“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 Makery publishes a new contribution of these “chain essays”. Fifth text by Cornelia Sollfrank.
In a nicer, happier world, NFTs would be fun little things you could make and collect and trade, and it’d be great. It’s a pity this is crypto .
In December 2021, I was approached by Sakrowski, the curator of panke.gallery, an off-space in Berlin focusing on Internet Art. He was planning a NFT show for February 2022. Before explaining any further details, the curator asked me if I would be up for offering NFTs of my work. A good question! I was skeptical of the hype while at the same time interested in forming an opinion based on practical, first-hand experience . Artists have tried to rethink the blockchain for a while now . How to approach a technology that has been poised for a few years now to overtake the WWW “as the next big network technology for speculation and disruption,” and use it for something meaningful, i.e. for something that is not purely driven by financial profit-logic? I agreed to participate in the show as a sort of experiment. As an artist I have the opportunity to get to know something by exploring its (im-)possibilities in practice, to find entry points and loose ends and work my way forward.
NFTs are one application of blockchain technology, and I am particularly interested in exploring the hype around NFTs in the art context. A quick reminder: Not all NFTs are art. The abbreviation simply stands for “non-fungible tokens,” i.e. certificates of ownership, mainly for “unique” digital assets, stored on the blockchain. NFTs have existed for a few years now, but as a cultural phenomenon they have received broad media attention following the sales of NFTs for art works for which many millions were paid . Suddenly, all eyes turned to the matter, and I asked myself, what was the reason was for this sudden interest in digital art? Why were millions paid now for digital files? Obviously, the digital certificates of ownership have created not just a hype, but also a new market for digital art, but what are the dynamics behind? Who will be able to participate in the world of Art NFTs, and who will do so successfully? Are its opportunities more democratic than the ones of the traditional art world? And not the least, what is the role of the technology behind? Who invents it? Who controls and in whose interest? Is there just some weird genius behind who has managed to create a fetish that is about nothing but keeping our minds and machines busy?
My way to deal with some of the involved abstractions is the one of play and open exploration, thus hoping to find insight through lived contradictions, through the experience of absurdities and confusion by diving into the field instead of observing it from outside. I develop my thoughts along an exhibition I have participated in as an experiment with NFTs.
NFT or NFS?
Before reflecting about the specific exhibition, I would like to make a little excursion. As Art NFTs refer to digital art, to art on the Internet in particular, I wonder if there is any continuity with net-based art which has emerged in the mid 1990s and which forms an important reference for panke.gallery. Being an OG of Internet art myself, I wondered, where does my work sit within these dynamics? I love the digital as a medium because of its immaterial malleability. I love the Internet because it serves as an accessible communication and distribution tool, and it has allowed to play with identity and anonymity so well. Not the least, I have been fascinated by digital art works because of the inherent impossibility of identifying an original… The bottom line is that artistic work on the Internet offered a plethora of possibilities for exploring new artistic strategies – with one major challenge, however: Internet art would come with its own rules and paradigms, which were largely at odds with what the art market needed in order to function. Internet artists could be sure to be pioneers, a cultural tech-avant-garde that implicitly lived an institutional critique. Experts who know and understand the scene find their achievements undeniable. Therefore, the art world showed interest in the phenomenon, but either the artists would adapt to the needs of the art market, or they would fall through the cracks of the system. This ambiguous and contradictory situation left artists in a situation where they could either work against the principles of their medium or, well, disappear.
As an example, to demonstrate the then and now ambiguous relationship of Internet art to the market, I chose a T-Shirt that, as far as I know, is only sold as an analog item  – without any involvement of blockchain technologies. The garment, designed by Slovenian artist Vuk Ćosić, clearly shows the reference to the NFT logo, but with a little twist. The last letter of the abbreviation for Non-Fungible Tokens has been replaced with an “S”, what in terms of attitude, however, makes all the difference: Not for Sale! What appears as a banal play on words, opens up to complex layers of meaning in light of the above mentioned properties of Internet art. Vuk Ćosić belongs to the pioneers of net art of the 1990s, having been a member of the self-appointed Heroic Period  of net.art. His attitude towards the art market like with many of his colleagues, however, has been and remained ambivalent to this day. It expresses itself in contradictory behavior for which the criticism of NFTs as expressed with the NFS-T-Shirt goes hand in hand with the offer of NFTs of Vuk’s early work as present on Postmasters Blockchain . So much for setting the mood for the following main act.
