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03 May 2023

Antonio Geusa: How do we conceptualise NFT?

by Anastasiia Spirenkova

Antonio Geusa: How do we conceptualise NFT?


Dr Antonio Geusa — AG

Anastasiia Spirenkova (TAEX) — AS


AS: Antonio, as an expert and historian of digital art, how did you react when you first heard about NFT? 


AG: It was not love at first sight, to be honest. When the media frenzy started, a few years ago, I was not impressed by what was making the news. I could not see anything that I would call art. Surely, I was misled (and a bit annoyed) by the fact that a lot of bad works were advertised as art to the wider public. 

Working with digital art means always being on the lookout for new stuff. I spend a lot of time reading all sorts of on- and offline literature about it. At one point, I bumped into a couple of NFT projects that solicited my interest because they were not about 'the looks'; they were more about the messages conveyed. And I started digging... One can say that my interest in NFTs started through critical analysis of the works, rather than by seeing something and immediately falling for it. I might be old-fashioned, but a text is often my starting point in getting interested in an artwork (and not only). My first university degree is in philology, after all. 

Finally, my digging helped me find very strong works. Then, my curiosity grew by the day, and I started to see great potential in the technology. I’m not speaking about sales and big numbers. The potential I saw was in relation to the way NFT technology can be an ally to art. The time had come to see whether or not I could contribute to this somehow.


AS: Has the vector of your curatorial work changed in terms of temporality—from the past to the future? NFT is a cutting-edge technology, so are your curatorial NFT projects fully focused on the future, or is that not the case?


AG: I have published a lot on the history of video art. When I started my research in video art, it was indeed an archaeologist’s job. I was after old works, sometimes forgotten by their own authors, that had to be literally unearthed. 

In the case of NFTs, it was more like going to a thrift shop where you have to ransack for nice things. Everything is already there in the store, but you have to look for the nice stuff hidden amongst heaps of rags. In other words, art was there piled amongst works that are not art at all. When I was carrying out my research on video art, I spent a lot of time and energy persuading artists to open their vaults and storage rooms and look for the forgotten videotape. With NFT I am asking artists to create something new with this new technology. 

With video art, I was busy writing about the history of the medium. With NFT, I am worried about how I can contribute with a text and with my assistance to a work that is destined, hopefully, to live in the future. Frankly, I am a bit concerned that NFT art started with very little theoretical support and no serious analysis of the interrelationships between art history and the blockchain. 


The current phase is a very exciting one for NFT.


The current phase is a very exciting one for NFT. We are all aware that the market has not performed well lately. Paradoxically, it is a great moment for people like me, who are interested in the way technology influences the constituting qualities of a work of art. We have reached that point in the NFT timeline when we can analyse what has happened in the last five years and contextualise it in the bigger discourse of contemporary art. It is time to get out of our crypto ghetto. I’ve spent decades reading, analysing, and writing about art made with new technologies. It is unhealthy to make it look as if it is a parallel story, separated from the rest of contemporary art history. The way I see it, when crypto art is compared and contrasted with what happened in the history of digital and contemporary art, we can discern the “good” from the “bad”.


Technology is new, but art is not.


When we talk about NFT, we cannot stay away from those avant-garde expressions that had been in the past about the ‘art of the future’. 


We are still pioneers regarding the theoretical analysis of what crypto art is all about.


We are now in a good phase as far as NFT production is concerned, but we are still pioneers regarding the theoretical analysis of what NFT art is all about. By drawing parallels with what has already become part of the history of digital and contemporary art, we will better understand the true value of NFT technology for art. Before writing a text for a new drop, I need to understand how the artist sees his/her work in relation to works from other artists. 

When we speak about new technology, we do not have to lose the connection with the past. Never. Yes, technology is new, but art is not. About 60 years ago, video was a new technology, but the works that have become part of art history are those that went beyond the medium as a mere instrument. Technology alone is never art.


AS: What challenges are facing artists while they are working with NFT?


AG: The more you study NFT art, the more you understand that it is not so different from the offline art world. One of the main reasons why artists are attracted to NFT is that it would free them from the yoke of gallery owners and art dealers. The point is, online and offline artists have the same problems when it comes to selling their works. It is not easy to get yourself known in the offline world as well as in the crypto world. Despite the hype, NFT does not guarantee one to gain the visibility that he/she deserves. In both worlds, one has to understand how the system works. And that it is not an easy task. My advice to artists is ‘make works, make works, make works… and be patient’. Many artists, especially the young ones with a very small portfolio, don't have the gift of patience. They want to be known right away, and they think that cyberspace is the key to quick success. 

