Why More Digital Artists Are Embracing Cryptocurrency
Christie’s is auctioning its first-ever virtual artwork and accepting Ethereum as payment. Andrés Reisinger sold $450,000 worth of “impossible furniture” using non-fungible tokens. What does this mean for digital artists?
After rising to prominence on Instagram for surreal renderings of pristinely utopian dreamscapes, Andrés Reisinger’s creativity is flourishing. When an image of his Hortensia chair went viral, in 2018, he received sales orders to produce an object that was never intended to physically exist. That didn’t deter the Barcelona-based digital artist and Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe laureate, who proceeded to teach himself industrial design over the course of one year to fulfill the order. He’s stayed busy since then, largely thanks to the minimal constraints of 3D software that allow him to be so prolific.
While Reisinger has always been forward-looking, his latest project thrusts him headlong into the future—and on the extreme vanguard of Instagram’s recent cadre of sought-after digital designers. He recently staged an online auction of virtual furniture that can be placed in any shared 3D “metaverses” (think Minecraft), virtual reality applications, and development platforms that create games and animations. His dream-like furniture certainly looks at home in the digital realm: The Complicated Drawer is a gravity-defying chrome storage unit with individual compartments teetering on an undulating frame; the bulbous Deep Space sofa resembles a giant wad of taffy that ripples like a waterbed.
While the prospect of acquiring virtual furniture may sound frivolous to the uninitiated, Reisinger sold ten pieces in under ten minutes for a whopping $450,000 total on the online marketplace Nifty Gateway. (The most expensive item, a piece that he promised to design in collaboration with the buyer, fetched $67,777.) Five pieces will be turned into physical objects and sent to their respective buyers. The others? Strictly digital.
The authenticity of each item is verified using a non-fungible token (NFT), which are digital assets that represent a wide range of one-of-a-kind tangible and intangible items. NFTs are individually identified on a blockchain, which means that each one contains distinguishing information and is easily verifiable. This makes creating and circulating fake collectibles futile because provenance is ascribed to each item, which can be digitally traced back to the issuer. NFTs are also immutable, meaning that the collectors—not the creators—possess them. “This contrasts with buying things like music from the iTunes Store, where users don’t actually own what they’re buying,” explains Reisinger. “They just purchase the license to listen to the music.” (Note: NFTs are confusing. This handy Coin Desk guide may help clarify them.)
For artists, using NFTs to sell work on a digital platform directly to collectors heralds the rise of a transformative economic model. It not only eliminates intermediaries like galleries that keep half the initial selling price, but allows creators to determine their portion of secondary-market sales in perpetuity. (For NFTs, the industry standard is 10 percent.) Royalties can be programmed into each artwork so the creator receives a percentage of sales every time their work is sold to a new owner.
“Imagine that I sell one of my furniture pieces for $10,000, and one month later the collector decides to put it up for sale with success for $20,000,” explains Reisinger. “The NFT smart contract allows me to receive a percentage of that second-market sale without even knowing the collectors or the gallery. The percentage is decided when the smart contract is created, so you can decide your percentage for second-market sales.” Think of it this way: If NFTs existed concurrently with Vincent Van Gogh, who only sold one painting during his lifetime, his heirs would be receiving royalties on par with the children of famous rock musicians.
That’s a powerful antidote to “flipping,” a widely disdained practice in which collectors purchase artwork and immediately resell it for large profits. The ascendant Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo called out the practice in early 2020, when the collector Stefan Simchowitz resold one of his canvases a mere eight months after buying it. Destinee Ross-Sutton, the 25-year-old curator who helms the newly opened Ross-Sutton Gallery in New York and whose roster includes Boafo, makes buyers contractually agree to not resell works for at least five years. “Every artist should demand for the gallery that they are working with to make this investment,” Ross-Sutton told Artnet News in December, shortly after opening her gallery. “Artists don’t make art in order to just sell a product without it being seen and by as many people as possible. Today, we have access to technologies that we didn’t have before—we must take advantage of it.”
Few of these protections exist for independent digital artists, which partially explains why they’ve embraced crypto. This oft-overlooked group are now realizing the potential of dismantling deeply ingrained art-market systems that often leave creators financially disadvantaged and collectors deep-pocketed. The speculative market for NFTs is surging as a result. According to the NFT Report 2020, published by L’Atelier BNP Paribas and Nonfungible.com, the value of the NFT market surpassed $250 million in 2020—more than triple its valuation than the year prior. “It speaks to the battered dignity of a long-suffering artist class perpetually struggling to make a living, but who are devalued by the higher art-market machines and the marketing platforms,” the curator Ruth Catlow, who edited the book Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain, tells the New York Times. “There’s an argument to be made for this as ‘punk.’”
Even the art world’s most venerated auction houses are catching on. Christie’s recently raised eyebrows for staging a two-week-long online auction of Everydays: The First 5000 Days(2021), a digital artwork by the net artist Beeple. The piece is a pixelated composite of 5,000 drawings—one the artist made every day over 13 years—using computer software such as Cinema 4D. It marks both the auction house’s inaugural sale of a digital artwork and the first time it’ll accept payment in the cryptocurrency Ethereum. Within hours of launching, Everydays skyrocketed in price from $100 to $2.2 million. Bidding continues through March 11, and Beeple admits to not knowing how high the price may soar.
Christie’s compares the recent legitimization of NFTs to that of Street Art. “Not unlike the advent of Street Art as a blue-chip collecting category, NFT-based art is on the threshold of becoming the next ingeniously disruptive force in the art market,” says Noah Davis, a Christie’s specialist in post-war and contemporary art who spearheaded the Beeple sale. Viewing this as a boon for New Media and the power of collecting, he posits that “we’re at this moment in time where there could be a drastic shift—a demographic shift, a generational shift—when it comes to what excites younger collectors. Christie’s as an organization is really excited about a moment in time where you see $3.5 million of sales just organically appear out of thin air.” Technology, he adds, is now effectively proving ownership and the “true scarcity” of digital art.
More platforms are popping up for creators to capitalize on this promising new market. The goth-pop singer-songwriter Zola Jesus has taken a liking to SuperRare, where she is auctioning an audiovisual triptych of 30-second videos called KHTHON. The first edition went for the equivalent of $4,442. “One of my favorite things about crypto art is that it allows me to create and publish my work for everyone to enjoy,” she wrote on Twitter. “The benefactor relationship is as old as time, and while imperfect, there are aspects which fit our current landscape for the arts—access for all.” She admits that the platform, despite its uncertainty, has helped refuel her creativity. “The limitations of the format met with the current lack of consensus on how it’s defined makes it so exciting to experiment within.”
For Reisinger, his auction served as an experiment in creating an engaging new exhibition format unlike anything else happening in the design world. It also offers a curious glimpse into what he has coined (no pun intended) as a “hybrid reality”—one which blurs the lines between digital and physical. “We’re not escaping from the material world anytime soon,” he says. “Instead, I believe we’re expanding our experience into a new hybrid era of extended reality, in which art and culture are freed from spatial and temporal constraints and the rules of experience are rewritten. As the physical and digital worlds continue towards unity, I’ll keep creating across them to reveal the vast human potential their fusion is forming, to signal that it’s no longer necessary to touch something to be touched by it, and to call into question where the imagined ends and the real begins.”
Despite their surging popularity in the art world, NFTs haven’t quite yet permeated the perennially slow-moving design industry. “I’m the first to do it,” Reisinger says, “and I hope that opens the doors to many other artists and designers.” If more start embracing cryptocurrency to eliminate the middleman in selling their work, seismic disruption awaits.