NfTNeTArT. From Net Art to ArtNFTs
The title of the exhibition already made it clear: The exhibition, curated by panke.gallery in collaboration with Office IMPART (both Berlin), creates a trajectory from the pioneers of net-based art to the current boom of Art NFTs. (Since I am not concerned with crypto-art in general, but specifically with art works sold with NFTs, I prefer the term Art NFTs, which is commonly used for this purpose. This makes it clear that there is also a trade in NFTs that has no art claim . The starting point of the show’s curatorial approach was generative art, i.e. art that essentially consists of an algorithm that keeps producing new works. The discussion about how much art is in such a generated piece, or whether the artistic idea expressed in the algorithm is not the actual work, is characteristic of this genre that definitely has analog predecessors, but has now found an ideal medium to realize itself on the blockchain. Sakrowski has long been interested in blockchain technology and the associated artistic visions and opportunities, and had also worked with it curatorially  panke.gallery, however, unlike the name suggests, is not a commercial gallery, but a precarious, non-profit art center, dedicated to connect the history of net-based art with current digital art trends, thus also inhabiting the contradictory space of net-based art in general. On the occasion of its 5th anniversary there should be a programmatic exhibition, which should also generate some income. So, the idea was born not only to exhibit historical and contemporary generative works, but also to offer them as NFTs. And Office IMPART, as a commercial gallery with a wealth of experience in the traditional art market while being committed to new, especially digital, art forms, turned out to be an ideal partner. For the show the two galleries gathered nine artistic positions including different generations, approaches and aesthetics. As stated in the press release:
The exhibition will feature works ranging from early to very current works, developed specifically for the exhibition and therefore showcasing a diverse range of generative art in the context of Net Art’s history. The exhibition will create a dialogical environment in which classic network phenomena and cutting-edge technologies will interact.
In the confrontations of the just very recent technologies and blockchain developments, the artists’ strategies range from more aesthetic or narrative, critical or almost performative investigations and they equally investigate the limits and possibilities of NFTs alongside each other .
The exhibition, for which six out of the nine artists produced new work, was installed simultaneously at both venues, thus offering the opportunity to view the works in the context of the gallery exhibition, to exchange and consult on site, and not least to meet the artists. NfTNeTArT was the first curated exhibition, which explicitly bridged the gap between early net-based art and current art on the blockchain. It not only fulfilled the idea of contextualization of art through integration into a larger history – which is rather the exception in the field of crypto art – but also offered an approach to the works for interested non-experts. For a more traditional art audience, it was a way to get closer to blockchain technology, while the crypto scene had the opportunity to engage with its predecessors.
According to the curators, a main motivation for putting together the show was to become more familiar with the practice of the blockchain and to better understand what is pure hype about the NFT boom and where the new possibilities for art lie . The promises around NFTs often assume a one-click-experience, while the realization of a NFT show comes with many complicated, practical issues to solve: selection of the chain, handling of the assets, writing of the contracts, and last but not least the communication with the crypto scene. What really happens on the blockchain is unfathomable without the accompanying discourse on the corresponding platforms. A collaboration with two more organizations specializing in blockchain technology was essential for the realization of the show. They not only contributed their expertise, but also brought the otherwise hermetic bubbles of the art world and the crypto scene into connection. For the two galleries, in addition to expanding their portfolios, this also meant to gain visibility in the crypto scene and to position themselves in this context.
One of the two partner organizations was ipg.space , a Berlin-based platform that allows to curate NFT exhibitions, present them online and make sales. The start-up began with self-curated exhibitions, but is gradually opening up to all interested actors. The works on display are registered in a decentralized system, i.e. on the blockchain, and can then be found across the Ethereum spectrum. For this, they are also developing their own tool, the Token Curated Registry, which in turn is administered by the people who themselves own and use tokens of the tool. For the exhibition NetArtArtNFTs, jpg.space developed the storefront through which the galleries were connected to the technical layers of Web3, which enabled the transactions from wallet to wallet. As a start-up, ipg.space’s mission is to develop and provide tools for applications and business models. For the needs of this exhibition, they developed applications that are now also available to other users, i.e. the concrete use case of the exhibition also helped to drive jpg.space’s own research and development.
The second partner was zora.co  zora consists of different areas where a venture capital funded start-up, zora-labs, intertwines with ideas of open source and self-organization – all in the field of developing open source tools for crypto technology. In addition, zora is working on a DAO to manage its universe. DAO, short for Decentralized Autonomous Organization, is a blockchain-based experimental governance form, which is supposed to be fluid and dynamic and to have the potential to replace the static forms of organizations we are used to; besides crypto currencies and NFTs DAOs are another main vision related to blockchain technology. zora see themselves as an alternative to the NFT aggregator OpenSea and the purely financially motivated crypto scene in general. In a personal conversation, zora staff member Michail Stangl emphasized the importance of building resilience for independent cultural communities, which can be realized through the blockchain, thus using the technology for co-determining a new techno-social horizon for collaborative technologies.
