The Spirit of Trash

Trash Art is a term you hear a lot in cryptoart circles. Sometimes people talk with reverence about it as an OG movement. Some collectors describe it as ‘low effort’ art. It’s hard to know exactly what Trash Art is - it’s not immediately obvious.

Trash is sometimes used synonymously with Glitch Art. The colour spectrum is pushed to the edge of what your display can handle. Analogue or digital static, some kind of error inside the machine, lots of images of trash cans with a filter over the top. But what’s the point?

“I got into cryptorart in 2019 and was mainly using Photomosh to create glitch art” says Jay Delay, one of the original Trash Artists. “Soon after Rarible came on the scene I started to notice quite a few artists riffing off Robness’ ‘64 Gallon Toter’. I loved the irreverent attitude and the playfulness of the subject of the toter or trash as a subject.”

The ‘64 Gallon Toter’ became infamous when it was removed from SuperRare because it wasn’t ‘original art’. SuperRare suspended Robness’ account for minting Bitcoin and Ethereum logos, plus this “gif of a trash bin from the Home Depot website”, as the SuperRare CEO described it at the time.

It might seem surprising that SuperRare took such extreme measures when contemporary artists in the ‘traditional’ art world have been creating appropriation art for decades, with critical and commercial success. But there was a strong dislike and fear of this art in some corners of the NFT community.

“It all began with NFT project heads and some artists judging artists who used the infamous glitch app Photomosh” says Robness. “Some of these individuals were calling the art trash and thus I began to flip the perception on its head, create even more works with Photomosh and began to call them trash .gifs.”

After Robness and Max Osiris were expelled from SuperRare, other artists including Cryptoyuna, Kamisama, Colin and Shaolin Shoppe used the toter as the basis of a whole series of ripped and remixed trash pieces, in solidarity with their friends.

“People with influence said we can’t remix things because it was devaluing their NFTs” says Cryptoyuna, an original Trasher. “They were strongly opinionated on everything going on in the space and wanted to make rules. We were tired of people with more power and influence telling everyone what they could and couldn’t do, what is and isn’t art.”

“At one point there was an article that ‘Trash Artists’ were the worst people in ‘NFTLand’ and it got kind of ugly at times”, says Jay. “But the original crew just wanted to have fun and make art about Trash, so we kept pumping out can after can. You could say all the hatred spewed helped start the Trash Fire.”

Around this time Jay Delay wrote the Trash Art Manifesto, authored in collaboration with a GPT-2 AI text generator. At 16 pages the Manifesto is a pretty difficult read, but it’s also inspiring and pretty funny in turns.

As with a lot of great art that could be classed as ‘low effort’, the inventiveness of Trash isn’t just in the images you see at first glance, but the motives and processes used by the artists. There’s an anti-gatekeeper politics behind Trash that wasn’t appreciated at the time but has had a strong ripple effect through the whole cryptoart scene.

“I believe the cryptoartist can create a role never before seen in the art world” says Robness. “We just need platforms to be stronger in not allowing whales to control the dialogue of the space and back the artist's 'play' a tad more.”

Another innovation that developed at the same time as Trash Art was Spam Art, where artworks were sent out at large scale to collectors and artists for free. Jay Delay explains: “The reason I started the SPAM / RATS project (Rapid Art Token Swap) is because I think with the gift of this new decentralized technology it would be a complete waste to replicate the systems in the traditional art world that have proven to be flawed.”

“Curation has an extremely flawed history of leaving out minorities as well as people not entrenched in the world of fine arts” says Jay. “I truly believe that cryptoartists should migrate to open and less centralized platforms and galleries to empower all creators.”

Comparisons have been made between Trash Art and Marcel Duchamp’s appropriation of a urinal for gallery exhibition. They make you think twice about what art can be. Trash Art celebrates art-making as an expression of freedom. Trash was also born out of decentralised remix culture - the collective of artists took the toter and made it into something bigger.  

“No one really knew we were making ‘Trash Art’ when we started” says Yuna. “We took a stand and we were loud about it. We shed a light on stuff that was unfair. And we settled the issue of what is art in NFTs.”

So where’s the spirit of Trash today? Are new artists picking up the Trash banner and running with it?

On the NFT platform hicetnunc there are the regular #objkt4objkt events, where artists can create large editions and sell them for almost nothing. These events encourage all artists to distribute their work at scale and also collect their own favourites. #objkt4objkt has helped hicetnunc become one of the most vibrant communities of artists and collectors in the NFT space. Many of the original Trash Artists have been active on the platform too.

Artists like shl0ms, Nahiko and Autocanibal are pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable in cryptoart. Their work is often also at the expense of the art platforms themselves. The recent shl0ms piece ‘FNTN’, where he destroyed a urinal and then sold the shards as NFTs, has some parallels with Trash. It’s undeniable that the tradition of rule-breaking, boundary-pushing cryptoart lives on.

Across the cryptoart space there is an appreciation that what is happening here is different. That artists are sovereign and shouldn’t have to bow at the feet of institutions and self-appointed powers. This is centrally important to cryptoart, because NFTs live on the blockchain, a decentralised medium that has the potential to change the world for the better. The Trashers brought these issues out into the open in 2019.

“The spirit of Trash Art lives on today. Many people remix, make cans or rebel against gatekeeper platforms or find back doors onto them” says Yuna. “Any time an artist stands up for themselves, I think of Trash Art.”