To NFT or Not to NFT

NFTs, non fungible tokens, cryptoart, making a mint, digital artist Beeple makes millions from Jpegs, 100x returns, revolution in the art market…NFTs are a thing, a thing that’s grabbing headlines and attention. Especially from creators: are you a musician, visual artist, photographer, live coder who would like to earn some (more) money so you can survive doing what you love? NFTs offer that promise but nothing is ever simple and there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Unless you own the restaurant, which is kindof how the art market has worked up till now.

Gonna assume readers have heard a bit about cryptocurrency and blockchain (Wikipedia covers it), but just think of a blockchain as a ‘distributed ledger’ = a list of a load of items and transactions that’s kept on many servers at the same time and they all talk to each other to keep the ledger up to date. Because it’s all encrypted it’s pretty hard to hack and it doesn’t need to go through a central point: ‘distributed’ = ‘decentralised’ which is stronger than old school centralised control structures.

This simple but clever idea has given us Bitcoin, then other blockchains that can be used for more interesting things than just trading like lumps of digital gold. One of these new uses is NFTs.

A NFT is an item on a blockchain that can be used as a unique certificate of ownership for eg a digital artwork.

When I heard about this idea it made me so happy because I’ve for years been hoping that digitally made images would start to be taken seriously as Art.

Tubeman the Funky Drummer 1988, Amiga, SculptAnimate4D

It didn’t happen. Because the Art world is controlled largely by the art market- they who own the restaurant and have convinced the world that it’s the only place to eat, set the prices and control the menu.

Because any digital file can have infinite copies made and distributed anywhere for free, the art market could not accept digital art into their world.

Photography faced a similar challenge when it was first invented. The art market is not about Art- the beauty, spiritual aspiration and meaning of human culture- but about profit, value, scarcity. Collectors want something special. Special in the art market means scarce. Scarcity is also why the art market like dead artists- it’s a guarantee there won’t be any more work from that artist. But a perfect digital copy can be made of an artist’s work after they are dead!

So digital art did not fit the scarcity requirements. Hence it was largely blocked by the art market.

Also the art market is part of the power structure. The art elite decide what may be seen, which artists are acceptable to them, and can profit from selling art products to each other at vast prices beyond commoners. The establishment likes artists who don’t challenge it, a big part of why so much modern art is fully, cynically banal. Thus the art market is designed to reinforce the idea that a small rich ruling elite control not only culture, but everything else. Babylon is happy with its art status quo.

Hope

If you want to sell the work, which you can, and for more than you paid (such is the art market), the buyer gets a new certificate, and yours is destroyed. Apparently the gallery does not insist that your wall, your copy, is painted over. But without the certificate it is regarded as worthless, as you are no longer the owner.

I found this model of art sales fascinating and it started me thinking about value, copies and ways to authenticate ownership.

Is there a difference between the official version of a Sol and me just painting my own home from a photo of the artwork , which is how Rob does it, also using a complex system of wire guides to make sure it’s as accurate as possible. (Interestingly tho, due to human subjectivity and the quirks of the real world, each re(painting) will be slightly different…unlike a digital copy. The gallery don’t consider this a problem.)

The difference between my own copy and the official one is in one thing only: the certificate of ownership which doubles as one of authenticity.

NFTs are basically a digital way of doing this.

In the last year they’ve taken off and when I first heard about it, as big news sales like Beeples $6million NFT sale hit the headlines, I was like ‘wow this solves the digital art copying problem, they’ll have to take it seriously now’. As someone who has been making digital art since 1988 I was well excited.

(I also enjoyed the way that Beeple has for years been giving his excellent work away, and finally almost by accident got paid. Giving and sharing can pay, WOOT. I had exchanged mails with him -before the big sale happened!- to thank him as we had been using loads of his free video clips for our piratetv AV streaming show. )

One of our Ninja digital dons mailed me saying ‘I wonder what some pix of the 90s Coldcut computer graphics characters would fetch as an NFT on foundation.app’. That was the first I’d heard of foundation so I started looking into it.

‘NFT WTF’, 1996 :)

Suddenly NFTs were blowing up. Each day brought news of a new mega sale, Grimes and 3lau making huge amounts. Beeples initial $6million sale was immediately resold at Christies making $60million. Bigger than hiphop, damn, bigger than Van Gogh! It seemed NFTs not only were going to revolutionise digital art but were the next big get rich quick opportunity after Cryptocurrency. Fomo was in full effect.

