A JPEG file went under the hammer at Christie’s on March 11 and was sold for $69.3 million (roughly ₹504 crore), which was paid in cryptocurrency. The world — including the work’s creator, digital artist Beeple — watched in disbelief. Everydays: the First 5,000 Days , a collage of 5,000 images created over 13 years, was the first ever non-fungible token (NFT) to be sold by the auction house. In another first, Christie’s accepted payment in Ether (ETH), the native cryptocurrency of Ethereum, one of the most popular blockchain networks. The transaction put the spotlight firmly on cryptoart, a zone that Indian artists have also been exploring.
First, let’s get our basics clear. What’s an NFT? It’s a unique token attached to a digital work of art that proves the work’s authenticity. It gives ownership to the buyer, who gains the right to trade the piece. The tokens are ‘minted’ or generated on blockchain, making their ownership and original creator clear and traceable. To mint an NFT, you have to cough up a gas fee, a payment for the computing energy used in Ethereum transactions. This exclusivity, traceability and authenticity make NFT artworks scarce and thus valuable. Artists can sell these works on exclusive platforms such as NiftyGateway, OpenSea, SuperRare, Foundation; other marketplaces like Rarible are open to all. In 2020, the NFT market grew by 299% to reach a total value of more than $250 million according to the NFT Report 2020, published by L’Atelier BNP Paribas and Nonfungible.com.
In February 2021, Delhi-based animator and art director Amrit Pal Singh sold two pieces on Foundation for 15 ETH (roughly ₹18 lakh). These were toy face renditions of Daft Punk, the French electronic music duo who split up recently. It’s part of a whole series of toy faces — Frida Kahlo, Vincent van Gogh, Sherlock Holmes, Malala Yousafzai — that he has sold, and he’s now working on more. In a nine-year career, Singh has launched mobile apps, a merchandise store, card games and a directory platform, but nothing has succeeded like the toy face NFTs. “Sure, NFTs are a craze today, but it’s not as easy as it’s made out to be. You need to be aware of the collector community, you need recognition,” he says. He benefited from his active social media presence and awareness about his work amongst his clients. “As a digital artist, my source of income was through clients’ work, commissions by different companies like Samsung, Google, Snapchat. My initial bidders were some of my clients,” he adds.
Chennai-based Siraj Hassan has sold 27 works from his Caged series — miniatures trees, human figures encased in glass bell cloches. Created over the lockdown, these pieces reflect on isolation and mental health. “NFTs allow digital artists to sell their work as a product rather than as a service, so you can quote a better price. They help you build social clout, which again helps you monetarily. They also allow an artist to earn royalty on his or her art every time a work is sold,” he says.
Adhiraj Singh, a Delhi-based 3D artist who owns a sustainable digi-fashion brand, LOTA Design, has also forayed into the world of NFTs. He is about to auction some works, including a ‘selfie’ of a digital model and influencer. “The ‘selfie’ is one of a kind, and will be priced between one and two ETH. From my own practice, I am auctioning some of my favourite pieces including a jewellery piece that I designed for Roma Narsinghani as part of Helsinki Fashion Week 2020,” he says.
Munich-based Khyati Trehan, who is a senior designer with global design firm Ideo and an independent artist, has sold five works on Foundation for prices ranging from 0.8 ETH to 2.8601 ETH. She explains how NFT has empowered digital artists: “The promise of the metaverse is that it allows artists to take control of the value of their work within a version of the Internet that’s owned and operated collectively and independent of corporate control. Art in the form of NFTs opens up the creative potential for monetising a digital work’s virality, which right now exists merely in metrics of likes, shares and views. ”
The artist duo Thukral and Tagra, who work with a wide range of media including interactive games and videos, are currently researching the medium. They’re confronted by questions and doubts. “The rise of digital currency and its effects are not hidden from anyone. It’s actually jaw-dropping,” they say. Crypto mining, the process of creating cryptocurrency, involves a network of machines that release CO2, putting it at the heart of the ecological debate. According to Digiconomist, a platform that reflects on digital trends from an economic point of view, bitcoin mining generates 38 million tonnes of CO2 per year — comparable to the carbon footprint of Ireland. On March 10, the online art platform ArtStation had to cancel its NFT drops (timed online sales) after it drew ire from social media users regarding cryptoart’s ecological impact.
Trehan, however, is waiting for more comprehensive reports. “Mining economics is complex, and for every article dissecting blockchain’s unsustainability, there’s an article discounting it as ‘grossly miscalculated’. NFTs are taking all the heat for crypto mining lately and many people have formed polarised perspectives on its carbon footprint. I’m really looking forward to a more comprehensive, peer-reviewed study of this topic in the near future.”
The writer is a journalist with interest in art and culture.