Web3 is premised on the ability of digital creators to leverage their skills and social media followings to forge careers in an expanded art world. In this new iteration of the Internet, online space is evolving into an on-chain geography that has already launched the careers of crypto artists previously barred from participating in the old system. Unfortunately, despite the NFT explosion of 2021, the utopian potential of decentralization is still to deliver a truly global marketplace. In order to establish a more progressive Web3, a number of micro-communities are now developing strategies to engineer inclusion and decolonization in the creator economy.
One project that epitomizes this is transnational arts and human rights organization, Engendered. Led by Myna Mukherjee, Engendered was responsible for two separate “Techné Disruptors” shows in New Delhi and New York last year, blending cutting-edge technologies with non-Western artistic traditions. Mukherjee described the second exhibition at High Line Nine as “conceived through the lens of urbanism and a post-colonial gaze [...] engag[ing] Indian futurisms, indigenous technologies, and future-forward aesthetics while retaining the notion of cultural perpetuity.” For this week’s special edition on “Art in Expanding Fields,” Beth Jochim caught up with four of the artists from “Techné Disruptors (II)” who are currently rebuilding Web3 as a new critical geography.
Beth Jochim: What made you want to participate in “Techné Disruptors”?
Harshit Agrawal: I have worked with Myna Mukherjee in the past. She curated my solo show “Exo-Stential: AI Musings on the Posthuman” in 2021. In a lot of ways, I think both Myna and I are techno-optimists. We feel we can speak of our present-day narratives in a more authentic manner by engaging with technology. I was excited to be part of a show that brought together artists working with more traditional media to build layers of technological materiality. This intertwined deep-rooted practices of traditional media with the contemporary technological reality.
Minne Atairu: As an artist of Nigerian heritage, my artistic mission is one of reshaping and rethinking who and what is rendered visible in the collective imagination. I believe that by actively engaging with generative AI, I am able to critically explore and expand the boundaries of who and what deserves to be seen in the visual culture around us. I emphasize visibility here because the portrait that I chose to exhibit at “Techné Disruptors,” Eye See U [V] (2022), had been rejected from previous exhibitions due its “monochromatic” nature. That made me even more determined to show this portrait and reclaim darkness as an integral part of my artistic practice and process.
When Myna invited me to exhibit my work, I took it as an invitation to disrupt such dominant exclusionary frameworks alongside incredible artists from the Global South.
Ahsan Masood: From where I’m standing, I see the world changing at a phenomenal pace technologically but our problems somehow remaining the same. We must not forget what our struggles are and communicate them through the newer means afforded to us. “Techné Disruptors” was the right opportunity for me to do this.
Satadru Sovan: It was a great opportunity to take part in “Techné Disruptors,” a show which developed the discourse around art, gender, and sexuality with leading Asian artists, curators, and academics from Feminist, Gender, and Queer studies departments around the world. This was one of the first art and tech NFT shows from the Global South with a focus on South Asia, opening with a panel for the Jaipur Literature Festival’s New York City edition called “State of the Contemporary: NFTs and the Global South.”
BJ: The show offered a curated collection of NFT-based artworks framed according to postcolonial and urbanist perspectives. Tell us about the work you presented and how it extends your practice?
MA: The work I presented at “Techné Disruptors” is part of an ongoing series of portraits generated using a StyleGAN trained on a data set of melanin-rich Black beauty editorials. The series, entitled “Eye See U,” engages with how Blackness is often equated with darkness, and how darkness itself can represent both invisibility and hypervisibility.
Eye See U [V] features a figure almost totally engulfed in darkness. To me, this darkness does not necessarily erase or obscure, but rather caresses, fills in the creases, and lovingly embraces the ebony-rich figure. Yet this portrait not only expresses my affection for the dark, I believe it also captures the unquestioned ways in which Blackness and darkness go hand in hand in the public imagination. Historically, darkness and Blackness have been coded as threatening and sinister. The absence of light undergirds cautionary tales and apocalyptic visions not only because of what can or might be done under its sheltering veil, but what is regularly prescribed to disappear in its depths: Black lives. What I am proposing with the images curated from my StyleGAN model is an alternative narrative, one which rejects such negative connotations and instead posits Blackness in all its shadowy and kaleidoscopic hues.
HA: I had a series of five works in the show of which I’ll discuss a couple here. For my work, The Past (Is) Tense (2022), I used AI to speculate layered pasts rooted in the socio-political context of the present. Specifically, I worked with architectural structures symbolic of the diverse cultural influences of India’s past. I then juxtaposed cut-outs of these with AI-imagined erasures of India’s rich diversity to hint at the present’s tense narratives around these themes.
Could the technologies of today be used for perceiving pasts in alternate ways?
