Written by Italian curator and art critic Domenico Quaranta, Surfing with Satoshi. Art, Blockchain & NFTs was published in 2021 originally in Italian, with an English translation released by Aksioma–Institute for Contemporary Art in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The cover of the book shows a coin engraved with the image of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai and a statue of a Byzantine general. The latter refers to the renowned “The Byzantine Generals Problem,” which was borrowed as the title of an exhibition curated by Quaranta on the online exhibition platform “distant.gallery” in 2022.
The title of the book is eye-catching. The term “Surfing with Satoshi” is borrowed from the Italian art group Alterazioni Video’s film released in 2013. The film centers on the hypothesis of the death of Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of bitcoin. A group of friends set out for Puerto Rico in search of Nakamoto, for it was said that he used to live with some hackers in a cave in Puerto Rico. However, the whole film is more like featuring these people experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in this lively Central American country.
The subtitle of this book implies that it is an ambitious project aiming at discussing art, blockchains, and Non-Fungible Tokens. Through many case studies, Quaranta almost goes through every key event, discussion, and publication concerning related issues around 2021. Many writers publishing about the blockchains worry that compared to the continuous development of technologies and the market, written contents become outdated too fast. Such anxiety is also mentioned by Quaranta in the introduction to the English edition. However, it appears that this anxiety is unnecessary, for this book can always be read from an “archeological” perspective. Written when a bull market was in full swing, this book thus seems appropriate to be read and examined when a bear market occurs so that participation and engagement in the market may be considered.
Surfing with Satoshi. Art, Blockchain & NFTs consists of five chapters. Chapter One “The Utopia and Dystopia of the Blockchain” introduces the development of blockchain technology. Some put high expectations on it, while others remain doubtful or express concern about its contribution to a more closed internet environment. For those who are unfamiliar with the blockchain, this chapter is a clear and concise introduction. If you are already equipped with some basic knowledge, a delve into the following chapters is recommended. Chapter Two to Chapter Four extend Quaranta’s earlier writing style in Beyond New Media Art. By analyzing changes artworks bring to art creation through their intention to search for new technologies or media, Quaranta manages to further define the possible realm of New Media Art or Crypto Art.
Speaking of the blockchain or NFTs, many would rush into labeling them with technological hype, speculative frenzy, and “ugly and useless jpg.” But which one is more in need of the other, art or the blockchain? Quaranta considers that both benefit in their mutual exchanges, but for now, art seems to be more on the downside. Artworks have been improperly appropriated as selling strategies for cryptocurrencies. Quaranta cites Twobadour, the co-founder of the NFT fund “Metakovan,” who announced at the event “NFT.NYC” in 2021 that “NFT needs art more than art needs NFT.” It was 2008 when Nakamoto published the Bitcoin whitepaper on P2P Foundation, not to mention that cypherpunks managed to create a customer-to-customer cryptocurrency system back in the 1980s. But to be honest, thanks to artworks created in the form of NFTs (leaving aside aesthetic issues), blockchain technology quickly caught public attention in recent years. One can even find charged services that help upload NFTs in Fo-Ho Bridge Flee Market in Taipei.
Does art creation inevitably fall behind technology? It depends on which kinds of conceptive frameworks we take on. However, there is one thing we can be certain about. Before the rise of the cryptocurrency market, many artists have been reflecting upon and criticizing blockchain technologies. Chapter Two “Art and The Blockchain” introduces these kinds of works, which include some cryptocurrencies invented by artists themselves. Jonas Lund, for instance, launched 100,000 Jonas Lund Tokens on Ethereum to his name. Those who collect artworks or buy crypto tokens can organize ballots with their tokens to decide the development of the artist, including whether to participate in an exhibition. In this way, the artist pursues his career in the system of a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO).
