At a Post-Crypto-Crash Art Basel, tech-based art is trying hard to blend in and look like…paint?

At a Post-Crypto-Crash Art Basel, tech-based art is trying hard to blend in and look like…paint?

Art Basel in Basel 2023 courtesy of Art Basel

Where did all the crypto art go?

After the big busts in 2022, seemingly everyone buying and selling on uber-elegant Swiss fair Art Basel has closed its digital wallets. The NFT-based art that burst onto the scene in 2021 was a notable absence from the booths of all but a few of the 284 exhibitors this year. And Tezos, once the art world’s cryptocurrency darling, was also absent as an official partner at the Swiss marquee (unsurprisingly, because it lost 56 percent of its value year-over-year).

Given the uncertainty swirling in the art market in general (the Swiss have their own banking scandal on their hands as UBS, a major sponsor of Art Basel, sweeps in to take over Credit Suisse), can anyone really be blamed for a little more caution? A sense of risk aversion was felt among buyers here – and crypto is particularly risky. And yet, perhaps now that the froth of speculation has dissipated, the blockchain experiments that remain are more sustainable and meaningful.

“What we’ve learned is that an art fair is not necessarily the best place to debut an NFT,” said a gallery director who had previously brought NFT-based works to this fair. “Transactions for them happen online, so if we take them it’s for display, not for a point of sale.”

AI Data Paintings by Refik Anadol were among the prominent projects that incorporated artificial intelligence. NFT-based art was few and far between. (Installation view of Jeffrey Deitch’s stand with Neural paintings by Refik Anadol. Photo: Stefan Altenburger.

In 2021, Kenny Schachter had debuted NFT-based art for Art Basel with a special project at Galerie Nagel Draxler called “NFTism.” packing the stand with curious, confused and excited spectators. This year, he said he wasn’t surprised by the sudden lack of crypto art on the show floor. “The crypto market crashed, so nobody here wants anything to do with it,” he said while sitting inside the atrium of the fair with some friends. He rolled up his sleeve to show me his famous “NFT” tattoo, which he recently updated to add the word “post” above it.

“People here are so conservative that they want what their friends have,” Schachter added. “The art world has its finger up and the wind is blowing away from NFTs, especially with the onslaught from the SEC.” (U.S. regulators are currently knocking on the doors of all the major crypto exchanges like Binance.) There was already a buzz of interest at Art Basel Miami Beach last fall, he noted. “There has been no change from December to June. As soon as things cool down, the art world will be back in no time.”

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Galleries that had been quick to charge into the crypto space loud and proud took a break this year, including Galerie Nagel Draxler and Pace, the latter of which presented Jeff Koons’ first-ever NFT project, Jeff Koons: Moon Phases, last year. Now both continue to work in the crypto space, but in the expanded fields outside the Messeplatz (Pace is still active online and Nagel Draxler has a dedicated gallery called a Crypto Kiosk in Berlin that presents all kinds of works that engage with blockchain). In their Art Basel booths, paintings and sculptures and art historical classics dominate.

Kenny Schachter at the Crypto Kiosk at the Nagel Draxler Gallery in Basel in 2021.

A Pace spokesperson said they may consider presenting some works later in the week at Art Basel, but it depends on what is changed at the booth when the sale closes.

However, work that engaged NFTs was present in a few places, if you really looked. Simon Denny, who has long engaged with emerging technologies in his practice, was perhaps the only NFT-based work at the main art fair, and it was designed to blend in: his painting on display at Petzel, from his new “Metaverse Landscapes” series , appears on the surface as a traditional work on canvas with fragmented images. It was next to a massive €1.65 million painting by Martin Kippenberger.

Denny’s work only reveals its full meaning when you notice that there are QR codes on the side of the work, one of which shows you a piece of private property in the metaverse that the work represents. Denny characterized a bit of virtual property as an NFT that you get with the painting, evoking questions about property ownership in this virtual space. Still, the piece cleverly borrows from landscape painting and classic conceptualism to make its point—crypto art designed to give the art historically inclined something to hold on to (literally).

