If art is truly meant to promote thinking about the world around us in new and deeper ways, then $HT Coin, the latest project from “White Male Artist” — a transgender, Canadian-American performance artist and Guggenheim Award winner otherwise known as Cassils — is unquestionably art. It’s also far from conventional.
Inspired by Piero Manzoni’s famous Merda D'Artista (Artist’s Shit) from 1961, a controversial piece that featured tin cans filled with the artist’s feces as a critique on consumerism, Cassils’ new take on the concept speaks to sexism and racism within the art community and the cryptocurrency world. It also addresses how NFTs are impacting the art market.
For the project, Cassils has taken Manzoni’s concept to the proverbial next level. Each of the 33 cans and their contents are based on the diets of top-grossing white male artists including Banksy, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Andy Warhol, along with Cassils' own can based on their detox diet. The cans were auctioned off daily in the form of NFTs on Snark.art, initially under the name White Male Artist, before the true identity of their creator was revealed to be Cassils. All of this had a purpose, which Cassils shared with us.
How did you select the artists you, for lack of a better word, emulated?
History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. I often look to art history to teach me how to cope with the present. How did artists of the past deal with fascism, war, and famine? I thought about the tulip bulb-like frenzy over NFTs and I recalled the late Italian artist, Piero Manzoni’s work of satirized consumerism, titled Merda D'Artista (Artist’s Shit). In 1961, Manzoni made a work consisting of 90 tin cans, each filled with 30 grams of stool, sold for the same price of 30 grams of gold. The opening bid for each $HT Coin reflects the cost of 30 grams of 18K gold in today’s market, approximately $1,694.
$HT Coin is made up of 33 unique cans of my feces. Produced daily, and each tin contains nutritional labels detailing the contents of what I consumed within a 24-hour cycle. From July 1 to 30, 2021, I have eaten a series of meals based on the diets of the most financially successful contemporary [white male] artists. I decided to take Manzoni’s ideas to a new place: analyzing not only the value of labor but also the conditions of it. $HT Coin is unique in that this performance does not merely represent commercial transactions, it engages and enacts them. $HT Coin is a defecography of an entire system.
Because nothing is transparent in the art world, it was hard to assess artists' wealth. A day pass to an auction database allowed us to research who were the richest artists based on auction sales. I released the cans in order of the artist's financial value, dropping $HTs daily from least wealthy (released July 1) to most wealthy (July 29/30).
Once the artists we selected, their eating habits were meticulously researched. 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. The diets are also a portrait of the artists and demonstrate their class status and cultural beliefs. Warhol ate the same industrial edible products he depicted. Koons ordered chargrilled sea bass and Kobe beef.
Tell me about the significance of the name “White Male Artist” and what made you decide to reveal your true identity?
Firstly, I was interested in calling out whiteness and masculinity by naming it as a site of structurally designed privilege. $HT Coin is a durational performance and NFT series released into a market where 2% of the top-grossing contemporary artists are not cisgender men and when artists represented in major museums are 85% white. Our systems are not informed by merit but through explicitly constructed modes of exclusion.
My decision to initially announce the project with the nom de plume “White Male Artist” fits into a long history of pseudonyms employed by artists critiquing a centuries-old, outdated art market in which value is determined by the identity of the creator rather than the merit of the work. WMA operated as a Trojan horse circulating seamlessly with the crypto bros. I was interested in investigating not only the value of art or NFTs but also questioning how one’s subjectivity as an artist is directly tied to the value of one's artwork. People speculated: Was I, Banksy? Beeple? Beeple’s wife? I was curious as to what would happen to the sales of my NFT once I revealed that I was not a cis white man. As an exercise in behavioral finance, I wanted to know: would the value of my work go up or down? If a cis woman were to have made Manzoni’s piece, would the work have been lauded and applauded or dismissed as infantile and naive?
This is your commentary on the current art market. What’s your view on what the art market should look like?
July 4, 2020, I launched In Plain Sight alongside co-founder Rafa Esparza, [where] we banded together a coalition of 80 artists and 17 justice organizations. This was a politically urgent work dedicated to abolishing immigrant detention and the US culture of incarceration. I fundraised this epic work despite all odds: It was the height of a global pandemic and there were uprisings in the streets. So many institutions turned us down, however, the first folks to support and help us were For Freedoms, an artist-led organization that models and increases creative civic engagement, discourse, and direct action. For Freedoms gave me a good chunk of change without question or reservation. This was incredibly refreshing to see artists being supportive of each other when the powers that be wouldn’t budge.
I learned a powerful lesson — we made the project happen despite all the trepidation. I learned the importance and the power that comes from artists taking matters into their own hands. This is an example of what an art world can be.
However, the reality of our current art market means that many artists face extremely high healthcare costs, crushing student debt, and face unemployment. What could the art market be if it reflected equity by design, if we artist unions (like CARFAC in Canada), if there was government funding of individual art practices, if we defunded the police and ICE detention centers, and reallocated funds into hands of local artists to engage, teach, and give communities creative outlets? What if galleries, collectors, [and] museums used contracts that center artist sovereignty, not artists’ exploitation. Can artists stop relying on ivory towers and anointed spaces of value? Can we forge our own avenues and carve our own places for validation and nurturing. Like Manzoni, can we artists alchemize shitty situations and turn them into gold? After all, shit has value. Could this be fertilizer for the revolution?
What role do NFTs and cryptocurrency play in that?
For these reasons, at first, the NFT market was alluring to me; it seemed punk, as there is no need for a gallery or a gatekeeper like a traditional art gallery model and not to mention it provides transactional transparency. NFTs threw a wrench into a historical old fashioned art market but very quickly a digital art piece by a mediocre white male artist broke records at auction. The promises of decentralization and the banishments of hierarchy appealed to me, so I decided to dedicate my time to a new NFT project.
Jackson Palmer, of Dogecoin fame, writes “...that cryptocurrency is an inherently right-wing, hyper-capitalistic technology built primarily to amplify the wealth of its proponents through a combination of tax avoidance, diminished regulatory oversight, and artificially enforced scarcity.” After my experience moonlighting with shirtless “whales” in Zoom chats about how to increase my “upside potential” this seems spot on.
$HT Coin opens up the can on the art world as a rigid system in which artists have to play by the rules 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.
For all the promise NFTs offer to artists, they have become the currency of speculation fueled by greed, but they also have an environmental cost. $HT Coin addresses both of these issues. Since the system fails those of us who are not cis white men, can we artists, the remaining 2%, transform speculation and greed into a way where artists model care for each other? I will give 10% of all sales to start a fund for BIPOC Trans and Non-Binary Visual Artists, supported by For Freedoms.
My tactic is always to center artists. I calculated the cost of the carbon footprint of minting 33 NFTs (the equivalent of driving your car 15,000 miles). Rather than paying to offset carbon emissions to a nameless corporation, I will contribute the equivalent proceeds to artist jackie sumell’s project Solitary Gardens, which turns solitary confinement cells into garden beds. The contents are designed by prisoners serving their sentences in isolation and gardened by proxies on the outside. Central to this project is a call to end the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement, simultaneously inspiring compassion necessary to dismantle systems of punishment and control.
NFTs, as with other artworks using emerging technologies, depend on how the mechanism is wielded. 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.