NFTs and the infrastructural value of digital art.

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On: October 4, 2021
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In March 2021 the most expensive collection of digital artworks ever was auctioned as an NFT, or non-fungible token, for $69.000.000. This event highlights the NFT craze over the past two years (Chow). Some may think the hype is over. Industry experts, however, believe NFTs are here to stay and change the market for digital goods, collectibles and art forever (Khandelwal). For now, it seems like we passed the first shock waves, which makes it an appropriate time to reflect on some of the implications and have a closer look at what is behind or beneath NFTs. What is there to learn from the digital technology and infrastructure that gave rise to the digital assets mania?

Before I continue, it is important to have a basic understanding of what an NFT is. An NFT represents a digital asset that can be anything from a moving image to an audio recording or even a screenshot of the first tweet ever created (Ante). The token for this digital asset is stored on the blockchain which makes it non-fungible, meaning that it is immutable and its authenticity is protected by the blockchain; a continuous network of data stored on a decentralized network of computers (Sayegh). This basically implies that the digital asset can be owned and traded because it holds value in a certificate of its authenticity, which is stored in its data on the blockchain (Serada et al). In this data, the creator and the current and previous owner of the NFT is encrypted, which makes an NFT a unique and tradable asset, which has huge implications for artists, collectors and the role of the digital in contemporary art (Chow).

Alexander Galloway (2016) explores the role of digitality in contemporary art and makes a distinction between two activities in which artists make use of the digital in their works by working “on” the digital or working “within” the digital. The latter implies that the role of digital technologies is merely instrumental for whatever message or content the artwork conveys. Working on the digital however, places the role of digitality central in the artist’s work. This type of art is completely oriented towards the digital environment as the content of the work is entirely entangled in its digital context. Galloway highlights the work of Jodi, an art duo whose work is characterized by the use of the digital environment as the object of their art. Jodi’s work is an extreme example of art that is on the digital as it explores the use of digital technologies such as the internet and how its interface works. Their work exposes the invisible infrastructure of the digital foundations of everyday technologies, including its limitations but also the range of possibilities that come with it. An example is the playful way in which users of the internet can interact with hidden possibilities of web-based coding systems (Galloway).

Galloway argues that art on the digital is considered modern, whereas art that is within the digital is non-modern. By highlighting Jodi’s work as modernist art, Galloway’s point seems to be that it is relevant to know the place, condition and value of digitality in contemporary art to gain a better understanding of the infrastructure and digital technologies that are used in or for their work. 

As for the case of NFTs, it appears that its infrastructure is arguably the most significant factor of its valorization. In line with the classifications of Galloway, one could argue that the contemporary artists who create their works as NFTs are somewhere in the middle between modern and non-modern, between on and within the digital. On one hand the digital technology of the blockchain is used only to protect and sell the artwork and hold its value, while the artwork itself and its content can be oriented towards a different objective. Whether that is for conveying a social or political message, or simply for arts sake, the role of blockchain is essentially instrumental. On the other hand it does not matter what the topic of the NFT is since it is all about the fact that it is encrypted on the blockchain, which distinguishes itself from a conventional digital work, and moreover, establishes its value. Not only self-acclaimed artists, but any designer, creator or entrepreneur can enter the world of NFTs with digital assets trading for any price as one of the main characteristics is its value in authenticity which in turn creates its monetary value (Levine).

The first ever Tweet by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, sold as an NFT for $2.9 million (Harper).

An example I present is the first tweet that was ever posted on Twitter, that was originally posted by, and now sold as an NFT by Jack Dorsey. The object of this digital asset holds historic value. However, any screenshot of this particular tweet is worthless as the creation of its NFT variant is validated and protected by the digital technology that secures its authenticity and singularity. If it were not for the blockchain on which this tweet is encrypted, one could question its monetary value and the amount of money it could be traded for, which was set for nearly three million USD (Harper). If the infrastructure of blockchain technology is where the value of contemporary digital art lies, then it would make sense for traders and collectors to understand it and how it is built.

The necessity of understanding infrastructure is highlighted in the article by Shannon Mattern, in which various works of artists raise awareness for the infrastructural problems that are hidden for the general public (Mattern). In the case of NFTs, the investigation of its infrastructure has raised similar concerns for climate activists. In recent debates, it has come to light that the production and distribution of NFTs require a problematic amount of energy that mostly comes from fossil fuels. The critique towards artists and collectors of NFTs and its carbon footprint has impacted the public perception (Daly), and more importantly, made room for discussing and questioning the current developments surrounding digital art and the way it alters the market for digital goods (Calma). Mattern mentions infrastructural literacy as a means to change perceptions and ultimately turn to action. Perhaps this is why the NFT craze has slightly dropped as blockchain technologists are working on more energy efficient and environmentally friendly ways of dealing with NFTs (Tse). Now that we find ourselves in a window where we can contemplate the role of digital technologies in contemporary art, there might be room for artists to work on the digital and explore its future.

Bibliography

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https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3904683

Chow, Andrew R. “NFTs Are Shaking Up the Art World – But They Could Change So Much More.” 22 March, 2021. www.time.com/5947720/nft-art/ 

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https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/15/22328203/nft-cryptoart-ethereum-blockchain-climate-change

Daly, Rhian. “Fans Criticise Gorillaz for Selling NFT After Impact on Climate Change Revealed.” 

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Galloway, Alexander R. “Jodi’s Infrastructure.” E-flux Journal #74. June 2016. 

www.worker01.e-flux.com/pdf/article_9007931.pdf 

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https://www.bbc.com/news/business-56492358

Khandelwal, Nilesh. “NFTs: Beyond the Hype.” Nasdaq. 16 September 2021. 

www.nasdaq.com/articles/nfts%3A-beyond-the-hype-2021-09-16 

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Sayegh, Emil. “NFTs: The Art of Blockchain.” Forbes. 18 May 2021. 

www.forbes.com/sites/emilsayegh/2021/05/18/nfts-the-art-of-blockchain/?sh=3de5abab6588

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