Federico Morgantini interviews Eleonora Brizi, critic and curator of Crypto Art,
about NFT arworks and the boom of crypto artists.
Welcome to the new episode of Blockchain&Co. A cordial greeting from Federico Morgantini.
Today we’re going to talk about cryptoart and we know it’s a very topical subject, we’ve seen the quotations of NFT artworks, the non fungible tokens, reach incredible values, so it seemed smart to us to host one of the major Italian crypto art experts. As we know crypto art travels through NFTs, unique blockchain tokens that can be transferred, stored, through wallets that are real smart contracts, but I don’t want to anticipate anything. I want today’s guest, Eleonora Brizi, to tell us about it. Let’s go set up the studio. It’s a pleasure to once again have a female guest in a world of blockchain made up of men.
Eleonora Brizi, art critic, art exhibition curator, owner of Breezy Art gallery and Chief Artistic Officer of Reasoned Art.
E: I would immediately make a very interesting note to what you said about the female world and blockchain. In fact, because of this technology and what it entails, so also the possibility of anonymity, the female presence in the crypto art world is much higher than in the traditional art world, so we’re going to take that responsibility from here on and go ahead with it.
So there are two reasons to rejoice: women are more present in crypto art and starting to be more present in blockchain. I had at least 50 guests, most of them men. Today we will do a different episode than usual because we have always approached the blockchain from a very technical side, from a financial side, from an industrial side, today we will do it from a more artistic side also in the method, so today’s episode will be very image-based, slowly we will show them and Eleonora will tell us and explain her story, the one that led her to crypto art. She will tell us about the works that she promotes and everything that we will be curious to know.
E: My story starts far away both in terms of time and space because it starts in China in 2012. I graduated in Oriental Languages and Civilizations, in Chinese language and culture, then I moved to China in 2012 where I worked as an assistant to the dissident artist Ai Weiwei for 4 years and then for two years as an assistant to the curator Jerome Sans. These are my days in China: here I am with Xu Bing, one of the greatest artists in China, he is showing me and explaining to me this calligraphy that he invented to fool both Orientals and Westerners. This is Wang Keping, here I’m with him at art district 798 in Beijing, he’s the man who changed my life. In fact I graduated in contemporary art of Asian countries and went to Paris to interview him and to write my thesis about him. He is part of the “Group of Stars,” which is the first group of contemporary art, meaning those who invented contemporary art in China in the late 1970s, this group included Wang Keping, who you see here, Ai Weiwei, who I worked for for many years, Huang Rui, etc., so he gave me access to this whole group of revolutionaries and he sent me to China with a letter for Ai Weiwei, so I jumped on with a one-way ticket and stayed there for 6 years.
Here I am in Shanghai at Capsule Shanghai, an Italian art gallery owned by Enrico Polato, where I curated the art exhibition of Jiang Li, an artist from Beijing. Here I am always at the art district 798 on the day of the opening of the exhibition of the artist Zhao Zhao and I am wearing the qipao, the traditional Chinese dress, sewn and tailored with more contemporary fabrics, thus combining tradition and contemporaneity. This is one of my many trips in China, the ones that made me fall in love with this land that many times, like many other lands and places in the world, is judged without knowing it, here I am on this boat, actually a raft, and I’m crossing the Li river.
After my 6 years in China, I decided it was time to move to the other side of the globe, so I moved to New York. I got, as usual, a ticket and stayed there for a while. When I arrived in New York I had access for the first time to the amazing world of blockchain and especially its application to the art world, in 2018. Here I am at an exhibition at Artechouse in New York by Refik Anadol, one of the most important artists using artificial intelligence, machine learning, on the world scene right now.
What happens when I arrive in New York? My roommate at the time listens to my story and tells me that if I want to stay on the cutting edge after my experience in China I absolutely have to learn about this crypto art, art and blockchain, so he invites me to a conference at the National Arts Club in Manhattan. Then I went there and I was shocked by everything I heard. In fact, I hear that this technology, the blockchain, cuts off any third party, so there are no more art galleries, there are no more curators, and there are no more banks, now cryptocurrencies do that, so any third party no longer exists.
