Tag Archives: Dmitry Strakovsky

Arts

WTF Are NFTs Doing in My Art Gallery?!

Publishers Note- The art world was shocked in March when Christie’s Auction House sold a non-fungible token (NFT) of a piece, “Everydays: The First 5000 Days”, by Mike Winkelman – the digital artist known as Beeple – for over $69,000,000. We’ve asked Dmitry (Dima) Strakovsky, Professor of Art Intermedia at the University of Kentucky School of Art and Visual Studies to explain it all to us. In this article Dima first does some explaining then engages in a dialogue with Jonathan Hale, an artist who works with many traditional media as well as new medias, such as 3D modeling and 3D printing. Hale also teaches at Northern Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky Universities.

NFTs are in the news. And, like with most things art-related, it’s the news only when something gets sold for a ridiculous amount of money. It’s tough to fight the temptation to comment on the Emperor’s New Clothes but we will endeavor to move beyond the surface and offer some thoughts on what this might mean rather than question if a particular work of art is REALLY worth the dollar$ paid? The answer to the latter is always “no” but… someone is willing to spend the money and it is usually a signal that something interesting and new is happening in the cultural sector.

Before we proceed let’s do a quick technical overview. So, what is an NFT? Non-fungible token. “Non-fungible” simply means unique. The token part is a little harder to explain and has to do with a feature of some cryptocurrencies, most notably Etherium, that allows for contracts to be embedded into the public record of each transaction. This public record, more commonly referred to as “public ledger,” is implemented via blockchain. What is blockchain, you ask? Here is a great, albeit pretty technical, explanation. Each time you buy a work of art, your transaction gets recorded to the blockchain and anyone in the world can confirm your ownership rights. In order to encode the transaction onto the blockchain a complex cryptographic equation has to be solved. “Miners” from all over the world essentially compete to be the first to solve the equation using their own hardware, so each record is backed up by proof that work has been done, the solution was provided and a miner gets paid a small fee for their trouble.

Of course, any conversation about NFTs can’t really be separated from the dramatic crypto crashes of the past months. There are a variety of reasons for these, although there is still quite a bit of optimism in the sector, but one points to perhaps a legitimate critique of the space – the environmental impact of crypto-mining. It is a topic that is (surprise) more complex than “crypto is bad for the environment” and we will try to address it with a bit of nuance below. This tweet from Elon Musk is considered a central trigger (ergo environmental focus) but a bigger issue is a crackdown on cryptocurrencies in China which is both a home of the largest number of crypto-mining operations in the world and a country trying to develop its own digital currency.

To really start unpacking the conversation around NFTs, at this point we will switch into a dialogue mode. This mirrors some of our own private conversations on the topic conducted via chat apps when both of us were trying to come to grips with the NFT explosion and how we felt about this; and frankly, share knowledge about what we knew about the core tech and art world reactions to it. Jonathan Hale is coming to the conversation with significantly more knowledge than most in the crypto space. He has mined Etherium before and currently has several NFTs on the market. Dima has a lot less of a direct experience and is interested in probing the NFT conversation from a tech-savy art world insider angle. The conversation is edited down for brevity and clarity but definitely hits the highlights from the several hours we spent in our extended dialog.

Dima: What has surprised you the most about NFT cultural conversation? I know for me, it definitely is the pushback from the more established art forces that view the tokens as a pure expression of the market that does not hold any of the aura of a “real” art object. This was condensed for me in a recent tweet by Jerry Saltz, who, to be fair, has quickly moved on to have a much more of a nuanced position.

Jonathan: If you get into the NFT space, what is selling the most is work that meets almost all those criteria. If you follow Beeple (one of the highest-selling artists in the space,) his work has that. He’s been creating his own mythology for over 13 years.

Dima: So he didn’t just pop in out of nowhere?

Jonathan: Oh, no. If you get into Beeple, he’s a very interesting character. He’s been doing a picture, an image, every day for a long while. You should definitely take a peek at some of the stuff. For example, he did a series of political figures – Trump and Hillary, and they had tubes coming out of them and they’re grotesque. He’s creating this mythology, this language, and every one of his works had been building upon that for about 13 years. Not in the NFT space but just online in general. It’s just really interesting to see that he’s finally at this point.

Dima: Gotcha. So, he’s been developing this over a period of time. I assume mostly on social media. Posts mostly to Twitter?

Jonathan: I believe he has an Instagram as well but he also does a lot of sponsored work for companies. I know he’s done stuff for Adobe. He has built a pretty significant presence on the internet. Followers – the more you have, the more likely your art is going to be sold.

