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In early December, Friends with Benefits (FWB) launched an art collection during Art Basel in Miami Beach that challenged the boundaries between the physical and the digital.
Eight artists were approached to produce a series of works that could be claimed through physical minting portals placed around the city of Miami. Participanting artists included Domingo Beta, Harm van den Dorpel, Huntrezz Janos, Liz Meyer, Nic Hamilton, Shawna X, Simon Denny, and Zombie Zoo Keeper.
Recently, FWB contributors Laura Jamarillo and Alex Zhang sat down with Harm van den Dorpel, the Berlin-based conceptual artist known as a seminal figure in Post-Internet art, whose created notable series like “mutant garden seeder” and “Vertiginous Data.”
They exchanged stories from the drop, Harm’s time in Miami, the over functionalization of the NFT market, the role of curators in the NFT market, and the liminal area between URL and IRL.
LAURA JAMARILLO: It’s really fun to sit down after our time in Miami, the FWB.ART collection, and overall how you’ve been! Let’s dive right in. For the FWB collection during ABMB21, you reimagined the two birds as the prompt, how was it? Fun? Limiting?
HARM VAN DEN DORPEL: So, I first showed Noam, my 10-year-old son, the two Birds to get his reaction, and then I told him that one of the other artists who participated [in FWB.ART] was this very young artist [ZombieZoo Kid, nine-year-old from Tokyo], so that spurred some jealousy.
So, Noam told me, “You should do that thing with these white images with birthday collabs.” It was totally his idea. And then I reused a tweak of the algorithm a bit. That's where the idea came from. It was really fun to do! It’s my kind of a signature animation style but applied to something entirely different. Many tweaks had to go into it so it wasn’t one-click done, but it was fun.
ALEX ZHANG: What was it like to meet some of the other artists from the FWB.ART collection in Miami?
HVDD: It all felt really ecstatic. Being in Miami, the weather, the people, and for the first time in a while, being in the presence of the bodies of the people who I've known for a while but never met.
It reminded me of the surf clubs in the 2000s, except this time in Miami. I used to run an online gallery space called Club Internet, a small community alongside other early internet artist clubs or surf clubs as we called them. We’d curate digital work and organize events, pre social media and it became one of the only ways to meet some of our peers, especially since most everyone was in the States and I was doing this in Amsterdam. Club Internet was where people got to know about my work for the first time. Rhizome was very important to me during that period.
In the times of the surf clubs, everyone got some recognition, but it felt totally niche, and unanticipated. It also was not connected to any money or markets, so there was more of a sense of rebellion, like going against the medium.
In Miami, it felt like we finally received validation. Like the things we were trying to do back then, they had landed. Triumphant? Is that the word? I don’t know the right wold but it had this, “I told you so,” feeling. Miami was very fun. Fun is not the right word, but it really did feel like we “did” it.
Going to some of these crypto parties was new and it was my first time really meeting so many of these finance people. The FWB party was amazing, none of these finance bros. It had to do with the lineup, and the artists involved it seemed.
AZ: Yeah, it was really great to meet you that night. I'm curious, what percentage of your work now is split between utilizing the blockchain versus traditional mediums?
HVDD: Well, I made this joke to this reporter the other day. When I did my first NFT drop on July 23 of this year, the artist Harm died but the accountant Harm was born. This of course doesn’t make me happy, it is a bit painful, but I have to admit it. Because now I'm doing accounting and figuring all this money stuff and I want to just be more involved with my studio.
AZ: When did you first introduce blockchain into your work?
HVDD: I first experimented with the blockchain for this project of mine in 2016 called “Death Imitates Language.” It was the first time I tried to use Ethereum for a project but back then, it was too early. I didn’t understand it enough and the tooling wasn't there. So, the interest has always been there, like literally technically there, but now it’s on chain.
AZ: And your relationship with technology at large?
HVDD: Well, as a kid, I always used to make drawings and build stuff. I remember when I was 11, and my father had a computer and it had this computer program, you would open a text file with gibberish on it and if you pressed F5, the game Snake would appear. I had a hunch that this text that I opened had something to do with that game and that I could change the code, and it would alter the game.
This is where it all started, and I realized how powerful this was. There was the Internet, and it was free, which felt like equal opportunity to explore and make art as you didn’t have to buy anything.
I've always been a programmer, and I love it. I think I was doing generative art when I was like 13, but I didn't know it was a thing. Later I went to university to study computer science and then the art thing followed.
AZ: What are your thoughts on the current stage of curation in the NFT space?
HVDD: Well, in the old world there was this promise of removing the gatekeepers, or this notion that everybody can participate in an auction, own work, or make an NFT.
