Metamodern Spell Casting

The Blockchain as a Conceptual Medium for Contemporary Visual Artists



How to Cite

Beyer, S. (2023). Metamodern Spell Casting : The Blockchain as a Conceptual Medium for Contemporary Visual Artists. M/C Journal, 26(5).
Vol. 26 No. 5 (2023): magic
Published 2023-10-02

There are spells in the world: incantations that can transform reality through the power of procedural utterances. The marriage vow, the courtroom sentence, the shaman’s curse: these words are codes that change reality. (Finn 90)


As a child, stories on magic were “opportunities to escape from reality” (Brugué and Llompart 1), or what Rosengren and Hickling describe as being part of a set of “causal belief systems” (77). As an adult, magic is typically seen as being “pure fantasy” (Rosengren and Hickling 75), while Bever argues that magic is something lost to time and materialism, and alternatively a skill that Yeats believed that anyone could develop with practice.

The etymology of the word magic originates from magein, a Greek word used to describe “the science and religion of the priests of Zoroaster”, or, according to philologist Skeat, from Greek megas (great), thus signifying "the great science” (Melton 956). Not to be confused with sleight of hand or illusion, magic is traditionally associated with learned people, held in high esteem, who use supernatural or unseen forces to cause change in people and affect events. To use magic these people perform rituals and ceremonies associated with religion and spirituality and include people who may identify as Priests, Witches, Magicians, Wiccans, and Druids (Otto and Stausberg).

Magic as Technology and Technology as Magic

Although written accounts of the rituals and ceremonies performed by the Druids are rare, because they followed an oral tradition and didn’t record knowledge in a written form (Aldhouse-Green 19), they are believed to have considered magic as a practical technology to be used for such purposes as repelling enemies and divining lost items.

They curse and blight humans and districts, raise storms and fogs, cause glamour and delusion, confer invisibility, inflict thirst and confusion on enemy warriors, transform people into animal shape or into stone, subdue and bind them with incantations, and raise magical barriers to halt attackers. (Hutton 33)

Similarly, a common theme in The History of Magic by Chris Gosden is that magic is akin to science or mathematics—something to be utilised as a tool when there is a need, as well as being used to perform important rituals and ceremonies.

In TechGnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age of Information, Davis discusses ideas on Technomysticism, and Thacker says that “the history of technology—from hieroglyphics to computer code—is itself inseparable from the often ambiguous exchanges with something nonhuman, something otherworldly, something divine. Technology, it seems, is religion by other means, then as now” (159). Written language, communication, speech, and instruction has always been used to transform the ordinary in people’s lives.

In TechGnosis, Davis (32) cites Couliano (104):

historians have been wrong in concluding that magic disappeared with the advent of 'quantitative science.’ The latter has simply substituted itself for a part of magic while extending its dreams and its goals by means of technology. Electricity, rapid transport, radio and television, the airplane, and the computer have merely carried into effect the promises first formulated by magic, resulting from the supernatural processes of the magician: to produce light, to move instantaneously from one point in space to another, to communicate with faraway regions of space, to fly through the air, and to have an infallible memory at one’s disposal.

Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)

In early 2021, at the height of the pandemic meta-crisis, blockchain and NFTs became well known (Umar et al. 1) and Crypto Art became the hot new money-making scheme for a small percentage of ‘artists’ and tech-bros alike. The popularity of Crypto Art continued until initial interest waned and Ether (ETH) started disappearing in the manner of a classic disappearing coin magic trick. In short, ETH is a type of cryptocurrency similar to Bitcoin. NFT is an acronym for Non-Fungible Token. An NFT is “a cryptographic digital asset that can be uniquely identified within its smart contract” (Myers, Proof of Work 316). The word Non-Fungible indicates that this token is unique and therefore cannot be substituted for a similar token. An example of something being fungible is being able to swap coins of the same denomination. The coins are different tokens but can be easily swapped and are worth the same as each other. Hackl, Lueth, and Bartolo define an NFT as “a digital asset that is unique and singular, backed by blockchain technology to ensure authenticity and ownership. An NFT can be bought, sold, traded, or collected” (7).


