By RAINA MEHLER June, 2023
FAILSAFE is a conceptual performance piece by artists OONA and SamJ that focuses on gender identity, social constructs, and collective behavior. It aims to spark meaningful conversations about progress, the blockchain, and the role the body plays between the two. The artwork behind FAILSAFE consists of two NFTS: a transparent briefcase with an etching of a cryptocurrency contract address, and a Terms of Sale PDF. OONA, the anonymous conceptual performance artist, wears a mask and sunglasses to conceal her identity. SamJ Studios, on the other hand, concentrates on self-expression, communication, and navigating societal boundaries and labels. FAILSAFE is their first collaboration in the realm of performance art.
The live auction and performance took place at the Avalanche Summit II, an annual conference in Barcelona. Avalanche is a decentralized blockchain platform with smart contract functionality, using AVAX is its native cryptocurrency. OONA and SamJ stood out at the conference by wearing beautiful silk red dresses designed by Odair from DAIR, while most attendees opted for casual attire or the typical "tech bro" look. The moment the artists entered the first event, they attracted attention, sparked conversations, and raised questions among the conference attendees. The performance culminated in the sale of FAILSAFE via a live Dutch auction, where the artwork's value dropped by a percentage as the timed bidding decreased.
As the auction commenced, people gathered around a circular white stage, where SamJ sat elegantly while OONA walked around the stage perimeter, carrying the transparent briefcase, and asking the audience, "What are your tokens worth?"
OONA, being an anonymous woman, and SamJ, a transwoman, received different reactions from the audience. Some were curious about OONA's identity and repeatedly asked about her mask and if she would take it off. This objectification of the body parallels the audience's reaction to Yoko Ono's performance piece called Cut Piece, where viewers were encouraged to cut off pieces of her clothing. Some viewers were embarrassed or uncomfortable to do it; others were bold or even aggressive, cutting off her bra straps to reveal more of Ono’s skin. In FAILSAFE, the artists’ bodies and the blockchain serve as the medium.
OONA and SamJ draw inspiration from renowned art movements like Dadaism, Conceptual Art, Fluxus Art, and Performance Art while pushing boundaries through pioneering technology. They shed light on the inequities in society, encouraging critical examination of social issues, body politics, and diversity. FAILSAFE challenges traditional notions of art ownership and value, emphasizing the artistic concept over aesthetics. It raises questions about the performer, the viewer, and what is for sale. By utilizing cutting-edge technology, the artwork prompts viewers to question the assigned value, our behavior towards the unknown or misunderstood, and how commodities are perceived. FAILSAFE represents the evolution of performance art, emphasizing collective experiences and artists' self-expression. It highlights the significance of conceptual art in fostering meaningful dialogues, promoting gender equity, diversification, and decentralized thought leadership.
FAILSAFE holds great importance for both artists, as it marks their debut on the Avalanche network while achieving the highest-selling record on the Avalanche blockchain to date. It sold for the equivalent of 40,000 USD at the time, via Campfire, an art and community-focused marketplace. This acquisition and high price point represent an investment in the future of art and culture while marking a significant milestone for the Avalanche blockchain and NFT ecosystem at large. Currently, male artists dominate the Web3 space in terms of sales and collectors. In 2021, Grimes was the highest-selling female artist, grossing around $8 million. In contrast, the infamous Beeple sale of Everydays: The First 5000 Days sold for 69.9 million at Christie's Auction. Just days ago, Dmitri Cherniak's The Goose NFT sold at Sotheby's Auction for $6.2 million. This stark disparity in sales, buyers, and the decentralized ethos highlights the existing paradox in the blockchain world. However, FAILSAFE not only points out this imbalance but also exemplifies confidence in a blockchain ecosystem that fosters inclusivity, imagination, and thought-provoking conversations. The artists felt secure in creating and instigating experiences or dialogues, whether provocative, controversial, idiosyncratic, or societal critiques.
The term "FAILSAFE," in its literal definition, refers to a secondary system of safety that prevents endangering lives and protects access and data. It relates to the core principles of blockchain technology, ensuring security and preventing breaches. In the context of this artwork, it raises questions about technology while also playing with the idea that the artwork itself serves as a failsafe—a functional artwork or a sound investment. Additionally, the performance prompts us to consider how we can create a failsafe environment for all, including marginalized communities like LGBTQ+ individuals, BIPOC, and female-identifying women. Failure is an inevitable part of life, leading to the development of failsafes. In the age of posthumanism, post-reality, post-internet, and a post-pandemic world, FAILSAFE serves as a pivotal artwork that sheds light on cultural failures. It urges us to decide whether we want to be passive witnesses or active leaders, guiding humanity toward a truly inclusive, equitable, and safe environment for all in both the physical and digital realms. WM
Raina Marie currently serves as a Director at Pace Gallery and is part of Pace Verso, the gallery’s Web3 hub. She has worked at Pace for over a decade, working closely with interdisciplinary artist collectives and specializing in media arts. Raina Marie is also an independent curator, collector, and writer, working with physical and digital art. She writes and speaks globally about the art market, art history, media arts, and Web3.view all articles from this author