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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 28, July 8, 2023

Exchange-ability in the Environment of Digitality | Shibaji Ray

Friday 7 July 2023


by Shibaji Ray *


As the Digital environment increasingly exerts an influence on the creation and dissemination of artwork, it accordingly reveals the inner workings of the Infrastructure behind such artistry. This has made for changes in Art Exhibition in online spaces where an artwork’s origin is also a measure of infrastructural protocols that place it as original or otherwise. Seeing however that infrastructure in its Digital domain is more an issue of dissemination considering its distributed build, questions of Digital art and its authentic nature must engage with the transformations of artistic material in the process of Digital creation. Through such an engagement the understandings of Digital art as situated and therefore ‘stored’ is problematized. The material disjuncture where an artwork emerges and the latter’s sustenance through protocols which mediate the way its artistic matter occupies spaces in the convergent conditions of Digital media and its inter-connectedness, are aspects of Digital production that any notion of authenticity needs to take into consideration.

Keywords Digital Art, NFT, Digital Commodity, Blockchain, Digital Storage, Digital Exhibition

Storage as a notion, as understood within Communication Studies and a larger part of its Medium theories is in present times subject to a change that sees what is regarded as infrastructure being eroded as a unified concept and an ensuing substitution of it within this displacement. The condition of distributed-ness that exemplifies the condition of the ‘informational’ and thus its confines makes for an understanding of data – the unit of this infrastructure, as one that is more dispersed than contained. As such, data in its infrastructural travel complicates Models of Telecommunications that liken data as an entity of reception than one of ‘flux’ - a trait observable in policy efforts to digitalize Communication Infrastructure in many parts of the Global South. Within its array of interconnected systems of Hardware, the de-centered nature of data is understood in a compartmentalization – with its ‘whole’ constituted within a concept of the interface for means of user access. It is also within user praxis that an issue arises with this problematized understanding of storage of data – that of exchange.

Exchange necessitated a commodity form of data within an infrastructural channel where the movement of information was understood to replicate moving materials of analogue. It therefore associates with a twofold notion – of movement and value of the commodity form. This intertwining becomes more apparent as technologies assume more complexity and in the Digital era take shape as a commodity of ‘data’. It also brings to fore issues that rise with a segmentation of the fluxion of data where the digital commodity has to arrange and re-arrange to its adjacent spaces – to ‘store’ itself. Exchange then is a manifestation of data movement with traits borne out of its digital landscape that exposes data as its matter. In accordance with this materiality, remediation - or what is more or less recognized as the movement of the data-form in its environment, is a pre-requisite [1]. While a contested term in itself, remediation provides a way of engaging with material exchange in its digital circumstances and the possibilities of storing ‘digital’.

In case of an evolving Art scenario in the realm of the Digital, among the many approaches to Art which locate its transitions in emerging spaces is one around the ‘produce’ of Digital art. The emphasis on commodity brings with it, apprehensions around changing perception of the art form both as material and as the work of art. The working artist as creator of a Digital art crafts their work through the use of digitally created artistic implements and re-arranges their materials of art. What Joshua Simon (Simon, 2011) calls an un-readymade work of commodity, can be applied to this Digital art at the level of the interface or its screen, prone to the exhibitory value bestowed upon it by the perceiver of this commodity. However, as he mentions – the commodity nature of the work that precedes the art is revealed in the movement that transpires in the shifting of materials of digital making. In Digital, the materials follow analogue limits where art attains shape specific to the form or the codes of the Digital tools which are commodities of ‘pre-material’, of an art-work.

Subsequently, the infrastructural lengths of Hardware and the conditions it presents its art materials veer us towards the perpetual contestation that an artwork has to make with its digital conditions, one that confers it – its value. The Infrastructure or the collaboration of tangible and incorporeal matter in the work of Digital art comes to ‘make’ the art by its very being of the place where art materials are re-positioned. McKenzie Wark emphasizes on the value arising from the state of art in relation to things that are derivative of it (Wark, 2016). While such elements include more ‘transact-able’ features of the work, as she calls them, it would follow that she emphasizes on the surroundings of the art which allow for digital display in the conditions of interconnected Digital media. Digital surroundings here comprise of protocols that allow for the merging of spaces into a newer shape that accommodates spatial differentiations. The Infrastructure of Digital art that follows shapes as a sum of its delineated surroundings that make the work a material of value.

