From net art to NFTs: a conversation (and an exhibition!) with net art pioneers Sakrowski, Anne and Johanna
Assorted Art Rants with María Paula
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February 16th, 2022

JPG is the digital home of the exhibition NfTNeTArT - whose IRL version, curated by panke.gallery and Office Impart, will open next Saturday in Berlin. Learn about how they’re building bridges between the crypto community, net art and traditional art worlds - and what we’re doing at JPG to help them make this happen.

I don’t consider myself to be a net art expert, or much less, but since moving to Berlin in 2013, I’ve been avidly following what was happening in that space. NFTs have presented an opportunity for artists from the net art and post internet realms to be able to broaden their audience, and monetize their creations, plus find a new medium to experiment with, and with them, decades of community building, know-how on digital art curation and diffusion and others are coming into the NFT space to nurture each other.

Curating digital art IRL is no easy feat, and of course, a large portion of the people trying to mount NFT exhibitions outside the metaverse have absolutely no idea what they’re doing (I forgive but not forget, Christie’s Art Blocks exhibition), so learning from the digital art curators is quite essential.

I remember the first time a digital art IRL exhibition made an impact on me - it was Ashley Madison Angels At Work In Berlin, by !Mediengruppe Bitnik, in 2017. Ashley Madison was a dating app for having extramarital affairs that got hacked and all credit cards and other details leaked. !Mediengruppe Bitnik used the leak data to feed the fembots on display in the exhibition that would use pick up lines used within the platform. A pink neon light installation would bathe the fembots in a seductive light. It was really fascinating to me.

Anyways, what I wanted to express is that we’ve invented nothing and there’s a lot to learn from people dealing with digital art, and especially net art, since the community bootstrapping and building they’ve done (without high speed internet most of the time, definitely without skyrocketing prices, Times Square billboards or media coverage) together with the curatorial experience, needs to be brought to the spotlight.

So our JPG team was quite excited to be put in touch with panke.gallery and Office Impart, two Berlin-based entities that have been pushing digital art forward. Together, they are bringing to life a very special group show hosted in both entities’ venues, and digitally by JPG. NfTNeTArT featuresKim Asendorf, LaTurbo Avedon, Sarah Friend, LIA, Jonas Lund, Rhea Myers, Rafaël Rozendaal, Cornelia Sollfrank, and Harm van den Dorpel - all pioneering artists in their own account. The show is opening on February 19th at panke.gallery (and JPG!) and at Office Impart on February 26th. But before this, I sat down with Johanna and Anne from Office Impart and Sakrowski from panke.gallery for a short interview that I’ll share next:

MP: How did it all start?

Anne and Johanna: We met a couple of years or over 10 years ago when working at Galerie EIGEN + ART, running a project space for this gallery, and starting to think about how to work as a gallery in the future. So it was already with this kind of focus and a big interest in digital phenomena, from digital art to net art, that we founded our own company in 2018. And we called this company a gallery, since we believe in the role of a gallerist as a mediator. Office Impart bases their work on how to mediate art today: from having a physical space, presenting a group of artists, and the gallery, for them, is, in its broader sense, a meditation space.

Sakrowski: I started really early. I think it was '91 or so. I studied art history and was really somehow fed up with the classical art system. I had the impression it's really not helpful for me and my life anymore. And then I found net art, and thought, "Wow. This is a fresh, young movement with a new medium. It's an uncharted territory". I had the chance to watch and follow what was happening with this kind of avant garde art from its earliest days. It's really quite different if you are part of it or just as an observer. Then, I started with a project to take care of net art, because it's a very ephemeral medium. And so I started a database. That was a point where I could connect to artists from a neutral position, like a researcher. And this is for me still what the art is all about. I believe much more in art that helps me to understand the world.

 flyer for OpenAR.art - Design: Anna-Luise Lorenz
 flyer for OpenAR.art - Design: Anna-Luise Lorenz

MP: How did you come across blockchain and NFTs?

S: I came across blockchains in 2014 and 2015, when I was introduced to a project by Kei Kreutler and Ben Vickers, the  unMonastery, they were trying to bridge the countryside and the city, and they were looking for new technologies to organize small communities, and then came Ethereum. I have to say I was a bit skeptical in the beginning and wasn’t seeing what the advantage is with all these in comparison to  real life solutions. But I thought it's interesting and I have to try out with artists to experiment to get a better understanding.

And so, I did these exhibitions with OMSK and !Mediengruppe Bitnik where we developed  a crypto rave in Panke in 2018. The idea was to have an autonomous organization managed by the technology of the blockchain in a club context. Later on (2020/1), we created a platform (openar.art), where artists can show and present their augmented reality objects, web based objects, exhibit them and also sell them as NFTs. We chose xDai as the chain in order to avoid speculations. The idea was to get some money from the sales and to bring it back to the community so that the community could use the profits. What I liked about learning through this experiment about the blockchain is that you can have the revenues split very transparently and very nicely, I would say, very social. Then I met Anne and Johanna, who mentioned that they were interested in artists using the blockchain as a medium, and reflecting on it like Sarah (Friend) or Rafaël Rozendaal, and we agreed on having an exhibition to show this perspective.

