On my way to Superchief, which bills itself as the world’s “first physical NFT gallery,” I Googled “explain NFTs to me like I’m an absolute idiot.” Here is what I knew already: NFT stands for “non-fungible token,” meaning a unique asset, the authenticity of which is encrypted through blockchain technology, asserting its originality and, therefore, its worth.
Collectors had started buying and selling NFTs artworks like Beanie Babies in 1998, both through traditional auction houses like Christie’s or newer NFTs marketplaces, and they were going for thousands and even millions in ether and bitcoin.
Over the past month or so, they had become something of a meme, and that this was ironic or meta or something, because memes seemed to make up a lot of the visual language and subject matter of the NFTs themselves.
Here is what I didn’t know:
• Why should I care?
I appreciate art. I follow art. But I’m nowhere close to being a buyer or a collector of it. And most of what made NFTs significant and distinct, based on what I had read, was the way in which ownership is transferred and tracked. But people with money have always found ways to move it around: They buy houses, or horses, or paintings of houses and horses. To an outsider, NFTs reek of GameStop stonks and Elon Musk: more old-school capitalism, billed as something shiny and different because it’s online. A successful NFT exhibition would have to convince the visitor that these works represent something beyond the novelty of crypto.
The phrase “physical NFT gallery” seems oxymoronic. NFTs are digital art pieces inextricably linked to the blockchain. The whole reason why anyone cares about them in the first place seems to be that they’ve developed a way to assign scarcity and value to untouchable, intangible online art. With NFTs you can buy the rights to an image, but the artist still retains the canvas it was painted on before it was scanned, or the original raw data of the file, or the computer on which it was made. What would it mean to go to a gallery show where the original works are on display, but not really there?
There was a polite line forming outside of Superchief by the time I got there, a little before the gallery, just south of Union Square, opened its doors for the first time. The crowd was mostly who I’d imagine would be at any gallery show in the area: Dimes Square cool kids and young Parsons students in variously colored neon beanies, excited to take something in, in-person. This was the New York that was promised to them, only just now emerging after a year of shutdown. There were the expected tech bros, too, guys in their 30s walking down the street maskless until the last possible second before they joined the line. Across the street, people watched the crowd grow outside the gallery from a second story WeWork — a.k.a. the exact sort of business I’d imagine would be interested in purchasing and displaying NFTs.
The NFT exhibition is called “Season 1 Starter Pack,” its fluency in meme culture already baked into the title. Its premise is ambitious: 300 artists’ works, rotating through the display space daily, available for auction. At the very least, Superchief aimed to foreground what it would practically look like to display NFTs IRL. The gallery partnered with Blackdove, a company that manufactures high-resolution screens with the explicit purpose of displaying digital art. Like one of those digital picture frames that people buy for Mother’s Day but then never get around to setting up, only larger. Most of the works accommodated on these screens had what I perceived to be phone-friendly dimensions, oriented in both portrait and landscape, calling to mind the experience of scrolling through a Tumblr dashboard. In the darkened gallery (better for the screens to pop), I overheard someone say, “this is the first time I’m not worried about backing into the art, there’s nothing to bump into.” Sure, someone could accidentally crack a screen, but he had a point: It wouldn’t affect the original NFT.
It reminded me of the time I asked my parents to take a picture of me “touching the butt” of Matisse’s La Danse at MoMA. Posing with my hands hovering in front of the rarefied tush, I stumbled on my feet and the tip of the pad of my finger made contact within a millimeter of the surface of the canvas, and shockwaves of shame and adrenaline surged through my body at doing something so taboo and illicit as very nearly touching the art. It was chaos magic. It’s an anecdote I used to teach Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as a teaching assistant, to explain the aura of the original work. NFTs are an attempt to imbue highly reproducible digital art with Benjaminian aura, but their encrypted digital butts are untouchable.
One of the crisp 4K screens displayed a work reminiscent of the manga series Ghost in the Shell: a CGI model of a hyper-futuristic woman dressed in gold hooked up to some sort of robotic exoskeleton, spinning in a blank white and space-less showroom. I watched as two visitors tried to read some text etched into the base of the model as it spun, but it moved too fast for them to make out. This work, like many of the others, would occasionally freeze in its loop, a loading wheel appearing while it recalibrated. This obvious materiality — of the computer-behind-the-screen lagging, freezing, and getting going again — actually gave the works a there-ness that I appreciated; a little bit of cyber grit. The artist’s and work’s names weren’t on display on any of the works in the space, and by the time I went to look this one up the next day, I couldn’t find it on the SuperChief NFT landing page. There was no record of it in the crypto-ledgers of listings, bids, and transactions, so either it hadn’t been put up for auction yet or I’m crypto-illiterate (possibly both).
