Nearly 20 strangers show up to an unmarked parking garage in Queens on a Saturday night. They’re here for an “art-related ritual” hosted by SHL0MS, a self-described “NFT performance artist.” Everyone has followed directions— they’re dressed in uniform black and have signed nondisclosure agreements that stipulate they cannot share “how devilishly charming [SHL0MS] is” or “how life-changing the ritual was.” The inside of the cinder block garage is flanked by two floodlights illuminating a large object covered in black cloth. A cloaked figure, wearing an LED mask, pulls the cloth off to reveal a white porcelain urinal with “shl0ms.eth” spray painted onto it. Instructions are simple: each attendee will take one swing, with a hammer, at the urinal.
After smashing the urinal, a team filmed short videos of the 185 shards and sold these videos as NFTs, for a project SHL0MS called “FNTN” (fountain). The two largest secondary sales, for shards #69 and #85, sold for 10 Ether (Ethereum’s digital currency) or the equivalent of $30,000. “It felt like everything [that was being sold as NFTs] was just holographic skulls and Ethereum logos,” SHL0MS told the College Hill Independent. “I really wanted to see more absurdity and to challenge the convention of what can be art in the NFT world.”
I met SHL0MS for the first time on Google Meet, where he arrived obscured by a flickering RGB filter, which rendered his face wholly unintelligible. I shouldn’t have been surprised; on Twitter, where we first interacted a few months ago, his profile photo is a noisy outline of a face, he’s filled his bio with bizarre characters (repeatedly) and his pinned tweet contains several screen-lengths worth of empty space.
SHL0MS’ sole medium is NFTs. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are one-of-a-kind digital items ranging from visual art, videos, and music to video game avatars and representation of land tracts. Their ownership is publicly tracked and recorded using blockchain technology, most often on a popular blockchain called Ethereum. Typically, no physical goods change hands: a transaction merely transfers ownership of one digital asset from one user’s virtual wallet to another in exchange for cryptocurrency.
SHL0MS has no formal training as an artist and notes that much of his early work began as experiments. His first piece “1x1” carries the subtitle “a single, transparent pixel.” As the piece sold, he quickly realized others had already released pieces with the same concept, so he decided to take the idea further. His next work, 0x0, is simply an empty file. To engage with people who said the piece was not art because it contained no pixels, he responded with “10,000,000x10,000,000” (in reference to the work’s number of pixels). The work is embedded with millions of copies of itself—the image’s PNG file has 99 million ZIP files within it, each of which contains a copy of the work. “I don’t think of the image, I think of the file structure,” he noted when describing a similar piece that contains itself, noting that he sees the file as the canvas. Another piece, tall, measures 1 pixel by 100 million pixels; SHL0MS notes that, if the piece were displayed on a vertical stack of televisions as intended, it piece would stand 16.44 miles tall.
SHL0MS embraces critiques that his work is ridiculous. “I think if you’re making conceptual art and 100 percent of people like it, it’s probably not very good,” he told the Indy. “I think you want somewhere between five and 15 percent of people to think this is fucking stupid.” Most critiques extend past SHL0MS’ work specifically, and instead look to the very act of NFT collecting, often ridiculed as “buying JPEGs” because the images of visual NFTs are typically publicly viewable. This complicates the norms of art ownership—instead of purchasing NFTs for personal viewing pleasure, these staggering sums of money are spent mostly for the sake of ownership and status. SHL0MS estimates that his followers seem to take a mixed view: some, he suspects, view NFTs as stupid and think his work satirizes NFTs. Others, he thinks, interpret his work as the conceptual underpinning of what NFTs can be.
As such, SHL0MS notes that he found inspiration for “FNTN” in the 20th-century Dada movement, which played with what art could and could not be, embracing satire and absurdity. “FNTN” is a direct reference to Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”—a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt”—which belonged to his series of “Readymades,” ordinary objects Duchamp argued could be “elevated to the dignity of a work of art by mere choice of an artist.” SHL0MS saw a similar role for “FNTN”: “It’s not a ‘fuck you’ to the NFT movement but a ‘hey, let’s try to make weirder stuff and push the boundaries of how we can make and sell art,’” he told the Indy. “Let’s not just make stuff that people were making on Instagram in 2013 and just sell that in a different way, let’s try to make new art.”
“FNTN” draws from a trend of fractionalizing NFTs, where one NFT can be partially owned by multiple people. SHL0MS’ goal was to take this a step farther and make the process of fractionalization part of the art. He notes that the creation of the work was inspired by French performance artist Yves Klein, specifically his “Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle” from 1959. For the piece, Klein offered to exchange gold for a deed representing ownership of an empty space (dubbed “the Immaterial Zone”). After purchasing, the buyer had the option to burn the receipt; Klein would then throw half of the gold into the Seine river before several designated witnesses. While Klein’s work certainly parallels the transfer of immaterial ownership inherent to NFTs, SHL0MS also compared it to “generative art,” a technique that uses code to create art based on some outside factor, usually either the time or a user’s wallet address—because the process is the same, unique inputs will have unique outputs. SHL0MS said that he wanted to see this in real life.
