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WHAT DOES BEING AN ARTIST MEAN?

The Swedish artist Jonas Lund has been concerned with the emergence of values and the distribution of power in the art market since 2012. He creates his works with the help of algorithms and viewers, who, for example, have voting rights in decisions affecting his art and career as owners of the JONAS LUND TOKEN (2018). He talks to Anika Meier about the emergence of values, changes in the art market, and the benefits of NFTs. And why do animals play an important role in his JONAS LUND TOKEN universe?

Anika Meier: When did you know you wanted to become an artist? And was there a certain point in your life when you thought you had achieved that goal?

Jonas Lund: I never really wanted to become an artist; it just happened because I kept making art and I kept being invited to participate in shows. My personal goal with making art, and what my practice is truly optimized for, is to continue learning new things and being challenged with new problems or solutions.

AM: Being an artist means being successful in the market; otherwise, you would not be able to sustain yourself. Do you agree?

JL: Being an artist means that you’re an artist. It has nothing to do with the art market. Of course, as your career develops, you have to relate to the market, but that usually happens after you’re already an artist. I think this line of thinking is a very typical American-centric one, that success is only measured through an artist's performance in the art market. But there are so many different ways of thinking about success and what being an artist means, and success in the art market is only one of those metrics.

AM: How do you define value as an artist with a background in net.art and post-internet art?

JL: It’s a pretty elusive thing, but what I really enjoy, and would ascribe a lot of value to, is the moment in which you discover a new artwork, and you don’t exactly know what’s going on. There’s a moment of confusion, of insecurity. What is it? What does it do? Is there a trick? And then maybe you’ll get an a-ha moment, and it all clicks into place, or maybe not, but it’s the moment of discovery, of confusion, of excitement that matters and creates the lasting value.

AM: You have been exploring the creation of value and the distribution of power in the art market since 2012. What are your main findings?

JL: Value in the art world is produced by the art world in a beautifully circular arrangement based on the institutional theory of art – art is art because the art world says it’s art, so by extension, this institution, "the art world," also decides what’s valuable and important and what is not. The art world consists of all the typical players: collectors, dealers, curators, directors, writers, auctioneers, and artists, and the higher up you are in the hierarchy, the more influence you have to determine what’s important and what should be platformed, mediated, and circulated in the art world.

I’ve been exploring that system from many different angles, like in FOMO, where I wrote an algorithm to create instructions for how to make successful works of art, exploring different value-creating formulas; to the Jonas Lund Token, where I’ve distributed shares in my practice to ‘hedge’ the decision making process with representatives from the art world.

One of the many findings is that it’s very difficult, probably impossible, to quantify value in any meaningful way beyond market value, which is also what makes art truly magical. The impossibility of finding a definitive formula for what makes an artwork good, bad, great, or fantastic, is one of the few things left that can’t be hyper-optimized and quantified by automatic processes.

The Fear of Missing Out, 2013, installation view Showroom Mama.

AM: What has changed in the last 10 years?

JL: Over the last 10 years, a lot has changed, but at the same time, it’s more or less all the same. In terms of the art world dynamic, it’s pretty much unchanged. Sure, trends come and go, but the underlying structure is the same. Business as usual.

From a broader perspective, my feeling is that pretty much everything is worse today compared to ten years ago, but that’s probably completely incorrect from an objective point of view, but the feeling is there. The Earth is on fire, inflation is at an all-time high, there are ongoing wars, supply-chain disasters, fires, and floods, and it's difficult to find hope for a better future, but we keep going!

AM: One of your most recent NFT projects is about finding the most valuable painting. The most famous painting is the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, visited by 30.000 people a day. What if paintings in a museum would transform and evolve based on interactions? Would we get to see the most valuable painting instead of just the most famous one?

JL: Part of the exploration in the piece is what type of value is included in the idea of 'most valuable’, most valuable in terms of formalistic ideals? Which is the most valuable in terms of monetary value? Which is the most valuable in terms of popularity? To me, the most valuable painting right now is a piece from 2017, featuring a pink elephant, so it’s also a question of when something goes from being personally the most valuable to me to being recognized as such by a larger network/audience. When does the value proposition switch from a subjective personal one to a globally recognized one?

Most Valuable Painting (MVP), 2022. mvp.art screenshot. Courtesy the artist.

AM: Your 512 individual digital paintings optimize themselves based on digital user engagement such as likes, clicks, ‘swipe rights’, and previous sales, resulting in the most valuable painting on mvp.art. Each MVP’s aesthetic is determined by a fitness algorithm that tracks its performance, while the most valuable painting is the result of the previous 511 sales. Can you share information about the data you gathered? What has performed best so far?

JL: It’s always fascinating to observe people’s choices, because the choices that seem so obvious to me are not the obvious choices for someone else, so one size does not fit all in that sense. I think overall, I didn’t expect that the circular pieces would be such a popular choice.

AM: NFTs democratize the art market. That has been the claim in 2021. Artists can sell their works directly to collectors via marketplaces. Simultaneously, by selling them at lower prices, digital artworks become collectibles, making them more accessible to a wider audience. Is the crypto art market really that different from the traditional art market?

