Art on the Blockchain

This is me thinking out loud—I mean that almost literally, I recorded an earlier version of it one evening as voice memo. I’m not firm in my convictions on this piece and am very open to having my mind changed.

There’s been a lot of news recently about digital art sales using a technology called NFTs*. These are, to give a very, very layman’s explanation, digital tokens which prove the ownership (or transaction history) of a digital object. Digital art can be copied infinitely because it’s digital, but an NFT uses a blockchain to provide proof of provenance so no matter how many copies are in existence you can have the ‘one true original’, certified and validated, which gives it (artificial) scarcity and (theoretical) resale value.

It’s kind of like if a conceptual artist had made a physical work of art using a Mars bar wrapper; you could say, well, anybody can have a Mars bar wrapper, in fact I’ve got one in my pocket, so that’s worth whatever the art is worth. But value is what we assign to things. So there’s a collective agreement that the artist’s work is art (transcending the object itself) and the art world uses certificates of authenticity and ownership to prove it’s the ‘original’ and not just a Mars bar wrapper you’ve just bought from the shop. That certificate maintains that Mars bar wrapper’s value. And that’s what NFTs do for digital art.

I’m torn on this because, in theory, I think it sounds like a good idea—artists getting justly rewarded for their work! But two things give me pause: the environmental impact, and cryptocurrencies.

The issue of the environmental impact is raised because of the way the blockchain (Ethereum in this case) works, which is by using a lot of computational power which is incredibly—I mean, incrediblyenergy intensive.

Because [cryptocurrency] coins ask the investors of tomorrow to buy in at ever increasing computational power, we have ended up in a horrific spiralling excess of energy usage and ecological devastation.

Everest Pipkin

A lot of people claim this is going to be fixed—there are many good arguments in favour of this not being true, but there are also some far less resource-intensive alternative cryptocurrencies.

The other thing is that I don’t have faith that cryptocurrencies aren’t just a big pyramid scheme, and the people spending big money on digital art with NFTs tend to be people who invested in crypto early, when their currency wasn’t as valuable as it is now:

What you have right now are these crypto-millionaires who are trying to create assets with the money that they’ve accumulated. One of the only ways they can do that right now is through the NFT market, because it accepts cryptocurrency

Lucien Smith

These people stand to gain from more people buying the currency and driving its value up, because cryptocurrencies are essentially useless as actual currencies, only as vehicles for speculation. Or, more succinctly put:

NFTs use “art” to make crypto speculation seem pro-social.

Nathan Jurgenson

But putting aside the environmental concerns (as if that’s even an option!) and my own cryptocurrency skepticism, there’s a further critical question to be answered: do NFTs actually work? As in, will they be accepted as actually providing sufficient provenance for a thing to retain a value?

There’s no question that people will buy digital art which has an NFT because they’re doing that right now. But it’s the sell-on which will be the test of whether or not this system works; whether an NFT is sufficient for a secondary buyer to say, I accept that this token that you have is proof that this is a certified digital artwork from the artist and not a copy.

It requires collective belief for this to work. If the tokens are accepted as a genuine guarantee of authenticity by a secondary buyer, then it works. If it doesn’t, if the NFTs are simply not accepted as provenance after the initial sale, then the whole thing falls apart.

So whether or not people are paying hundreds of thousands pounds for pieces of digital art from the artist (or a broker) isn’t the test of whether or not this system works. The test is: does the art retain value (or appreciate in value)? Will secondary buyers and traders accept NFTs as proof? Will there be a collective belief in the system that sustains the market?

And further still: should the market be sustained at all? Is the big money pouring into NFTs, “a devastatingly lopsided, dangerous and unregulated market that exists solely as a form of exploitative mass delusion” as Luke Plunkett puts it, helping to prop up an art establishment that elevates certain art into high art just to maintain its own business?

Like I said before, the idea of artists getting fair reward for their art is a great idea. I’m just extremely wary of the crypto world being seen as the solution for that.

* NFT = non-fungible token; that is, a token which signifies a unique object.


Making Nature: how we see animals

A visit to the Wellcome Collection this week, for the exhibition Making Nature. It explores human interaction with animals; how we classify them, display them, observe them, and change them. From Walter Potter’s taxidermy tableaux, to tigers in Manhattan apartments, to BioSteel™ goats that lactate spider silk, it’s a well-curated, thoughtful, and eventually unsettling experience.

It starts with Linnaeus’ taxonomies, the desire to impose order on the natural world. Perhaps well-intentioned, but his racist human stereotypes (‘indolent and capricious Africans’) indicate that order is as much about opinion as fact.

Making Nature shows how our view of animals changed from asset to resource to commodity, to entertainment and decoration. This observation struck me:

Humans soon discovered they could train captive birds to sing songs that may not attract mates in the wild, but would captivate human listeners.

The songbird became a programmable musical device.

Perhaps the saddest part of the exhibit was the video installation The Great Silence, by artists Allora & Calzadilla with author Ted Chiang. It contrasts shots of two locations in Puerto Rico—the Arecibo observatory for monitoring signals of alien life, and a sanctuary for endangered parrots—simultaneously with Chiang’s eponymous short story, written from the point of view of one of those parrots.

Humans have lived alongside parrots for thousands of years, and only recently have they considered the possibility that we might be intelligent.

But parrots are more similar to humans than any extraterrestrial species will be, and humans can observe us up close; they can look us in the eye. How do they expect to recognize an alien intelligence if all they can do is eavesdrop from a hundred light years away?

The exhibition is, like everything in the Wellcome Collection, free to visit. It runs until 21st May, and is the first in a year-long series exploring our relationship with nature.


The Celts, Art, Identity, Intelligence and Vanity

This week I went to the British Museum to see the Celts: Art and Identity exhibit. It was wonderful, a great curation of amazing objects. It finishes at the end of the month, so I advise you to go if you can.

Some of the objects are over 2,000 years old, yet beautifully crafted—such as the Great Torc of Snettisham, made from 64 fine threads of mixed gold and silver, and moulded terminals with tiny embossed details hammered by hand with great precision.
See page for author [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
We tend to think of our ancient ancestors as savages, yet as Warren Ellis reminded me through one of his fourth-wall breaking medieval characters in his book, Crécy:

These things are going to look primitive to you, but you have to remember that we’re not stupid. We have the same intelligence as you. We simply don’t have the same cumulative knowledge you do. So we apply our intelligence to what we have.

One thing I found very interesting is that, in Britain at least, the historical record shows that finds of mirrors (polished bronze) are followed shortly by finds of combs and cosmetics. As soon as we were able to see ourselves, we wanted to look better. That capacity to make objects of vanity was always there, but it took a discovery to unlock it. This makes me think of the adjacent possible theory:

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.

It also makes me think of ‘selfie culture’. History shows that we always wanted to show off pictures of ourselves, but we didn’t have the tools; painted portraits were expensive and time-consuming, as was early film. But affordable phone cameras and online social networks made the cultural shift possible. It’s not that we’ve suddenly become vain, but that we’ve always desired to be vain and are now able to fulfil that.