I joined Clubhouse where a lot of the NFT heat is being generated, and listened and learned. I liked the way that typically the NFT ‘smart contract’ contains an automatic agreement that if the work is sold on, as was already happening a lot, then the original artist gets a slice (usually 10% but can be set). Everyone on Clubhouse was really fired up, and when a collector who was spending big like WhaleShark was in a room, creatives would be gushing, manic and in one instance literally weeping with joy over the thought that they might get finally paid after a lifetime of poverty and ripoff.

No-one, I noticed, wanted to say anything negative, perhaps for fear of being labeled a downer on the room and thus losing purchase in the understandably all-in race to be boosted as the next NFT gold winner. I myself got shot down for asking a question about how to ensure copyright ownership of what people are selling. ‘Why would you post something that wasn’t yours, then no-one would trust you’ came the stiff reply. A bit feebly, I decided to shut up.

But I really liked the way NFTs seemed to put the artist back in the centre of the picture: only the originator can really mint an NFT of their work and have it stand as a credible record of provenance. The majority of artists of all types have got used to seeing their efforts be commodified and sold on through mechanisms which offer them mere fractions of whatever value they generate. Meanwhile the apex predators of capitalism get fat on it and work on grinding us down to smoother cogs for their infernal machines. It feels wrong! Ninja Tune was started as an artist label for these very reasons.

In fact, wouldn’t it be nice if any of us who say take and upload a picture to Facebook retained full ownership of it (we don’t …read the TOCs).

Previously I had invested in Synereo, a startup with a vision of a new blockchain powered social network that would communally own and share its returns with its users, who would own their content. Sadly this could not compete with Datasaurus Facebook and faded. Not before tho it had given me an in to the crypto game which was exciting…another story)

Yes, in late Feb when I got onto NFTs it was looking rosy. Revolution!

I didn’t agree with naysayers who said this is just a hype machine run by some crypto bros who are cynically pumping it to make even more money. ‘A bit of that, true, but that’s just getting things going, we’re gonna change the world and get artists paid.’ I thought.

Unable to get onto hipper curated NFT platforms like foundation.app because of the goldrush of hungry artists flooding them with Discord applications, I put up my ‘Genesis mint’, my first collection of NFTs, on available-to-anyone OpenSea. I did like 8 pieces drawn from my archive, excited that finally they might be appreciated perhaps as ‘Prelics of the Digital Epoch’. Surely someone would get them! I checked everyday but they didn’t sell. Most people were it seemed in the same position; all of the headline sales were to people who already were stars/had large socials followings. Still, some others were also getting some sales…

Turns to dust

On one of our PTV shows I was still frothing about the NFT excitement and an artist pirate Olive pointed me to a post by Memo Akten. I know Memo- he’s a leading digital artist, a supergenerous and sweet guy, and what he says is worth listening to. The article was pretty devastating on what we started to call the ‘energy hog’ problem of NFTs. He also quoted another article by artist Joanie Lemercier who had worked out their single mint of an NFT had used more electricity in minutes than their entire studio for a year. It became clear that for eco-conscious artists, this was not cool, in fact it was a disaster. I swiftly deleted my OpenSea collection and put up a sign saying I was leaving it till the energy issue was solved.

Discussion raged at Ninja about whether we should do some NFTs. We are an artist led label and so when an artist said ‘we want to do an NFT’ it is not right for us to try to block it. We have to allow it, even support it. Yet, Ninja works hard for our business to become balanced, less environmentally damaging, to fund environmental actions and be engaged in activism (Ninja Tune sustainability policy). What to do.

When I read this article, it seemed to finally kindof kill NFTs for me. There would be no techno fix coming. It argued persuasively that NFTs were politically wrong, as they can only reinforce the existing sick power structure of inequality. And the energy hog problem in a particularly devastating phrase was ‘a lien on the future’: every time an NFT was minted it would be a eternal debt and drain on the planet -a blockchain, by its nature, requires to be served forever. And for what? OpenSea are apparently readying a feature which will allow anyone to turn any photo, any post instantly into an NFT. Not content with our trashing the planet, our culture will be 100% commodified into further vain, pointless, expensive pollution. Fucking ugly. The author requested that everyone just boycott NFTs period and try to kill the movement. Hum….

Possible Rebirth

These are two new NFT sites which IMO offer a genuine positive alternative and are building a diverse community inc. many committed artists from South America and other locations outside the US and Europe. (see this excellent article by M.Plummer-Fernández)

The plan is to explore the new platforms and discuss music NFTs and more in pt2 of this article.

SpaceBrother №1, c.2005 by Matt Black. Amorphium/Photoshop. Help yourself ;)

Matt Black is half of legendary DJ duo+multimedia pop group Coldcut, and founders of Ninja Tune.

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