“Tokens Equal Text” (2019) is a Rare Art edition with a twist.
In Tokens Equal Text the demands of Rare Art are simultaneously met and frustrated by constructing evocations of the imagery of Vaporwave. This appropriates the aesthetics of a genre of appropriation art in order to create a critical circuit between blockchain technology and art theory.
Rare Art consists of blockchain tokens representing limited edition ownership certificates for digital art files. It is an example of the kind of blockchain quasi-property ownership that I described in “Blockchain Poetics” (2017) and wrote about in more depth in “Tokenization And Its Discontents” (also 2017). Despite having written about Rare Art in depth, my own work with blockchain tokens as art has not previously engaged with it. “Art Coins” (2015) for example does use the text field of CounterParty tokens to contain “the work” but as a written description of an imagined artistic genre rather than the URL of a digital image file.
In contrast to the strongly held but under-examined idea of ownership via cryptographic artificial scarcity that underlies Rare Art, Vaporwave art has a more ambiguous relationship to concepts of ownership and authorship. As appropriation-based art, Vaporwave is not amenable to claiming original authorship or ownership as intellectual property. Its subjects are those of past promises of the satisfactions of ownership and consumption of commodities which are then ironized by an economically precarious later generation. Despite this, some of Vaporwave’s audience places value on possession of extensive digital media collections or limited edition releases of obsolete physical recording media.
Describing rather than depicting the appropriated visual elements of Vaporwave sidesteps the problem of their ownership and authorship. Depicting those descriptions in a visually appealing way then re-aestheticises them and makes them available and desirable for ownership as Rare Art. Tokens Equal Text does this by creatively misusing the Ethereum standards that are used to create Rare Art, in order to create conceptual tension between its resources. Its ERC-721 tokens have no metadata but do contain content, (mis-)encoded as their ID numbers. The ERC-998 tokens that contain them do provide images in their metadata for platforms to display but these are just previews of their content as rendered by Tokens Equal Text’s display interface.
These layers both exceed and disappoint the technical and aesthetic requirements of Rare Art in order to capture, exceed and disappoint the limits of ownership in Vaporwave. And vice versa. This folds two different forms of belonging – ownership and the aesthetics of genre – back onto each other in a mutually intensifying circuit which critically reflects them and the worlds in which they are embedded.