The blockchain signals a shift in our identity formation in the 21st century.
Claudia Hart | Ed HyperAllergic | 20 April 2021
Claudia Hart, Kiki.Object (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.
I wrote A Feminist Manifesta of the Blockchain, on Easter Sunday, April 4 as part of an artwork made for Feral File, the NFT platform of media artist Casey Reas. The manifesta, though abstract in its thinking, emerged from political events in the real world that brought me to the conclusion that blockchains represent a dramatic shift in the way we make representations. They symbolize a certain way we think about art and the ethics and cultural value that we assign to it, and how we humans stand in relationship to the material world.
On March 11, Beeple’s “The First 5000 Days” (2021) non-fungible token (NFT) artwork went for $69.3 million on auction at Christie’s. This sale and the ensuing NFT madness witnessed and promoted by the press and on social media seem to represent the crystallization and apotheosis of a crisis of representation that to me found its beginnings in the “identity art” niche I occupied as a young artist in the late 1990s.
I am hoping, strangely enough, that this big NFT boom is the first stage in the blowing up of internet hegemonies to strip the ground for what is still not clear is coming. To me, this explosion points toward a new blockchain-based mythology of representation, as opposed to an earlier one that seized on mechanical reproduction and the specific technology of photography. This blockchain paradigm is informed by ideas about a still propositional internet 3.0 — the next phase, distributed internet that will sit on blockchain technologies, the same technology used to create crypto currencies but primed to exploit the many other possibilities inherent to it. Internet 3.0 technology would be encrypted, distributed across a network, and secure. Part of its promise is the possibility of a decentralized identifier (DID), a secure digital identity, written by a subject, and replacing the algorithmic, branded, selfie product, a representational trope that marks the closure of the old, materialist photographic one. This DID would be encoded on a blockchain, protected by “smart” contract, secured by cryptology, necessarily transparent, and distributed directly peer to peer. NFT identity on the blockchain inspired me because it seems to embody an evolved version of the liberation politics of my youth, when I was an idealistic “identity” artist.
Claudia Hart, Feminist Manifesta (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.
Because it is encoded, blockchain identity prioritizes the written — meaning it can be imagined as an inscription of the “voice” inside one’s head. Writing is manifesting one’s voice, and is therefore internally motivated, subjective, and conceptual. I feel that the encoded smart contract and the DID will replace an earlier, materialist notion of authenticity and truth in our imaginations — a notion physicalized by the photographic document or the act of photographic capture. In contemporary life, the failure of photography to remain dominant as the key signifier of a modernity of constructive, steady, technological progress is epitomized by the notion of the algorithmic “selfie” that we are culturally pressured to adopt. Social media conditions us to produce fluid adaptable selves, made to maximize herd approval. We become performers for an all-seeing eye, our on-board computer cameras; we are the objects of its patriarchal gaze; in our digital representations we are formed by it. Our ability to adopt an effective, algorithmic internet self seems to be an adaptive requirement, necessary to succeed in an era in crisis, experiencing pandemics and high-speed social change. Selfies are an illustration of the precarious balance between using a new technology and being used by it.
January 6 was a moment of insight for me, when I watched with horror as beloved digital-art colleagues continued to post their algorithmic selfies, trying to promote their work, on an apparently normal day in quarantined life, as Rome burned. My insight about cryptographically encoded, secure identity, was informed by that experience, watching the insurrection live and in real time on internet 2.0. The internet that had been our public square, and also the site of trade, banking, love, and social life, was now ruled by a mob. On January 6th it became blindingly apparent to me that we as a culture had lost control of our data, and as a direct result, of almost everything else. Surveilled on a social media where corporations track our habits and patterns, blithely contributing the consumer identities we supply to internet providers via credit card, we have lost control of our data but also of our “selves.” As a direct result of social-media data scraping and its weaponization and implementation by the far right — the tale of Cambridge Analytica being the most obvious case in point — our algorithmic selfies, our “brands,” have transmogrified into creatures. We are brainwashed, manipulated, flooded with misinformation, enflamed to spread chaos, and successfully exploited by those whose intention is to install Donald Trump as an autocratic emperor.
What became so frighteningly clear to me on that day, was that the idea of digital fluidity expressed by Donna Haraway’s notion of the Cyborg in the 1980s and a symbol of gender liberation to me in the ‘90s, when made manifest in everyday life on the internet, has become so anxiety provoking and stressful to a large part of the US population, that they have been driven Q-Anon-mad. Now they are propelled toward an anchor: the rigid, hierarchical logocentrism of Trump’s politics. The possibility of using nature and natural forces that seduced me when I started working with reconstructions of algorithmic data culled from the natural world — meaning simulations technologies — because I could manipulate them for symbolic, conceptual, and expressive purposes, was now being weaponized by social media as a tool to spread fake news. What we have left of a putative democracy now seems to hang in the balance of an extreme rift between progressive change — meaning that which is fluid and adaptable — and ancient hierarchies. And democracy is not enduring the stress of this rift very well at all. What we live now is not the outcome I had hoped for, not the liberation that I once envisioned.
I am therefore upholding the paradigm of the blockchain and the self-encoded, encrypted, smart contract as a guiding principle and a model for a post-photographic digital age. Having lived through the past 30 years as an artist pondering issues of representation and studying its history, I am putting it forth: A Feminist Manifesta on the Blockchain.