Exhibition

A mischievous work of conceptual art aims to critique the multimillion-dollar art market in NFTs – and the joke might ultimately be on the buyers. By Clem Bastow.

White Male Artist

$HT Coin by Cassils (aka White Male Artist).
Credit: Robin Black

Intrigue rippled through the crypto world this July: a pseudonymous figure, White Male Artist, was selling NFTs inspired by Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit), a 1961 work that consists of 90 tin cans reportedly filled with the artist’s faeces.

In White Male Artist’s work, each day a non-fungible token representing a different digital can of shit labelled with the diet of a famous white male artist would be up for grabs. Press assets heralded “The Greatest and Most Ambitious NFT Performance of All Time”: $HT Coin.

By the end of July, the truth was revealed: White Male Artist was Cassils, the Guggenheim Award-winning Canadian–American transgender artist, and their shit – both digital and physical – was headed to Phillips auction house. They had been eating the diets of 32 different art titans – menus devised with forensic attention to discursive evidence such as a Vanity Fair profile that noted Jeff Koons’ predilection for Zone bars – and preserving the excremental results.

The first 28 sold via NFT marketplace Snark.art; one, After Picasso, sold to Buyer #945289 for 6.75 Ethereum (about $21,500). The final can, of Cassils’ own shit, was sold for $A14,500 from a starting bid of $1470: as with Manzoni’s original price point, it was the contemporaneous price of 30 grams of gold.

NFTs are digital assets linked to works – both online, such as digital artworks, tweets and videos, and “real world” physical art objects – that use blockchain technology to record transactions, which creates a digital form of provenance. Here they were linked to both the digital representations of the eponymous shit – white-labelled tins with glittering gold lids – and their “Physical Companions”.   

$HT Coin is a work in tandem: the digital performance as a mysterious NFT titan, drawing attention to the absurdity of the NFT boom, and the physical one that chips away at the gender inequities of the art market.

It is not the first time Cassils’ excretions have been the basis for durational performance; their 2017 work Pissed saw them collecting 200 gallons of urine in a glass cube, to represent the 200 days following president Donald Trump’s rescinding of Obama-era guidelines that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms that reflected their gender identity.

This embodied practice in concert with queer and community politics is a constant in Cassils’ work. The decision to live – to eat – “as” noted white male artists for a month and collect the resulting shit takes Manzoni’s satire of consumerism and expands it to critique the secondary market within which Manzoni’s tins have become a commodity. As the artist John Miller wrote in 2007, Manzoni’s tins have demonstrated “excremental value”; one can, No. 69, sold in 2016 for €220,000.

Central to the legacy of Artist’s Shit is whether the tins actually contain what the label purports; rumours about the contents range from cotton wool to plaster to shit of a different species. In 1989 the artist Bernard Bazile pried one open and his Boîte de Piero Manzoni ouverte revealed the truth: a smaller can, also labelled “Artist’s Shit”, was carefully tucked inside. In 2006, Bazile’s work sold at Christie’s for €24,000.

Bazile’s bewitching photo series The Owners, taken from 1999 to 2003, captures those who have purchased Manzoni’s shit posing proudly with the tins they spent so much to obtain. The power of the images comes in part from wondering whether these people are clutching tins of human excrement or plaster – and whether they care either way.

$HT Coin prods the onlooker to consider similar quandaries: do the crypto bros implicated in the work care that they are bidding on an NFT that expressly positions them as willing to purchase literal or digital shit? Are the winning bidders, in fact, crypto bros at all? As The Owners demonstrates, the secondary market is not solely populated by White Male Art Buyers.

Earlier this year, Glitch chief executive Anil Dash reflected on the nascent NFT technology he and digital artist Kevin McCoy proposed in 2014, lamenting in The Atlantic that “the only thing we’d wanted to do was ensure that artists could make some money and have control over their work”. Now, as with Dutch tulips, Beanie Babies and bitcoin before them, there is a hot market for NFTs, due in no small part to Christie’s sale of digital artist Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days for $US69.3 million in March. That sale rocketed Beeple to the ranks of the most valuable living artists.

Everydays: The First 5000 Days is not a particularly good work; it’s like a 1990s photomosaic that hasn’t yet been arranged into an image. The individual pieces that it consists of include dreary semi-abstract sketches – one with the illustrative title if i was one of them fancy-dancy elite art homos i’d call this ‘light study v1’ – and satirical cartoons that wouldn’t be out of place on 4Chan.

While some in the crypto world view the NFT frenzy as a democratisation of the art world, so far it seems doomed to repeat the same mistakes – individualist, masculinist, capitalist – as the broader crypto boom. If there is big money in NFTs, there is also an accompanying environmental crisis: the computing power required to run Ethereum, the blockchain used to mint many NFTs, is roughly equal to the power consumption of Libya.

Mindful of this, the carbon offset for $HT Coin comes by way of a donation to Solitary Gardens, an abolitionist art project that plants community garden beds in the shape of solitary confinement cells. Ten per cent of the proceeds from the NFT auctions will help to establish a fund for trans and non-binary artists of colour through artist-led organisation For Freedoms.

While this is admirable, the project begs the broader question: is it possible to critique a system such as cryptocurrency or NFTs from within or will this critique be lost on those who rush to snap up their shit NFT? Think of The Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right”: created to sledge frat boy culture, cursed to soundtrack it forever more. $HT Coin’s razzle-dazzle reveal and digital performance intrigues, but the abject act of shitting while white and male speaks more profoundly to the questions of gender, class and access that trouble the contemporary art landscape.

After the mask was torn from White Male Artist’s face, the tone of the online discussion surrounding $HT Coin shifted from intrigue to debate. Whooshing straight past the condemnation of its crypto and Big Art targets, it skipped to a rather more disheartening topic: the role of the artist in late capitalism. Commenters attacked Cassils for “only” donating 10 per cent of the proceeds, for ripping off Manzoni and for employing an environmentally suspect medium.    

Lost in this frenzied debate was a key aspect of both Cassils’ and Manzoni’s works: they are provocations but they’re also great jokes. The biggest joke may be yet to come. If the NFT bubble bursts, the links break or crucial hard drives crash, a new generation of Owners may find their cryptocurrency bottomed out and digital provenance evaporated, with nothing to show but an electronic tag that once linked to a piece of excremental art.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 21, 2021 as "Excremental art".

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Clem Bastow is a Melbourne-based writer and critic.