Art

Apes, Punks & Phunks: Adventures from the frontlines of the IP wars

Gather ’round kids, exciting and fascinating drama is afoot and you know you want to hear all about it. Assuming you are excited and fascinated by IP shenanigans, because really who isn’t right? While I want to just charge right into the theft and murder, oh yes dear reader there is theft and murder, I worry that I sometimes go to fast and leave people behind. So I’m just going to assume that you understand that copyright means the copyright holder (often the creator, but not always) retains all rights and no one else can do anything, and conversely public domain means no one retains any rights and anyone can do anything. Between those two extremes there’s a million miles of grey area which has been somewhat navigated by Creative Commons, who create copyright licenses that intentionally wave some rights while retaining others with the intention of fostering creativity and sharing. For example this blog post is published under a CC-BY license which means while I retain copyright or my words, I also allow anyone to use my words, expand on them or make derivative works and even sell that so long as they credit me as the original creator. Which is super totally cool. I’ve stumbled across my work in countless places, and people have ended up here because they saw something I wrote somewhere else and followed the breadcrumbs. Thanks Creative Commons!

OK, getting back to the juicy stuff. A very popular thing happening in the NFT space right now is for people selling large collectors of Avatars to grant commercial and derivative rights to anyone who buys those NFTs. I haven’t seen any using Creative Commons, because that would be easy and straight forward. Instead most often they have some hacky chopped together Terms of Service filled with rando copypasta from various other projects and it’s confusing AF. The gist being if you buy an NFT you can use it in other work and sell that work without issue. Essentially they are transferring the IP rights to the buyer, which has created a vibrant market for derivative works, and is helping fuel the overall growth of not just individual projects but also the entire NFT community and ecosystem. So this is a good thing.

But as we know, nothing is ever as straight forward as it seems. And this is where shit starts getting messy.

For a few months everyone was trucking along peacefully making derivative work of NFTs they bought that allowed such a thing, and everyone was happy and there were flowers and rolling fields of green grass and sunshine and then Taylor.wtf burned an ape. Taylor is an artist/musician/producer and also a shit disturbing agent of chaos. He’s a friend of mine and I say that as a high compliment and would encourage everyone reading this to aspire to such a description. In NFT parlance, “burning” something is to intentionally send it to a wallet that no one has access to—essentially removing it from circulation. When I say “an ape” I mean one of the Bored Ape NFTs made by the Bored Ape Yacht Club (arguably the hottest and fastest growing avatar collection at the moment). So he burned an ape and then put a video art project of that Bored Ape being set on fire up for auction on OpenSea (the largest NFT marketplace). At first people were just shocked that he’d burnt an ape (as they were trading for about $4k each at the time – though burning money is a long established form of conceptual art perhaps most famously employed by The KLF who literally burned a million GBP) but it got much more interesting when BAYC filed a DMCA notice and had the fire video taken down.

Still from Taylor.wtf’s Burning Ape

Their position was that as Taylor had burned the Ape before releasing the video, he was no longer the owner and thus no longer had rights to use the work. However! As they were not the owner anymore either it’s questionable about why they felt the need to intervene, which they clarified by saying they were doing so with respect to the current owner – and would do the same for any ape transferred from one party to another if the previous owner kept using it. However however! Since the ape was burned, by all understanding it has no owner, so whose rights were BYAC defending? No one came forward claiming to own that wallet and protesting, and no one could prove that the wallet wasn’t actually Taylors. Or, anyone else who might claim to own it. Point being, no one said “I own this thing and I object to how it’s being used by someone else.” Once this came to light it seems BYAC realized this was a huge steaming pile of shit they’d walked into, and cautiously backed out of it. The video was re-listed elsewhere without protest and remains online.

CryptoPunks

While Bored Apes are one of the hottest new Avatar projects, the grand daddy of them all is unquestionably Crypto Punks. It would just be bad form not to include them in this drama fest, luckily they are a magnet for it all. Let’s start with CryptoPunk #3100 – currently the highest selling Punk which sold earlier this year for 4,200 ETH or effectively just shy of $9 Million. There’s been much discussion about how an NFT is the token, and the image attached is just representative of the token – that is when you buy an NFT you aren’t buying that image so much as the digital token on the blockchain which is represented by that image. The conceptual artist Ryder Ripps decided to play with this idea by pointing out that the image representing the original CryptoPunks was a 24×24 pixel graphic entirely generated by a script. Ryder recreated #3100 by hand in 4000×4000 and minted it on several platforms. Same image on each, but each being a different token, different contract, and thus a different NFT. An interesting experiment that got much more interesting when Foundation was served with a DMCA notice by Larva Labs, the company who made CryptoPunks, and were forced to delist Ryder’s NFT. One might think “serves them right, that was obviously plagiarism” and many did in fact think that, but it seems many people don’t know about fair use and parody and this is where it got much more interesting- Ryder appealed the take down. You see, under the DMCA, a copyright holder can issue a take down notice to any service if they feel their IP is being infringed upon and the site has to immediately remove the infringing work, however if creator of the work that was taken down believes the action was erroneous, they can file an appeal and this puts the onus back on the company or person who filed the DMCA notice originally – and they now have 10 days to file a lawsuit supporting their claims – if they don’t they then are essentially conceding that they don’t have the legal position to support their initial action and the site in question is free to reinstate whatever was taken down. And again, because US Copyright law does specifically call out fair use and parody, Larva Labs backed down and Foundation has just reinstated Ryder’s Punks.

