Can NFTs be used to build (more-than-human) communities? Artist experiments from Japan
Published 28 February 2022 by Yukiko Shikata
“From Commons to NFTs” is an (expanded) writing series initiated by Shu Lea Cheang, Felix Stalder & Ewen Chardronnet. Cautioned by the speculative bubble (burst) of NFTs, the series brings back the notion of commons from around the turn of the millennium to reflect upon and intervene in the transformation of the collective imagination and its divergent futures. Every last day of the month during the next six months, Makery will publish a new contribution of these “chain essays”. Second text by Yukiko Shikata.
From the point of view of the commons, NFTs need to move beyond a mere mechanism for selling digital art works. Rather, it is necessary to view NFTs (and crypto more generally) as a medium that can express a range of relationships. This article focuses on recent Japanese artworks that try to do exactly that, and are pointing towards the possibility of using crypto to serve a more-than-human commons.
Commons as an artistic field
As I entered the world of art in the early 1980s, I encountered the German artist and theorist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), whose work revolved around social, ecological and spiritual concerns. Among them was the issue of “information flows” from the perspective of the flow of energy. In 1990 I got involved in the experimental media art scene as a curator. Especially since 2000, I have been working on flows that include water, people, animals and plants, weather, etc., in addition to digital information. In digital history, I place my emphasis on the world view linked to “culture” and “commons”, which originated from computer (counter-)culture born in the garages on the West Coast of the United States in the 1970s, the free software movement represented by GNU, the open source movement at the end of the 1990s, and “Free Culture” advocated by Lawrence Lessig around 2000.
All of these interests informed the online project Kingdom of Piracy (KOP) (2001-2006, co-curators: Shu Lea Chang, Armin Medosch, Yukiko Shikata) that explored the possibilities of digital commons in the 21st century. At the end of 2020, KOP was revived to focus on bio-commons in the Forking PiraGene project (Taipei C-LAB). Now, in response to the unusual hype in the 2021 art market created by NFTs, KOP springs to life again, in order to consider “NFT” from the viewpoint of “commons”.
Everything in this world is born of the universe and is a commons. And the same is true for human-generated digital data. And such a world view is to regain the wisdom and culture that human beings have nurtured across time and space, as a way to live with nature and that has been suppressed and excluded by the modernization of Western Europe, all the way from industrial machines to digital technology. The issue is to reconnect to such a view. This is not a denial of modernity, but a new combination of modern and pre-modern wisdom via the digital. And to do so, I am convinced that it is necessary for art to penetrate all fields like a groundwater vein, going beyond the still dominant modern notion of “art” as autonomous works.
I have been studying how Japan has embraced modern times since the Meiji era (the latter half of the 19th century). In the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, the subsequent tsunami, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident, there is a renewed urgency to face the spirituality and culture born from the relationship between nature and people, which has existed continuously since people began to live in this archipelago, but has been excluded for more than 150 years due to the sudden modernization of the Meiji era.
Alternative Kyoto, “Imagination as a form of ‘Capital'”, keynote by Audrey Tang and Louwrien Wijers and panel discussion moderated by Shikata at online kick-off forum, June 22, 2021:
Entering the post-pandemic era, I raised the issue of “Ecosophy  and peace for humans and non-humans”, and all my current activities are developed based on it. Last year, I organized two forums, Imagination as a form of ‘Capital’ and Energies as ‘Spirits’ – Stones, Water, Forests, Human to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Joseph Beuys’s birth. “Kunst = Kapital (Art = Capital)” and “Social Sculpture”, coined by Beuys, are behind them. The latter forum is also the establishment event of Art Commons “Forest for Dialogue and Creativity” (Chino City, Nagano Prefecture), and the activity will start in earnest from this year.
