Once a meme cycle picks up steam, things get meta: you start seeing iterations that refer to the format itself, instead of using it as a vehicle to joke about something else. In art such reflexivity can pass as high-modern medium-specificity. Or it can be a joke, like when John Baldessari spelled “Everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work” in black acrylic on canvas. In 1996 theorist Lev Manovich sent a provocative missive to Rhizome’s email list (subject line: “The Death of Computer Art”), positing irreconcilable differences between Duchamp-land and Turing-land: an art world that prizes irony and ideas vs. a computer art world that geekily obsesses over the expressive potential of new tech. “Duchamp-land has finally discovered computers and begun to use them with its usual irony and sophistication,” he wrote, speculating that computer art for computer’s sake could recede into obsolescence.
Crypto art moved to Duchamp-land at the speed of a meme cycle, or maybe even faster, racking up jokes about crypto, the art world, and the markets that straddle them. Chalk it up to the crypto world’s brashness, its fuck-you attitude toward fiat and society in general. (See the Ethereum token called FUCK, which raised $30,000 in the first half hour of a July 2017 ICO.) Or ascribe it to the conceptual complexity of the blockchain: it seems that some artists are making work that enumerates its own properties, or reflects on its own ontological status, as a way of thinking through the format’s possibilities. In 2014 Rhea Myers registered a “cryptographic asset token” named MYSOUL on the Dogecoin blockchain. This was before the advent of Ethereum and the standard now used for most NFTs. Myers used the token format to register her essence as an encrypted asset. An immortal soul on the immutable chain: even when indexable and numerical, systems of value are built on collective faith. Her choice to put her soul on the Dogecoin blockchain was significant. Dogecoin is a cryptocurrency developed in homage to a meme, a Shiba Inu whose interior monologues are rendered in broken English and Comic Sans. The coin’s value stems from good-humored affinity, a shared sense of being in on a joke.
Now that NFTs can cost a lot of money, jokes about value skew toward price rather than value as a social construct. NFT platforms let artists set their own prices, and some artists are taking advantage of that to make statements that play on the future shock of million-dollar JPEGS. LaTurbo Avedon, whose avatar portraiture represents their exploration of the interpersonal dynamics of online gaming and social media, minted Self-Portrait with Little Fluffy Clouds at a price of 777 ETH (currently worth more than $1.4 million). “The sale of this piece reveals a patron, one who truly believes in the future of the virtual self,” Avedon writes. “It is my wish that this transaction begins new conversation.” One artist assigned a slightly more modest price to a shaky red line, seemingly scrawled with a digital marker on Photoshop’s default white background: The Million Dollar Line. In an email promoting the NFT, the artist described it as “the world’s richest line.” Another artist minted a spinning 3D rendering of her college diploma and set the price at 50 ETH, about as much as she spent on her BFA.
Speaking of art school, most of these comments on price feel like they were conceived in a dorm room. Pak’s collection “The Title” on Nifty Gateway has a bit more weight, partly because there’s more at stake in playing with prices for a crypto art star whose works actually fetch astronomical sums (Sotheby’s tapped them for its first NFT auction this month), and partly because the project elaborates a system of conceptual pricing rather than limiting the concept to a single NFT. “The Title” comprises nine works, some of them multiples, all visually identical. In a short, looped video, three nested cubes, articulated by their beveled white edges, float in black space. They’re angled toward the viewer, and move in a rotation that begins with a smooth, tentative clockwise turn before suddenly snapping into position. Each work has its own hash on the blockchain, so despite the fungible visuals they all are unique. On the level of the interface, they’re differentiated by their titles and prices, which appear under each video, as is standard on Nifty Gateway. Pak’s project incorporates the experience of browsing the platform into the work. The Flipper is an edition of ninety-nine, originally priced at $1 each, though they’ve sold for as much as $35,000 on the secondary market. The Blind was sold in a silent auction. The Unsold is priced at $1 million, and The Gift is not for sale.
Pak’s art has been described as digital finish fetish. They make perfectly rendered objects with crisp lines and a dewy sheen. Their work appeals to people who want to imagine that an NFT’s cost has some correlation to the artist’s skill. But with “The Title” Pak gives lie to that notion. They insist that value is built on hype, community appreciation, the seduction of speculation, or maybe something more ineffable, mysterious as the frosted murk that fills those empty cubes.
Another common kind of self-aware NFT is less concerned with its price than naming what an NFT is and what it does. The most sophomoric of these consist solely of text reading something along the lines of “My First NFT.” Max Osiris, an early adopter of crypto art known for his puckish attitude as much as his maximalist digital collages, minted Low Effort NFT—a photo of those words scribbled on a piece of scrap paper—and this is a piece from my stupid art series. (Osiris’s more extreme meta-commentary has got him banned from a couple of platforms; recently he was suspended from Foundation for auctioning a coveted artist invite as an NFT. A clever concept, perhaps, but it doesn’t satirize the power of the platform so much as it preys on artists desperate for access.)
Sterling Crispin’s first NFTs on Foundation were seven tablets, with black text on marbled monochromatic slabs. How you feel reads: “Each Ethereum transaction uses about as much electricity as 1.2 U.S. homes per day. This image is not an artwork, it is a description of an artwork. The artwork is how you feel when you read this.” The Idea Itself summarizes the artist’s position for the whole series: “This image is not an artwork, it is a description of an artwork. This token is not an artwork, it is a cryptographic symbol linked to the image. The idea of this itself, is the artwork. You can not buy the artwork, the idea itself can not be owned.” If the code of the NFT already inscribes the kind of relations that the art of Duchamp-land draws attention to—the relations between the work, its owner, its creator, and the platform where it’s shown and sold—then Crispin asks what else can be written into it, and what it can’t define. The indexical nature of the NFT could be another reason for the proliferation of artists’ self-aware takes: by encoding relations, the NFT invites artists to describe them, and forge other ones that aren’t there yet.