Moving on, Quaranta leads us to an earlier period of time. Chapter Three “Reproducibility, Value and The Market for Media Art” opens with a reference to John Berger’s TV show Ways of Seeing, aired in 1972. In this chapter, Quaranta goes through Walter Benjamin’s theory of mechanical reproduction and Berger’s observation of mass media. He then discusses Nelson Goodman’s formal analysis of two artforms: autographic art and allographic art in Languages of Art. For Nelson, autographic art can be copied (imitated or mass reproduced, but the copied may not be fully identical to the original) but cannot be completely duplicated (the duplication is identical to the original). For instance, the market value of a painting depends on the scarcity of the original. On the other hand, dancing, music, drama, and images and software that can be executed repeatedly are performed by replaying rules or carrying out scripts, and thus can be categorized as “allographic art.”
Allographic art usually exists in the economic system where it is distributed. Artists have been thinking about how to sell non-physical concepts or experiences since conceptual art in the 1960s. Surfing with Satoshi includes superb cases such as Yves Klein’s Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, the approach Sol LeWitt documented scripts and certificates for his wall-drawings of lines, and Robert Rauschenberg’s This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert if I Say So. In the press release for auctioning Beeple’s EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, referring to digital art, Christie’s claims that “…the ease of duplication traditionally made it near-impossible to assign provenance and value to the medium” and praises Beeple’s work as a milestone to digital art collections. However, Quaranta believes that this statement completely overlooks art history that dates back to the 1960s.
The title for Chapter Four “Crypto Art?” comes with a question mark. In previous chapters, Quaranta purposely avoids using “crypto art” to describe any case he mentions. In this chapter, he finally provides a thorough explanation of this term. He tries to trace the time when “crypto art” is used to refer to artworks, while this artistic genre does not classify art by means of medium, styles, and creative concepts, nor does it overlap with any existing artistic genres. Quaranta manages to induce that crypto art is “a mode of existence online of a small amount of art(digital or physical) and a lot of non-art(digital and physical), regulated by the blockchain” (pp.240) in addition to the environment and communities that support such a mode of existence. Perhaps it is way too early to define “crypto art” now, but at least we can already perceive clearly the changes blockchains bring to artistic creations and markets.
In addition to collectors and artists, Quaranta notices that more and more curators, galleries, and institutions have been involved in the communities of blockchains and NFTs. Among them are left gallery run by artist Harm van den Dorpel, Foundation, an NFT marketplace led by Lindsay Howard, and Casey Reas, the inventor of programming language Processing and co-founder of curating platform/ marketplace Feral File. In the last chapter of this book “The NFT Craze: Utopia or Speculation?” Quaranta digs into the data and sees if artists profit from the NFTs. Kimberly Parker, a Canadian artist, exclaims that “Artists are losers in a Ponzi scheme!” In April 2021, Parker processed data collected from many large NFT marketplaces and made graphs. He ended up discovering that a vast amount of wealth is made by a handful of artists. Many relatively cheap artworks may even lose money over high gas fees.
Are artists really losers? If we are willing to wait for a moment, maybe the answer to this question would vary. Lawerence Lessig uses “Code is Law” to explain how smart contracts execute automatically and cannot be modified. Despite such features of smart contracts, for Quaranta, programming codes essentially carry man-made ideas and concepts. I agree with his conclusion. If this book should have a second volume, I also expect Quaranta would tackle with related further questions: How do artistic communities based on blockchain technologies interact with each other? Can open data of transaction records be viewed as new materials for art history?
The big wave is coming. Some struggle to remain on the surface, while others break the tide and ride the wave. Are you ready to go surfing with Satoshi?
 Inside the NFT Rush: Entrepreneurs Promise NFTs Will Destroy the Gatekeepers, While Jockeying to Become the New Gatekeepers。In the video record on Youtube, his original words are “Crypto needs NFTs more than NFTs need crypto.”
LEE Chia-Lin graduated from the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, National Taiwan University, and the Institute of Contemporary Art & Social Thoughts, China Academy of Art. She is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Fine Arts at Taipei National University of the Arts. Her research focuses on the culture, media and art developed and created in the digital era. As the founder of ZIMU CULTURE, LEE also works on curatorial projects and publishes books.