Since March last year, the art world is abuzz with talk about NFTs. Why, we reasonably ask, are dollar millions being spent on JPEGS anyone can access with a right click? The answer is as old as the Church and its secular variant, the art world: Power. In the midst of the biggest hype in the art world – and the biggest fix to boot – very few are concerned with the very real fact that it’s an environmental horror story. Then again, when the world knows it’s running on empty, who cares? Greta Thunberg, true, but her generation? They’re with Kyle Jenner, vapidity, any quick fix that can satisfy delusion, and of course the added fillip of a net worth estimated at $700 million, making her one of the youngest billionaires in the world. The NFT boom is likely to change that, since it looks to be the biggest market economy.
That the boom occurred in an annus mirabilis squared – 2020 and 2021 – when the global economy froze, the world reduced to a lockdown, the consequences of which still await us, says one thing: the art world is insanely resilient. Auction houses are thriving, the yen to buy art unstoppable. Geoff Dyer expresses the paradox of devastation and excess witheringly well in his toxic take on the art world and spirituality – Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. The art ‘bubble’, having burst, ‘keeps expanding anyway, even after it’s burst … like the discovery of a new law of physics’. Something equally deranging is happening in the land of NFTs.
2021, a bumper bunker year designed for nerds, also proved the year of the NFT – Non-fungible Token – which occupied the top spot in the Art Review power list – the first time a phenomenon, rather than a person, has occupied such a pride of place. Art Review is a vital barometer for tastemakers in the art world – it tests and controls its temperature, what matters in it, and why. Notwithstanding its negative impact on the environment – NFTs consume more energy than the leading online engines combined – or the fact that ‘artists, curators, galleries and thinkers alike have been reflecting on man-made climate change, voracious capitalism and the world’s damaged ecology’, it is NFT’s – perceived as a novel, innovative, even ‘democratic’ cultural ecology – that is rapidly seducing the art world.
Why? For many, its significance lies in wresting the control and consumption of art by the super-rich, in effect, NFTs challenge elitism. Is this in fact he case? Certainly, a cursory browse through the Art Review hit-list, reveals the anomalous nature of its top spot, because what, in 2021, is most valued are art collectives, experimental art-practices, and those who think about art – like Achille Mbembe – who address the inherent political-cultural-ethical contradictions in the art world and beyond – all importantly, the continued sovereignty of white power. In short, those who celebrate healthy groupthink, deconstruct and reconstruct racial bias, champion the rights of womxn, and other strongly ideological positions which embody this ‘woke’ era.
And yet, top of the pile, is the NFT, a contradictory phenomenon, which from my P.O.V is more inexplicable than explicable, despite claims to clarity made by numerous writers or those I’ve listened to, who dish out facts and presume its prominence a fait accompli. A phenomenon, after all, is ‘a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question’. Therefore, if as Nadia Khomami notes, NFT’s are ‘the first time a non-human entity has topped the list’, we need to take serious note.
Reading Sue Prideaux’s biography on Nietzsche – I am Dynamite – I came across a term, Begriffsben, or ‘concept-quake’, which evoked the excitement and unease generated by NFTs. Confronted with a scientific breakthrough, ‘Life itself caves in and grows weak and fearful when the concept-quake caused by science robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and the eternal. Is life to dominate knowledge and science, or is knowledge to dominate life?’ Nietzsche’s question is ours. Confronted by the insatiable power of the art world – amplified under lockdown, when the whole world was shuttered, global art fairs ground to a halt – it behoves us to pay attention.
Despite the irresistible palpability of the art experience – physically being in its midst – we’ve witnessed an increased interest in digitally rendered immersive experiences, a fascination with the equivalency of technology and emotion, and the transformation of personal experience – one’s being – into a detached or vicarious objectification and alienation of said being – rendering it a surrogate of an intimate yet removed experience. This is our dialogue with social media, our detached and virtual relationship with comfort. ‘Algorithms … adapt information to our tastes on our feeds’, notes Simon Fujiwara. They transform lives into streams of ‘self-pleasing’, engineered to sustain the illusion that we are the centres of our lives and not surrogates of punitive, corrosive, and invisible forces lodged ‘in a server somewhere’.
Is it any wonder that NFTs should boom? That art, inaccessible to most, should use technology to become more accessible and more privatised? Is this boom not a boon, rather than an existential threat? Kevin Rose’s podcast – ‘Particle: Fractionalising Banksy with NFTs’ – is a positive spin on the matter. Through ‘particularisation’ – the digital dicing of a Banksy artwork – a buyer can own a piece of the whole, the fragment of a totality. In many ways, this is in fact how we operate – partially, tangentially. The Big Picture eludes us. This is clearly the case concerning a phenomenon like NFTs – operating as non-fungible, physically inaccessible artworks, nevertheless possessing a rarefied tangibility. After Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, one could consider an NFT a ‘sublime soul’, an aesthetic phenomenon that ‘tears itself from all bondage … all that limits and constrains it’.