“The basic concept is [that] you set the preconditions and then have other people create the actual art,” he told the Indy. “Here, the entropy is coming from the real world. What did the participants eat that day? Did they eat a lot of breakfast and hit [the urinal] harder? Or, maybe they showed up a little later so one specific person gets to hit it at the end instead of the beginning. All of those random data points that are impossible to track ended up making these shards exactly as they are.” SHL0MS told the Indy that, for “FNTN,” he sees his role as setting up the ritual of the art.
One of the primary draws for NFTs is that, baked into the mechanism for buying or selling them, the original artist will receive a pre-set percentage every time one of their works is sold—for “FNTN,” SHL0MS and his collaborators receive 10 percent of future sales. Essentially, when works sell out quickly, rather than letting all of the profits accrue to resellers, NFTs allow artists to receive a portion of the transactions. This, SHL0MS noted, incentivizes artists to continue to work on projects after they have been sold, as he did with “FNTN.” SHL0MS said that the urinal used for “FNTN” was the second he purchased. The first one came shattered. “I like to call it ‘prefractionalized,’” he quipped.
The shards from the actual work currently sit in a bank vault, but he plans to destroy them; he wants the NFT to be the only real instance of the urinal, rather than a representation of a physical piece. He declined a request to display the physical shards at an NFT conference, focusing on the perpetuity that NFTs allow. “There is only so long that your fragile porcelain urinal will remain intact,” SHL0MS told the Indy.
In the parking garage, just before instructing attendees to smash the urinal, SHL0MS gave a brief speech about his background. He’d felt restricted in his ability to express himself in early life, growing up in an extremely religious, socially conservative Jewish community, and his artwork provided him with a necessary outlet. He instructed audience members to think about the beliefs they wanted to destroy when smashing the urinal. Toward the end of the event, he took off his mask. SHL0MS declined to confirm whether it was legitimately him at the event, suggesting it could have been a paid actor. “If I was there in person, it might have been really awkward because I wasn’t used to playing a character in real life.”
SHL0MS’ identity is tied to his Ethereum address; while a loss of his private key (essentially the password to his wallet) would mean losing all of the earnings from his works, he noted that his biggest worry is a loss of the perpetuity of the SHL0MS identity. In response to intrigue around his identity, he released a piece called “𝚒.𝚍.” that listed various traits about his identity (legal name, date of birth, current address, employer, social security number) to be sold as an NFT, except all of the identifying information is listed in white text on the white background, rendering it invisible. He assured me, nonetheless, that the information is there. Earlier in the year, many SHL0MS fans (who occasionally self-identify as the “shl0mscult”) tweeted “I am SHL0MS,” satirizing his ambiguous identity.
SHL0MS has found this tension— fascination with his identity combined with a vibrant community around his work—difficult to balance. He noted that in the past he’s kindly asked friends to delete posts from Twitter and often paused for divergences off the record when we talked. “I’m trying to be someone who’s creating this cool art that you like but also who interacts with you and who is friends with you on the internet,” SHL0MS told the Indy. “It’s not only because that’s a marketing angle, it’s because I genuinely enjoy it and like to interact with the people who like my art because I love doing it and it’s surreal to me that people enjoy it. Which then makes it harder that I have to constantly be thinking about all these boundaries and navigating all of this stuff.”
A few of SHL0MS’ friends created companion projects that accompanied “FNTN.” Ian Dilick, a 20-year-old product manager, created “this shl0ms does not exist”—an assortment of profile photos designed in the vein of SHL0MS’ profile. SHL0MS also helped with the creation of a project called “this shard does not exist” in which disinformation researcher Mitch Chaiet trained a machine learning algorithm with images of “FNTN” shards to generate new “fake” shards; they minted 666 fake shards, the first 185 of which were reserved for prior “FNTN” holders. All 666 shards, listed initially for 0.069 ETH apiece (roughly $240 USD as of press time) sold out within 15 minutes.
Chaiet told the Indy he doesn’t believe NFTs would be anywhere without their inherent financialization. “I did not give a shit about NFTs until I saw the toilet shards, and I was like ‘It would be funny if I generated more of these,’” Chaiet told the Indy. “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. I’m a big fan of ridiculousness [...] It’s a stupider form of exaggeration I guess, like ‘look at what I did, I smashed a toilet and you fuckers gave me money, ha ha ha.’ I’m a big fan of it obviously, but it’s not something I would have paid for myself had I been there.”