“Energies as ‘Spirits’ – Stones, Water, Forest, Human” (Joseph Beuys 100th Anniversary / Launch of “Forest for Dialogue and Creativity”), online forum, November 6, 2021:
The “Forest for Dialogue and Creativity” is located in the Suwa / Yatsugatake area, in the central part of the Japanese mainland, where there Median Tectonic Line that runs from east to west meets the Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line that runs from north to south (the westernmost line of Fossa Magna, connecting the Sea of Japan side to the Pacific Ocean side). This area has created and nurtured its own animistic spiritual wisdom and culture, including the mid-Jomon period culture (15,000 to 5,000 years ago) that prospered for 10,000 years, and is still part of its heritage today. Historically, the land of “Forest of Dialogue and Creativity” at the foot of Mt. Yatsugatake has not been owned by anyone until now, but co-managed by local people as “Iriai-chi” (commons). Through activities to invite artists to such places to feel, think and create works, in the post-pandemic era, new Ecosophies (nature, spirit, society) through art will emerge, and we would like to disseminate the ongoing process globally online by what we call “Mountain Media” (named by Eric Wahlforss of SoundCloud).
Before their sedentarization by agriculture, the hunter-gatherer humans understood themselves as participating in nature and its forms of circulation. But with agriculture, storage and possession appeared and initiated the process of disenchantment of humans’ awe of the universe. Relationships of domination and ownership generated imbalances of wealth, and with the development of writing and various recording media, the possession and domination of goods and information further developed. The Western Industrial Revolution accentuated and globalized these trends.
As the 20th century progressed, time, space, people, and even all non-human beings became increasingly subject to data control. Already in conflict with the emergence of open source, free, and DIY cultures since the 1970s, the digital commons and monopolistic control became even more opposed when the Internet began to spread in the late 20th century. The terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 only paved the way for ever more data surveillance. Today, even humans (rulers and ruled) are dominated and exploited by algorithms (NFTs are no exception).
This points at least partially beyond capitalism and the destructive effects of extractivism, towards a world in which both informational and physical entities can be understood as ‘matters of concern’.
Felix Stalder, in From Commons to NFTs: Digital objects and radical imagination 
From Beuys to media art curation and to “Forest of Dialogue and Creativity”, I consistently hold the world as seen from information flows, where there are various non-human beings. The intertwining of animals and plants, other life and things, and things including digital entities is important. None of them should dominate the other, and each has an autonomous but independent relationship. The ecosystem itself that includes these can be said to be “commons”.
Current Japanese development in NFTs: Experiments in selling art
In 2021, prominent media artists have newly entered NFT art one after another. Daito Manabe, exonemo (based in New York), Masaki Fujihata, Yoichi Ochiai, etc. Manabe of Rhizomatiks launched NFT-Experiment, a platform to sell NFT-related products for research purposes by actually getting into it (March, 2021). exonemo, whose member Kensuke Sembo is involved in Infinite Objects, a company that embodies the hype of NFT, is at the forefront of the scene. They first produced a book composed of random dots, displayed each page at the exhibition, sold their ownership, and focused on visualizing the owner’s information on the blockchain. (CONNECT THE RANDOM DOTS Exhibition, WAITING ROOM, 2021/10/16-11/14). Masaki Fujihata dug up his early digital drawings from later 1980s to early 1990s, selling each for one million yen (about 7,700€) (all original), and set the price to go down as the number of purchasers increased (Brave New Commons 3331 Art Fair, October 2021, the project ended in January 2022). Ochiai sold the work on display as an NFT with different specifications at an exhibition about the transition and circulation between digital and material (sculpture, 2D works): Re-Digitalization of Waves.
In each case, the focus is on the use of NFTs in the sale of artworks, joint ownership, and price changes due to decentralized ownership. In the case of Christine Paul’s “NFT art as a sales mechanism or a medium?” , it seems that they have not critically pursued the potential of blockchain as a medium, even though they have tried to pursue it by getting in the middle of the former – a sales mechanism. In the article, Paul mentioned some projects that pursued the potential of blockchain as a medium since around 2014. Since the early days of (digital) commons, some artists have worked on the creative practice and disclosure of ownership.
Looking at recent trends in Japan, even media artists seem to be challenging new media, many of whom are struggling to break into the core of blockchain, cryptocurrency and NFT media. Even though the phenomenon was disconnected from their values, they did not ignore the threat of what was emerging, but boldly jumped into it.