Dima: So he’s built up a number of followers on a couple of different platforms and then he’s able to commercialize it. From what you’re saying, and this is really interesting, there is already kind of an “aura” at work here. Except this is sort of an aura for digital natives. It’s not the same type that, per Saltz’s tweet, we would associate, for example, with a fertility spirit.

Jonathan: If you are looking for a fertility spirit, if you’re looking for something to, you know, put your faith in, it’s out there. Someone has made it for you.

A really exciting thing is, some of the artists actually have the NFTs working with tangible objects. So you pay for the NFT, Etherium is spent and a contract created, and when you buy from them, the contract is written to the blockchain and the artist will send you a real object. Some other people will sell you a high resolution image and a link to a form to put in your address so they can send them a print or a painting. So, you can have both physical and digital versions of these objects. There can also be something magical about that.

Dima: Well… Saltz is intentionally making a rather hyperbolic statement. It’s Twitter and all. But there is an interesting subtext here; the fine arts world has this boogeyman that constantly pops up – the market. And NFT is a perfect embodiment of this particular boogeyman – it’s a contract, a market spirit divorced from an actual product.

I can think of many arguments for and against the current commercial gallery-dominated system. But I think a lot of the conversation around the traditional art market and the aura can be summed up the following way. There is this magical thing that’s floating in the realm of an art object that very reluctantly agrees to play in the market. The market co-opts the magical qualities of an art object through sales, and also exerts this kind of alien, extrinsic kind of power on what’s being made within this “pure” world of art production.

Jonathan: Yeah, but I think, if we talk about the market, the purest forms of selling, specially time-based and video art, is NFT. I think there’s so much potential here that the art world needs to jump in on.

Dima: Let’s look at that because I think you’re making a really good case for, let’s say, performance-based work or film. For example, if we take Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, I don’t know if I should admit it on record, but I’ve never seen it in the quote unquote legal way. Always, bootlegs.

Jonathan: Who has?

Dima:  There’s something really powerful here because NFT is a contract. And we can structure this contract in a variety of different ways. This can make the whole issue of public presentation rights and provenance of a digital file significantly easier to track and will open the work to much greater public sharing.

Within the fine arts proper there’s been a lot of different kinds of contract-as-an-artwork type movements. Seth Siegelaub’s sales contract work comes to mind immediately. He specifically targeted resale value of a work, and we should get to resale a bit later.  Another, more contemporary example is someone like Tino Sehgal with his prohibition of documentation of his work: the only thing sold is an agreement to “perform” his pieces a certain way. So, we already have this way of representing the work that’s pretty much a part of the art world vocabulary. I think there are a lot of really interesting possibilities here.

Let’s go to the mechanics of how artworks are sold using NFTs.

Jonathan:  Most of the NFT sites make you first go through a process to prove you are the artist. But before you’re a verified user, you have to go in and create at least one work. You’re not gonna sell that until you are verified and you don’t know if you’re going to be and it costs money to mint an object. Gas fees.

Dima: Yeah, can you explain that.

Jonathan: So, anytime you want to create an NFT, no matter if it is video, a gif or a sound file, it has to be minted creating a transaction on the blockchain and a corresponding contract and that contract requires you to put a little bit of Etherium down.

The problem is that a little bit of Etherium was a few dollars, you know, like last year and this year it grew by crazy multiples. I think right now, last time I looked, it was $60 per transaction. And of course, the prices fluctuate. If the network has more transactions on it, the price goes up; if you want to get your transaction done quickly, you pay more. The more people in line, the more I have to pay. I’ve gone low on the gas fees before and had it not even go through a week later and had to cancel it. The queue never took my money, whoever processes it gets that cut of the transaction, you know, so it got sent back to me but I lost $3.

There’s definitely a barrier of entry purely in terms of money, and there’s a barrier of entry for just the knowledge of how to use Etherium and to how to set this up.

Dima: So, the services that you’re using put that burden, the burden of transcending these barriers, on the artist?

Jonathan: Yes, and most of these places have fees. You put something up and you sell it, they’ll take 2.5% (or something like that) to facilitate the sale to a collector. How many of the NFT sites are you familiar with?

Dima: Not that many. I mean I sort of started digging and then I was like these [expletive] are multiplying.

Jonathan: The really big ones are SuperRare, Foundation, Rarible, and OpenSee.

Dima: Got it. So switching again. One of the biggest criticism right now that we’re seeing is environmental criticism. This is, of course, and issue with cryptocurrencies but NFP folks are getting the hate right now in particular.

