Decoding NFTs | Apollo Magazine

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Decoding NFTs | Apollo Magazine

From the December 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

When a digital artwork by graphic artist Beeple sold for $69.3 million at Christie’s in March 2021 – about the same price you’d expect to pay for a top quality Rothko – the world suddenly became aware of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Before long, every art journalist’s inbox was full of press notices about NFT ‘drops’, as releases of new works are called.

In September this year, even the former ‘bad boy’ of British art, Damien Hirst, jumped on the bandwagon with an exhibition of his own NFT project, ‘The Currency’. In the same month, Pace Gallery released its latest collection of NFTs on its platform, Pace Verso, while Christie’s launched an ‘on-chain’ marketplace, Christie’s 3.0. They all capitalize on the fact that sales of art NFTs on the platforms that sell them – OpenSea, NFTX, Larva Labs, LooksRare, SuperRare, Rarible and Foundation – have risen from almost nothing in January 2021 to $17 billion in January 2022, according to Bloomberg.

An NFT is a piece of computer code created using similar software to cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ether. They all rely on blockchains – ‘distributed public ledgers’ that allow ownership of an asset to be verified across a global network of individual computers without central control. In most cases, the NFT is not the artwork itself. Instead, it ‘points’ to a digital file – anything from an artwork to a video, a recording or a design – that can be bought and sold with a cryptocurrency, usually ether. Because each NFT is unique, unlike a bitcoin, it allows the buyer to claim ownership of the original digital work, however easily the image file itself can be copied.

But just as NFTs seemed to be booming, the bubble burst. Sales of art NFTs stood at $466 million in September, a 97 percent drop since January of this year. This reflects the crash in the cryptocurrencies that NFTs are linked to. The value of bitcoin has fallen by more than 70 percent to below $20,000 from its peak of more than $69,000 in November 2021. The collapse of FTX casts even further doubt on the direction of cryptocurrencies. There are also signs of faltering auctions. At a recent NFT auction by Sotheby’s Hong Kong on November 1, five of 21 lots failed to sell, while 10 went for less than their low estimate.

So are NFTs the flash in the pan that many suspect, or could they have longer-term cultural value?

‘I’m not unhappy that there was a crypto and NFT crash and that the hype is over,’ says Sabine Himmelsbach, the director of the new media gallery the HEK in Basel. ‘From the beginning, everyone was only talking about the money and not about the quality of the work. In most cases, a JPEG, a GIF or a small video clip attached to an NFT is not very interesting.’ She says she is ‘much more interested in more conceptual approaches by artists who delve into the inherent possibilities of the blockchain’ and work that critiques what she calls the ‘bro culture’ that pervades the NFT world. The HEK has just created its first NFTs with veteran media, feminist and environmental artist Ursula Endlicher, who has been making digital art since the 1990s.

Jason Bailey – an artist and writer who came from the traditional art world but is also the founder of ClubNFT, which is designed to protect collectors’ digital works of art – is an evangelist for what he calls ‘the interaction between digital technology and art’ mention. He believes the influx of ‘many new people coming in, not necessarily with a background or understanding of art but a lot of enthusiasm’ is a reason for celebration.

Bailey points out that a plethora of different types of people make NFTs, including trained artists who feel failed by the current art market. ‘There is a global community of artists, many who make no money from the current art world system, who have come together and formed an entirely new market that is in many cases more fair and empowering for them,’ he says. “There are a lot of people selling work for $10, $15, $20. It’s not going to make the front page ART news but cumulatively it is a revolution.’

Installation of Hito Steyerl’s live computer simulation Social Sim 2020, at the Center Pompidou, Paris, in 2021. Courtesy of the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin; © Center Pompidou / Bertrand Prévost

These opposing views may explain why the art world finds NFTs so confusing. They are made by many groups of people in many genres, from high art to pop culture. Many of the most discussed NFTs are based on cartoons, sci-fi images, psychedelia or surrealism. In many ways they are not so different from street art – another popular visual language with its own communities, codes and references that was briefly co-opted by the mainstream art world in the market boom of the mid-2000s.