Screenshot of online mining website "RaveEnabler" for Cryptorave #5, Panke Club, Berlin, 09.05.2018, Sakrowski, panke.gallery, Omsk Social Club, Knoth & Renner and !Mediengruppe Bitnik. Graphics: Knoth & Renner. Image courtesy of the artists
Screenshot of online mining website "RaveEnabler" for Cryptorave #5, Panke Club, Berlin, 09.05.2018, Sakrowski, panke.gallery, Omsk Social Club, Knoth & Renner and !Mediengruppe Bitnik. Graphics: Knoth & Renner. Image courtesy of the artists

MP: The NFT community building is second to none. However, community building has been crucial for net art to thrive till now, so I know you’re bringing a certain know-how in this regard. Which lessons can each of these spheres take from the other with the goal of creating a bridge between them?

A: We learn by doing and this is one of the angles we’re exploring with this show. How you can bring these two worlds together, and how this bridge will function. Because it was totally clear that (net art) functioned on a different level with the community than NFT art, and the network of collectors was also different. And I think my feeling is that the binding aspect about the two communities is that there’s a different baggage than that of the traditional art community. However, back in the net art days, you could also meet your peers in real life. With NFTs going mainstream, the community has spread out and it’s fully digital. So we’re looking forward to experiencing, through doing the group show, the intersection of communities and deep diving into the NFT one, as well as seeing what comes out of it. What we are really after is, building this bridge, between communities, IRL and digital platforms: what we want is to bring the worlds together and beyond the hype.

S: I would like to add another perspective. I think that the net art community was much smaller because it wasn’t so common, the internet in the 1990s was not this massive or easily accessible. A bit later, the post internet movement, for example, can be thought of as a second generation of net artists that was much more community oriented at the beginning. But then, there was already also a moment of switching to the gallery space and money was involved, so some tension and discussions emerged. We are seeing this now with the NFTs as well, I see a clear continuation. And also, I think, the NFT space is now strongly focused on the monetary aspect. I imagine this will change over time as the hype ends.

For me, the bridge to build is perhaps not too long and the ends are not that disconnected. I think of it more as a continuation. I guess it’s more about the digital art phenomenon becoming more and more mainstream. The continuous use of digital media unites the worlds. There's always experimenting and reflecting, and there's trying out various aesthetical forms and possibilities. And, of course, there are sometimes artists who are not so interested in this part, they are more interested in the business side or so. Anyways, I think it's all art, you know. They are all using a digital medium. And this has advantages and constraints.

MP: You are working with several medium-specific artworks. How do you see the constraints from the new medium that’s smart contracts affect the works?

A: When painting, a canvas has edges. That's what you have to deal with. And when doing public art works, you also need to work with the constraints of the sites: there are rules, security concerns, and more. Good artists can deal with constraints and make something productive out of them. There are always certain rules and constraints, working around and with them is what makes an artist good.

S: Rules can be bent and you can play with them. I think this is also what artists should do the whole time. We have artists like Sarah Friend, who had to come up with approaches and solutions from a technical perspective for her artwork to come to fruition (Lifeforms).

Constraints are also changing the whole time. At the beginning of net art, the browser was a constraint. As well as the bandwidth. Then, for instance, artists were constrained with lower image resolutions. But there was always a workaround even then. Maybe that workaround was coming up with a really interesting idea that you have a new way of dealing with pictures and seeing these pictures, finding beauty within the low resolution and the digital medium.

MP: What was the curatorial approach for the group show?

A: Since our first meeting, it was our goal to focus on net art and blockchain as a medium. We have known most of the artists for long and had been following their progress while they dipped their toes in the NFT space.

Also since the beginning, we always wanted to have a variety in the pieces, and diversity within the artists exhibiting.

S: The idea that artists use blockchain as a medium and reflect in the medium, is somehow similar to what net art is. Net art happened in the medium, and used the medium itself. We found several of the net art people, established both in the net art space and this new one, working within the NFTs. And it’s very interesting to see how they adapted and made their way with the NFTs.

Additionally, we’re focused on artists using the algorithmic methods for their art pieces. For me, there is also a similarity of what the blockchain is - not really an algorithm itself, but quite mathematical.  And like an algorithm, blockchains can be more or less performative. Bringing these two elements together is a thing which came naturally.

So, artists reflecting on what is possible in the blockchain, from a critical point of view, and/or using algorithmic tools, were the basis for the curatorial process. Curating this in the digital space makes sense, but it is the physical space that is very special for me, because then you see the things next to each other and you can experience it, sometimes completely different as when experiencing the works separately. Such a direct involvement shows and tells you more than what you previously knew.


NfTNeTArT is opening on February 19th at panke.gallery Berlin and JPG (link to be announced on Twitter), and on February 26th in Office Impart, also in Berlin.

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