July 4, 2022

PROOF OF POWER

Nancy Baker Cahill makes the case for a more ethical Web3, in search of augmented reality
Credit: Nancy Baker Cahill, Mushroom Cloud/Proximities, Los Angeles, CA, 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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PROOF OF POWER

While some in the Twitterverse are wringing their hands about crypto winter, or sniping about digital aesthetics, the US is in fundamentalist free fall. At this moment of racial and gender inequity, alienable rights, gerrymandered districts, gutted educational institutions, merging of church and state, omnipresent surveillance, and burning planet, it’s tempting to view decentralization as a saving grace. Yet the term itself — a favorite of libertarians — remains a gordian knot. 

Scholars have already acknowledged the colonial logic of blockchain and NFTs, which are currently, perhaps permanently, yoked to global capital and heteropatriarchy. While for Hito Steyerl,

...to expect any kind of progressive transformation to happen by itself — just because the infrastructure or technology exists — would be like expecting the internet to create socialism or automation to evenly benefit all humankind. The internet spawned Uber and Amazon, not the Paris Commune.¹ 

Given the asymmetries of power that have already emerged in Web3, it is now essential to repurpose the blockchain as a tool of enfranchisement rather than exploitation (Proof of Stake) or extraction (Proof of Work). 

At a recent symposium, titled “Encoding Futures: Speculative Blueprints for Critical AI,” I proposed confrontational co-creation as an artistic strategy to obviate the power imbalances that plague tech systems. Following the logic of GANs (generative adversarial networks), I imagined MYCEL|GAN (2021) as a means of automating adversarial collaboration to generate greater equity. While my recent AR monument, Motherboard (2021), also adopted the structure and function of mycelial networks as a model of civic accountability and care. Mycelium acts as a generative, decentralized, interoperable communication system, transferring data and sustenance, care and support to address asymmetries and inequities. It therefore represents exactly the mode of distributed nourishment that Web3 requires, at the border of natural and digital economies.

Nancy Baker Cahill, MYCEL|GAN, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Of course, one of the outgrowths of the blockchain has been a new form of (non-fungible) tokenomics. A central benefit of tokens throughout history has been their capacity to redistribute non-monetary value as currencies of care. One recent emergence has been the new movement for decentralized science, or “DeSci,” whose goals range from fundraising to protecting and sharing scientific knowledge while avoiding censorship and industry oversight. Thanks to the blockchain, individual scientists are now able to timestamp their research while launching their own NFTs to help raise funding for this vital knowledge economy. 

Desci also incorporates a growing number of DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations), each with their own respective but often overlapping goals. As is becoming increasingly evident, DAOs have the capacity to disrupt the emergent hierarchies within the NFT ecosystem. Many mobilized at the moment of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, more recently, on the day Roe v. Wade was overturned. Their ability to nimbly respond to crises by collecting and redistributing resources therefore makes them a model for future systems of governance. Yet we must also guard against the kind of blockchain utopianism identified by Jaya Klara Brekke and Elias Haase five years ago:

The emerging cultural identity of the blockchain community is defined by an almost pathological contradiction. Active members of the community often strive to encode strong ethical and political principles while at the same time subscribing to a blind technological determinism in which blockchain is seen as an inevitable step as part of a larger technological acceleration.² 
Nancy Baker Cahill, CORPUS, Bradbury Building, Los Angeles, CA, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

While all ethical attempts to reimagine hegemonic systems should be supported, they also face the problem of scaling in such a way as to preserve oversight. Projects like CityDAO and Artizen Fund for Public Goods are currently experimenting with new ways to fund the commons and tokenize land ownership using Web3 architecture. Should they become interoperable, they may offer a viable alternative to failed governments, along the lines of the “Mother Trees” described by ecologist Suzanne Simard — those “majestic hubs at the center of forest communication, protection, and sentience…”³ Decentralization without regulation abets corruption. But decentralization supported by regulating hubs can check abuses and allow for greater participation and interdependence. Unfortunately, the problem of how and when people are allowed to participate remains unresolved. 

There also remains the question of who can afford a server, and who has the capacity to manage one. In Anthropocene Feminism (2017), Rosi Braidotti described how “the posthuman feminist knowing subject […] remains committed to social justice and, while acknowledging the fatal attraction of global mediation, is not likely to forget that one-third of the world population has no access to electricity.”⁴ Many in the global majority do not have the means nor wish to engage with another technocolonial project. Nevertheless, as right-wing regimes around the world accelerate their assaults on reproductive justice, sexual orientation, evolution, and history, there is an urgent need to distribute plural knowledges on an interplanetary basis. Of course, the storage of consensus-based knowledge, as well as its dissemination and certification won’t matter if the benefits of such systems remain inaccessible to the publics that need them most.  

Audrey Chan, The Assata Center, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Long before I experimented with blockchain myself, I used augmented reality (AR) to found a public art platform dedicated to resistance and creative inclusion. This is the 4th Wall App. Much as I loved creating in virtual reality (VR), I’d grown frustrated that it required an expensive headset to experience, thereby limiting its impact on and availability to larger audiences. By contrast, augmented reality only required the visual aid of a phone or tablet. In 2018, I launched the app in the hope of increasing access to site-activated and user-based digital art outside of institutions and traditional cultural gatekeepers. 

