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The Clash of the Art World with the World of Blockchain Technology

AUTHOR / Nuša Zupanc

Western Flag, 2017 (photo: John Gerrard)

An attempt to explain the potential of NFTs with curators and art connoisseurs Piera Ravnikar, Tevž Logar, Dorian Batycka, and artist/designer The Miha Artnak.

Earlier last year much ado about nothing arose around Mike Winklemann’s digital art auction at one of Sotheby’s most prestigious auction sites. The sale raised many eyebrows, as his Everydays: the First 5000 Days sold for $69 million. The work of Beeple, as Winklemann is known on the Internet, is not a physically tangible work of art, but the digital file has been turned into a non-fungible token or NFT and the sale is tied to the cryptocurrency Ethereum. We could offer that Winklemann’s excursions through Photoshop’s toolbars are of absolutely no artistic value whatsoever, but even a bad example can be a good example to illustrate the potential of NFTs.

One would expect the art world to be more critical of such sales, as they create a sense that the value of art is conditioned by the large amounts of money that works are sold for, or even by the number of posts on social media. In fact, this sale diverts attention from the concept of NFT as a blockchain technology that connects with various creative disciplines. Creative expression and art are constantly evolving and redefining themselves. For a long time, our reality has understood that creatives are working digitally and store their work on hard drives or in various types of clouds.

Transparency has finally entered the world of the art trade with the NFT. In the case of the sale of a non-NFT or conventional artwork to a private collection or auction, the author of the artwork receives a commission, but does not receive a commission with each subsequent sale. Therefore the collector is the only one that profits from further sales – assuming the value of the artwork grows over time. The concept of NFTs, however, enables the author of the artwork to also receive a commission for each subsequent sale, which is something entirely new in the world of art trading. It often happens that a work of art is sold in a private collection, and due to data protection regulations any trace of the work, even the transaction, is erased. NFTs increase the liquidity of art as a financial investment, thus the work of art becomes a profitable investment. Which on its own is problematic, turning art into a commodity, which would require a separate article and an eloquent critique.

Not only can we certify art, but in various virtual spaces we can find visual messages, memes, GIFs, and performances, as well as architectural floor plans, virtual land and animations. Another potential of NFTs is archiving or digital conservation. How are we going to preserve all the digital art, floor plans by contemporary architecture offices, or the infinite gigabytes of online clouds on which artists, designers, architects, and all the world’s creatives save their work? The loss of such archives would represent irreparable damage.

The NFT also offers an alternative to the established practices of exhibiting art, design, and architecture. If a creative person wants to be recognized by the profession, the curator of a gallerie or biennial has to select his/her work. Whereas NFTs empower creatives without discrediting museums, galleries, or other institutions; it merely offers a new possibility, an alternative to conventional exhibitions and fairs. An artist is able to present his/her creative expression without physically entering any gallery space. Which is one possible answer for the current Covid-19 crisis, when access to art fairs, galleries, and museums is not as simple as it used to be. However, the current state of complete anarchy in the trade is in desperate need of curators.

This article highlights the pros and cons of NFTs with Piera Ravnikar, owner of the Ravnikar Gallery Space; Tevž Logar, independent curator, writer and consultant; The Miha Artnak (his artistic pseudonym), a member of the ZEK crew and CEO of Studio Ljudje, an artist as well as a connoisseur of both the art and design world; and Dorian Batycka, an independent Canadian – Polish curator, art critic, and founder of the SPSK platform. Batycka’s platform aims to offer a curated platform of artists deprived of their medium, either because they are too radical for their homeland or come from a war zone. Dorian is often in Ljubljana, as he is the curator-at-large of Fotopub’s OOU platform. OOU’s mission is to connect local and fresh artistic production with internationally renowned artists.

Nuša Zupanc: What exactly is digital art and why do we have to defend it as art, even though it is a healthy part of art’s evolution?

Dorian Batycka: Digital art is just art. We know different media within art such as sculpture, painting, installation … But digital art can be a JPG image, a GIF, a performance that happened in real life and was later digitalized for purposes of archiving. The term can encompass so many different things. It is similar to new media in the 1990s. I’m old enough to remember the emergence of the post-internet, and if we go further back there was also new media art in the 1980s. There was always this kind of antagonism in terms of whether it’s really art. And time and time again it was and is accepted and recognized as art. Therefore digital art is just another medium.

