For digital artists, NFTs are promising — and problematic

The challenge that artists, curators and digital collectors have faced for decades is how to sell works of art that are inherently infinitely reproducible. Unlike a painting or a sculpture, digital artworks can be reduced to a series of 0s and 1s, or an algorithm that can easily be 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 revenue whenever their work is sold.

The rise of NFTs has benefited 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 collectable “Moments” of 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 earned a bachelor’s degree in design and media arts from UCLA in 2019, started selling NFTs in January. He released 12 and nine sold. Some are already reselling 10 to 20 times their original price.

“It solved a problem that media historians had been trying to solve for years, generations, since Tumblr — when people made GIFs — and that culture wasn’t widely accepted in the art community,” Mohler said. “There is finally 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 series of looping videos titled “Painted Cities” on the SuperRare digital art market in January. The series uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to turn video Mohler shot in various cities into swirling watercolor-like paintings.

“It’s been really exciting for me and maybe now I can turn it into a full-time job. I’ve dropped all my other work and will just focus on art and sell it through NFTs,” Mohler said. “It’s honestly the best thing that’s ever happened to me, I think. And it’s still being explored.

Courtesy of Feral File

Maya Man’s “can I go where you go?”, 2021, custom software, variable dimensions. Edition of 75, 1AP. Part of the “Social Codes” exhibit curated by Casey Reas.

Mohler sees artist friends who 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, the music offered a measure of creative freedom, which these artists now find by making and selling NFTs.

Several factors are contributing to the rise of NFTs. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many creative workers 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 much-needed income to play with. The increased use of social media in place of actual social interactions – particularly on the Silicon Valley audio-centric app Clubhouse – has also fueled the hype around NFTs.

“I don’t think I would have sold my first plays without Clubhouse,” Mohler said. “There are now these groups that have up to 4,000 people who promote other people’s work, and now there are celebrities coming in, and the attention of celebrities then brings more attention to the NFT.”

There is also the ecological cost of NFTs. Critics point to the huge carbon footprint of buying and selling NFTs, 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 algorithm original “proof of work” consensus.

The environmental issue has prevented many digital artists from engaging in the NFT market. Matthias Dörfelt, who graduated with an MFA in Design and Media Arts in 2014, created algorithm-driven coins that use blockchain technology, but did not release them as NFTs.

“I think climate change is the most pressing issue for our generation,” Dörfelt said. “It is unacceptable to use these platforms due to their insane carbon footprint.”

Refik Anadol, a world-renowned visual artist who creates compelling AI-powered digital artwork using massive datasets, posted five images to Nifty Gateway in November 2020. The series, “Machine Hallucinations,” shows composite images produced by analyzing more than 100,000 photographs of all Renaissance sculptures created between 1300 and 1600. They were all listed at $1,000 each. One of them is currently selling for over $500,000.

Anadol, who earned his MFA in Media Arts Design from UCLA in 2014 and is now a Visiting Assistant Researcher, says there are significant efforts being made to clean up blockchain power consumption.

“The community is going up right now. It’s just a subculture. It’s cyberpunk. It’s a new movement. And like in any culture, there are options,” Anadol said. “People can research which platform is less harmful to nature.”

Courtesy of Nifty Gateway

Refik Anadol: “Machine Hallucinations: Renaissance / Sculpture”, 2020. Edition of 5.

These environmental concerns led Anadol to donate proceeds from an NFT sale to the Open Earth Foundation, based at Yale University, in an art auction called “The Carbon Drop”. His play, “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 are now selling works created before there was an art market digital.

“A lot of the work that’s resurfacing is work that was circulating on Tumblr five to 10 years ago,” said Adam Ferriss, who earned an MFA in Media Arts Design from UCLA in 2016. Ferriss has sold three NFTs, part of a generative video series called “Psycho Lichen.”

“It was really nice to reconnect with this community and meet all these people who were doing all this work out of love.”

NFTs also caught the attention of early adopters of computer-based digital art, such as Rebecca Allen, research professor and founding chair of the Media Arts Design Department at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. 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 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 landmark work on human movement in 3D.

“Forty years ago people just didn’t know what digital art was or why it would be important, and it’s only now that people are starting to understand its history and what it meant to create it. create,” Allen said.

Casey Reas, a visual artist and professor of media arts design at UCLA, co-founded the NFT marketplace Feral File and curated a fast-selling exhibition of web-based works by international artists in March called “Social Codes.” . The coins sold in editions of 75, for $75 each. They were sold in US dollars rather than cryptocurrency, and the platform runs on the Bitmark blockchain, which has a tiny carbon footprint – about one millionth 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 worries that the financial opportunities aren’t evenly distributed.

“A lot of friends of mine are making a lot of money from NFTs,” he said, as he also sees artists making little or no money. “I think a lot of the issues in the art market are magnified through the NFT space. And that was something I was hoping NFT would fix.

So are NFTs a bubble? It is difficult to speculate on such a nascent economic sector. The fine art world has seen a surge in auctions for decades, and the stock market has also seen record gains. Many predict that once the dust settles, the newcomers who rush in and take the cash with celebrity partnerships and endorsements will leave, and the serious artists and collectors will stay.

Reas is cautiously optimistic.

“My hunch about NFTs is that they’ve boomed, they’ve kinda busted, they may bust more, but I think it’s going to be for a really long time,” he said.

Marilyn M. Davis