A broad audience engaged collaboratively with the app, using my early VR drawings (translated into AR) to build their own stories, installations, and performances. Once I was able to geolocate AR artworks, I launched Coordinates, a curated arm of the platform that invites artists to locate their works in places where it has added resonance. I’ve since had the privilege of collaborating with hundreds of artists to create powerful activations all over the world. 

I am an advocate of the poetics of AR as a medium.

AR offers more than a mere additive layer, filter, or whimsical spectacle; it provides the potential for embodied consciousness and political subversion by activating audiences through their own intellectual and affective engagement with the work. As a visual, aural, and haptic instrument, AR allows for a co-created immersive experience in contexts that are otherwise irreproducible.

At the opening of CORPUS, attendees were able to engage with a five-story future being — whose scale intentionally decentered humans — from each floor of the Bradbury Building in downtown LA. This kind of participatory co-creation takes the decision-making of who and what has institutional value and inverts it. The net result is a collaborative authorship that allows viewers to “write themselves” into the text of the experience and assert it as their own.

Nic[o] Brierre Aziz, Family Dinner: Finger Clickin’ GOOD, New Orleans, LA, 2019. Courtesy of the artist

In 2019, Jesse Damiani and I curated “Battlegrounds in New Orleans, an AR art exhibition focused on contested sites — locations charged with historic or cultural conflict. We invited local artists to tether their works to contested sites, and the results were gutting and illuminating. Erased histories were revealed and reclaimed, with artists taking aim at the carceral state, environmental racism, gentrification, as well as the nation’s rapidly eroding coastlines. We distributed printed maps designed by one of the artists to facilitate community engagement throughout the city. 

The following year, In Plain Sight emerged as an 80-artist initiative of skywritten messages of solidarity against human rights violations at immigrant detention centers nationwide. Co-organized by LA artists Cassils and Rafa Esparza, the project debuted in skies across the US on July 4, 2020. Because of skywriting’s ephemerality, 4th Wall hosted skytyped messages permanently above a series of prisons and detention centers to give the project sustained impact. It continued at the 2022 Texas Biennial with animated AR messages of hope and resilience. Countless interventions are included throughout the lifespan of the app, and will continue as part of 4th Wall’s mission to challenge power structures through rigorous artistic engagement. 

Alok, (Still from) GOD BROWN AMERICA, TX, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

When I first encountered the blockchain, I was excited by what I then perceived to be its cold impartiality: automated contractual agreements, disintermediation, trustless accountabilities, and algorithmic (rather than human) consensus. More than anything, I perceived it as a radical break from the dysfunctional mode of governance present in the US, and in so many other countries, right now. I also fantasized about automated transparency — every legislator held accountable for every donation and subsequent vote. The more I learned about how things actually worked, the more my idealism evaporated. 

Through my artistic practice, I have since sought to engender mutual responsibility, interdependence, and accountability through the lens of multiple broken social contracts. Projects like Contract Killers (2021) and Mushroom Cloud (2022) were structured to embody their conceptual goals through contracts attached to the NFT, in collaboration with art lawyer Sarah Conley Odenkirk. I am now obsessed by automated, distributive, and regenerative models of community care. Finding points of intersection and resonance in biomimetic models is also the subject of my research and experimentation in Substrate, a forthcoming project in 2022 that examines how Web3 technologies can be adapted to support mutual aid and reparation.

Back in 2020, I imagined that by “using our shared (remote, physical, and virtual) spaces of human and nonhuman encounter, we could begin to tackle the challenges we face in uncharted territory.” Two years on, the luxury of time has run out. Now let’s resist infighting, avoid the cult of homo economicus, and dig into the work of responsibly disarming a system that is reproducing old injustices. 

🎴🎴🎴

With thanks to Alex Estorick.

Nancy Baker Cahill is a new media artist and the Founder and Artistic Director of 4th Wall, a free Augmented Reality (AR) art platform exploring resistance and inclusive creative expression. Her AR installations have been exhibited globally and have earned her profiles in the New York Times, Frieze Magazine, and The Art Newspaper, among other publications, and she was included in the ARTnews list of 2021 “Deciders.” In 2021, Baker Cahill was an artist scholar at the Berggruen Institute, a resident at Oxy Arts’ “Encoding Futures,” was awarded the Williams College Bicentennial Medal of Honor, and in 2022 received both a C.O.L.A. Master Artist Fellowship and the LACMA Art + Tech Grant.

On the occasion of “Proof of People” NFT Festival for Art & Culture, Nancy Baker Cahill will present two VR captures on the subject of nature behaving unnaturally –– Siren Songs (GSTAAD and ST. MORITZ), 2021. “Proof of People” runs 6-8 July, 2022 at Fabric, London. 

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¹ H Steyerl, “If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms,” in R Catlow, M Garrett, N Jones and S Skinner, Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017, 227.

² R Catlow, M Garrett, N Jones, and S Skinner, Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017, 94-95.

³ S Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, New York: Penguin Random House, 2021, 5.

⁴ R Braidotti, “Four Theses on Posthuman Feminism” in R Grusin (ed.), Anthropocene Feminism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017, 29.