Jonathan: Yeah. There are “kill lists” around – it’s more of a targeted lists for people to target artists that are big in NFT. Twitter people were making these lists and being like, ”Okay, go and you know, harass these people.” And people are like getting death threats, you know. I don’t think there’s anything that’s really come of it. It’s more just like internet crusaders. Yeah, they sit at their computers watching YouTube videos which costs so much more energy than NFT’s could ever hope to, but that’s another story for another day… The real problem with crypto is no matter, if there’s a million transactions or one, there are these miners doing proof of work: their computers are running, and looking through all of these blocks and making sure everything’s correct. If all the computers say yes, then you know the block is added, and then they start mining again and looking for more blocks. There does not have to be this much computing power to run that, you know, to run that set of data. But the miners have the computers turned on. And regardless of wherever or not you put an NFT into the mix, they are gonna keep mining, the same amount of power is gonna be used.

I’ve seen some people put up figures of like – minting one NFT is like someone in Europe that uses power for four days or something like that.

Dima: But this is an aggregate from all over the world.

Jonathan: Exactly. You can’t break it down like that. The train analogy works out really well. You have a train, the train is pumping out diesel, it’s moving nonstop. If you’re on it or not, it’s still going. Yeah, there are other things going on. On, for example, Etherium, it’s not just NFT’s, you know there’re other transactions, there are a lot of things happening. But the computers are gonna be mining until they eventually change over to proof of stake instead of proof of work. 

Proof of work requires computers, proof of stake just requires a computer with X amount of coins or tokens on there to just say you’re a stakeholder.

It’s based on staking the coins. As an Etherium user I have to put in a pretty large number of coins to begin staking. What does that mean? Well you’ve tied that Etherium up and you can’t use it. You can’t spend it. You have a stake in making sure that the blockchain is correct, because if your computer gets chosen to validate the information and it’s off some of your coins get burned. However, once it is validated you get paid, you get a little bit of coins for your effort, you get part of the gas fees that were used for that transaction. If I have a minimal stake (just a few coins) there’s a very small chance of me getting chosen to validate but I’m still going to get some residuals. I still get small amounts sent to me even if I don’t validate. But if let’s say I am somebody who has $100 worth versus $10,000 stake, the likelihood of them getting chosen and validating is much much greater than my likelihood of getting chosen because they have more stake in the game. Now there’s always a small chance you could still get chosen and get like a huge payday. But…

Dima: Got it. So at that point it’s just a random chance of you getting paid out.

Jonathan: Yeah, exactly. And that also like, increases the security of it because some people will try to slip in. They’ll give a false block. But with proof of stake it behooves you not to do that because you will lose a lot of coins if it comes back because you’re wrong.

Dima: Finally let’s talk about resale. The art world proper has been talking about resale forever.

If the artist does their work well – their collectors’ holdings go up in value. There have been some effort to create contracts that will reflect some sort of resale fee that’s going back to the artists, but it doesn’t seem like anyone’s been able to create and enforce them. What’s kind of exciting about what’s going on with tokenized art is that that’s built into the whole NFT ecosystem.

Jonathan: Yes. And so, whenever I’m minting an NFT I am asked a few questions. Like, how much you’re gonna charge for this? What’s your edition number? I can have one or a million. Then I get asked, how much percentage back do you wanna get every time this is transferred to someone else? Every time someone buys it, how much do you want to get? And I think, by default it’s something like 10% but you could go higher.

Dima: Yeah, I can totally see a video artists benefiting greatly from this right. Essentially, at this point you are selling a file. And every single time you get this resale you can actually track this and that smart contract moves with the work.

To sort of get back to the the critique of this whole thing, you can definitely dismiss it as “naked capitalism.” And if you are an artist, or a collector, or some sort of cultural entity that is not particularly interested in reaffirming the capitalist framework, then it’s really probably not something that you want to participate in. However, if you have a different conception of how you want to live your life that’s a really interesting, and really game-changing option.

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Arts

End of the Beginning UMGram/Sent 5-4-2020

Photo credit: Theresa Bautista

Reflections on Stillness:  How Dance Continues to Move Through the Pandemic
Stephanie Harris, who is on the faculty of the Dance program at the University of Kentucky, explores a paradox of our COVID era; how the stillness of our quarantined lives allows for the expression of deeper insights through movement. Using improvisational techniques that she has been studying and researching, Harris works with her students to explore and express deeper truths within themselves through dance.

