‘Time Is Now a Medium’: Academics Ponder NFTs at Oxford University Conference

Oxford University opened its doors to NFTs last week with its inaugural OxBAT (Oxford Blockchain, Art & Technology) Conference.

Billed as “the first multi-disciplinary conference on the aesthetic, social, and anthropological perspectives on blockchain art,” it represented a very different take on crypto and NFTs than the celebratory blockchain business and developer confabs Decrypt usually attends.

“HODL” t-shirts and rousing speeches about how crypto will change the world were nowhere to be seen; in their place were sober academic discussions on the aesthetics of NFTs, their cultural significance, and how the unique properties of blockchain technology might be used to create new forms of art.

This being an Oxford conference, some talks veered into the impenetrable. If anyone can explain what “Smart Contracts and the Becoming-Agenital of Digital Art Objects” means, your correspondent would be grateful; answers on a physical postcard, please.

Amid the high-minded discourse, there was some interesting food for thought. Artist Ben Gentilli of creative studio Robert Alice opened the conference with a discussion on the nature of NFT art. He argued that because “any theoretical concerns with the NFT space have more basis in areas where NFTs perform a function,” that means that “the theoretical basis for discussion is more in media theory than in art theory.”

Gentilli went on to discuss the philosophical implications of blockchain. “Block time is not future time; it’s firmly rooted in the past,” he said, since, “on the blockchain the future extends only to the time in which a new block is open.” That means that, “for the first time in history, time is now a medium.”

He pointed to the example of Sarah Friend’s NFT series Lifeforms, which have to be passed among wallets within a 90-day limit or they expire. “Time here is a key ingredient in a highly performative work,” Gentilli said. “It’s also a critical example of how artists can use game theory and smart contracts to undermine blockchain’s instinct to commoditize things.”

Lifeforms NFTs. Image: Sarah Friend

Age of Enlightenment 2.0

NFT researcher Eva Gentner pointed out that art “makes us imagine what the future might look like,” enabling us to speculate on what uses NFTs might eventually have. “Art possesses the power to make us envision a state that is not or may not yet be real, and enables us to consider the actions required to return such a vision into reality.”

She likened the arrival of blockchain to the creation of the printing press, “another incredibly powerful medium” that heralded a period “characterized by turmoil and change, a period of growth, flourishing and humanity—the Age of Enlightenment.”

Meanwhile, researcher Kieran Nolan explored how NFT art harks back to the past through its frequent use of retro video game aesthetics. He highlighted Atari’s ventures in the metaverse, recent uses of NFTs to preserve classic arcade machines as 3D models, and the prevalence of pixel art from artists like Raúl Entter.

Yes, but is it art?

Another panel discussed the fraught question of whether NFTs can be classified as art—something that editors at Wikipedia voted against earlier this year. “The segregation of NFTs now having their own space and page is really interesting for pointing to this problem within the paradigm of what art is,” said researcher Patrick McCurdy.

“It’s really interesting that they have chosen to segregate and make a page solely for NFT art,” said researcher Myriam Brouard. “It makes it seem like we don’t understand how this fits into the greater art world right now.”

Technology, Brouard added, is intrinsically linked to art. “I don’t think you can separate the two, just like you can’t separate art from society.”

Matt Deslauriers, Amy Goodchild, Michael Connolly, Wout Fierens and Jeff Davis. Image: OxBAT

Jeff Davis, chief creative officer at NFT platform Art Blocks, took to the stage to discuss another contentious area of the space: generative art. Because Art Blocks doesn’t create its generative artworks until the owner mints a token, he said, “as an artist, as you’re watching the project be minted and created, it’s a surprise to you as well.” The process creates an “interesting one-on-one connection between the artist and the collector.”

Davis said that NFTs have “become an unlock for generative art as an art form.” By creating communities around artists, “instead of a single person championing your work, there’s now a thousand people around that project championing your work.”

In Davis’s view, generative art has “helped push NFTs forward,” and NFTs have done the same for generative art.

If NFTs have reached the point where academics are devoting an entire conference to discussing their merits as an artistic medium, it’s getting harder to buy into the narrative that they’re just for JPEG-flipping speculators and Ponzi schemers.

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