If you play that out, and these tools emerge where everyone can be “an artist,” it becomes easier to get your NFT onto Foundation than getting your painting into a gallery. Then, there will also be consequences if everybody can basically be an artist. This means eventually that quality will dissolve, with everything all over the place, and the role of a more curators will be necessary.
These gatekeepers that we had [the galleries, institutions, museums, curators], served a function, as they were somewhat of the quality control, but they're also assholes.
Now that everybody can make an NFT, but only a few have had their NFT’s consumed on a larger scale, you end up just with a reproduction of the same structure but just with new people.
AZ: As someone who has been working within a digital medium for years, what's your perspective of all the capital that's flowed into NFTs, and the relationship the market forms between the artist and the capital? Does this change the art? How does this affect your practice?
HVDD: Yeah, I noticed there is actually very little overlap between the people who buy my NFTs and my past collectors. I've tried to try to connect my past collectors to the work and it’s clear some education is needed.
AZ: The liquidity of the NFT market must affect the art to some capacity, yes? The instant ability to sell and create markets.
HVDD: I have noticed that too. Some of my past collectors, respectable collectors of my paintings and sculptures, purchased an NFT of mine and once they saw how quickly it gained in value, they flipped it. They aren’t much different than the other NFT flippers out there.
I hope that we can merge the two worlds.
AZ: Are you finding your previous collectors are receptive? For the ones who don't want to cross, what's their biggest critique?
HVDD: Collectors obviously aren’t willing to go on Twitter or Discord all day to learn, and they need existing gatekeepers to tell them, “Here’s this NFT project that is good, and here’s how you get involved.”
It’s still very manual. I have to tell other artists and collectors about a drop, and often I even buy it for them and send them a euro invoice. I hope eventually this won't be necessary anymore.
LJ: What are your thoughts on the growing narrative that the value of an NFT is the community access and the perks versus the aesthetic or artistic value of the NFT? How might this be affecting the creators in this space? And new ones thinking of coming in?
HVDD: I had this conversation on Twitter the other day where someone was arguing the value of an NFT is three components. One is the community, the other is utility, and the last one is aesthetics. And this just made me feel sad, because I'm like an old-school artist, you know, and I think aesthetics should be primary.
I’ve always thought that once art has a utility, then we call it design or if it has direct desires to have a political impact, then maybe it's propaganda. All these things are good, just different than pure art.
I believe in the radical autonomy of artwork. Now that being said, some of the NFTs we offered on Left Gallery were purchased by bulk flippers, minting multiple editions, and they were all gone overnight. Which is really good for artists because they make a lot of money. However, it is much better for the artwork to be distributed more evenly; especially if holding a certain token allows you to mint a new drop. I see that as a good utility for artists and collectors alike. Friends With Benefits is a lot about being part of a community, and we’re brought together by holding $FWB tokens. It grants you access to a warm feeling of community, but also it creates new exclusionary systems.
LJ: It's definitely interesting to see where NFTs as artwork become over functionalized and this loss of appreciation of art for art's sake.
AZ: Yeah, I feel this tension right now. Perhaps this is where the role of the curator can continue to evolve, helping draw the line between NFTs as utility tokens and others that are artistic.
HVDD: I agree, we do need more curators in this space, and this may be one of the first times where the curator can also benefit from the sale and resale.
LJ: How do you see web3 native cultural organizations or DAO’s play the role of a curator? Do you think that's something that can properly decentralize and break down the old school gatekeeper mentality?
HVDD: Yeah, I am also a member of Fingerprints DAO, and they also have a token, with an art collection. So, there’s all these DAOs with NFT collections and their own token but for me, I don't fully understand the relationship between the value of the token and the collection of the work. I’m excited to see how members and curators could collaborate in more aligned ways.
AZ: Yes, great point. The only relationship right now between tokens and art collections within a DAO is governance but I have yet to see a really sophisticated incentive model for curation, in terms of proper earnings or upside for curatorial efforts of a token holder.
HVDD: There’s new possibilities of group dynamics like with PartyDAO. It has the same feeling when a group of people go to support an artwork. It’s fun but in the end, end up with a newly invented ERC 20 token that represents a share in this work. Like, what are you going to do with the share?
AZ: What resources do you lean on or find yourself visiting when navigating this space?
HVDD: There is this Berlin group called Guild, a group of people who collaborate and they’ve nurtured me a lot. I also enjoy Other Internet and Sam Hart’s writing.
AZ: Great, thank you for sharing, and thank you for the time, we really appreciate it.