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June 16, 2023

The Power of Community Curation | JPG

Core members of the JPG community discuss the new canons of digital art since the NFT
Credit: JPG, Canons, 2023. Courtesy of JPG
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The Power of Community Curation | JPG

The brainchild of Trent Elmore, Sam Spike, and María Paula Fernández, JPG has been building Web3 native cultural infrastructure since March 2021. Today, its Discord is the nexus of a community of experts dedicated to establishing new methodologies, taxonomies, and art histories that take account of NFTs and digital art on the blockchain. Like Right Click Save, its community attests to the need for critical conversations about art and culture in a space often driven by empty hype and value extraction. 

Recently, JPG took the difficult decision to pause its infrastructure in order to reassess its overall strategy and pursue different experiments that aim to serve creators, collectors, and curators at scale. Following news of this hiatus, the community gathered together to declare the ongoing importance of JPG as a space for discussion. In the following conversation, a group of JPG’s hard core reflects on the power of community curation and the need for new canons.

JPG, 2023. Courtesy of JPG

María Paula Fernández: How has your experience with JPG shaped your understanding of community curation in Web3?

Mitchell F. Chan: For me, the best part of JPG has been the public process of deciding the ten artworks that we’re all going to call “good.” Curators are having a lot of fun because they get to talk to smart people about the ideas that are in these artworks and how they do or don’t fit together. For me, it’s less about the Canons that come out at the end and whether or not those are the right decisions. Rather, it’s about the process and enjoying it together.

Sam Hart: There are a number of curated lists that I think are quite strong, most of them from friends of the JPG community. There’s also a kind of meta-curation process that I think the JPG founders are responsible for, which involves selecting individuals or encouraging them to do their own curation. What I’ve seen of that curatorial process with the Canons has been really interesting and reminds me of some of the 2012-era Rhizome forums, where one could find incisive dialogue about post-internet art, dissecting the subgenres emerging at the time.

Lindsay Howard: Historically, I’ve considered museum exhibitions and acquisitions to be incredible, complete, and fixed projects. The thinking behind how they should be organized, who should be involved, and the ways in which they are hung is largely hidden from view, creating a sense of mystery and allure leading up to a major announcement. It’s exciting, for sure, but also exclusive and contained. 

JPG has introduced a more open, collaborative, and shared experience not only around exhibition-making, but also for the creation of meaning and value. 

The ongoing dialogues that it hosts extends the length of the conversation and offers more points of entry for different participants. It’s become a daily practice for me to scroll through JPG’s Discord, and listen to conversations between artists, curators, and art enthusiasts discussing what makes art meaningful today. It feels like historical records are being created in real time, which is exciting.

Installation view of “NODOUS” featuring work by Harm van den Dorpel and Joan Heermskeerk, Berlin, 2022. Photography by Hannah Rumstedt. Courtesy of JPG

Eileen Isagon Skyers: Web3 comes with a variety of different assertions and opinions and, ultimately, that space has flattened contexts and art histories. At times it’s even conflated these entirely oppositional or distinct nuanced conversations because people come from such different contexts, frameworks, and levels of visual literacy. I think that JPG is providing much needed context for the NFT space and doing it in a way where that context is determined by the collective. It’s such an interesting response to this moment that we find ourselves in.

Wade Wallerstein: I was trained semi-traditionally, semi-untraditionally, but worked mostly in what Web3 would call “trad-art spaces,” even though they were focused on digital art. At the beginning of the Web3 boom, I really felt that crowdsourcing curation was a mistake. I was seeing a lot of curatorial “work” that wasn’t critically rigorous, didn’t involve the artist, didn’t have any historical or conservatorial framing, and which was history-agnostic and out of context. Just because we have this new technology, it doesn’t mean that we can throw the baby out with the bathwater. We still need a lot of those traditional frameworks and practices, including file preservation.

I had this preconception that community curation was a negative thing because it dilutes the focus that professional curators bring, but I was pleasantly surprised by JPG. I was really proven wrong. You’ve been able to nurture a community that is extremely thoughtful, that really cares about the artworks in both their personal and curatorial exhibitions as well as in the Canons, and in the voting for projects to enter the Canons. I was just blown away by the level of commitment and care that the community brought to every decision. I saw so many really thoughtful messages and conversations. 