Which, then, is not totally true because actually galleries and curators in crypto art are having a fundamental role which is what you do as well. Certainly we know that the ownership becomes direct, the transfer becomes direct and the royalty payments in the transfers of ownership after the first one become automatic and this for artists is a great opportunity because unfortunately in real art we know that the law requires that the artist will have a percentage even in the changes of hands after the first one, but in fact it has always been disregarded, while with smart contracts, with art in the form of tokens, there is no way to transfer it from one wallet to another without there also being an acknowledgement to the artist, this is one of the very great features. It’s true that there are no more intermediaries, but the advantages are amplified. But, actually, the figure of the curators, the figure of the galleries remains, right?
E: actually the figure of the curator and galleries is coming back, because when I came into the crypto art world everyone hated me, in the sense that coming from the art world and showing up in a space where we talk about peer-to-peer relationships, being in the beginning, the artists absolutely did not want to hear about curator and galleries. Then what happens? As with all phenomena that develop, so the space widens, new forces enter and also creating much more confusion, because honestly 3 years ago we were really a few to be in the space, but now after what has happened in recent months especially with Beeple and Christie’s, the situation is really much wider and there is a need to make order, there is a need that this crypto art is brought to another level. In what way? By telling stories, so telling the stories of the artists and telling the stories of the art. To do this, then, all those figures that had actually been erased are reintroduced. I would say that at the beginning these figures had been completely eliminated, while now they are reintroduced because there is a need for them. Obviously they have to be reinvented, in the sense that, for example, the art gallery can no longer absolutely have the role it had before, there is no longer representation of artists, there is no such thing, there is no such need on the part of the artist to be taken around the world. Now artists are on social media, they’re global, they’re on the web, they’re on blockchain and so these figures exist, but they have to kind of rethink what their role is in the space.
This is the logo of your gallery, or am I wrong? When was it born?
E: my gallery was born in 2018 in New York because when I first came into contact with blockchainers and basically with the crypto art community, which then was born primarily in New York, but then the blockchain itself has eliminated space and time so you don’t talk about cities or states anymore, but the community is totally 100% global and I dove right in because somehow talking, going to dinner with these people who had spoken at the conference, something immediately clicked and so, we’re always talking about September 2018, at dinner I was sitting next to this guy who was presenting this booklet with a with a little frog, which is Pepe, the very famous meme, which was born as a paper comic by Matt Fury, and they talk about this project that precisely is the first art project that ever existed on blockchain, at least at the Community level. I, also in a very naive way, asked if there was any literature on these crypto art projects, if they had any books, something written with which to interface with the art world because otherwise you remain in a circumscribed world of nerds, but outside the larger art world.
The artists and galleries of yesteryear live off catalogs.
E: Exactly. And even if we don’t like it anyway you always have to have the intelligence to understand that when you live in a transitional period it’s transitional, so if you want to create a bridge neither of the two columns should be excluded, so the art world and the language that the art world understands is probably still books or at least it was until 3 years ago, so we do this book about the first art project on blockchain, Rare Pepe, a collection of 1774 digital cards of this little frog that for the first time in 2016 is digitally reproduced and this artist tries to sell it, tries to make a transaction, we talk here about Bitcoin blockchain, so on Counterparty, in 2016 and someone buys it, so this blockchain transaction happens, which is then also what happened with the Bitcoin story, in the sense that Bitcoin exists for a pizza, there was this digital currency that only very few people knew about: this person called Papa Johns, one of the most famous American pizza chains, and asked for a pizza, he also asked if he could pay with a Bitcoin and the answer was yes, so from that moment a Bitcoin is worth a pizza.
I knew it was as much as 10,000 Bitcoins for a pizza, maybe now the person who bought that pizza has regretted it.
E: now you’re going to see some photographs that were taken during the event we organized in New York where we presented our Pepe’s Book, and the booklet too is tokenized on blockchain. Here you can see Homer Pepe which is a historical card because during the first festival that was ever organized, in New York in January 2018, Homer Pepe’s card was auctioned for $40,000, which at the time was an exorbitant amount of money, it was absurd to even think that someone could buy a digital card for this price, instead then, a few months ago, it was sold for $350,000, this card that now has a huge historical value. From here, from this meeting with the whole New York community, my gallery was born, which wants to create this bridge between the world of contemporary art, where I came from, and art and technology, obviously rethinking its role and moving is totally towards curating, so I am a curator and basically my gallery does curating, organizes physical exhibitions and tries to tell stories. This is the book “The Rarest Book” which is Rare Pepe’s book and all 300 copies are digitized on Counterparty.
Here I am with the guy I created the book with and to my right you see this canvas which is a canvas that was created from one of the digital images, it’s called Modern Pepe and it’s inspired by modern art and it’s basically the color palette that was used to create the frog. During the event an artist painted this canvas and he called it Pepe Bacco because he painted it with acrylic and wine.
