Proof of Art.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF NFTs, FROM THE BEGINNINGS OF DIGITAL ART TO THE METAVERSE
Francisco Carolinum Linz / 11. Jun. 2021 till 15. Sep. 2021
Duration of the exhibition: 10 June - 15 September 2021
Francisco Carolinum, Linz
Francisco Carolinum presents PROOF OF ART, the world's first museum exhibition on the history of NFTs in art, curated by Jesse Damiani. The show can be viewed offline in the museum, and online in Cryptovoxels, a blockchain-based virtual world. Works of 25 artists will be on display at the museum. Using the media of projection, software, videos, installations and digital files, they explore systems of meaning and value, examine the role artists play in a high-tech environment, and discuss the impact of virtual spaces on our everyday reality. The exhibition space in Cryptovoxels will feature virtual works by around 25 artists.
Leaving aside the hype surrounding NFTs, these are, above all, a technology designed to solve a problem: the overabundance of digital files, which can be downloaded, compressed, copied, shared and merged. A NFT, on the other hand, is a certificate of authenticity for each digital file that is stored in the blockchain, thus rendering these files unique. NFTs also function as digital signatures of artists.
In light of the developments surrounding NFTs in art and the art market, a retrospective of their history - and why they are suddenly on everyone's lips - becomes compelling. After a series of remarkably high-priced NFT artworks by digital artists such as Pak and Trevor Jones caused a stir in the art scene in 2020, Beeple set a new record in early 2021 with Everydays - The First 5000 Days fetching USD 69.3 million at the now legendary Christie's auction. Since 2007, he had posted one work of art a day on the internet, which he then combined to form the monumental collage Everydays and put up for auction as a JPEG. Beeple, alias Mike Winkelmann, thus became the third most expensive living artist - after Jeff Koons and David Hockney. The crypto-art community, a motley group of new media artists, 3D designers and visual effects experts, suddenly became the main player in an unprecedented shake-up of the art market.
However, the NFT hype in 2020 and 2021 has a long prehistory. PROOF OF ART traces the origins of NFTs and their development, from initial, formative trials with digital technologies and the first experiments with blockchain to present-day crypto art. Lynn Hershman Leeson, for instance, has explored questions around cyborg identity and analysed how a personality can be constructed with technical means, while Nam June Paik's experimental use of technology gives an insight into the birth of mass connectivity.
With the publication of a Bitcoin white paper by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008, blockchain technology was introduced as a decentralised trading platform. Shortly afterwards, the first artists began to conduct thematic and media experiments with this technology, while between 2009 and 2013, an increasing number of artists came to recognise the potential of decentralisation. Kevin Abosch takes up this theme in his work Bank, questioning the role of banks as digital and analogue value depositories by combining public and private Bitcoin keys and presenting them as a printed book. Artists have pondered the possibilities of tokens representing themselves and their art, and the implications of including anonymous and autonomous stakeholders. Sarah Meyohas, for example, introduced BitchCoin, a cryptocurrency in which she sells her art. At the time of its launch, one BitchCoin purchased for USD 100 was equivalent to 161 square centimeters of one of her works. It was only with the introduction of the Ethereum blockchain that NFTs were able to be created and standardised, meaning that these projects no longer had to be hypothetical or bespoke. Rare Pepes (2016), CryptoPunks (2017) and CryptoKitties (2017) soon revealed the appetite for crypto collectibles.
With the rise of NFT marketplaces such as Nifty Gateway and SuperRare, which re-centralised the artist community using blockchain, this development is now taking a new direction. These spaces are global meeting places that have greatly simplified the process of minting works of art on blockchains. In these online marketplaces, artists and collectors come into direct contact with each other. The economic possibilities offered by this new system are currently attractive to many artists and have triggered a shift from conceptual to more aesthetic positions. Among the most successful artists in these marketplaces are those addressing science fiction and cyberpunk themes, such as Blake Kathryn, Marjan Moghaddam and Mark Sabb, who create speculative realities and work with the materiality of the metaverse, an infinite virtual space that interacts with the physical world via the internet, smartphones and headsets.
NFTs prove that the digital can be valuable. Although the underlying technology has existed for years, this shift was ultimately brought about by artists. PROOF OF ART recounts the history of NFTs and raises questions about the valuation of art, and how the digital affects the physical realm.
Jesse Damiani is an author and curator, and lives in Los Angeles, California. He is the Director of Simulation Literacies at the Nxt Museum (Amsterdam) and Senior Writer at Freethink. He writes about art and technology for Forbes.