Buenos Aires, 5pm, heading to the pre-opening of a big art fair. I angst ever so slightly. It’s been a while. Meet friends, hop in the car. Drive. Our names are supposed to be on a list… The girl pretends they’re there anyway. Go ahead. Let’s get a drink, my friends have already met someone and are talking in a circle. Stone-cut smiles, wine in a can. The walls of the stands: all white. The cubicles all shaped the same. Office. Which department are you from? How long have you worked here? Something bothers me in the background, like a muffled thumpy intonation. It’s the opening ceremony, someone is speaking, no one is watching. I traverse aimlessly through the hallways, can’t really look at the art. It’s not about that anyway. It’s been more than two years since I’ve been to a large art event like this. An event from the TAW (Traditional Art World). It all feels so weird. So samey, so nostalgic, so decadent. My biggest annoyance is that 90% of the works on display are in rectangle-on-wall format. Enchanted déjà-vu frolic. The mediums of old. Like digital contemporaneity, living for two years through screens and phones never happened. Like a magical dizzy kaleidoscope that only shows you a faded past. A complete turning its back to the digital present. Everyone is happy this in-person gathering is even happening. Me too: drunk, laughing, having fun, but I hardly care anymore. This is not fertile ground for new ideas.
It’s been two years since I entered the crypto sphere. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve made friends, been attacked for my involvement with NFTs, helped form a community, given talks (so many vid chats), and been able (for the first time in twelve years) to dedicate myself exclusively to my art practice. In the meantime, I’ve always kept one foot in the TAW, watching it stagger and drag its feet. No innovations, no morphic progress. Forever, I’ve argued that the TAW and the crypto art space have to collide at some point and nurture each other with what’s good from one another. That argument keeps getting more and more complex, especially as the intertwinement evolves in an increasingly clumsy way. When you mix many colored liquids into one, it all turns into a poop-brown color. But there is one mingling I find particularly worth exploring: curation in the crypto art space.
Allow me to be imperiously candid: Art that is not critical of something, or aware of the problems of its milieu, or is weird, mysterious, or intriguing, is boring. Over-illuminated, over-polished gorgeous video loops that merely look gorgeous terminally bore me. There has to be something broken. “The only social function of art is to fuck things up” says American artist Mike Kelley, leaning back in a chair in some large space during an interview on YouTube. He goes on to say “It has no other social function, absolutely none. That’s why if you merge it with the entertainment industry, make it about the desires of the masses, it doesn’t have any social function.” This was in 2004, 18 years ago. I partially agree with his statement. Art for me is about expanding the circle of what you know. It is a THING that lands right at your belief’s end and makes it expand to adapt and survive. Otherwise, it is just entertainment. And that’s fine, we all have been known to indulge in the sweet vice of being passively fed a flow of information, but let’s call this kind of entertainment what it is: porno candy flakes. And the crypto space — like the TAW — is increasingly stuffed with it. Curatorial practices ideally promote a sturdier scaffolding for the practice of art, where deeper meaning can be conveyed.
For a while, just being a part of crypto art was disruptive and subversive. I got to see the tail-end of when just participating in the fringe act of NFT tokenization was considered a punk act. But now the mainstream gods have laid their sacrosanct hand upon us, and thus mere tokenizing shall not be enough to disrupt anymore. I think curation in crypto art will prove paramount for endorsing, organizing, and pushing forward a more critical and interesting formation of ideas and artworks that can resurrect crypto art’s historical ability to disrupt. An ecosystem of art that can destabilize boundaries and the zeitgeist. How? By providing context. But screeching halt: ’cause it’s not so easy. As with many things in web3, you can’t just bring the good old dynamics into the new world. They don’t fit. They don’t work. They don’t make sense.
In ancient Rome, curatores were caretakers, sentinels of civil function that would make sure aqueducts, and other infrastructural systems, were running smoothly. In that same vein, I think of the 16th century’s “Cabinet of Curiosities”, private collections where people deposited all sorts of exotic or interesting objects of contemplation. These Cabinets were full of valuable objects and at some point developed a need to be taken care of, looked after. The person in charge of making sure no one stole or broke anything was the curator. These individuals gradually developed expertise about the objects being displayed, which they started to apply by advising which things to put where, or how to group these objects together. Thus emerges the Curator. A preventer of catastrophes. Curar in Spanish means to heal, which takes me to something sick that needs therapeutic assistance.
Is art ill?
In actuality, curatorial practice revolves around contextual frameworks. Exhibitions are art’s way of self-disseminating and erecting infrastructure for its enunciations. In crypto art, the exhibition infant is still learning to crawl. Some experiments have been made, some Metaverse parcels populated, but there is so much more to venture into. In the context of a pandemic turmoil that has only now begun to recede, a collective yearning begins to surface: Artists want to show their works AFK (also meet and party). Whenever you transpose digital artworks to the physical world, there is a translation, and in every translation, there is noise and data loss. Exhibitions are part of art practice, they are the enclosing package that lets artistic enunciation travel. Most of what I’ve seen in the crypto art space thus far has been very uninventive in its exhibition device. I have fever dreams of generic house music, all-the-same-lined-up screens with loops, and QR codes a la shopping mall showrooms.
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In this process, where the rules and boundaries of crypto art exhibiting and documentation are being written to be broken, the web3 version of curation will have to be forever liquid. The ways of the powerful expert, who defines the agenda of the new institutions through their individual experience and criteria, won’t fit the new models, especially when this also becomes an obscure and cliquey modus operandi. The process of constructing new contextual groundworks for birthing creative material around art will have to be a back-and-forth between the expert, community, and the institution itself. Community-driven curatorial experiments are already being deployed by institutions in the crypto art space (think $MOCA token), and some NFT marketplaces are beginning to build the sophomoric foundations for similar operations, where the community plays a central role in the direction of the curatorial structure. In the future, the amalgamation of this community contribution, utilizing the expertise of those who can put together a broad picture of art, organize the data, and create archival content around it, will prove enormously fruitful. The work for curators, as we understand them now, might become more ad hoc and dynamic, and that may sound scary, but hey, it’s a new world and everyone has to adapt to the unfolding melange.
I propose a balance, however unwieldy it may come to be. The crypto art ecosystem needs not dismiss everything from the TAW. Community-based, decentralized curation within crypto art is incredibly interesting, and the institutional model will benefit greatly from the new hyperstructural conceptions of web3 (think Hyperstructures by jacob.eth) where positive sum, permissionlessness, credible neutrality, unstoppabilty, and expansiveness are positively a path forward, but where also a deep contextual substructure informing these institutions can make them so much more sustainable, sturdier, richer, more enjoyable, more fun. On the other hand, the power structures that perpetuate the one-expert-spewing-out-academia-crazed-incomprehensible-Art-English-jargon-just-to-justify-why-printed-photos-with-splotched-paint-over-them-are-a-sublime-experience, defining what is art and what isn’t, well… that just feels like it should already be helplessly extinct.
As with most things, it will be in the middle ground that we will find headway in this new purview. And most importantly, it will be in the midst of the spastic dance between both forces that the true upward spiral phoenix of art will rise from the ashes, stronger than ever, from the ill condition it finds itself in.