The works of art in the virtual age between digital twins and NFT Phygital

Works of art in the era of digital reproduction: what are the boundaries between real and virtual experience? There is more and more talk about “fygital”, an experience halfway between the two kingdoms: here are the implications it could have for museums.

Not surprisingly, the leader is in the latest issue of The Burlington Magazine (March 2022) is dedicated to art in the era of digital reproduction. Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay The work of art in the era of mechanical reproduction, the editors talk about the dialectic between original and copy, and continue the discussion also with regard to digital works of art. “The medium seems to completely erode the distinction between original and copy,” the editorial staff states, “since any such work could, in theory, be reproduced an unlimited number of times with perfect accuracy.”

A point raised by the editors The Burlington Magazine he seemed insightful to me. In choosing to describe digital assets as verified copies of original works of art, the editors make a very relevant observation: “… a screen does not resemble the surface of a canvas”, so these should be considered at all. effects, copy. What the editors of The Burlington Magazine he is particularly keen to emphasize the essence of a work of art and its materiality. I tend to look at this from the user’s perspective, especially the museum audience.

My point is pretty simple. We tend to forget that when we enjoy a work of art, we actually have a multisensory experience. Instead of being a pure visual experience, our experience of physical art is multisensory. Our first encounter with the essence of a work of art is usually visual, but it takes us deeper to engage with the sound captured in layers of paint. Other senses follow suit. Smell and taste are evoked in our minds by the depicted objects or by the abstraction that the artist has created. We experience sensations in our own way by observing the shape and volume of the artwork we see.

The editors of The Burlington Magazine seems to suggest that digital assets invented as NFT may not have this potential for a multisensory experience. Is it like that or is there more?

NFT.  Image by Milad Fakurian
NFT. Image by Milad Fakurian

Conversations about the dialectic between the physical work of art and its digital version invented as the NFT of an ever-increasing number of museums in recent months are generally inspired 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 can be read in 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 the decision-making process”. By this definition, a digital twin would be a resource with a purpose, in support of the physical, and from which it rather draws. It is much smaller than an identical digital version that has the same aura as the original it shares an existence with. It may very well be the case that the idea of ​​a digital twin in itself could inspire a new way of thinking for NFTs, although this can also be stated by phygital.

Let us examine this further. Linguistically, the word phygital it is a combination of the words “physical” and “digital” to indicate the ever-increasing intersection of experience and the 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 therefore it is increasingly difficult to inhabit them separately. We can think of a phygital NFT as a work of art that can go from a physical state to a digital one or vice versa, and that can also be experienced separately or alternatively. It could also be a combination of two modes, physical and digital, thereby dividing the aura of Benjamin’s original between the two modes.

This thought is already taking shape. We can mention the Phygi platform as a good example of this mindset. On this platform, NFTs can change fabric from digital to physical, whether it be posters, wearables or any other tangible form. Another example to mention would be the Milanese Asthetes platform. This thinking is relatively easier to apply in the case of modern artistic practice, but much more complex to inform about the concept behind NFTs. phygital for ancient works of art. This is where a change in mindset can make a difference. Instead of taking the aura as a starting point, the user experience can instead have much more potential. This applies to museums phygital it could indicate a combination of states that are much more informed by the multisensory experience of a work of art. This multisensory thinking has been around for some time. The Art Sensorium project, developed by Tate in 2015, is a good example among many others who could inform the NFT experience phygital digital twins invented for works of art in museum collections.

The question is fascinating. We can actually extract the soundscape of a painting, a diversity of views from within the painting itself that can expand the user experience of a work of art and invented as NFT to be considered the same work of art. phygital? We can also take this idea much further. The experience of a work of art is usually subjective, personal and rarely shared, apart from group visits and social platforms. What if NFT phygital document the diversity of subjective experiences on the part of the museum public, including coordinates and dates on which the subjective memory was recorded? Imagine being able to pass on the subjective memory of an encounter with a work of art and stratify each memory into what may eventually become a public art history thanks to 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 make money as a starting point, museums may instead do well to explore the user experience. Instead of looking at trends based on what happened, museums could have much more to gain by exploring the possibilities in their search for meaningful utility and purpose.

Note. There is no doubt that the future opportunities for museums and NFTs phygital are almost infinite. The question, however, is challenging. Would this be an innovation that adapts to museum practice, or could we look at a new museological thinking that radically shifts the status quo in directions that are not yet understood and much less considered? Exciting times await us, in fact.

Windows on art

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Sandro Debono

The author of this article: Sandro Debono

Museum thinker and cultural strategist. Art historian, creator as well as former director of the National-Community Museum of Malta, MUZA. He teaches museology at the University of Malta, academic member of the European Museum Academy as well as national representative and member of the advisory committee of We Are Museums, the international platform for innovators and change creators in the world of museums. Curator of several international exhibitions, author of several books. He often writes about the museum’s future and has his blog publication – The Humanities Museum.


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