Opinion: The future of digital art should not be paved with memes of trolls and trash

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But when we have opened these doors in the past, there was usually an active debate about what could spill over through them – Education or entertainment? Propaganda or perspective? – and the emergence of a kind of regulation, whether governmental or self-imposed, as a result. In the digital age, these conversations have been actively blocked by the silicon-clad champions of short-term growth rather than long-term sustainability, as summed up in this quote from John Carmack, CTO of Meta’s Oculus division, shortly after the big announcement of Facebook’s New Goal: “I don’t buy into the idea of ​​the precautionary principle where it’s like, if there’s a risk of something going wrong, we should take mitigation measures for that, ”he said. “If there is harm demonstrated, then yes, we should try to mitigate the harm and balance it against the value created… but I generally think the right thing to do is to wait for the harm to occur. actually manifests. ” (He acknowledged that “some people might say it’s callous or irresponsible.”)
“(Every new technology) is an opportunity to start from a clean slate,” says Drue Kataoka, an artist and advocate who has openly expressed the need to tackle the deeply woven vein of racism and misogyny in digital culture. . “We missed the mark on mobile. We missed the mark on social media. And it looks like we risked missing the mark on the metaverse, on cryptocurrency – and on NFTs too.”
NFTs, or “Non-fungible Tokens”, are digital content that has been cryptographically recorded on decentralized databases called blockchains, ensuring that their origin and transfer history are immutable; even if the underlying content – a JPEG, a video clip, a piece of code – can be copied, the blockchain record to which it is linked serves as a permanent certification of the authenticity of the token, which allows its purchase, held and sold as digital assets. NFTs have been heralded as the start of a new era of creative freedom and empowerment, providing digital artisans with a way to create and sell unique works like their conventional media brethren.
The door is open. But what has spread so far has not been stimulating, complex, or even beautiful: much of NFT’s first wave consisted of CGI’s tributes to cryptocurrency, crass cartoons, and randomly generated pixel art, peeping memes and sophomoric grotesques. The shallow content has not held back their market value, in part due to the rising value of the cryptocurrency. Previously obscure artists like Mike Winklemann – better known by his artist name Beeple – sold NFT artwork at prices rivaling the physical masterpieces of Claude Monet, Willem de Kooning, and Pablo Picasso, primarily to collectors sitting on hordes of hugely inflated digital. cash.
As art critic Jason Farago bitched in The New York Times after venerable auction house Christie’s hammered the JPEG collage of Beeple EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, “a crypto whale known only by the pseudonym Metakovan paid $ 69 million (with fees) for some indiscriminately stitched together images of cartoon monsters, disgusting gags, and a nursing Donald Trump, suddenly making this computer illustrator the third best-selling living artist . ”
Other critics have pointed out that Beeple’s groundbreaking work is not just in questionable taste. Images imbued with surprising misogyny and occasional racism are embedded in it. This is less of an exception than the rule for NFT’s creative landscape, which is open to everyone, but has in practice aggregated an early adoption base that is decidedly libertarian and informed by a troll aesthetic unrepentant in its aesthetic. .
It should come as no surprise that space has been a magnet for controversy. Actor Elijah Wood found himself accused of supporting a racist designer when he touted an NFT set he purchased from a designer, George Trosley, whose work in the 1970s was found to have valued the KKK and regularly describes the abuse and lynching of blacks. (Drink quickly eliminated of NFTs, donated the proceeds to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Black Lives Matter and spoke out against racism, while Trosley categorically denied being a hate-maker and said his political and satirical cartoons had been released. context while committing to take an anti-racism course. “in an attempt to understand the point of view of others.”)
Trosley’s “Jungle Freaks” series was loosely inspired by the NFT collection that became the most popular on the planet: The Bored Ape Yacht Club, a set of 10,000 cartoon primates wearing fun hats whose total value – based on the millions of dollars paid for individual series tokens – now exceeds $ 1 billion. As detailed by Samantha Hissong for Rolling Stone, the partnership that led to this simian fortune arose from a simple invitation from pseudonymous co-founder Gargamel to his also pseudonymous partner Goner: “I’m throwing money into some stupid shit here. . Do you want to do this with me? ”
Which sums up the central problem of the current reality of NFTs, an ecosystem teeming with outright speculators, scammers and con artists, gleefully motivated by the common goal of “throwing money at some stupid shit” and hopefully get more money out of it. It’s a credo that encourages crass commercialism and elevates viscerally exploitative labor that attracts eye and mass attention (what Beeple calls on his website “cray cray crap”).

