A collaboration between E.A.T. (Engadin Art Talks) and Tokengate, NFT ART DAY ZRH sought to situate NFTs within the history of digital art while asking whether new technologies might bridge the NFT and legacy art worlds. Hosted at the Zürich Kunsthaus, the conference focused on the relationship between art and NFTs, the potential of blockchain technology, and other issues central to Web3.
The day began with an electric opening by Kenny Schachter, who introduced the Kunsthaus as a platform that was originally built by artists to circumvent traditional gatekeepers. In his own words, Schachter “doesn’t care about NFTs whatsoever, but about art,” which set the tone for a series of collisions between artists, curators, and thinkers about the role NFTs might play at a fragile moment for cryptocurrency markets.
The first panel was moderated by writer and curator Anika Meier, with panelists Kevin Abosch, Georg Bak, Sarah Friend, and Leander Herzog addressing the topic of “NFTs and the Value of Art.” The discussion began with Bak (one of the organizers of the conference) recounting the remarkable ascent of Larva Labs’s CryptoPunks (2017), whose original sale at Kate Vass Galerie he had helped to broker at CHF 5,000 per Punk. Kevin Abosch picked up the conversation, asking what the things humans tokenize say about our allocation of value. As he reflected on his IAMA Coin (2018) project — which leveraged his own blood as a speculation on speculation — Sarah Friend introduced her Lifeforms (2021) as a way of reimagining the NFT market as a different gift economy.
With Friend revealing that she has decided to call off a planned PFP (profile picture) project, generative artist Leander Herzog stressed the pitfalls of such projects, which oblige artists to nurture online communities that often expect a rapid return on their investment. In his experience, many artists emerging today feel they must be marketeers as much as makers, given the constant requirement for sentiment analysis of one’s audience.
Refik Anadol and Hans Ulrich Olbrist were next in line, their collective energy generating a remarkable discussion that flowed between NFTs and the bleeding edge of science. Appropriately, it concluded with a question from a leading figure at CERN, who asked Anadol where he sees the boundary between AI and pure aesthetics. For Anadol, the process of removing parameters is an act of engaging machine serendipity to produce new levels of abstraction.
With the talk principally dedicated to “NFTs and Public Art,” Anadol reflected on the impact of his collaboration with Google, as well as the aspiration for a Library of Babel — an Alexandria of computing. Probing the latent space of AI, he explained to the audience how it is now possible to visualize seven-dimensional space. He also recounted his recent collaboration with Aorist, Machine Hallucinations: Coral (2021) — a large-scale public installation on Miami Beach tokenized as an NFT — stressing the importance of immersive experiences for our future mental health and well-being.
The third panel on “Collecting Digital Art” was moderated by RCS Editor-in-Chief Alex Estorick alongside Erick Calderon (Art Blocks), Patrick Foret (Aorist), Markus Reindl (Francisco Carolinum), and Margit Rosen (ZKM). Calderon began by offering some background on the recently announced partnership between Art Blocks and Pace Verso. With Pace seeking to engage a new collector base, Calderon admitted to a sense of imposter syndrome — as a self-professed “nerd” who never expected to become so immersed in the art world, whose platform is nonetheless responsible for launching a new wave of world-renowned generative artists.
For Patrick Foret, CEO of Aorist, the mainstream contemporary art world and crypto art world now need a “common language” cultivated by critics and curators, in order to encourage traditional collectors to enter the NFT space. Markus Riendl supported this claim, arguing for the importance of qualified criticism (not just criticism) while acknowledging the problem of being a curator in a space resistant to traditional mediators. Margit Rosen emphasized how NFTs have already helped to engage a much broader public interest in the pioneers of computer art from the 1960s, as well as Internet artists from the 1990s. Calderon promptly thanked Margit and ZKM for their decision to collect one of his own Chromie Squiggles (2020) on day one of the project, long before it had achieved the reverence it holds today. However, he also relayed the number one question he receives from traditional collectors: “How do I not get scammed?” The panel ended in agreement that there needs to be a demystification of the technology as well as an end to what Edward A. Shanken calls the “self-ghettoization” of mainstream contemporary art and new media art worlds.
The day’s final panel on “Impact NFTs” articulated a series of visions for the NFT as a tool to support communities as well as natural and digital ecologies around the world. Moderated by Jonathan M. Ledgard, Laurent Sauveur began the discussion by introducing the Innovation Lab for the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) as a platform to rethink humanitarian action in ways that acknowledge the rise of new technologies, new forms of warfare, and the climate crisis. Posing questions like: “How can we tokenize an ICRC project [...] to prove that we have actually brought 10,000 children to school?” Sauveur stressed the importance of artists as “co-designers” of new technological solutions. This is especially true of artists working in Web3, who are currently repurposing NFTs toward progressive operations.
Penny Rafferty outlined the potential of translocal Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) to coordinate the pooling of resources according to rules pre-agreed by their members. Rafferty, who works with Black Swan DAO, highlighted a number of current artistic projects by H.E.R.DAO, Fingerprints DAO, Rhea Myers, Sarah Meyohas, Harm van den Dorpel, as well as Sarah Friend, that utilize NFTs as tools for redistributing wealth. Primavera De Filippi — whose previous project, Plantoid, regulated the flow of resources between humans and a plant-like art form — introduced a new project here that incorporates specific economic incentives into the NFT to engineer carbon positive outcomes. A collaboration with Tomás Saraceno and the Serpentine Galleries, Impact NFTs is designed to make it profitable to do the right thing. This builds on the model laid out by Terra0, whereby DAOs are used to augment natural ecosystems by giving land its own economic agency.
In practice, the NFT ART DAY ZRH was as important for the unique mixture of its audience as it was for the high calibre of its speakers. Whether it is possible or appropriate to bridge one art world with another remains an open question. What is clear is that events like this help to define the scope of a debate that, until recently, didn’t exist. We have the NFT to thank for that.
India Price is the sales and partnerships lead at GAZELL.iO, the digital art arm of Gazelli Art House. She manages the artist residency program, assists with curating the digital project space, and coordinates artist NFT drops. Prior to her work in the digital art world, India gained experience working for traditional art spaces such as Christie’s, David Zwirner Gallery, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Price studied History of Art at University College London with a focus on Post-Internet Art.
Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.