Exonemo Solo Exhibition “On Memory”
Onchain/Offchain and Recording/Memory

Text: Yusuke Shono
《On Memory》2023年、イメージ

In July 2023, exonemo’s third solo exhibition, in two years, was held at WAITINGROOM in Tokyo. The showcased works were a new series titled “On Memory,” focusing on the theme of “Records/Memories.” 《Proof of Non-Existence》, which was created for the exhibition “Proof of X” held in June, is another artwork related to the present piece,《On Memory》. By juxtaposing these two artworks, presented in succession, this text attempts to reflect the overarching concept that spans between them.

As you walk through the exhibition space and observe the displayed artworks, the first thing that catches your eye is the frames they are housed in. The frames’ outer perimeter is enclosed with frosted glass, inside of which various tools such as cables and a mouses are placed. Through the semi-transparent partitions, you can barely discern what’s inside, with blurred contours and minimal hints of color. The frames themselves become objects of exquisite beauty and evoke a carousel of images from exonemo’s previous works.

In the center of each frame, lies a black monitor. On the black background, there’s an input field for typing, displaying different texts for each artwork with their respective cursors. It’s said that the entered texts disappear when reset or reloaded, and no recording of their content is allowed. If the text is considered the essence of these artworks, then they become incredibly fragile. Someone with malicious intent could unplug the power or insert a keyboard to alter the messages. The only reliable means of preserving the artworks is through the owner’s “memory.” The website provides the following explanation:

The new series presented in this exhibition is premised on the extremely provisional condition that the text disappears when reloaded and cannot be recorded or documented anywhere — that is, it is a text that survives only in human memory. In an age where all information can be recorded as digital data, and where the advent of blockchain technology has ostensibly boosted its permanence even further, this work, which is based on the idea of human memory as an essential precondition, seeks to highlight both the permanence of digital data and artworks as well as their ephemeral nature through exonemo’s unique brand of humor. ※1

The eye-catching term here is “blockchain.” With the rise of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), it has become common to store artworks on the blockchain and decentralized storage. Artworks that are solely stored on the blockchain are referred to as “full on-chain.” Since the early days, various attempts have been made to store artworks on the blockchain, and the results of these experiments have been reflected in the current proliferation of generative art and smart contract art.

In an essay attempting to define the widely used term “on-chain” in the world of NFTs, jacob, one of the founders of the Zora protocol, describes the on-chain space as a place for the transformation of the internet itself.

More than a technological concept, “on-chain” has come to represent a space where trust, value, decentralization, and transparency are intrinsic values. As this understanding continues to grow, “on-chain” is becoming recognized not just as a feature of technology, but as a transformative place within the internet itself. ※2

The concept of “on-chain” has become particularly significant among creators interested in NFTs and blockchain, not only due to the mechanism that provides a certain level of permanence but also because it has led to the creation of artworks that strongly reflect the media properties of the blockchain through its constraints. While there is a sense of romanticism in immortalizing artworks in a persistent medium, it is the practice of transforming technological limitations into experimentation and ingenuity through research that has given rise to unique methods and expressions.

As such a space shapes its own culture, it, in turn, influences and transforms reality. Contemplating this idea, I was reminded of exonemo’s artwork “Proof of Non-Existence.” In their own explanation of the artwork, exonemo stated the following:

We wanted to create a work that existed 100% off-chain (that is to say, a “normal work”, tho). Since the advent of blockchain, the term “off-chain” has adopted a new significance. What about having an off-chain contract prove something? What to prove? OK, let them prove “non-existence on the blockchain”! ※3

《Proof of Non-Existence》 is a piece created on a silk screen with code written in the Solidity syntax. However, it has not yet been deployed on the blockchain. Therefore, at this point in time, it exists as an “off-chain” artwork, meaning it does not currently have a presence on the blockchain. Just as online culture has had a significant impact on the physical world, the emergence of the concept of “on-chain” might lead to new changes in the “off-chain” (real) world as well. While the culture of “on-chain” is not yet widespread, as jacob pointed out, recognizing the on-chain space as a place for transforming the internet itself could potentially give new meaning to the “off-chain” (real) world. It might seem a bit ahead of its time, but one could argue that《Proof of Non-Existence》embodies the potential for such developments to become evident.

As seen so far, both《On Memory》and《Proof of Non-Existence》are artworks that explore the concept of “the place where artworks are recorded.” From the advent of civilization, humans have carried their culture across time through various mediums of recording, from rock and cave walls to parchment, paper, magnetic records, and now, blockchain. These diverse mediums externalize the human capacity for memory. They enable the transmission and preservation of information, forming the foundation of our civilization. Moreover, with the emergence of the internet, this process has expanded and accelerated even further.

《On Memory》seeks to bring back the act of “recording” to the realm of “memory” in this age of expanding digital records, where even the most trivial pieces of information are recorded and persist. It raises questions about how we use memory, a fragile and ephemeral medium, in an era of pervasive digital recording. Each recording medium possesses its unique context, and it is precisely due to these differences in characteristics that the value of the artwork placed on them also changes. With the emergence of on-chain art, which is associated with perpetuity, the consideration of memory as a medium that everyone possesses becomes an inquiry into the multifaceted phenomena that such mediums give rise to.

Researcher Masanori Mizuno, who has left numerous texts about exonemo, shared his impression of《On Memory》in an article on note titled “230: exonemo《On Memory》[ ].”

After seeing the artwork, what left a profound impression on me was the persistent presence of the empty text boxes. Even if the strings of text that could have been entered are forgotten, the emptiness of the blank spaces for the input remain, and the cursor keeps blinking. I felt a tremendous flow of time or depth in this aspect. When I find myself in such a state, the only thing that may represent the passage of time I am experiencing now, in the presence of something else, is the blinking cursor within the brackets [ ]. ※4

When the artwork is passed from person to person, for physical pieces, their durability is ensured (although damage or degradation may occur). In the case of《On Memory》, the HTML code that allows text input is engraved on the blockchain, ensuring the persistence of that particular aspect. However, in contrast, the identity of the text is not guaranteed, relying instead on the fragile human ability of memory to endure. Masanori Mizuno’s strong impression of “the persistent presence of empty text boxes” seems to stem from the theme of permanence that this artwork revolves around. It may also be influenced by the impressions formed by the connections made between individuals through the artwork’s mechanism. From memory to memory, from person to person, it is through the act of “remembering” and conveying this almost primitive message that one imagines the future in which the artwork endures. The artwork itself contains the future it will traverse, or one could even say that eternity exists within the present. After an immeasurable span of time, what is reflected is the blinking cursor silently urging input and the “emptiness” left behind after memories have faded.

exonemo ‘On Memory’.
Thu 6 Jul – Sun 6 Aug 2023.