Projected onto opposite walls in the gallery space was a large MP4 NFT by the tattoo artist MASHKOW, depicting a Tesla cybertruck with a Confederate flag on the dash and bullhorns on the roof and a McDonald’s bumper sticker on the front, an oversize nug tied to the back like a Christmas tree, with a redneck skeleton sitting in front. The MP4 rotates, revealing that the art is “painted” on a digital “canvas,” with stickers and graffiti tags on the back, including one that says “NFTesla.” The airbrushed aesthetic calls to mind something you’d see on the side of a van. But the stoner humor and sophomore symbolism (McDonald’s arches in pop art? Groundbreaking.) made this white artist’s use of a Confederate flag feel more like a cheap stunt than a work with anything to say.
One patron was particularly excited about the first work on display when you enter the space, one that isn’t digital at all: a stop-motion animation by the artist Swoon that shows an elaborate mask unfurling endless layers, sprouting strange appendages. The work seems ultra-tactile in contrast to the others, made of what looks like layers of painted paper. The visitor said they were a fan and a follower of Swoon, and gallery director Ed Zipco later informed me via email that the piece — Swoon’s first NFT work — sold for $11,000, and the gallery received three further commissions from her at the same rate.
NFTs clicked for me after speaking to Zipco, who pointed out that the artworks have built-in tracking ledgers that redefine the ways that online artists can actually benefit from the value their works accrue in the art world, ensuring them royalties on sales. His view of what Superchief and NFT could do for digital artists was one of democratization and access: He said the split between established artists and brands (Princess Nokia and Hood by Air are slated to display NFTs in the coming weeks) and outsider artists in the exhibition was something like 70/30; on unlabeled, hi-def screens, they’re presented on an equal playing field.
I couldn’t deny the anti-establishment hopefulness of Superchief’s “Season 1 Starter Pack.” But as a casual observer, it was just nice to go to an in-person exhibition again. Staring at screens is so much more fun in public.
On Thursday, March 11, his digital artwork Everyday: The First 5000 Days sold for over $69 million at the conclusion of a Christie’s auction held with MakersPlace (an NFT issuer). Making history again, the artwork is both the most expensive NFT ever sold, as well as the first to be hosted by a major auction house.
Learning about NFTs this past October, Winklemann admits that not only is auctioning his work at fine art institutions like Christie’s a new experience but even just being able to sell his work to fans in general. “I used to just give away video files to people,” the now third-most-expensive living artist tells Highsnobiety.
As one of the first successful applications of blockchain technology, NFTs are on the way to becoming their own billion-dollar industry. This has led artists, collectors, and crypto-traders to examine the potential of these digital tokens, as well as how they could impact culture.
With more and more major artists starting to issue NFTs, we’ve decided to look at who’s making noise, as well as how this new frontier will manifest amongst artists and brands.
The #1/1 from beeple’s first NG drop has just resold on the secondary market for $6.6 million.
History has just been made.
— Nifty Gateway (@niftygateway) February 25, 2021
A Brief History of NFTs
One of the earliest case studies of blockchain collectibles was Spells of Genesis, where founder Shaban Shaame stated that people were selling fake versions of character cards and transacting on PayPal. To combat this, Shaame created a blockchain trading card game so all players could see what cards were authentic.
After Spells came CryptoPunks, which was founded by Matt Hall of Larva Labs. Hall was fascinated with the idea of creating a finite set of characters on the blockchain, so he developed 10,000 24×24 bit characters known as CryptoPunks. As one of the first introductions of scarcity for digital files, Punks started as low as $0.11 and have sold for as much as $1.5 million.
But the biggest fascination with early NFTs came with CryptoKitties, which were digital cats to trade on the blockchain. When a CryptoKitty sold for over $100,000 in 2017, it gave NFTs their first big story.
Despite the larger and larger price tags, NFTs were still only traded amongst a niche group. These were often people with too much Bitcoin or Ethereum and nowhere to spend it, which is why many early high-dollar examples included Rare Pepes, CryptoPunks, and CryptoKitties rather than what most would consider traditional art or collectibles.
The mainstream perception of these endemic communities viewed them as very fringe, and even in the case of CryptoKitties, was labeled a fad similar to being the “beanie babies of blockchain.” Still, the early effort of these groups laid the groundwork for NFTs’ potential, which became alluring for the first wave of mainstream participants.
How the NBA and Covid-19 Accelerated NFTs’ Growth
In 2019, Dapper Labs (the team behind CryptoKitties) announced a partnership with The NBA to build NBA Top Shot, which was one of the first instances of a notable company getting into NFTs.