But Kataoka is quick to assert that the problem isn’t with these technologies themselves. “The technology is neither inherently moral nor inherently bad,” she said. “The problem is with us. We have to ask ourselves if we are building something that will have longevity? Are we culturally generous to the future? I am troubled by the short-sighted and selfish ways in which we use a lot of these technologies. . We trample on the future in so many different ways. Our goal should not be short term profit, but lasting value.

Originally a classically trained master of the traditional Japanese art of sumi-e brush painting, Kataoka has dedicated his career to blurring the lines between art, technology and social change. She created huge interactive sculptures from mirrors, 3D printed metal and fiber optics, and was one of the first artist in residence for Google’s VR creativity platform.
Her aesthetic experiment in general relativity, Up !, was featured in the first weightless exhibition on the International Space Station, and she developed a distributed “digital wallpaper” application for mobile devices that encouraged users to reach out. remotely and connect with thousands of people. others around the world, highlighting the power of technology to create empathetic bridges between people separated by time and space.

“I believe that art has to act on an emotional, philosophical, cerebral level, and today, on a technological level,” she says. “It is the dream of artists since the cave paintings at Lascaux to provide an immersive experience for people. Michelangelo was trying to do this when he painted the Sistine Chapel. I think today he would definitely be working in virtual reality. “

Understandably, she believes the path to the future of digital art shouldn’t be paved with troll memes and trash. This week, she unveiled an NFT project that she created in partnership with ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm’s immersive experience studio. “Will your heart pass the test?” Is a 3D work of art inspired by the ancient Egyptian text, The Book of the Dead. “When a person dies, before entering the afterlife, he has to go through a series of tests and obstacles,” Kataoka explained. “And the final test is when the heart of the deceased person is placed on a scale and weighed against a feather.”

According to the myth, if your heart is lighter than a feather, you go to heaven; if he is weighed down by sin, he is immediately swallowed up by a demonic monster. For Kataoka, the symbolism of the heart and the “feather of truth” was appropriate for our present time of moral reckoning, as generations of racial and sexist inequity and injustice are finally being addressed in the public sphere – but perhaps. also be for the NFT landscape itself, as it seeks to tip the scales back from its emphasis on feel cheap and money fast, and in a more sustainable, life-affirming direction.

“We have to see these same kinds of conversations happening around these disruptive technologies,” she said. “But instead, there is a tendency to push selfishness above sight and nurture the lowest and darkest instincts in society in order to make money from them.”

“Will your heart pass the test?” Will be auctioned off by the contemporary art auction house Phillips between December 8 and 15, and all proceeds from the sale will be split between two charities: the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and #StopAAPIHate.

The price is likely to be a fraction of the huge amount paid for Beeple’s groundbreaking NFT sale. But for Kataoka and his collaborators, the money is not as important as showing that there is a different path for NFTs, and for the other massive disruptions that are cropping up around us: “Technology cannot move forward in this. the void. It must involve artists, cultural historians, philosophers, social activists, not at a superficial level, but at a fundamental level; not just after the fact, but from the start. And that’s because the question we have to come back to is, how will our time be remembered in a hundred, a thousand years? Take a look at the things we are making today. Is this why we want to be known in the future? Will we even want to remember?



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