In 2016, pioneering French new media artist Maurice Benayoun (Moben) created Brain Factory, an art experiment and interactive installation involving virtual reality, artificial intelligence, 3d printing, and neural design. Moben described the brain factory as a place where brain workers transform human abstract concepts into commodities (Benayoun, 2016). In recent years, with an emerging wave of digital art brought about by NFT, Moben has expanded the brain factory into a blockchain-based art project Values of Values (VoV). VoV uses NFT to evaluate the real economic value of human value. Explore the relationship between human creativity and the value system of artistic production. In VoV, Moben realizes the practice of transforming human thinking activities into NFT, and at the same time guides participants and audiences to think critically about the value it generates.
From the Animated Flying Cat With a Pop-Tart Body and the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) to all manner of digital art, the bizarre, eccentric market for Non-fungible token (NFT) is booming. (Jones, 2021) The concept of NFT was born in the early 1910s but exploded in 2021, when the graphic artist known as Beeple (Mike Winkelmann) sold his digital collage Everydays: The First 5000 Days at Christie’s in March 2021 for nearly $70 million. The auction house said the sale placed Beeple among the top three most valuable living artists. (Kastrenakes, 2021) The NFT uses blockchain technology, similar to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, to prove ownership of documents, much like a certificate of authenticity for real or virtual objects. NFT is a blockchain-based asset. Technically speaking, it can be any digital content such as pictures, videos, music, motion pictures, or even a tweet. For example, in March of this year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey listed his first-ever tweet as an NFT. (Allyn, 2021) The unique digital file is stored on the blockchain network, and any changes in ownership are verified by the global network and publicly recorded. (Dean, 2021) This means that the chain of custody of that digital file, such as who its current and previous owners were, is permanently tagged in the file itself. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, however, are fungible tokens, similar to the Chinese Yuan or the US Dollar, where one Bitcoin can be exchanged for another. NFT, on the other hand, is unique. To date, most NFT sales have been registered on the Ether blockchain. They are added to a tamper-proof ledger and traded online in a cryptocurrency such as Ether. Certificates proving ownership of documents are purchased and traded in the same way as physical collectibles. However, NFT buyers simply have ownership receipts that can be verified, and it is still possible to view and download the traded artwork or data for free. One could say that the buyer is not buying an image, but the title to that image.
The huge value created by NFT has become a common feature of related artworks, and people began to think about the economic bubble and energy consumption it caused. However, this new digital asset class is expanding the virtual commodity ecosystem as more and more investors come on board. It may become one of the ways that people will conduct business in the virtual world in the future.
Taking into account the fact that NFT transactions can represent and reflect the changing commercial value of certain digital artworks and their connotations, MoBen created the digital art project Brain Factory and its spin-off Values of Values to assess the relative or economic value of the human values of freedom, love, and rights. In the Brain Factory, Moben cooperated with researchers to develop a computer algorithm that can transform human thoughts into physical form. The audiences become brain workers. They translate human abstractions, such as sex, power, love, money, and freedom, into three-dimensional shapes by thinking about them. Participants will need to focus their attention on a particular value and then the staff will place an electroencephalogram transducer (EEG) around their necks to receive brain waves. The audiences’ understanding of the values and thoughts will cause the changes in the 3D model.
In this project, Moben demonstrates his understanding of dematerialization and concretization. As an intense wave that is affecting people’s daily lives, dematerialization can be represented by sublimation, a metaphor for an artistic process that transcends the materiality of real things. Concretization, on the other hand, is the transformation of abstraction into concrete objects, through technologies that enable a change from the fluctuation of human thought to dynamic 3D shapes. In the Brain Factory experience, the algorithm generates VoV items named using values and number sequences from the participants’ brainwaves collected by the EEG. The Brain Factory can handle a wide range of abstract human ideas, but VoV will only give shapes to abstractions that can be seen as human values in the context of “ethical realism”.(Benayoun, 2019) Decentralized storage for these models will occur on a blockchain database, with each number representing a unique artwork registered on the blockchain. Brain Worker, the creator of values, becomes the owner of the blockchain VoV and the owner of the 3D model. The cryptocurrency VoV is exchangeable for Ether, another popular cryptocurrency. Owners can sell or exchange VoV. Moben transforms human values into tangible physical art and creates a stock market to allow participants to exchange these values or to buy and sell them.