It’s not the tyranny of the masses that I thought it was but a vehicle for communities to support and educate each other. 
JPG, Canons, 2023. Courtesy of JPG

MPF: How do the Canons fit in relation to the broader trend of collective meaning-making on the internet?

EIS: There’s a question of whose version of history gets to be recorded and transcribed, who selects that, and who has a right to be part of this complicated historical arc. Canons come from the collective. It’s conversational. It’s not a singular monolith or person determining which objects are precious or worthwhile to engage with and connect to in Web3. 

What the Canons really show is that we have this ability as a collective to resist, reshape, navigate, and interrogate what becomes canon in Web3. 

And it’s imperative that we shape these next steps of the internet’s history so that new contributors can come to the fore who represent a new arc of identity and modes of participation. For instance, the crypto-social Canon wouldn’t have existed as a category maybe even a year ago. The works weren’t being made or people weren’t innovating in those ways. It’s up to the collective to notice such modes of participation and bring them forward as important pieces to be reckoned with. 

MFC: One of the things that we’ve learned is that meaning-making must come after community building. However, the term “community building” can also be used disingenuously. The differences between sincere community building and customer building can be very hard to discern. Ultimately, you can only make meaning that relates to the values of the people who are making it. Whenever we talk about meaning-making in our NFT art space, the broader meaning everybody defaults to tends to be financialization and profit — that meaning is made to drive a profitable narrative. One of the nice things about JPG is that the Canons process began a year into JPG forming a distinct identity that has values and likes art. The JPG community is not walled and exclusive, but it is self-selecting. 

TED Talk by Eileen Isagon Skyers, April 2023. Photography by Lindsay Howard

WW: My background is in anthropology, and specifically digital ethnographic methods. I’ve spent a lot of time throughout my career trying to understand how people use the internet, how people relate to each other online, and what it means for people to look at pictures on their screens. What I’ve noticed is that meaning-making on the internet doesn’t really have anything to do with empirical truth anymore. Meaning is made by what people say and do online, and the emotional weight that they give something. 

We’ve seen a crazy jump in advertiser spending on micro-influencers who actually have more impact on the community than banner page advertisements or big-name influencers with mass market appeal. That speaks to the way people understand truth and each other today. The JPG Canons fit into that because people aren’t seeking approval from a central authority but from the community. People still want to be validated and be a part of something.

I think that the Canons are a brilliant way of satisfying that desire for some kind of authority with a somewhat centralized viewpoint — a place where people can go to understand how others feel, and thus try to figure out how they feel about something themselves. 

SH: How people encounter information on the internet together is informed by the media format — the feed, the group chat, or the platform and its affordances. There are whole categories of tools for thought as well as collective knowledge creation mechanisms that the JPG technology borrows. I associate that with the category of online bookmarking, which started in browser extensions and It’s now become quite popular with platforms like Pinterest as well as

The blockchain world is a very different context in which to create meaning together. It is also a shared ledger, which makes for a really interesting opportunity that JPG is taking — to use the underlying chain to build something of collective value. The notion of a canon, which is creating some shared category and enshrining it on an immutable timestamped ledger is going to have a lot of value for those participating communities.

Discussions in the JPG Discord, 2023. Courtesy of JPG

MPF: How does Discord affect communities and the lore of the blockchain? What is the best way of tracking cultural value in Web3?

WW: I have complicated feelings about Discord because, on the one hand, I see its value and what it can be used for. But, at the same time, Discord is highly inaccessible in the way it’s organized, the colors and fonts make it difficult for folks who have reading disabilities, and it’s difficult for neurodivergent people to access because it’s so busy. It almost has a kind of campy, nostalgic messiness that we associate with the early web, while harking back to the surf clubs of the 2000s, where net artists like Marisa Olson and Travis Hallenbeck posting long, threaded chats back and forth on sites like Nasty Nets

There was a time when music people would go into Discord and Paris Hilton or Kanye West would jump in and chat. That, to me, is lore — “Oh my god, so-and-so went into Kanye’s Discord and got thrown out because they did this.” 

