Somewhere between joining the moral outcry over the ecological footprint of NFTs, and hailing the collision of contracts and culture as an untroubled new dawn for cultural producers, it may be productive to see the technology as generating a new and instructive increase in tension between economics and our inherited concepts of art andculture.
The reference that immediately springs to mind is of course Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, where Benjamin asks what happens to the inimitable glow of the here-and-now of a unique object’s making—when artworks can be mechanically copied and distributed ad infinitum.
NFTs force a decision upon artists making digital work: to affirm the nature of this work as reproducible, aura-less, and thus a vexation to all regimes of property, or to decant it into a container that allows it to take on an enhanced existence as Art, understood as a unique auratic experience—at the expense of making its content secondary to its ownership coordinates.
Furthermore, rather than being a moral failing, the excessive energy consumption of this operation points us toward the most problematic aspects of and culture in their relation to economics and ecology.
Nowhere or Everywhere at Once
Benjamin is nothing if not ambivalent about technology’s erosion of aura: he addresses it as a ‘salutary estrangement’, and draws attention to the uses that fascism finds for the aura. Indeed, he seems to agree that, rather than spelling the end of art, the waning of aura makes way for a different kind of art. But it is clear that the art market has long been dependent upon aura. Its institutions are set up to safeguard, officiate, and certify aura, since the here-and-now is what guarantees that value remains anchored in objects that can be owned.
This is a business that is in no immediate danger of disappearing, but for some time it has been confounded by the slipperiness of digital objects.
From this perspective, the ‘radicality’ of NFTs consists in exploiting blockchain technology to re-install into the realm of the digital all necessary requirements for the traditional art market to perpetuate itself: aura, authenticity, uniqueness, certification, and property rights. The Cryptopunks trajectory is exemplary of the alliance: a hacker discovered at a Christies conference gets together with a Zurich gallerist, and ends up as an artist selling NFTs for millions at…Christies. It’s hard to be convinced by the idea that this represents a huge shift of gravity in the art world (or, indeed, that it is ‘punk’ in any recognisable sense).
My suspicions about this operation were further reinforced when I came across the phrase ‘enabling digital scarcity’, which suggests the strange kind of retrograde innovation involved here. Benjamin’s ‘here-and-now’ may be absent from the content of a digital artwork, which cannot be prevented from being nowhere and everywhere at once, but the blockchain allows us to attach a ‘here-and-now’ securely to its certificate of sale. Isn’t it likely that the first NFTs sold over the last few torrid months will be endowed with a special aura precisely by virtue of their date of transaction, rather than their content? From now on, the value-adding power of the here-and-now adheres to the artwork only via the intermediary of an infrastructure accepted as authoritative, its transactional aura reflected in images which are indeed mere tokens, and may as well just be so many animations of shiny spinning 3D objects.
Hence the decision faced by artists working in digital media: affirm the simulacrum, or operationalise the aura. What reason could there be not to take the second path?
Simulacra and Cope
Part of what was glorious and riotous about Web 1.0 was precisely its uncontrolled swarms of simulacra—copies without originals, infinitely duplicable, impossible to control or to own. Together with all the disruptions of personal identity, aesthetic propriety, and communicational taboos that went along with the net, this was a part of what reconfigured the way we thought about the world.
It was undoubtedly these dynamics that gave rise to the delirious futuristic speculations that fuelled nineties cyberculture, but my vision of culture goes back a little further: it is based on something more like the postmodern idea of the simulacra—the distributed mechanically-reproduced object. The paperback book, vinyl record, or video game cartridge is a mass-produced simulacrum. It allows many people to inexpensively enjoy the same cultural work, of which there is effectively no ‘original’. This to me is a more connective, potentiated, vital culture machine than that of the traditional art market, with its privileged access, its gatekeepers, and its objects that accrue massive value because they can be owned by one person only.
The arrival of digital culture made the effects of simulacra culture more extreme, and the pressures it exerted on producers more complex. For decades now, in a world where no labour whatsoever is involved in duplicating a work, cultural producers have been living in a world of cope. Without ‘originals’, monetising work that is essentially virtual has required a great deal of inventiveness, the patchwork construction of provisional systems, and various makeshift compromises between virtual and physical reality.
