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August 3, 2023

On Curation | Yusuke Shono

In the first of a series of curatorial essays for RCS, the architect of Proof of X shares his vision for blockchain as a medium
Credit: PIV, Default Punks, 2022. Photography by Hirokazu Kobayashi. Courtesy of the artist
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On Curation | Yusuke Shono

The exhibition, “Proof of X — Blockchain As A New Medium For Art,” took place in June 2023 in Daikanyama, Tokyo. Through a new form of decentralized curation it sought to explore the potential of blockchain technology as an artistic medium as well as its wider impact on society. What emerged from this process was not only new artworks but also other by-products: dialogues, texts, perspectives, and human relationships. This essay reconstructs some of the dialogues that took place between artworks and individuals according to ten different themes.

Installation view of “Proof of X” at THE FACE DAIKANYAMA, 2023. Photography by Hirokazu Kobayashi. Courtesy of Massage Magazine

1. Code as art

There is a rich history of artists who regard code itself as art, from code poetry to creative coding. Rhea Myers’s work, Is Art (2014/15), uses smart contracts as a means of expression, allowing token holders to switch between the messages: “This token is art” and “This token is not art.” The project possesses a self-referential structure whereby the token itself asserts and determines whether or not it is art. Another example is Ara’s Digital Native Art (2023), a smart contract artwork from Japan written in the Cadence language. It utilizes the resource-oriented nature of the language to materialize and destroy “Art” as a resource on the blockchain. In both cases, the written code is the true essence of the art, while the executed results are by-products. The images on the screen serve simply as interfaces to access the code and to verify the results.

0xDEAFBEEF, Caves, 2022. Photography by Hirokazu Kobayashi. Courtesy of the artist

2. On-chain / off-chain

Using blockchain as a medium is a struggle against the limitations of the technology, especially its inability to store large files. As a consequence, projects like Autoglyphs (2019) have emerged to display generative artworks “on-chain,” rather than relying on external storage like IPFS. One of the earliest artists to create fully on-chain artworks is 0xDEAFBEEF, who generates raw audio and image data using the C language. His work, Caves (2022), is an adventure of the letter “H” in an ASCII art cave, paying tribute to the pioneer of computer art, Herbert W. Franke, and specifically his work with fractal objects known as dragon curves. 

The artist unit exonemo also created a physical artwork, Proof of Non-Existence (2023), for this exhibition. With the code written in Solidity grammar on a silkscreen print, in this instance the artwork does not exist on the blockchain. Indeed, the duo defines the work as “off-chain,” thereby calling attention to a context in which the recorded location of an artwork affects its meaning and value. 

If blockchain continues to serve as a site (and archive) of value generation, off-chain artworks are also likely to undergo a transformation in their meaning.
exonemo, Proof of Non-Existence, 2023. Photography by Hirokazu Kobayashi. Courtesy of the artists

3. Time on the blockchain

Block time is generated through the bundling and chaining of transaction data. Contracts that operate without human intervention and the persistence of guaranteed data incorporate the future into the present. One artwork that engages with time is Matt Kane’s Gazers (2021), which synchronizes with the real phases of the moon as its own unique lunar calendar. In turn, 0xhaiku’s project, Still Remember (2023), develops a relational practice whereby collectors encode happy memories into emojis with every transaction, and subsequently acquire an image in return. The image then degrades over a three-year cycle unless the image is transferred, in which case the image resets. The act of owning such an NFT therefore binds the collector in the physical realm to the blockchain while replicating the forgetting curve for the age of block time.

0xhaiku, Still Remember, 2023. Photography by Hirokazu Kobayashi. Courtesy of the artist

4. Remix culture

Since its inception, remix culture has found a home on the blockchain, with the prototype NFT marketplace, Rare Pepe Wallet, serving as a natural bridge between crypto art and the meme economy. While many artists engage in remixing within the Web3 domain, PIV creates works based exclusively on CryptoPunks (2017) with an approach that simultaneously relies on and discards the notion of remixing. Their project, Default Punks (2022), reduces the CryptoPunks to a series of gray silhouettes, in the process reducing the original collection of 10,000 to 954 by eliminating individual avatars with duplicate outlines. What emerges is an alternative collection of anonymous Punks that are shadows of their former selves. 

By appropriating its iconic source material, the project offers a new perspective on historical works of crypto art and the online identities they have spawned. 
bouze, Reference, 2023. Photography by Hirokazu Kobayashi. Courtesy of the artist

5. Questioning ownership

The culture of digital data circulation and collection enabled by blockchain cryptography has brought about a new form of ownership facilitated by private keys. As a consequence, artists have sought to question the notion of ownership after the NFT. While the ERC-721 token standard returns information about an NFT’s owner, 0xG’s project, The Owned (2022), hacks that standard to allow the NFT to be borrowed (or “held”) for a limited time without transferring ownership. A variation on the same theme is bouze’s work, Reference (2023), which hides the seed phrase for a physical artwork inside a rock, posing an inanimate object as the owner of a digital object. By challenging ownership as a continuation of physical property relations, not to mention the preserve of the human, artists are presently exploring the possibilities and limitations of blockchain technology. 

Figure31, LUX, 2023. Photography by Hirokazu Kobayashi. Courtesy of the artist

6. Decentralized ownership

Of course, blockchain is also premised on transparency of information, visualizing the network of connections that constitutes the market for (principally digital) art. Connected Windows (2023) is a project by the artist NIINOMI that probes this network in the form of a digital creature, ANIMA, that traverses the windows of different NFTs. LUX (2023) by Figure31 also conceptualizes tokens as windows through which to view families of images — in this case manipulated photographs of the sun. 

