“The capability of regulating everything from a distance, including work from home and, of course, consumption, play, social relations, and leisure…relegates [everything] to total uselessness, desuetude and near obscenity.”
—Jean Baudrillard, “The Ecstasy of Communication” 1988
By MIKE MAIZELS, August 2021
IT’S JUST A FIGURE OF SPEECH
In early July, Virgil Abloh’s aptly titled Figures of Speech retrospective opened at the ICA Boston, its third and final museum venue in the US. This is not an exhibition review, or at least that entirely. Think of it as an in-crowd remix made from two disparate but thematically interconnected pieces.
Within the halls of the ICA, the overall effect of the show might be best described as a kind of minimalist cacophony. Abloh’s presented works—which span fashion, sculpture, photography and other heterogenous media—are almost all uniformly strong, bearing out a level of concept and craft that will surprise no one familiar with polymathic designer. It is, however, difficult to trace the progression of an oeuvre tracing through backgrounds for DJ sets, racks of clothes arranged as untouchable prêt à porter, album designs figured as relief and environmental sculpture, conceptualist doormats, and a Solo cup strewn halfpipe. Maybe the lack of resolution is part of the point. It’s certainly characteristic of the genre.
Among the subtlest and most intriguing of Abloh’s pieces are those that foreground text isolated only by spare graphic elements. A massive, cadmium red (projector red?) wall, reminiscent of a Barnett Newman with a forgotten zip, occupies the largest wall of the exhibition, as sans serif while text pulses slowly across the bottom. The phrases, as one pithily reminds us, might simply constitute “bad conceptual art.” The Baldessari streak—humorous phrases puncturing the insular seriousness of high Conceptualism—runs palpably through Abloh’s work, with text-based paintings and floor mats drawing on the visual vocabulary of Joseph Kosuth and On Kawara.
But important differences lurk in the subtle turns of phrase. This earlier generation of text-as-idea-as-text makers had largely been concerned with the unsteady oscillation of existence—to what extent is a dictionary definition “real” like the object it defines? Abloh’s work shifts the domain from ontology to economics. In the explicit style of Kawara’s Date Paintings, which diaristically register the artist’s presence on a given date, Abloh gives us “Advertise Here,” with a phone number to call. Instead of presence or deferral in the plane of Being, Abloh serves ambiguity between critical and complicit in the commerce machine.
Warhol was here is scrawled on the bathroom wall. Koons wanted to sign it too, but Basquiat texted him the wrong address.
Probably the strongest work in the exhibition is the floor mat, executed in this same vein, that greets visitors soon after entering. In spare text strikingly reminiscent of one of Kosuth’s xerographs, Abloh explains the genesis of his early streetwear brand Pyrex: “It’s highly possible that Pyrex simply bought a bunch of Rugby flannels, slapped "PYREX 23" on the back, and re-sold them for an astonishing markup of about 700%.” Or rather, recycles an explanation. The specific phrase on the carpet is pulled from a critical barb that appeared in Complex magazine back in 2013—but one that reviewer Jian Deleon invented so as to attribute it to Abloh’s misguided detractors. Invention as citation, citation as misdirection. Reflections, reveals and reversals that are just less than completely transparent.
Indeed, the Pyrex metaphor is worthy of a longer exegesis than can be permitted in the scope of the present article. At one level, the term alludes to the use of durable lab wear in the drug trade. Pyrex as a tempered glass crucible in which exorbitant, toxic value is created from purity adulterated with industrial additives. Somewhere there lurks the old saw about painting as a kind of fire-born alchemy.
Yves Klein may or may not be at the party, getting loaded off of Benzedrine in the back.
