Evening Standard smashes through NFT art frontier - but what is an NFT?

·10-min read
 (Benny J Johnson)
(Benny J Johnson)

“Good luck with that.” When you tell people you’re writing about a subject, it does get a bit nerve-wracking when that’s the standard response. After the third one, I started to worry. Yes, today I’m going to talk about NFTs.

Simply put, NFTs and the platforms on which they sit are probably the most game-changing technology since the smartphone. Looking at it from an arts and culture perspective, NFTs are a huge and growing ownership distribution method revolutionising the market for digital artifacts, whether that’s an artwork or piece of virtual fashion.

That’s why today ES has launched the UK magazine publishing world’s first standalone piece of digital fine art, a gorgeous 3D moving dreamscape created by artist and activist Kai-Isaiah Jamal, with an accompanying soundscape made by musician James Lavelle using Jamal’s voice and poetry. The piece and its corresponding NFT will be auctioned by digital platform Withfoundation in association with Phillips on Friday 24 September in aid of The Felix Project.

You can be forgiven for being a bit fuzzy on them. NFTs have been around since 2014 but they manifested in the global public consciousness after a first-of-its-kind Christie’s sale in March this year, at which an NFT for a digital artwork by the American artist known as Beeple sold for an astonishing $69m (just shy of £50m).

But what, I hear you wail, is an NFT anyway? Well, the first thing to know is that the NFT is not the artwork. The artwork is a digital file, and the corresponding NFT is a chunk of code that says that you own the artwork, along with information about its provenance and, usually, a link to the artwork, which is hosted elsewhere.

The NFT sits on the blockchain, and I could expend 2,000 words explaining what that is, but in short, it’s a widely accessible digital chain of verified transactions which, once they are on it, cannot be reversed or deleted, only added to.

In the past, digital art has struggled in the market, largely because neither dealers nor artists could figure out how to make it work as an asset - you cannot touch a digital file, or proudly display one above your fireplace, and in any case, digital files are, usually, endlessly duplicable. The art market trades on ideas of uniqueness and exclusivity, a curious but magical combination of literal and emotional concepts that explains why, for example, prints are less valuable than original paintings, in the main.

The ‘F’ in NFT, therefore, is crucial. Here we go: NFT stands for Non-fungible Token. “Fungible”, according to my IRL, non-digital, extremely heavy hardback Oxford English Dictionary, is a word usually applied within the law which means “precisely or acceptably replacing or replaceable by another item, mutually interchangeable.”

So, to pinch an analogy from Tim Schneider, the Art Business editor of the art market website Artnet, you can trade two £20 notes, because they have the same intrinsic value. They are fungible. To illustrate non-fungible, Schneider uses the example of two family dogs. Though your furry chum Mr Knightly III and your neighbour Janice’s darling Dollyboo Snuffleface are similar - they’re the same species, they may even be the same breed - neither you nor Janice would swap them if your life depended on it. They do not, to either of you, have the same intrinsic financial or emotional value - they are non-fungible.

A crop of a still image from our NFT artwork (Warren Du Preez/Nick Thornton Jones)
A crop of a still image from our NFT artwork (Warren Du Preez/Nick Thornton Jones)

Probably the easiest way to look at it is that when you buy an NFT what you are buying is not precisely the digital artwork per se but the ownership of the artwork. If somebody copies the artwork, it doesn’t matter, because on the blockchain there lies the irrefutable evidence that you and only you have ownership of the original artwork, with which you can do what you like - in the case of Jamal’s stunning piece, watch it over and over again on a big screen with a large pink gin, for example.

That doesn’t quite explain the explosion in the popularity of NFTs, however, and this is where it gets interesting. The photographer Misan Harriman has been collecting digital art since 2013, before NFTs existed - “I picked up a Damien Hirst for about eight quid, and a Tracey Emin, and everyone thought I was mad,” he tells me.

He is a massive advocate for NFTs, partly because he finds it exciting that you can irrevocably prove ownership and scarcity - good for any kind of artwork, not just digital, because authenticity is something that has been historically very difficult to keep track of over long periods of time - but also because “it is a smart contract technology that has an inbuilt royalty”.

Jamal with stylist  Lisa Jarvis (Benny J Johnson)
Jamal with stylist Lisa Jarvis (Benny J Johnson)

This is a game-changer for artists - once an artwork has left the artist’s hands, each time it is subsequently sold he or she won’t see a penny of the money that changes hands, “whereas with an NFT, in perpetuity, you will get a royalty [every time it is sold on], which can be agreed at the beginning when you’re making the smart contract, of between ten and 20 per cent. This is an extraordinarily powerful and enriching thing for artists, who for many years have seen their secondary market sales rocket, and have to watch from afar as other people enjoy that wealth creation process.”

The third reason he’s such a big fan, he says, is that NFT artworks and the platforms on which they can be found represent a democratisation of the art world for both artists and potential collectors.

