Last October, during NFT.NYC, I had the chance to briefly escape the crypto-crazed social-food-drink-hug whirlwind to go see Ian Cheng’s “Life After Bob” (2021), a procedurally generated film about a 10-year-old girl, Chalice, who struggled to part ways with the personal AI, Bob, which her father implanted in her. The film was itself put together by an AI in real time, meaning that what you were watching was not a video but a program, a simulation. No two viewings of the film were the same.
As the AI collaged these scenes together live, a vibrant world of illusion in low-poly, ‘toon-shaded 3D graphics, and anime-esque characters unfurled in front of my eyes, presenting an exuberant, colorful virtual environment that absorbed me into an electric sopor. Watching this film was an enigmatic, sublime experience. It was a wavering journey where one had to marry the dance of visual intensity with accepting a fallible transition through uncertainty: The plot became quite hard to follow at times, and it was never clear whether there was a traditional narrative arc that was supposed to be broken or if it was a mosaic of sequential abstraction. The fact that the narrative was being constructed by a pseudo-autonomous entity in real time inflicted an inescapable meditation on the possibilities and roles of technology in contemporary creative production, especially in the context of AIs creating increasingly canny images with tools like dall-e and midjourney. I just went along for the ride, and my experience watching the film was one of transcendence. Life after Life After Bob was not the same. I hadn’t had an experience like that in years. I haven’t had an experience like that since. Unfortunately, these kinds of moments of pure transcendental encounter via the experience of art are becoming rarer and rarer.
Within the hectic turbulence of the contemporary world, there emerges a context in which institutions (political, artistic, organizational) are by and large proving insufficient in generating a framework for the protection and trust of the individual. This is a worldwide phenomenon, and maybe it’s because of this unprotection and uncertainty that there is a tendency to revert back to traditional religiosity and esoteric belief. In this context, it’s hard to find areas left in daily life in which transcendence is possible. Art may very well be the last one.
Throughout history we have been reliant on these institutions for general, even spiritual structure, and within them we have given shape to structures for the development of ideas and experience of the most rigorous, unyielding standards and protocols. Art is the one place where it all breaks down, where rules don’t apply and research is meant to be outside the bounds of what we know, thus making it a viable arena for transcendent encounters of a very unique, unconventional kind. Art is the area of the placid dream of inquest, the peaceful sojourn alongside the uncertain. It’s supposed to be a playground, an eternal sandbox of the ever-enchanted, where new things can be spawned in the ways of old, like magical myth and ritual rebirth, and old things can be seen in the eyes of the new. Otherwise, what is it there for?
The reason my story of the sublime in relation to Life After Bob is relevant is because this experience took place in New York. I live in Buenos Aires, and after almost five years of following Cheng’s work, it was the first time I could even come close to their work in full form (outside some trailers on Vimeo here and there). It was literally not available anywhere else. I have no idea when I will be able to see Cheng’s work again. This is a recurrent situation in my art consumption routine. I get a teaser of someone’s work which I’m intrigued by, then try to find more online, only to fail miserably. You have to be in London to see their work. You have to fly to Dubai to access their latest screening. You have to be in Venice to be able to see the Venice Biennale. This sounds obvious, but when you are quite literally (quite physically) at the periphery of most world-scale art events, it becomes hard to consume art that is relevant to you, especially if you are into niche art styles that are not that developed in your local scene.
Physical art is physically bound, and that makes the Traditional Art World’s (TAW) starting-point quite niche already. The language that is normally used to speak about art, and the display mechanisms don’t help either. The TAW does not generally put forth the best effort towards wide accessibility. And it makes sense: a democratized availability would conspire against a very basal need for scarcity and exclusivity. This is where NFTs and the metaverse could function as a good supplement, an antagonist to the face of inaccessibility.
One of the things I found most noteworthy when I was first introduced to cryptoart is the fact that the artworks were both available for everyone to experience, and at the same time scarce for someone to own, allowing for the support of its creator while not limiting the access to the work itself: Anyone could still experience it. This is colossal in terms of potential experimentation, and the TAW generally needs to let this possibility sink in. My experience is that, almost two years after the mainstream explosion of NFTs, most people in traditional circles still fail to grasp this concept. This is also quite diametrically opposed to one of the TAW’s known dynamics, in which someone picks an artwork from an auction house’s catalog, buys it over the phone, and sends it to a vault in some tax haven to never be seen again.
… But enough opposition. Cryptoart and the TAW push in opposite directions enough, and there’s much reconciliation to be formulated. The metaverse can be a great way for the TAW to make its output more available. It can be an immense playground for the aforementioned sandbox to expand infinitely. In digital identities we can be genderless, languageless, limitless in the shape our identities can take, and within a metaverse, no geographical bounds restrain the experiences we can have to certain central locations. Granted, there exist technical limitations still, and the metaverse is quite young, buggy and clunky. But it’s getting there fast.
Not too long ago, doing therapy over video-conference sounded ludacris. Only two years later it doesn’t sound so crazy. Then why not do the same with exhibitions? I’m not saying metaverse artworks should replace physical art; generally, that’s nonsense. And the physical experience has aspects that are still quite irreplaceable. But there is a great amalgam to be explored between physical art exhibition and distribution and metaverse experiences and NFTs. I think of experiments like König Galerie’s app that displays different experimental virtual exhibitions, developed by the artists closely together with the curators (like Anika Meier) and the organization itself. One of the exhibitions, Exercise In Hopeless Nostalgia by artist Thomas Webb, is being developed into a full blown web3 metaverse. Curated by Kenny Schachter, the exhibition NFTism: No Fear in Trying featured its own metaverse version in Arium where you could 3D-video chat with the artists while exploring the over 100 works on display in the physical exhibition that was taking place in London. There have been many successful experiments in the combination of physical experiences and metaverse explorations. I say let’s keep developing these avenues, the cohesion can only get better as we get together and experiment further.
Beyond the market’s intricate choreographies, beyond the feral speculation, beyond the degen nightmares, the overpricing, the fizz, the foam, the bubble, the clicky language, the ups and downs, the tugs and pulls, beyond this moment of uncertainty, of fear, of doubt, beyond the opportunist, the short-termer, the manipulator, beyond all the ugly art, the simian and the snake, beyond the rivalry, the wrong interpretations, the false accusations, the intermediaries, the real and the fake, the copycats, the lions and the liars, beyond the numbers and the characters, beyond the good and the evil… beyond it all hide the tools that will inflict critical damage on the legacy institutions’ hankering to resist change. Let’s keep exploring them together.
Those of us who have been exposed to the positive potential within web3 instruments have a responsibility to use these tools wisely, now more than ever, to push the space forward in a sensible direction, to think long term, to focus and refocus on what really matters and especially, to keep art’s capability of transcendence above all other considerations.
***All unattributed artwork was created for this piece by the writer, Julian Brangold.
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