Despite the NFT Crash, a New Book Argues That the Technology Still Has the Power to Build a Better Digital Art Future

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“I think one of the biggest ideas that I would put out there is real­ly try­ing to use and har­ness this tech­nol­o­gy to redis­trib­ute power—these inter­lock­ing sys­tems, whether it’s muse­ums, col­lec­tors, free ports, auc­tion hous­es, etc. I also think that one of the real­ly beau­ti­ful things is the way in which this tech­nol­o­gy builds com­mu­ni­ty. That’s some­thing that is beau­ti­ful. It can be ever­last­ing.”
— Cheryl Fin­ley, pro­fes­sor, cura­tor, and writer

Beat­riz Ramos was work­ing as a com­mer­cial illus­tra­tor build­ing bil­lion-dol­lar cor­po­rate brands when she and Judy Mam, a writer, began dis­cussing a par­tic­u­lar inequity in the art world: Artists built val­ue cre­ative­ly that they did not own. Artists could put their port­fo­lios online and “peo­ple would give you a like,” as Mam said, but at some point, as Ramos said: “If we want artists to form a com­mu­ni­ty, we need to give them the tools to do what they do best, which is make art.” Ramos and Mam imag­ined a glob­al col­lec­tive of artists mak­ing work togeth­er. The impe­tus for found­ing their plat­form, DADA, was to nur­ture cre­ativ­i­ty and to gath­er peo­ple togeth­er. To join the com­mu­ni­ty, you had to respond to some­one else’s draw­ing with a draw­ing of your own—to par­tic­i­pate in a visu­al con­ver­sa­tion with others.

DADA was found­ed in 2014, well before broad­er con­scious­ness of NFTs. Mam and Ramos con­ceived of this dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ty as a space where artists could draw, cre­ate, and con­nect with one anoth­er. To their sur­prise, they found that peo­ple liked the cre­ative free­dom of draw­ing with strangers from all over the world—not fear­ing being judged by close friends but experimenting.

The first DADA col­lec­tion of NFTs, Creeps & Weirdos, evolved from mul­ti­ple artists in mul­ti­ple con­ver­sa­tions and was curat­ed by Ramos and Mam. When asked about the title, they said it was because, con­sid­er­ing the imag­i­na­tive forms that these visu­al con­ver­sa­tions had spawned, “some were creepy and some were weird.” The name arose from Ramos and Mam’s desire to cre­ate a “coher­ent col­lec­tion to be tok­enized.” They were aware of the “creepy weird aes­thet­ic” of Rare Pepes, lead­ing them to choose “that creepy, weird aes­thet­ic on pur­pose.” They launched the project on Hal­loween 2017, which includ­ed sec­ondary sales roy­al­ties for artists embed­ded into the smart con­tract, and have since rein­vest­ed monies raised from sales of their NFTs back into their community.

Lat­er, DADA start­ed a dif­fer­ent kind of con­ver­sa­tion: a series of “Invis­i­ble Econ­o­my” work­ing groups. They envi­sioned a future in which art-mak­ing could be rad­i­cal­ly sep­a­rat­ed from the mar­ket and that a shared under­ly­ing econ­o­my could ben­e­fit the entire com­mu­ni­ty from the val­ue cre­at­ed by its mem­bers. Ramos and Mam imag­ined that, although the works could be sold indi­vid­u­al­ly, a larg­er per­cent­age of the sales’ pro­ceeds would go into a fund that would be dis­trib­uted among all the active par­tic­i­pants in the com­mu­ni­ty, pro­vid­ing a form of uni­ver­sal basic income. Mam told us, “Although at first indi­vid­ual artists received 70 per­cent of the pri­ma­ry sales and 30 per­cent of sec­ondary sales, today all the pro­ceeds from the sales of DADA’s tok­enized col­lec­tions go to a gen­er­al fund where they will be dis­trib­uted among all the par­tic­i­pat­ing mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty includ­ing tech­nol­o­gists, accord­ing to their con­tri­bu­tions.” In oth­er words, they orga­nized a col­lec­tive ver­sion of artists’ resale rights, the per­cent­age of a sec­ondary mar­ket sale that goes back to the artist, in pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary markets.

DADA’s pio­neer­ing work adding auto­mat­ed roy­al­ties for artists also cat­alyzed a struc­tur­al change regard­ing how NFTs are trans­act­ed: A group of artists led by Spar­row Read and Matt Kane was instru­men­tal in the estab­lish­ment of roy­al­ty stan­dards for NFT plat­forms such as Super­Rare and OpenSea.

The cov­er of The Sto­ry of NFTs: Artists, Tech­nol­o­gy, and Democ­ra­cy. Pho­to cour­tesy of Riz­zoli Electa.

The ques­tions of DADA get at the heart of the polit­i­cal poten­tial of blockchain: Can it cre­ate new avenues of sup­port for artists indi­vid­u­al­ly and, in fact, cre­ate forms of col­lec­tive own­er­ship, of shared upside, and of sur­plus that can be rein­vest­ed in artis­tic futures? We find our­selves in a sit­u­a­tion where the world is chang­ing rapid­ly and we’re inside the chang­ing world. As a result, the most crit­i­cal thing to do is not to answer the ques­tions but instead to try to ask and engage with the right ones.

One of these key ques­tions is how these new forms of eco­nom­ic sus­tain­abil­i­ty can come about through frac­tion­al equi­ty and resale roy­al­ties. A sec­ond ques­tion is how col­lab­o­ra­tion and com­mu­ni­ty prac­tice are being built around these sys­tems of roy­al­ties and asset for­ma­tion not just by artists but by oth­er dis­in­vest­ed com­mu­ni­ties. Here, the ques­tions are not solv­able indi­vid­u­al­ly, but only by com­ing togeth­er with oth­ers. This neces­si­ty of col­lec­tive action may bring about huge shifts in the pow­er struc­ture and huge poten­tial for com­mu­ni­ty gov­er­nance models.

These ques­tions cen­ter the democ­ra­cy sto­ries of blockchain—issues of redis­tri­b­u­tion, par­tic­i­pa­tion, inequity, and inclu­sion. While there may not yet be clear answers to these ques­tions, the impor­tance of ask­ing them was the impe­tus for our series. These ques­tions are the sub­ject of Whitaker’s research—and that of many oth­er schol­ars and prac­ti­tion­ers we were lucky to invite in. Our pur­pose here, in Abrams’s term—and image!—is to curate the giant 40-scoop sun­dae of ques­tions of the future, ques­tions we could nev­er answer alone, but that unite these inter­sect­ing sto­ries of blockchain and lay out clear choic­es for how we choose to design the future.


Excerpt­ed with per­mis­sion from The Sto­ry of NFTs: Artists, Tech­nol­o­gy, and Democ­ra­cy by Amy Whitak­er and Nora Bur­nett Abrams, pub­lished by MCA Den­ver and Riz­zoli Electa.

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