In her essay “My Collectible Ass,” theorist McKenzie Wark shares an anecdote from her stint as an interpreter in a Tino Sehgal work, which involved standing in Marian Goodman Gallery and engaging visitors in conversation. Among the visitors she spoke to at the gallery were critics Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith, and when she later ran into them at another venue, she told them a fantastic lie: Sehgal had tattooed her buttocks, as well as those of other interpreters. She offered to show them, but they didn’t take her up on it, maybe because they didn’t buy the bluff. “I mention this because it is not just the information about the artwork circulating in the world that makes it collectible,” Wark writes. “It is also the noise. As with any other financial instrument in a portfolio, the artwork in a collection gains and loses value at the volatile edge between information and noise.”
Wark’s false rumor—her broadcast of noise—was a minor intervention in the conceptual apparatus that Sehgal devised for selling his performances. Sehgal prohibits documentation, so his works are known through word of mouth. “What is collectible is not the artwork, or even the documentation,” Wark says of Sehgal’s output. “What is collectible is the simulation of the work in the artworld and beyond.” Her argument seems applicable to NFTs, as a way of thinking through the exchange of digital art on the newly booming crypto market. It’s not always clear what a collector is actually buying—some say owning the certificate of authenticity coded in the NFT is not the same as owning the artwork, and the contracts written by various platforms differ in terms of the rights they accord to the artist, the collector, and the platform itself.
Wark ends her essay by speculating that it would be “uninteresting for the digital art object merely to mimic the forms of collectability of previous classes of art object.” The unresolved complications of NFT ownership make it an interesting topic, even if the hype for NFTs obscures these problems. Some artists are highlighting the question by minting adaptations or versions of older works in other mediums. They’re creating digital collectibles based on videos and sculptures—keepsakes that concentrate the tension between the information and noise that defines the value of ephemeral art.