Artist Tony Tasset standing next to his Mood Sculpture, installed near the Student Center, but relocated this past winter to the front of the UK Art Museum. Photograph by Alan Rideout

Stuart Horodner: The Art World After COVID
The Director of the University of Kentucky Art Museum misses the public interface that is so much a part of any museum’s life. After COVID, surviving arts organizations will face an environment that needs and demands clarification of relevance and mission, and that ascertains what can be accomplished with assurance and excellence when faced with new limits on resources.

Image courtesy of Dmitry Strakovsky

Dmitry Strakovsky: The Art World After COVID – The Last Days of the [Centralized] Art World.
Strakovsky is hardly mourning the art world that Jerry Saltz describes in his piece in Vulture. With little room for technological innovation or small galleries and a constantly escalating “arms race”, that gallery art world was unsustainable with its limited audience of extremely wealthy patrons. Maybe there is hope for a reinvented, accessible, and decentralized visual art world after COVID.

KY Author Debut: Bobi Conn
An idyllic setting in Eastern Kentucky, but author Bobi Conn’s debut memoir recounts a harrowing childhood home with an abusive father, and her escape from that place filled with trauma and violence. Tom Martin interviews the author for WEKU’s Eastern Standard.

ETC.,

While we are all surely hoping for a breakthrough in both the development of treatments and vaccines, it is apparent that we are just in the first phase of dealing with this deadly virus. Despite noisy and threatening protests, polling consistently shows that most Americans understand this. How the arts and culture community is coping with the pandemic and its ravages is an important story we will continue to cover. Our ongoing series of brief essays, “The Art World After COVID”, is one way we are engaging in this needed conversation. Look for more of these provocative essays on our website and highlighted in future newsletters. We encourage you to send us your responses and feedback to these essays and more at UM@under-main.com. We will have other COVID-related coverage going forward, including interviews with folks in different roles in the arts sector.

Meanwhile, we have highlighted in past newsletters and on our website arts relief efforts emanating from Louisville and Lexington, and we encourage you to support those efforts. Watch for a big announcement this week from the Artist Relief Trust . UnderMain’s Christine Huskisson is an A.R.T. steering committee participant and says, “This initiative is exemplary as a broad-based coalition from across the state of Kentucky; arts advocates from multiple disciplines continue to raise funds for distribution to Kentucky artists and musicians and I am proud to call UnderMain a partner in the effort.” If you would like more information or are considering a donation, feel free to contact Christine at christine@under-main.com.

A shout-out to our friends at the Lexington-focused CivicLex. In addition to their COVID resource page, they have been holding an excellent series of well-attended online digital town halls, including one pertaining to the arts and culture sector. They are currently uploading the recordings of the town halls to their website.

Bobi Conn (With permission of the author)

Looking ahead, we are going to be increasing our book-related content. Tom Martin’s interview for WEKU’s Eastern Standard of author Bobi Conn is a terrific introduction to the kind of book coverage we hope to be able to offer. A pandemic is a perfect time to catch up on your reading. We will focus on books with a Kentucky-connection, due to authorship or Kentucky-relevant content.

Photo image: Musei Vaticani

Sorry about the cancellation of this summer’s trip to the continent. We know Italy was on the itinerary and surely a visit to the Vatican in Rome was on the schedule. The Vatican has one of the world’s great collections of art housed in several museums. You can take virtual tours of some of the museums on the Musei Vaticani website. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is, of course, a highlight of any visit to the Vatican. Here is a link to a decent tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel.

Detail of Sistine Chapel

As we acclimate to our changed lives, take a moment to think about all those helping hands that are working to keep us healthy and safe. If you are able, consider donating to community relief efforts that are helping others. We are all in this together.

You can sign up to receive our UMGram newsletters hot off the press in your email inbox on any page of our website.

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Arts

Emily Ludwig Shaffer at Institute 193

Approaching Institute 193 on North Limestone in Lexington, I peer through the storefront window to make my first encounter with Emily Ludwig Shaffer’s paintings. A New York resident with deep roots in Lexington, Kentucky, Ludwig Shaffer treats us to meticulously rendered scenes which engage with visual elements traditionally relegated to second-class citizenship, or else, to the merely “decorative.” A braid adorns a side of a building. A topiary wall pushes forth, and seemingly through, a canvas surface. Plants, in various arrangements, populate the works. As I step into the space, the architecture of the work presents itself. The painted surfaces, at once, acknowledge their illusionistic nature by offering flat color passages and push us into masterfully modeled surreal spaces, wherein the difference between interior and exterior constructions oscillate and meld.

