If you’ve been paying attention, you will know that a quiet revolution is underway in the world of blockchain that has nothing to do with the latest headlines concerning the Bitcoin bull market. Non Fungible Tokens (NFTs) have been around for a few years, but for the art-world especially, 2020 saw the technology go from strength to strength, with rocketing sales volume on every major platform over the last year. For those unfamiliar with NFTs, Electric Artefacts has a handy introduction that maps important developments in the blockchain art-and-collectibles space. In this two-part series, we will be looking at some of the new directions that artists are taking the concept, and exploring some of the technologies promising to transform the NFT landscape.
With their capacity for user-generated architecture and design, virtual worlds offer a natural home for digital artists looking to display their work online. In the early years of the medium, artists flocked to second life to participate in digital exhibitions that transcended the logistical limitations of physical spaces. In more recent years, Minecraft has established itself as an important avenue of artistic expression in virtual world-building.
With the blockchain revolution of the past decade it has now become possible for community-owned virtual worlds to be built. Leading the charge, Decentraland became the first virtual world with its own decentralized economic and governance standards. Its creators even threw away the private key controlling the smart contract that established MANA—Decentraland’s native currency.
In June 2020, Decentraland’s Genesis city hosted its first cultural festival, comprising ten days of events, exhibitions, parties, debates and discussions. Dozens of artists were involved and thousands of NFTs exchanged. Showcases from Mr Monk, Cryptopop and Hackatao were especially popular, and collaborations with SuperRare, KnownOrigin and MakersPlace proved successful enough for the crypto-art heavyweights to set up shop permanently in the Decentraland marketplace.
An upcoming exhibition at Stellabelle’s Museum, located in another decentralized virtual world—Cryptovoxels—takes up the theme of “F*ck Wall Street”. Judging from the call for artworks, we can expect a critical reflection on the recent Gamestop drama and insightful commentary on the contemporary American meme war. Like art itself, virtual worlds are as much a means of protest against hegemonic political realities as they are a means of escape from them. Decentralized finance powered by blockchain technology might not spell the end of Wall Street, but it is certainly shaking up the banking sector. And where better than the new user-owned cyberspaces to imagine what the alternative might look like?
When Async Art launched in February 2020 it added a new valence to the image of art that “lives on the blockchain”. In the context of the NFT paradigm the popular phrase makes perfect sense. In a nightmarish digital apocalypse where the Ethereum blockchain ceased to exist, every token that was ever recorded on-chain would “die” with it. But before Async arrived on the scene, NFT artworks were comparatively sterile when held up against more participatory media. Classic NFTs deny the possibility of an artwork growing and changing in form over time. Async’s “digital paintings” on the other hand are made up of programmable layers, which can be owned independently of the “master” image. Each time a layer owner makes an alteration to their layer, a corresponding change appears on the master, bringing artists, collectors, and spectators together into ongoing collaborations with plenty of capacity for surprise.
Rarity has been the principle guiding the development of NFTs from the beginning. In a nod to the original CryptoPunks, different traits of varying rarity are spread out over the 16,000-odd unique Hashmasks that hit the market earlier this year. For example, over 2000 of the characters wear an animal mask but only one wears no mask at all. Like Async Art, the project aims to remove the dividing line between creator and consumer, only instead of visual attributes, where Hashmasks stand apart from previous NFT crazes is in the way each one is named.
Naming a Hashmask is commoditized via the name change token (NCT). Each Hashmask was born nameless, but was issued with enough NCTs for two name changes. Additional NCTs are earned at a rate of 3660 tokens per year by holding a Hashmask. After ten years, the supply of new NCTs will be cut off, beginning a countdown to the final renaming. As the group behind it state on their website, “the Hashmask project will evolve on Ethereum, bend and change its form until the day the last NCT is burnt and the art piece is complete.”
Since CryptoKitties issued the first ERC721 token in 2018, the project of building an international market for digital collectibles has gone from strength to strength. If the commercial reception of Hashmasks tells us anything, it is that the world has woken up to the economic potential of non-fungible tokens and some serious collectors are starting to throw their weight around. There will be those who scoff at the idea of shelling out hundreds of thousands of pounds for a collectible cartoon that anyone can view on the internet for free. But the ether in Ethereum has a more elemental resonance rooted in the alchemical tradition. Here, ethereality implies not a lack of physicality, but the kind of transcendence made possible by virtual worlds, and riches of a higher order.
In the next part of this series we'll be asking what next for NFTs as the medium takes its first tentative steps towards a life after Ethereum. No doubt, there’s money to be made by artists and collectors alike. But there will also be opportunities to experiment, to explore, and to cultivate fresh ideas as the world steps into a new era of decentralization.
Cover image The Creation by Vans Design, staRpauSe, Janessa and ooakosimo.eth (2020) from Async Art
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