We have witnessed the music industry in particular squirm and mutate under this pressure. We have seen many attempts by makers, individually and collectively, at finding ways to monetise digital art without relying on uniqueness and exclusivity. I find these struggles interesting because, as a publisher, they affect me too. Essentially virtual works such as texts cannot be secured as digital objects, and lovingly rendering them into fetishisable physical objects to be shipped around the planet is no more of a long-term solution than relying on the goodwill of enthusiastic fans to voluntarily paypal you a fiver when you need it.
But suddenly this all looks like it was an interim moment. As if the partly monetised passion economies of ‘Web 2.5’ were just a kind of muddling through, and we are now finally within reach of a complete and definitive solution.
We will probably not be able to gauge the long-term effects for cultural producers and whether this infrastructure will furnish a more reliable way to survive than improvising methods for parlaying likes into cash for some time. But having been a dedicated promoter of accelerationism, I felt it would be remiss not to be engaging positively with an actually-existing disruptive technological unknown…except that the more I stared at those shiny rotating 3D objects, ruminating about aura, the less enthusiastic I felt. The idea of participating in tidying up the glorious mess that was the Internet, so that everyone would know who owned what and when, lacked libidinal charge.
At this point I remembered something my friend the artist Jake Chapman had told me, when I asked him whether, as a confirmed celebrity britartist with his delightful children, well-groomed Land Rover, cutesy house in the country and fleet of Shetland ponies, he had moments of doubt about continuing to make yet more scabrous and expensive art. He said: you just pour all the doubt, resentment, disenchantment and loathing back into the work and pack it down hard—that’s how you keep making stuff.
So I began to think again, starting with the energy question. Denunciations of the energy wastage built into the Ethereum ecosystem by design are not as uncomplicated as they may at first seem. Our entire cultural sphere is increasingly based on digital infrastructure that haemorrhages ‘unnecessary’ energy. For this very reason, there is something fascinating about seeing artists rush in their hundreds to inhabit this new, super-energy-intensive platform with memes, screencaps, glamour shots, renderings of alien landscapes, specular geometries, and animated optical illusions, only to end up tying themselves in knots to prove that their work is responsible, earth-friendly, ‘neutral’ or even net-beneficial to the planet. What kind of virtual eco-Big-Other is being conjured up by this carbon-aware art activism? An omniscient legislative body constantly judging whether your cultural production or consumption is ‘useful’ or merely extravagantly wasteful and how many trees you must plant to regain virtuous artist status?
Blockchain technology anticipates a major reconfiguration of time, money, culture, and power, and NFTs are only one facet of this. But they serve to highlight how quickly, given an infrastructure where information, money, and energy are mutually fungible flows, the question of the ecological and economic function of art comes to the fore.
This is where Georges Bataille comes in.
A philosopher as well as a professional librarian and author of intellectual pornography, Bataille was a part of a current of European thought in the postwar years which was able to turn the gaze of ethnology and structural anthropology back onto ‘advanced Western societies’ traumatised by the ravages of two world wars, and wonder whether they were not just as ‘barbaric’ and ‘irrational’ as the ‘savages’ they had spent decades refining their analyses of. Bataille is notable for taking this thought to a truly cosmic scale. In The Accursed Share—originally entitled ‘Attempt at an Economics on the Scale of the Universe’, he argued that any restricted economy structured so as to maintain stability and utility is always embedded in a general economy, one of excess and unreason, whose prime exemplar and ultimate source is the wanton energetic expenditure of the sun.
What a Waste
Human societies, despite their diversity, are all founded on the repression of their participation in this solar economy of excessive and purposeless expenditure. What distinguishes one society from another is the techniques and rituals it discovers to release this repression in a controlled manner, by temporarily suspending utility and the orientation toward survival, and aligning with the solar holocaust during carnivals and festive rites—one of Bataille’s examples is the Aztecs’ human sacrifices to the sun god Huitzilopochtli. Scarcity, for Bataille, has always been secondary and synthetic. He completes this social thermodynamics with the claim that even modern technological societies, which imagine themselves as efficient machines governed exclusively by utility and perseveration, don’t escape the need to expel this accursed share of excess energy. Heavily repressed, this necessary reconnection with the economy of the Sun nonetheless makes itself known through aggression, war, eroticism—and art.
