A few years ago, I saw the same graffiti tag in Berlin and later in Athens: “Take acid, buy crypto,” it read, as if blockchain technology had the power to open the clogged doors of perception and reveal a new world for those who are willing to see. The graffiti has likely faded, but in the vast spaces of Kunsthalle Zürich, the dream remained alive during the run of the exhibition, whose title is shorthand for the phrase “do your own research.” The show assembled more than one hundred artists, collectives, and coders who make art, images, and communities. All are connected to blockchain technology, or, in other words, decentralized registers of ownership for digital assets. DYOR framed these forays into the technology as new beginnings.
Down to its scenography, the exhibition was built on network effects. DYOR’s curator Nina Roehrs, who runs a gallery in Zurich that specializes in digital art, invited artists to invite others—hence the large number of participants. The resulting exhibition resembled a mood board, where images coexist non-hierarchically: there was no center. A glossary, written by Adina Glickstein, accompanied the exhibition and guided the uninitiated, with the help of appropriately psychedelic illustrations by Moxarra Gonzales. The exhortation “do your own research” was among the terms explained, as “an injunction to lurkers not to take what they read online at face value.”
The phrase is familiar to those in the crypto world, and the refrain “take control and DYOR” appears regularly on websites of aspiring crypto investors, speaking to a firm belief in self-subsistence. Healthy skepticism makes sense, of course, but the same sentiment also finds a home in the red-pilled, conspiratorially minded corners of the internet. This overlap, however, was largely omitted from the exhibition. The absence was especially conspicuous because blockchain technology has been tied, since its inception, to politics in oblique and often contradictory ways. For example, the cultural theorist David Golumbia wrote about how Bitcoin, first minted in 2009, was born out of a suspicion against central banks and concentrations of power, which is an iron tenet of libertarianism and adjacent far-right movements. Crypto, he argues, is a political tool; it is not a neutral medium for liberation. It promises freedom for everyone but really delivers it only for large corporations, intensifying a version of late capitalism that is already ubiquitous.
The established art market quickly took a shine to crypto—by November 2021, NFTs accounted for 5.5 percent of the big auction houses’ sales—presumably because it was an easy way to assert ownership of digital works. Despite the enthusiasts for whom the technology promised to decentralize power, big art-world players soon dominated. Beeple’s Everydays—The First 5000 Days (2007–21) famously sold for $69.3 million at Christie’s, and dealers swiftly included crypto in their portfolio, such as Berlin-based Johann König, who opened a new space dedicated to digital art in December. Expanded.art functions as a continuation of MISA—König’s micro-art fair, which also featured digital works—and it runs a website, which provides writing around the artists in the program (only König’s name is absent from the site, bar a mention in the imprint). König made headlines a few months before, when the weekly Die Zeit published an article on allegations of sexual harassment against him. Galleries are swift to provide the goods along with the discourse, and the new world looks a lot like the old one.
The notion of newness is key to DYOR. New concepts and new software are inherently a good thing, an idea imported from the world of tech, where disruption is a magical formula. For one prominent installation, titled 24 SEEDERS, twenty-four panels were arranged around poles to form x’s that hovered above the ground. This installation takes its name from a verification process to set up crypto wallets, and it was intended to give visitors a visual key and an introduction to the world of crypto. A primer on the hype around and the hurdles of this technology, the installation aimed to show the wide variety of artists who have influenced the NFT space, featuring a dazzling, multicolored array of videos, CGI, infographics, and cutouts of pixelated cartoons.
Despite the show’s emphasis on newness as an idea and a reality, blockchain-based art has a history, and DYOR acknowledged this by including veterans of the field. For instance, the exhibition presented a work by Guile Twardowksi, who illustrated the NFTs known as CryptoKitties, and artist Simon Denny, who curated a group show on crypto art at Schinkel Pavillon in Berlin. That was in 2018, before most people had heard of Ethereum, and it was Denny’s second large-scale installation on the topic (he cocreated the first at the 2016 Berlin Biennale). For the Zurich exhibition, he revived bygone websites and failed companies that fell victim to the dot-com crash. Denny and Twardowski prompted an AI to create new logos based on the business models of those ventures, as if Web3 were haunted by the ghosts of Y2K. Manuel Rossner, who has been working in virtual spaces for a decade, created a digital extension for the exhibition that, in true Metaverse fashion, was accessible only through virtual-reality headsets dangling from the gallery’s high ceilings. Among works by other artists, it features digital art by artist Jan Robert Leegte, who has been making sculptures of scrollbars and other digital artifacts since 2002, and Rafaël Rozendaal, who found a way to encode ownership into his web-based artworks long before the blockchain entered the mainstream.
