A Fractional Possibility: From Christie’s to Artist Communities
Art writer and researcher Clara Che Wei Peh speaks to arts professional Qinwen Wang, blockchain investor Jehan Chu, and artist Mario Klingemann about the unfolding relationship between the traditional art world and blockchain communities.
Art writer and researcher Clara Che Wei Peh speaks to arts professional Qinwen Wang, blockchain investor Jehan Chu, and artist Mario Klingemann about the unfolding relationship between the traditional art world and blockchain communities.
I was first introduced to the conversation of art and the blockchain in 2018, when I was tasked to research potential tech disruptions to the art market during an internship. 2018 was the year Christie’s held its inaugural Art+Tech Summit looking into blockchain, and the art market had already begun to open its door to cryptographic possibilities. That was when I came across Maecenas, an art investment platform that enabled collectors to buy and own fractionalized shares of high-value artworks.
Maecenas had marketed itself as the first blockchain-based platform dealing with masterpieces on a liquid exchange. Investors on the platform were issued asset tokens, which Maecenas explained to the “digital certificates of ownership in real assets”, in the form of ERC20. Interested investors could onboard onto the platform, invest a minimum of 1,000 USD and own a percentage of an Andy Warhol painting (depending on what was listed on the marketplace). For the sake of illustration, let’s imagine that this initial investment of 1,000 USD would entitle you to 0.01% of said painting. It would not be possible for you to display 0.01% of the artwork in your living room, while allowing another collector who similarly holds 0.01% of the artwork to do the same. Well, technically it could be possible — if one were to cut up the painting into fractions, as US-based group MSCHF did with Damien Hirst’s spotted painting in 2020, it may also be rather sacrilegious, and the value of the painting as a whole would be significantly damaged.
In this case, Maecenas investors would be buying digital tokens on the blockchain that represented ownership of physical artwork, ones they may never see in-person or hold in their hands, but owned only a “paper” fraction of.
One could say that the artwork’s digital “life cycle” has come full circle, thanks to the ecosystem of the blockchain.
Fast forward to the first quarter of 2021, and Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) have taken the art world by storm. Often described as digital certificates of authenticity and proofs of ownership, NFTs have made it possible for digital and new media artists to create and maintain scarcity through digital means. Anyone can download this JPEG of a digital illustration, share and use it however they wish, but only a number of us — and in some cases, the only one among us — can be the true, validated owners of this artwork via its hash location on the blockchain.
The NFT logic of ownership may seem abstract at first glance. Many have asked, why would you want to pay to have this token that represents an artwork, when you cannot even hold the artwork in your own hands? Well, when you consider the case of now-outmoded Maecenas, NFTs have become much more intuitive. It is also important to keep in mind that many early adopters of NFTs are artists and buyers who identify as crypto-native, or at the very least, crypto-curious. They own and trade cryptocurrencies and are comfortable storing portions of their wealth in “magic Internet money”. They are already fluent in the value system of digital assets on the blockchain — you need not convince them that NFTs are valuable.
As I went deeper into the so-called metaverse with NFTs, I found that many in the art world were looking for ways to bring this digital existence into the physical. Virtual Niche , probably the first large-scale and institutional NFT exhibitions in the world, opened in March 2021 at UCCA Lab (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art’s interdisciplinary platform) in Beijing, China. It featured over 60 crypto artworks, including those that reference the blockchain crypto community like Robert Alice’s Portraits of a Mind , to digital works listed as NFTs by the likes of Beeple and Mad Dog Jones.
In contrast to the model that Maecenas operated on, which took a tangible object and created an accompanying digital asset, “Virtual Niche” and many upcoming IRL (“in real life”) NFT shows today are attempting to do the reverse. Regardless of the original medium and material of the artwork, after it has been minted as an NFT, the artwork is inextricably and immutably linked to a digital and transactional existence. These exhibitions take the artworks offline and “off-chain”, injecting them into the physical space and staging an additional dimension to the NFT artwork.
Curious to explore what this means for the creation and curation of digital art, as well as the unfolding relationship between the art world and blockchain communities, I spoke with Mario Klingemann, an artificial intelligence (AI) artist whose generative 79530 Self Portraits (2018) features in “Virtual Niche”; Jehan Chu, collector of Portraits of a Mind ; and Qinwen Wang, co-producer of the exhibition. Over an hour-long Zoom call, we speculated over NFTs’ growing popularity, art that queries the blockchain itself, and the future of art exhibitions to come.