Sure, NFT technology frees you from the art dealer, which is a good thing, in many ways. However, you are not free from the system itself. You still need to promote yourself, to gain attention, to “become viral”. If sales do not come along, does it mean that one is a bad artist? In the offline world, it usually takes about five years (after graduation) and dozens of works to get noticed. With NFT, the wait might be shorter, but the amount of work to be done is not less.

Good art comes from understanding and conceptualising technology. 

Of course, as an artist, you must make an NFT only if you think that it is the right technology for the work you have in mind. You must feel within yourself that it is the technology for this specific project. If you are just going to make a digital copy of a physical work, you are using the technology, but you are not making art. “Good” art comes from understanding and conceptualising the technology (old or new) you are using. It should always be “NFT for the sake of NFT”; in other words, art made for the art world. If you take it outside, it would stop making sense the way it does for art. As you will not find Duchamp’s “Fountain” at the plumbing store. There, it would be just a urinal, a useful object for a bathroom. Nothing more, nothing less.


AS: What drops are you preparing for TAEX?


AG: I am very grateful to TAEX for their patience in allowing me the opportunity to help artists make new work and for supporting me write a guide about NFT and contemporary art. It took me a while to prepare the basis for my drops. You can call me a "slow curator" if you want. I had to investigate, research, probe the ground, and play with the rules of the game. I am very proud to present my first drop as a curator very soon. It would be followed by the Guide, a little book explaining what NFT can do for art and what art can do for NFT.

Hopefully, it will help those people who are curious about the technology better understand how NFT and art are related. As both a curator and an art historian, these two projects are just a slice of paradise for me, because it gives me the privilege of presenting a work of art that I helped take shape and a guide on art & NFT that I wrote.


A Guide by TAEX and Dr Antonio Geusa

What NFT can do for art. What art can do for NFT: A short guide.


AS: What were your criteria for selecting the drops for TAEX? Did you initiate all the projects, or did you choose some from existing ones?


AG: As usual, I'm very interested in problems. I like works that question the system in which a certain technology thrives rather than play along. No problem, no art, isn’t it? One of the NFT drops I am curating consists of a part that is online and a part that is physical (at the discretion of the collector). It asks the buyer to perform a certain action in the offline world to complete the artwork. As if that wasn't enough, the result is something that one cannot show in the metaverse. It is still a full-fledged NFT, though. The combo of buying an NFT and exhibiting it in the metaverse does not work in this case. It is these deliberate impediments that make a work interesting to me because in doing so we better understand the nature, advantages, and limitations of the art exhibition space in the metaverse. Moreover, this work also problematizes the meaning of what constitutes a body in the physical and digital spaces. Which is something that has always fascinated me when working with digital art. 

As we all know, NFT art is very visual. Words often have a secondary role in most NFT artworks on view in marketplaces. However, I cannot help it. I am in love with words. For my second drop, I have been working with a famous writer, based in Italy. We are going to publish as NFT a poem from a collection of about 30 poems that he never published before, despite having been asked to do so many times. Under the terms of the contract the author undertakes not to use or perform any actions with other poems from that collection or materials used to create such poems. I like to curate projects that have a story behind them, and, in this particular case, works that build a bridge with Conceptual art and with Concrete Poetry in particular.


The best perk of being a curator is having the chance to listen to the stories that artists tell you, episodes from their lives. In 99% of cases, artists have an art piece that at some point disappeared or was destroyed, lost for good. For another project I'm curating for TAEX, I have proposed that artists recreate the lost work as an NFT version. Here, once again, the concept of what constitutes a body in a work of art is central, given that NFT technology will provide a digital body to a work that does not have a physical body anymore. 


So, I just give them a conceptual room for them to work in.


I never commission artworks. What I do is suggest a concept, the outline of an idea, and then the artist may agree or just say no. So, one can say that I just give the artists a conceptual room for them to work in. As a part of my curatorial contribution to TAEX, I am also going to implement some educational programs. What I admire most in TAEX—and in this, it greatly differs from other NFT art platforms—is the support it gives to education and critical analysis and the way it looks at NFTs not as something purely new, but as an evolution of art history.


AS: NFT is still perceived by many as a marginalised field, some people tend to ridicule it. Why is that? And why do we need a new NFT platform?


AG: Well, people have all the right to do that, to doubt it, or even to laugh at it. Most of the time, it should indeed be ridiculed. Some of the NFT works that have made the news for being sold for huge amounts of money are worth such reactions. The truth is that there are still so many people who are not aware of the good stuff. 

If you look back, for example, to the history of cinema, you will immediately see that most of the films that were shot at its very beginning were done purely for entertainment purposes. Only 10 of the 50,000 films that were made back then left their mark on the history of cinema. This does not mean that cinema is bad technology, it means that most of the films that were made at its start had nothing to do with art. That is why we need platforms like TAEX, which help to analyse the system, explain how it works, and showcase art that is in dialogue with the larger discourse on contemporary art.

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