Isn’t this the basis of rarefaction? Buying, consuming and investing in an artwork that thrives in a virtual domain – a digital elsewhere? Afterall, given globalisation, and the collapse of physical mobility, it is unsurprising that a global lockdown should inspire alternative modes of connectivity, and, of course, avariciousness. After all, from the Medici’s till now, art is inseparable from patronage and money and culture – none of which is ever innocent. In South Africa, this novel platform for the digital commodification of art has fallen to Thomas van der Linde, whose company Invictus Capital is committed to the digital marketisation of Contemporary African Art.
GLOBALISING ART IN THE RSA
Conceived as ‘a new fine art paradigm’, the Invictus NFT Lab is not designed to up-end or hoick the conventional art world from its pedestal, but to find ways to live in harmony in relation to an existing empirical – physical, object-centric – paradigm. The lab’s inaugural ‘Out of Africa’ collection facilitates – via the Ethereum blockchain – a professionally curated show of works by over a hundred artists. Its market, unsurprisingly, are Millennials and Gen Z, those in their 20s and 30s who are keen to join a robust art world – one that thrives despite having burst, that operates like a new law of physics, or, after Nietzsche, as a ‘concept-quake’.
As the Invictus Lab notes, ‘Around the world, younger generations currently control a tiny share of global wealth – with the Baby Boomer generation controlling over half of the wealth in the US. This is set to change over the coming decades. Wealth is passed on to the younger generations via inheritance’, but wealth is also being newly minted by the young. With the shift in wealth arises a shift in taste, though this is not a given. Right now, we see that the biggest success stories in the NFT world is immersive art – the work by Mike Winkelmann, aka ‘Beeple’, is the most notable case in point. His digital work, Everydays: The First 5000 Days, was sold by Christies for a jaw-dropping gob-smacking $469, 346, 250. Someone, somewhere in Southeast Asia, wanted to make a statement. Of course, one can never rule out the sum, but what was being bought? None other than the object-as-experience. Immersive art is a thing, its significance still incalculable.
In the land of NFts, typically, we find the immense popularity of pixelated Pop Art. An overnight classic is the Bored Ape Yacht Club series, which for the owner operates as a seal of power, a calling card. But tastes change, interest is increasingly volatile. It is telling that what strikes the buyers’ fancy in the digital world replicates their interest in the living world – digital reality is in fact not a separate world. We live inside an interface; we are duplicate. And what fascinates us most is the need to optimise our connection with others, in the very instant of our removal from this possibility. This disconnect is the sum of our pathos. It is also the 21st century eureka moment – its sublime.
What the Invictus Lab is doing, however, is largely showcasing tangible art objects, rendering things into affects, ideas into sensations, the Contemporary African Experience as a digitised portal and docking station. It is perhaps ironic in this regard that Steve Bantu Biko should declare that Africa would give the world a ‘human face’, when that face now emerges in a digitised forum. But then, my point is that humanity and technology are inseparable, and the Invictus Lab is on point in this regard.
In the 1990s Donna Haraway prophesied this moment. ‘By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short we are cyborgs’. Here, of especial significance, is the ‘chimerical’ nature of our products and our relationship with them. Ownership, while real, is not quite tangible in the realm of NFTs. Keanu Reeves might laugh and say that a digital artwork is accessible to all with a right click – this is true – but, in the realm of ‘provenance’, which defines the traditional art world, one can via blockchain attain an inviolable ownership.
For all the talk of ‘democracy’, it seems that the NFT world remains the domain and cult of the super-rich. Is this true? Need it be the case? Isn’t the Invictus Lab telling us the contrary – that the experience of a contemporary Africanity is accessible to most who choose to venture? There is no single dimension to anything. Everything can be flipped. The success of NFTs in auction sales is a clear indicator not only that the market changes, but that the digital interface, for the foreseeable future, is here to stay. What the Invictus Lab demonstrates is ‘the compatibility of blockchain innovations, the metaverse and the traditional fine art world’. In brief we now exist in concurrent worlds, shifting interfaces, which radically alter the playing field of Contemporary African Art.
Thus far, the Invictus Lab has taken ‘possession of 113 unique Physical Artworks for distribution to the NFT community’. This digitised double comes with a tradable ‘certification of ownership’ that can be ‘redeemed to take delivery of the physical work’. Here the virtual and analogue worlds meet. Value is accorded both to a physical work and digital variant. This lo-fi approach is reassuring for digital idiots such as myself. But what it achieves more importantly is the straddling of two worlds – the metaverse and empirical realms.
