Artistic gestures help us feel nice, but transforming the world will take inventive agility as a way of life, whoever we are. That and getting over your eco shames fast to share your workings out.
Images: Motif 999, Pointcloud (Venice), Pointcloud (Trang): recent CryptoArt releases by Joanie Lemercier.
It is, this week, 31 years since Tim Berners Lee proposed a little idea. One with a few creative possibilities. In a memo entitled: Information Management: A Proposal, he pictured The Grid – a data highway of light cycles and…
Wait. That was Tron.
..he pictured The Mesh – an information system linking individual creators and thinkers like never before.
As David Mattin puts it in New World, Same Humans #55: “This was internet of individual creators, blogs, and email: a space outside existing structures of power, in which we would be free to forge new ways of seeing, and new modes of life.”
The dream of the Open Web.
Yeah. That’s not quite how it worked out, is it.
As Mattin goes on: “Today, the topography of the web is nothing as Berners-Lee imagined. Instead of a boundless array of individual creators, a handful of advertising-funded megaplatforms dominate our experience of the internet. The megaplatforms don’t prioritise noble ideas about the free exchange of information. Rather, they build walled gardens intended to capture, retain, and monetise as much attention as possible.”
Many of the tech explorers of the early web sounded like they were thinking more like artists than engineers when they were starting out. Utopian, inclusive, playful. Obviously mostly white and male. Although the first PC virus by Pakistani brothers Amjad Farooq Alvi and Basit Farooq Alvi in 1986 did cause a global stir when it was discovered, and while it was purely a business venture to try to disrupt illegal copying of their software on floppies, it still has the ring of art stunt about it in the retelling today.
But in the badlands of the more 1980s Neuromancer-type view of the future, the one we’re all living in, thinking like an artist can still get you outside the box, looking for ways to punk systemic destruction.
Right up until you’re immediately back in the box making the problem worse. As artist Joanie Lemercier excruciatingly discovered.
From progressive creativity back to hidden costs.
The easy story to tell generally in sustainability is of faceless, evil robot entities eating all the good in the world. The harder story to tell is how vulnerable to unforeseen consequences are even our best intentions as individuals, everywhere within that system. Including disruptive artists.
Because no sooner had Crypto Art become a thing, it had become an almost instantly terrible thing.
As Joanie Lemercier explains with exacting dismay, her hopes to be part of a whole new way of navigating the art world – a much more sustainable and egalitarian one – ran aground fast.
“The CryptoArt market is a new way for artists to distribute digital works to collectors: often digital images and video files. The blockchain technology provides secure ownership, traceability, artist commission on second market sales and a thriving market place, with platforms emerging quickly: Nifty Gateway, SuperRare, MakersPlace.” she says.
“It’s a vibrant and welcoming community, a place to discuss the works with collectors, and it brings a lot of benefits that the Art market fails to provide.”
Lovely. I’m in. So are you, obviously. But.
“With no travel involved, and a mostly digital distribution, this new model looks like it has the potential to become a sustainable practice for artists. That’s until you understand the magnitude of the environmental impacts of the current blockchain: It is a DISASTER.”
She decided to cancel her latest expo drop because of the sheer amount of energy that crypto uses.
You may well have heard of crypto mining – a process of hunting for new cryptocurrency tokens like Bitcoins through blocks of transaction ledgers that prove their authenticity. Using the blessed internet of truth that is the Blockchain. Built on a process that involves a lot more computer work checking all those blocks in the first place, cryptomining is a task so gamified and so complex, Bitcoin mining in particular: ‘“can now only be done with large scale processing ‘farms’ – multiple specialised GPUs working in tandem on a 24-hour basis” as IT Pro puts it.
The crypto art market hunts not for normal currencies but for Non Fungible Tokens. Which isn’t something you can find at the chemist but rather is unique or limited-run items – works in a gallery, if you like. But NFTs too have people using the same blockchain-hunting principles as any other mining. Built on an algorithm called Proof Of Work.
“Ingeniously idiotic, by design, the PoW algorithm is very compute intensive” says Memo Atken in an excellent deep dive into the whole issue. “The original cryptocurrency Bitcoin , is estimated to have annual energy consumption in the range 80–120 TWh which is about ~0.45% of the world’s entire electricity production”
Which left Joanie Lemercier with a stark realisation, after having moved so much of her practice into crypto art to try to save the planet.
“It turns out my release of six CryptoArt works consumed in ten seconds more electricity than the entire studio over the past two years.”
That, ah… yeah.
From glitzy exhibition back to honest sketchbook.
The problem is, as Joanie explains in her testimony to being part of this, the energy we use is still mostly created by fossil fuels. And this is badder than bad, because dumb ol’ you and I don’t think about that process.
“The energy production infrastructure is out of our sight, and we often have the feeling that electricity is abundant, limitless and we disregard its impact. This concept is best described by Rob Nixon as “Slow Violence“” she says.
As Robert Linthicum’s excellent animation put out through Fully Charged explains clearly, still powering everything fossil is fantastically wasteful, dirty, inefficient and destructive. But we’re all part of this in the real world, outside our better intentions.
Online, the blockchain may well be one practical way back to the more open web. But the techbro fanperson outlook that fawns over it may be much more uncomfortably akin than many creative thinkers would like to the perspective that engineered the whole modern world in crisis today – in packets of isolated concerns. Because no virtual endeavour exists without connection to soil, minerals, markets, cultures and energy. Duh.
Joanie thinks there are both automated and conscious ways for crypto art to reduce the problem – much better transparency and best human practice from its platforms, NFT scaling software introduced to take all the bits of transactions you don’t need ledgering out of the blockchain, and more deliberate choices to do the same at human speed.
She has, in short, refused to settle. For online success or for green shame. With such conviction, she sacrificed a heap of work put into an expo launch – an undoubtedly gutting decision. Instead, she has continued exploring – with passion, conviction and discomfort. Thinking rather like an artist. Boldly turning her cock-ups into new material, and a different story.
As with everything tech, the issue isn’t tech. The issue isn’t currently-esoteric concepts like crypto art. It’s us. Still thinking disconnectedly in separate moments, living in our own little worlds a little too much of our time.
Perhaps the more sustainable human value chain is mined much more richly by seeing everything as an ongoing creative exploration, not a series of sales or acquisitions.
After all, every artist knows – those glitzy expos or valuable NFTs certainly are significant nodes of achievement, reputation and revenue, as well as nice feeling bits of theatre. But they’re really just emergences from a never-ending sketchbook of working out your thinking, your feelings, your life – and trying to make honest sense of the world you find yourself in.
What other way is there to transform the world for the better?
Read Joanie Lemercier’s excellent testimony: The problem with crypto art >
Read Memo Atken’s thorough explaination of crypto and energy: The unreasonable ecological cost of crypto art >
And don’t be ashamed to do your basics homework:
Watch: The dirty truth about combustion engine vehicles on Fully Charged >