NZ: With all the headlines, social media posts and the like, how do we tackle the sensationalism that lures us away from the message of actual creative expression?

Dorian Batycka: Oftentimes, what gets celebrated is the fact that art has achieved a certain value. Art and value are not easy bedfellows. Most headlines unfairly promote a top-heavy system when someone’s work is sold for $69 million, but these headlines will last for but an instant, so sales should not serve as a barometer of importance or value – much like social media accounts with millions of followers that have completely uninteresting content. The more popular something gets, the less I like it just by default, or I don’t like it automatically, and I’ve always been like that. As soon as something achieves a certain level of popularity, I will turn against it because I’m antagonistic like that.

The Miha Artnak: I very much agree with criticizing the sensationalist headlines. My project Dove&Peace was about lying about the sale of a painting sold for $1 million. It’s a perfect illustration of the fact that the price corresponds to, is a direct expression of the artist’s value, which was apparent even before the NFT frenzy, understanding that conventional art has just shifted towards digital art. Large numbers and attention serve to compel investors to speed up the adoption of new technology.

Tevž Logar: Sensationalism has always been part of the art ecosystem. Damien Hirst’s auction – when he auctioned works with the consent of his galleries, which itself is a paradox – was also sensationalism. The expansion and hyperproduction of this phenomenon is so great that the artistic value really fades into the background. As Bruno Latour, French philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist says, we’ve all become media in some way, but everything is currently happening on the surface and doesn’t go any deeper. In a world of selfies and images of food on social media, we still expect the art to have this immense value and a clear message; however, art is the language of our society, so the sensationalism of and behind NFTs doesn’t really surprise me. Without curators, critics, and institutions it’s just becoming content with little to no worth.

Dove & Peace, Poop art 2017, by The Miha Artnak. Source: (ZEK Crew )

NZ: … and when we mix block-chain technology with creative practices, we suddenly get all these misleading headlines that lure us away from the main point. NFT is a unique, irreplaceable identifier created by an algorithm. Which means that creatives can become more independent and gain control of their own work. What does the introduction of NFTs into the art world mean specifically for curators and critics?

Piera Ravnikar: The art system will not be able to avoid NFTs, we all need to adapt and try to participate in such platforms. Blockchain technology and NFTs require attention, knowledge, and time; if a gallery wants to adapt then this is a full time job for an expert who has a background in art and museum practices, as well as in blockchain technology. Ravnikar Gallery Space will produce one NFT per artist at the Art Rotterdam Fair as well as at the SPARK Art Fair. I’d like to emphasise that right now, the art world is merely digitizing artwork, which they see as an NFT, and which is not the point of this new technology. I am critical of such practices that don’t even scratch the surface of NFTs vast potential.

Dorian Batycka: The game changer here, and the really important point that I’m stressing any time I’m talking about NFTs, is the fact that the resale or resale of ownership of the work can be baked into the smart contract. In the decades and centuries past, artists would have to sell their work to a collector and he or she would hold on to it for 20 years and then sell it in turn to another collector for a huge profit. The artist, since the history of time, has never seen a dime from the resale of their work. A very good example is the music industry, because they invented something called royalties back in the 1950s when a lot of African American artists were being badly exploited. So royalties came into the music business a long time ago. But that concept never really existed in the art world. With NFTs, it’s possible to include as a condition, in the very architecture of the smart contract, a royalty of up to 10% for every second, third, fourth market and so on on the resale of an artwork. It’s a game changer for artists, whether you’re Jeff Koons or someone just starting out. Maybe you will sell your work today for very little, but as your work gains more recognition from peers or curators, someone will resell it and part of that resale is yours. NFTs give artists the chance to participate in their own ascent.

NZ: But NFTs also prolong the lifespan of digital art. It’s one thing to delete your work of art intentionally, like Igor Štromajer did in MSUM in 2011; but if your website gets hacked and your work gets deleted or just the fact that today’s digital art will no longer be supported by the software of the future … Is NFT one way to archive and preserve it?