For the newcomer, blockchain can seem impenetrable and based on a type of esoterica or secret knowledge known only to an initiate of a certain type of programming (Cassino 22). The origins of blockchain can be found in the research article “How to Time-Stamp a Digital Document”, published by the Journal of Cryptology in 1991 by Haber, a cryptographer, and Stornetta, a physicist. They were attempting to answer “epistemological problems of how we trust what we believe to be true in a digital age” (Franceschet 310). Subsequently, in 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto wrote The White Paper, a document that describes the radical idea of Bitcoin or “Magic Internet Money” (Droitcour).

As defined by Myers (Proof of Work 314), a blockchain is “a series of blocks of validated transactions, each linked to its predecessor by its cryptographic hash”. They go on to say that “Bitcoin’s innovation was not to produce a blockchain, which is essentially just a Merkle list, it was to produce a blockchain in a securely decentralised way”. In other words, blockchain is essentially a permanent record and secure database of information. The secure and permanent nature of blockchain is comparable to a chapter of the Akashic records: a metaphysical idea described as an infinite database where information on everything that has ever happened is stored. It is a mental plane where information is recorded and immutable for all time (Nash). The information stored in this infinite database is available to people who are familiar with the correct rituals and spells to access this knowledge.

Blockchain Smart Contracts

Blockchain smart contracts are written by a developer and stored on the blockchain. They contain the metadata required to set out the terms of the contract. IBM describes a smart contract as “programs stored on a blockchain that run when predetermined conditions are met”. There are several advantages of using a smart contract. Blockchain is a permanent and transparent record, archived using decentralised peer-to-peer Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT). This technology safeguards the security of a decentralised digital database because it eliminates the intermediary and reduces the chance of fraud, gives hackers fewer opportunities to access the information, and increases the stability of the system (Srivastava). They go on to say that “it is an emerging and revolutionary technology that is attracting a lot of public attention due to its capability to reduce risks and fraud in a scalable manner”. Despite being a dry subject, blockchain is frequently associated with magic. One example is Faustino, Maria, and Marques describing a “quasi-religious romanticism of the crypto-community towards blockchain technologies” (67), with Satoshi represented as King Arthur.

The set of instructions that make up the blockchain smart contracts and NFTs tell the program, database, or computer what needs to happen. These instructions are similar to a recipe or spell. This “sourcery” is what Chun (19) describes when talking about the technological magic that mere mortals are unable to comprehend. “We believe in the power of code as a set of magical symbols linking the invisible and visible, echoing our long cultural tradition of logos, or language as an underlying system of order and reason, and its power as a kind of sourcery” (Finn 714).

NFTs as a Conceptual Medium

In a “massively distributed electronic ritual” (Myers, Proof of Work 100), NFTs became better-known with the sale of Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days by Christie’s for US$69,346,250. Because of the “thousandfold return” (Wang et al. 1) on the rapidly expanding market in October 2021, most people at that time viewed NFTs and cryptocurrencies as the latest cash cow; some artists saw them as a method to become financially independent, cut out the gallery intermediary, and be compensated on resales (Belk 5). In addition to the financial considerations, a small number of artists saw the conceptual potential of NFTs.

Rhea Myers, a conceptual artist, has been using the blockchain as a conceptual medium for over 10 years. Myers describes themselves as “an artist, hacker and writer” (Myers, Bio). A recent work by Myers, titled Is Art (Token), made in 2023 as an Ethereum ERC-721 Token (NFT), is made using a digital image with text that says “this token is art”. The word ‘is’ is emphasised in a maroon colour that differentiates it from the rest in dark grey. The following is the didactic for the artwork.

Own the creative power of a crypto artist.

Is Art (Token) takes the artist’s power of nomination, of naming something as art, and delegates it to the artwork’s owner. Their assertion of its art or non-art status is secured and guaranteed by the power of the blockchain. Based on a common and understandable misunderstanding of how Is Art (2014) works, this is the first in a series of editions that inscribe ongoing and contemporary concerns onto this exemplar of a past or perhaps not yet realized blockchain artworld. (Myers, is art editions).

