The Artist is Online at the König Gallery from 21 March to 21 April 2021. Johann König, the German founder of König Gallery and curator Anika Meier rented a virtual piece of land from blockchain-based art collector Shahin Tabassi on the crypto platform Decentraland. Decentraland, as in decentralised land, was initially created in 2015, launched in beta in 2017 and opened to the general public in 2020. The architecture of the former church St. Agnes, physically located in Berlin, is virtually duplicated on Tabassi’s land. König’s The Artist is Online exhibit is accessible on Decentraland via a web browser. The gallery visitor enters Decentraland’s interface from their own home and computer. Visitors create an avatar to move and interact with other users, much like Linden Lab’s Second Life or Sulake’s Habbo Hotel. A difference between them is that in Decentraland’s digital world, users and developers add, sell, and buy virtual land parcels and objects with cryptocurrency themselves. Digital certificates of authenticity, through blockchain technology, display who owns each digital asset and gives these individuals agency in how the virtual world operates, but anyone can freely roam the virtual land.
König gallery is not the first art institute to represent art in a virtual museum. Yet, it was the first commercial gallery to enter Decentraland. König commissioned a virtual duplication of the gallery only to exhibit artists from and within the digital realm. Concurrently, The Artist is Online. Paintings and Sculptures in the Postdigital Age exhibition was at König’s Berlin gallery, and digital images of the artworks were available online too. These digital images are not digital objects or crypto artworks.
Nonetheless, it is on the web where König initiates its virtual art auction while the artists seek the opportunity to critique their positions in the institutional and digital realm. This essay zooms in on the question: is crypto art able to blow new life in Institutional critique? Is the NFT, short for “non-fungible tokens”, itself a meme, a commentary, on a cultural symbol? Or open online crypto galleries, like König gallery at Decentraland, new doors for digital artists to enter the established art market?
Ever since the rise of the internet, art production, art consumption, and art distribution worked their way into the online world -the museum walls expanded to the walls of their virtual museums. Online studio visits and the artists’ social media pages, and vast collections of artworks photo representations are stored in digital databases. From the twenty-two artists included in König’s The Artist Is Online virtual exhibit, at least twenty-nine “unique digital items” can be collected online. Decentraland is the most recent platform from which the gallery operates. König gallery is on Clubhouse, Spotify, Pomido, Instagram, Artland.com (discovering and buying contemporary art), and Koenig app (to download from the Apple App Store). The gallery utilises the unification of art, advertising, commercialism and game-like environments online. As the media archaeologist, curator, and professor Erkki Huhtamo in Museums in a Digital Age notes by referring to Didier Maleuvre’s Museum Memories (1999), the privatised consumption of art at a distance is not new. In the nineteenth century, long before the internet, “bourgeois” domestic places were utilised as private art museums. The virtual museum does not have a clear definition. Any collection of art or artefacts on display in a computer-mediated environment can pass as a virtual museum. As of the early 1990s, numerous virtual museums have been created. Formerly, most virtual CD-ROM museums, as Huhtamo notes, “were conceived as virtual visits to existing museums”. Still, publicly accessible art galleries and museums seldom simulate their physical space in a 3-D computer environment. Contrastingly to the virtual St. Agnes building, which is in itself an artwork, Huhtamo goes on by saying that the virtual museums are “supplements rather than substitutes” and were frequently “sold as souvenirs”. The relationship between the physical and virtual gallery has shifted from being an addition to a hybrid mix wherein virtual and physical components interact seamlessly.
The digital artist explores and uses the internet and other ‘new’ technologies in their artistic process. The artist(’s production process and reproduction) is already online. However, valuing (digital) work online is often precarious, and it is unclear if the online image is the ‘original’ work or reproduction/content of the online space. König gallery tries to clarify the position of “digital art [which] is presented in a genuine environment [..] otherwise only offered for sale on the websites of the NFT marketplaces”. Therefore, the ‘genuine environment’, a 3-D model of the König’s Berlin gallery, is (re-)created by the German digital artist Manuel Rossner. He added an intervention that breaks through a digital wall allowing avatars to reach the roof. Figure 1.1. depicts the building and a chat outside the virtual gallery’s walls on 22 March 2021 at 12:56 GMT. An avatar with the name nickschamborski#4ef6 asks, “what is this space`? the exhibition or crypto art? or bitcoins”. The chat illustrates the possibility of confusion about the exhibition space by being itself an artwork and, therefore, if the pieces of art inside Rossner’s virtual space were mere content of its form.
