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NFTs and the theater of risk



Screenshot of Shl0ms’s, CAR // 0040, 2022 digital video, color, 1 minute.

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound
’Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.

—John Donne, Holy Sonnet VII

THIS YEAR, the market for cryptocurrencies has plummeted. Bitcoin is down by 56 percent, Ethereum by 63 percent, and the value of stablecoins, most of which are hypothetically pegged to fiat reserve-backed currencies like the dollar, has been severely tested. All told, over a trillion dollars of digital value has evaporated since last fall.

It is a bear market, and no one knows if it will prove to be a season of hibernation, a reprise of the millennial dot-com crash, or something else entirely. In any event, the so-called crypto winter offers space for reflection on what Web3 has wrought, and, for those of us invested in culture and aesthetics, what artists have wrought with it.

To understand the contemporary stakes of the NFT as capitalized art object, it’s worth returning to a much older source: Michael Fried’s long-canonical anti-Minimalist invective of 1967, “Art and Objecthood.” For Fried, “theatricality” famously referred to the setting, circumstance, and experiential variables and frameworks that displaced the modernist centrality of presence in art. Debates about Fried’s essay are themselves now historical material; my intent here is not to recapitulate them. Rather, in the face of a new rupture in artmaking—that of cryptoart and the nonfungible token—I seek to turn Fried’s theatricality back on itself, as other critics have done before the blockchain, and to highlight it as the central feature of these new phenomena.

Smart contracts, such as ERC-721 on Ethereum and FA2 on Tezos, are portions of code that dictate interaction with the blockchain’s permanent ledger; specifically, they detail the transfer of the token from one wallet to another, along with the funds for purchasing it. Thus, whatever digital form the NFT ultimately takes, be it a JPEG image, moving GIF, audio file, or 3-D model, it consists of at least two media: the para-medium of code that constitutes the smart contract wrapper, and the file “inside” it. Through the para-medium or wrapper of the smart contract, all NFTs become a kind of performance of exchange. Those that reference their own status as theatrical objects are, I argue, often the most philosophically provocative pieces of cryptoart, accentuating their role—like that of all NFTs—as financialized instruments. Further, I want to propose that this new form of theatricality presents an intriguing alternative to the concept of “grace” Fried associates with a modernist purity of form—that the theological implications of Fried’s text serve as an unintended window into a new troubled and troubling grace of the coded medium.

In cryptoart, the saying often goes that code is law, but what if it is, in fact, a kind of theology?

That the NFT is not a viable form without the smart contract wrapper makes it an inherently financial instrument—which some take to mean primarily and directly a vehicle for speculation and profit, a stereotype reinforced by last year’s record-breaking auction sales of aesthetically negligible NFTs from the Bored Ape and CryptoPunk collections. The theater of exchange symbolized by these sales, along with that imbricated in the code of any NFT, is of course not intended to problematize the category of art or experience in any interesting way. When it is, however, the conceptual value of the wrapped medium and para-medium becomes evident. Consider the piece Kudzu, deployed on the Ethereum blockchain on April 20, 2021, by Billy Rennekamp, Dan Denorch, Everett Williams, and Sam Hart via Folia. Kudzu calls itself “the first NFT virus” and deploys itself to any wallet that interacts with a wallet that already holds it. Kudzu’s smart contract meets the ERC-721 standard; it calls up a “buyer” and “seller” and transfers a token between them. That token, however, is by design, always free.

The Kudzu themselves are kawaii pixelated squares with faces filled in green in reference to the invasive vine after which they are named. These inherit unique features, such as winking or heart eyes, smiling or vomiting mouths, and varying color accents, partly from the infecting wallet and partly from a pseudorandom hash function that is standard to the blockchain. These mimic the “rarity” features and design styles of many commercially valuable NFT projects, with the irony being, of course, that the infectious image cannot be priced at all. Like the profile pictures of ubiquitous “pfp” projects,” Kudzu token images are almost always traded at a 1:1 ratioa wallet can only be infected once. Kudzu thus retains the theatrical structure of the exchange of funds the smart contract is designed for, and enacts its gestures rhetorically, but voids them of actual capital. Here, recursive theatricality is the means by which Kudzu critiques its own media and the hyperspeculative milieu that surrounds them.


Image from the digital announcement for Kudzu, 2021, an “NFT virus” created by Billy Rennekamp, Dan Denorch, Everett Williams, and Sam Hart.

