NFTs have transformed Australian art whether we like it or not

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In a world awash with acronyms, there’s one that has a par­tic­u­lar pow­er to make hack­les rise, espe­cial­ly in the arts: NFT. Even spelled out – non-fun­gi­ble token – it remains obscure, an unpo­et­ic intrud­er from deep tech. Dif­fi­cult to under­stand, dif­fi­cult to access (unless you’re a so-called dig­i­tal native), sur­round­ed by jar­gon and hype, NFTs, for those who favour “real” art in the “real” world, are infi­nite­ly off-putting, a nui­sance they hope will dis­ap­pear. As one gal­lerist, speak­ing off the record, put it, “It has no f—ing rel­e­vance to art and it does my head in. The prices that are out there, it’s just such BS.”

That gal­lerist may well be expe­ri­enc­ing a warm flush of schaden­freude now in light of the recent cryp­tocur­ren­cy crash. Amid the col­lapse, the back­lash against cryp­tocur­ren­cies – which some crit­ics have labelled as noth­ing more than a Ponzi scheme – has been swift and severe. But does the cryp­to-crash sig­nal the end of NFT “art”? That’s a wish that looks unlike­ly to be grant­ed any time soon.

Popular Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs now sell for millions of dollars each.

Pop­u­lar Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs now sell for mil­lions of dol­lars each.

“We’ve actu­al­ly seen an uptick in sales since the crash,” says Michelle Grey, the Syd­ney-based co-founder of Cul­ture Vault. The online plat­form seeks to sell “high-qual­i­ty” NFTs rather than the more insipid exam­ples cir­cu­lat­ing: notably the “bored apes” the inter­na­tion­al celebri­ty set has tak­en up with glee, and which are more akin to night­club medal­lions of old – offer­ing exclu­sive mem­ber­ship – than any­thing resem­bling art.

Cul­ture Vault is attempt­ing to counter NFT scep­ti­cism by enlist­ing emerg­ing and estab­lished artists, Aus­tralian and inter­na­tion­al, whose work has trac­tion – among them Reko Ren­nie, the Hux­leys, Romance Was Born, Stephen Ormandy and Shantell Mar­tin. With the plunge in the val­ue of cryp­tocur­ren­cies, these artists’ NFTs have sud­den­ly become more afford­able in real dol­lar terms.

Michelle Grey (left) with artist Shantell Martin.

Michelle Grey (left) with artist Shantell Mar­tin.Cred­it:Abso­lut Art

“It’s actu­al­ly a real­ly excit­ing time for NFTs now that the pric­ing bub­ble has burst,” Grey says. “We’re see­ing artists who are gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in the space, rather than those just look­ing for a quick cash grab. If you val­ue and tru­ly appre­ci­ate dig­i­tal art as a medi­um, the crash shouldn’t affect your predilec­tion for NFTs. How­ev­er, if you were only buy­ing NFTs pure­ly as an invest­ment, and not because you love the art, then maybe the crash would make you less like­ly to con­tin­ue collecting.”

It’s Grey’s job to talk up NFTs. But how do artists feel about the falling prices of their NFTs?

“We’ve been so busy mak­ing art that we didn’t know there was a cryp­to crash,” says Will Hux­ley, one half of the bril­liant­ly cre­ative duo the Hux­leys, who have just fin­ished per­form­ing at Melbourne’s recent Ris­ing festival.

Will and his part­ner in life and art, Gar­rett, work across medi­ums; they make out­landish­ly beau­ti­ful cos­tumes – fre­quent­ly fea­tur­ing sequins and glit­tery face paint – and pose in them in oth­er­world­ly land­scapes and the­atri­cal sets, pro­duc­ing pho­tographs and videos. They also per­form live. And they read­i­ly admit to not real­ly under­stand­ing how NFTs work. They pro­vide the art and leave the tech­ni­cal stuff to the experts at Cul­ture Vault.

“We just thought, let’s give it a try because we love the arts and we love all art forms,” Will says. “We nev­er made the NFTs think­ing about the finan­cial side of things. We kind of thought it could be a fun way to reach dif­fer­ent audi­ences and to try some­thing new. For most of our art-mak­ing career we’ve self-fund­ed or just made art because we love it. It’s fan­tas­tic that we can do this full-time and make a liv­ing from it, espe­cial­ly in Aus­tralia where art isn’t val­ued near­ly as much as it should be. But I think we would go on mak­ing art even if no one want­ed to buy it.”

This work was created by The Huxleys as a special one off NFT for Spectrum. Hibiscus is a tribute to performance artist Hibiscus (1949-1982) a founding member of acid drag performance group The Cockettes. You can buy it as an NFT on Culture Vault by scanning the QR code (all profits to the artists).

