Industry voices: Elisabeth Johs on curating NFT exhibitions
On curating digital art and future scenarios for the art market.
We came across Elisabeth’s work through a recent NFT show she put together on Superrare: “The invisible cities” and got intrigued by the concept of curating art in the space. So, we decided to ask her a few questions.
Hi Elisabeth! Thank you for making the time for this chat, we have looked a bit into your background: a degree from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, work for Gagosian after which you passed on to co-found a gallery “Trotter & Sholer”. When did curating digital art come about?
Well, that’s a good question. I think partially it has to do with the fact that within the last year we have moved into the space, where a lot of our communication has been done digitally, so I think just like galleries and artists have adapted, as a curator I have also attempted to adapt to the situation and to find ways to work in the digital space since we were not able to have physical exhibitions. As per the NFTS, I think they represent, as a form of art, a direction in which we are moving towards as human beings, in terms of economy. So, from this perspective it has been a natural step into this new medium.
And since you have mentioned the economy, what about the market aspect of the crypto art space? Do you think it is mostly speculative, or is there genuine and conscious and NFT art collecting with a long-term vision that is happening these days?
Well I think there is both, there is definitely a speculative aspect to it, and I also think there are people out there collecting with a long-term perspective. I think, overall, NFTs have brought about a really big question: “What is valuable?”. Because traditional art is a commodity as well as it is something that has no inherent value apart from the value that we project onto it and the value that we believe it to have collectively, culturally and within the art history. So I think NFTs are no different than that, they are also a socially constructed commodity, so comparing the traditional market and the NFT market it is exactly the same, since there is no inherent reason why a Picasso should cost 30 million dollars, since it doesn’t have any utilitarian purpose except for being displayed, moved around and touched. But I think what NFTs is doing, is moving us towards a place where we are more immaterial, and anyway art is a product of “imagination”.
So, it’s a bit of a long answer but to round it up, the feeling that you get from interacting with a Picasso in person, I don’t believe that it is not possible to have the same feeling seeing the art online. We collectively spend so much time online, we are empathising and feeling genuine emotions interacting with other people online, through seeing their posts or stories. And yes, that is on a screen, but the emotions are very real, so I don’t believe that art can’t be experienced online, that’s not true. And well, the traditional art market is also very speculative, with people buying and selling for insane figures, and there is a lot of “smoke and mirrors” when it comes to evaluations of physical art. But I feel like with NFTs people collect also because they want to take part in this incredible movement, and be part of the art history.
What do you think is the future of both the traditional market and the NFT space? Will one eventually take over the other or will they exist separately? Will we at some point find ourselves buying NFTs from physical galleries?
In my opinion, it is going to merge in a hybrid form, since I don’t think we will turn into digital-native humans that only live online and buy and exchange digital only assets. I don’t think that’s where we are headed, cause we are still physical human beings, there is a magic that lies in objects and the objects have been around since forever. I believe we are going to walk towards a more immaterial culture where we won’t see as much consumerism obsession or hardware that is being constantly updated. So, yes I think the galleries will be there but the technology and the operations will change, the traditional 50/50 split and no material help for the artists - that is going to change. I don’t believe that the current gallery model is sustainable, and so I think the technology behind the decentralized organizations will be at some point implemented in physical spaces.
As a curator, what has been the most challenging part in curating NFT shows?
I think the most difficult part has been building a bridge between my traditional audience and people who would look at something I have curated and buy something of it, it has been kind of a challenging process to explain well, ok, you need to download a wallet, you need to put fiat into that wallet and then buy ETH and then you need to make an account on Superrare to be able to make that purchase. That has been very time consuming, also because I am not an expert myself and I am learning as I go. However I believe this is going to get more mainstream and everyone is going to have a wallet.
We sure hope so! Tell us about how and where do you discover NFT talents?
Mostly on Twitter, I would say. I have been looking recently for female artists in the space, I think overall it is very male-dominated, so I would go ahead and post on my Twitter account asking to nominate female NFT artists, that you think have been overlooked. Also I think Medium is a good platform, there are often really good blog posts and also following people in the space, writers like Jason Bailey from Artnome, I really appreciated his work and I often discover artists through him .
If you had unlimited budget to spend on digital art, who is the number 1 digital artist you would buy today?
I really like Pak, I was listening to a Clubhouse with him and Sotheby’s the other night. I also think I would look into the artists who are pushing the limits of what you can create on the computer, I think the medium of a computer itself is fascinating, the fact that one can design extreme realities or futuristic places that are almost optimistic in a sense of how our world could look and a reflection of a positive imagination of where we humanity could go. Some of the artists in the recent show I have curated they implemented some really utopian visions of how the cities could look like, green grass and gardens growing over the buildings to make an example, and I think if that could inspire us to create most sustainable architecture in our real cities, that would be a cool parallel mirror. So, that’s something I would invest in, the artists who project innovation through their work.
What do you feel people mostly get wrong about the NFT space?
I think it is the speculative aspect of it, that is misleading. They would think “oh, it is so speculative”, but they forget that the majority of our world is a product of our collective imagination. The art world doesn’t exist, it is a social construct built around objects that have no inherent or utilitarian value to them. Also I think people fail to look further. Art takes time and requires attention, it requires to be looked at and understood, one needs to look at the context of the work. From that perspective you could compare it to conceptual art, if you look at it — it is just a line on the wall, and you are not going to understand what it is unless you look into the context of why that line is important in art history. So it will be interesting to see in the nearest future, what is going to be the discourse that art critics, art historians and curators will create around NFT work, to give it value in the institutional space.
Industry voices is an editorial series by Artsted that is offering a dive into the stories of art market insiders. Picking up the mind of curators, gallerists, dealers, advisors and art entrepreneurs we are looking to provide a holistic overview of ongoing and future trends in the contemporary art world.