There’s no shortage of conversations both on and off Clubhouse about NFTs and cryptoart. But the most urgent, and the most interesting, are not the conversations about money. Rather, they are the ones around professional and creative freedom, access and inclusion. The cryptoverse is a promised utopia, an antidote to the ivory tower, market-driven art world with its well-documented preference for work made by white men. Cryptoart is meant to be a setting where every viewer/collector is on a level playing field regardless of fluency in artspeak, and every artist is properly rewarded for their talents. So far though, it hasn’t fully turned out that way.
The NFT boom has indeed elevated the practices of artists who have been working in the digital, internet and blockchain spaces for years. There is no doubt that an ocean of pluralistic voices, in terms of medium at least, have entered the chat. Also, some artists have been able to succeed financially, even wildly so, outside the gallery realm; most have not. There have also been concerning trends replicating the racial and gender biases endemic in the traditional art world and importing them into this new space. This risks repeating mistakes of the past, the kind with which the traditional art world is currently reckoning.
The good news is that a number of women, non-binary and racially diverse artists are currently raising their voices and lifting up ideas in a move to protect a truly international and inclusive community. This summer’s L.A. Art Show will feature a curated section of women NFT artists, and the show’s overall theme is Women in Technology. On Clubhouse alone you will find dozens of thoughtful and high-spirited rooms, forums and talks across clubs like Women’s NFT Art Coven, NFT Women, NFT Asian Women, Femme NFTs, CryptoVixens, Crypto Basel, the excellent Women in NFTs rooms in the NFTS Club, and The Art Club. Similar groups exist to address issues of race in this space as well; there’s a lot to be learned in rooms like Black NFT Art, AfricanNFTCommunity, BLK NFT Network, Black BitClout, and Crypto Noir.
One of the most high-profile practitioners in this dimension has been Lady PheOnix, a peripatetic curator and producer across cultural spaces from Crypto Fashion Week to Crypto Sports Week and Crypto Basel. She and her collaborators at Universe Contemporary are always looking for the progressive edge of the art and technology conversation. She’s the curator of the current show and sale at Christie’s, Proof of Sovereignty; her team has created a special IRL and AR hybrid environment debuting at Tribeca Film Festival Immersive, working with designers, coders, artists and the family of Breonna Taylor to build the joyful Breonna’s Garden memorial project; and she’s working on a Women in NFTs Conference in L.A. and on Clubhouse for around July 1.
The Weekly caught up with Lady Phe in L.A. to talk about how ideas of freedom and community can be embedded into the fabric of this new galaxy within the cryptoverse, how the projects happening this month all fit into that scheme of equity, and what it was like creating the Christie’s show. “Proof of Sovereignty was Christie’s first curated foray into the NFT space, and among other things, the artists keep 100% of the hammer price,” she says, which is all but unheard of. So, does she think that’s a long-term investment in the NFT market on the part of Christie’s? Some kind of trust-building exercise with the community? Or is it just them learning some of the (many) ways that working with living artists in the primary market is different from what they usually do? “They were founded in 1766, remember, so they might be slow to change,” she says. “But there are some there who are eager for that change. We are all learning together right now, across multiple generations and different understandings of what art means, of what it even is,” she says of the experience. “Anyway, it’s an exciting show!”
Proof of Sovereignty features artists like IX Shells, Kesh, Josie Bellini, Tamiko Thiel, Auriea Harvey and Coin Artist leading the charge along with familiar names like Jenny Holzer, Nam June Paik, Guy Marshall, Urs Fischer and the House of Gucci. Its diversity of age, race, and gender is embodied and manifested, and the works themselves cohere around an aesthetic and narrative taste for the wondrous, the gorgeous, the surreal and the sublime. But it’s also an enacted format, as the title implies, of empowerment for the artists. “This is the first of many,” she says, “and everyone will be richly blessed by reciprocity.”
“Breonna’s Garden is the most fulfilling in some ways,” says Lady Phe. Described as “a framework for veneration,” the project uses augmented reality to create a lush and spiritual space, a living garden in bloom, replete with the music and butterflies Breonna loved. The project started when Lady Phe connected with Ju’Niyah Palmer, Breonna’s sister, at first just thinking about a web-based site, a place for an uplifting tribute to Breonna expressed in beauty and joy. Soon they were collaborating with Creative Director and renowned new media artist Sutu (of the EyeJack app) because the role of technology in this in both the experience and in access to it is so essential. Premiering this month in New York at Tribeca Film Festival Immersive, the AR experience will soon be available to everyone everywhere.
The planned Women in NFTs conference is also a hybrid event, happening both on CH and in Los Angeles, for several days right around July 1st. Acclaimed curator and activist Mashonda Tifrere from ArtLeadHER is opening a physical gallery on Sunset on that date, and while the summit’s first week will be on CH, the rest will be at the space. Lady Phe believes that idea shares like this are essential moving forward. “It’s about consciously designing the world, doing it once, doing it right the first time,” and learning from our mistakes so we won’t have to repeat them and fix it later. Even writer Jerry Saltz can see the problem, recently remarking in a talk that, “Right now it’s an unfortunately male world, with some really strange behavior. Otherwise, it’s a tremendous open beautiful world.”
Nancy Baker Cahill is a renowned artist working in the AR/VR/XR/NFT space who is also well-grounded in traditional physical mediums and site-specificity — and equally suspicious of the dominance of the tech-bro dynamic in the present conversation. She produces works “located” or elsewise meaningfully tethered to geolocations, as well as portable deployable works that live in the shared immersive space of your phone — such as via her platform, 4thWallApp. Her most recent project Contract Killers deftly weaves all these threads together in a single series — one whose story, technology, imagery, actions, locations, social histories, physical objects, and even the smart contracts and cryptocurrency itself, are all part of the gestalt. As it interrogates the infrastructure of self-determinism, the end goal is equity.
“The rule of capitalism is that you have to prove you can make money so you can get the microphone so you can start to truly subvert effectively. Right now that’s the only path, but we can still choose to protect the vulnerable,” says Cahill. Contract Killers exists not only as a template for how to mint work independent of large, increasingly coroportized publishing platforms, one enabling the artist to exert more control over the carbon imprint of their work and the currency. The piece is also a conceptual emblem decrying all manner of broken social contracts. “What is the promise of the blockchain when there are no consequences for breaking contracts? We are used to stiffing artists, and we all want that to stop, but how do DAO and accountability interact, beyond the honor system?”
Cahill uses the currency Tezos because of its drastically reduced carbon footprint, and for her that’s about accountability. By insisting on it for all her transactions, the platforms are forced to accommodate her and, as she says, “that’s how you change things.” Like Bob Dylan demanding his royalties, in standing up for oneself, one can change the paradigm for everyone. “I have a critical engagement with the tools of technology,” Cahill says. “But I believe in the potential of this unexplored territory. The promise has so far failed to be enacted, however, and ultimately, partaking in a broken system isn’t the point. We require a true dismantling. What does the art world need more than real change?”