Clara Che Wei Peh: : Tell us about what you perceive to be your role in the art ecosystem, and how you came into the world of blockchain and NFTs.
Jehan Chu: I entered the art world when I joined Sotheby's as Technical lead for Sotheby's.com, and later became Head of Client Development, APEC, then I left to direct an arts consultancy. I have also been deeply engaged with the not-for-profit space and sat on the Board of Para Site Hong Kong from 2018 to 2020, on top of being an art collector myself. In 2013, I got into Bitcoin and started doing a lot of community building in the crypto space, starting the Ethereum Meetup and contributing to the Bitcoin Meetup in Hong Kong. Finally, that culminated in Kinetic Capital.
I think crypto leverages a lot of things shared across the art and blockchain communities — the ideologies, the openness, the disruptive nature of ideas, as well as bringing in financial support, which is core to the NFT side of things. I helped start the first NFT conference back in 2018, having invested in a bunch of NFTs myself and collaborating closely with artists in the space.
The art world is, unfortunately, well-known to be a step behind, in terms of technology. But it’s especially curious that they have been so far behind in embracing the ideas and concepts behind decentralisation, crypto and blockchain, because it is an area so ripe for interrogation, investigation and consideration. Now we’re seeing more engagement, but I hope the NFT space will be the doorway to really think about this technology in a much deeper way.
I see my mission as helping to investigate this idea of a new chapter of art, distinct from previous generations of new media and digital art. There’s something different about NFT artists, many of whom have a digital-native practice but are reinventing their use of digital tools.
CCWP: Since you mentioned digital-native artists, it’s a perfect segue way to talk about Mario.
For the first time in 20, 25 years of doing this, I am able to make my living from my art only and experience this new kind of liberation, to focus on making art for art’s sake again.
Mario Klingemann: I think I am part of the first generation who grew up with digital technologies. I was born in the 1970s, I came up with digital games, the handheld, the first home computers, so I evolved with technology as it became available. I have always been interested in the possibilities of creating digitally, as it felt most native to me. From generative art, I got into AI about five or six years ago. That’s when I started exhibiting and breaking into the art world, because I was lucky to be part of the first AI art wave.
Then I noticed that crypto art was coming up two or three years ago. I must admit that, initially, I was highly skeptical. I wasn’t sure how my work would look next to blinking cats, in the typical way that people who are just beginning to look at this space may perceive it. So I said, “okay, let me sit by it, and watch.” Then about a year ago in February 2020, I felt the scene was maturing, and of course, with COVID-19 and the rest of the art market stagnant, I started minting my first experiments on Rarible under the radar. Then, noticed it was different to my first prejudices, and there was an interesting scene developing with a new kind of art and possibilities.
I am still skeptical about some of the extremes that we are witnessing, with the whole way NFTs are being sold and marketed. That’s what I was concerned about in the first place, and it hasn’t changed.
But a month ago, I got onto this other chain, Tezos, which has the ability to make NFTs and much cheaper to mint. That itself is amazing, it’s a barrier that changes the way you interact with it. In that space, I am seeing a community evolving, which feels very different to what I have seen before. At the moment, I am entirely focused on that space and realising, these are the promised good things that brought us into the space, and we are realising them now. There is much more focus on the art and less on the money, and people are able to shape the community actively. You are in control, not at the whim of platforms that have different interests to you as an artist.
It is always a complex system, where each player has a role. If it wasn’t for the huge amount of money, maybe there would be that attention brought onto NFTs, and maybe it would have faded. But now, we see there’s much more than just selling. For the first time in 20, 25 years of doing this, I am able to make my living from my art only and experience this new kind of liberation, to focus on making art for art’s sake again.
JC: That’s super interesting. I am happy that artists like yourself are able to support yourself through NFTs, it’s such a big aspect of the phenomena.
A couple of things come to mind. I think this is the first time we are seeing the Internet come to the art world properly. Of course, we had Artsy, online auctions and these platforms before, but that just brushed the surface and added a little Internet polish to the same art world. Now, we have artists as the platforms themselves and representing themselves, so they can go directly to the collectors. It’s not just about selling, but also about interacting. For artists who want this interaction, interested in that kind of feedback and building a holistic practice engaging with their communities.
There is now a strong Internet presence of the artist, which is expressed in several ways. One is the distribution of their artworks as NFTs, and two is simply being present online. I think this is a new type of disruption. Another is there is a true kind of community being built online. Now you’re starting to get sophisticated, nuanced and consistent discussions on art in an open forum online, like on Discord. We’re seeing communities coalesce around different practice, around the technology, around the ethics of it. We saw whole communities debating the ecological sustainability of NFTs around the Beeple auction.