Instead of owning a single image, the project prescribes a collective ownership structure that offers collectors a wide-ranging view of a celestial body we are told not to look at.

We were fortunate to have one of the pioneers of new media art in Japan, Masaki Fujihata, also contributing to this show. His project, My First Digital Data (2023), tokenizes his earliest digital photographs, developing a novel pricing mechanism that divides the initial set price according to the number of participants. This mechanism challenges the NFT as a speculative vehicle, whose price invariably decreases as more owners emerge. 

Toshi, PlayTrain, 2023. Photography by Hirokazu Kobayashi. Courtesy of the artist

7. Co-creation by the community

While art that generates unique images through random number sequences has emergent potential, there is more to generative art than randomness. Works like QQL (2022) by Tyler Hobbs and Dandelion Wist allow collectors to select the values that shape the appearance of an individual output, while platforms like fx(params) by fxhash as well as EditArt similarly recast the collector as a parametric artist

For this show, Kitasenju Design’s 64 Rectangles (2023) allows collectors to purchase individual rectangles and freely determine their colors, animations, and placement. It is intended to facilitate collaborative manual generation of digital outputs by multiple collectors. In turn, Toshi’s PlayTrain (2023) utilizes the subdomain feature of the Ethereum Name Service (ENS) to allow domain holders to link their ENS domains together like a chain. In doing so, it proposes an alternative community model that connects individuals in linear fashion rather than in a network-like structure. In a Web3 context in which the roles of artist and collector are becoming increasingly porous, creative communities are increasingly designing systems that engineer surprising outcomes.

EXCALIBUR, NEW VOID, 2023. Photography by Hirokazu Kobayashi. Courtesy of the artists

8. The death of digital data

In the blockchain ecosystem, “burning” refers to the act of removing tokens, while the address to which they are sent is known as the “burn address.” Burning an NFT involves transferring it to a wallet that cannot be accessed by anyone, though the transfer itself remains visible. This burn address is often regarded as the wallet with the largest NFT collection in the world. NEW VOID (2023) by pixel art collective, EXCALIBUR, is a performance art piece that carves out a new void in the present by transferring the work to a burn address, and thereby extinguishing it, just two minutes after minting. The work plays on the blockchain as a time-space of permanent data that cannot be falsified by anyone, and NFTs as essentially unburnable data. Although the burn address is inaccessible, the works remain permanently “owned” in that space. 

Through their work, these artists conceive of a world transitioning from the liberation of the soul to the possession of the soul. 

By contrast, the collective ALTERNATIVE MACHINE operates based on the philosophy and technology of artificial life, reusing the technology of acoustic delay-line memory invented during the early days of digital computing. Their work, SNOWCRASH (2023), is a sound installation artwork that reframes the exhibition space as a site of data storage, with the NFT referencing the venue’s data. The fragility of that data is incorporated into the structure of the artwork since it is liable to disappear after the exhibition period is over. At a moment when all events during one’s lifetime continue to exist online, data also persists after the owner’s death. The death of digital data can take various forms, including sending data to a graveyard or allowing the deceased to own that data in perpetuity. It represents just one example of digital death in the Internet age.

ALTERNATIVE MACHINE, SNOWCRASH, 2023. Photography by Hirokazu Kobayashi. Courtesy of the artists

9. Art as a system

The notion of art as a system has been expressed by numerous artists since the 1960s, with the roots of generative art visible in the movement for systems art. Yet there are also a number of artists who do not involve visual representation as part of their systems. Akihiro Kato’s work, IPMS (2023) visualizes the impact of blockchain on the physical world via a decentralized manufacturing system. This involves three agents — a “sculptor” who develops the prototype model; a “duplicator,” who manufactures and replicates parts from the prototype; and an “assembler,” who acquires and combines the parts together — who proceed asynchronously without revealing their identities. For Kato, “If this system were to become a reality, nations would lose their labor forces, and the blockchain would hold a gun to your head.” He regards this experiment as only partly fictional.

As a technology, the blockchain drives artists to create systems with the potential to change society. The importance of systems art lies in the fictionality of its systems that nevertheless illuminate possibilities for a different society.  
Akihiro Kato, IPMS, 2023. Photography by Hirokazu Kobayashi. Courtesy of the artist

10. Decentralized curation

“Proof of X” started as a grassroots project involving artists, critics, and others as part of a decentralized operation to complete a large-scale exhibition. This resulted in different challenges to those faced by centralized organizations. Numerous dialogues emerged out of a need for transparent operating processes, which led to previously unforeseen ideas being realized. 

Our approach has something in common with that of Bright Moments — a DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) which has established sub-DAOs in numerous countries around the world, gathering information on local artists who then join in a curation process that combines both decentralized and centralized aspects. Until recently, JPG has also been fostering community curation through its online platform, with NFT collectors defining a new set of canons via on-chain voting. Both projects have affinities with a2p, an artist-led online exchange or “artist-to-peer network” that became the basis for Casey Reas to launch Feral File as a new kind of blockchain-based digital art marketplace. 

The strengths of decentralized curation lie in the formation of communities, two-way dialogues, a commitment to shared decision-making, and the tangible manifestation of its outcomes. Thanks to decentralized societies, we may find the seeds of an alternative reality. It is for this reason that we must continue to foster their development and evolution.

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With thanks to Hasaqui Yamanobe.

Yusuke Shono is publisher of Massage Magazine, a media outlet that disseminates information about online culture. He is involved in book and exhibition planning, shedding light on culture yet to be discovered. He is the lead editor of The New Creator Economy (2022), a comprehensive collection of articles and artwork on the subject of NFTs, published by BNN.

A version of this article is available in Japanese via Massage Magazine.