The artists participating in this historic African venture include Norman O’Flynn, Kilmany Jo Liversage, and Olivia Keck – the quintessence of South African Pop Art – and, unsurprisingly, compelling attractors for Millennials and Gen Z. In Keck’s work, digitisation is a key dimension of an artwork’s performativity. In the case of O’Flynn and Liversage, it is the iconic power of a static image, branded into the cortex, which accounts for its power in the digital realm. The virtual and cybernetic is an integral dimension to the way they paint – their images are electrified forcefields, and, as such, perfect analogue correlatives for a technological realm. That they channel sci-fi and fantasy underscores the attraction. But, as I’ve earlier remarked, a predictive interest in a Pop aesthetic – epitomised by the Bored Ape Yacht Club – is but a dimension of a very complex human-design interface. If ours is the ‘Age of all Ages’, a time in which everything loops, Pop Art, while ubiquitously appealing, will, in this recursive flatline in which we now live, emerge as a dimension of a more eclectic and obtuse transactional venture.
Recalling the Art Review top 100 in 2021, namely, its emphasis on collectives, feminism, and the black consciousness movement – in other words, the seismic shift in 2020 and 2021 to revisionism in the arts – I found it especially reassuring to read of Umba Daima, an NFT initiative to uplift black artists. Because, of course, there is nothing innocent as to what is valorised or celebrated in an analogue or virtual domain. If Pop Art rules in the virtual domain, is it not because, as an aesthetic and culture, it is cauterized, a weird human-yet-inhuman stopgap? Isn’t it Pop Art’s chilly, ironic, and farcical obsession with simulacra – a copy of a copy – which explains its enduring appeal, from the 1950s to the present moment? And lest we forget, what of the death instinct upon which it thrives? Its mirthless apocalyptic nous, with its acidic smiley face? Moreover, isn’t it precisely Pop Art’s chimerical condition that makes it the definitive expression of art for Millennials and Gen Z? The recent $1000 000 sale of a digitised record of selfies taken in front of a computer over five years explains this thread – but, as I’ve insisted, while immersive, calculatedly banal, or self-reflective art, are the distinctive players in the NFT world, that too is likely to change, the more versed we become with the metaverse, or the more real we become regarding our complexity and our perversity.
This I think is the wager that informs the Invictus Lab’s initiative. Its primary goal, as I understand it, is to mobilise contemporary African art. The model is by no means set in stone. What can be sold will shift. Is there a market, say, for abstraction by black artists? Or is the black artist to remain imprisoned within objectification – an object among other objects, forever denied a greater complexity? In other words, will we see a shift away from black portraiture, the predictive money-spinner in the local and western art market? No doubt, we are in a time of radical experiment. The NFT world is many things. For the nay-sayers it is a macabre and pestilential fetishization of non-presence. For luminaries, like Brian Eno, it is a scam – a way of turning artists into ‘capitalist assholes’. But, proactively, productively, as a ‘democratic’ platform in an artworld that seems incurably unequal? What is it?
Tastemakers and buyers play a pivotal role in the continued redefinition of the NFT market. In this regard the Invictus Lab’s ‘Out of Africa’ project – despite the colonial trappings this moniker evokes – has a major role to play in stretching the bandwidth of Contemporary African Art, and, so doing, shifting its modality, the values currently attached to it, by generating a more inclusive, quirky, less pious and more irreverential platform. Issues of race and gender matter, but no artist is ever reducible to these concerns. It is a greater human-creative complexity which is the new frontier of art.
While I am certain that we now thrive in a digital-analogue interface, I don’t agree that the former automatically parasites the latter. Rather, it is the radical instability of this equation that determines our fate. We can, according to the Daily Devil’s Dictionary ‘agree to pretend’, by endorsing ‘a culturally-induced habit encouraged by an economic philosophy that accepts as its dual organising principles the idea that ownership is the equivalent of a productive human activity and that the value of an object is strictly equivalent to the price people pay for it’, or, like myself, one can absorb the absurdity of this equivalence, and recognise that money and taste are not, intrinsically, commensurable. The thrill, rather, lies in the realisation of an irreparable disconnect between the object desired and the experience thereof. Which is why I’ve pointed out the sublimity of the NFT world.
How do you move forward when trapped in a recursive flatline, an exploded bubble, or a nightmare from which it is impossible to waken? You don’t. You can’t. But what you can do, if you are an optimist, is invigorate strangled markets. For all the talk of this being the African moment in the contemporary art world, there remains much to do. This is Thomas van der Wilde’s core point. True there is money to be made – a lot of it – but this cannot be achieved without a strategy, or better, the stratification of an emergent system.
Undoubtedly, the NFT world is ecologically unsound, and equally undoubtedly, its economy is perverse. Then again, in a world consumed by things, in which far more that we own is useless rather than useful, perhaps it’s best to own something on a server somewhere. We’ve run out of wall space. Most of us, especially the majority who live in cities, have less than zero wall space. Given the saturation of the real world, the battles of now and the immediate future are being fought in the imagination, the last viable colony. It is what we occupy our minds with that will prove the defining elixir. Populating the imagination with intangible yet owned products is the new rush. A rapper buys an NFT then tattoos it on his thigh – the gesture defeats the object, it’s non-sense, if rarefaction is all that matters. Most of us, however, remain duo-lingual, caught between the empirical and imaginative planes. Where we go from here is the big question. Especially when you pose the question: Is there a here – here?