Aura & Transvestment

Aura & Transvestment

Aura & Transvestment is a transmedia project consisting of a series of generative images, an experimental form of crypto-media, this website and a video essay. By describing its own powers and contradictions, the work explores notions of value, ownership, authenticity, artificial scarcity and abundance in the digital realm. The project is a critical analysis of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) used as proof of ownership for digital art, taking Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura as a starting point. It argues that, for tokenized art, cryptography serves as an artificial source of auratic power that reverts the political potential of reproducibility falling back to a magical and ritual notion of aura. This time around the ritual performed is that of property, authenticity, ownership, markets and commodification. Finally, the essay outlines alternative uses of cryptography and Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT) to support artistic labor and proposes transvestment as a temporary counter-action for the reallocation of value from capitalist forms of production and into commons-based models of social coordination.

If you seek a unique encounter click here. The generative algorithm will run in your browser for one of the paintings. Click or tap the image at any point to save a file.

If you seek authenticity, the power of cryptography must be redirected towards emancipatory purposes. You must comply with a proof of transvestment:

The generative images are based on public domain photographs of various western artworks created between 1895 and 1935, visual works that were around at the time when Walter Benjamin wrote his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". The images are modified with a simple, yet resource intensive algorithm and released as “not Non-fungible Tokens For Transvestment” (!NFTs) a form of cryptomedia that stands in tangential opposition to NFTs by repurposing some of their mechanisms for alternative outcomes. As a celebration of anti-scarcity, digital pirates, commons workers, artists releasing work with copyleft licencing, free-software contributors, environmental activists, women, LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC people working in the DLT space are encouraged to claim one of these ‘authentic’ signed pieces. Additionally, the recipients are invited to join a micro decentralized organization that will hold collective ownership of the only tokenized element in this work: The video essay.

Disguised among the pixel data, each !NFT contains an auratic package with a set of files that cryptographically certify that the media was signed by the artist and dedicated to a specific recipient. The package is hidden inside the media using steganography, a form of concealment of data inside other data. The auratic files are implemented with common public key cryptography (PGP), it is local-first and does not rely on a blockchain smart contract. Only the original image or lossless copies of them will retrieve the hidden package. In this way, the auratic package is held inside the image itself by modifying it’s pixel data to utilize the media as a vehicle for the auratic power that cryptography provides. Read a full explanation of the system in the !NFT documentation.

I’ll be signing pieces for the foreseeable future so the supply of signed pieces will be organically determined by the people who claim them. Each piece will be unique.

With this act, the auratic power of cryptography is redirected back towards the political and the manufactured authenticity it provides is made functional for conceptual purposes. Let this be a warning, for when objects are gratuitously made scarce, spurious markets spawn...

Why claim ownership over the intangible?

Why conjure a market into existence through the illusion of authenticity?

Why build platforms, communities and infrastructure around enforcing property rights?

To willingly carry the weight of physical matter?

To knowingly emulate the unfair structures of capitalism?

To surrender the infinite power of abundance in favor of commodity fetishism?

Distributed Ledger Technologies are becoming crucial to create a new ecosystem for creators and their audiences, but how does this future look like? Perhaps as a federated, mutualist network of non-rivalrous forms of art making financially supported by solidarity-based collectives of patrons, decentralized institutions, anti-copyright funds and democratically ran artists cooperatives.

We have the technological capacity to renounce individual ownership and to dismiss property as a by-product of our material past. We can use the power of cryptography and distributed ledger technologies to foster a culture of commons-based artistic practices and fund institutional alternatives that act outside State and corporate logics.

By focusing our efforts on building infrastructure that helps in the decoupling of artistic labor from the monetization of the artworks, we can fund artists while reverting the neoliberal mechanisms of commodification and intellectual property.

Digital provenance can help us understand the complex ecosystem of interdependent relations, attributions, remixes and appropriations, enabling artists to build reputation and social capital, without the need of commercializing the art itself.

NFTs can act as a ‘proof of patronage’, enabling direct mechanism for crowdfunding, badges of reputation for social media, or as an explicit agreement between artists and audiences, granting contributors access to artists’ shows in physical space.

NFTs can allow for forms of collective ownership over digital or physical objects and serve as tokens for emotional connections as representation of memories related to museum pieces, monuments or public spaces.

Artist-issued social currencies that are earned through participation, infrastructure maintenance, community moderation and other forms of non-monetary support may enable new forms of relationships that foster healthy interdependence among artists and audiences.

A new generation of patronage platforms could redistribute wealth through an Artistic Universal Basic Income that includes those involved in maintaining cultural infrastructure, doing care work and other invisibilized forms of labor, and those who work with performance, oral tradition and other ephemeral, untokenizable forms of art.

Artist ran DAOs, DiSCOs, and other forms of horizontal organization have the potential to bring upon a new era of cultural institutions that are democratically run and that have transparent financing models able to award grants, organize events, maintain physical venues and engage in long term projects of artistic knowledge production. These collectives can also become powerful stakeholders that help artists negotiate with the State and private funders for a better management and allocation of available funds.

The possibilities are endless and our journey has just begun. As these forms of organization continue to pop-up, systems that support them must be established. A new normal is to be built. Transvestment acts as a form of direct action for the expropriation of value from capitalist forms of production and into new models of social coordination. By strategically participating in the capitalist market economy, projects may acquire capital that can be redirected towards emancipatory purposes. Commercial value must serve as a stepping stone for funding long lasting, post-capitalist projects, allocating resources towards nurturing forms of deeper wealth.

In essence, this project seeks to shift the narrative in the crypto-art community: To transcend the market-first approach of common NFT implementations and consciously utilize DLTs and web3 as revolutionary technologies that can help us expand beyond commodification, precarization and speculation.

All resulting images are released under a peer production licence a Copyfair type of license, in which only other commoners, cooperatives and nonprofits can share and re-use the material, but not commercial entities intent on making profit through the commons without explicit the licence text.

Inspiration for this work, further reading and references:
(for a full list of referenced material and citation, please read the written essay in PDF form).

DaDa notion of Invisible economy
Towards a New Ecology of Crypto Art
Another New World
Tokenizing Sustainability
the presence of the original
The Downward Spiral: Popular Things
Fascism on the Blockchain? The Work of Art in the Age of NFTs
Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain
There is no Such Thing as Blockchain Art
The Sphere

Théodore Duret | Edouard Vuillard | ca.1912 | Knowledge freedom

The Bathers | Roger de La Fresnaye | 1912 | Horizontal organization

Geburt der Pferde | Franz Marc | 1913 | Free software

Frosty Day | Alexej von Jawlensky | 1915 | Environmental activism

Two Peasant Girls | Paula Modersohn-Becker | ca.1900 | Gender diversity

Study for the Young Sabot Maker | Henry Ossawa Tanner | ca.1895 | Racial diversity

Reverie (Study for the Portrait of Frank Burty Haviland) | Amedeo Modigliani | 1914 | Artistic work for the commons

Pan IV (Arcadia) | Hippolyte Petitjean | 1898/1900 | Patronage

Read the !NFT documentation
Download the essay in text form
A project by Pablo Somonte Ruano