Dorian Batycka: True, I agree. There is going to be an immense digital graveyard of files and art that’s no longer accessible. We already have this problem because we can’t open certain files with today’s computers, we can’t access pages using Flash. This is not only a question for art historians in terms of how to archive our digital past, but also for software engineers. I think art historians might be grappling with this and there is a huge potential for digital archivists in terms of how to preserve our digital present in order that it will be recognizable and accessible by modern machines that don’t yet exist. As we speak, there is a problem with archiving 1960s Pop Art because everyone started using plastic – as it was a brand new material – but later, with improper archiving, art becomes damaged due to discoloration or warping. Different plastics require different care. It’s a nightmare! And the same challenge will arise with digital art, artifacts, and the whole digital junkyard, therefore scientists together with art historians, will have to come up with a solution.

NZ: Might NFTs be one way out of the crisis? Museums and galleries are closed due to Covid-19 and the internet is suddenly our exhibition venue.

The Miha Artnak: I would like to emphasize how much empowerment there is in the world of NFTs. Unfortunately, individualism has forced us into a free market where we, less institutionalized artists and creators, can at least be seen by the community and, above all, financially supported.

Tevž Logar: NFTs are a tool for empowering artists and educating young creatives about the harsh reality of the market. They also enable the tracking of a specific piece of art, not only in terms of closed institutions or exhibitions with a limited number of visitors, but also in the sense of the public’s right to access this artwork. Regarding the financial aspect of your question – unfortunately Slovenia’s art scene does not have a developed market for a young artist, so NFTs offer a certain independence from collectors, resellers and othres … I see a lot of potential here.

NZ: Is the role of curator being redefined with NFTs as well?

Piera Ravnikar: Right now, there is an enormous discrepancy between what is sold as an NFT and what is valuable NFT art. Major art fairs are adapting and creating their own platforms, large galleries are participating in the existing NFT platforms. A lot of institutions are creating NFTs for the sake of creating them, whereas they should explore the potential there – but maybe this is a question of time and a question of curatorial choice. NFTs will be equivalent to conventional, old-school art. The youngest generations of artists – and when there are artists, you need curators as well – they view NFTs as a new medium.

Dorian Batycka: The role of curator is constantly being redefined and renegotiated. Curators are no longer associated with institutions, they can work as freelancers and independents – the same way galleries do. In the past, a gallery was a brick and mortar place with traditional gatherings and a curator, so it stores art and shows art only periodically. Actually, I have an example when a gallery owner approached me and told me that an artist sold his artwork but didn’t give anything to the gallery, and all I could do is ask him: “what are you doing as a gallery? What are you actually doing?” Then we had this interesting talk about how the role of the gallery has changed. Nowadays galleries, as with curators, are working on a spectrum of projects. And curators who are willing to adapt to NFT or are at least interested in adapting, are able to provide some value for the artists with whom they’re working, can introduce them to new projects and a new public.

Tevž Logar: I haven’t actually had a chance to curate any NFTs yet. The main problem with this is ever-expanding hyperproduction; the situation right now is similar to the new media practices of the 1990s that was mentioned in the beginning of our conversation here. New media art entered the market and the institutions of the time, but the market and those same institutions didn’t really react with any larger capital input. A certain amount of artwork was singled out for attention and appraised by peers and institutions, but a lot of the momentum was lost to the extent that it simply did not develop into a phenomenon. NFTs allow for the accumulation of capital, which is both good and bad, but does nonetheless mark and make it a phenomenon. Institutions will take a while to reflect on it, and the same goes for curators, theorists, writers, and publishers.

NZ: Most of the time, however, new technology is viewed as a threat. For example, cryptocurrencies are a great catalyst for dialogue. But art as a creative practice is constantly reinventing itself, adapting and responding to the world. I would assume that through time art will be the first discipline to actually celebrate change – but this, once again, isn’t the way.

Dorian Batycka: People are always going to be antagonistic towards change, especially if that change threatens their lifestyle or their livelihood or their business model. But that doesn’t mean that progressive artists or curators should care and stop doing what they or we are doing. There will always be people who are going to remain critical, and that’s healthy. I’ve had many heated conversations on Twitter with people who are very antagonistic towards anything crypto, who think that it’s about bringing about the collapse of the state or anarchy. I’ve also talked to crypto communists and crypto socialists. But what we forget is that technology is neutral, it’s electricity or a telephone. It can be used to call someone for a cup of coffee or used for revolution. It’s how you leverage it.