As NFTs went mainstream, so did the anarchic joy that has been wired into the history of the blockchain. NFTism—a collage that the collector and artist Kenny Schachter made for DYOR, which he based around his own enthusiasm for NFTs—encapsulates this zaniness. Schachter appears next to Marcel Duchamp, dances as a hologram, is inserted into memes. In January 2022, Schachter boasted that NFTs paid for his new apartment. The ubiquitous symbols of the hype were PFPs, or profile pictures, among them Cryptopunks minted by the coders Larva Labs—a set of ten thousand different avatars, one of which was part of DYOR. Initially, in 2017, Larva Labs gave them away for free to anyone with an Ethereum wallet, promoting them as the first collectible PFPs. The collectibles now trade on the secondary market for roughly 65 ETH, or about $97,000, a hefty price tag for an eight-bit graphic that mainly signifies belonging and caters to nostalgia for early ’90s gaming. But a large segment of NFT collectors are investors with a stake in crypto. Maybe that’s why the introductory text to the show was so intent on stating that NFTs are actually art—because a large portion of the NFT market appears to consist of assets with overtly speculative potential.
Among the more puzzling displays in DYOR was Pepe the Frog Space, one of the show’s subsections. The setup recalled a college dorm, with a bright-green vintage iMac, a human-size stuffed Pepe on a couch, framed images of various memes, and a vitrine of toys. According to the exhibition text, “Pepe the Frog is the memetic center of gravity.” Originally drawn by cartoonist Matt Furie, the sad-eyed frog got a second life as a template on online message boards, notably on 4chan, where it became the avatar for an anonymous mass of downwardly mobile young men. Eventually, the character turned into an alt-right emblem and started surfacing on more mainstream social networks. When, in October 2015, Donald Trump posted a cartoon of himself in the style of Pepe on Twitter, members of the far-right rejoiced online that they had “memed Donald Trump into the White House.” The installation, intended to be a “cypherpunk living room,” lacked any reference to this political context. The exhibition text mentions only “sketchy political movements,” and the show preferred to emphasize Pepe’s place in crypto history. Rare Pepes—a series of digital trading cards and early NFTs—first sold in 2016. In October 2021, one was auctioned at Sotheby’s and sold for $3.6 million.
The past year has not been easy for blockchain enthusiasts. Crypto entered a bear market; real-world events have ushered in the so-called crypto winter. But there may be other reasons for the downturn in prices for crypto art, as the critic Ben Davis recently suggested. In a creativity-obsessed culture, attention-catching narratives are vital. Trends burn out. The constant turnover of novelty can’t be sustained, and artists are consumed in the hype cycle, relentlessly compelled to hustle.
For those skeptical of the self-regulating market, a remedy against NFT burnout lies elsewhere. DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations, are collectively owned and self-managed groups that can technically serve many purposes: distribute funds, organize across national borders, create new structures for artists. Members of the Black Swan DAO question the emotional sustainability of economic models and forms. Black Swan was featured in DYOR as an example of different forms of communal organizing, visualized through the political-compass meme. The Berlin-based collective dates to 2018, when writer and visual theorist Penny Rafferty sketched the idea for a community-owned support system embedded in the art world. Early participants were invited to role-play clans, guilds, cults, and ventures, searching for models for Web3 organization in collaborative play—and eschewing the gamified hustle of an overheated market.
Ruth Catlow, who runs the London-based arts organization and online community Furtherfield, also belongs to Black Swan. Together with Rafferty, she published a book not long before DYOR opened, titled Radical Friends, which resulted from a collaboration with the Goethe-Institute and Serpentine Galleries. The volume takes inspiration from old avant-garde and political movements, and the contributions range from utopianism to critique. Amid a crypto winter, Catlow and Rafferty ask the question that perhaps DYOR, the exhibition, forgot to pose: “Was this cryptographically secured Internet money and value called the blockchain not built to free us from reliance on outmoded corruptible human institutions?” Their answer is a hopeful yes, though such freedom requires prioritizing connection and communion over efficiency and productivity.