Discord may be a cozy space for different communities to organize, but we’ve seen so many get violated there that it is now changed for me. I’m careful about what I post because it’s public; I worry about clicking links or accepting friend requests in a way that I don’t anywhere else; And it’s difficult to track the origin of certain things because of the way threaded messages are parsed through the interface. As a result, I think that Discord detracts from our ability to track cultural value. 

LH: There’s a lot of fatigue with Discord as a platform for the same reasons that we’ve abandoned other Web2 spaces, but it still remains the best place to connect with like-minded groups in Web3. That said, I prefer to have conversations in person and it’s been interesting to see Web3 conferences compete with, if not replace, the art fair circuit. 

EIS: So much of Web3’s ecosystem relies on tools like Discord, Twitter, and Telegram. But with Friends with Benefits (FWB) moving or migrating a lot of its conversation to the app, DAOs are really thinking that the next era of Web3 will be about micro-communities and micro-social networks, and what it looks like to build an app for 3,000 people or less. What does it look like to bring people together first and then build a platform? 

It’s interesting that you bring up lore because part of the attraction of some of these Discord communities is that they are closed or opaque, which makes it difficult to track cultural value. FWB started as an experiment with a token that had both cultural and financial value attached to it.

JPG and 0xStardrop, Canonicon NFT — a free-to-mint soulbound NFT that enables participation in JPG Canons, 2023. Courtesy of JPG

MFC: There used to be a couple of different ways to measure cultural value. One analyzed derivative works that were inspired by original works. If an artist develops a style like cubism, and then everybody starts painting in that style, you can assume that cubism is a pretty good idea, right? But that doesn’t really work in our space because, ultimately, what inspires derivatives is largely market success. The influence of one artist on another is no longer an effective barometer, nor is institutional acceptance a way to measure the cultural significance of an artwork. Are we going to get there in the NFT culture? Maybe. But do we want that? It’s important for us to start developing new measures of this value. 

There is an understandable hesitation to let traditional institutions be the primary arbiters of cultural value. One of the things that I hope JPG’s Canons achieve is a natively Web3 way to measure cultural significance. Because there are groups of people (on the JPG discord) who are having real conversations about art, which becomes one quantum measurement of cultural value. 

SH: In some sense, Discord is the closest thing that blockchain communities have to a home. It is the only site that is largely private and interactively synchronous, which is quite a powerful combination for creating social cohesion and a sense of community. Lore is intrinsic to that sense of community. It’s the common language that builds the stories that communities tell one another and create together. It’s not surprising that Discord is the origin of a lot of that meaning-making.

Crypto and Web3 are very much indexed on price, but cultural value is everything beyond price. It’s very contextual. 
Installation view of “Value Flows on Crypto-Social Aesthetics” at NFT Paris 2023, curated by the JPG community. Photography by Trent Elmore. Courtesy of JPG

MPF: Following the rise of NFTs, those with an art background have been simultaneously drawn to and frustrated by the NFT space. What is the root of that tension?

SH: Before NFTs became popular, some traditional artists felt excluded — that they weren’t part of the avant-garde — while some natively digital artists quickly started using the technology. Meanwhile, institutions saw a new fad with dollar signs attached to it, and they really pushed into NFTs all at once. There was a lot of strategic repositioning, which involved chasing financial and social capital rather than genuine interest in the communities or media itself. 

There was also significant environmental concern owing to Ethereum’s proof-of-work consensus mechanism, which has now been alleviated at least as far as many of the early critics are concerned. That was a wedge that exacerbated the tension. But tension is also a product of art’s long and complex relationship with capitalism. 

Fine art is highly intertwined with capital, but an important conceit of its structure is that capital is evacuated from the subject of the artwork. NFTs reinsert capital as core to the media itself. That is a very challenging notion for a lot of traditional artists to grapple with.

