To keep abreast with art and art market developments it is imperative that art from Pakistan keep up with enduring global trends. In this article I aim to simplify the enigma that is CryptoArt, while focusing on some of the main advantages and disadvantages of this rapidly growing technology-ridden trend. In 2021 the art world experienced major shock waves caused by a digital art development referred to as NFT. NFTs are not new as they have been in a prototype phase of sorts since the early 90’s; however, they reached an explosive potential in March 2021 when digital artist Beeple’s Everydays: the first 5000 Days NFT was sold by the auction house Christie’s for an incomprehensible amount of money, $69.3 million to be exact. It is important to clarify that NFTs are not merely digital art created through software such as photoshop or premiere pro. Technically it is much more than that and they have various implications as well as repercussions for the art world on an esoteric art-world level and for the planet at large.
Non Fungible Tokens or NFTs, as they are popularly called, are basically an individual non-interchangeable piece of digital art that is stored on blockchain technology. This concept has been most succinctly explained by digital artist and tech blogger Everest Pipkin; “Cryptoart is a piece of metadata (including, generally – an image or link to an image/file, the creator of that file, date stamps, associated contracts or text, and the purchaser of the piece) which is attached to a “token” (which has monetary value on a marketplace) and stored in a blockchain.” The main purpose of using Blockchain is to decentralize information; in this case, digitally coded art and its history. It has the potential of making art accessible to a variety of people as well as ensuring authenticity as blockchains are near impossible to tamper with.
For insight into the status of NFT’s in Pakistan, I interviewed Muhammad Awais, curator and co founder alongside Ahmed Bilal, of NFT Oar. Established in August 2021 it is a subsidiary of Ejaz Art Gallery. NFT Oar endeavors to fill a gap in the country’s art market and decided to take the leap and venture into CryptoArt, a development that no other established gallery in the country has tapped into as yet. Bearing in mind the above-mentioned advantage of ensuring authenticity, NFT Oar is working with Umer Saeed, the representative of veteran artist Saeed Akhtar’s studio, to preserve the master painter’s creations by ‘encapsulating mainstream art in a system and taking a step forward in preserving the legacy of a legendary Pakistani portrait and figurative painter. Minting the NFT and recording it permanently in the blockchain with the signed certificate of authenticity would validate the work as original and discredit all the fake copies of that particular work. This effort will allow the market forces of demand and supply to play as they should, while tackling the prevalent issue of authenticity.’ Registering artwork as an NFT makes appropriation, colonization or theft of work effectively impossible— a practice that is unfortunately rampant in the art world. One can take screenshots or make copies, but since that data is not entered into the blockchain it does not count as authentic hence tackling the issue of replicas.
Another advantage of this burgeoning trend is accessibility. As the internet is based on a democratic ideology, a lot of affordable art work can be found as NFTs. Many young people interested in becoming collectors are mostly unable to afford art in its current form. NFTs undoubtedly have the potential to make art mainstream as it allows an upcoming generation of tech savvy individuals to invest in art, a commodity they may not be able to afford otherwise. Buying NFTs is no different to taking risks with any other kind of trading as they are tied into cryptocurrency transactions and serve as digital assets. The main currencies used in registering and minting NFTs are Ethereum and Matic, often referred to as the fuel for NFT’s. Additionally, these transactions are transparent as it uses blockchain technology which is essentially an open ledger, that makes all the data and history of any Cryptoart accessible to everyone interested, a bit like digital socialism.
There is an unbelievable dearth of NFTs in Pakistan. Undoubtedly, acquainting existing art aficionados to this technology might be an uphill battle. Awais states that “..art enthusiasts and collectors are generally of a higher age bracket and not tech-savvy, which makes it difficult for them to accept and invest in NFTs. Lack of understanding and government support in regulating cryptocurrency, as well as decentralized finance also add to the uncertainty and confusion.…Although there are barriers to entry, everything is becoming increasingly digital. Art enthusiasts and collectors will have to learn to adapt sooner or later because the applicability of NFTs in art is vast, unlike any other traditional medium.” Furthermore, he added, “this technology movement is the digital renaissance…NFT Oar, plans to curate exhibitions, conduct talks/seminars, and work with artists and creators on ways that bridge the gap between the physical and the metaphysical art worlds.” Young Pakistani artists such as Hamza Qazi and Sundeep Kumar have indulged in this trend and minted their creations to expand and challenge the traditional art landscape. Though their work has been lauded online it hasn’t garnered much monetary success.