But the off-clear glass points in subtler directions: both forwards to the Off-White brand through which Abloh rose to prominence in the worlds of fashion, art and music, and backwards towards the arch precedent of Duchamp. Duchamp is no doubt an important character for Abloh; the designer has characterized the original Don Dada as his “lawyer” in a now-famous talk at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2017. A urinal or bicycle wheel can hallowed be on a pedestal, a circulating image of the Mona Lisa detoured and made to mean its opposite. Similarly, the base materials of industrial goods, and the ubiquitous likenesses of Old Masterworks, can be remixed into something that derives its value by setting these disparate worlds against one another. As he is found of remarking, Abloh likes to adhere to his rule of modifications by 3% or less.
The quasi-transparency of Pyrex, the “barely anything” addition of stenciled spray-paint, and a host of other <3% alterations all bear out bear out striking resonance with Duchamp’s concept of the infra-thin, an ontological or aesthetic category of asymptotic non-existence. As in much of his highly elliptical theorizing, the human body and its proximal energy-sphere form prime examples. The infra-thin, Duchamp informs us, can be illustrated by the warmth of a recently vacated seat, or the intimate friction of velvet trouser legs. Or maybe the difference between a used flannel shirt, and one with a “23” spray-painted on the back. Or maybe, pushing just a bit further, between a sweatshirt with a screen-printed painting, and the same shirt recognized as the likeness of as Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ, one of art history’s most dramatic examples of ping-ponging across the membrane between life and death.
At its core, if something inherently without dimension can be said to have a core, the infra-thin is the palpable, yet ineffable transformation affected by momentary juxtaposition. An ass warming a seat, a urinal in a gallery, life and death, thrift store vintage transubstantiated into bespoke luxury. Key to all such phase changes is the role of direct participation and belief. Those who were there become witnesses, knitted together by the strands of shared miracle. The community is expanded as others are selectively brought into the fold, pending their affirmation and proclamation of the miracle to which they have become second order latecomers. Or, depending on your marketing segmentation, early adopters at scale.
Indeed, the role of technology platforms in all of this forms a striking absence, both in the exhibition itself and its mostly glowing critical reception. Indeed, the Abloh phenomenon is impossible to understand without reference to epochal rise of “direct to consumer” commerce—Off White, which launched in 2013, in many ways presaged the rise of digitally native consumer goods companies such as Warby Parker, Bonobos, Casper Mattresses and others, who leveraged social media to communicate with and sell directly to end consumers. In bypassing the rent-collecting, gatekeeping, status-quo-preserving legacy retailers, these disruptive brands fundamentally altered the balance of power between creative visionaries, capital holders and enterprise companies. Low barriers to entry and the possibility of dramatically outsized returned attracted a wash of outside venture investment, creating what effectively became a retail OS on the “hardware” of social media.
Remix becomes repost, retweet and retarget.
Arguably, the interpretive disconnect between Off Whitism and platform economics emerges from what seem to be their opposing polarities. The latter is predicated on what Jean Baudrillard termed the “ecstasy of communication”—the ersatz sensation of weightlessness from sharing content through a globalized network seemingly devoid of friction. Information, we are told, wants to be free, with the infra-effort of the like button, the infra-time of the direct message, and the micron depth of the digital frame all enacting the phantasy of universal presence and connection.
But the much-anticipated Global Village turned out to be anything but a digital plenitude—the clotting of constant interconnectivity has served to draw the world closer together but also to make it more interchangeable and de-differentiated. What had recently seemed to be the authenticity of lived experience becomes perpetually mediated by endlessly exchanging electronic signs. Decades before COVID, Baudrillard himself warned of the “total uselessness” and “near obscenity” of a life lived by teleconnection—Zoom fatigue refigured as existential dread.
The same sense of permanent, enervated displaced-ness is captured in Abloh installation You Are Always in the Wrong Place, a glowing neon reminder casting above Abloh-dressed, leeched-white models hovering across the infra-thin boundary between fashionable mannequins and George Segal’s lost plaster souls. All places have become the wrong place, as every place has been turned into every other place and thereby collapsed into a kind of no-place.