Here I am in Miami, during Art Basel in December 2019, with my gallery at CADAF, the digital contemporary art fair, the first one completely dedicated to digital and crypto art. Behind me you can see Jason Yung’s artworks, this is generative art so they are patterns of lights made with code that is then written on Arduino and these patterns never repeat because they are always being regenerated.
Then, I return to Italy during Christmas holidays in 2019 where still I am for various reasons and we organize together with Hackatao a small virtual exhibition that we call Cr(y)ptaly to collect, to realize just what we were talking about before, which is that the blockchain canceling space completely: you no longer even know these artists, who they are, where they come from. Doing this project in a particular historical moment that was during the pandemic, we had fun because we aimed to understand who was around us and who was creating crypto art. So we did an open call and about 20 artists participated, although right now we are talking about other figures, after a year everything has changed.
You mentioned Hackatao who are definitely among the most popular artists right now. You brought several images, let’s see them because it’s very interesting to see the static work and the dynamic work, how this work comes to life when it is framed with augmented reality apps. Here’s the first one.
E: The works that you will see here were all displayed in this exhibition, Renaissance 2.0 2.0, that I organized in Rome in the museums of San Salvatore in Lauro directed by Lorenzo Zichichi. This project was realized between the two lockdowns, it was quite a miracle. Among the participants there was the Hackatao artistic duo with whom I have been working assiduously for a year and a half.
This one is a very famous project that shows up a bit in the different crypto art articles and is perhaps a turning point between a niche business and a mainstream business.
This project was proposed to us by Alessandro Mescoli of Spazio CRAC in Castelnuovo Rangone. Basically we put a work by Hackatao, created specifically to make it dialogue with Guercino’s Moses, and this project was a challenge because we are in Italy, it is Guercino’s Moses, one of the Masters of the eighteenth century, and we are trying to create a dialogue. What do we do, how do we treat it, and what will they tell us? Instead, even with a lot of encouragement from the Hackatao, who obviously would never dream of making comparisons or putting themselves on the level of anyone because, as they say, we are artists and we walk on the shoulders of these giants, but they made their art and we will make ours. So we tried to find this dialogue also from a conceptual point of view. We considered what Moses’ maximum function was, that is, to guide the people, and we imagined that this Moses would wake up after 3000 years and look at the Mediterranean today. What does he see?
He sees that even the migratory flows are never finished, but they don’t even have a guide, and so the work that Hackatao is going to create is this siren that enchants, therefore deceives all the migrants who leave, leave their identities in search of the Promised Land: hence the title Promised Land, and as you can see the welcome sign, the writing promised land is seen in reverse because unfortunately it is seen only by those who are already in it, therefore basically an illusion, a land that they will probably never reach. This exhibition took place physically at Spazio CRAC in Castelnuovo Rangone. So there is Guercino’s Moses and nearby a screen with Hackatao’s animation. Here there was a bit, I agree, the watershed from many points of view: first of all, the introduction of crypto art in more traditional channels, that is, it had to be talked about because it was together with Guercino and then, instead, we also discovered a huge appreciation on the part of the crypto art community, of all the crypto art collectors, when precisely a project was done that talked only about art and did not talk about transactions, blockchain, NFT and tokens, but about the fact that the language of art changes, but its voice never changes. So we realized that even after 3000 years or even at the conceptual level and even from 700 to 2021 actually very little has changed.
Very fascinating, we could listen to you for hours. Now, please, tell us what Reasoned Art is.
E: Reasoned Art is a startup that I’m part of, we are starting up and I’m very positive and confident. I was contacted by the guys, the founder co-founder Giulio Bozzo and Andrea Marec, and I was immediately fascinated by the purpose of this project that will deal with crypto art but in a different way than all the other platforms and marketplaces that are already existing. In fact, it will deal with curating, content creation and it will create that bridge we were talking about before between the art world and blockchain, art and technology. The startup then will not only have a digital and virtual gallery, but will also deal with the organization of physical exhibitions and basically will also go to create a new collecting, where precisely both collectors and artists are accompanied towards what is the new world of art and blockchain, it will therefore be art, curating, content, it will even create a manifesto, it will consider crypto art for what it really is, which is an art movement, and so we hope to finally treat this crypto art like all other arts, also because basically all these names and classifications are given by us.