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January 23, 2023

On the Early Days of Hic Et Nunc

Tais Koshino and Michael Straeubig reflect on the moment when crypto art converged on Tezos
Credit: OMGiDRAWEDit, The Arcade (detail), 2021. Courtesy of the artist
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On the Early Days of Hic Et Nunc

RCS: Tais, how did you get into Hic et Nunc (HEN) and what was your experience of the early community? Can you give us an insight into what HEN means from the vantage point of Brazil?

Tais Koshino: I wanted a democratic place where people from the Global South and those from the queer community could be agents in a decentralized environment. My research is around the practice of contemporary drawing. In 2020, with the onset of the pandemic, I started attending an artistic mentorship group. Our task was to create a three-dimensional artwork, which led me created the digital simulation, jardim | 枯山水 | garden (2021), alongside my brother, KOSHA, who is also an artist working with game design. 

In February 2021, I joined a new mentorship focused on digital art. My brother told me about an NFT platform that a friend of ours, Rafael Lima, was creating. I had heard about NFTs, and because I could write and had practiced curation, he invited me to be part of the team. Rafael’s main goal was to create a platform where anyone could mint an NFT. On March 1, he deployed it officially on Tezos and I created my first NFT. In less than a week more than 2,000 objects had been created. Everything got so big so fast, but it was not our intention. 

DiverseNFTArt (Tais Koshino and Amelie Maia), (Still from) OBJKT4OBJKT #2, 2021. Courtesy DiverseNFTArt

Everyone was talking about how Ethereum was bad for the environment, so we launched a very minimal platform that was nostalgic for digital artists. We also had several big names from the digital art scene, including Mario Klingemann and Micol from VerticalCrypto Art, who were advocating for HEN. We weren’t prepared for what happened and we didn’t have much structure. But by the end of March, after less than a month, we were already celebrating the milestone of 10,000 objects. I organized an event, OBJKT4OBJKT, with Amelie Maia. She had reached out and invited me to co-found a collective because I’m a Japanese Brazilian cis woman and lesbian. 

Crypto art seemed to be full of white men from the Global North. So I helped those who wanted to join from the Global South or the queer community by sending links, videos, and Tez (XTZ) currency if it was needed to start minting. 

I think this movement made the Brazilian community grow quickly. A lot of people wanted to create NFTs who didn’t have the opportunity or the money because it was very expensive at the time to mint on Ethereum. HEN filled a lot of gaps — anyone could mint for less than $1 and, as a proof-of-stake chain, Tezos was more environmentally friendly. Even digital artists who didn’t think their work would succeed as NFTs due to their associated aesthetics were getting involved. On HEN, people were starting to experiment with minting images that had a totally different aesthetic. Those from different backgrounds and artistic practices now had an opportunity to create in the NFT space. It felt like anything was possible.

I proposed OBJKT4OBJKT, which enabled everyone to mint and post work for free. This was one of the first events to use the hashtag system on Twitter, where you could mint an object and tag the event as #OBJKT4OBJKT so people could see all the tweets about it. It was a really fun weekend. But as the community grew so did the pressure, even with many people trying to help. 

Mario Klingemann, The First One is Free, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

In May 2021, we started the Tibum residency with an open call for projects about education, technology, and art for people from the Global South. We selected four projects to mentor, which was a very special experience. Then, in October, I received a commission to paint some murals and so I knew I would have to step away from HEN with a view to returning by mid-November. The project involved traveling to a poorer region of the Brazilian countryside where I didn’t have much internet access. 

One day, after many hours spent painting, I got back to the hotel and saw that Rafael had discontinued Hic et Nunc. I couldn’t believe what was happening.

It was thanks to the global market for crypto art that I had opportunities in places like Art Basel Miami, which would never have happened via the traditional route. Now I know what I’m capable of achieving in my career without being forced to live the life of a broke artist. That is rare in the Global South, where so many jobs are already precarious. In Brazil it’s hard to live off one’s art because government support for culture was undermined by former president Bolsonaro. Thanks to HEN, a lot of artists were able to live off the profits of NFT sales. But now that does not seem so possible. 

Helen Sarin, Latentscaux, a Petting Zoo, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

RCS: Michael, how did you come to HEN and what has been your experience since Rafael’s departure? We’re interested in your role as the HEN historian and how you go about narrating this important episode in art history? 

Michael Straeubig: I had been following discussions about the ecological impact of blockchains back in 2020 and some of my artist friends were actively looking for a place to trade NFTs without a huge ecological footprint. I entered Hic et Nunc roughly a month after Tais having muted #NFT because my Twitter timeline was turning into a shill fest. Those tweets that came through often contained the phrase “Hic et Nunc” (Latin for “Here and Now”) which led me to take a second look. I minted my first NFT on April 6, 2021 and started to engage mainly as a collector. My approach to art and technologies such as VR, AR, AI, and blockchain is an experimental one. 

I like the freedom to express oneself without baggage. HEN made that possible because it was open to everyone without the prohibitive fees of other NFT platforms. Everyone could just jump in and mint an NFT. 

Compare that to the situation where artists from certain countries cannot access their accounts on OpenSea because it is a US company. Both HEN and Teia, the community-run platform that emerged out of HEN, have been far more open in their curation, community, and source code. However, that spirit of experimentation, freedom, and permissionlessness can be difficult to uphold. It was certainly a dynamic situation in the early days of HEN; I remember discussions about censorship vividly. Some people were put off by the chaos, others remain nostalgic for the good old days.