This work was cre­at­ed by The Hux­leys as a spe­cial one off NFT for Spec­trum. Hibis­cus is a trib­ute to per­for­mance artist Hibis­cus (1949–1982) a found­ing mem­ber of acid drag per­for­mance group The Cock­ettes. You can buy it as an NFT on Cul­ture Vault by scan­ning the QR code (all prof­its to the artists).Cred­it:The Hux­leys

A dis­claimer: I own an art­work by the Hux­leys, a real-life pho­to­graph called Ner­vous Wreck. It’s irre­sistibly, splen­did­ly, camp, and fea­tures Will and Gar­rett in gaudy wigs, gold body­suits, turquoise-paint­ed faces, flam­boy­ant­ly tum­bling out of the smok­ing wreck­age of a gold-paint­ed vin­tage sedan. Cul­ture Vault has mint­ed a 30-sec­ond NFT video and sound­scape of the same scene – kind of like the pho­to come to life. In May, that NFT cost $310 on Cul­ture Vault. After the cryp­to crash, the price has dropped to $109.

Not that the Hux­leys noticed.

“As we’ve been so busy mak­ing new work we didn’t check on the val­ue of our NFTs,” Will says. “But we aren’t too wor­ried about the crash as it’s not our main source of income and it’s not our main focus in mak­ing art. If any­thing, it’s nice for peo­ple who might be able to grab a bar­gain. It means it’s afford­able for more people.”

Will’s atti­tude to art-mak­ing and art is infi­nite­ly gen­er­ous. Still, I’d rather my $750 pho­to­graph than a bar­gain-priced NFT. I’m not even sure what I’d do with an NFT, and I tell Will, which he total­ly gets.

The Huxleys’ Nervous Wreck, avaliable in print and as an NFT.

The Hux­leys’ Ner­vous Wreck, avali­able in print and as an NFT.Cred­it:The Hux­leys

“There’s some­thing that is mag­i­cal about a framed pho­to­graph or paint­ing that will nev­er be replaced by the NFT, but the thing that is nice about the NFT is that it offers an alter­na­tive, maybe a more afford­able or accept­able way for peo­ple to expe­ri­ence hav­ing that art­work. I’m more like you; I would prob­a­bly rather the framed pho­to­graph, but I love the idea that NFTs give anoth­er option.”

One of the debates in this field is whether an NFT can even be clas­si­fied as a medi­um, in the same way as say paint­ing, sculp­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy or print-mak­ing. An NFT, is not, tech­ni­cal­ly a medi­um. What it is, for those who need a refresh­er, is an immutable piece of data stored on a blockchain (a dig­i­tal ledger).

“The medi­um that NFT artists use is gen­er­al­ly referred to as dig­i­tal art, but of course there are many oth­er appli­ca­tions for NFTs beyond just dig­i­tal art,” says Grey. “But because of the type of data that this token can car­ry – JPEGs, MP4s, videos and so on – it’s a great appli­ca­tion for art because these files can be expressed as 2D or 3D ani­ma­tions, mov­ing sculp­tur­al files, videos, pieces of music synced to dynam­ic images – it’s all about how cre­ative the artists wants to get.”

So what do you do with an NFT of an art­work? You can dis­play it on your smart­phone, or on a screen at home, or show it in your own online gallery, and all of these things appeal, appar­ent­ly, to a new breed of col­lec­tors. NFTs’ porta­bil­i­ty means that artists can reach new audi­ences and rev­enue streams. The Hux­leys call NFTs their “sequin fund”, although they have yet to con­vert any of the cryp­tocur­ren­cy they’ve earned into real dollars.

“That will hap­pen when our sequin fund gets too low and we need more mon­ey to make art,” Will says.

He adds, how­ev­er, that the NFT mar­ket­place doesn’t feel “over­ly tangible”.

“I don’t think we would ever rely on its sta­bil­i­ty as a plat­form. Tech­nol­o­gy moves so fast, but art remains con­stant. The art is what’s most impor­tant to us.”

Although NFTs can be traced back to 2014, the tech­nol­o­gy explod­ed into main­stream atten­tion last year when an NFT fea­tur­ing a col­lage of 5000 dig­i­tal images by an artist most peo­ple had nev­er heard of, Beeple, sold for US$69.3 mil­lion ($99.4 mil­lion) at a Christie’s online auc­tion. That’s more than the auc­tion record for a Raphael, a Tit­ian, or a Turn­er – artists who have stood the test of time.

This NFT of a collage by artist Beeple sold for $US69.3 million.

This NFT of a col­lage by artist Beeple sold for $US69.3 million.

