NFTs… Bored-looking chimpanzee pictures that are sometimes worth as much as $69,300,000. I’m sure we’ve all heard of them. We might have even seen someone we went to high school with going down the rabbit-hole. However, up until a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t really know what they were, how you acquired them, and what the impacts of them are.
We’ll start with the basics. NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) are unique, verifiable assets. Their identifiers and attributes give them worth, a similar concept to that of owning an original piece of artwork. Each NFT represents a single unit of value, in that you cannot exchange one NFT for another, like you can with Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. In essence, it is exactly like owning a unique art piece, just in the form of pixels on your computer screen. Each NFT has a code on it, like a signature, verifying that it’s the original piece, and the way that these codes work mean that, theoretically, you cannot forge it. Because of the fact that they’re non-fungible, there’s only one version, one original, which means that an original NFT is then scarce, and its monetary value goes up (this is where you get the people paying millions of dollars); they’re supposedly one-of-a-kind.
UoA itself held a webinar in May last year, hammering into some of the weirdness and hype surrounding NFTs, but no NFT club has been started on campus (yet). It seems that many of us don’t really see the point of this process. It’s hard to, when the negative impacts of NFTs outweigh the positives: the environmental impact and capitalistic tendencies of NFTs mean that we’re not really that interested in what they have to offer. That’s not to say that none of us are, but it seems like there’s a pretty strong undercurrent of mystification and concern running through the student body when we talk about NFTs.
Why, then, are they relevant to us? They’re relevant because they’re being minted and dealed right under our noses, in Aotearoa. 1 News reports on a man from Hamilton right in amongst the NFT biz. Martin van Blerk, a 20-year-old man from Hamilton came up with an idea for an NFT universe, known as Pixelmon. It took inspiration from Pokemon, and the concept was that interested buyers would buy in on a promise to receive an individualised NFT, one that could then act as their avatar in the Pixelmon world. These NFTs sold out super quickly, falling into the hasty pace of the internet and its tendency to hype things up, but the unveiled NFTs weren’t all they were cracked up to be. From there, he got told he was only in it for a cash grab, a quick way to make some money, and people reckoned that Pixelmon, in the end, wasn’t fully legit. If this is happening in Aotearoa, and this isn’t even one of the bigger examples of NFTs going awry, what’s the rest of it like?
Unsurprisingly, there’s a degree of distrust in anything regarding NFTs: the murky rules around ownership, what we can (comfortably) turn into consumable art, and why we need them. The Harvard Crimson wrote a think piece this month about the ethics involved in NFTs. There’s a consensus that these ethics are complex. NFTs might allow for a wider democratisation of art, and can be looked at as a means through which art can progress, but there are also issues; questions of copyright, and the monetisation of museum, historical images. Recently, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts refused to loan a Congolese sculpture back to the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League, so the Arts League pulled an out-of-copyright image of the sculpture from the web and minted it as an NFT as a form of reappropriation. Legal battles were spawned, and discussions over rights of ownership of colonial sculptures in a postcolonial world emerged. Can profit be made from colonial exploitation, if it goes towards the colonised nation? Why shouldn’t people be able to reappropriate art that they feel was unfairly taken from them? If NFTs have the possibility to revolutionise the art world in such a way. Why shouldn’t we encourage this?
So, the end question is: are we engaging with NFTs as a piece of artwork, like we do with a lot of the original inspirations for NFTs, or do we regard them as economic investments? If we’re regarding them purely as economic investments, then their relationship to art is hindered significantly, or, the definition of art is then altered to fit a significantly more capitalistic lens. If we’re looking at them as pieces of art, rather than economic investments, then the art world gets thrown into question. Because of the accessibility of NFTs, the art world, collectors, and curators, lose some of their exclusivity and appeal—if everyone’s buying one-of-a-kind pieces, where can exclusive curations and art collectors expect to fall? Of course, though, these questions aren’t the only issues: the environmental impact of NFTs uses so much energy that it throws into question whether they’re worth our time at all.
One thing is sure, though, it pays to keep tabs on what’s going on, and to notice how it’s impacting our everyday scrolling, our economy, and the direction art’s going to take in the next few years. Are they simply an economic craze that’ll be over in a year, or is there something more to them? Are they completely unfounded, or are they the natural progression of art? Maybe they’re just the next step in merging the digital with the physical, but we won’t know for sure until after the fact. What we do know, through cautionary tales, is that there’s a degree of responsibility that has to be acknowledged when minting and trading NFTs, if not because of the environmental impacts, then because of the ethical questions you have to consider when even briefly thinking about them. Either way, they’re fascinating to watch.