Another work, Land(ing) Page (2022), uses VR to address data colonization. For this, I created a 3D world of a poppy field that, on closer inspection, is shown to comprise the most prominent ad videos in India over the last two years, sourced from Facebook’s API (Application Programming Interface). Today, we are ceding our natural habitat to one of immersive media.
SS: My recent series addresses ecological ruin brought about by industrial revolutions and hyper-technological society. The highly aestheticized paintings, incorporating bold and evocative color, are designed to convey a situational crisis — the extinction of species — in a non-linear manner. I have sought to depict those flora and fauna under imminent threat, demanding viewers reflect on the invasive presence of humankind in the global ecosystem. Climate change and its disastrous effects are rendered by dislocating various species from their natural contexts, with our expectation of a pristine landscape countered by absurd compositions. Misinterpretation and gender-based misconception are also written into the works, which depict homosexual acts between species. I identify with the LGBTQ2S+ community, and I include myself across multiple canvases, leaving audiences to speculate on the order sustained by conservative society.
My works’ optimistic and paradisiacal tone seeks to inject gaiety into dystopia.
AM: My work speaks specifically about the conditioning of the human mind by the self and external stimuli. These include state propaganda machines that conjure Orwellian futures (if not Orwellian presents). But the conditioning is also a self-inflicted coping mechanism. When there is no agency to be found, one must grow comfortable in one’s own miseries in order to survive them.
BJ: How does your work address technology, specifically Web3 technologies?
SS: Today’s digital news media requires the uniqueness, consistency, and creative force of art. Time has given us a new set of tech tools, including blockchain assets and NFTs, with which to push out content and refine the creative landscape. But these technological shifts also manifest in social movements. My work points to these movements and challenges the news media to think differently about where content comes from, who consumes it, and how to make it digestible for different audiences.
MA: My artistic practice is interdisciplinary, research-based, and primarily mediated through experiments with generative algorithms. I often investigate questions related to museums, their repatriation, and decolonial practices. The answers to these questions are rarely straightforward, which is why I choose to focus on the process of experimentation, rather than the end product. I think of NFTs as a way to provoke meaningful dialogue, which also underscores my generative experiments.
I’m particularly interested in the role that digital tokens might play in facilitating the repatriation of cultural artifacts, and, more specifically, the Benin Bronzes. This is especially important in today’s cultural landscape where traditional models of institutional acquisition, provenance, and ownership are increasingly challenged for the myriad ways in which they maintain colonial legacies.
While I am enamored by the idea of using NFTs for possible repatriation efforts, I am also aware that NFTs are not a panacea. They certainly will not remedy the horrors that colonization brought to my community.
However, I believe that, if employed responsibly — smart contracts, digital tokens, and decentralized community governance might provide mechanisms for colonially-founded institutions to take transparent steps towards internal reforms, external redress, and repatriation processes.
AM: I have taught graphic design and its history in the past so propaganda and media have consequently become important to my art practice. Owing to the importance of digital media and technology in disseminating propaganda at a scale that was previously unimaginable, technology remains central to my critical discourse.
HA: My art practice is rooted in an intimate examination of technology and a poetic relation with it. NFTs have accelerated and widened engagement with digital art across the world. For me, AI, VR, NFTs, and the metaverse are new media with which to contextualize my art. Today, one cannot have a contemporary conversation without engaging with those technologies that are transforming our foundations.
BJ: Can Web3 produce a more equitable ecosystem than Web2?
AM: Web3 sounds like a beautiful idea, as most ideas do at first, and I have high hopes for decentralization. However, I think it is important to locate the hierarchies, existing or manufactured, in all social systems, whether in physical or digital spaces.
A very good means of tracing hierarchy is tracking the flow of capital and the various institutions involved.
Any institution or space formulated for human consumption is bound to create hierarchies over time by virtue of the need for self-governance and preservation. No space is the promised digital homeland — we must remain vigilant.
HA: I find it very exciting to live and work at a time when the geographical boundaries of art-making and art-sharing are increasingly dissolving. While I’m all for the physical encounter with art — and most of my work is configured around physical (or phygital) encounters — digital platforms have made art accessible to a much wider audience. It was exciting for me to meet a lot of new friends at “Techné Disruptors” in New York whom I’d gotten to know through crypto art over the past three years.
The generative art movement has found particular momentum on Twitter and it’s wonderful to see the exchange of ideas, processes, and philosophies which have inadvertently influenced my work from my setting in the Global South. On the other hand, wider adoption has also brought a lot of noise, which has hampered bridge-building between those who appreciate traditional art and the Web3 community.
