NFTs are a tiny harbinger of the transformation to come in the transition from Web 2.0, towards a decentralized web of trust, aka Web3. As Silicon Valley reshaped global economies over the course of the past decades, the contemporary art world remained one of the last industries to be impacted by disruptive technologies.
This time, the art world is first.
In an attempt to highlight the monumental shift coming with this new technology, TRANSFER chose to engage the decentralized web to demonstrate ideas which might serve as alternatives to the toxic, hegemonic use cases currently being imagined by the leading NFT art marketplaces. Instead of re-building the worst parts of the contemporary art market –perpetuating ego-fueled competition through autions, lousy returns for living artists, and the exploitation of artists for wealth accumulation– how might we reflect different values in this emerging infrastructure?
The new ‘standard’ of attaching a certificate of authenticity (or ERC-721 smart contract) to a singular shallow asset flattens digital art. This flattening has allowed marketplaces to rapidly, and sloppily, sell out a generation of artists who have long engaged with digital media, by reducing their work in a way that does not attend to its longevity or depth.
In Pieces of Me an alternative is proposed: our NFT metadata file references ”the work,” which consists of a number of assets, packaged along with the artist's intent and carefully considered statements about how the work should be shown, cared for, and exchanged in the future. Toward this aim, left.gallery provides a private download area for collectors to access an archival collector's package of the work.
Additional experiments engage ideas that are more reflective of the changes to come, such as suggesting an artist might act as a kind of 'oracle' for their work, instead of giving the responsibility of certification solely over to a non-custodial platform. Artists are invited to get involved in the mechanics of NFTs by hosting a “digital twin” of the metadata file on the artist's own web server. The simple act of upload is a declaration of intent in a new space, and a prototype of how a group of artists might authorize not just their work, but also their identity in this newly forming system.
One of the great promises–and myths–in the ‘NFT Art’ ecosystem is the proclimation that artist resale rights have finally arrived. As many are now aware, a majority of the non-custodial platforms issuing tokens to large numbers of artists, also function as a marketplace for collectors to flip and trade works. The standard they have set forth is a resale percentage set at an embarrassingly low 10%, which can only be guaranteed for sales happening on the specific platform. There is no cross-marketplace standard to enforce resale rights, meaning that when a buyer takes a token to another platform, the artist loses their meager resale earning potential altogether.
In the meantime, the new ‘crypto art market’ functions in a way where the top collectors are rapidly trading works to capture a sizable return. Often a work trades hands multiple times, each time making the wealthy wealthier, paying the platform a nominal fee, and passing off crumbs to artists, all while proclaiming a revolution; a common refrain in the polarized dialouge is, “If you don't like NFTs, you must not want artists to make money.”
In a recent article, Charlotte Kent outlines the history of artists fighting for resale rights bringing these issues into historical context. Values around artist resale rights in contemporary art are woefully inadequate and, even still, these rights are not fully defensible in the American legal system, although widely established in Europe. Within these limited legal frameworks, blockchain technology might help--but only if it is applied with ambitious intent toward redistribution of wealth in this system.
The metadata files for all of the works in this exhibition (which accompany the token from the time it is minted in perpetuity) states that artists should receive 50% of the resale value of their works. Recognizing this is a statement made in good faith, and is not wholly enforceable, the intent is important in this moment.
Additionally, for this exhibition, artworks are minted as 1 + 1AP, meaning that anything that is minted and sold is sent as a token to the collector’s wallet AND as an artist proof to the artist's wallet. Artists hold their AP token, and retain equity in their work as a tangible asset, beyond just copyright.
Lastly, TRANSFER covers all minting costs and left.gallery provides the infrastructure through their token, foregoing any platform fees. Importantly – unlike existing NFT platforms – artists do not have to “pay to play” to sell their works as NFTs. Artists receive 70% of sales, and the other 30% (typically the gallery's cut) is redistributed to the entire list of exhibiting artists, knowledge workers, technologists, and gallerists that make this exhibition possible. Named here.
This effort is directly funded as a personal offering from TRANSFER Owner, Kelani Nichole.
Beyond the obvious –environmental impact and ostentatious accumulation of wealth– the values of those who have the most to gain in this system should be critically discussed, across viewpoints. The dialogue in the NFT space polarized quickly into “us vs. them,” –as if there are two sides in this boom– fueled by billionaires laying claim to decades of artistic invention, and the toxic positivity encouraged by NFT platforms. This exhibition seeks to be a space for dialogue.
The gallery's virtual lounge is “open” to the public during gallery hours weekly, and we offer face-to-face tours of the exhibition to anyone who visits our virtual storefront.
Pieces of Me brings together artists who have successful careers in the traditional contemporary art market with those who have never sold work before minting NFTs, and are now fetching prices beyond the traditional art market. The exhibition also includes artists who outright reject NFTs, given their problematic ecological cost, and relation to the techno-utopian ideology of the blockchain.
Thank you for taking the time to engage with this exhibition's reflection on many different approaches and viewpoints through a curatorial and technological framework that emphasizes the ethics of care, redistribution of wealth, and artist’s agency and rights.
- Kelani Nichole
Pieces of Me began as a conversation between Kelani Nichole (Owner, TRANSFER) and Wade Wallerstein (Director, TRANSFER) in the first week of February 2021, in response to the explosion of the market for NFTs. As advocates of expanded practice in contemporary art, we felt it crucial to curb the values of the hungry world of DeFi, and instead focus on art and artists.
Harm van den Dorpel, a contemporary artist –and friend– first implemented blockchain-based smart contracts to sell editions of software art through his artist-run platform left.gallery back in 2015. He graciously offered his time, care and vision to help shape our intention around on-chain transactions for Pieces of Me. TRANSFER and left.gallery have joined forces for this exhibition, combining TRANSFER’s curatorial vision with left.gallery’s engineering prescience.
Together, we shaped an offering that demonstrates how a trustless web might actually work better for artists. The NFT art market as it exists was not built on the ethics of care; and it shows in everything from the hyper-commercialization to the aesthetics of the NFT space.
Regina Harsanyi, an independent time-based media art specialist –and trusted collaborator– joined us to also help model an ethics of care for artworks. She handles all our media on the decentralized web, and tends to the details of the registration and certification of the works. NFT platforms offered no custodial care for the works they make available for purchase, so investing in these details ahead of certifying the works felt like a necessary gesture toward modelling what it means to care for digital art.
In early March, TRANSFER started to speak to 50+ invited artists about their ideas to "transact with intention", and came to understand the complicated impact that these new blockchain-based technologies are having on artists’ practices--both for better and for worse.
This exhibition is what emerged.
On April 1st, 2021 we launched Pieces of Me–touted as an NFT exhibition–without minting anything. We gathered humans together in a browser tab to look at art and talk critically about the 2-month boom that had rocked the contemporary art world. By embedding the exhibition within a virtual social space, we re-introduced friction into the techno-utopian anon NFT marketplace. The gallery's virtual lounge is “open” to the public during gallery hours weekly, and we offer face-to-face tours of the exhibition to anyone who visits our virtual storefront.
We wanted to see who would come look at the work. And we wanted to see it with them, together.
On the backend, the TRANSFER/left.gallery team created a sales infrastructure and inventory management system to represent the community of artists, and began to refine our “minting” process (the process by which a work of art is tied to an NFT on the blockchain). The result is a totally bespoke amalgamation of registrarial best-practices and left-gallery ERC-721 metadata workflows, smashed together with TRANSFER's eight years of experience certifying, packaging, and delivering diverse formats of digitally-native art to collectors.
A number of writers and contributors have been invited to add their viewpoints to this exhibition; their contributions are forthcoming...