The Strange Dealer: NFTs and John Berger

I had largely ignored the conversation around NFTs until its spindly tendrils sprouted their way into photography land and, upon the anniversary of John Berger’s passing - and a subsequent decision to pay respects of-sorts by re-reading some of his writings - I came across an essay I felt serendipitously timely.

“Today images abound everywhere. Never has so much been depicted and watched…Appearances registered, and transmitted with lightning speed. Yet with this, something has innocently changed. They used to be called physical appearances because they belonged to solid bodies. Now appearances are volatile. Technological innovation has made it easy to separate the apparent from the existent. And this is precisely what the present system’s mythology continually needs to exploit. It turns appearances into refractions, like mirages: refractions not of light but of appetite, in fact a single appetite, the appetite for more.”

I should preface this with the confession that I know very little about NFTs, save for a few details as to ‘minting’ (a kind of digital ‘certificate’ of authenticity - and I’ve probably not got that quite right), their imbued scarcity (individual ‘ownership’ registered on the blockchain - despite their being infinitely reproducible as digital ‘images’), the apparent get-rich-quick scheme akin to Avon-rep business ‘structure’, and the cult-like preaching of their many prosumer disciples. What’s more, the ‘new-frontier’ rhetoric surrounding web3.0 - the advancement of our physical, bodied lives into the virtual, avatar-ed ‘free’ world of the open-virtual-expanse - so far, seems to be upheld in a manner remarkably resembling that of those foregone promises once associated with web2.0 - in this instance, championed by the generational successors of the same capitalist cultural gatekeepers who came before.

“…considering the physical implications of the notion of appetite - the existent, the body, disappears. We live within a spectacle of empty clothes and unworn masks… No bodies and no Necessity - for Necessity is the condition of the existent. It is what makes reality real. And the system’s mythology requires only the not-yet-real, the virtual, the next purchase… Today, in the system’s spectacle, it [Necessity] exists no more. Consequently, no experience is communicated. All that is left to share is the spectacle, the game that nobody plays and everybody can watch.”

The physical world and its objects are not enough, we need more. We need the virtual world and its virtual objects as well. Things as they are now are not good enough, things can be better. Within the photographic world specifically, it is no coincidence that these culturally authoritative bodies quick to drag their wagons over the virtual frontier include Magnum and the British Journal of Photography, I mean, 1854 Media, sorry,

I can’t say that I find any of the above particularly alarming, or even surprising, more that it seems - from an outsiders point of a view - like a perpetuation; a continuation of the status quo under a ‘new’ non-physical, spectral guise. The invisible hand made visible, only to hide behind a curtain and exclaim, loudly “That’s not me, believe me! I’m something else entirely, I’m not who you think I am!”

With the physical cultural and artistic world upheld by profit-led, private capital; its homogenised institutions the gatekeepers of all deemed ‘successful’ and worthy cultural outputs, and their expertise and ‘knowledge’ held securely behind paywalls, why should the virtual art world be any different?

Artificial scarcity abounds, transforming from physical, limited-edition miniature prints at $100 a piece into singular ‘virtual’ editions, whose ownership can belong to only one individual at a time - despite the ‘same’ image of varying resolutions likely to be found any number of times across the Internet - and whose price will fluctuate according to any number of factors: clout, reputation, aesthetic and / or total chance and luck. A system in which necessity doesn’t exist, it must instead be created in artifice. This necessity may manifest in the form of participation - we participate because we must - this is certainly true when we consider capitalism at large; if we don’t participate, the system crumbles, along with life as we know it, so we must participate or die - there is no alternative, hypothetically speaking. Is it naive, in this sense, to assume that much of NFTs current ‘success’ is reliant upon participation and (blind) belief? How far can we separate plausible explanation of their existence from artificial necessity? And, if we stop participating, will NFTs simply go away?

It must be mentioned: minting NFTs costs money - and whilst arguably this is not dissimilar to a photographer spending money on paper, toner, and postage - the promise of a greater financial return in this virtual art-utopia is what separates the two. One mints their NFTs with specific institutions or ‘collections’, buys into the system before ever remunerated themselves on the promise that minting with - and selling through - them will reap the prosumer fruitful financial returns and, whilst this may be true (truth being subjective and based upon limited self-proclamations by photographers from my Twitter excursions to date - and indeed I hope it is), I do feel as though this is a tall tale I’ve heard somewhere before.

“I had a dream in which I was a strange dealer: a dealer in looks or appearances. I collected and distributed them. In the dream I had just discovered a secret! I discovered it on my own, without help or advice. The secret was to get inside whatever I was looking at - a bucket of water, a cow, a city (like Toledo) seen from above, an oak tree, and, once inside, to arrange its appearances for the better. Better did not mean making the thing seem more beautiful or more harmonious; nor did it mean making it more typical, so that the oak tree might represent all oak trees; it simply meant making it more itself so that the cow or the city or the bucket of water became more evidently unique!”

What makes something inherently reproducible unique? Limiting the editions (reproductions) of a single object or photographic print, let’s say - doesn’t render the objects unique; the clue is in the plural. But, in the singular - the one-of-a-kind - the term ‘unique’ begins to make more sense. The word ‘unique’ seems problematic regarding digital, reproducible images; how can something be considered unique if it - by its very, malleable, ‘non-fixed’, binary-coded ‘nature’ - can be (and likely has been) reproduced ad infinitum? In the case of NFTs, ‘uniqueness’ arguably lies in their ‘minting’ - their digital certificate of authenticity. We might consider minting as the process through which one can “make something more itself” - to affirm, certify and reinforce its singularity and uniqueness - to arrange its appearance for the “better”. But isn’t this simply creating necessity (let’s face it, scarcity) where there is none? Personally, this is the only peak behind the curtain I need to dissuade from any participation; trying to navigate the glass-half-empty promises of the arts in RL is taxing enough, let alone VR. I hear the distant rallying declarations of the troupe (in perhaps not so many words): “whilst you may have access via your search engine to a digital image of society eating itself, well, I have a better version - the unique version on display in my virtual gallery of lonely, self-aggrandising, evidence-based participation within the system of spectacle - and the ‘receipts’ to prove it. Why? Because I can! Because I must, you idiot!

“Who could have foreseen…the solitude in which people today live? A solitude confirmed daily by networks of bodiless and false images concerning the world. Yet their falseness is not an error. If the pursuit of profit is considered as the only means of salvation for mankind, turnover becomes the absolute priority, and, consequently, the existent has to be disregarded or ignored or suppressed.”

Excerpts taken from John Berger’s Small Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible.

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