Goh Uozumi’s challenge
“Current NFT has almost no decentralization, even though it is a cryptocurrency technology. In reality, the idea of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and the idea of NFT are different.” 
“NFTs are the opposite of pirates (the ones attacking NFTs are pirates), and I think NFTs are now regulated. It might be easy to imagine that I’m an anarchist and don’t use NFTs.” 
In Japan, media artist Goh Uozumi released a work that uses blockchain as a medium as early as 2014. Ever since he was a student in the late 2000s, Uozomi has been developing the “Autonomous Distributed Network System” as a work. Uozumi has always felt uncomfortable with the system of capitalism, and when he encountered the blockchain, he was convinced that “it will be a breakthrough in the injustice of the world.” In 2014, he released TRUSTLESS, a work that developed the concept of “trust” derived from the decentralized anti-surveillance system in the blockchain and cryptocurrencies, and then “as a system that opens the viability of cultural dignity” (Uozumi). He has released various works up to the present, including the concept of “WMs (Whole Museums)x”, the installation New Economic War (“MOT Annual 2020 Invisible Powers” Exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo/MOT, 2020).
Uozumi writes: “The usefulness of the blockchain here is that it becomes a new public, if and when the fairness of the protocol is prioritized, and it makes it possible to realize the ‘DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization)’ that is the main body of the blockchain. It is an area to think about more basic economic mechanisms that do not depend on the economic logic of a particular era, such as capitalism, and with many others in the dignity of life, including non-humans such as the global environment, culture and conflict issues. It is an area that forms a sense of community for issues that can be shared.” 
Regarding NFT, Uozumi wrote: “A few years ago, people were allowed to talk about the possibilities of NFT, and now it’s time to judge what the reality was and what its core was after a few years of working. I don’t think it’s interesting at all in art. There were pioneering things going on in cryptocurrencies and art, including my own works, but too many people skip all this and just look at NFTs.” 
“Most of what has been touted as having made NFTs are things that can be done with other technologies and that have already been done. Digital media art existed before NFTs, and there have been many markets for it. It’s just that people didn’t know about it, or industry insiders haven’t seen it, and NFTs haven’t solved that problem. Or some artists have become very profitable with digital media productions, and people see that NFTs can do that. But it is the cryptocurrency that made it possible. The creation of a devoted ‘community’ and the excessive speculation that it creates can be understood by looking at the ‘virtual currency bubble’ before NFT, as it has been realized with other coins. I often see naive affirmations of ‘community’ as being good in the context of NFTs and art, but I think it’s really ignorant and stupid. Disseminating that affirmation can also be harmful.” 
Potential of NFTs as a community, a donation?
In an e-mail to me on October 12, 2021, exonemo’s Sembo wrote that some people value NFTs more as community tokens than as speculative media. Many people own a version of a certain work, which some say forms a communal identity. Shunsuke Takawo’s Generativemasks (2021-), CryptoPunks, Art Blocks, etc. are given as examples.
As a practitioner of creative coding, Takawo has been exploring generative forms for several years using the Processing software. By selling generative works as NFT art, he realized the formation of a new community, and by donating the sales back to the Processing Foundation at the same time, he contributed to the community’s ecosystem. Sembo states that “the owners of Generativemasks are connected by hobbies and tastes, and the fact that they can be traced on the Blockchain seems to empower the community.”
Sembo pointed out that the community “may be evaluated by whether it is possible to participate rather than by whether it is complete as a work”—it’s another way to evaluate an artwork with the blockchain. In addition, Sembo wrote: “Blockchain is just a robust and transparent database, but it touches on something fundamental (credit, trust) of human society, where such applications are born.” I think this is an important point.
According to Uozumi, “the use of NFTs in art is just a simple donation.”  NFT’s raison d’être is also a potential future, given that it only functions as a community formation or donation at best, but communities and donations are possible outside of NFTs. What is a unique potential of NFT? Or is NFT a momentous bubble?
Autonomous decentralized network, life network
Under such circumstances, I see the potential for emerging approaches that utilize science, such as autonomous decentralized networks and artificial life research.