NZ: What gets mentioned a lot as a critique of blockchain technology is that it produces a large carbon footprint, which is true; but what surprised me was the outrage, on the part of the public and media alike, with the idea that wealth can actually be distributed, and then celebrating sensationalism with bizarre headlines. We’ve discussed the positive side of blockchain; can we now try and be objectively critical?

The Miha Artnak: Most of the NFTs I have seen are merely an attempt to profit following the same recipe of successful sales. Slowly, NFT art markets will become popular enough that we creators will have to worry even more about things than we do now. Besides taking the time to create something of value, we had to learn to take care of advertising through social media and now contemporary online sales, which, unlike Etsy and Kickstarter, do not require material production, shipping costs, and a courier. NFTs could also become a reflection of our analog capitalism. Right now, NFTs are not directly related to art, but to collecting and investing. The bubble will soon burst, and most will lose the high value they enjoy now. Curation, the profession, time, and the market will ultimately set the actual value, so essential works of art in the NFT space will certainly retain or increase in value. The rest will transform into a stock market for artists, where we will be able to financially support our favorite artists by buying their works at affordable prices, prices for which will in some cases undoubtedly grow in the long run. We just have to wait for better user interfaces, faster and less demanding (less greedy) technology – then this will probably become the standard in our browsers.

Dorian Batycka: Yes, we can be objectively critical, because NFTs are creating more private property, not less. And the other problem is an ecological problem, which is not unique to NFTs. If you use Google Drive, send an email, or upload to Instagram you are using the cloud, which is way worse than mining coins. Nevertheless, it’s a valid argument and software engineers are working on it. Right now, there is a huge bounty out for green NFTs and we are all waiting for it; and Ethereum’s co-founder Vitalik Buterin is a computer scientist who is working on Ethereum 2.0. It could come out tomorrow. It could come out in a month. It may never come out. But there are a lot of really smart engineers who are working on this problem.

NZ: And what has surprised you the most about NFTs?

Dorian Batycka: Versatility! I need to mention that I was contacted via Instagram by a woman who is trying to buy back indigenous First Nations land in the Dakotas (USA) because big oil is trying to build a pipeline there, which alone is very controversial. She is trying to use NFTs to raise money, but you could say that she will end up owning private property; but truth be told, private property isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, communism as a political ideology tried and failed. Staying critical, even communism should be reinvented, rethought, and we need to have a conversation about all of these constructs. So, yes, let’s be critical about NFTs, but about everything else, too.

The Miha Artnak: Versatility for sure. I want to step back from OpenSea and similar platforms; these smart contracts prove the authenticity of previous owners and implement written agreements. I predict most legal contracts will shift towards NFT and the benefits it brings. Moreover, I mean everything from buying a car, a property, employment contracts, even paying taxes.

NZ: Speaking of redefinition… Museums and galleries are struggling to survive because of Covid-19. Then there’s the biggest absurdity: Vatican museums asked for donations because they are suffering a lack of revenue from visitors. Museums have had and continue to have a really hard time digitalising their archives or their exhibitions. How should they adapt to this strange era?

Dorian Batycka: That’s a difficult question, because the museum’s primary role is to educate and conserve. I’m a huge supporter of public museums and what they do for the public good. I don’t think their role is necessarily to serve as the fastest adopters here. I don’t think museums should necessarily adopt new tech simply in order to change themselves. Let the museums stay old and dusty.

The Artist is Online was a project of digital paintings and sculptures in the virtual world of Decentraland. Between 26 and 31 March 2021, you could participate in an auction of NFTs organised by the renowned König Galerie in Berlin. (Source: https://www.koeniggalerie.com/exhibitions/35679/the-artist-is-online/)

NZ: What is the most important message of our conversation here?

Dorian Batycka: You can leverage NFTs for Slovenian artists or younger artists in order to develop projects. But what is more important is to get in touch with your peers and work locally. Art is the binding agent for our culture. The point of art is not to get rich, but simply to make cool stuff with friends and develop relationships. The reason I got into art when I was young was because I just wanted to create with my friends. And I still do this all the time. Even if you don’t get support from the state or the market. I know everyone is struggling right now, the Metelkova community is being evicted, Fotopub is looking and waiting for resources, and many other creative sectors are deprived of support, and yet we’re going to find a way to creatively express ourselves and the world around us.