An exclusive interview with the anonymous figure known only as White Male Artist, behind one of the most provocative NFT art projects to date.
In May 1961, the Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni produced a series of 90 works that, collectively, became his breakthrough: Merda D’Artista. Known as Artist’s Shit in English, the work involved the artist canning 30g of his own excrement in a numbered and signed can. Driving home its critique of consumerism and mass consumption, the price of each can was correlated to the price of the equivalent weight of gold, which at the time amounted to about $37 USD.
Now, a new figure—an anonymous artist who identifies himself only as White Male Artist—is carrying the, ahem, movement for a 21st-century audience. $HT Coin is a durational performance project that, like Artist’s Shit, involves the canning of the artist’s excrement as commentary on behavior in a capitalist context—but from there $HT Coin provokes a distinctly contemporary discussion.
Each day in July, White Male Artist is canning excrement produced by eating the diet of the most financially successful white male artists of the 2oth century, including Koons, Banksy, Richter, Warhol, and more. Each of these cans will be auctioned off in physical and digital form—with the reserve price also set to the equivalent price of 30g of gold—and contain a nutritional label that details the unique dietary particulars for that can.
For the first phase of the project, which runs from July 1-28, Snark.art will auction off these NFTs. The project culminates July 29-30 with its second and finale phase, an auction through Phillips.
What is the NFT disruption actually disrupting?
Much has changed in the art world in the 60 intervening years since Artist’s Shit. One of the most pronounced shifts lies in the NFT disruption of 2020-21. It’s a shift that has suddenly injected a new crop of outsiders to the establishment; complicated the relationship among artists, audiences, collectors, and institutions; and brought about new understandings of art, law, intellectual property, and royalties. Note: an introduction to NFTs can be found in this story.
But for all these seemingly monumental changes, one pattern appears to be repeating itself: the big winners are white men. There’s no shortage of grandiose proclamations about the transformative potential of NFTs—but how far can this actually go if they simply reinscribe broken systems?
For all the idealism around the possibilities of these nonfungible tokens, these core considerations continue to be treated as afterthoughts—a cycle with real-life impacts. As Charlotte Kent wrote recently, “What works get discussed, how and why, contributes to the developing narrative around digital art in the popular imagination.” A quick glimpse of Cryptoart.io, a website that aggregates and ranks data from NFT art sales, makes this reality explicit: the vast majority of top-selling artists and individual artworks are by men, many of whom are white.
Of course, the question of who exactly White Male Artist is looms large; who he is inevitably informs how we understand the project. What if, for example, White Male Artist is actually a white male artist who’s ironically profiting off of the marginalization of others?
For his part, White Male Artist claims that his identity will be revealed around the time of the second phase of the sale. But for now, the performed, anonymous identity is a crucial component to the work—specifically in how collectors relate to it from an economic perspective. How the revelation of his identity impacts future sales of $HT Coin is the ostensible third phase of the performance.
I was able to interview White Male Artist over email to better understand his goals with $HT Coin, his thoughts about the role of art’s market, why he chose to conduct this performance in the language of NFTs, and more.
Jesse Damiani: What prompted $HT Coin?
White Male Artist: Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) such as $HT Coin have exploded over the last year, likely as a result of our loneliness and sedentary lives. Through the pandemic we all have become more dependent on online interactions. From art, to music, to tacos, to lolcats with rainbows shooting out of their nether regions, these digital assets are selling like 17th-century exotic Dutch tulips for millions of dollars. Speculative buyers are flocking to swoop up crypto art…and rewarded handsomely for their astute eye of the good $HT.
Art has long been a framework for radical agency, as attested by the rich history of artists’ movements seeking to mobilize creativity for revolutionary ends. Art’s conditions of production and its function under existing socio-economic systems (or future imaginaries yet to be realized) have been critiqued, experimented with, subverted, or otherwise transformed, and the process shows no signs of letting up.
$HT Coin is invested in inflating such histories. $HT Coin represents a critical and metaphoric engagement with the artist’s body as a consumable object. $HT Coin fully incorporates raw material. $HT Coin is a violent expulsion as a commodity. $HT Coin is the perfect metaphor for the embodied and disembodied nature of artistic labor: the creative act is part of the cycle of consumption: as a constant reprocessing, packaging, marketing, consuming, reprocessing, packaging, ad infinitum. $HT Coin seeks to engage, rather than merely represent, the commercial world. $HT Coin is unique in that this performance does not merely represent commercial transactions, it enacts them. $HT Coin is a defecography of an entire system.
JD: Given that the project is an endurance performance, why did you choose to sell works as NFTs?
WMA: White Male Artist (WMA) made $HT Coin during a global pandemic and in isolation while suffering from a really bad back injury. Meanwhile his support of galleries, museums and institutions fell around him like a house of cards. Against this backdrop, the process of eating, an exercise in consumption, seemed like an apt bodily approximation for an industry fueled by speculation, market forces, and an insatiable appetite.
