Artworks in the age of virtual between digital twins and NFT Phygital

Artworks in the age of digital reproduction: what are the boundaries between real and virtual experience? There is increasing talk of "phygital," experience in between the two realms: here are the implications it could have for museums.

Not surprisingly, the editorial in the latest issue of The Burlington Magazine (March 2022) is devoted to art in the age of digital reproduction. Taking a cue from Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the editorial discusses the dialectic between original and copy, carrying the ??discourse forward with regard to digital works of art as well. “The medium seems to completely erode the distinction between original and copy,” the editorial states, “since any such work could, in theory, be reproduced an unlimited number of times with perfect accuracy.”

One point raised by The Burlington Magazine editorial struck me as insightful. In choosing to describe digital resources as certified copies of original works of art, the editorial makes a very pertinent point: “...a screen does not look like the surface of a canvas,” so these should be considered, for all intents and purposes, copies. What The Burlington Magazine editorial is particularly keen to emphasize is the essence of a work of art and its materiality. I tend to look at this from the perspective of the user, particularly the museum audience.

My point is quite simple. We tend to forget that when we enjoy a work of art, we are for all intents and purposes performing a multisensory experience. Rather than being a purely visual experience, our experience of physical art is multisensory. Our first encounter with the essence of a work of art is, most often, visual, but this takes us deeper to engage with the sound captured within layers of paint. Other senses follow close behind. Smell and taste are evoked in our minds by the objects depicted or the abstraction the artist has created. We experience sensations in our own way by observing the shape and volume of the artwork we see.

The editorial in The Burlington Magazine seems to suggest that digital resources coined as NFT may not have this potential for multisensory experience. Is this the case or is there more to it?

NFT. Immagine di Milad Fakurian
NFT. Image by Milad Fakurian

Conversations about the dialectic between the physical artwork and its digital version coined as NFT by increasing numbers of museums in recent months are generally informed by the idea of the digital twin. The concept has been around for some time. The industry describes it as a digital program or virtual representation. An appropriate definition reads along these lines: “... a virtual representation of an object or system that covers its life cycle, is updated by real-time data, and uses simulation, machine learning, and reasoning to aid decision making.” Following this definition, a digital twin would be a resource with a purpose, supporting the physical, and rather drawing from. It is much less than an identical digital version that has the same aura as the original with which it shares an existence. It may well be the case that the idea of a digital twin in itself may inspire new thinking for NFTs, although this may also be informed by phygital.

Let us explore this further. Linguistically, the word phygital is a combination of the words “physical” and “digital” to indicate the ever-increasing experiential intersection and fusion of these two worlds. In other words, the term refers to the ways and means by which these two realms-physical and digital-merge into each other and thus it is increasingly difficult to inhabit them separately. We can think of a phygital NFT as a work of art that can move from a physical to a digital state or vice versa, and that can also be experienced separately or alternately. It could also be a combination of two states, physical and digital, whereby the aura of Benjamin’s original is shared between the two states.

This thinking is already taking shape. We can cite the Phygi platform as a good example of this thinking. On this platform, NFTs can change matter from digital to physical, be it posters, wearables or any other tangible form. Another example to mention would be the Milan-based platform Asthetes. This thinking is relatively easier to apply in the case of contemporary art practice, but much more complex to inform the concept behind phygital NFTs for ancient artworks. This is where a shift in thinking could make all the difference. Rather than viewing the aura as a starting point, the user experience could instead have much more potential. In the case of museums, phygital could indicate a combination of states much more informed by the multisensory experience of a work of art. This thinking around multisensory has existed for some time. The Art Sensorium project, developed by the Tate in 2015, is a good example among many others that could inform the NFT phygital experience of digital twins coined for artworks in museum collections.

The question is fascinating. Can we actually extract the soundscape of a painting, a multiplicity of viewpoints from within the painting itself that can expand the user experience of an artwork and minted as NFT to be considered as a phygital artwork itself? We can also take this idea much further. The experience of an artwork is usually subjective, personalized and rarely shared, except for group visits and social platforms. What if phygital NFTs documented the multiplicity of subjective experiences by museum audiences, including the coordinates and dates when that subjective memory was recorded? Imagine being able to pass down the subjective memory of an encounter with a work of art and layering each memory into what can become a public art history over time through a special smart contract enabled by chips or QR codes that can access NFT data and memories.

In short...rather than considering the ambition to monetize as a starting point, museums might instead do well to examine the user experience. Rather than looking at trends informed by what has happened, museums may have much more to gain by examining the possibilities in their search for meaningful utility and purpose.

A word of caution. There is no doubt that the future possibilities for museums and phygital NFTs are almost endless. The question, however, is challenging. Would this be an innovation that fits museum practice, or could we be looking at new museological thinking that radically shifts the status quo in directions that have yet to be understood, much less considered? Exciting times lie ahead, indeed.

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