There are no clear protagonists within these subtle dreamscapes, no clue to privilege in any one of their quiet actors. When we are finally presented with the human form, it is that of two monochromatic grey, female sculptures, with arms outstretched in a gesture of refusal—the “No-No dance.” This term, coined by the artist, contributes to the titles of the painting and the show “From the Ha-Ha Wall Comes the No-No Dance” joined with reference to a French garden design feature.

From The Ha-Ha Wall Comes The No-No Dance, 2019
Oil on canvas
72 x 65 inches

Ha-ha is a wall structure that acts as a physical separator without breaking the visual flow of the landscape. Aside from grounding the references to gardens and greenery, which abound in Ludwig Shaffer’s work, this term allows us to speak about “control” as one of the themes explored on the painted surface. Much like the Ha-Ha wall’s ability to assert a boundary while preserving a certain viewing and traversing of the landscape, many of the painted elements govern the viewer’s eye without announcing their presence. This runs the gamut from more literal renderings of walls and hedges within the painted naturescape, to utilizing the physical dimensions of the canvas to interrupt the flow of the composition. Here, meticulously-rendered realism strains against the two-dimensional surface. These compositions effuse a careful balance, presenting elements which both challenge and control one another. This facilitates a productive tension, drawing this viewer back into the painted surfaces in an attempt to discern the visual flows suggested within them.

Another aspect of the works on view that echos control and tension in an intriguing way is Ludwig Shaffer’s treatment of the female body. It is denied specific personhood and, as mentioned earlier, does not function as a protagonist of any narrative suggested in the paintings. It is an object, just like any other within the space of the composition, and in a visual culture that often both centers and objectifies its female subjects, this visual strategy provides an understated yet quite empowering alternative.

R & R & R, 2019
Acrylic on paper
22.5 x 30 inches

When preparing to write about the work, I quickly scanned through a number of historical French garden images. The most famous of these, the Gardens of Versailles, somewhat ironically bill themselves within the two-dimensional space of the webpage as, “The art of perspective.” I find this to be a really interesting point of entry into Ludwig Shaffer’s paintings due to the visual complexity of the interior and exterior spaces that she renders within her work. Although the architectural edges are carefully taped off and delivered to the viewer in a pristine semblance, the actual geometry is compromised: the viewer experiences an amalgam of possible perspective points within a single composition. This signals a very careful and intentional game played by the artist, one full of intriguing visual nuance.

Up Out In, 2019
Oil on canvas
72 x 96 inches

During the exhibition opening, I spoke briefly with Ludwig Shaffer, about possible links to Giotto paintings or perhaps Uccello: visual spaces where the technique of perspective was explored but not equally controlled over the whole of the composition by painters steeped in iconographic traditions. The artist brought up another early source of inspiration, Roman and Greek sarcophagi friezes, where the viewers encounter implied interior spaces which travel between the physicality of carved stone and the illusion of perspective. Upon further communication, Ludwig Shaffer brought up another exciting line of visual influence, Persian miniatures; illustrative works on paper that emerged in the region after the Mongol conquest in the 13th century and subsequent introduction of Chinese scroll painting tradition. Presented within album or book format, the miniatures allow for a completely different way to organize the composition that eschews standard perspective practices of Western painting. These constitute truly intriguing points of departure for the exploration of the painted surfaces, particularly in the art world that is often more concerned with referencing its own mercurial trends, than maintaining deeply-rooted dialogs with the past.

Giotto, Feast of Herod
Fresco, 1320
110 x 177 inches
[source: https://www.wikiart.org/en/giotto/feast-of-herod-1320 ]

The Spy Zambur Brings Mahiya to the City of Tawariq, Folio from a Hamzanama (Book of Hamza),ca. 1570
Attributed to Kesav Das
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on cloth; mounted on paper
29 1/8 x 22 1/2 inches
[source: Met collection https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/447743]

 

It is important to mention, at this point, another aspect of the show, the collaboration with the Michler Family Florists and Lexington-based architect & designer Jason Scroggin, who teaches at the University of Kentucky School of Architecture. Scroggin’s studio designed and built a custom bench seat with planters, which in addition to function, complemented the show by extending the motif of architectural space. This was a feature that many a gallery visitor appreciated during the opening and one that, perhaps, suggested the potential domestic settings the paintings could go on to inhabit in their future lives.

Overall, this is a show that presents us with smart, carefully-balanced, painted constructions. They are not loud. They do not demand our attention. But if attention is given, they are like good books; reminding us how easy it is to lose oneself within tightly crafted layers full of visual games, historical allusions, tactile enjoyment, and nuance.

Emily Ludwig Shaffer: From the Ha-Ha Wall Comes the No-No Dance, runs thru June 8, 2019, at Institute 193 in Lexington.

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