Many makers come from graphic design, animation, programming, computer game design, and other parts of the tech world. Most promote their work on social media platforms such as Twitter, Telegram and Discord. Self-taught like many NFT artists, Beeple had nearly two million followers on Instagram before his record-breaking Christie’s sale. He previously sold NFTs for around $100,000 each on the NFT platform Nifty Gateway.

Noah Davis, who was the contemporary specialist at Christie’s behind the $69m Beeple sale and is now head of brand at CryptoPunks, admitted that the New York Times last year that some [NFTs] look like they belong in a head shop, on a dorm wall or on a message board.’

Ironically, NFTs have their origins in the contemporary art world. In 2014, an artist and a technologist, Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash, created the first one, with the aim of protecting digital artists’ rights. McCoy, along with his wife Jennifer, are established new media artists with work in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Museum of Fine Art, Houston. Last year Dash joined the Atlantic Ocean that ‘the idea behind NFTs was and is profound. Technology should enable artists to exercise control over their work, to sell it more easily and to better protect against others appropriating it without permission.’ But the dream, he wrote, ‘has not yet come true’. As the article says, ‘tech-world opportunism has struck again’.

New media art, in contrast to NFTs, has a long history. It goes back at least as far as Robert Rauschenberg’s 1966 Experiments in Art and Technology, which paired artists with engineers from Bell Telephone Laboratories. Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik and Manfred Mohr were other early new media pioneers.

For decades, new media art was considered difficult and conceptual. Interest has centered on a handful of specialist institutions, such as the ZKM in Karlsruhe and festivals such as Ars Electronica in Linz. There was a flurry of museum exhibitions around the first dot-com boom, including ‘BitStreams’ and ‘Data Dynamics’, both at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and ‘010101: Art in Technological Times’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in 2001.

It is only in the last five years that artists such as Hito Steyerl, whose work draws on computer games, military technology and surveillance cameras, have gained mainstream prominence. Steyerl joins a handful of artists such as Jon Rafman, Ian Cheng and Camille Henrot whose work uses and critiques contemporary technologies and has become a regular part of the international biennial circuit.

But now they are joined by artists whose work grew out of NFTs. bitforms, one of the longest running new media galleries in New York, recently signed two stars of the NFT world, Refik Anadol and Tyler Hobbs. Anadol, a Turkish-American artist, uses artificial intelligence to transform large data sets into immersive sensory experiences. Hobbs, a Texas-based painter, creates custom algorithms to generate refined abstract works of digital art. Meanwhile, Sarah Friend, a Berlin-based artist who uses NFTs, Minecraft and the Internet, comments on NFT culture: her series of Life forms NFTs are only kept ‘live’ if owners give them away within 90 days.

Alex Estorick, the editor-in-chief of Right click Save, an online magazine designed to create a critical context around NFTs and new media art, says: ‘What we have seen this year is that the crypto and mainstream contemporary arts are merging. It is one of the benefits of the crypto crash that the hype and the argument that NFTs are really just a speculative vehicle has washed away.’

Despite the volatility of the crypto markets, NFTs are clearly here to stay. But the NFT art market seems to have taken offense
a large part of the traditional art world with its pop culture aesthetic, brutal commercialism and its ability to circumvent the traditional system. The huge prices paid for little-known and sometimes derivative artists have raised uncomfortable questions about the way art is valued.

But mistrust runs both ways. Early NFT artist Robness spoke for many when he said that traditional art market players were ‘only here because they saw the dollar signs. They weren’t here to support us from the beginning. This is something I constantly remind new people into this [the NFT] space left,’ he said Right click Save.

There are clearly millions of buyers for NFTs, and while most of the work is trivial, the same is true for physical works of art. Perhaps NFTs can be seen as the latest development of new media art, as the best practitioners in both fields begin to cross over. Instead of dismissing, perhaps the traditional gatekeepers who decide the cultural value of art should apply their critical faculties and not just their marketing skills to digital art and NFTs. The NFT market is huge and although it only partially permeates the mainstream art world, the possibilities for educating an entirely new audience in fine art have never been greater.

From the December 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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