Towards the end of the last decade the Digital Marketplace for Art saw a transition from a gallery-based showcase to that of one based on Non-Fungible Token (NFT) in the backdrop of rising usage of crypto currency-based transactions in India. This new form of Digital Art thus acquired a value under the conditions of a materiality and storage common to both crypto-currency and NFTs in the form of a block-chain. The NFT block-chain however has a specific means of addressing any movement of data in the form of an artwork. Data-art in an NFT is considered ‘accessible’ by the acquirer of the art on basis of its token’s contract. While this notion of the contract emphases on reception as a facilitator of the acquisition, it problematizes exchange by remaining inadequate about storage. The block-chain identifies one part of the data-form as a unit of contract, one that is immutable but what is not immediately relevant is the form the data should take when in hands of the bearer of the NFT art, which puts forth a question of what it means materially, to acquire an NFT art?

In the case of specific kinds of NFT where such a typology is nominal in nature and referential to analogue forms of prior categorization, in the Indian scenario a form of NFT essentialism builds around the notion of a ‘saleable’ copy in what would be a mass-produced entity. In Indian NFT trading, the acquisition of tokens is associated with the ‘collectability’ of NFTs and their ‘rare-ness’. In particular the trading website ‘Colexion’ sells NFTs in the form of Trump-cards of various Indian media personalities. Reflections around such an old media association where the notion of collection inherent in trading card games is expanded into meanings of online exchange is a way to understand definitions of this New Media marketplace. NFT trading of art however does not discuss the exclusivity of such art especially in terms of owning; as the art is understood more in terms of its ‘flow’ or its ability to exchange hands and is more of an art-in-circulation. The NFT form thus acquires credibility as a thing that is both exclusively collectible and transferrable in sale.

Using the notion of Trump cards, a popular form of collectible gaming in India is a way to address an anxiety around a transfer that can also convey exclusiveness [2]. Build around real-life sport-persons and their achievements, such cards were revised in newer editions and as such cards belonged to a single deck. In these cases where two of the same nomenclature of cards encountered each other they were differentiated on the basis of their index – or their dates or editions of issue. Here in terms of art the comparison would be similar to products of Pop Art where two items bearing the same figuration could be distinguished on the basis of description if they happened to be part of a series. In the NFT iteration of the collector’s card an index is the NFT wallet and by virtue of being a wallet and also the storage the NFT holds value in transfer. The conflict of similarity as within physical assets is eliminated through an NFT’s exclusive code which does not compare the ‘art’ of two or more NFTs. The NFT art though does not account for a conception of existence that might occur outside transaction.

Through the affordances of digital storage an NFT artwork can be disseminated in ways not binding to the rules of its contract which complicates its exchange. It can be ‘acquired’ by the bearer of the art but through the storability of the save function, a copy of the art can also be created and kept by a user outside the NFT contract. The Digital art in its NFT form thus contradicts its accessible limits through this multiplicity of storage. Art here encounters an ontological problem in digital accommodation where the commodity is now ‘detached’ from its storage and as such the material exchange of the art work does not follow its value exchange. This problem of data and its relations make for a commodity that can be accessed outside of its contractual limits through its copies. If exhibition as a property came to define Digital art as being perennially accessible, replication as a function of ‘save’ tries to contest an origin of moving data in the digital environment. By being available in multiplicity the NFT art exists as an amalgamation of its remediation challenging the original.

A particular observation in purview of NFT art is its multiple ways of manifestation. The first is regarding the nature of distributed storage in the digital environment of the artwork i.e. its block-chain. The chain’s architecture allows storage of a part of the data material while allowing for movement of the rest of it through web-based addresses. Here the chain does not store any material outside of the data that would ‘redirect’ the user of the token code to the location of the artwork. The block-chain here acts merely as a facilitator of storage that is resolved in servers that host an NFT and is a part of the distribution of such art. As a facilitator the chain architecture gains meaning as ‘platform’ than a network and its activities are understood within a non-distributary form of transfer, in that it holds material irrelevant for means of reproduction of an artwork. The chain’s retention of code-based materials of exchange complicates remediation as understood at the level of the art and provides room for an understanding of art in a distributed form of code.

