It seems the art world has been struck by lightning when an American graphic designer auctioned the world’s third most expensive artwork ever sold by a living artist, after David Hockney and Jeff Koons – raising the question if NFT art was more than just a passing niche culture phenomenon but, au contraire, here to stay?
A bolt from the blue it was not: The crypto economy has developed rapidly since Satoshi Nakamoto’s 2008 white paper on blockchain. But as of late, it has especially empowered digital artists. Being traded as a non-fungible token (NFT), an intangible piece of online art gains value. It is assigned scarcity. As a result, the artist can anticipate high profits, adequate royalties, unprecedented market transparency and a form of visibility appropriate to the digital medium: In virtual marketplaces, online exhibitions and metaverse galleries, the artwork is showcased in a way that it is designed for.
However, some brick-and-mortar museums around the world have already proven that it is not contradictory – and possibly trailblazing – to display virtual art in real life. These three institutions lead by example:
Playful and educational: “Virtual Niche” at the UCCA Lab, CHINA
Advertised as the first-ever major offline crypto art exhibition, “Virtual Niche – Have you ever seen memes in the mirror?” has been a pioneering project. Visitors were invited to not only contemplate the artworks of more than 60 digital creators but get in touch with the more hands-on, interactive display items, i.e. build themselves a digital identity in Crypto-Punks-Style or experience a mining installation. The goal is to dismantle reservations about crypto art and create awareness for the numerous possibilities that come with it. As the organizers say, “Once we are able to understand the complex interaction happens within the process of creating a virtual environment, virtuality is not arcane to us anymore.”
Virtual Niche took place from March 26th to April 4th, 2021, at Beijing’s UCCA Lab, the interdisciplinary department of one of China’s leading contemporary art institutions – the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, and continued touring in Shanghai. Featured artists were Robert Alice, Beeple and Wu Jianan, among others. The exhibition was curated by BlockCreateArt (BCA), a crypto art brand, and co-produced by Qinwen Wang.
Demystifying by Storytelling: “Proof of Arts” at the Francisco Carolinum Museum, Austria
The Francisco Carolinum Museum in Linz, Austria, took a slightly different approach with its exhibition “Proof of Arts” (June 10th to September 15th 2021). Curator Jesse Damiani presented “a short history of NFTs, from the beginnings of digital art to the Metaverse”, billed as the world’s first museum exhibition on the history of NFTs in art.
Damiani, along with co-curators Fabian Müller and Markus Reindl, divided the somewhat non-linear history of NFT art into different chapters. Each of which highlighted moments that influenced the development of NFTs (in art), such as experimenting with computer art in the 1950’s or the 2008-whitepaper on blockchain. The museum’s director Alfred Weidinger explains, “From an art-historical point of view, there is a homogeneous development from the past of digital art to the present. Therefore, it is also legitimate and part of our educational mission to show such an exhibition in the museum.”
The expo follows the stories of several representatives of the crypto art community, such as Bitnik, Ai Wei Wei, Nancy Baker Cahill, Blake Kathryn, and others, who deal with the topics of value systems, the role of the artist in a high-tech environment and the impact of virtual spaces on real life.
The social experience: The Seattle NFT Museum, USA
As the before-mentioned exhibitions ended eventually, NFT art has found a permanent physical home in Seattle, USA. Just recently, on January 14th 2022, two tech executives, Jennifer Wong and Peter Hamilton, opened the doors of their Seattle NFT Museum (SNFTM) to art aficionados, tech enthusiasts and curious people from all walks of life. The showroom is an educational ground covering crypto art from around the world. Moreover, it is a place for the community to connect IRL. 30 high-resolution screens currently show examples from Larva Labs “CryptoPunks”, art by Tyler Hobbs, Blake Kathryn, Neon Saltwater, Charles Peterson, and others – provided on loan directly by the artists and owners.
“Before NFTs, digital art was highly underrepresented because of its right-click-save-as nature,” said founder Hamilton in an interview, “And so many of these artists have been underrepresented and underappreciated. […] we’re just really excited to start bringing some more notoriety to those types of artists and focus on their medium, their practice, their inspiration, like you would with a painter, but you know, with their digital paintbrush.”
So, if you’ve ever wondered why you should want to contemplate a digital masterpiece in a physical environment instead of on your phone (isn’t it just a difference in screen sizes?), here’s the deal:
Museums and art institutions have the competence and know-how to create rich, sensory experiences in a stimulating atmosphere. Visiting a gallery can be instructive, playful, and inspiring. First and foremost, and especially in the examples of UCCA Lab, the Francisco Carolinum Museum and the SNFTM, it turns into a social event that encourages networking and exchange. Hamilton, one of the founders of the Seattle NFT Museum, puts it this way:
“We’ve been following this burgeoning community of NFT artists, curators, collectors, and it’s just exploding. The community has this incredible energy and influence that they wield. Still, there’s something that’s missing, and that’s the physical experience and physical interaction that comes from looking at art together.”
This article was published in the BanklessDAO Weekly NFT and Cryptoart Newsletter on the 7th of February 2022.