Santos, Landscape painted by a machine XIV, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

The traditional training of many artists in Mexico City also helps to explain the prevalence of phygital projects that combine digital and physical outputs. Helio Santos exemplifies this approach as a trained painter whose recent work with AI has been collected by Cozomo de’ Medici. In 2019, Santos, who divides his time between Mexico City and Colima, created a Twitter bot that used computer vision to generate novel landscapes in oil based on 18th and 19th-century paintings. Collectors receive a single artwork comprising both physical output and tokenized digital file. 

Working between Mexico City and Miami, Fabiola Larios also uses AI and NFTs to explore the data bias of surveillance capitalism. Larios started VJing memes and addressing issues arising from technological obsolescence in 2015. With the artist suffering racism and discrimination since her childhood in Mexico, her work probes the digital systems that have naturalized systemic abuse in Web2, pointing out the possible problems and solutions of Web3. Meanwhile, Martha Maya, better known as Lvstvcrv, works to decompose digital images and video. Adopting glitch aesthetics, her work unveils the failures of digital systems and the accelerationism of the attention economy. For Maya, “NFTs offer an efficient alternative to extend the life of [her] creations through decentralized storage.”

Fabiola Larios, spy n sparkle *:・゚✧ feel the fire inside you surrounded by glitter and 8-bit sounds, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Also working with animation is Carolina Ontiveros aka Murakita, who operates as both a crypto artist and front-end developer for The HiveMind DAO. Inspired by video game characters, furry fandom, and Otaku anime, Murakita lives on the Internet and across blockchains as a bootleg 3D avatar, morphing frequently. For the artist, NFTs have allowed her to highlight Mexico’s inflation rate and “our coin’s devaluation.” The problem faced by all of the artists mentioned here is how they find communities and platforms that allow them to grow sustainable careers. 

One artist who viewed blockchain as a possible solution is Amor Muñoz, whose work has been exhibited at SFMOMA and awarded at Ars Electronica. Muñoz uses textiles, performance, drawing, sound, and experimental electronics to explore the interaction between material forms and social discourse. In a world of inequality and disparate opportunity, she was initially attracted to blockchain for its capacity to ensure the distribution of goods without the same built-in inequalities as Web2 infrastructures. However, for Muñoz, things are not turning out the way she expected, with major art institutions and marketplaces intervening in familiar ways. 

One way in which Mexico City contrasts other crypto hubs is the extent to which the contemporary art world is embracing NFT culture. 
Murakita, `•.¸¸.•´´𝓇𝑒𝒶𝒹𝓎 𝓉♡ 𝒽𝒶𝓋𝑒 𝒻𝓊𝓃♡¯`•._.•, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

For the Miami-Based curator, Direlia Lazo, “NFTs are not here to remove galleries from the game. They can grant independence to artists. But they can also be profitable for the galleries who work passionately to support the work of the artists they represent.” Following this logic, it is the responsibility of the entire art world ecosystem to assimilate NFTs as a means whereby the ideas contained in artworks — especially performance and land art — might be emancipated from a fetish for the literal object. 

In 2021, Lazo joined Zelika García, Director General of Zona Maco, Latin America’s largest art fair, initiating a project to mint community tokens and NFTs that afford collectors exclusive access to tours and activities in Mexico City’s museums, private artist talks and studio visits, Discord and Zoom forums, as well as VIP access to the fair. Another new initiative is the Latin American Biennial of AI (BILIA), which has opened a space in which artists can explore, create, and share their ideas directly with their publics. Its founders Andrés Cedillo Chincoya and Aldo Parallel are currently working with ArtCrypted, an NFT marketplace built on Avalanche that seeks to “empower the creative community and prioritizes LATAM artists.”

neurocolor, (Still from) Chroma Violence — 彩度暴力, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

Beyond local attempts to bridge communities through blockchain are new initiatives, like Bright Moments (BM), that wish to bridge our community with the world. Organized as a DAO “owned & operated by holders of CryptoCitizens,” BM hosts live-minting events in different cities that attract international collectors while seeking to engage local ecosystems. One of its core strategies is to give away a third of the tokens it mints in every city in order to further decentralize itself. On the occasion of NFT ART CDMX, BM has organized meetups and generative art workshops hosted by and for local artists and offered for free. Bright Moments’ artist in residence, Mario Carrillo, defines himself as a “Crypto-Op artist” for whom “numbers transcend units — they create the shapes, motion, and color we interact with.” While for Malte Rauch, who manages BM’s artist relations, “Web3…pushes people into thinking about money as an informational system, inclusive and transparent.”

For those of us living in Mexico, blockchain stands for the hope of financial independence, while emboldening the fight for transparency, social justice, and the redistribution of power among the citizens of our country. NFTs not only bring art, they also offer the promise of fair local and federal elections, independent banking, retirement funds, and freedom — all that was promised to us and then taken away.

🎴🎴🎴

Alonso Cedillo is a post-internet artist and writer that lives and works in Mexico City. He began working with time banks, digital currencies, and tokenizing off-chain web pages and objects in 2012. His work has been featured at Museo Jumex; Together; the Fourth Internet Pavilion of the Venice Biennale; Transitio MX; and Donaufestival. He is currently a nominee for the CIFO-Ars Electronica Award. His work has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art of the State of Mexico, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Querétaro, and Mexico’s Secretariat of the Treasury and Public Credit.