Thanks to NFTs, these horrible little things that don’t belong in contemporary art are bringing this new energy to the art world. We hope that the art world embraces this, but also the fact that this new jolt is coming from outside of the art world. This is exactly what the art world needed, to jolt itself out of the malaise and commerciality.
CCWP: You brought up this idea of allowing artists to gain a different level of autonomy that wasn’t present before, and the importance of this change coming from outside of the art world. I want to come back to that and invite Qinwen to share with us how she became involved in this ecology.
This is exactly what the art world needed, to jolt itself out of the malaise and commerciality.
Qinwen Wang: I grew up drawing and illustrating and interned with Christie’s when they first entered the Chinese market as the only foreign auction house with a license within China. In 2018, I was involved with the Christie’s Art + Tech summit, with the very first one being on blockchain and asking if the art world was ready for consensus.
I started my career in management consulting, then moved into venture capital. In 2019, I joined the Web3 Foundation after a trip to Switzerland. It was then when I went to Kate Vass Galerie and came across the works of Robbie Barrat and Mario. I’m very excited that these artists are now involved with NFTs.
I am also a council member of the Polkadot network. The Kusama treasury funds projects with an art and technology angle, which is how the “Virtual Niche” exhibition came to be. A local company, BCAEX, applied to Kusama Network’s treasury for funding. I am involved in this exhibition on behalf of the Kusama Network, as well as a co-producer of the show.
Many have commented on why the first major NFT exhibition is happening in China. I have to say that we’re very proud of this, because in the art market, and even in crypto, the key voices have typically been in the West.
QW: In all the different hats that you wear across the art and tech ecosystems, there is this function of translating between what is intangible, what exists on the blockchain and metaverse, and bring that into the physical. There is a need to communicate that vision for those not yet in this universe. One of these exercises is the Virtual Niche exhibition Qinwen produced, which includes Mario’s work. How do you negotiate these tensions between the immaterial and the physical?
JC: Immateriality is not new in the art world, with performance art, conceptual art and beyond. But I think with NFTs and crypto art, it allows for more practitioners to participate and gain attention. NFTs have this aspect of instructional-based art, where you have the ability for the smart contracts to dictate how the artists present them, or even how they are executed. If you can take some notes from what Mario and Async Art are doing, NFTs allow for more interactive and participatory modes of instructional art.
Also consider that, this is the first time that the market is part of the medium, where smart contracts allow us to dictate where the funds will go when transactions happen. When secondary sales occur, smart contracts automatically direct re-sale royalties back to the artist without mediation from the platforms, allowing artists to have long-tailed sustainable income sources. The fact that this is an instruction inherent to the mode of NFTs is pretty interesting.
On the point of materiality and immateriality, the Robert Alice piece is very much a material work. But as we got to talking, I was like, you know it’s more of a Bitcoin artwork than a blockchain work. It would be interesting to add an NFT to this, and relate the work to a much larger community instead of just Bitcoin, so the work was registered onto the Bitcoin blockchain. To be fair, the NFT attached to the work was a minor aspect of it, but it really opened the door in many ways.
What we are going to see is, not the breakdown of the borders between the physical and digital, but actually, an enhanced possibility for collectors and the audience to simultaneously experience various forms of art at the same time.
NFTs represent digital twins. What we are going to see is, not the breakdown of the borders between the physical and digital, but actually, an enhanced possibility for collectors and the audience to simultaneously experience various forms of art at the same time. So you could have an artwork in your home, or you could be standing in front of an artwork in a museum, while also being able to view and experience meta-information that is attached to the NFT. You can be connected to the NFT existence of that physical artwork, its provenance and other users’ experiences anchored to it. NFTs add a digital layer to physical works. But I also think that we are going to start seeing the reverse soon. Right now, we have physical works entering the digital space and forming digital twins, then, we will see it happening the other way around. It’s just more canvases — and horizons — for artists to experiment.
We are going to see a digital artistic renaissance as artists become more familiar with the tools and build comfort around the concepts and see, holy crap, there’s a whole new medium here.
CCWP: I want to come back to what you said about NFTs as a new medium. I have been thinking of NFTs as purely a point of distribution and a channel for sales. But in some conceptual artworks like Mario’s Diminishing Returns , which I was able to collect for free, I do see how NFTs can open up a mode of experimentation.
