Highlighting Decentralised NFT practices, the Digital and the Physical Space, and Introducing Beginner Blockchain Vocab

Rodell Warner – Augmented Archive 23, Colorized, 2021

Expanding on current artistic research, interacting, and sharing profits. Trinidadian artist Rodell Warner is currently auctioning (last day today) a single edition NFT on Foundation, a platform launched in February this year that is riding the wave of excitement and optimism surrounding the possibilities of the NFT space. Foundation claims to help “creators mint and auction their digital artworks as NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain” and bridge “crypto and culture to create mutual support between artists and collectors”. Warner, whose work in the digital realm and its intersection with photography and archives has been ongoing, explains that he had wanted to mint NFTs for a while but that since he uses found imagery, where credits have often been lost, he didn’t want to do it in an exploitative way for the communities involved. For this particular NFT on auction, he used an image made in Lucknow, India, circa 1872, and he is sharing the potential profits with the communities referred to in the photographic material (otherwise uncredited), by donating fifty percent of the proceeds from the initial sale to COVID-19 Relief fundraisers vetted by Mutual Aid India. Besides that, Warner speaks of the NFT space as an experimental one, and a place where he meets with other artists and collects their works. To know more about his approach and that of other actors interacting with the NFT space, see the online panel discussion “NFTs and Caribbean Art“, that happened on May 5th, and was moderated by Jamaican curator Nicole Smythe Johnson, with the President of the Caribbean Blockchain Alliance, Stefen Deleveaux, Barbadian interdisciplinary artist, Alex Gibson, virtual and physical interior designer, Zoe Osbourne, and Trinidadian digital and new media artist, Rodell Warner.

Blockchain Vocab. If you are not a beginner, but have environmental concerns, skip to the last part. NFT stands for “non fungible token”, non fungible means that it can’t be replaced. If you give me a sculpture by Dan Vō and I give you a painting by Cecily Brown, we don’t have exactly the same thing (you can give me either, I like both though). The opposite—fungible—would be money (or crypto-money / digital money), you paid for my lunch because I forgot my wallet, but I paid you back when we returned to the gallery (different banknotes, same thing). Token, refers to things that exist on the blockchain. Blockchain is a storing technology used by crypto-currencies, but it can store other types of information, like signatures or intellectual property. It’s a database, where blocks are the transactions that are recorded on the chain. I like how crypto consultant, Allen Hena, said it on NFT roundtable: “it’s a way for everyone to have a copy of the records […] Everyone can have a copy of everyone’s bank account, but you generally don’t know whose bank account it is”. Ethereum and Bitcoins are different digital currencies. Right now most NFTs are part of the Ethereum blockchain. Anything digitalis-able can be an NFT (videos, images). Music and art is what is the most exciting right now (Boy Georges does both, and he’s excited). If you buy an NFT, it gives you usage or bragging right (you can post it, and brag about it), and it’s recorded on the blockchain. Like actual art, it actually can be copied, but who wants to brag about copies?
Environment. Since I mentioned Allen Hena and his interview on NFT roundtable—see link above—please hear him debunk the idea that NFTs are bad for the environment. In a nutshell: Ethereum is the currency that is being called out for its environmental impact, and since most NFTs are part of the Ether blockchain, they are too. But 1) see the Ether like a bus that passes (and pollutes) every 15-sec, whether it transports NFTs or not, it will pass nevertheless. 2) Crypto currencies (including Ether) pollute less than the meat industry (Allen is not shaming anyone, just making a point) or than running banks with their air-conditioned buildings and skyscrapers and commuting employees.

Flowers 01 by Cindy Ng (NFT, screenshot). Courtesy Ora-Ora and the artist
Flowers 01 by Cindy Ng (NFT, screenshot). Courtesy Ora-Ora and the artist

Art Fairs. Art Fair Philippines in Manila, that ran its 2021 edition online from May 6 to May 15, added a whole separate crypto space to its traditional galleries space (more than 40 galleries were participating this year, each with their online viewing room). They called the new crypto space, Metaverse, and most artists weren’t the usual names from the fine arts circuit. It also included an educational page, Crypto NFT 101, with some definitions and “how tos”, thus acknowledging the novelty of the subject. At Art Basel Hong Kong, opening today, the crypto-initiative is individual. Hong Kong-grown gallery Ora Ora, will auction NFT works by two of its represented artists, Hangzhou-based artist Peng Jian and Hong Kong artist Cindy Ng. These two artists usually mostly work in painting and ink, respectively, and their NFTs look like a continuation of that.

The Hype. Like everyone else in the industry, I have been following news about NFTs—admittedly with tepid diligence for lack of comprehension—since Mike Winkelmann, aka Beeple, an artist known in the digital art space (where he describes himself as sucking ass) but not in the traditional art world until now, sold a NFT version of his time-based “Everydays” series at Christie’s in March, for $69 million (or rather its equivalent in Ethereum). So passionate were the buyers, Singapore-based NFT production studio and crypto fund Metapurse, that they are building him his own crypto-museum. However, the resulting museum-experience so far, seems less aerial and fun than visiting say, Second Life, the online-virtual world launched nearly 20 years ago by San Francisco firm Linden Lab—yet it has all of its chunky aesthetics. (See Artnet’s Ben Davis visit if you want to see some screenshots here).

EVERYDAYS- THE FIRST 5000 DAYS (2021) by Beeple. Non-fungible token (jpg). 21,069 x 21,069 pixels (319,168,313 bytes). Minted on 16 February 2021, Courtesy Christie’s and the artist.
EVERYDAYS- THE FIRST 5000 DAYS (2021) by Beeple. Non-fungible token (jpg). 21,069 x 21,069 pixels (319,168,313 bytes). Minted on 16 February 2021, Courtesy Christie’s and the artist.

NFTs in museums. If you consider NFTs as a branch of the larger medium that is digital art, it’s not surprising that there is a desire to show them in the physical space (especially if the online spaces aren’t very exciting). That is already happening: the UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, through its interdisciplinary platform for innovative art-adjacent collaborations UCCA Lab, collaborated with Beijing-based technology and blockchain firm, Block Create Art’s (BCA) on a show involving NFTs earlier this year. The firm is also planning on opening a physical space in Beijing dedicated to NFTs, and interestingly, its founder, Bohan Sun, graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. And in Russia, The State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, announced that it sees NFTs as part of the development of new art forms, and is therefore planning for an exhibition later this year. 

A Positive Community. Many artists find the NFT art space very uplifting and liberating, they organise themselves on telegram and clubhouse, and find very responsive communities online that offer opportunities for artists to help each other and make the creation of NFT accessible. The media platform Black NFT Art, run by artist talent agency Umba Daima, invites artists and specialists of the NFT space to discuss their experience and relevant topics. These include artist, film director and screenwriter, Lauren May Washington, and visual artist Raven Trammell, who, in a recent podcast (same series as above-mention with Allen Hena) shared their thoughts about this new space. They both only started in February this year. Echoing the words of Rodell Warner, they also seemed to agree that creating NFTs, and navigating the community around it, helps them expand their practice. It also provides artists with a fun opportunity to take over the exhibition space for themselves. Now, what can be the role of curators in the NFT space? I believe a lot can be done, from accompanying artists in the process, to presenting the works and bridging conversations (between the digital and the physical, the digital scene and the traditional art scene). Considering the expertise of the traditional art world in, well, the arts, they could potentially bring thought, context, aesthetic and conceptual critique to a wild digital space that is sometimes better seen zoomed out than in.

Art critic and writer.

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