Top Shot is a marketplace where people can buy and sell video highlights of NBA games. Akin to trading cards, this was one of the first instances where NFTs made sense to the masses, as it was not only issued by the NBA but in video format.
During the pandemic, the value of both collectibles and cryptocurrencies soared. With NBA Top Shot synthesizing the two worlds this past October, it was a perfect storm for NFTs to have their first primetime win. At the end of February, Top Shot sales eclipsed over $230 million.
Now with a sense of legitimacy, applying the same concept to digital art was starting to make more sense.
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Empowering NFT Creators, Collectors, and Collaborators
Though NFTs sell for millions already, scrolling through Beeple’s Instagram story will show he’s selling pieces for $15, which collectors are turning around and reselling for upwards of $350,000.
Although Winklemann has broken through as the most successful visual artist so far, several notable musicians have started to enter the space as well. Back in October, MF Doom auctioned off NFT hologram DOOM Masks. The auction concluded on the day of his death. Last month, Soulja Boy issued a “Crank That” NFT for 5 Ethereum, and not long after, EDM producer Gramatik had an NFT sale which totaled $1.54 million.
Beyond individual efforts, NFTs also empower collaborators to retain an equal share of recognition and notoriety for their works. While the likes of music video directors and digital artists are traditionally commissioned beforehand for projects, NFTs enable these collaborators to split recognition and sales however they deem fit. The best part? This could introduce a new era for self-funding.
“Grimes and I had been making music videos for almost a decade. We never had large budgets for the ambitious visions we aspired to capture and we felt constrained by the nature of shoots,” notes photographer and videographer Mac Boucher.
Deciding to take on a DIY approach that eventually led them to communities into 3D software and game design, these groups are how Boucher and Grimes learned about smart contracts and NFTs. Recently partnering up for War Nymph, the duo collected around $6 million on Nifty Gateway.
“I believe that everything that can be digitized will be digitized…We should start assuming that everything online is inauthentic until it’s proven to be authentic. It adds a whole layer of proof which gives the publisher more tools to derive value from,” Boucher relays
Beyond publishing, NFTs can help expand and protect other revenue streams as well. In speaking with Andrew Gertler, manager for Shawn Mendes, he tells Highsnobiety that blockchain will eventually be the go-to for concert tickets, noting how they can capture the revenue lost to resellers:
“If you look at what’s happening with NFTs, the secondary market is not just being monetized by the originator of the work, but it’s being encouraged (for the artist to capture residuals). I think that will certainly start to happen with concert ticketing, where for so long we’ve had to fight scalpers, now the hope is the secondary (market giving revenue to artists will) be encouraged.”
What Gertler is suggesting is good news for the likes of streetwear and fashion houses as well. Already commissioning video and digital content, the blockchain enables them to not only sell these exclusive works but raise the price of an asset based on how many are left, while simultaneously getting paid residuals from resellers.
Although the momentum is exciting, with anything in blockchain, many skeptics are wondering: “is this legit?”
With 15% of Americans owning a cryptocurrency, the argument of a crypto-bubble is slowly dwindling away. Even with an upcoming correction, NFTs won’t have to endure nearly the same litmus test as their blockchain predecessors.
What’s Next for NFTs?
NFTs are still very much in their infancy.
Currently, Nifty Gateway and MakersPlace are some of the only NFT issuers that accept credit cards but still require Meta Mask (a browser extension). Other issuers not only require browser extensions but transferring cryptocurrencies to different accounts and having separate digital wallets for collectibles and currencies. When considering the current high price tags out the gate, the added technical aspects of this all might be a headache for the average consumer.
“For a wide group of fans to collect, trade, and value NFTs, prices will need to be reasonable to provide a lower barrier to entry. (We’ll) need more platforms to emerge that transact in fiat, and not just crypto, so the learning curve is easier,” Gertler suggests.
Expressing a similar sentiment, Winklemann agrees that accessibility can be an issue for those not familiar with cryptocurrencies. In terms of NFTs being a bubble, Winklemann also predicts that prices will likely correct to how the current art market rewards effort, impact, and notoriety of work.
For now, the gold rush surrounding rare digital art is getting people excited about the potential of blockchain in a tangible way. Artists can issue digital copies of their work that previously didn’t have value. Collectors can own exclusive works that don’t just feel like a donation but rather owning something coveted.
“I think there will be a button on Instagram where you can just ‘buy this post’. It will be: ‘like’, ‘comment, and ‘buy’. That will be the new flex,” Winklemann tells us.
Since our conversation, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey established an NFT auction for the first tweet ever sent. The auction concluded at a sale of $2.9 million (which will be donated to charity).
It’s a new era in culture… one where instead of asking ‘what can we create with this?’ people are finally able to just create what they want to release into the world. And for most, that’s why they got into art in the first place.