The two works using NFT released by ALTERNATIVE MACHINE (Takashi Ikegami, Itsuki Doi, Atsushi Masumori, Norihiro Maruyama, johnsmith) at the end of 2021 seem to be a new breakthrough (ALTERNATIVE MACHINE exhibition @ WHITEHOUSE, curated by Tomohito Wakui, December 28, 2021 – January 23, 2022). ALTERNATIVE MACHINE is a group of researchers who challenge the social application of theory and technology centered on ALife (Artificial Life) researcher Takashi Ikegami. SNOW CRASH is a piece of NFT artwork data that is stored as sound waves by treating the space of the venue as data storage using an acoustic delay line (Delay-line memory used in the 1950s). Due to the nature of the data being stored as sound waves, if a visitor makes a sound in the gallery, the NFT data of this work will be destroyed, threatening the “uniqueness” that is a feature of the blockchain. The work sharply criticizes the fact that blockchain technology guarantees “ownership of the work”, but it is not a technology that guarantees “uniqueness of the work”.
Another work, LIFE, is a smart contract (= agent) that keeps self-replicating autonomously on the blockchain using ether (currency on Ethereum) (ALTERNATIVE MACHINE). Since the energy required for an agent to leave its offspring = ether depends on the sales reward of the NFT, the agent issues an NFT associated with it. SNOW CRASH was sold only during the exhibition period (since the space was used as a data storage for NFT art, the work data itself disappeared at the end), and LIFE exhibited the beta version using the test net during the exhibition period, but it will be “released” to the main net soon and will be available for purchase on the NFT market.
Goh Uozumi, who was one of the first to pay attention to the blockchain and has been thinking and producing related works for many years, said: “We created a society with a heterogeneous subject that is not human, so we can’t do what humans expect.” 
According to him, one of the things that influenced him is “calculation” at the core of the “computer”, which has the appeal of being connected to non-human beings. “In order to explore the dynamics of the universe, humans have been trying to understand the existence of life, not things, by creating it.” 
Uozomi found that they are integrated into an autonomous distributed network, “that the human-centered perspective needs to be re-questioned. In essence, the dynamics of rational maximization are not in the individual human being, but in the nature that encloses it. The nature that forms an orderly order, in other words, we must remember that life is the one that moderately destroys and creates a dynamic order in the universe, with continuous heat death and self-organization.”
I see importance in Uozumi’s non-anthropocentric approach into the blockchain and crypto ecosystem (he doesn’t use NFTs), and ALTERNATIVE MACHINE’s hacking into NFT from artificial life research. These are bold experiments that extend Commons to humans and non-humans (including digital entities), and I think that’s the practice artists should work on right now.
We hope that emergent interventions such as ALTERNATIVE MACHINE, which take place behind the NFT art scene swirling with old values and desires, will unfold here and there, thus opening a path to a world of “more-than-human commons” as mentioned by Felix Stalder.
 Ecosophie: Environmental, spiritual, and social ecology advocated by French philosopher and psychoanalyst Felix Guattari in Three Ecologies (1989).
. Felix Stalder From Commons to NFTs: Digital objects and radical imagination, January 31, 2022.
 Christine Paul’s NFT art—a sales mechanism or a medium? (Februarry 18, 2022, The Art Newspaper)
 Goh Uozumi, Toward the coming world-Introduction to the cultural foundations of the distributed ledger era (Bijutsu Techo/BT magazine, December, 2018).
 Goh Uozumi, excerpt from his e-mail to Shikata on January 27, 2022.
 Goh Uozumi, excerpt from his e-mail to Shikata on February 18, 2022.
 Goh Uozumi interview by Minoru Hatanaka (Bijutsu Techo/BT magazine, December, 2018).
Read the texts in the series:
From Commons to NFTs: Digital objects and radical imagination by Felix Stalder
Can NFTs be used to build (more-than-human) communities? Artist experiments from Japan by Yukiko Shikata
Ethical Engagement with NFTs – Impossibility or Viable Aspiration? by Michelle Kasprzak
The Real Crypto Movement by Denis ‘Jaromil’ Roio
My first NFT, and why it was not a life-changing experience by Cornelia Sollfrank
It is getting harder to have fun while staying poor by Jaya Klara Brekke