This is a simple example of their work. A lot of Myers’s work appears to be uncomplicated but hides subtle levels of sophistication that use all the tools available to conceptual artists by questioning the notion of what art is—a hallmark of conceptual art (Goldie and Schellekens 22). Sol LeWitt, in Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, was the first to use the term, and described it by saying “the idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product”. According to Bailey, the most influential American conceptual artists of the 1960s were Lucy Lippard, Sol LeWitt, and Joseph Kosuth, “despite deriving from radically diverse insights about the reason for calling it ‘Conceptual Art’” (8).

Instruction-Based Art

Artist Claudia Hart employs the instructions used to create an NFT as a medium and artwork in Digital Combines, a new genre the artist has proposed, that joins physical, digital, and virtual media together. The NFT, in a digital combine, functions as a type of glue that holds different elements of the work together. New media rely on digital technology to communicate with the viewer. Digital combines take this one step further—the media are held together by an invisible instruction linked to the object or installation with a QR code that magically takes the viewer to the NFT via a “portal to the cloud” (Hart, Digital Combine Paintings).

QR codes are something we all became familiar with during the on-and-off lockdown phase of the pandemic (Morrison et al. 1). Denso Wave Inc., the inventor of the Quick Response Code or QR Code, describes them as being a scannable graphic that is “capable of handling several dozen to several hundred times more information than a conventional bar code that can only store up to 20 digits”. QR Codes were made available to the public in 1994, are easily detected by readers at nearly any size, and can be reconfigured to fit a variety of different shapes. A “QR Code is capable of handling all types of data, such as numeric and alphabetic characters, Kanji, Kana, Hiragana, symbols, binary, and control codes. Up to 7,089 characters can be encoded in one symbol” (Denso Wave).

Similar to ideas used by the American conceptual artists of the 1960s, QR codes and NFTs are used in digital combines as conceptual tools. Analogous to Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, the instruction is the medium and part of the artwork. An example of a Wall Drawing made by Sol LeWitt is as follows:

Wall Drawing 11
A wall divided horizontally and vertically into four equal parts. Within each part, three of the four kinds of lines are superimposed.
(Sol LeWitt, May 1969; MASS MoCA, 2023)

The act or intention of using an NFT as a medium in art-making transforms it from being solely a financial contract, which NFTs are widely known for, to an artistic medium or a standalone artwork.

The interdisciplinary artist Sue Beyer uses Machine Learning and NFTs as conceptual media in her digital combines. Beyer’s use of machine learning corresponds to the automatic writing that André Breton and Philippe Soupault of the Surrealists were exploring from 1918 to 1924 when they wrote Les Champs Magnétiques (Magnetic Fields) (Bohn 7). Automatic writing was popular amongst the spiritualist movement that evolved from the 1840s to the early 1900s in Europe and the United States (Gosden 399). Michael Riffaterre (221; in Bohn 8) talks about how automatic writing differs from ordinary texts. Automatic writing takes a “total departure from logic, temporality, and referentiality”, in addition to violating “the rules of verisimilitude and the representation of the real”. Bohn adds that although “normal syntax is respected, they make only limited sense”.

An artificial intelligence (AI) hallucination, or what Chintapali (1) describes as “distorted reality”, can be seen in the following paragraph that Deep Story provided after entering the prompt ‘Sue Beyer’ in March 2022. None of these sentences have any basis in truth about the person Sue Beyer from Melbourne, Australia.

Suddenly runs to Jen from the bedroom window, her face smoking,
her glasses shattering. Michaels (30) stands on the bed, pale and irritated.

Dear Mister Shut Up!

Sue’s loft – later – Sue is on the phone, looking upset. There is a new bruise on her face.