Chaiet told the Indy he thinks some buyers view the pieces as investments they will be able to flip in the future. “I view them more as social collectibles that you can use to dunk your friends,” he told the Indy. “It says ‘I’m technical enough to navigate the horrible user experience of web3 [blockchain platforms] across three fake money platforms to buy, you know, a drawing of a gorilla wearing a hat, and now I feel better than you.”
While Dilick notes that the speculation around and financialization of NFT art is common, he doesn’t see it as unique to the medium. “When it comes down to the economics, the whole ‘buying art because you think it’s going to appreciate a huge amount,’ that is exactly what happens with art investment in the real world, but it’s something made more explicit because it is available to far more people,” Dilick said.
Shira Eisenberg, a 23-year-old tech founder who attended the “FNTN” smashing, noted that she sees the NFT rush as similarly excessive to hype cycles in the traditional art world. “You see media where’s it’s like: ‘oh, at Art Basel, you have the banana taped to the wall,” Eisenberg told the Indy. “It’s very similar to ‘oh somebody spent $2 million on a picture of a squiggle.”
“FNTN” was by far SHL0MS’ most financially successful work to date. He listed the shards on a website for a flat rate instead of an auction, in hopes that friends who had been priced out of previous releases of his work could purchase one. In spite of this, the platform crashed during the auction, and shards sold for 50 to 80 times their initial price on the secondary market. “Something that I feel definitely weird about is that people take me more seriously now than they did a couple months ago because my art sold for a lot of money. I personally really don’t like that,” SHL0MS told the Indy. “Especially because of how easily this stuff can be manipulated and how many ‘big whale’ collectors there are who are investing for more social and financial reasons than artistic reasons.”
He notes that he initially conceived of “FNTN” several months ago but waited because he felt there was less that he could get away with conceptually. “It’s a different type of capital than social capital because you could be a very socially capitalized conceptual artist [without legitimacy],” he said. “It’s more of an air of conceptual legitimacy, and if you have a lot of it like Duchamp, you can do literally anything as long as it’s not unethical. No matter how incomprehensible it is or how banal it is, people view it as an amazing work of art.” He criticized the mentality of British contemporary artist Damien Hirst, who noted that he “can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it.” SHL0MS, instead, views his increased legitimacy as “more liberation to make art that I think is interesting to me.”
He sees the current buzz around NFTs as a rush. He considers himself risk averse and still works a full time job, although he recently switched positions and now works in crypto after being hired under his pseudonym. Seemingly capricious spikes in crypto price are now common, sometimes spiked by speculative activity, others by celebrity tweets, and, most recently, by threats of government regulation, often targeting illicit money transfer. In addition, while development on technologies that will reduce Ethereum’s power consumption by 99.95 percent are promised by the end of the year, and while each additional NFT does not change the power consumption of the entire Ethereum network, current estimates suggest that a single Ethereum transaction consumes the equivalent amount of power used by the average US household over 4.55 days, according to the Hill.
Regardless of questions about the technology, he maintains a belief in NFTs as compelling technology for artists. “There’s the [ability] to sell a digital representation of a digital art piece instead of maybe making a print of a digital art piece and selling that,” he told the Indy. “[If you sell prints], you’re also selling a reproduction of the actual art, which is inherently digital.” SHL0MS notes that, because NFTs are so new, there is more that remains unexplored. “There’s just a lot of conceptual ground to play with,” SHL0MS told the Indy. “If this didn’t exist, I don’t know how much I [would] personally have to say in the traditional conceptual art world because I’m like 70 years too late to it.”
SHL0MS plans to keep experimenting with the NFT as form. He has yet to address smart contracts, the technical mechanisms that facilitate buying and selling of NFTs, and could play around with how these function. He’s also considered involving his community in a decentralized autonomous organization, a blockchain-enabled structure that allows for coordination and fundraising from its members. The group could fundraise and work on projects together, and he could give fractions of the final piece to those who contributed.
While NFT prices may be shaped by a few “whales” who own large amounts of Ethereum, platforms allow ‘anyone’—those who can bypass the technological and financial barriers to entry—to purchase NFTs, and discourse about what is valuable or significant happens on Twitter or Discord. “Regardless of whether crypto crashes, I think long-term, it is a means to create art or become artists without input or control of stodgy gallery owners in the traditional art world who would’ve never allowed people like me to become artists because we’re making art for people like us, like technologists and cryptopunks,” he told the Indy.
In 2016, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a retrospective for 100 years of Duchamp’s readymades. An art historian who attended the event told the New Yorker he felt the message of the readymade had been misunderstood. “It was decoded to mean that when anything can be art, anybody can be an artist,” he said. “But it’s the other way around. When anybody can be an artist, then anything can be art.”
LUCAS GELFOND B’24 is minting this piece as an NFT.