Pak’s “The Title” Brings Digital Art into the Neo-Avant-Garde

While I’m pleased to see the recent attention received and value created in the NFT space, I must say I have not really been intrigued from a critical perspective since Cryptopunks — that is until Pak’s latest collection “The Title”. This is one of few works (Mr. Fox’s “Burn Before Reading” also comes to mind) that seeks to understand itself.

A small amount of art historical knowledge is perhaps helpful context for my perspective. In the late 50s and 60s, at the same moment Michel Foucault was deconstructing our grand narratives and institutions, and Marshall McLuhan was penning that the “medium is the message,” artists like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg were interrogating their respective mediums with the question “What is Art?”

Cage’s “4:33”, in many ways building on the questions of authorship and “work” of Duchamp’s “Fountain” in 1917, is a composition lasting 4 minutes and 33 seconds in which the musician sits silently with their instrument for the arrangement of the piece, elevating the ambient noise of the environment — audience rustlings, seating creaks, distant traffic — from the status of noise to the refinement of music. What is music? Cage seems to suggest it is not a thing that comes from an instrument but a perspective that occurs in the mind. It is a way of viewing things and the world — all it takes for something to be art is for someone to say “Look at it this way.”

The conceptual paths you can follow from this are numerous, and much of what you see in modern and contemporary art museums are direct descendants of this line of thinking. What is Art? Who’s deciding? Where is Art happening? Who’s buying Art? How are they valuing Art? Who is the Artist?

An exhibition more directly related to Pak’s “The Title” can be found in Yves Klein’s Proposte Monocrome: Epoca Blu in 1957, in which Klein exhibited multiple identical blue canvases sold for varying prices.

This is one of the first examples of an artist directly contending with the financialization of art, a sub-niche with a large number of fascinating works I may write about later. Reflecting upon the exhibition, Klein writes:

But each painting’s blue world, although of the same blue and treated in the same way, revealed itself to be of entirely different essence and atmosphere; none resembled the other anymore than pictorial moments and pœtic moments resemble each other. (…)

The most sensational observation was that of the buyers. Each selected from among the eleven displayed paintings the one that pleased them the most and paid its price. The prices, of course, were all different. This fact demonstrated that, on the one hand, the pictorial quality of each painting was perceptible by something other than the material and physical appearance…

His meaning exists in between the lines — each revealed itself to be entirely difference in essence and atmosphere, despite identical treatment… the quality was perceptible by something other than material and appearance… price! Literally just price. Klein reveals here that the price itself is not just a conceptual joke — it is a fundamental part of the work itself, and it legitimately changes the experience of the work, despite the sensory experience being identical. The implications of this go beyond Proposte Monocrome — Klein has proven something fundamental about the nature of how we experience painting. Context matters, price matters, the author matters, all of these things that are not the work itself are actively and critically influencing our experience of the work.

One of the reasons I find the crypto art scene so fascinating is that digital art has never really had the capacity to investigate many of these fundamental self-referential questions regarding its nature. Since the 60s we’ve seen ceramics, textiles, illustration, etc. undergo the transition from craft to fine art, but the digital has remained craft, because it cannot be owned, it can only be used for commercial purposes. Finally, this has shifted, as well as become integrated with an entirely new artistic medium of cryptography.

While I support and applaud those in the NFT space who are creating interesting aesthetic compositions (as Beeple has proven when done well the results can be remarkable), what I have really been on the lookout for is those artists who are interrogating and pushing the bounds of the medium itself. This is what Pak has done with The Title.

“The Title” consists of 9 pieces: The Unsold, The Expensive, The Cheap, The Blind, The Flipper, The Lucky, Copy, Paste, and The Gift — the NFT of all of which are linked into a single ipfs file showing a rotating semi-transluscent cube. Each work has a varying number of editions and could be earned in various ways — open edition purchase, limited edition purchase, blind auction, standard auction, and gifting. It’s a wonderful expansion upon the ideas first proposed by Klein that adds in gamification, hype, and community participation. In some ways that would have been enough for me to be interested and excited, but Pak goes deeper.

One of the critiques of the collection brought up by @j1mmyeth was that the NFT only contained metadata, not the actual image file itself. In most cases, this would be quite valid and is an ongoing conversation within the NFT community. Pak, however, was waiting for this exact criticism. As mentioned above, every single edition of each work above are all linked to a single ipfs file. So… does anyone actually own that file? Do all holders of the collection collectively own the file? Do purchasers of The Expensive own more of it than The Cheap holders? What exactly do any of the collectors own?

The only thing we can say for sure is that the collectors own an NFT token created by Pak and sold as part of this collection. We know the circumstances of each token’s creation. What exactly it means and represents is up for debate.

Ultimately, Pak is asking one of the most critical questions as it relates to this new media: What is ownership?

I believe this is the type of work that is most needed in the crypto art space. The opportunity to elevate one medium from craft to art intertwined with the possibilities of an entirely new medium deserves and needs to be interrogated and experimented with in a spirit of curiosity, fun, and thoughtfulness. Pak’s “The Title” checks off each of those boxes in a way that makes me incredibly excited for the future of this space. I think we’re really just at the beginning of artists playing within the specific rules and possibilities that crypto allows.

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