Bearing in mind the profit margins of this technology, Awais opines ‘It is true that NFTs are a great source of revenue for both the artist and the collector. However, the successful NFT projects focus on the quality of NFT, be it art, music etc., and providing utility for their community and collectors. Like physical assets, digital assets are beneficial on a macro level and not just micro.…the government can also regulate and charge taxes based on the NFT price brackets.’ He also has ideas for artists to incentivize buyers by adding deals in the blockchain when minting NFT’s for sale.
This global phenomenon is aiding the democratization and monetization of art through NFTs. NFTs create an opportunity for digital artists to be more creative in their approach. By virtually connecting with artists and collectors from all over the world, they can do what they love, reach a wider audience and build a community around their art and name. It rewards those that stay active in the NFT space as they get to gather a following and community that supports and appreciates their art, including potential collectors. Ultimately, one can start earning a reasonable revenue and even have the option to set up royalties, which means that every time a work sells, the artist gets a certain percentage of the sale price. However, this also puts added pressure on the artists to provide more utility to their collectors to drive up the demand and floor (market price). This is akin to social media as influencers build up a community for themselves and use that to generate an income.
Needless to state, a variety of tech savvy people can make digital visuals and make profitable transactions through this technology. Many would argue that this in itself is problematic and may lead to art losing its legitimacy, as the means of making and judging art becomes even more diluted. Furthermore, like Saeed Akhtar’s studio, many traditional artists have attempted to ride this wave, though the question that arises is whether uploading a digital image such as a jpeg of an existing piece of art, like an oil painting, actually be termed as digital art if it has not evolved to meet the criteria of the new medium?
Countering the favorable aspects are some grave criticisms. Most significant is the fact that digital art exists in a virtual realm and is not tangible. As we still value reality and tangibility, NFTs are no more than ‘fictional financial products’, in the words of British artist and musician Brain Eno. Bearing in mind the mad prices that some NFTs sell for, it may be safe to describe NFTs as primarily a luxury of the affluent; the digital realm is a safe space for storing assets as there are barely any regulations in place yet. These assets can be traded for exorbitant figures and have the potential for lucrative financial gains. However, as NFTs are tokens that are tied into cryptocurrency, only those people who own cryptocurrency can partake in trading; making the rich richer, or at least helps them avoid accountability. Simultaneously, as with all trading, their value will increase or decrease depending on the linked cryptocurrency, so a crash in the market could be very detrimental to the NFTs value unlike traditional art.
Furthermore, many appraisers believe that NFTs are increasing in value, based on a false sense of scarcity. The idea of artificial scarcity is a major one in the digital realm, and can be witnessed across the internet from social media platforms encouraging users to strive for ‘likes’ to online businesses using the concept of ‘limited edition’ to increase demand. However, in the case of NFT’s it provides one with a sense of ownership when a buyer’s name is included on the block. Anyone can be an audience for the artwork but will not have their name included in the blockchain. Though critics argue that an experience of art is original regardless of owning the digital work, or witnessing a copy of it. Also, this idea contradicts the main purpose of digital technology i.e. abundance.
Another valid concern for critics is obsoletion. Everest Pipkin argues “Digital files also require power to access and maintain, and are incredibly unstable over time as new operating systems, plugins and standards render things unviewable, often within a decade. They are also vulnerable to bitrot and physical degradation of storage media. The stable shelf life of a CD-ROM, for instance, is less than 20 years.”
The physicality versus intangibility of art, digital versus traditional art, the archival availability of technology are all esoteric criticisms that focus on art-making and the art market. There is a more pressing issue that arises from mining cryptocurrency and minting cryptoart: sustainability. The fact that huge amounts of energy are spent in making an intangible piece of art is a great concern. Traditional oil paintings use hazardous waste substances and toxic materials, and art fairs are expensive events to organize, but these may be negligible compared to the carbon footprint of minting NFT’s. To elucidate, registering an NFT onto a block in blockchain is referred to as minting. These blocks are impenetrable. They come into digital being as computers compete with each other to generate acceptable code (information) to be added to the blockchain. Computing to find acceptable code uses a great amount of energy. And as more people start entering the NFT market and invariably invest in cryptocurrency, the equations that need to be solved keep becoming more complex and hence energy intensive. In a world that is already struggling with global warming, melting ice, floods and temperature changes, NFT’s may be a very harmful side-effect of technological development. Though, as is the case with technology, change is quick and there are advocates who argue that green NFTs are on the horizon, as mining is possible through renewable energy. At present bitcoin mining is second to the banking system which uses the most amount of energy, but it is well below the CO2 emissions of gold mining and recycling. Needless to state, technology should be used and developed for a better future not an unhealthier one. Whether this is a money-making fad like the Tulip mania, or a new avenue for the future, time will tell, but it is the personal responsibility every individual, artist or not, to make an informed choice.
Title Image: Sundeep Kumar, NFT (digital image), 2022
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