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Mail art meets NFTs for all in the ‘MoMA Postcard’ programme

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has invited the public to participate in what the museum describes as “an experiment in collective creativity on blockchain” in a new digital initiative, MoMA Postcard. This programme comes soon after the museum’s release of free mementoes minted as non-fungible token (NFT) editions, launched during the recent exhibition Refik Anadol: Unsupervised. These tokens continued MoMA’s exploration of and engagement with the technologies of web3, the latest iteration of the internet, built on blockchain technology and controlled by its users.

While the market for NFTs has slowed since its initial hype in 2021, museums and institutions are beginning to step further into web3 through exhibitions and programmes, with MoMA Postcard as one such example. In recent months, HEK (House of Electronic Arts) in Basel presented Exploring the Decentralized Web—Art on the Blockchain, curated by Sabine Himmelsbach and Boris Magrini. NFT-based artworks are also now in the collections of institutions such as Kadist in Paris and San Francisco, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Deji Art Museum in Nanjing.

MoMA itself recently acquired two notable NFT artworks: Refik Anadol’s Unsupervised—Machine Hallucinations—MoMA (2022), which was on display in the lobby until late October, and an edition of Ian Cheng’s blockchain-based generative artwork 3FACE (2022).

There are numerous historical examples of co-created artist and literary projects, but this one uniquely leverages technology as muse, medium and messenger

Sasha Stiles, poet and artist

MoMA Postcard takes its cues from mail art, a practice that first emerged in the 1950s when artists began to send and exchange works of art through the US postal service. Key figures such as Ray Johnson sent chain letters inviting recipients to add to what was enclosed and to pass the updated artwork on to someone new, driving forward this format of creative correspondence that has continued to this day. Madeleine Pierpont, the web3 associate at MoMA, sees a “natural synergy” between mail art and blockchain technology, as both “enable global transmission of information”, and for MoMA Postcard to be an opportunity to explore the co-creation and community aspect of web3.

To create with MoMA Postcard, people download Bitmark’s Autonomy app and claim a blank card to start. Users can then create a stamp, or digital image, within a 10 by 10 pixel grid using MoMA’s colour palette, before signing it off in a signature box. Once a stamper confirms their stamp on the blockchain, their token of ownership and contribution is automatically recorded in the postcard’s data on the blockchain. The contributor is then invited to send the postcard on to another person—until all 15 stamps have been filled.

Each postcard is co-created by all its stampers. It is a living and growing artwork that is only complete when all 15 contributions have been submitted. Pierpont says that this is a key aspect of the initiative as it encourages communities to form around MoMA Postcard, with each postcard acting as a micro community of its own, fostering collaboration and exchange. Further, each postcard is co-owned by its 15 contributors. No single person is able to own a postcard on their own or to make any buying and selling decisions without involving all of its owners. This feature makes it difficult for financial and market speculation to form around the postcard, and drives attention towards the collaborative process and community instead.

To introduce the project and illustrate its possibilities to a diverse audience, MoMA released First 15 as a soft launch of the initiative on 3 October, inviting 15 artists to create postcards together. These artists come from diverse backgrounds and practices but are united by their shared engagement with and understanding of blockchain technology. Each artist devised a verbal prompt for a postcard, which was then passed around all the participating artists to create a collection of digital mail art. Sasha Stiles, a Kalmyk American poet and artist, designed her prompt to be: “using only black, dark green, light green and white, please draw your letters: A,R,S,(design blank space),A,U,T,O,P,O,E,T,I,C,A”. “I knew right away that I wanted to do something poetic,” Stiles says, “to pay homage to the long literary tradition of the ‘exquisite corpse’, and so my first question was how to make language work inside the constraints of the pixel grid.”

In asking each artist to draw a letter and thus collectively create a font, Stiles’s prompt also strengthens the personal and intimate touch that MoMA Postcard invites contributors to share in the use of handwritten signatures as sign-offs on each stamp.

Operator, the Lumen Prize-winning duo of Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, whose work engages with privacy and technology, feel that “it’s an interesting choice to have artists sign their stamps because typically, the artist’s ‘signature’ for a digital artwork is not shown in this way”. In rendering the individual’s signature visible, it reinforces their hand and presence.

The MoMA Postcard pixel grid image Puce Radial Etching, for which Operator (the Lumen Prize-winning duo of Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti) was the “prompting artist”—the first of 15 co-owners and co-creators Courtesy MoMA

When taking part in MoMA Postcard on the Autonomy app, users receive Ethereum and Tezos wallet addresses automatically generated in the app and have access to a glossary of web3 terminology written by the MoMA team, as well as other digital artworks featured on the app’s home page. Stiles sees MoMA Postcard as a “brilliant concept” for how it introduces blockchain technology. “There are numerous historical examples of co-created artist and literary projects,” Stiles says. “But this one uniquely leverages technology as muse, medium and messenger.”

“The museum is still very much in an experimentation and exploration phase,” Pierpont says, “and we want to really think carefully about how we can engage with the space with intention and in a way that provides value”. MoMA Postcard marks the next step in these efforts, and over the following few months the museum will also be launching an online exhibition in partnership with Feral File, a digital art platform founded by Bitmark and artist Casey Reas, featuring artists including Yoko Ono, Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst, and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley.

Clara Che Wei Peh is a Singapore-based curator and art writer specialising in emerging technologies. Her curated projects include Art Dubai Digital 2023

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