Do Flowers Grow on the Internet?
A Letter From the Curator by Nato Thompson
“ That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”-Juliet in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
This story is about flowers of course. These botanical harpies summon bees and lovers alike with prismatic elegance, delicate curves and abundant fragrance. Surpassing a symbol of beauty, is the equivalent of beauty itself. We gaze upon them. We desire them. We give them. We show our affection and concerns by sharing them on holidays, funerals, dates, and Valentine’s Day. Yes, the story begins with flowers. But the flowers that artist Jill Magid has brought to our attention, unlike those at your corner bodega or pinned to a lapel at prom, are farmed, sold, exchanged and desired in that world of online games.
To tell this story, we must introduce two unlikely characters who met, of course, on an internet farm. We have to talk about Brock Pierce, the child actor of Mighty Ducks, who took his obsession with online gaming to found a company called Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE) in 2001 and then after its class action lawsuit demise in 2007 would go on to found cryptocurrency Tether and co-found trading crypto giant. Block.one. We must also, with admitted perversity and awe, introduce the enterprising super villain of the Trump administration and Breitbart news, Steve Bannon. This frumpy right wing zealot, would be brought on by IGE to raise $85 million dollars in venture capital through Goldman Sachs.
What brings this duo into this conversation is that for a period in the early 2000s Pierce and Bannon shared a commercial interest in the power of digital farming. And while ultimately this story is about flowers, in the early internet farming days, just like the dawn of agriculture in the fertile crescent, the story begins with harvesting. Pierce recognized the power of using low wages in China to get players to “farm” items in a digital game and then to sell that in-game currency for out-game money. In some cases, that meant literally gathering digital agriculture in the game (as in flowers and wheat), but in general, the term farming meant the gathering of items to sell at a digital market in the game for digital gold. In the world of what are known as MMORPGs or Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games, it turns out you can grow digital plants. And ultimately, as Pierce demonstrated to Bannon, not only could you harvest on the internet, but just like in the real world, these products have tremendous value.
Imagine this: you are playing this dungeons and dragons inspired online game World of Warcraft in the early 2000s. You are an orc wizard and you are running down a digital road with your global group of gnomes, elves and humans. Off to your left, you spy a player, out there in the fields harvesting. Furthermore, if you stayed long enough, you might also notice that that player continues to do that menial work for hours on end. What are they doing? If you could jump through that internet to find out what kind of player would stand in a field for hours gathering with their digital hands the flowers and herbs, more likely than not, you would find that that player was a young Chinese man in Shanghai being paid 25 cents an hour. And the company that paid these workers for this menial and exhausting task, in a form of labor known as gold farming, was none other than the company Internet Gaming Entertainment.
"Games are work. There are economies popping up in games now because people value them."-Jane McGonigal
While this story has been about digital harvesting, this artwork by Jill Magid focuses specifically on flowers (Magid still incorporates what she calls “Bannon wheat” in the artworks as well as a nod to the origin story where plants are the root of finance and trade). Like many of Magid’s in-depth research-heavy artworks, her process starts with a point of interest and she follows the trail to where it leads. In this case, the trail begins with actual you-can-smell-them flowers and more specifically, the cheap flowers in plastic buckets found commonly in front of New York City corner bodegas. She was interested in their forlorn yet readily available status as an icon of New York City and how that corresponds to their street price. What made a bodega flower less valuable than a flower at a higher end florist’s shop?
In trying to understand the answer to such a basic question, Magid discovered that these flowers all actually grow on the same farms. They are not in fact, grown differently, or tilled by superior farmers. The soil is neither more oxygenated or enriched. In fact, what makes a bodega flower a bodega flower is a grading system that assesses the value of a flower based on its attributes of stem length, stem deviation, flower diameter, and stem strength to determine its beauty.
Take a beat on that: a grading system to determine both economic and aesthetic value of a body. Does not the flower not stand in for vulnerable bodies writ large?
In November of 2022, Magid installed a new artwork Bodega Flowers (2022) at the Modern Art Museum Ft. Worth. Consisting of hundreds of fresh cut bodega flowers displayed in the plastic buckets, the flowers greeted visitors evoking their experience as graded bodies in circulation. This individual project had also spun out of a larger public art project with Creative Time (the non-profit partner on this project ) titled Tender, where Magid engraved the phrase “The Body was already so fragile” on 120,000 pennies from 2020. This number corresponds directly to the 1200 dollars issued by the Trump Administration through the CAREs Act. Thus, just like the bodega flowers, the body becomes equated with a financial number.
Her interest in both flowers and economic circulation were very much on her mind as she considered what it meant to create her first digital artwork secured through blockchain. She asked: what do flowers mean in online games? Or perhaps, more poetically, do flowers grow on the internet? As it turns out, as we have just described, they most certainly do. In fact, they are blooming widely, powerfully, excitedly and in vast, vast numbers. And thus, the seed of the project grew.