In the process described above, audience participation in the exhibition becomes an important part of this digital art, and the process of generating and transacting NFT itself is given a new meaning. Participants no longer stand on the sidelines and admire the creation of the artist, but become artists themselves who can shape ideas. Unlike other artists who convert their works directly into NFT for sale, Moben gives each participant in the VoV program the opportunity to create his or her own NFT, enabling them to gain a more concrete understanding of such a new way of trading digital art. The identity of audiences is constantly changing through participation in the project. They can be collectors holding newly created tokens, dealers who exchange or sell artworks, or curators. Moben believes the trade that takes place between the owners of VOV is a valid and unique way to give us an objective view of the value of particular human values. If the median price of MONEY is 3 ETH or 1200 dollars, and the median price of LOVE is 240 dollars, the relative value of these values can be clearly understood. (Benayoun, 2019)
VoV is a real currency that allows one to monitor in real-time how a person, a region, a country, or a continent comes to assess the relative value of human values by observing and recording a large number of similar transactions. While making a dynamic response to value, it can also complete a critical metaphor for art production narrative and NFT. There are a few things I’m curious about VoV. After NFT continues to thrive for a while, will the huge energy consumption associated with its profits or production model have an impact on values like “environmental protection” and “ecological conservation”? Will VoV be caught in a cycle when the value of human values fluctuates in the NFT market in a way that is worth noting under the influence of NFT? There may be no answer to such questions for the artist. As he said in an interview: I must reiterate that I am only responsible for asking questions and then observing how things develop. (A., Magazine, 2021)
As for the digital artist Beeple, who sold artwork in the form of NFT for a high price at Christie’s in March, Moben sees the positive side of it. He believes that NFT is currently positioned as a new way of distributing artwork and is far from using its full talents. The online platform for selling artists’ digital artwork is only replacing part of the function of auction houses and galleries. The impact of this crazy auction is gratifying, and it has raised the profile of digital art. Moben hopes that VoV will further promote this model so that blockchain goes beyond the definition of a platform for direct art transactions and becomes a suitable medium for artists to trade more freely, free from financial and ethical issues. In the process of practicing this digital art project, the artist Moben also encountered some challenges. VoV’s completion requires the participation of a large number of audiences from different regions. However, due to the epidemic, most of the worldwide exhibitions have been delayed or canceled, and the project did not get as large a sample size as expected. The different objective values of the same human values between countries and regions cannot be compared clearly or effectively. Still, the restrictions on movement caused by the epidemic may have driven the growth of online trading platforms in some ways. The heat and value of NFT have seen a dramatic increase this year. VoV may be hyped up like other NFT for some reason, making the value of some human values seem to float out of objectivity.
But Moben believes that this uncertainty will eventually find a balance between the speculative market and the emotional motivation of human values. For if the owner of VOV does not see the entire process of its creation as a part of the meaning of the work, but simply speculates on its value, then the ownership of the blockchain is meaningless. VoV Integrates blockchain as a medium. Since public artists, businessmen, and curators are directly related to many human activities (such as poetry, science, philosophy) produced by the brain, the entire process of VoV will question their values and subjective interests when this happens.
Benayoun, M. (2018, April 28). Brain factory. MOBEN. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://benayoun.com/moben/zh-hans/2016/03/05/brain-factory/.
Jones, N. (2021). How scientists are embracing NFTs. Nature (London), 594(7864), 481–482. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01642-3
Kastrenakes, J. (2021, March 11). Beeple sold an NFT for $69 million. The Verge. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/11/22325054/beeple-christies-nft-sale-cost-everydays-69-million.
Allyn, B. (2021, March 6). What’s an NFT? and why are people paying millions to buy them? NPR. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/2021/03/05/974089381/whats-an-nft-and-why-are-people-paying-millions-to-buy-them.
Dean, S. (2021, March 11). $69 million for digital art? The NFT Craze explained. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://www.latimes.com/business/technology/story/2021-03-11/nft-explainer-crypto-trading-collectible.
Benayoun, M. (2019, July 23). Value of values, Bauhaus 100, Macerata. MOBEN. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://benayoun.com/moben/zh-hans/2019/07/22/value-of-values-bauhaus-100-palazzo-buonaccorsi/.
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