The pro­po­nents of NFTs viewed the Beeple sale as an exam­ple of the technology’s pow­er to democ­ra­tise the arts and smash pre­vail­ing hier­ar­chies. Scep­tics saw it as a farce, proof of an inflat­ed and unsus­tain­able mar­ket – and they’re feel­ing vin­di­cat­ed. Oth­ers have yet to make up their minds and are explor­ing the tech­nol­o­gy for them­selves, decid­ing whether NFTs are a fad, or an impor­tant new direc­tion in art, and worth invest­ing in – espe­cial­ly now. As Will Hux­ley puts it, quot­ing his physi­cist dad, “what­ev­er goes up, must come down, and vice ver­sa. It’s the law of physics”.

Inter­na­tion­al art auc­tion giants includ­ing Christie’s and Sotheby’s are sell­ing NFTs by the vir­tu­al truck­load. The tech­nol­o­gy has been hard to ignore. Christie’s sold about US$150 mil­lion worth of NFTs last year, while Sotheby’s trad­ed near­ly US$100 mil­lion worth. That’s a frac­tion of the bil­lions these auc­tion hous­es turn over each year, but in an Aus­tralian con­text, US$250 mil­lion is huge: almost triple the entire tak­ings at art auc­tions in Aus­tralia last year. The NFT mar­ket here, though, is still in its infan­cy – not a sin­gle NFT has come up for sale at art auc­tion in Australia.

One Aus­tralian auc­tion house, how­ev­er, recent­ly announced that it would start accept­ing cryp­tocur­ren­cy. In an Aus­tralian first, Smith & Singer is tak­ing cryp­tocur­ren­cy as pay­ment for works in its cur­rent Brett White­ley exhi­bi­tion in Mel­bourne. Telling­ly, Smith & Singer have no imme­di­ate plans to sell NFTs. Chief exec­u­tive offi­cer Gary Singer says the com­pa­ny is “a bit more old-fash­ioned when it comes to phys­i­cal art” and isn’t sure that NFTs are a last­ing thing.

Some well-estab­lished Aus­tralian artists are not exact­ly rush­ing to get in on the action either. When I try to con­tact Lindy Lee, who made head­lines with her $14 mil­lion sculp­ture com­mis­sion for the Nation­al Gallery of Aus­tralia, her deal­er comes back to me and says that Lee “has noth­ing to say on the sub­ject”, which in some ways speaks volumes.

Kevin McCoy’s Quantum (2014) – the first artwork ever minted – part of “Natively Digital: A Curated NFT Sale” at Sotheby’s in London last year.

Kevin McCoy’s Quan­tum (2014) – the first art­work ever mint­ed – part of “Native­ly Dig­i­tal: A Curat­ed NFT Sale” at Sotheby’s in Lon­don last year.Cred­it:Get­ty

Anoth­er Aus­tralian artist, Danie Mel­lor, wor­ries about NFTs’ envi­ron­men­tal impact, as mint­ing and trad­ing NFTs is carbon-intensive.

Says Mel­lor: “At the moment I feel hes­i­tant giv­en the sheer vol­ume and quan­ti­ty of NFTs being sold, and some of the rea­sons they are being acquired, along with their ener­gy foot­print, so it can feel chal­leng­ing.” He is open to work­ing with NFTs “under the right cir­cum­stances and at the right time”.

So, what do NFTs offer “tra­di­tion­al” col­lec­tors that the cur­rent art mar­ket does not? That’s a ques­tion that long-stand­ing Syd­ney art deal­er Justin Miller is exploring.

“A great deal of the [NFT] mar­ket is aimed at the ‘cryp­to-bro’ con­sumer, and I was inter­est­ed to look at how one might intro­duce more tra­di­tion­al art buy­ers into this space,” says Miller, who was chair­man of Sotheby’s Aus­tralian arm for more than a decade.

Last year, Miller and his old school friend, ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Mark Carnegie, co-fund­ed a phil­an­thropic project involv­ing eight Aus­tralian artists work­ing in a range of medi­ums includ­ing bark paint­ing, street art, draw­ing and water­colour. The project sup­port­ed these artists to cre­ate new dig­i­tal art­works that were mint­ed as NFTs and auc­tioned, with all the mon­ey going back to the artists.

Miller found that the major weak­ness with NFTs is the com­plex­i­ty involved in buy­ing them. Peo­ple accus­tomed to going to a com­mer­cial gallery and buy­ing art with cash or cred­it are put off by the many hoops they must jump through to buy an NFT. They need to organ­ise a dig­i­tal wal­let, obtain cryp­tocur­ren­cy, trans­fer that cryp­tocur­ren­cy into their dig­i­tal wal­let, link their dig­i­tal wal­let to an NFT mar­ket­place, cre­ate a user account with the NFT mar­ket­place, use their cryp­tocur­ren­cy to pur­chase the NFT. A lot of peo­ple give up halfway through.