“Think of all the Pollocks and Picassos and Gordon Parks that exist, that may live in Nigeria or Nicaragua, or places where they have no access to the gatekeepers of the traditional art world. And they have to forget about their true callings because no one would ever see or certainly buy their art,” he says. “Whereas in the borderless world of NFTs, if you go on Opensea, which is probably the biggest NFT marketplace on Ethereum [one of the blockchains - there are several], you can look at thousands of pieces of art that if you fancy it, you can just collect - there’s a big range from, I’d say, $30 to millions of dollars. Lives can be changed in an instant because people just like the art. Not because they’ve been told by a curator that it’s great, just because they like it. That I think is revolutionary.”

The photographer Justin Aversano, who pioneered the use of NFTs to sell his photoseries Twin Flames (and hit a top cryptocurrency price equivalent to more than half a million dollars for a single image), agrees, saying that NFTs have changed things “in so many ways”.

Kai-Isaiah Jamal  at the FBFX studio  shoot (BennyJ Johnson)
Kai-Isaiah Jamal at the FBFX studio shoot (BennyJ Johnson)

New collectors have broadened and speeded up the selling culture of the art market, he says, “because of the digital nature of listing and selling” sparking an interest in art for monied individuals within the crypto/tech subcultures who previously were unknown to the market, and are prepared to buy and flip a Picasso or a Rothko (as well as a digital work) within hours or days instead of years.

Conversely it’s also opened up a new avenue for the existing art market, largely due to the pandemic, says Charlotte Stewart of MyArtBroker. “The classic investments just didn’t look like safe havens anymore. Nobody knew what to do so they looked outside of the traditional investment market and thought, ok, let’s explore the art market.” Prints and editions made sense, she says, “because they’re really easy to trade online, you have certificates of authenticity, you have provenance and paper trails that you just can’t get with blue chip paintings which need a lot of in-person expertise. NFTs have grown from that trend.”

She doesn’t think that the NFT market “would have boomed in the way it has if it weren’t for the fact that that easily tradable commodity within the art world became so important. People gained trust in it, it became something that wasn’t just for Opensea addicts and cryptocurrency whizzkids. I don’t think we’d be in that position right now if it weren’t for what happened last year.”

Still, Aversano thinks that by broadly bypassing gallery middlemen, the NFT system “creates a deeper relationship between the collector and artists, like a peer to peer thing versus the gallery-artist-collector trio,” he tells me. “And that’s what creates communities around the artwork” - he cites the example of CryptoPunks, arguably the first digital artworks made publicly available via NFT, and the thousands of people who love and want to collect them. “We’re moving into a territory where people are banding together behind a project and supporting it together.”

For Aversano, it’s this community and the opportunity for change that it represents that really excite him about NFTs. He’s pleased to hear that our Kai-Isaiah Jamal artwork will be auctioned for charity - the full physical set of his 100 Twin Flames prints will go under the hammer at Christie’s in New York next month with a single NFT thrown in - the first to appear in a photographs auction at a major auction house - and Aversano will donate half of the proceeds to saveartspace, a foundation he set up that commandeers advertising locations for public art.

“You’ve got to be the agent of change from the inside and if I can utilise a capitalistic auction house icon to do it then all the better,” he says. “It sends a message and I think more important than the money itself is deciding how to speak about it and also the responsibility that comes with it. Look at the Beeple sale, $69m? If that was me, half that would be going to charity. I wouldn’t know what to do with it, other than invest in projects and other artists. I’m happy. All I need in my life is a bike and a surfboard.”

Brand New World goes on sale for The Felix Project in association with Phillips via Withfoundation on 24 September. Post production: W&N Studio Digital High-detail 3D Avatar & clothing by FBFX Digital

How we brought together an otherworldly digital proposition

When the abbreviation NFT first came up in an ideas meeting in spring, many of the ES team were convinced we were talking about a new American football league, not a “non-fungible token”. Bringing an artwork to life solely to exist on a blockchain — as the first UK fashion issue cover, no less — was an exciting proposal, but would also prove hard to execute.

In the wake of Covid, NFTs have been a massive growth area in the art market, which meant the pressure was on to deliver something not only technologically forward-thinking but also challenging to the norms for what a fashion cover means.

In making a covetable work of art, we hoped we could raise money for our partner charity, The Felix Project, and create a unique memento of our print magazine in the digital ether.

A crop of a still image from our NFT artwork (Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones)
A crop of a still image from our NFT artwork (Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones)

As soon as I connected with Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones — the visionary masterminds behind Björk’s creative projects for the past 20 years — I knew the project was in safe hands. We discussed how the talent for the piece would need to be energetically creative in order for it to fly, landing on poet, activist, artist and model Kai-Isaiah Jamal.

On the day of the shoot, Eugene Souleiman and Lisa Jarvis fashioned an alien punk aesthetic that pushed gender binaries, as Jamal does in their writing. Their poetry was transformed by James Lavelle and Steven Weston into a spoken word soundscape overlay for the piece. Acacia Mei connected us with auction houses and galleries, minted the NFT and established the correct platform for it to sit on for sale, in association with Phillips. The result is a new world in digital design.

Jessica Landon

Read More

ES Magazine NFT: see the artwork here

Kai-Isaiah Jamal on how they created their groundbreaking NFT with ES Magazine

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