When it comes to the virtual museum, we are simultaneously spectators and participants and users of the internet. Visitors enter the space of the church St. Agnes, turned into a gaming environment, through an avatar. Julian Stallabrass’s book Contemporary art, a Very Short Introduction centres around regulating and incorporating art in what Stallabrass calls “the new world order”, where everything is always connected with the virtual, always on the internet. Art only seems outside of economics, organisations, and mass culture. “The key idea is integration,” writes Hahtamo about the dynamics between participant and the art space. It is achieved by Decentraland’s dynamic relationship with the visitor/user and the computed dimensions, limitations and elements of virtual spaces, which make both a platform like Decentraland a fitting exhibition space. However, one paradox of the art world is based on the notion of creating and collecting unique, authentic objects while reproductions can circulate (online) in public sight. Stallabras notes that “artists and dealers even artificially constrain the production of works made in reproducible media, with limited-edition books, photographs, videos, or CDs”. A contradiction lies in the fact that the technology implements an individualised and accessible experience while it restricts the public’s accessibility through the limits of the digital platform. Art inhabits, according to theoretician, filmmaker and visual artist Hito Steyerl “a networked, decentralised, widespread system of value”. The art distributed by König gallery fits into an increasingly relatively stable network. Unlike cryptocurrency (like Ether or Bitcoin), the gallery’s position in the art market guarantees value. The network of the gallery and museums, markets, collectors, auction houses, publications, and the academy are simultaneously opaque, established and predictable. Furthermore, the rigid power of (art) institutions has been critiqued (by artists). Artists began to critique the art institutions that functioned within this confined network in the late 1960s. Marcel Broodthaers’ mock museum Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, at first located in his house in Brussel, is classified as Institutional critique. Various eagles, both images and souvenirs of eagles completed with “This is not a work of art.”- signs, displayed the art institution’s value classification system as fiction to ridicule. There have been different artists, methods, threats and appeals that critique art institutes’ power structures over the years. Art history professor Alexander Alberro describes that Institutional critique arises from artists working within the frame of the institutions to change them, in Institutional Critique, An Anthology of Artists’ Writings.
From within The Artist is Online gallery exhibit, Jonas Lund’s 300 Jonas Lund Tokens (2021) and Kenny Schachter’s Crawling out of My Skin (2021) offer a similar critique to crypto art while being in crypto art. Art institutions acknowledge that what artists do is be classified as institutional critique. Art institutions themselves can distribute this kind of art. According to Alberro, art distribution has changed, claiming that “in the context of a neoliberal economy, the operative logic of institutions of public subject formation is significantly different from what it was in the earlier moments of institutional critique”. Art institutions rely on circulation and global capital, which is paradoxical to their non-commercial art protection and collection history. Early institutional critique reclaimed the art institutions historical intentions, argues Alberro. Instead, the ‘dream of global capital’ is just as much reflected in Decentraland’s crypto art, where circulation has reached the next level of intensity.
The dematerialisation of art, a term coined by critics Lucy Lippard and John Chandler in 1967, for artworks that “are not things in themselves but symbols or representatives of things”, endorses artists to create and distribute art outside of the art institutions. Dematerialised art, conceptual and digital art (even Internet art and crypto art) are displayed by, in and out of art institutes exemplified by the Artist is Online group exhibitions curated by Meier and König. Works in the gallery are presented in a (material) form or installation. The art curator shifts the individual artworks from mere content to their formation in space, giving them form in the gallery. Lippard and Chandler claimed that art’s dematerialisation, exemplified by highly conceptual art back in the late 60s and 70s, disintegrates traditional criticism. What is interpreted as art is what the curator determines to exhibit. Art critic, media theorist, and philosopher Boris Groys claims that “artists can reclaim their traditional form-giving function, but only if they begin to function as curators of their own work”. The artist must become a curator. Broodthaers, who merged his role as an artist by becoming the curator and appointing himself as the director of his own museum, questioned this artistic practice.
On the other hand, Lund shares the agency over his decisions with JLT shareholders by monetising his autonomous artistic practice in Jonas Lund Token (JLT). These tokens as a currency are, like Decentraland’s MANA, exchangeable for votes on critical policies, platform fees or converted to specific actions. Lund’s digital installation piece 300 Jonas Lund Tokens and the other artworks in the exhibit The Artist is Online do not have any exchange value on Decentraland itself. They are on auction at another crypto platform called OpenSea.