Being involved in an NFT show, first of all raises the question, what art works make sense to be distributed this way. As I have experimented with generative art for a long time, it felt right to contribute works from this field. My net.art generator  (NAG) is a Perl script with an easy to use interface on the Web that upon the entry of a search term builds a new image within seconds. Over the years it has become a tool not only for generating new works but also for generating various discourses . One of the main issues has been originality and copyright and uses the iconic Warhol flowers as a case study. Minting anonymous_warhol-flowers as NFTs would use the work for the exploration of new questions. As decided to offer a large number of NFTs for a reasonable price the choice was to present a series of 100 at 0,25ETH. And to reference my role as an ‘OG’ of net.art, the title should be //OG Flowers// . The series also referred to a historical date of crypto currency, the day when somebody payed with BitCoin for a real thing, a Pizza for 10’000 bitcoins, for the first time: 22 May 2010. A few years ago, I had produced an entire body of work of reworked Warhol flowers with the title “This is not by me.” This focused on performing the artificiality of the notion of originality, the beauty of endless copy- and malleability in digital art and its implications for the art world/market. So, offering a selection of these images as NFTs did not lack a certain kind of absurd twist.
“It is no surprise that one of NAG’s most famous outcomes, the notorious anonymous_warhol-flowers, finally do the honors to appear at the semiotic carnival of crypto art. Having their origin in the unoriginal genius of a machine, their NFTs create the aura that has been missing so far: the aura of the digital copy. And while their author elegantly remains in the gray area of copyright, a new social fiction grants certainty: ownership – of an original.” 
While on the “real” art market anonymous_warhol-flowers have also been sold in small numbers as digital prints , now they would remain in their original habitat and unfold their aesthetic and market potential on the Net. At the end of the exhibition 22 digital images  of the series were sold, while the rest is still waiting to find an insightful collector, purchasable through the website of Office IMPART .
In order to save the gas fee for the artists, we implemented so-called ‘lazy minting’ in the contract, which means that the buyer creates the NFT at the moment of purchase and is thus also charged for it. Only when the digital asset has been minted and is available as NFT, it shows on OpenSea, where it can enter the cycle of endless resales and where speculators try to realize their profit with Art NFTs. Although the physical exhibition has been taken down in the two gallery spaces, the NFTs remain available as purchasable objects – at least as long as the underlying technology exists.
Afterwards and in the middle
This was my first NFT show. In retrospect, the curators describe the exhibition NfTNeTArT as a success, which they explicitly do not want to define only in terms of numbers. All the artists gained attention and made money – more or less –, the gallerists had performed a groundbreaking show while also making some money, the tech companies involved have proven that their work is useful for the art world and thus meaningful in the context of their mission. The credibility of a curated exhibition and the promotion of such an exhibition certainly attracts attention from which all involved parties benefit. To what extent the new technology also shifts the established roles of curators, gallery owners, and artists was another aspect of the undertaking. Creators of NFTs are no longer dependent on traditional sales channels and art mediators if they have the know-how to offer their works online and gain the attention of the scene . And although it is not only about sales figures, these play an important role in the context of cryptocurrencies and the art market. In order to analyze the hype in more detail and understand what is behind it, the owners of Office IMPART regularly produce an Art+Tech Report , for which they conduct an international survey of NFT buyers. Essentially, the report shows that the vast majority of sales take place in the low-price sector – which comes as a surprise given the headlines focusing on the million $ sales. On top of that, for a large number of buyers, belonging to a certain community of NFT collectors is of great importance.
However, something made and still makes me feel very uncomfortable about my seemingly quite positive experience. I ask myself what was different with this show as compared to other shows at off-spaces? What was different was that the whole show was framed by the hype around NFTs, which not the least was expressed in title. Art NFTs as an exhibition format triggers the change of perspective from treating art as a field of meaningful action to the field of trade and financial logic (both fields have long existed somewhat separately from each other). With Art NFTs it is difficult, if not impossible, not to count the amount of sales and add up the final income and take this as a meaningful measure. Eventually, this is what NFTs are for, to a technology to enable sales. At the same time, NFTs do not sell automatically and prices vary significantly. This is where the mechanisms of the market come into play. Who are the players that decide the value of an asset and thus its success on the market? A mechanism whose absurd flowering can be well observed in the traditional market and that is no less absurd on the NFT market though admittedly slightly different. The strategies to create a price of $69 million for the NFT of a digital collage are surprisingly similar, but perhaps even more crazy, to those for selling a skull decorated with diamonds for $100 million . It makes sense to draw a parallel between the two cases as both seem to have been manipulated transactions, in which the artists themselves have been actively involved. As Amy Castro summed it up for Beeple (but equally applies to Hirst): “Buy art from yourself, put out a press release, media will write about it, you’re only out the transaction fee.”  And if you are lucky you have created a market-value for your work. Does this parallel come as a surprise? Not really. The big players are big because they know how to play the game, how to tweak the system, also because that is what they are interested in, playing the game to make money.