EIS: The mainstream ecology for artistic support has been predefined to include only a handful of dominant entities for a very long time. You have auction houses, artist-run spaces, blue-chip galleries, cultural funding institutions, non-profits, and independent schools. That has pretty much determined the make-up of the arts ecosystem for decades. When NFTs entered the scene they meant vastly different things in different contexts, both culturally and colloquially. Each of the entities described above has responded to NFTs with a slightly different approach or understanding of what the tool is or does. What can’t be denied is that the continued development, creation, and collection of NFTs has already begun to redefine the contours of that arts ecology. 

Burak Arikan in collaboration with JPG, Social Contract #93, 2023. Courtesy of JPG

MFC: In the NFT art space, it is impossible to mask the things you don’t want to see — there has been bad art since time immemorial. When I go to my local museum, much of the bad art is masked from me. That simply doesn’t happen when I’m scrolling through Twitter, or Blur, or OpenSea. We also can’t mask the less savory sides of the art business — the fact that art pieces that have cultural value also have financial value. That was always pretty easy to block out at museums and even commercial galleries, where the ultimate flex is to not put a price tag on the work.

In the NFT space, we don’t have a mechanism for distributing attention and cultural value. But I am also not totally comfortable sitting around and waiting for museums to decide which art is good and which is not. I am, however, waiting for other ways for discourse to happen around NFTs, especially that which doesn’t bring in market factors. There’s a tension in terms of how we navigate these worlds through different imperfect systems. 

WW: I have felt this tension deeply since I began working in Web3 for Transfer Gallery and as a fellow at Gray Area. Prior to NFTs, my colleagues and I were often relegated and disregarded as experimental. Then, suddenly, all our jobs became Web3 jobs. At the same time, despite my untraditional background, I was regarded by the NFT people as a trad art person. It was funny to have been fighting and advocating for this work only to be relegated, not for being weird or different, but for being too traditional. That tension is really rooted in a desire to be seen.

What is really important for everyone in the Web3 space right now is to pay their dues to those who came before. That doesn’t mean kowtowing to the church of the fine art establishment, it means recognizing excellence when it has existed, and continuing to champion and dialogue with it. Auriea Harvey is an incredible example of this. 

Mitchell F. Chan, Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, 2017. Courtesy of the artist

MPF: What critical frameworks do you adopt when evaluating digital art after the NFT?

MFC: The critical framework that I adopt when I’m looking at art post-NFTs is exactly the same as the critical framework I had before. It’s still art and I judge it on the same merits, even when it interacts directly with new technology or culture.

Things that make an artwork good haven’t changed. 

Some of my biggest regrets have come at moments when I felt I needed to change my critical framework because a lot of these young people seemed to be really enjoying low-effort artworks. But, in every case, I have ended up feeling I was right — it’s just bad art. Of course, there are some NFTs that are bad art but are also fun to collect with my friends because it’s fun to ride a little narrative and experience a market for a little while. But my assessment of art stays the same.

EIS: NFTs have re-established how digital art can be valued. Whether I’m dealing with digital art before or after the NFT, my personal critical framework hasn’t shifted all that much. The same questions are there in terms of how the work challenges my perception of social ecologies, and how the work is challenged by the technology I’m using to view it. 

I’m always attracted to digital works that make apparent the technology behind them, for example installations where wires are exposed, that show the glitch or subvert one’s expectation of how a piece of technology should be used. After the NFT, I’m starting to think through other conceptual frameworks that are now possible, involving the manipulation of smart contracts or the degradation of works each time they are traded. We’ve barely scratched the surface of how NFTs can engage more closely with the blockchain itself. There’s a very cool history of financialized art in the traditional sphere. To merge that with the digital realm opens up many capabilities.

Trent Elmore and the Berlin blockchain art community at “NODOUS,” 2022. Photography by Hannah Rumstedt. Courtesy of JPG

LH: My curatorial practice has always played with the translation of art between physical and digital spaces. For example, I curated a work by Evan Roth in which he constructed a physical TED stage, invited attendees to deliver their own presentations, and then released the videos online, which became some of the highest ranked Google search results for “TED Talk.” The physical construction of the stage was pretty hilarious and creative on its own, but the fact that it was intentionally designed to hack the search results through its distribution elevated it to an artwork. The approach was truly novel when it was presented for the first time in 2013 because that was the reality of our social experience with technology at the time. It would need some context and explanation if presented today

I was drawn to those types of works because they captured a tension that many of us were feeling around splitting our experiences between physical and virtual spaces. There’s so much less anxiety about that now — we accept the truth that we’re fully immersed in a digital reality. 

