From Commons to NFTs: Introduction to a series of seven essays

‘Map’ by Aram Bartholl, part of the show ‘From Here On’, Rencontres de la Photographie 2011, Arles (Fr). CC BY-SA 4.0

It feels like we are reaching a fork in the road. There are so many crises, some more recent, some have built up over a very long time, that only one thing seems clear. Things can simply not continue as they are. The future is both closing and opening up. What to do? Digital culture has always been a source for radical imagination, often far-fetched utopian and imminently practical at the same time. From this, two starkly different visions have coalesced and are currently being realized in bits and pieces.

Around the turn of the millennium, the notion of the Commons took the abundance of digital information as its starting point to develop ideas, infrastructure and practices for free access, collaboration, and community. Inspired by Free Software, cultural actors started many projects contributing to the digital commons and invested the notion with a utopian horizon. The maker movement is part of this vision. While many projects in this space continue to flourish to this day, and considerable experiments are still being started, the approach as a whole seems to be stuck in somewhat of a niche, under constant pressure of enclosure and co-optation.

More recently, the blockchain emerged as a new technological space, again with concrete practical applications and a strong utopian horizon. It’s starting point is exactly the opposite. Abundance has been replaced with a focus on scarcity of information and open access with a system of fine-grained permissions. Instead of communities, ever-expanding markets are now taken to be the most important social form. The the cultural field, the NFTs and the possibility of creating a market for “authenticated copies” of digital goods came into being. Economically, the space is currently booming, but it brings its own sets of problems with it (energy consumption, speculation, fraud etc).

The shift in the radical imagination from abundance to scarcity, from communities to all-encompassing markets, is both alarming but also accelerating the creation of new potentials. This situation of confusing potentiality, for the better and the worse, is the inspiration for this series of texts.

Marking the 20th anniversary of Kingdom of Piracy (2002 – 2006), one of the earliest net-based art projects to focus on piracy and the commons, “From Commons to NFTs” brings together 7 essays – from Felix Stalder, Yukiko Shikata, Michelle Kasprzak, Denis “Jaromil” Roio, Cornelia Sollfrank, Tzu Tung Le, and Jaya Klara Brekke – to assess this situation. Each speaks from their unique perspective and draws on their own deep and long-term involvement in digital culture.

This discourse on “From Commons to NFTs” is realized as a series of “chain essays” that are intertwined, receptive and corresponding in its exchange of thoughts and notes, so ideas contaminate and accumulate as the series unfolds, with one contribution published at the end of each month.

“From Commons to NFTs” is an (expanded) writing series initiated by Shu Lea Cheang (KOP), Felix Stalder & Ewen Chardronnet (Makery).

First text of the series: “From Commons to NFTs. Digital objects and radical imagination” by Felix Stalder.

Kingdom of Piracy (KOP) was curated by Shu Lea Cheang, Armin Medosch and Yukiko Shikata. Premiere launch at Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria) in 2002, shown at FACT (Liverpool, UK) in 2003, NTT/ICC (Tokyo, JP) Open Nature exhibition in 2015 and held a PLENUM all night event at Node London in 2006. Its website is kept at http://mauvaiscontact.info/kop

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