Marissa Noana, Where the River Breathes, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

In June 2021 there was a hack, which was the moment I started to see some problems emerging. Many artists were sharing their feelings and, unfortunately, some individuals began spreading misinformation and rumors. It felt like an avant-garde moment, so I sought to track this emerging history in order to make sense of what was actually going on. On Discord, everyone was talking about what HEN’s founder Rafael Lima presumably wanted, but only a few were actually conversing with him. He changed his opinions a lot, which made it very difficult for people to follow. Back in the summer of 2021, Rafael was the most respected figure in the space. But his reputation went downhill from there. 

This became more obvious during the Hicathon: a hackathon organized by the HEN community in good faith and with lots of energy that was designed to improve various aspects of Hic et Nunc. I noticed from the beginning that Rafael was clearly against some of the directions in which the community was heading. As a result, I joined a team that was dedicated to external tools, supporting the community as a satellite rather than interfering directly with the operations of HEN. I did not want to do anything that relied on centralized permission.

Tais Koshino, jardim, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

RCS: What do you think changed in the summer of 2021?

MS: The stress was mounting on the developers, which prompted fallouts between them, Rafael, and the community of artists and collectors. If you are an artist, and you suddenly realize that you can make a living from your art, you begin to take a platform more seriously. If that platform shuts down for a week because of a hack or because the smart contracts are not safe, that scares you. 

I think a lot of discussions happened because people were scared about the safety of their NFTs. This put stress on the team and on Rafael, because HEN was not a commercial operation. It was Rafael, Tais, her brother, and a couple of developers and volunteers keeping the platform alive. It was on shaky ground. 

When Rafael took down the website in November 2021 and people looked at the infrastructure more closely, they saw some really concerning things. While Rafael had made a lot of good technical decisions initially, there was a risk that could have seriously impacted the system due to the link between the platform and the storage of the NFT assets. Fortunately, he had chosen to use IPFS (InterPlanetary File System) — a decentralized storage protocol — which allowed for several community-run initiatives to preserve the images and metadata when the website was abandoned. 

Raphaël de Courville, eARs of Gold, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Unfortunately, while those who were trying to reinstate the website understood the technical problems, they completely misread the room. The community wasn’t sure what they were trying to do, whether they were trying to help or take over. There were many misunderstandings at that time, and in such situations drama and rumors abound.  

TK: I think there was a misunderstanding that the hackathon would be implemented automatically, but the platform’s display was a huge thing for Rafael. It had to be minimal. We knew that HEN had a lot of problems, but my brother and I couldn’t do anything — only Rafael, and he wasn’t accepting help. 

MS: There were over a dozen groups at the Hicathon working on different elements: from the setting up of a DAO to the user interface to improving performance. The event was only supposed to last for a few days but it ended up running for a number of months. People didn’t want to stop working, but it also wasn’t possible to implement everything. The user interface polarized people from the beginning, with half saying it was brilliant: “let’s just focus on the art, with no prices displayed on the starting page,” and the other half saying it was horrible and that they couldn’t find anything. 

Yoeshi Labs, The Lion Kitty, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

TK: I find it funny because HEN could have broken at any time, but it didn’t. And that’s HEN. It could never only be about the market as it was always about something more. I think that spirit keeps going with Teia because it’s a platform managed by its community, which is beautiful.

MS: I totally support the volunteers on HEN, and now on Teia: the people writing the documents, doing the curation, as well as the coding. 

If you understand Teia to mean “web,” as it does in Portuguese, then growth becomes about more than accumulating wealth. It is about inner growth, more like tending a garden. 
Mumu the Stan, Moon's meditation #1, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Teia is active with charity and community events and continues to be an important voice in the Tezos ecosystem. You’ll be welcome on Teia whether you’re an established digital artist or not. For me, art is about bringing people together and having intelligent conversations about artworks, whether they are controversial or aesthetically pleasing. My recent exhibition, “4 screens,” at despace berlin was an experiment in collaborative curation with Tais, Michelle Brown, and Viola Lukács all showcasing the artists we wanted to highlight. Enabling such events and conversations is the minimum requirement to tend the garden.

RCS: But even gardens can get hacked...

MS: The hack of 2021 actually became a meme. After the hacker joined the HEN Discord, the community started to communicate with the individual. One of the pillars of the HEN community, Mumu the Stan, picked up a quote from the hacker about aubergines and came up with the idea to mint some aubergine-themed NFTs. #OBJKT4OBJKT quickly became #AUBJKT4AUBJKT. If you have such a playful culture, then you establish a certain way of dealing with things. Ultimately, the community and the hacker embraced one other. 

That example shows why people felt at home on HEN and why they continue to do so on Teia. It is why I look forward to the future of this community as a proper DAO (decentralized autonomous organization). We all wanted Hic et Nunc to go on, but in the end Rafael didn’t. And that was the point of departure between the founder and the community. Now the community needs to do what the community needs to do. And that is to continue.

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Tais Koshino is a Japanese-Brazilian transmedia artist who works to build narratives, sites, and images of borderland operations. She creates digital installations, videos, drawings, comics, and paintings. Koshino was part of Hic Et Nunc’s founding team and is co-founder and curator of DiverseNFTArt. Since 2014, Koshino has been part of art exhibitions held in Brazil, Japan, Europe, and the United States. Her current work involves creating images with AI and digital installations.

Michael Straeubig (crcdng) is a transdisciplinary theorist and practitioner with a focus on systems theory, playful design, and posthuman positions. He has an MA in Computer Science and a PhD in the design of playful systems. Since early 2021, he has been part of Teia, an art-focused NFT community on the Tezos blockchain that evolved from Hic et Nunc (HEN). He acts in various roles as an artist, collector, curator, and developer and is authoring HEN timeline, a brief history of Hic et Nunc and Teia.