The challenge that artists, curators and digital collectors have faced for decades is how to sell works of art that are inherently endlessly reproducible. Unlike a painting or sculpture, digital artwork can be reduced to a series of 0’s and 1’s, or an algorithm that can be easily copied.
Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, offer a technological solution. They operate like public ledgers, using blockchain technology to track digital transactions. When a collector purchases an NFT, they are essentially acquiring a tamper-proof digital receipt. It also allows the artist to keep a percentage of the income each time their work is sold.
The rise of NFTs has benefited both established and emerging digital artists, providing additional revenue streams and direct engagement with fans and collectors. But the NFT market has also been dismissed as a bubble and a haven for stock speculators and scammers. Celebrities like Paris Hilton have released NFT collections, and NBA Top Shot sells collectible “Moments” from memorable basketball games.
Digital artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, made history in March when an NFT consisting of 5,000 of his illustrations sold for more than $ 69 million at auction at Christie’s. It was dismissed as a marketing stunt, but it managed to capture the world’s attention.
Nate Mohler, who graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in media design arts in 2019, started selling NFTs in January. He released 12 and nine were sold. Some are already reselling 10 to 20 times their original price.
“It solved a problem that media historians have been trying to solve for years, generations, since Tumblr – when people were making GIFs – and this culture was not widely accepted in the art community,” Mohler said. . “Finally, there is a popular consensus that this type of digital work, video art, is art, has value and can be resold like a painting.”
Mohler released a looping video series titled “Painted Cities” to the SuperRare digital art market in January. The series uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to transform the video Mohler shot in various cities into swirling watercolor-like paintings.
“It has been really exciting for me and maybe I can now do this as a full time job. I’ve given up all of my other work and I’m just going to focus on the art and sell it through NFTs, ”Mohler said. “It’s honestly the best thing that ever happened to me, I think. And it’s still being explored.
Mohler sees artist friends who had relied on creating concert visuals for a living now entering the NFT space, as the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the live music industry. Unlike working for commercial clients or for Hollywood, music offered a degree of creative freedom, which these artists now find in making and selling NFTs.
Several factors are contributing to the rise of NFTs. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many creators to seek new sources of income. Its economic impact has been uneven, but the shutdown of the travel, leisure, and live entertainment industries has left many people with unnecessary income to gamble with. The increased use of social media in place of actual social interactions – especially on the Clubhouse audio-only app – has also fueled the hype around NFTs.
“I don’t think I would have sold my first pieces without the Clubhouse,” Mohler said. “Now there are these groups of up to 4000 people promoting the work of others, and now there are celebrities coming in, and celebrity attention then draws more attention to NFTs. “
There is also the ecological cost of NFTs. Critics point to the huge carbon footprint of buying and selling NFT, as cryptocurrency mining requires massive data servers. The biggest cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin and Ethereum, have pledged to use renewable energy and carbon offsets and reduce their emissions.
New platforms and blockchains are also emerging that minimize power consumption and use a ‘proof of stake’ blockchain system, which requires less computational effort to develop new blocks than the original consensus algorithm. proof of work ”.
The environmental issue has prevented many digital artists from entering the NFT market. Matthias Dörfelt, a 2014 MFA graduate in Design Media Arts, created coins based on algorithms that use blockchain technology, but did not release them as NFT.
“I think climate change is the most pressing issue for our generation,” Dörfelt said. “It is unacceptable to use these platforms because of their insane carbon footprint.”
Refik Anadol, a world-renowned visual artist who creates compelling AI-powered digital artwork using huge datasets, posted five images to Nifty Gateway in November 2020. The series, “Machine Hallucinations ”, shows composite images produced by analyzing over 100,000 photographs of all Renaissance sculptures created between 1300 and 1600. They were all listed at $ 1,000 each. One of them currently sells for over $ 500,000.
Anadol, who received his MA in Media Design Arts from UCLA in 2014 and is now a visiting assistant researcher, says significant efforts are being made to clean up the energy consumption of the blockchain.
“The community is growing right now. It’s just a subculture. It’s cyber punk. It’s a new movement. And like in any culture, he has options, ”Anadol said. “People can research which platform is the least harmful to nature.”
These environmental concerns led Anadol to donate the proceeds from an NFT sale to the Open Earth Foundation, based at Yale University, as part of an art auction called “The Carbon Drop.” . His work, “Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams – Last Memory,” sold on Nifty Gateway for over $ 300,000.
Digital artists who sell NFTs often buy and trade the work of others, creating an online community and in some cases bringing together artists who now sell works created before a digital art market existed.
“Much of the work that has resurfaced is work that was circulating on Tumblr five to ten years ago,” said Adam Ferriss, who received a Masters of Fine Arts in Media Design Arts from UCLA in 2016. Ferriss sold three NFTs, part of a series of generative videos called “Psycho Lichen”.
“It was really nice to reconnect with this community again and meet all these people who were doing all this work out of love.”
The NFTs have also caught the attention of early adopters of computational digital art, such as Rebecca Allen, research professor and founding chair of the design media arts department of the School of Arts and Architecture of the ‘UCLA. She was invited by a new NFT company called Kanon to be part of an NFT art collection, K21, featuring works by 21 artists. Kanon’s curators want to serve as a model for the future of art collections and have asked Allen to provide historical context for contemporary digital art by including “Swimmer (on black)” (1981), his historic work from 3d human movement.
“40 years ago, people just didn’t know what digital art was or why it would be important, and only now are people starting to understand its history and what it meant for the create, ”Allen said.
Casey Reas, visual artist and professor of design media arts at UCLA, co-founded the NFT Feral File Marketplace and in March hosted a rapidly growing exhibition of web-based works by international artists called “Social Codes”. exhausted. Pieces sold in editions of 75, for $ 75 each. They were sold for US dollars rather than cryptocurrency, and the platform runs on the Bitmark blockchain, which has a low carbon footprint – about a millionth of the amount of the Bitcoin proof-of-work blockchain.
Reas applauds the use of blockchain to give digital artists more control over their work, but is concerned that financial opportunities may not be evenly distributed.
“A lot of my friends make a lot of money from NFTs,” he said, while also seeing artists making little or no money. “I think a lot of the problems in the art market are magnified across the NFT space. And that was one thing I was hoping the NFTs would fix. “
So, are NFTs a bubble? It is difficult to speculate on such an emerging economic sector. The fine art world has seen an increase in auctions for decades, and the stock market has also seen record gains. Many predict that once the dust settles, newcomers who rush and grab money with partnerships and celebrity backers will leave, and serious artists and collectors will stay.
Reas is cautiously optimistic.
“My hunch about NFTs is that it’s boomed, it broke a little bit, it can explode more, but I think it’s going to last a very long time,” he said.