Simon Denny’s Metaverse Landscape 8: The Sandbox Land (-196, 23) (2023). Oil on Canvas, UV Print, Ethereum Paper Wallet, Dynamic ERC-721 NFT. Photo: Nick Ash. Courtesy: the artist

“People are looking for things that are secure in value, and crypto and NFTs are quite uncertain,” the artist told me. “This project appeals to the viewers here because it’s a painting first and talks about art history. Also, you don’t need to know about crypto to buy it.” Note: Implanted on the back of the painting is a chip with a crypto wallet so whoever buys the piece can access NFT without having to learn how to set one up. That seems to be a winning strategy. Denny’s work, which has a price tag of €30,000, was on reserve by 4pm on preview day.

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Meanwhile, galleries have taken steps towards using the technology for concrete business strategies. Arcual, now an official partner of Art Basel, set up a children’s corner from the champagne in the third floor collector’s lounge, presenting lectures and artworks. The company uses blockchain technology to create chains of ownership that benefit both artists and dealers, hoping to change the way business as usual is done in the art market. They create NFTs for all artwork.

“I’m a strong believer in what blockchain can bring to the industry, but I was always skeptical of the speculation we saw,” said Bernadine Bröcker Wieder of Arcual. “We want to focus on the arts again.” She noted that this current moment in crypto is less of a wild ride than 2021 when NFT-based art prices skyrocketed. “We follow some of the standards of what was set with the NFT boom, but have helped it evolve to work seamlessly in the art world in the same way that the art world already works.”

Phoebe Cummings at the Arcual Booth, Art Basel in Basel, 2023, images by Gloria Soverini Photography.

The hot topic in technology has clearly moved on to artificial intelligence. A great public anxiety looms over this field, and so artists have felt a new sense of urgency to get involved. Digital paintings by Refik Anadol, which were the subject of a major exhibition at MoMA earlier this year, were front and center at Jeffrey Deitch’s booth.

“Our market is conventional,” Jeffrey Deitch said when asked about the learning curve for collectors when it comes to digital art. “People buy these works as living paintings,” he stressed, a reference to the title of the ongoing series. Anadol’s triptych (on sale for $300,000) featured prominently on the front wall of Deitch’s booth. Although it was still available at 4pm on preview day, it had a seemingly ever-present group of VIPs in front of it.

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In the foyer of Unlimited, BMW’s annual art car this year gave a high-tech spin to artists who don’t usually work in the digital space. South African artist Esther Mahlangu’s bold geometric abstract paintings were among those featured for a spectacular generative artwork.

The Electric AI Canvas at Art Basel in Basel 2023. An installation inspired by the new BMW i5. With Esther Mahlangu, 2023. © BMW AG

Also inside the fair’s Unlimited section was a work by Croatian artist Tomo Savić-Gecan. Basically, what you saw there was a big screen explaining its own premise; the real show was throughout the fair. Selected lights around Art Basel were made to vary in intensity at specific times. These changes were guided by an algorithm, fed by data based on randomly selected art news articles analyzed against the latest Art Market: An Art Basel and UBS Report. There were two versions, priced at €70,000 and €95,000.

The various locations of the piece are announced daily on the project’s website, as well as on large screens at Unlimited and the stand of galerie Frank Elbaz. The audience is invited to go to these places and observe their surroundings – and thus become part of the performance itself. It could even be a joke about technology-based art trying to blend into the environment and speak with the symbols people know.

It’s a fun job. But even Elbaz’s representatives noted that the learning curve is steep for digitally engaged art in general. “It’s a type of artwork that collectors aren’t familiar with, but it’s also ephemeral,” said a spokesperson for the Paris-based gallery. “You really have to follow collectors and educate them about the work, but also about conceptual art in general.”

For now, the more general emphasis on painting-like objects seems generally telling. It may be that the recent spectacle of the crypto-bubble has dampened the appetite not only for crypto-art, but for the more adventurous forms of technical art in general. As the markets feel more confident about themselves, perhaps more of this interactive environmental work like Savić-Gecan’s, which is quickly becoming hugely relevant in other aspects of society, will make a more obvious return to the art fair floor.

As for the crypto art itself, there are still many who are betting on their return. “NFTs are revolutionary,” Schachter said. “It’s here to stay. The dust just has to settle.”

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