The manner of recollection of data in form of its token that can be accessed through a user interface brings the notion of remediation itself into the NFT architecture. The block-chain data’s reconciliation with a web-address and the output in the form of the art’s completion can be repeated across a number of storage devices by the bearer of the art’s token. The NFT art thus establishes itself as a point of materialization of codes, which are otherwise incomplete by themselves and come to fruition only during access, something that can be done through any connected device. In what has been called by scholars of digital media as the code’s ephemeral nature, the temporality of data in this architecture looks to complete itself in the user’s material need of the art-form, particularly its completion [3]. The movements of data occur within a suspension or what Frederic Jameson termed as ‘internal differentiation’ – a non-reconciliation of architectural elements, especially in their moveable parts, compromised by the commodity nature of these parts [4].

The realizable commodity nature of code allows for an anticipation of the connecting devices’ code to create its art. Yet, in order to engage with the manner of how that substance of remediation or its material takes shape is an engagement with remediation in both contexts – one that creates the ‘authentic’ or the non-fungible in the NFT and finding the digital process that links it to the remediation understood in the form of ‘availability’ – which is the process of ‘copy’. Data-copies obscure the tenability of the coded form as singular. In case of the NFT art the block-chain can but function only as a pre-existing technology, that of a copier creating replications of authenticity which vie for an originality with NFT copies that have emerged outside of the token’s contract. The NFT art irrespective of its origin provides an identical perceptible configuration to the user of the data and the nature of its storage anticipates further propagation of the art form, building itself in what is a digital memory or what users of digital technologies have come to relate to storage.

Exchange emerges as a propagation of the copied data form and within this process replicated data occupy spaces for digital consumption. The coded materialization of Digital Art in this exchange is a different mode of transaction than that understood in analogue forms. The value of an NFT art is not diminished by availability of identical copies even while its legitimate commodity form or the original is not easily identified among many of its iterations [5]. This is a different set of circumstances than the age of reproduction of paintings where Walter Benjamin anticipated a loss of authenticity [6]. In Digital reproduction, a potential user is a possible user of the copying device or its software. The temporal circumstances of digital production are constant and instantaneous, and resultant of the material conditions of a Digital era. In such circumstances new relations in art or its value will undergo changes as a result of changes in their exhibitory spaces – the environment of code and the manners in which makers and collectors of such art interact with such digital material.

However, with it borne out of a platform defined, the NFT nomenclature persists in separating digital replications on basis of their origins – there is today an acknowledged divide between NFT art and non-NFT art. What does not help overcome the gap between two art-forms whose material creation is not too different from each other is that Digital spaces of Art Exhibition are where Non-Fungible Artistry establishes itself as a category in itself. The separation of NFT as an artistic category from other Digital art emerges as consequence of the ‘platform’ as a differentiator, as art-making negotiates with values of stored data and the many reproductions required to sustain an efficient exchange of data’s artistic form. The NFT art and its circumstances provide an insight to the many layers of protocol that organize Digital art and modify their effects and presentation. Furthermore, it reflects on art and collection practices being shaped by the nuances of Digital architecture that in itself borrows as much from the material of Digital art as much as the latter depends on infrastructure.

* (Author: Shibaji Ray is an M.Phil candidate at the Centre for Media Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)


  • Simon, J. (2011). Neo-Materialism, Part Two: The Unreadymade. E-Flux Journal, (23).
  • Wark, M. (2016). Digital provenance and the artwork as derivative. E-flux Journal, 77.


[1] Bolter and Grusin describe the inter-media conditions of Digital materialism as Remediation.
[2] Trump cards in the form of paper cards associated with collectible card gaming or plastic variants that were to do with promotional items in merchandising have been a popular form of collection in Indian context.
[3] Chun’s work engages with the transient nature of code and the effort needed to sustain such code.
[4] In talking about architectural forms Fredric Jameson discusses an inherent antagonism between formal conditions of material and de-contextualization through emerging notions of fragmented spatiality.
[5] McKenzie Wark in her work on Digital Media observes such behavior within copies of generic Digital Art.
[6] Walter Benjamin’s anxieties over the ‘original’ work of artistry considered the loss of authentic ‘value’ over its mechanized reproduction.

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