Whereas Kudzu’s audience has to understand the technical nature of the blockchain—and the frenzied purchasing culture of cryptoart on the wholeto grasp the piece’s subversive reflexivity, other cryptoart makes the theater of turning capital back on itself more explicit, or—in the case of the $CAR project by the pseudonymous “crypto-dadaist” Shl0ms—literally explosive. In early February 2022, Shl0ms purchased a Lamborghini Huracan, the favored vehicle of the techno-bro crypto-elite, and drove it into a desert somewhere in the American Southwest. Then, they exploded it in a controlled blast. The work comprises: a hybrid documentation/promotion/art video of the detonation process (featuring references to Picasso and the perceived masculinity of bulls and bullfighting, segments associating the desert where the car was blown up with the American atomic bomb tests, among other imagery); 999 short films of pieces of the exploded car, each wrapped in ERC-721 contract code; the auctions of those pieces, and the affective reaction of buyers to the car’s actual and financial fractionalization as expressed through tweets, bid attempts, and Telegram messages, often in deeply emotional language.

The auction for $CAR began on February 25, 2022, and was, by design, a protracted affair. The artists deployed their contract from their own website, making it possible to extend the bidding past an initial twenty-four hours if the top fifty bidders changed order in the last ten minutes. The ensuing days-long competition riveted the NFT community and provoked debate about the auction as a theatrical event. The NFTs of the destroyed car parts sold for more than new Lamborghini would. 


Promotional video for Shl0ms’s $CAR, 2022.

The $ in $CAR’s title is typically reserved for currencies on specific blockchains, or layers of blockchains, often associated with particular projects, artists, or protocols. $ASH for instance, is the proprietary token of artist Murat Pak. Ethereum or Tezos are denoted by $ETH or $XTZ. No such token was issued for $CAR, so it is purely symbolic, signifying that Shl0ms anticipated the speculative financial value the pieces would come to represent on their own after auction. Shl0ms has a history of conceptual work, including selling an “empty” transparent PNG file, but $CAR succeeds beyond the scope of these other pieces because it leans into its own situational framing and absurdity, using the financial instrument of the NFT to comment on the financial instrumentalization of art. Perversely, this is the kind of self-interrogation Fried enjoys in modernist painting, but in the case of Shl0ms’s $CAR, the object being interrogated is itself a non-object: namely, the theatrical setting of the market that makes the piece possible.

Of course, the hyper-capitalization of NFTs is in large part responsible for the distaste they have inspired in the contemporary art world, but it is paradoxically what also enables them, combined with the implicit theatricality conferred by the para-medium of the smart contract, to turn back and effectively critique the forms of capital that they embody. Contra Fried’s famous pronouncement—“Presentness is grace”—$CAR and Kudzu are predicated on absence and destruction, respectively. Kudzu is monetary exchange without money. $CAR is the process of breaking up a car into physical remnants, which acquire new meaning and value through processes of digital representation and transactional circulation. There is no single, revelatory gaze, no one moment of total absorption or comprehension. The theatricality of the exchanged tokenized object in the volatile market holds none of the surety one expects from grace. The self-reflexive NFT that employs the theater of absentness suggests that if art offers grace at all, it is volatile, conditional, and inseparable from the systems of capital under which it operates.


Promotional video for Shl0ms’s $CAR, 2022.

In the epigraph of “Art and Objecthood,” Fried invokes the religious thought of eighteenth-century Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards as a metaphor for the sublime presentness that art, freed from the contamination of “theatre,” can offer. Specifically, Fried is interested in Edwards’s continuous experience of the world as ongoing evidence for the existence of God. But for Edwards himself, and all Puritans, the 1658 Savoy Declaration makes clear that no matter the circumstantial reinforcement, the word of God alone is the source of grace. That is, the image is only secondary. Consider one of the short videos from $CAR, of piece 0040. It shows the Lamborghini’s roof as it rotates against a black background. Light grazes the edges and peaks of the crumpled metal, as if it were the body of Christ in a chiaroscuro Deposition. Its detonated form has a kind of exquisite brokenness.

In cryptoart, the saying often goes that code is law, but what if it is, in fact, a kind of theology? The physical piece 0040 presumably still belongs to Shl0ms, who perhaps has it nestled in a warehouse somewhere. This is what the viewer believes. The smart contract wrapped around the video of piece 0040 is an assurance that the viewer owns the documentation of this object. If word alone was enough for grace in art, as it is with Edwards’s God, the coded contract would be the primary and perhaps only medium here. But it isn’t. In the little bounded theater of the browser window, the serrated edge of the torn roof piece scrapes against velvety black. The Ethereum ledger records the price of sale at the equivalent of $9,031.14. Perhaps it will be sold again, gain or lose value as a speculative asset. Grace in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards is given by God freely for repentance and made possible by the sacrifice of Christ at the Crucifixion. Grace in the tradition of Friedian high modernism is given by the material transcendence of the work of art. Shl0ms returns us, via the theatre of exchange, to this central question of experience, to ask if grace itself is transactional, and if so, what should be its price.  

A.V. Marraccini is an essayist, critic, and art historian based at the international Bilderfahrzeuge Project at the Warburg Institute in London. Her first book, We The Parasites, is forthcoming from Sublunary Editions in February 2023.

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