At the beginning of 2021, the non-fungible token (or NFT) was a bit of internet esoterica of little interest to most people in the art world—or anyone not involved in the world of cryptocurrency for that matter. Then, in March, Indian-born crypto investor Vignesh Sundaresan (aka MetaKovan) bought an NFT of a collage by digital artist Beeple for $69 million at a Christie’s auction, making it the first piece of purely-digital art sold by a major auction house.
Other high profile sales soon followed. The same month, 18 year-old Las Vegas artist FEWOCiOUS sold a piece for $550,000. A set of nine CryptoPunks NFTs by Larva Labs later sold for $17 million. Established contemporary artists soon got in on the action, with Damien Hirst dropping an NFT collection last September. With over $10 billion in sales over four years on just one platform (OpenSea), NFTs have become a rather buzzy buzz word. Collins Dictionary even picked it as their word of the year for 2021.
Many of the big players in the traditional—or ‘analog’—art scene are joining in on the digital art gold rush, with an eye on the thousands of potential new buyers flush with crypto cash. Sotheby’s has launched its own platform dedicated to digital art collectors, called ‘Sotheby’s Metaverse’. Galleries such as Pace have followed suit, launching their own digital art platforms. There’s even a CryptoPunk NFT in the collection of Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
The incredible hype around NFTs—and its accompanying rhetoric of a radically open and decentralised Web 3.0—has already led to a bit of backlash. Detractors point to the preponderance of scams, the volatility of the market (there have been two crashes already since the Beeple sale) and environmental concerns around the underlying blockchain technology.
But away from the battles being raged on Twitter and YouTube between crypto-prophets and crypto-sceptics, people from all over the world are investing money and time into NFTs, collaborating to build a parallel industry that could fundamentally alter how we think of buying, selling and determining the value of art.
Turning abundance into scarcity
NFTs have been around since at least 2014, when artist Kevin McCoy minted a video of his wife on the blockchain and sold it to tech entrepreneur Anil Dash for $4. By 2017, NFT projects like CryptoPunks were regularly being traded on platforms like Ethereum. That’s where Dheeraj Shah, host of the Web3 With Dhee podcast, first got introduced to the concept.
“When I first heard about [NFTs], I was like this doesn’t make any sense,” says Shah, who has been involved in the crypto space intermittently for a decade. “People were spending ridiculous amounts of money on buying these digital images.”
Intrigued, Shah invited a number of pioneers in the NFT space onto his podcast—including Twobadour—to find out more. “Their perspective on this space was completely different from what you read in the media,” he says. “The depth of their vision was crazy, and I felt like I needed to jump down this rabbit hole.”
Shah started buying up NFTs from collections like Cool Cats and Pixel Vault, eventually adding almost 200 pieces to his collection. But he wasn’t thinking of it in terms of buying art. His initial buys were profile picture projects (PFPs) or other utility projects where the token gave you some form of access or experience along with a piece of digital art. The idea, he says, was to explore the space and understand the underlying technological and behavioural dynamics.
Angad Chowdhry, the founder of Singapore technology firm Quilt.AI, was also drawn to NFTs by technological rather than artistic interest. Like Shah, he had been dabbling with cryptocurrency since the early 2010s, and was impressed by the opportunities opened up by the blockchain technology. Chowdhry was already what he calls a “meatspace art collector”, with a collection of analog art that includes pieces by the likes of Salvador Dali. So, locked in at home during the pandemic, he decided to dive into NFTs as well.
“In the world of digital abundance we live in, there is no space for lack,” says Chowdhry, explaining the conceptual appeal of art on the blockchain. “Everything is infinitely reproducible [...] and thus fundamentally value-less from a certain perspective. This was the first time that you could introduce a sense of lack in the digital world. And from a Lacanian perspective, lack is what triggers desire. So it was philosophically very exciting for me.”
Chowdhry’s initial strategy was to invest in early technological projects, or otherwise go to OpenSea and buy anything that was "cheap and good on the eye." The transition from tecno-philosophical experimenter to serious NFT collector happened with CryptoMories, a collection of 10,000 individual skeletons inspired by the Latin saying “memento mori.” Buying a CryptoMori not only gives you ownership of the artwork and an entrance to the community, each token holder will also get free access to mental health counselling.
“That’s where I really understood what it means to have a community with a purpose and a mission associated with the art,” says Chowdhry, who suggests thinking of an NFT not as an object but as a “key”, one that can grant you access to a wide range of communities, utilities and experiences. “Most of my collection is now in this space. What experience does this [NFT] unlock? Does it unlock new conversations, ideas, opportunities?”