Yet the remixing that is characteristic of Abloh—triangulating between high conceptual art, boundary-pushing hip hop and haute couture—has placemaking deeply tied into DNA. One needs physical and conceptual access to parse such codes: the t-shirt from the obscure band entailed a familiarity with a music scene. Until the music could be streamed, and the shirts ordered through a frictionless, e-Commerce experience. Even the code-making has faced technological disruption. The kind of erudition performed by Abloh (and Basquiat) can no longer live as a source of strategic differentiation in the era of Wikipedia and RedBubble. The Dada collage cum neo-avantgarde pastiche cum millennial street art remix no longer faces the resistance of obscurity, the overcoming of which did so much to generate meaning.
This over-easy deterritorialization of the platform world disguises still darker truths. What had appeared to many as a more level playing field—one that opened the door to disruption from new voices beyond the well-regulated machines of high art and luxury fashion—has been discovered to always revert back to its own ad-supported optimization. Disenchantment comes not merely from the vanishing of time and space, but from the realization of having been manipulated. Recommendation engines, trolling Reddits, and a host of other noxious feedforward mechanisms power the always-on cash register of the platform, driving engagement and renting our attention to the highest auctioned bidder. Where once there was the Culture Industry, we now face the Culture Algorithm.
I warned you, bemoans Richard Serra flicking a cigarette off the edge of the balcony.
Though his rise to prominence cannot be understood apart from these dynamics, Abloh’s work gestures in a different direction. The specificity of his practice, and the community cultivated around it, points to an emergent ethos that seeks to sidestep the Platforms themselves as merely the latest iteration of rent-collecting gatekeepers. Indeed, the rise of a new generation of remix technologies seem poised not only to empower creators as self-contained economic ecosystems but also to rescue the truth of community-led specificity from the false ideology of omnichannel-driven dematerialization. Artmaking is again being figured as a placemaking medium, but a kind of place radically different from what has come before…
BECOMING MINT CONDITION
This is not an NFT think-piece, or at least that entirely. This is certainly not a fawning survey of the medium, nor a hand-wringing op-ed about resale prices. Shifting the historical frame quickly reveals the folly of these approaches. To think of Warhol primarily as a “screen-print virtuoso” or a “Sothebethan” is to miss the point entirely. The Greenberg frame can only take you so far.
For the purposes of the present discussion, the present interest in the intersection of blockchain X collectible art can be traced to the emergence of the Cryptopunks in 2017, which utilized important innovations built into the recently released Ethereum blockchain. While the OG Bitcoin had introduced purely digital currency to the world, Ethereum created the possibility for a wide array of electronic exchanges, including “smart contracts” that would hold payment in virtual escrow during the delivery of goods or services.
Specific use cases for contracts necessitated the minting of de novo cryptocurrencies, except that these were not fully exchangeable. A contract for the delivery of cement, or the deed to a house, lacks the inherent fungibility of money. While a dollar from me is equivalent to four quarters from you, one-off coins attached to a rich cache of information are more like the tokens issued by video arcades of days gone by. Walter Benjamin has held up the circular progression of the joint to go off on an arcades-token-toking tangent. Murakami stirs impatiently.
Although the affordances of non-fungible token have presented themselves as potential solutions to problems of uniqueness and permanence that have hampered the institutional acceptance of born-digital artwork, the creative NFT phenomenon began not in the art world per se, but in the perpendicular universe of the “collectible.” In all likelihood, future investigation of this space will think more critically about the practices of acquisition, display, preservation and dispossession across these two worlds. “Start with Bourdieu” the dissertation advisors will say. It may turn out to be a distinction without a difference, or at least one without meaning to the communities of practice.
The Cryptopunks themselves bear this out. Created by artist/engineers Matt Hall and John Watkinson, the Punks were a set of 10,000 unique characters with algorithmically determined attributes. Shades of soup cans and Sol LeWitt’s permutational cubic sculptures linger in the background, but the work was explicitly influenced by the “cyber-punk” ethos of writers and futurists such as William Gibson and Phillip K. Dick. While they were initially issued for free—claimable by anyone with an Ethereum-compatible wallet—the secondary market has soared, with one particularly rare alien character fetching nearly $12M at Sotheby’s in June. Broke my own rule on historiography by price tag.