MK: With some of the new NFT platforms, such as hic et nunc, we have made it possible to have NFTs that run code, which then allow us to query the blockchain itself. I did some experimentations in the past month that play with the idea that a work is not necessarily finite or finished, but in fact, only starts living due to the interaction with collectors.
I started with Planned Obsolescence . The work starts with my typical neural-generated AI works. But what happens is, with each sale, the wallet ID of the collector gets added onto the image itself. So the more people collect it, the more the original picture is distorted. Collectors gradually add their fingerprints onto the work. And this is only possible because the work itself interacts with the chain and tracks the transactions.
Diminishing Returns then plays and reacts to a phenomenon I noticed. On hic et nunc, for the first time, artists were able to offer free NFTs. People were minting editions in 500s because it was affordable to do so, and they were giving them away for free. Anyone could come and pick one up. But then, of course, people began to speculate, and took 5, 10, or even more, because of course, these NFTs could later be sold. So I tried to create an NFT that encouraged social behaviour. So, whoever came first and swapped the NFT would have their wallet IDs added to the work itself, creating artificial editions each time a collector entered. I set a rule that, each person is only allowed to take one edition, and if you take two, you would be dropped from the list. If you sell the work on the secondary market, you would also be dropped off the list. If someone else buys it, and they had never transacted with the piece before, then they will be put back onto the list. It’s kind of a game that plays with NFTs as their own platform.
That’s the new thing, right? With NFTs, the owner and collector become a permanent part of the piece itself, because they are added to the history. Of course, that happens in the traditional art world as well, but it’s less in-your-face.
With NFTs, the owner and collector become a permanent part of the piece itself, because they are added to the history.
Now back to the idea of the digital and physical. With a digital artwork, it had no native physical representation. There is the true form of the digital work, which exists as bytes on your hard drive or USB stick, but there was no real, true form to present them. Then when you show a digital work on the Internet, you had no control over the size of the screen, the quality of the display, or the environment they were shown in. As an artist, you may need to determine how much control you want to exert on how the work is being shown. With Memories of Passerby I , I took a lot of control. I provided the screens, I even provided the computer that runs it. Of course, that’s a core part of it, it’s an autonomous entity. But it is something that traditional art collectors may have to take a leap of faith with.
When you have a painting or a sculpture, you know exactly what you have. But a digital work means that there is a certain leeway and freedom with how it is shown. I think it is up to each artist to decide how to deal with this. Personally, I find it an interesting challenge to leave it to the collectors sometimes. How do they want to view the work? Do they want to show it on a mobile phone, or display it on a big screen? With NFTs, when people make a purchase, they might ask, can I print it, can I put it on a screen… Well, I like that, because things are not set in stone. These practices can evolve over time and some things might stick while others might not.
We are only now at the point where the true possibilities of this digital world are opening up. Now we have established that there is a market and a playing field. The money has given people trust that it is more than a fad. I believe that we have something that is here to stay, so now we can start building houses and even institutions within this ecosystem.
CCWP: You touched on how a digitally native work can be shown in a physical space, and how that decision is made. These curatorial decisions can dramatically alter the experience with a digital work. Qinwen, how did the exhibition team negotiate these conversations? What was the thought process behind translating these artworks attached to NFTs, into something that can be felt and experienced in an exhibition hall?
QW: We showed some iconic artworks to illustrate programmable art, and how digital-native works can be different from physical mediums. For example, First Supper was created by 13 crypto artists with 22 collectible layers. It was sold by Async Art in 2020. Each layer could be owned by a different collector, and each collector would be enabled to change and modify their respective layers as they would like. From the day we opened the exhibition, to the day it finished, the piece evolved continually, so we were able to demonstrate this interactiveness to the on-site audience. The work was on loan from Metakovan.
Another example of how we translated this digital experience into the physical exhibition was we included a QR code next to each artwork that directed you to its on-chain hash. As many of our audiences were being introduced to NFTs for the first time, they were curious if the show was about JPEGs and GIFs, or was it something more? We opened up the Ethereum smart contracts to show the different layers of the artworks. We also used different equipment, such as AR devices. All of us have been talking about moving into the metaverse, so we invited our audiences into these experiences. We had physical installations as well, with mining machines set-up, as well as Portrait of a Mind , on loan from Jehan, to showcase what Bitcoin is all about.
CCWP: Moving away from the physical, do you think that digital exhibitions on virtual lands, such as Decentraland, will become increasingly important, as more and more people build familiarity with viewing artworks in pure digital formats?
