Businesses could capitalize on protests
Russian artist Petr Davydchenko made what he claims to be the first NFT performance art in February. According to an article in The art journal, in a digital recording, Davydtchenko “eats a live bat in front of the European Parliament in Brussels”.
An NFT, or non-fungible token, is a digital record of participation in the ownership of a digital object (but not copyright), often a work of art. This digital certificate says, “I paid for this special thing, now it’s mine!”
Learn more: What are NFTs and why do people pay millions for them?
The art journal reports that Davydchenko’s “performance” had only received a single 2.5 enveloped ethereum offer, valued at $ 3,848 when the story was released on February 26. But the profits of some NFTs run into the millions.
Davydchenko said the event was a protest against pharmaceutical companies. Davydchenko’s performance art refers to vaccines and COVID-19.
As a specialist in communication and performance studies, what interests me is how NFTs are radically redesigning parts of the art world by raising questions about how artists, the audience and critics include performance, criticism or protest in a capitalist society.
We need to keep an ear open not only to questions about authenticity and who benefits, but also what these types of transactions mean to us as viewers, virtual audience members, and human beings.
Wartime performance monitoring
NFT art may seem new and bizarre, but can rightly be seen as part of a long tradition of performance art and cultural criticism.
In response to the trauma of World War I, the Dada art movement formed in Zurich, Switzerland. In 1916, performance artist Hugo Ball wrote a Dada manifesto.
Ball’s work used absurd words and costumes, as he put it, to challenge “the rationalized language of modernity,” emblematic of the “agony and agony” of the era. In the 1920s, performers continued to reflect on the violence observed in Europe and the excesses of the Roaring Twenties.
In the 1960s and 1970s the Fluxus movement, a revival of many Dadaist ideas, used performance in the same way. A pioneering example of this is Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece”, first performed in Kyoto, Japan, in 1964.
Ono sat on a stage and asked the audience to use scissors to remove parts of her clothes. Ono told Reuters 39 years after the first performance that she made the performance “against ageism, against racism, against sexism and against violence”. Some critics have suggested that the performance was also a commentary on the conflict in Vietnam.
Role of the spectator, buyer
“Cut Piece” and similar performances are vivid moments of shared human connection and meaning that are specific to time and place. One can imagine that the meanings understood by viewers of “Cut Piece” in Japan 1964 or France 2003 could differ for many reasons.
Such site-specific resonances are disputed when a performance is symbolized as NFT. Is Davydtchenko’s “performance” eating the bat? Or is it the NFT pointing to a recording of this event? Or is the performance of potential bidders or critics engaging in a public debate about the devouring of an animal whose species is associated with COVID-19? Davydchenko’s work raises questions about what is bought and sold, and the role of the buyer or the viewer.
Performance studies pioneer Peggy Phelan argued that performance can disrupt and challenge the capitalist art market that creates value often disconnected from the relationships between artists and audiences. From a Marxist point of view, this disconnected “extra” meaning is “surplus value”, the value that exceeds the money a worker earns for his work.
Changing the aura of art
Phelan’s analysis suggests how NFTs follow a tradition of art criticism that has questioned moral responsibility in the age of mass production and consumption of mass media.
In 1936, the German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, of the famous Frankfurt School of Social Research, applied Marxist ideas about how workers in the manufacturing sector moved away from their work and applied them to art.
Performance scholar Philip Auslander explained how, in a capitalist society, alienation means that “workers become commodities when they have to sell their alienated labor in the market, just as other commodities are sold.”
Benjamin suggested the new media technologies “debunked” art. The reproduction of the art called into question what he called his “aura”, or his unique originality. The reproduction of visual art, for example, by printing, freed it from the precious spaces of the museum and made it accessible to the lower classes. No one would need to travel anymore to see the Mona Lisa: she was now available on a postcard or a t-shirt.
The problem, Benjamin argued, is that “aura” is also a relation to meaning. Once the “aura” is gone, works of art can be reused for purely economic and even dangerously political ends. Indeed, the Nazis used symbols, works of art and mass brands to legitimize and circulate fascist ideologies.
Read more: How the Nazis turned the swastika into a symbol of hatred
Cultural critic Jonathan Beller notes that Benjamin recognized how new media could be used to preserve and advance ancient “values of worship” such as genius, mystery and authenticity, and understood that fascism was advancing “l ‘introduction of aesthetics into political life’ to promote mass entertainment. So far, we haven’t seen an NFT directly associated with fascism, but as Beller notes, through the NFTs, political manipulation through art might be a possibility.
Instability of dissent?
These questions of manipulation can be explored by considering Davydchenko’s performance.
Is Davydchenko’s bat eating an act of political dissent, as he claims, or just a cruel event? What about those who pay for it or share the advertising: have they been manipulated to amplify something grotesque?
There is also the issue of the stability of the digital work itself. Linking an NFT to a digital file is based solely on trust and potentially error-prone technology. But what if stolen NFTs could surface in strange places? The site Hyperallergic reports that some buyers claim that “the hacks exposed flaws in technology often touted as a foolproof ownership record.” Could NFTs become the next forms of cybercrime or hate crimes, akin to the degradation of a public fresco or the bombing of a performance?
When companies seek to capitalize
Applying cultural performances and critiques to NFTs helps us consider how political resistance can be either amplified or co-opted when companies seek to capitalize on political actions.
As I wrote before, Nike quickly sought to capitalize on NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 kneeling during the US National Anthem, an act of protest against police brutality and racial injustice. Could Nike be looking to sell the “knee,” or other similar acts, as NFT?
When we see the prices that some pay for NFT art, we have to assume that more performance will circulate as NFT, and consider what that may mean for the possibilities of performance and political dissent.