In trying to assess the NFT as a phenomenon, I was at first stymied as a critic by the speed at which the crypto-art world moves. Then a realization hit me: to theorize the NFT is to theorize this same speed. Cultural theorist Paul Virilio’s political and architectural writing about speed was a good starting point. But it is no longer enough to simply talk about speed. We must also consider the ways in which making art on the blockchain has created a form of unprecedented acceleration, and the implications of that acceleration for being and looking. What follows is an attempt to frame this discussion in new theoretical and emotional terms.
“Stasis is death” — Colonel Delair, on engineering and artillery, in 1888, quoted as a refrain in Paul Virilio’s Speed and Politics (1977).
- Virlio writes the history of society and sovereignty through speed and technology. He calls it “dromology,” from the Greek dromos, for racecourse.
- At 4:30 AM I am re-loading a generative art page called “fxhash” that mints on Tezos. Minting is when a token that represents the art is generated in the moment you buy it. Tezos is a volatile, low-price cryptocurrency in vogue with more experimental artists. I am waiting for a “drop,” which is what we call it now when art becomes available to snatch up before it appreciates. I am waiting like a charioteer with nervous horses behind one of the tiered gates of the Circus Maximus. I am waiting to move very quickly.
- The piece I am trying to get is called “Chaos Research.” It moves relatively slowly in terms of lines on a screen that look like ink drawings. Another piece I like is called “Growth,” which transforms from a clean geometric form into a curling, sprawling city composed of delicate baroque lines. This too is relatively slow to view, an irony here.
- At 4:30 AM the world feels slow and quiet but crypto-art is never slow and never quiet. Consider the apes, who are synonymous with it. They are formally called the Bored Ape Yacht Club, but I don’t think they have time for boredom or for yachting. They appreciate faster than I can write about them. Perhaps they are the status portraiture of the 21st century, our hideous, denuded Holbeins.
- Actually, time dilates near the speed of light. And actually, Virilio was writing about cities, but even in the late 1970s he mentioned GUIs — graphical user interfaces, which is to say, early computers.
- In crypto, as in war, stasis is death. You will miss the drop. There will be 10,000 pieces of new work before you wake up in the morning. You have to keep moving.
- This is faster than the racecourse, the dromos, though. This is like when Alexander’s cavalry flanks outstrip the Persian army in Polybius: the verb is katataxeo, acceleration, quickening, all the way from taxos in Homer, which is just speed. Crypto-art is catatachtic and not dromologic because it is not just about going more quickly than the next chariot. It is about all the chariots trying to pass each other, constantly going faster and faster. Catatachtic art is the dromologic art of the 20th century in constant acceleration.
- Time seems to dilate at 4:30 AM when I click my mouse, too. I am lucky today; I get the piece. It looks like three cupholders after a spill in a minivan. But there is something elegant there, something different in its slowness that distinguishes it from other NFTs I have seen recently.
- In a chariot race in later classical Rome, the emperor sat in a special box called the pulvinar. The emperor bet on races. In Byzantium, emperors began to favor factions, and this eventually lead to the Nika riots.
- Who is the emperor in the pulvinar when I am buying an NFT? We know the old emperors of the dromocracy, what usually happens when money and power meet speed and innovation; we can already see who has power in the pre-crypto world, who accrues it. Power and capital are always ineluctably bound up with speed and innovation. The difference for the new catatachtic world is again, the rate of acceleration. In the catatachtic cryptosphere, wealth is concentrated among a very few, mostly early adopters, faster than wealth has been concentrated in almost all of human history.
- I look at my catatachtic art on the blockchain and some of it moves me. Print, presumably, moved people the same way when it was a new medium, except financial structure isn’t a medium in the way print was. The NFT isn’t a medium, but rather a financial structure as architecture.
- A catatachtic architecture will always consider acceleration the goal. Higher market caps, more investors — and when it comes to art, appreciation. This is why stasis is death. You can’t find the next blue chip, the next ape, if you aren’t constantly looking.
- What does this do to how we see? At 4:30 AM I don’t know, clicking and reloading like a horse frothing at the bit. I don’t have time to see. Afterward, maybe, I can assess, when everyone else has already moved on. It’s a kind of post-facto curation. Curation is already history to catatachtic art. If you have time to curate it, the NFT world has already wheeled past it to something else.
- During the plagues, warfare, and sociopolitical and economic instability of the long 17th century, an art motif called the memento mori — literally “remember that you [will] die” — became very popular. Skeletons dance with every caste of society in the danse macabre; Pieter Bruegel the Elder paints gallows in fields with magpies on them. There is one common type of memento mori where a skeleton, Death himself, kisses a beautiful woman in all her fleshly abundance.
- If stasis is death to catatachtic art, what happens when you kiss Death? What happens when you look so slowly at a thing that your chariot decelerates to a crawl in the dust?
- Resistance to speed can look like this; the catatachtic NFT can be held against its own motion, it can be beheld — as art — against the architecture of its financial instantiation. Look at it; the lines and color fields blossoming onto the screen like blood pooling under a felled solider.