MA: The promise of Web3 lies in its decentralized nature, which holds considerable potential for my practice and commitment to deepening anti-colonial dialogues, particularly when it comes to the repatriation of cultural artifacts. I firmly believe that the ability to dabble in self-governance alongside external stakeholders can provide more equitable pathways for these conversations as well as institutional initiatives.
But while Web3 unveils new possibilities, decentralization alone doesn’t necessarily lead to liberatory projects. In fact, tangible, sustained efforts at decolonization rely on careful and methodical design in order to manifest digital utopianism in credible real-world applications. The NFT ecosystem poses a particular challenge because the line between technological experimentation and market-driven convention is often blurred.
As a result, it is important that I remain critically conscious of the ways in which commodification and tokenization can shape, limit, and sometimes even undermine my creative ambitions in Web3.
BJ: How can artists from the so-called Global South shape a different kind of creator economy?
HA: I feel that the aesthetics and narratives of the Global South are unique and distinct from those of the Global North. They can therefore offer a new take in the context of Web3 and NFTs. The conversations surrounding data labor, marginalized representation, and data colonialism are all rooted in the Global South, and a lot of technological innovation in Web3 is coming from this part of the world, Polygon being a prime example. It’s crucial to bring these narratives to a wider audience in order to live up to one of the central promises of decentralized art ecosystems — diversity of representation.
MA: The Global South has a unique perspective on how creative economies can and should function. By paying attention to the social, economic, and political drivers of regional art markets, artists from the Global South can build more equitable and inclusive creator economies that prioritize collective progress over individual accumulation.
SS: For many decades, “big media” ran the world of entertainment and news, with a relatively small number of companies controlling what most of us read, viewed, and listened to. To contribute to the conversation, we had to be employed by one of these media conglomerates or, at the very least, be significant enough to feature in the stories they told. Today’s creator economy gives ordinary people the confidence to make content and earn money for ourselves.
AM: As artists and creators, our capital is our lived experience. It is the stories we tell of our struggles.
By radically engaging with spaces of representation and putting forward our lived experiences as valid forms of discourse, the Global South can create an economy of ideas which does not revolve around the Global North, the Coloniser, or Eurocentric learning.
Harshit Agrawal is an Indian artist working with artificial intelligence and emerging technologies. He is a graduate of the MIT Media Lab and IIT Guwahati and has held residencies at the Museum of Tomorrow, Rio de Janeiro; Art Center Nabi, Seoul; and Xlab, Tokyo. He was the first Indian artist to exhibit works as NFTs on SuperRare, held India’s first solo exhibition of AI art at Emami Art, and curated India’s first AI NFT exhibition, “Intertwined Intelligences” on Terrain.art. His work has been exhibited globally, including at Ars Electronica, Linz; Asia Culture Center, Gwangju; Tate Modern, London; Accademia Albertina delle Belle Arti di Torino; Times Square, New York; Kampüste Dijital Sanat, Istanbul; ART-AI Festival, Leicester; Nanjing University; QUT Art Museum, Brisbane City. He has been nominated twice for The Lumen Prize, including being shortlisted in 2021.
Mohammad Ahsan Masood Anwari (Ahsan Masood) is Lahore-based artist who completed his MFA from Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Finland in 2014. He was awarded a Department of Art Grant for his MA thesis, titled “In Pursuit of the Unsafe: Locating the Native Artist.” He received his BFA in Communication Design from National College of Arts, Pakistan, where he was awarded a distinction for his final thesis on the ethics of advertising. He has exhibited his work globally, and has held artist residencies at Greatmore Studios, Cape Town; NoArte, Sardinia; and with HIAP Helsinki.
Minne Atairu is an interdisciplinary artist and doctoral candidate at Columbia University. Through the use of Artificial Intelligence (StyleGAN and GPT-3), she recombines historical fragments, sculptures, texts, images, and sounds to generate synthetic depictions of Blackness and Black culture. Atairu has exhibited and performed at Harvard Art Museums, Boston; Markk Museum, Hamburg; Brunei Gallery SOAS, London; Microscope Gallery, New York; and Fleming Museum of Art, Vermont. She is the recipient of the 2021 Lumen Prize (Global South Award).
Satadru Sovan Banduri is an Indian multidisciplinary and NFT artist who makes digital, canvas, and performance art as well as installations. His recent works have sought to engage themes of ecological ruin and gender-based discourse in the visual arts. He has exhibited globally, including at Lincoln Center, New York; Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History; Schema Art Museum, Cheongwon-gun; MMCA Cheongju. He is a Fulbright Scholar from DANM, California.
Beth Jochim writes about the intersection of art and technology with a focus on artificial intelligence and creativity. She is the founder of Tech-Art Talks and a contributor to Flash Art’s digital column, “The Uncanny Valley.”