These ostensibly blue-chip electronic artworks (if such a thing can be truly said to exist) served as a foundational precedent for the more recent profusion of limited-edition digital projects. While Hall and Watkinson’s work brought broader awareness to the NFT medium, their work also catalyzed the broad adoption of the ERC-721 standard, which provides unique identifiers as well as a rule-gated means to transfer ownership of each individual token.
The ability to legislate how the new owners could interact with their acquisition has opened up a plethora of interesting use cases. Some have argued for the 721 NFT as a means of realizing the dream of arch-Conceptual dealer Seth Siegelaub, who envisioned a system in which artists retained fractional ownership of their works, and object sale was reimagined into something more like the long-term lease of an idea. Others focused their creative energy directly onto the economics of creation and resale. A tour de force example here is Unisocks, which uses advanced tools from quantitative finance to promote a liquid market of tokens with an (ideally) constantly rising price. The detour through bonding curves and other automated market makers ends with a Dada-esque twist. Each token is redeemable for one of a limited-edition pair of haute couture socks.
But perhaps the most tantalizing use involves the recent experiments in which might best be characterized as “permissioned belonging.” In the parallel world of music, producers have begun to use NFTs not only to monetize their creativity but also to digitally distribute means of community belonging. Earlier this year, Germany-based 808 Mafia member PVLACE sold out a series of 350 NFTs, each of which contained a unique musical composition attended by full digital rights. These smart contract tokens entitling the purchaser to sample the track into their own electronic or rap production.
In some ways, this represents a straightforward digital transformation of the received processes of creating in-studio rap music, but it importantly offers a broadening of creative access to what remains a largely closed cultural world. Indeed, PVLACE’s role as German producer in an elite hip hop collective, one tightly identified with an underground counterculture in Atlanta, seems almost to have presaged such a possibility in which communities of co-creation draw boundaries along lines of digital belonging rather than physical proximity.
But by far the most significant experiment in this space to date has been the ascendant Bored Ape Yacht Club, an eponymous character from which is superimposed atop of the Abloh-Caravaggio work at the top of this article. BYAC, as it is known to aficionados, launched to the public at the end of April this past year, retreading over the Cryptopunks formula of 10,000 characters with algorithmically created attributes. But Bored Ape quickly distinguished itself through an intentional approach to community building. Key to the BYAC strategy has been a public, milestone-marked development roadmap, one that generated significant interest from prospective participants. Priced modestly to attract a wide range of initial participants, the offering sold out in a matter of days, with characters now trading on Opensea for tens of thousands of dollars. Strike two.
Bored Ape’s unique community affordances, the details of which are not fully available to outsiders, include access to special chat rooms, Discord servers and the proprietary Bathroom, a collaborative virtual graffiti wall. A critical function of a Caravaggio-laden sweatshirt is to have somewhere to wear it—to be recognized for one’s sophistication and disposable income. Discord channels and digital bathrooms comprise zone of digital sociality with close parallels to the more analog “scenes” underpinning the worlds of conceptual art, Parisian fashion or Chicago Drill music. Except that such places no longer have a zip code.
And like just like its ancient ancestors in general purpose societies such as the Elks or Masons, Bored Ape fosters ways of reframing sociability as vector for philanthropy. In June, the BYAC leadership air dropped the Bored Ape Kennel Club, a companion dog NFT for every ape character. While the new digital pets were issued gratis to every current member, the Club kept a percentage of the token’s resale value to donate it animal welfare organizations. Since its inception just a few months ago, BYAC claims to have donated over $700K in Ethereum to nonprofits including Friends of Bonobos, Orangutan Outreach and Wright Way Rescue.
