The Unreal: first notes on Non-Fungible Tokens

To be honest, until two months ago I had never heard of ‘crypto-art’ or ‘NFTs’. For someone who spends an awful lot of time in the digital realm thinking about screen-culture, this is a bit of a blamage. I’m blaming my blind spot for Twitter, which is apparently where the crypto-action is.

What are NFTs? There’s a growing amount of explainers on the internet, which saves me time. Here’s one on The Verge, for instance.

In any case, the NFT entered my – and undoubtedly many other’s – field of view as Beeple’s compilation piece ‘Everydays: The first 5.000 days’ got auctioned at Christie’s for the equivalent of 50 million Euro in the cryptocurrency of Ether. It was bought by this guy, who defies all laws of the perception of super-wealthy art collectors.

The media-frenzy that followed, and – as the media does – keeps a keen eye on the money, dragged the NFT into the mainstream. 

Cryptocurrency is abstract enough, but the NFT makes it almost impossible to explain its importance, its characteristics, its issues and troubles to digital laypeople. It took me over two weeks of intensive online-reading to more or less get a grip on the subject, which is still in its infancy.

Depending on who you ask, the NFT is a Ponzi scheme or a replacement model for the current art market. As usual, it’s all of that and something in between. 

All I can say is that for me, and many visual artists whose works arise digitally, the NFT is a solution to a problem that has been haunting me since I started working with the computer:

In what form can a digital born work live in the physical world?

collect for 1 tez
Fundamental Mechanics (0)1/52

Immersive video-installations are relatively compatible due to the suitable immateriality of the projected image. A more complicated in-situ example of a digital video work made material is the privately commissioned ‘Chisel‘.

The ‘Three Motions of Loom’ tapestries I made at the Textielmuseum in 2019 were a successful translation of a digital file to a physical object because of the close relation a jacquard weaving machine has to a computer. The vinyl record ‘The Compositor’ (2020) is another.

The Compositor/Composing, audiofile on 12″ vinyl record/engraving, 2020.

But as much as I love paper, a print of a digital image has more often than not felt like too much of a compromise. The work becomes something entirely different; it’s barely recognizable. And while projecting video can be a suitable way to export a work, not all animations are meant to be immersive, or work on a screen in an exhibition space.

An interesting case is ‘Fundamental Mechanics’, a series of ultrashort animations I made using the built-in Instagram Stories feature. For me, this was a great way to experiment with animation on a consumer technology level: what is possible within the limitations of the size and bites of a mediocre smartphone, the available emoji and stickers from the Giphy database?

It turns out, quite a lot. I liked the series so much, I turned it into a video on a rather ‘crappy’ open frame screen, the screen being an integral part of the work.

But there’s something not entirely right with this presentation. The animations work best where they belong: on a computer or mobile device screen.

In short: there’s a plethora of artistic output in the form of finished works, sketches, setups, ideas and side-trajectories hidden in the hard drives of my computer(s), that have nowhere to go in the RW. 

And this is what excites me – and some of my great fellow-digitally-working-artists – so much about the NFT; it finally gives autonomy to the digital image, allowing it to exist on its own terms. The digital born image is mostly at home in its digital habitat. 

At the moment, the NFT scene is exploding: there are a range of curated and open platforms working with various cryptocurrencies, which host an inevitable amount of superficial visual junk an adventurous artist or collector has to wade through in order to find some substance. This is part of the frenzy a new medium entails. I’m very curious as to where this will all go. At the moment, developments are moving with lightning speed, so the whole field might look completely different in six months.

After careful consideration, I decided to start minting NFTs on the platform, because it works with a hugely less energy-wasteful crypto coin: XTZ (Tezos), and because the platform is open for everyone.

Notes and issues.

At the moment, most NFTs are made on the Ethereum blockchain, which – like Bitcoin – uses a PoW protocol. Proof of Work is exactly that: it takes a huge amount of calculations to authorize a work. This means that the energy consumption is outlandishly high. There are alternatives, though, that use PoS (Proof of Stake). Those less known cryptocurrencies, such as Tezos, bear a fraction of the environmental load. 

Media attention for NFTs is, in the regular media at least, connected to financial anomalies. Many NFTs are available for the equivalent of € 5 – € 50 euros. 

The curated platforms seem to select in part on the amount of social media followers an artist has, which reflects the way the physical art market works: size, apparently, does matter. This advantages the more commercial creators, or creators who’re social media savvy. These people are ‘dropping’ NFTs for limited amounts of time in large quantities, for instance, while making a lot of noise about it online. This quantity before quality machismo is, at least for me, terribly off-putting.

This takes me to another issue: although the NFT world, like cryptocurrency, embraces decentralized ideas of ownership and connects this to a sense of inclusiveness, the digital art world is still dominated by very traditional patterns: male, mostly white. I would really like to stress that any woman working with digital media should not be scared off by the aforementioned machismo. 

On the other hand, men, women and everything in between are trying to jump on the bandwagon, resulting in crypto-fluent creators minting digital photos of their aquarel paintings or hastily made ipad-filtered portraits.

Am I climbing on a high horse when I consider those to be faux digital art? 

To be continued…

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Alexandra Crouwers (NL, °1974) is a visual artist working in the digital realm. Her works are made by using a combination of 3D modeling and animation, and post-production, and can take many forms. From 2019 on, she's a doctoral researcher in art and animation at Leuven University/LUCA School of arts, Brussels, under supervision of Wendy Morris.