We can now display, discuss, and collect digital artworks as NFTs as easily as we’ve ever done with paintings or sculptures. The criteria for what makes an artwork interesting or valuable remains the same.

WW: We were talking recently about Sarah Friend’s piece, Lifeforms (2021), and the fact that it must be transferred to a new owner every 90 days or else it dies. We were discussing how someone curates a work like that, where half of it isn’t even the work but how people react to the work, and how you capture that reaction. I said that if I were to curate that work, I would be far more focused on where the work was going, and how people were talking about it than what it looked like. What you say and the effect you have in a network is how cultural value accrues, and also how it is saved. 

SH: The frameworks themselves haven’t changed that much. I still think that good work is challenging, emotionally evocative, and draws your interest. But I also think that there’s a lot of hypocrisy in existing art criticism that doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the importance of markets and capital relationships, as well as the essential role played by markets in the production of work and the creation of meaning. There are very interesting and good things that have come out of these market structures. That needs to be integrated into a critical framework after NFTs.

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Mitchell F. Chan is an artist, critic, and essayist who is best-known for creating one of the earliest non-fungible token artworks, Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (2017). His diverse body of work is performed in both physical and digital public spaces, and includes code-based works such as his Art Blocks project, LeWitt Generator Generator (2021) and large-scale public projects such as Monument to United Nations Peacekeeping Veterans (2022).

Sam Hart is a strategist, researcher, and curator who works across crypto and distributed publishing.

Lindsay Howard is a curator exploring how the internet is shaping art and culture. As Head of Brand for Friends with Benefits, Howard executed several cultural partnerships and exhibitions with entities such as OpenSea, SuperRare, and Zora. In her role as Head of Community at Foundation during the platform’s first two years, she personally oversaw over $20 million worth of NFT sales and helped set record prices for a number of leading creators, including Nyan Cat (2021), Stay Free (Edward Snowden, 2021), and IX Shell’s Dreaming at Dusk (2021). Howard has spent the last decade organizing projects with the New Museum, Museum of the Moving Image, Kickstarter, Eyebeam Art + Technology Center, and Phillips auction house. She has written extensively about digital art and serves on the board of Rhizome, an organization that champions born digital art and culture. In 2021, Fortune recognized her as one of the top 50 influencers in the NFT space.

Eileen Isagon Skyers is a writer, curator, and artist based in New York. She has nearly a decade’s experience contextualizing media art and producing online exhibitions across non-profit and contemporary arts institutions, including David Zwirner, Rhizome, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Through her extensive directorial experience at Web3 organizations including Foundation, Feral File, and Friends with Benefits, Skyers has facilitated high-profile projects and partnerships with distinguished collaborators including bitforms gallery, Almine Rech, LVMH, MoMA, ARSNL, Uniswap, Tezos, and Topical Cream. Her critical writing on digital art and culture has been published in Dirt, Frieze, Hyperallergic, Outland, and Zora Zine, and in printed catalogs including The Art Happens Here: Net Art Anthology (2019) and Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon (2017). 

Wade Wallerstein is a digital anthropologist, strategist, and curator from the Bay Area. He’s the founder of Silicon Valet, co-director of Transfer Gallery, Associate Curator and Community Manager at Gray Area, as well as a contributor at Outland. With a background in both fine arts and policy, Wade’s an expert in digital/internet art, virtual phenomenology, online environments, tech policy, human-centered tech, and digital ethnographic methods. 

María Paula Fernández is co-founder of JPG and the Department of Decentralization. She has been working in Web3 since 2017 when she joined the Web3 Foundation, and has since worked or consulted on several of the most prominent blockchain projects. In 2018, she founded the Department of Decentralization, hosting Web3 hackathons and researching, publishing, and curating at the intersection of art and technology.