Avatar, artist and curator LaTurbo Avedon resides entirely in the context of the digital interface. Her existence has, like crypto artworks, no physical equivalent. Crypto art is easy to share and, therefore, suitable for intense circulation. Intensive circulation equals easy duplication, which makes digital artworks hard to quantify. However, the Non-Fungible Tokens offer a way to validate digital art. Digital artists use this option to sell their dematerialised art. The commercial gallery typically needs a (physical) object to exhibit and converts the digital file from computer code to pixels and dimensions. The process of dematerialisation and re-materialisation of art links closely to the art’s institutional framework. The art is positioned in a frame by the institution.
Describing how the crypto art system works is not the purpose of this essay. The objective here is to unfold the artwork’s position (within The Artist is Online Decentraland exhibit) in relation to the current debates on the decentralisation of the art system. The Crypto art movement relies on an open and decentralised market that offers an alternative space for artists and collectors. The gallery uses the digital space to showcase works that it seeks to sell in a ‘new’ way. Is crypto art doomed to be reframed by the conventional institutes it claims to reject? In what researcher, practitioner and curator in digital culture Martin Zeillinger expresses as conceptual artists’ disappointment, he argues that art will not overturn the system due to the “instrumentalisation of the mechanisms, logic, and bureaucracies of capitalism”. Broodthears’s and Ramsden’s institutional critique has its origins in Conceptual art. As Lippard and Chandler wrote, the conceptual art process of dematerialisation focuses on a concept, which determines or replaces the materials and technique of the artwork. The essence of conceptual art is not its material existence but its basic concept. The non-tangible core (of both Conceptual- and Crypto art) critiques the institutionalised position of artwork, aesthetics, and socio-economic conditions. Digital culture, aesthetics and its socio-economic foundation similarly cannot be captured by art institution’s focus on tangible things or, as Zellinger writes, “[art institution’s] traditional emphasis on objects that underpin the assumptions of much of this infrastructure”.
Olive Allen depicts well-known intangible concepts from the digital culture in an art piece called I Joined a Triumphant Procession of Popular Things (2021). Nyan Cat and Doge are pictured alongside her self-portrait. With the display of artworks in The Artist is Online exhibit at Decentraland, König gallery steps outside of the endless vicious circle of dematerialisation and re-materialisation of art and digital culture without abandoning the collectability of cultural objects. Crypto art is a suitable method to preserve the dematerialised digital (art) object that initially, like Conceptual art, claimed to be against this idea of fetishising the cultural object. While Nyan Cat, Doge, memes, avatars, and many other digital ‘art’ still circulate free on the internet, the concepts are minted inside digital images. In this case, they are also authorised and monetised with cryptocurrency. The question is, as raised by meta#938d in Decentraland’s chat (Figure 1.2.), are we troubled by this? If Marcel Broodthears’ and Mel Ramsden’s insights seem to be proven outdated to digital artists, blockchain-interested gallery owners might demonstrate that there is no inclination to abolished art institutions.
Art’s latest gamble
Crypto art positions itself in an awkwardly trending position where the virtual objects themself dematerialise, authenticate and easily circulate. Contrasting to most other cultural items that are repeatedly transmitted, what is exhibited/collected does not reach the realm of form. Crypto art directs a change in the operative force of the mechanisms and institutions in the art world. It changes the relationship and dependency artists have had with these forces. Nevertheless, the NFT’s always have been commercial virtues but ended up doing little for its broader public community that it claims to strengthen. Problematic connotations artists hold towards working with institutions are equally persistent, in both the virtual and physically materialised confinements. The new interconnection and exchange method the NFT offers is, against all odds, encapsulated by the established mechanism and institutes. The inexhaustible functioning mechanism that holds a firm position in art institutes overshadows the role of the reactionary opposite. König gallery might be one of the first galleries to adapt to this new form of collecting and display, but does it shift the focus from or to the prices? Like institutional critique, crypto art challenges what is accepted as the art institution’s functionality, although the two realms of the virtual and physical gallery hardly cancel each other out. Memes are art, and art is a meme. Digital art and other cultural objects repeatedly transmitted online immerse in the commodifying systems of the internet. The NFT is its latest speculation. The latest gamble of the art world.
[This text was initially written for the P.D.D. MA module at The University of Westminster and later converted into a blog post.]