But perhaps the most significant perk of community is the granting of IP rights to Bored Ape members. Bored Ape also grants IP rights to its community of NFT holders. After “aping in,” token owners are encouraged to create associated projects, ranging from physical fashion to virtual assets based on their unique ape. While similar in functionality to the 808 offering, the BYAC remix opportunity points to a powerful collision between an emergent mode of sociality and new means of recombinant creativity, a collision which brings us back to promise surveyed in the Abloh retrospective.
Call it a community-exclusive remix.
Since the beginnings of the Ethereum blockchain, its advocates have touted the technology’s revolutionary potential in precisely this direction. Ethereum smart contracts promise to unlock new levels of digital “composability”—a software term meant to indicate the inter-operability of independently created pieces. Smart contract clauses can be interwoven into one another, creating an algorithmic tissue capable of supporting vast, digitally-decentralized ecosystems.
While present projects are likely just scratching the surface of the creative, as well as economic, possibilities of this new modality, the pace of experimentation is beginning to palpably accelerate. Culture industry A listers ranging from Mila Kunis to Tom Brady have recent launched multimillion dollar NFT projects that tease capabilities for interactions unimageable in traditional, center-out media distribution. Further horizon experiments that leverage live actors and crowd coordination are being undertaken by researchers at the University of Chicago and MIT. Economists and sociologists would both note that when the costs of long-distance coordination suddenly fall, almost everything else changes in the wake.
But to borrow a phrase from Bruno Latour, nothing “draws together” quite like innovation in the financial realm, and it may be that the NFT medium is merely the most recent iteration of a pattern coeval innovation across the spheres of art and money. The heights of Renaissance achievement with (mobile) paint on canvas cannot be understood apart from the new fungibility of paper money, nor the mobility made possibly by other epochal canvas use case—sail cloth for the armadas of colonial exploitation. The rise of bourgeoise capitalism created both the possibility for, and the contents of, Impressionist painting. As I detailed in a forthcoming book, the tax-dodging machinations of American nouveau riche fostered the creation of Pop art as a medium of multiples, while the derivative speculation of 1980s Wall Street conditioned the contemporaneous return of expressionist painting. Platform economics are, as of this writing, radically altering the trajectory of emerging and mid-career artists. Money remains a universal medium.
The big open question might then be about the larger fate of cryptocurrency itself, tied in with the COVID world. The international growth of digital payments accelerated many orders of magnitude within the last decade, with the total value of all currencies now estimated to stand around $1T. By some estimates, as much as .02% of the entire US COVID stimulus package was pumped directly into Bitcoin exchanges. An old adage in banking, which might be applied to art, hold that anything that grows like a weed probably is one.
Indeed, the crypto-world is well acquainted with stomach-churning volatility, with the waning of stimulus checks and Chinese crackdowns having taken nearly $700B out of the global market, just under half of its value, since the middle of May. Strikingly, “blue chip” digital artworks like the Cryptopunks are now to serving a similar financial function as their analog ancestors—assets to hold as hedges against the currency fluctuations. And composable NFT remixes promise to create still stranger monsters. Just as financial transactions can be fractionally resold through derivative “strips” or “tranches” that cut across entire asset classes, NFT artworks and permissions could be similarly securitized and recirculated, creating a system of shadow banking for digital creativity.
Citations and repurposing, from the open web, to the ad financed platform to the community-supported digital enclave. Permission-based digital securities as neo-neo-avant-garde remix. Strange new places to wear freshly minted virtual clothes. Figures of speech refigured as figures of code. WM
Mike Maizels is an art historian and curator whose work brings the visual arts into productive collision with a broad range of disciplinary histories and potential futures. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which examines the intersecting histories of "minimalism" in the visual arts and music. He has also published widely on topics ranging from Kanye West to the philosophy of mathematics. His curatorial have included the first museum retrospective given to a videogame maker and led to the discovery of hidden CIA training camps. He is currently a visiting researcher at the metaLAB, an idea foundry and knowledge-design lab at Harvard University.view all articles from this author