JL: I don’t think NFTs are democratizing much; it’s simply just another way of distributing work and facilitating sales. Artists could sell their works to collectors directly before, but it was frowned upon by their gallerists.

Conflating the crypto art market into one singular thing also feels kind of impractical as there are so many different facets to it. Compare the market on the Tezos blockchain versus the Ethereum one, for example, and you get two very different markets.

I think overall the crypto art market and the global art market are largely the same, but they have some important differences. The crypto market is faster, it’s instantly global, it’s rapidly growing, it has introduced a new class of collectors, there’s a lot more artist-to-artist support in terms of collecting, artists are also more easily introduced to collecting, the barrier of entry is lower, the average quality of works is typically lower, and there’s much less curation, just to name a few.

AM: In March 2018, you inaugurated the JONAS LUND TOKEN. The visual representation of the JONAS LUND TOKEN has taken different shapes and forms since then. JONAS LUND TOKEN (JLT) is a distributed, decentralized autonomous artistic practice that aims to optimize and streamline the decision-making process in art production and the strategic decisions concerning your career path. JLT shareholders participate in the decision-making process by casting votes on proposals and through discussions on the JLT website. As your career path improves and your market value increases, so does the value of a JLT, thus allowing board members to profit through dividends and potential sales of the tokens. Why did you decide to allow shareholders to have a say in most of your decisions as an artist?

JL: The initial text of the piece describes the motivation as follows: "Lund is interested in subverting the traditional power structures that inform the contemporary art world and the process of making the correct strategic decisions for each given situation. The distributed advisory board, with an incentive to further strengthen the position of the artist, as it has a direct connection to the value of the Jonas Lund Token, aims to increase the efficiency of the decision DAOs, decentralization, and Web3 making process and make each strategic decision count," which I think is still totally on point. Overall, I’m interested in emerging technologies, so it felt like an accurate approach to explore distributed decision-making.

Following the logic of the value production mechanisms from above, "art is art because the art world says it’s art," a distributed decentralized advisory board consisting of art world representatives making decisions about my work is a perfectly hedged setup. Because the board members are art world representatives, the value creators, whatever they decide automatically becomes the correct decision in a circular self-fulfilling prophecy kind of setup, essentially making all the decisions hedged: "the art world says it’s good".

Jonas Lund, Proposal #31, 2021, screenshot Jonas Lund Token website, courtesy the artist

AM: Do you feel you have lost control over your artistic practice?

JL: No, not yet, because I'm still the majority shareholder, but as more JLT is distributed, I hope to lose more control.

AM: I remember that you asked your shareholders to decide whether you should go on a sabbatical for six months starting in autumn 2021. Due to the NFT hype, you got a lot of attention and invitations to participate in exhibitions. Why did you take that risk?

JL: That proposal wasn’t submitted by me but by a concerned JLT board member (anyone with more than 100 JLTs can submit proposals to the board), who thought it would be good for me to take a break. I thought it was not a good idea to take a sabbatical. The timing was really off, and no new work for half a year felt very harsh. It was a very close vote, but luckily the no-sabbatical option won out in the end.

Invest in Jonas Lund, 2019. Installation view Behind the Screen, Kindl Contemporary. Courtesy the artist and Office Impart.

AM: Your digital solo show ON THIS DAY at KÖNIG GALERIE in Decentraland, a virtual world based on the blockchain, explored memories and influence. You and your animals took the digital visitors on a journey through the JONAS LUND TOKEN universe. You asked visitors / collectors: "Choose your kindred spirit, the animal you relate to, and become part of the JLT community by owning a representative and symbol of the JLT universe." Why animals?

JL: Animals are more or less the opposite of humans. You know how in action movies you mostly don’t care when human actors get injured, but if an animal gets hurt it’s awful, terrible, and very disturbing? That’s kind of the logic of the animals in the JLT universe. They are representatives of core values, each animal having a long history of symbolism attached to it, and as animal symbols, they are far removed from the complexities of the human condition, but rather they are beacons of hope, clarity, and clear positions.

On This Day. Installation view König Digital, St. Agnes, Decentraland. Courtesy the artist and KÖNIG GALERIE.

AM: The video game IN SEARCH OF IDEAS is your latest exploration into your tokenized artistic practice. You announced it‘s coming soon. What can players and collectors of your JLT COLLECTIBLES expect?

JL: An open-world exploration game including many different exhibitions, animals, places to discover, things to do, and people to visit.

Jonas Lund creates paintings, sculpture, photography, websites, and performances that reflect critically on contemporary networked systems and power structures. He earned an MA at Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam and a BFA at Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam.

He has exhibited globally, with solo exhibitions at The Photographers’ Gallery and Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin; Steve Turner Gallery, Los Angeles; Växjö Konsthall, Sweden; Showroom MAMA, Rotterdam; Francisco Carolinum, Linz; and at the New Museum, New York. He has also participated in numerous group exhibitions including at Centre Pompidou, Paris; Schinkel Pavillon and KINDL Center for Contemporary Art, Berlin; ZKM, Karlsruhe; Vienna Biennale 2019, Witte De With, Rotterdam; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

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