Art is ‘wasted energy’. The extravagantly irrational way in which our unconscious reminds us what lies outside economic systems of accounting, rationality, sustainability and prudence. A form of shamanism, in the sense that the shaman is the figure who is both inside and outside the tribe, the invaluable interface between its internal political economy and the nightmarish holocaust of sense beyond.
On one side, then, art, as excess and wastage, salutes the inevitable thermodynamic destiny to which even the biosphere, all the flora and fauna of the Earth, human civilisation included, are but a temporary and fleeting exception. On the other, its entanglement with economic and monetary systems is a source of tension and ambivalence. To say that art is not a utility obviously goes against a generation of contemporary artists’ attempts to merge art with politics, community service, and collective therapy. The good news is that these reflections reveal another possible approach to NFTs as neither a neutral channel nor a panacea nor a moral outrage, but as a vehicle for tension—for distilling the volatile compound of regulation and expenditure that humanity is perpetually strung out on.
According to the brilliant Bataillesque image of modern humanity presented by Alan Weisman in his book The World Without Us, ‘by tapping the Carboniferous Formation and spewing it up into the sky, we’ve become a volcano that hasn’t stopped erupting since the 1700s’. The fascinating thing about the NFT form is that it aligns humans’ congenital tendency toward the senseless expenditure of energy with their most ambitious attempt yet to construct a universal regime of accounting, the ultimate restricted information economy sheltered from all possible corruption, contingency, and entropy. Blockchain is a synthetic monadology, with each block reflecting and confirming the unchanging truth, harmony, and stability of the whole, forever. And yet all it succeeds in doing is stoking the volcano.
While struggling my way through these thoughts, I had been putting the finishing touches on a cabin I had built to be used as a residency space for authors and associates of Urbanomic at End of the World Garden, an area of land in the Southwest UK developed by my friend Paul Chaney, an artist who has more recently started working in sustainable agritech.
Paul’s work—which drew on and at some points became indistinguishable from his decade-long struggle to tame this small patch of land and live self-sufficiently on it—had often engaged with Bataille’s thought, and in particular the idea that the plant kingdom, and hence the biosphere as a whole, was nothing but an ill-fated insurgency against the solar economy, waged by temporarily locking sunlight into foliage. This, of course, gives one a somewhat different perspective on permaculture, and the ironic and humorous entertaining of such ideas had set limits on Paul’s potential success as an eco-artist.
We began to think about how to decant all of these tensions and problems raised by the existence of NFTs into an NFT work—how to create a work that takes the NFT seriously as a medium rather than just using it as a platform or conduit for pre-existing works. It seemed both inevitable and desirable, however, that it should also take the form of a joke. Bataille, after all, counted laughter among those experiences that reconnect us to unknowing and dissolution, ‘those sudden openings beyond the world of useful works’.
We had just planted four sapling fruit trees at End of the World Garden, which I was watching from the cabin as they came into their first bloom. Following some trial and error experiments, we decided to make a series of four NFTs consisting of sparkly 3D models derived from photogrammetrically captured offcuts of the new arrivals. The energy wastage incurred by the minting and sale of these NFTs would then serve to offset the ecological benefits of planting the trees, helping combat biospheric insurgence, and placing art back into the service of the solar economy.
What followed was a formidable accelerated apprenticeship as I learned a great deal about point clouds, ball-pivoting surface reconstruction, render engines, UV wraps and texture maps among other things, and bumped up against the limitations of amateur photogrammetry and solar-powered desktop rendering. In my attempt to master a raft of complex software packages, I gained greater respect for the work involved in crafting shiny spinning 3D objects.
By packing all of these tensions back down into the work, by treating the NFT as a problem rather than a solution, the project became an even more quixotic time- and energy-consuming endeavour than we had expected. It’s still a joke, but one calculated to exacerbate the contradictions of human culture to the point of irritation, and hopefully waste enough solar power on extravagant computation to appease Huitzilopochtli.
The most curious mystery within laughter comes from one’s rejoicing in something which places a vital equilibrium in danger.
— Georges Bataille
My thanks to Amy Ireland, Anna Greenspan, Rhea Myers, John Gerrard, Paul Chaney, and Shaun Lewin for the conversations that got me here—and to Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon’s Interdependence podcast for providing open discussion of many of these questions.