JC: We absolutely are going to see more and more high quality and art-focused exhibitions in the metaverse. We are going through the process of curating quality, where crypto art is starting to become better, and we have more career artists joining the scene. What’s missing is the context to view them in, to produce that environment will be the next frontier for digital-native art.
A digital context for digitally native works is obvious and inevitable. The borders between the physical and digital — the idea that it must be one or the other at any given time — that will all start to erode. It will become more natural to have dual existences, and that will challenge the centralised idea of experiencing art, as we have it now. It’s always been, let’s go to the gallery, let’s go to the museum. Whereas now, it’s all in your phone or laptop. You are still “going” there, but it’s also kind of coming to you in a physical sense. While there have been virtual exhibitions and museums before this, they just haven’t been that compelling or prevalent, but now, there is going to be much more investment in the digital, which will improve and expand what this space can do.
So I am pretty excited for this next generation of art. We are just in the experimental phase and people need to be a bit more patient. It takes a long time for chapters of art history to unfold, but we’re getting there.
Editor's Note: We want to especially thank Christopher Fussner of Tropical Futures Institute for guiding SO-FAR into the degenerate, yet fascinating waters of Web3, DeFi and the blockchain. He led us to think about completing the "digital cycle", and what it means to be fully digitally native from conception to transaction. It has been a pivotal Issue that will lead SO-FAR into deeper involvement in DeFi. This Issue is also published in memoriam Autumn Radtke, a dear friend and one of the first, daring female founders of a crypto exchange back in 2012.
The Art + Tech summit at Christie’s is an annual one-day conference, part of an ongoing initiative to spark dialogue about the role and potential impact of emerging technologies in the art world.
Maecenas is the first blockchain-based platform that allows anyone to buy, sell and trade port ownership in masterpieces on liquid exchange.
Maecenas FAQ https://www.maecenas.co/faq/
The Ethereum standard for fungible tokens within smart contracts.
Pronounced “mischief”, MSCHF is an American art collective based in Brooklyn.
Oscar Holland, “A $30K Damien Hirst was cut up — and the pieces are selling for seven times as much”, CNN Style, 1 My 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/damien-hirst-mschf-severed-spots/index.html
Tezos is a decentralised, open-source blockchain network that executes transactions and serves as a platform for deploying smart contracts.
A portmanteau of the prefix “meta” and “universe”, the metaverse refers to a virtual shared space: the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet. The term was coined in the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, in which humans interact as avatars with each other and software agents in a 3-Dimensional space.
See Krister Olsson’s “A Portrait of Privacy”, published on so-far on 7 January 2021, https://so-far-legacy.online/weekly/a-portrait-of-privacy/
Beeple, or Beeple Crap, (Michael Joseph Winkelmann) is an American digital artist, graphic designer, and animator, whose NFT Everydays: The First 5000 Days, sold for $69 million. Mad Dog Jones (Michah Dowbak), a digital creator, is currently the most expensive living Canadian artist.
Rarible is a software that is a marketplace and a distributed network built on Ethereum. It allows digital artists and creators to issue and sell custom crypto assets that represent ownership in their digital work without the need for a middleman.
A New York City-based online brokerage, Artsy is a developing and hosting website and art-seller for numerous galleries. It uses a search engine and database to map out connections in the art world. It also connects collectors with art from auction houses, nonprofits, and sellers worldwide.
Released in 2015, Discord is an instant-messaging platform that allows users to communicate through voice and video calls, text messaging, and other methods, as part of private chats or communities known as “servers”.
Founded by Gavin Wood, the Web3 Foundation funds research and development teams involved in building the foundation of a decentralised web
A contemporary art gallery based in Zurich, whose mission is to link traditional and digital art. https://www.katevassgalerie.com/
Artist Robbie Barrat, who uses artificial intelligence as a medium, produces works that deal with the boundaries between neural networks and the physical art world.
Polkadot is a network protocol that allows data to be transferred across blockchains.
A scalable network of specialised blockchains that uses nearly the same codebase as Polkadot
A new art movement built on the blockchain. https://async.art/
Planned Obsolescence, Mario Klingemann, https://www.hicetnunc.xyz/objkt/14751
Diminishing Returns, Mario Klingemann, https://www.hicetnunc.xyz/objkt/9733
Metakovan (Vignesh Sundaresan) is the crypto investor who bought Beeple’s $69 million NFT.