For Out-Game Flowers, Magid assembled a range of bouquets with high value flowers culled from a variety of epoch video games such as Final Fantasy, Mario Brothers, Minecraft and The Legend of Zelda. Each online game, as you probably know, transpires in a vast landscape unto itself replete with rich mythologies, terrifying monsters, specific forms of architecture, racial categories, and of course, plenty of weapons, potions, spells and yes, flowers. They are chalk full of the materials of life (each in their own gaming way). And in creating these role playing games, these gaming companies construct relationships of desire, gifts, economies, value and exchange (just like the real world). This vast world developed by software programmers and enjoyed by millions transpires, to state the obvious, inside a realm highly controlled by private interests and power. And to state the obvious, the gaming industry is so moneyed, it is bigger than porn.
And thus, Magid’s flowers are both elegant and motley. The resolution on each flower differs widely with each game. Their underlying aesthetics vary. The power of each flower also corresponds obviously to the needs of each individual game. Some flowers are two dimensional and disappear upon rotation. Others are lifelike, bending with the breeze. One has a pop-up speech bubble that most definitely differentiates itself from the others. They are in essence plucked from their in-game environments to exist outside the game (or out-game as she likes to say) for us to appreciate, purchase, consider.
The term in-game means that some of these flowers’ properties only make sense in the environment of the games themselves. For the companies that produce them and the players that collect them, the value of these flowers ranging from their economic to cultural to utility predominately transpire in what is called a walled garden (yes, the agriculture metaphors never end). The gaming environments are not only produced through their underlying programming code but obviously, through legal frameworks of intellectual property and copyright.
Within each game environment, these flowers hold values, powers, unlock possibilities, are sought after. For example, there is the black lotus plucked from, again, World of Warcraft. The Black Lotus is, of course, very rare in World of Warcraft. It was reported that in the days of gold farming a player could pay their rent with these if they could focus on selling them. There is also the Silent Princess based on the Wild Blue heart Tulip plucked from the massively popular game The Legend of Zelda. These flowers hold utility, beauty, and lend themselves to the ecosystem of in-game walled gardens.
While the term in-game is commonly used in gaming circles, the term out-game is much more a creation of Jill Magid herself. In plucking these flowers from their in-game environments, Magid liberates the flowers into a very different reality altogether. Magid calls these bouquets a series of out-game flowers and it is in their wrenching from their in-game environments that the social political dimension of the project edges its way to the fore. Pierce and Bannon recognized that if one could trade FIAT for in-game gold, then everything inside the game had a value outside of the game. Something profound transpires when items inside these games are mobilized outside their political, programmed and walled-gardened environments. So strangely, Magid shares a twisted kinship with Pierce and Bannon.
And of course, in the process of taking these flowers outside their native walled-garden environments, Magid is also dancing with the question of intellectual property and copyright. Like Dada collage artists of the early 20th century, the artwork comes into relief through the juxtapositions of other ready-made source materials. Rather than a piece of paper with glossy magazine cut-outs, her end result is a bouquet of ready mades. Each bouquet consists of no less than three games represented in each bouquet, thus culling on the tradition, and important necessity of artists, to use fair-use in their appropriation of images in order to make a larger statement about the sources of meaning and culture in our everyday lives.
To put it mildly, flowers are the tip of the digital produce iceberg and certainly one could ruminate much about the implications of choosing flowers for example verses swords or potions or some dead monster’s horns. Clearly, Magid chose flowers for reasons beyond finding a symbol of trade. The flower offers a compelling lens to consider value, trade, images, and beauty in online games (and the world) and to follow each thread is more than this essay can dig into. But certainly, we can briefly make it evident that there is a correlation between gender and flowers, the direct connection with concepts of beauty or even the actualization of the farming metaphor in an agricultural product. Each of these directions offers a critique or opening up of what the actual value systems that are transpiring in video games and how they connect in the out-game, at times, real world, environments
Finally, these bouquets are digital artworks with a secured provenance through blockchain technology. That is to say, basically, they are digital artworks secured by Non-Fungible Tokens. While this is Magid’s genesis NFT project, the direct connection between forces of value, ownership and aesthetics (that are the inherent part of the contract and the art being so intricately bound) is purposefully on the nose. Like flowers, behind an image of beauty, just under the surface, NFT artworks host a range of forces of value, rarity, distribution, circulation, power.
Certainly those in the web3 space are quite familiar with the grading systems of rarity and beauty that have come to be the calling card of an NFT drop. They are part and parcel of digital culture and hopefully, as this project quietly reveals, they have real world corollaries. And while all of this is true and has been for some time, the flower always retains its role as desirable and wanted. So, as this project drops poetically on Valentine’s Day, Magid offers this work as a way quietly enjoy a perverse but nevertheless, real form of affection, trade, value and love.
Jill Magid's genesis collection Out-Game Flowers launched on Artwrld's platform on Valentine's Day, February 14 to our allowlist. The collection consists of 165 hand-hacked bouquets–15 large with audio and 150 small bouquets–arranged with flowers plucked by Magid from the worlds most iconic video games.
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