Refik Anadol in his California studio.

Refik Anadol in his Cal­i­for­nia stu­dio. Cred­it:Lau­ren Crew

“Sure it has its prob­lems, any tech­nol­o­gy in its infan­cy does, but those prob­lems will be sort­ed,” Miller says. “You have to think ahead and think about future con­sumers. In future, a lot of col­lec­tors will col­lect online, they will dis­play their art­works online, they’ll have homes online, they’ll have avatars online, their lives will be spent very much more online than ours are.”

If that sounds ter­ri­bly dispir­it­ing, you’re prob­a­bly from a time when cul­tur­al objects were things you could touch, han­dle, store on a shelf, hang on a wall, play on a turntable, and phys­i­cal­ly lend and bor­row. A gen­er­a­tional divide appears at play when it comes to NFTs. Just look at the sale of Beeple’s now-famous art­work Every­days: The First 5000 Days. As report­ed in The Art News­pa­per, 58 per cent of bids for the work were placed by Millennials.

Refik Anadol, Quantum Memories: Noise A, purchased as an NFT by the NGV.

Refik Anadol, Quan­tum Mem­o­ries: Noise A, pur­chased as an NFT by the NGV.

What do Australia’s pub­lic art insti­tu­tions make of NFTs? The Nation­al Gallery of Aus­tralia, which has been at the fore­front of respond­ing to gen­der-relat­ed issues, has yet to form a posi­tion. The Art Gallery of NSW is watch­ing devel­op­ments and dis­cussing NFTs with artists and muse­um col­leagues around the world

“Deci­sions about NFTs for our state col­lec­tion will be made with many con­sid­er­a­tions in mind includ­ing artis­tic mer­it, longevi­ty, sus­tain­abil­i­ty and con­ser­va­tion,” says AGNSW deputy direc­tor and direc­tor of col­lec­tions Maud Page.

The Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Mov­ing Image in Mel­bourne, which has a long his­to­ry of acquir­ing dig­i­tal art and sup­port­ing dig­i­tal artists, is inter­est­ed in some of the artists who are explor­ing NFTs as a sales mech­a­nism but does not have a cur­rent plan to pur­chase NFTs.

Refik Anadol’s Quantum Memories: Noise B.

Refik Anadol’s Quan­tum Mem­o­ries: Noise B.

The Nation­al Gallery of Vic­to­ria, though, has dipped its toe in the water as part of its “respon­sive col­lect­ing” pol­i­cy. The gallery has acquired three NFTs from Turk­ish-born media artist Refik Anadol’s Quan­tum Mem­o­ries: Noise, and two NFTs from British artist Damien Hirst’s The Cur­ren­cy.

Hirst’s much-pub­li­cised Cur­ren­cy project com­pris­es 10,000 small dot paint­ings (on A4 size paper) and 10,000 NFTs that cor­re­spond to each of those paint­ings. The NFTs were ini­tial­ly offered for sale on the Heni online mar­ket­place and suc­cess­ful buy­ers ulti­mate­ly have to decide whether they want to keep their NFT or the cor­re­spond­ing phys­i­cal paint­ing. Whichev­er they choose (NFT or paint­ing), Hirst will destroy the oth­er. The NGV has bought two of Hirst’s NFTs so that it can keep an exam­ple of both the NFT and the phys­i­cal painting.

“We plan to dis­play the phys­i­cal paint­ing along­side the dig­i­tal art­work, which I think is a real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing way of approach­ing NFTs as a con­ver­sa­tion about art,” says the NGV’s assis­tant direc­tor, cura­to­r­i­al and audi­ence engage­ment, Don­na McColm.

Damien Hurst with The Currency.

Damien Hurst with The Currency.

The Cur­ren­cy cuts to the core of the NFT quandary – where is the line between art and cur­ren­cy, cur­ren­cy and art? What mat­ters more to you, the dig­i­tal or the phys­i­cal? And what, ulti­mate­ly, will be worth more, not just in mon­e­tary terms, but culturally?

Load­ing

Will we be sigh­ing in front of an NFT in a hun­dred years’ time as we do before Leonar­do da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, van Gogh’s Sun­flow­ers, or Emi­ly Kame Kngwarreye’s Big Yam Dream­ing? Or will NFTs have passed into the shal­low grave of obso­lete tech­nolo­gies, like VHS and Beta?

“I would be a ridicu­lous per­son if I told you I could guar­an­tee any­thing in the NFT space,” says Grey. “Expe­ri­enc­ing some­thing in an ear­ly adop­tive phase is very excit­ing, and if you’re doing it because you want some huge pay­out in 20 years and you want a guar­an­tee, I’m not sure that any­body could give that … but like any­thing in life, the big­ger the risk, the greater the return.”

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