by Sukanya GargApr 23, 2020
What does it mean to experience art in a physical space after the pandemic? We asked ourselves this question while putting together Terrain Offline, the first on-ground exhibition of Terrain.art - a blockchain powered art ecosystem founded by Aparajita Jain. The challenge of making Terrain Offline was multifold: What did it mean for a primarily virtual platform to host a physical exhibition? And how radically had the site of an exhibition altered since the practices of social distancing came into being? It is a fact that the field of contemporary art has undergone unprecedented shifts in the aftermath of the pandemic. Cultural and academic institutions that are for profit and not for profit have come to a consensus that they will have to be agile to the coexistence of the digital and the physical.
Terrain Offline brought together a diverse range of practices and mediums that Terrain.art represents and collaborates with to the dynamic cultural space of Bikaner House in New Delhi. The scope of physical exhibition-making in a time like this certainly poses the challenge of unpredictability in terms of execution and speculating the extent of audience participation. Given the limited space for art viewing in times of a pandemic, we wondered if the audience would linger on to contemplate artworks for a longer duration. Could interactive art customised for VR headsets still be included? Do the public programs need a different organisational approach?
With artists from India and beyond, the exhibition featured artworks encompassing the themes of ecology, abstraction, migration, body, and futuristic imaginations. Quite centrally, the exhibition introduced the audience in India to the technology of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) with all artworks in the show being certified using NFTs. NFTs are digital identifiers that are unique and available to be verified on a public blockchain network. While they reconfigure the convention of authenticity certificates for physical artworks, NFTs also amplify the field of digital art that historically faced the crisis of unauthorised reproduction.
The exhibition design of Terrain Offline was guided by the architecture of Bikaner House, with each room being interlaced with contextual poetry and texts to make diverse art practices accessible to a wider audience. Furthermore, walkthroughs by our team built on the intentions behind the conceptual groupings of the artworks. One of the unique and rather unexpected outcomes of Terrain Offline was the attendance of a community that spanned across age groups and sectors such as the arts, design, media, and tech. Moving beyond the constraints we had imagined in the post pandemic times, the audience stuck around for longer durations, interacted with the artists and participated in public programs. And some even returned to the exhibition over the three days.
The making of the exhibition was configured by a play of ideas, mediums, and scales that could fold into each other or contradict each other. One such juxtaposition was in the corridor with the display of digital NFTs by Laya Mathikshara and Amrit Pal Singh, two renowned Indian artists in the NFT art space. This is the first time their works were presented in conversation with each other and beyond the online NFT marketplace. We were thrilled by how the idea of a Decentralised Honeycomb by Mathikshara and a Daft Punk Toy Face by Pal Singh came together in this passageway alongside paintings by Nur Mahammad that reflect on the Xenophobia and islamophobia of our current society.
Presenting digital art made primarily as NFTs for the first time in India in the space of a physical exhibition not only realigns its relationship with the field of contemporary art but also creates a distinct spatial context of viewing the works themselves. It was crucial for us to present these works beyond our virtual platform to address the limited familiarity around digital art and NFTs. This attempt was a conversation starter for NFTs and an opportunity to highlight our entangled contemporary co-existence both in the virtual and the physical worlds.
During the many walkthrough sessions that took place over the course of the exhibition, one of the key questions that kept coming up was, “Are NFTs relevant to physical artworks such as paintings and sculptures?” As a platform that advocates the transparency of a blockchain network, it is important to embrace how the standard of NFTs revolutionises authentication and provenance procedures for all mediums of art that help track ownership and empower artists to receive royalties for the resale of their works.
With NFTs, artists are provided with a robust standard which in turn builds trust among private collectors as well as institutions. Like the early Net art of the 1990s that responded to the newly emergent tool of the World Wide Web, some artists are consciously responding to the technology of NFTs to create art. The wave of NFTs in the art world was accelerated by the monumental Christie's auction of a work by Beeple with a 69.3 million USD winning bid, the highest for digital artwork in history. The conversation also led conventional art institutions such as art galleries to explore the sale of NFTs while accepting payments in cryptocurrency. Open NFT marketplaces such as OpenSea, Foundation, SuperRare, and Nifty Gateway take this conversation further where artists can register, present and sell their works directly to buyers. Often traded in cryptocurrency, the prices of the works on these platforms fluctuate every day through competing bids and open up easier avenues for secondary sales. At Terrain.art, we are in the process of launching an NFT open marketplace to host emerging networks of artists in South Asia while continuing to support artists practicing other mediums of art.
As we collectively attempt to move past the repercussions of the pandemic on the cultural ecosystem, the production, presentation, and circulation of art demand another kind of preparedness. One that seamlessly navigates across different forms and platforms, constantly adapting to the scope of art and experiences it could create. How can this vision continue to reflect in the dynamic site of the exhibition and be fueled by the robust technology of the blockchain? We will have to wait and see where the post-pandemic ripples take us.