Let’s come back to our Berlin backyard, with the idealistic gallerists whose intention is to explore the aesthetic and maybe conceptual potential of NFTs. I wonder if this is possible at all without doing justice to the nature of the concept of this digital certificate, in the first place. Art historians have tried to get their head round the forgery-proof inscription on the blockchain. Kolja Reichert, for instance, made the suggestion that it [NFT] might be nothing but “a certified fiction that they [the owner] have an original,”  or something that could easily be mistaken for the artwork itself – which they are not – as “artworks are the paradigms for unique goods.”  The NFT is just a pointer to the asset online: “Note that it’s only the token that’s non-fungible — the art it points to is on a website, under centralized control, and easily changeable.”  Nevertheless, NFTs seem to create an aura for a digital copy that, in fact, is no different from all the other copies of the same piece. “The work itself cannot be the carrier of the aura,” as Reichert states, “it is the public register entry for its ‘ownership’  that allows the reflection of its aura to fall on the work.”  On top of that, an “NFT doesn’t convey copyright, usage rights, moral rights, or any other rights, unless there’s an explicit license saying so.”  With this in mind, it’s hard to believe that it is still about buying/collecting art. Isn’t it the act of purchase itself that takes center space and probably becomes the actual artistic act? Isn’t the collector the real artist here? Assuming that the buyers know what they are doing, the purchase of an NFT becomes a statement that demonstrates two things: 1) I don’t mind paying money for something other people think is absurd, 2) I am part of the crypto game. Double cool. Demonstrating wealth and creating taste is something they share with all art buyers as well as having an impact on the market dynamics. Allocating money determines the value – with the little difference that buyers of crypto art have created their own aesthetic realm, largely out of reach of the traditional art world, as they seemingly have infinite resources to play their game with. And it is not only the traditional art world that is puzzled by the new market power. The logic of fast money is taking hold also of critical artists and off-spaces…
Despite all this justified criticism, I have enjoyed to be part of the game, not the least because my work, in particular the one related to the anonymous_warhol-flowers has shown how impossible it is to even think of an original not to speak of ownership and intellectual property, while these concepts get highly fetishized in the art world. NFTs reinforce these basic paradigms and even if they do so in a rather ridiculous, implausible and totally ineffective way, their evangelists have managed to create the fiction of a new market and managed to turn it into a real one. What is also interesting is that the NFT market and the related dynamics seem to mirror the worst aspects of the high-end market in a condensed way. So much for the art part. It was fun to sell NFTs of images I do not own, I have not created (the machine did), which is why authorship and thus ownership cannot be clarified; the images operate in a questionable legal grey area, and, therefore, conceptually perform well the ambiguity that is essential of NFTs. Certainly, in a field like the art scene, where most work too much for too little money and competition is fierce but must remain invisible, the prospect of making money is irresistible! It really is.
My conclusion is that the only excuse to get into that business is to really make life changing money – but achieving that is as hard as in the traditional art world with its mentality of the winner takes it all. Different people, different aesthetics, same logic. At least, I know now better what I have done.
The story could end here, but there is something else that is bothering me. The whole exhibition was such a seemingly positive experience, with all nice, professional and credible people of integrity, but I wonder where it actually sits on the larger scale of crypto politics. All NFT sales take place in crypto currencies, one major application of blockchain technology. In order for this currency to function, that is, to go up and up, crypto always needs new money to flow in and new social relations to be established in the community. In this regard, one can say that NFTs have expanded the social basis of crypto considerably, be it by performing high transactions but also by attracting a new clientele to the scene ranging from major art auction houses, to large museums (a prestigious museum in Vienna that offers Klimt in 10,000 pieces as NFTs) to a small art center specialized in net-based art. This move from the traditional art world including its legitimization as acknowledged art towards NFTs together with the new and specific crypto art, all contribute to legitimize the crypto world and to throw more new money in. All the players who come in from the art world do so for the sake of participating in the game and playing out their own chance to strike lucky in the casino capitalism. This reminds me again of David Gerard and how he describes the dynamics that in his opinion perform nothing but a scam:
1. Tell artists there’s a gusher of free money!
2. They need to buy into crypto to get the gusher of free money.
3. They become crypto advocates, and make excuses for proof-of-work and so on.
4. A few artists really are making life-changing money from this!
5. You probably won’t be one of them. 
That’s right, I wasn’t. If I had made life-changing money, it would have been an interesting outcome of my practice experiment and it would probably have removed all my doubts. Instead, all artists made some money, some considerably more than others, but it probably did not change anybody’s life. So, what’s left apart from the few ETH that meanwhile even lost 40% of their value?
I think my unease comes from realizing that personal experience is not sufficient as a basis for evaluation here. The artists and curators of this exhibition have brought a lot to the table, experience, engagement, love for exploration of new art forms, idealism, and not the least credibility. It was a good experience to work with them and to get closer to the crypto world and its confusing tools. My conclusion, however, is that one has to make up one’s mind if one wants to get in the hype of crypto currency, if one wants promote it as an artist, with one’s name, work and credibility. Which is something that takes us back to the very abstract discourse on crypto and in whose interest it operates…
 What had also piqued my interest was the fierce rejection of NFTs by parts of the art establishment; there had to be quite interesting aspects: https://www.monopol-magazin.de/wohin-mit-dem-nft-hass
 Artists: Re-Thinking the Blockchain, Ruth Catlow, Marc Garrett, Nathan Jones and Sam Skinner (eds.), Liverpool University Press, 2017, p.21.
 Most spectacular was the sale of Everyday: The First 5,000 Days, a digital collage, for more than $69 million at a Christie’s auction in March 2021
 The limited edition was offered by Aksioma, the Institute for Contemporary Art in Ljubljana, and was quickly sold out.
 Miniatures of the heroic period for sale of the Olia Lialina’s website, http://art.teleportacia.org/exhibition/miniatures/
 Postmasters Gallery in New York has a long history of showing digital and internet-based work and recently also runs a Web3 interface for NFT sales, https://postmastersblockchain.com/artists/vuk-cosic/
 Most notable the sale of the first Tweet, the first Wikipedia entry by Tim Berners-Lee (5,435Mio$), Sotheby, or Edward Snowden’s self-portrait as NFT, sold 2021 for €4,6 million.
 Examples are !Mediengruppe Bitnik & Low Jack and Omsk Social Club who presented a #CRYPTORAVE, https://www.panke.gallery/event/cryptorave/; as part of transmediale Ben Vickers and unMonastery presented The First Global UnMonastery Summit, https://www.hkw.de/de/programm/projekte/veranstaltung/p_113151.php; the group show OpenAR.art he curated together with Jeremy Bailey, https://openar.art/
 Conversation between Anne Schwanz from Office IMPART, Sakrowski and the author 20 May 2022, online.
 Haun Ventures leads $50M round in NFT startup Zora Labs, https://techcrunch.com/2022/05/05/haun-ventures-leads-50m-round-in-nft-startup-zora-labs/?guccounter=1
 Home of the net.art generator, https://net.art-generator.com
 A reflection on the net.art generator as conceptual tool is included in the e-book Fix My Code, Cornelia Sollfrank and Winnie Soon, EECLECTIC, 2021, https://eeclectic.de/produkt/fix-my-code/
 Whole series of 100 //OG Flowers//, https://nftnetart.officeimpart.com/exhibit/og-flowers
 Excerpt from the press release, 18 February 2022.
 Kate Vass Gallery, Zürich, https://www.katevassgalerie.com/print/42a3zkycsz8sx9barzxrjfjh2bp4r7
 Viewable at OpenSea: https://opensea.io/collection/og-flowers-v2
 Artists Kim Asendorf and Jonas Lund, for example, want to keep control of large parts of the technical infrastructure and integrate the corresponding technology on their own websites, which also fulfills a promise of early net art. Two other artists from the show used its media attention to sell new NFT editions independently from the galleries.
 Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, http://badatsports.com/2007/hirst-reported-as-major-investor-in-the-purchase-of-his-own-diamond-skull/
 Kolja Reichert, Krypto-Kunst, Wagenbach, 2021, p. 11.
 Ibid., p.20.
 The notion of digital ownership is also discussed by Gerard and who concludes that it is a concept with no meaning in the world of legal definitions of ownership.
 Reichert, p.51.
 Gerard, online.
Vuk Cosic’s NFS T-Shirt, limited edition, available until 26 June 2022 at Aksioma website
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