$HT Coin opens up the can on the art world as a rigid system in which artists have to play by the rules in order to survive and poses the question: can NFTs change that? In the traditional gallery system, artists receive no compensation for the resale of their work. WMA is inspired by Seth Siegelaub’s Artist’s Contract. As with his controversial contract, the NFT blockchain promotes transparency, and technology-powered smart contracts ensure that artists retain a permanent link with their work and retain royalties when their work is traded on the secondary market.
$HT Coin’s merit, as with other artworks using emerging technologies, depends on how the mechanism is wielded. For all the promise NFTs offer to artists, they have become the currency of ostentatious speculation fueled by greed. They also have an environmental cost. Museums and collectors are (allegedly) interrogating the contents of their collections and bringing gender and racial inequality into focus within the greater arts and crypto community. $HT Coin, as a durational performance, in time, will address these issues. Follow along.
JD: What do you think of the culture of NFTs?
WMA: WMA believes that NFTs hyper-perform a culture of consumption. When does the ravenous appetite for greed go too far? We have mined the gold from our soil. We have poisoned our oceans. A collection of plastic bags floating forever in the Pacific Ocean makes up more land mass than the state of Texas. Rather than re-evaluate our relation to the planet or choosing to proceed with moderation, or respect, or care, instead we invent digital scarcity. Our sociopathic lust to absorb continues to run rampant.
JD: What’s the relationship between art and the art market? How are you approaching the ways your work is becoming part of a speculative market?
WMA: The appeal of a gold standard (removed by Nixon in 1971) is that it arrests control of the issuance of money out of the hands of imperfect human beings. With the physical quantity of gold acting as a limit to that issuance, a society can follow a simple rule to avoid the evils of inflation. Manzoni made Merda d’artista in 1961, predating and foreshadowing Nixon’s consequential action. Manzoni was a member of the Arte Povera movement and created art against the aftermath of WW2 in postfacist Italy. From here he gazed across the ocean at the New York Pop Art movement, foreseeing Warhol’s churning Factory, he tinned his own humble cans, containing 30 grams of shit (which sold for 30g of gold).
Now, 60 years later, White Male Artist is canning his shit in the form of NFTs. The collection of tins retain the same formal constraints (auctioned at a starting price of 30 grams of gold). Each WMA can is “filled” daily with the diets of the most financially successful contemporary (white male) artists. Starting on July 1 and ending at noon July 29, White Male Artist is offering a private, word-of-mouth, insider presale “for my cryptobros and art fanatics,” designed to reward early players. The $HT is dropped daily by the innovative NFT house, Snark.art. On July 29 and ending noon July 30, he will sell his last can of $HT at the esteemed Phillips auction house. Here there will be an auction of 5 cans, a special “battle royale” auction, pitting WMA’s excrement against his contemporaries. Who shall come out on top?
JD: How is your body handling all these diets?
WMA: Let’s just say WMA’s last can will be filled with excrement based on a detox diet.
JD: Do you see what you’re doing as absurd? Is there a possibility that this project is harmful? In poor taste? What exactly are you trying to prove?
WMA: $HT Coin is inspired by political economist, Joseph Schumpeter, who posited that the gale of “creative destruction” describes the “process of industrial mutation that continuously revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” In Marxian economic theory the concept refers more broadly to the linked processes of the accumulation and annihilation of wealth under capitalism. $HT Coin is fertilizer for what’s coming next.
Everyone voids their bowels. When we think about the untouchable genius present in the artists’ oeuvres, represented on WMA’s $HT List, their ideas and formal contributions are often far removed from the body. $HT Coin reasserts their humanness: they too ate, snored, and defecated. Reinstating a bodily process humbly knocks them off the pedestal. $HT Coin asks: With the proliferation of NFTs, what constitutes artistic labor? Whose labor is valuable and valid?
The diets are also a portrait of the artist and demonstrate their class status and cultural beliefs. Warhol ate the same industrial edible products he depicted. Koons orders chargrilled sea bass and Kobe beef. The source for every ingredient WMA consumes is listed on the website. Yves Klein’s diet came from a scanned PDF of a menu of an after-opening dinner from the ’60s and was translated from French. Deep research went into this project.
$HT Coin parasitically mutates Manzoni’s critique onto the blockchain. WMA allocates these assets in a Duchampian manner, mocking the consumerism inflicted on the art world and the bourgeoisie taste formed by the market. Putting the Data into the Dadaists’ Movement, his subversive gesture is aimed to penetrate the social taboos.
Poor taste? It depends on what dietary choices were made. What greater gesture of intimacy and appreciation is there than to follow a man’s diet, pass their embodied experience through his own? To experience the same indigestion and satiation they felt. $HT Coin is a discharge in desire to approximate the canon, pass it through the intestines, pull forth the nutrient, and eliminate the waste.
JD: Why do you think the world needs the work of another white male artist?
WMA: To maintain the hierarchy we must have White Male Artists.
JD: Who is White Male Artist?
WMA: WMA swears that he is not Beeple. He is not Beeple’s wife. He is not Banksy. He is not Andy Kaufman. His mysterious identity will soon be revealed. Ultimately $HT Coin is an experiment. Since the value of an artist’s worth is inherently tied to their subjectivity, once we know who WMA truly is, will $HT Coin’s value go up or down? You decide.