There is a distinction between AI and machine learning. According to ChatGPT 3.5, “Machine Learning is a subset of AI that focuses on enabling computers to learn and make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed. It involves the development of algorithms and statistical models that allow machines to automatically learn from data, identify patterns, and make informed decisions or predictions”. Using the story generator Deep Story, Beyer uses the element of chance inherent in Machine Learning to create a biography on herself written by the alien other of AI. The paragraphs that Deep Story produces are nonsensical statements and made-up fantasies of what Beyer suspects AI wants the artist to hear. Like a psychic medium or oracle, providing wisdom and advice to a petitioner, the words tumble out of the story generator like a chaotic prediction meant to be deciphered at a later time. This element of chance might be a short-lived occurrence as machine learning is evolving and getting smarter exponentially, the potential of which is becoming very evident just from empirical observation. Something that originated in early modernist science fiction is quickly becoming a reality in our time.

A Metamodern Spell Casting

Metamodernism is an evolving term that emerged from a series of global catastrophes that occurred from the mid-1990s onwards. The term tolerates the concurrent use of ideas that arise in modernism and postmodernism without discord. It uses oppositional aspects or concepts in art-making and other cultural production that form what Dember calls a “complicated feeling” (Dember). These ideas in oscillation allow metamodernism to move beyond these fixed terms and encompass a wide range of cultural tendencies that reflect what is known collectively as a structure of feeling (van den Akker et al.).

The oppositional media used in a digital combine oscillate with each other and also form meaning between each other, relating to material and immaterial concepts. These amalgamations place “technology and culture in mutual interrogation to produce new ways of seeing the world as it unfolds around us” (Myers Studio Ltd.). The use of the oppositional aspects of technology and culture indicates that Myers’s work can also be firmly placed within the domain of metamodernism.

Advancements in AI over the years since the pandemic are overwhelming. In episode 23 of the MIT podcast Business Lab, Justice stated that “Covid-19 has accelerated the pace of digital in many ways, across many types of technologies.” They go on to say that “this is where we are starting to experience such a rapid pace of exponential change that it’s very difficult for most people to understand the progress” (MIT Technology Review Insights).

Similarly, in 2021 NFTs burst forth in popularity in reaction to various conditions arising from the pandemic meta-crisis. A similar effect was seen around cryptocurrencies after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2007-2008 (Aliber and Zoega). “The popularity of cryptocurrencies represents in no small part a reaction to the financial crisis and austerity. That reaction takes the form of a retreat from conventional economic and political action and represents at least an economic occult” (Myers, Proof of Work 100). When a traumatic event occurs, like a pandemic, people turn to God, spirituality (Tumminio Hansen), or possibly the occult to look for answers. NFTs took on the role of precursor, promising access to untold riches, esoteric knowledge, and the comforting feeling of being part of the NFT cult. Similar to the effect of what Sutcliffe (15) calls spiritual “occultures” like “long-standing occult societies or New Age healers”, people can be lured by “the promise of secret knowledge”, which “can assist the deceptions of false gurus and create opportunities for cultic exploitation”.


NFTs are a metamodern spell casting, their popularity borne by the meta-crisis of the pandemic; they are made using magical instruction that oscillates between finance and conceptual abstraction, materialism and socialist idealism, financial ledger, and artistic medium. The metadata in the smart contract of the NFT provide instruction that combines the tangible and intangible. This oscillation, present in metamodern artmaking, creates and maintains a liminal space between these ideas, objects, and media. The in-between space allows for the perpetual transmutation of one thing to another. These ideas are a work in progress and additional exploration is necessary.

An NFT is a new medium available to artists that does not physically exist but can be used to create meaning or to glue or hold objects together in a digital combine. Further investigation into the ontological aspects of this medium is required. The smart contract can be viewed as a recipe for the spell or incantation that, like instruction-based art, transforms an object from one thing to another. The blockchain that the NFT is housed in is a liminal space. The contract is stored on the threshold waiting for someone to view or purchase the NFT and turn the objects displayed in the gallery space into a digital combine. Alternatively, the intention of the artist is enough to complete this alchemical process.


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Author Biography

Sue Beyer, Griffith University

Sue Beyer is an interdisciplinary artist and academic specialising in metamodern contemporary art. She is a sessional lecturer at RMIT University and a PhD candidate at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University