Rider Ripp’s CryptoPunk #3100

This is a pretty decisive victory and will likely be taken into account going forward, however there’s another very related situation at play that was going on before all this went down and came to a head before this was resolved. Enter the CryptoPhunks. Who make it very clear in their manifesto that this project is social commentary and a parody aimed at “flipping off the punks.” While Ryder essentially just scaled up the image of a punk in his work, the Phunks actually changed the art. Is it a significant change? That’s up for interpretation but when you are talking about a source image that is only 576 pixels to begin with, how much of a change is needed for it to be significant? Most notably, while all 10,000 CryptoPunks are facing right, the CryptoPhunks are facing left. While this was criticized as a “low effort rip off” by more than a handful of people – it’s an obvious enough difference to be immediately identifiable something that could not be said about Ryder’s Punks. But wait, there’s more! In addition to the flip, CryptoPhunks added a 1 pixel wide outline to the box the Phunk sits in, which is an unquestionable artistic change. Again, we’re talking about a 24×24 pixel image, so very subtle changes are actually pretty significant. You might think these changes made things easier for them, but you’d be wrong. The first take down of the Phunks happened almost as soon as they launched in what seemed to be an editorial decision on the part of OpenSea where they were listed. To their credit OpenSea has been working to take down fake accounts selling fraudulent NFTs and it’s unclear if they understood that CryptoPhunks was a stand alone project and not something misrepresenting itself as official, and this take down appears to be have preemptive and hasty.

CryptoPhunks

After much community uproar OpenSea reinstated the Phunks account and heated discussion started happening on Twitter which involved many CryptoPunk owners disparaging the Phunks and calling the project a “low effort rip off” or “blatant plagiarism.” Ironically, those are “low effort” criticisms that fall apart as soon as you read the project’s mission statement, because while it might not be something that is creatively appealing to everyone, it definitely has some thought and intention behind it. As noted earlier many people in this space don’t seem to understand how copyright or IP works or is applied, or the importance parody and fair use have in culture which can be seen in the reaction to the Phunks from the “NFT community” (if there is such a thing) at large. But things did not end there, OpenSea pushed back with several statements from employees on Twitter which imply they see derivative projects as somehow lesser than original works, and the longer term viability of the Phunks future remained in question. This didn’t slow sales at all, and it’s entirely possible that the vocal outrage from CryptoPunk owners actually served as marketing for the Phunks. Which, again, was kind of the whole point. The Phunks laid a trap and the Punks walked right into it. It kind of reminds me of a time when a music critic friend of mine got punched in the face by the guitarist of a band he’d recently accused of being brainless thugs. Anyway, having freshly filed their DMCA takedown against Rider Ripps, Larva Labs repeated the effort and sent a take down notice to OpenSea, who promptly removed the Phunks from their site. Again.

It’s unclear if the Phunks team submitted an appeal like Ryder did, though it seems pretty clear if they did Larva Labs would have to back down here as well. Guess we’ll see in a few days as that clock runs out. At the moment the collection is still not viewable on OpenSea, but they are live and for sale on Rarible and Cargo. And in case you’ve assumed that these are just cheap knock offs, let me assure you they are selling for very real numbers to very serious collectors who recognize the cultural significance of what’s playing out here. Longtime readers will know that the intersection of parody and copyright is of personal interest to me and I’ve have my own run ins with companies trying to shut down protected speech. In the 20 some years since that showdown with the Associated Press I’ve watched similar situations play out time and time again, and it’s amazing how poorly understood the law around this subject is – and not just from the companies involved. I saw a number of people in the CryptoPhunks community criticizing OpenSea for taking down the CryptyPhunks collection after they received the DMCA notice from Larva Labs. They were accused of “old thinking” and “clinging to stupid Web 2.0 ideas” which is honestly as ignorant as accusing the Phunks of being “low effort rep offs.” While it’s fairly well understood that the DMCA is a bad and broken law– it is still a law and companies operating within the US still have to abide by it regardless of how any individuals personally feel about it. But as Ryder illustrated, it can be fought and that’s what the Phunks should be doing. The idea of a company with no physical presence bound by no jurisdictional laws is certainly interesting, but it’s not reality and probably not a great idea if you dig deep enough into it. But these situations are most likely the beginning and not the end, as more NFT projects grant certain rights and others don’t, and companies and marketplaces try to figure out how to navigate through this mess I expect more showdowns in the future. In the end, this is all a result of creativity and challenging norms and expectations, pushing boundaries and seeing just what new things we can build on top of old structures before they crumble. I’m excited to watch it play out, as a spectator and participant.

Collectors + Investors

I woke up this morning to messages from several friends directing me to this tweet, asking my thoughts. Unsurprising, as anyone who knows me probably knows I’d have more than a few thoughts on something like this. I started thinking of snarky replies or gotchas that I could cleverly post and trust me dear reader, there were many that came to mind. But the more I thought about it, and read the replies from artists who seem to be bending over backwards to agree in hopes that the tweets author might check out and buy their work, I thought it would be better served with a more thoughtful response to illustrate why this is so problematic. Also, I would like credit for my display of maturity and restraint in not just posting a snarky reply. Sean from 20 years ago is wondering who the hell has hijacked his blog right now.

As an art dealer, I would refuse to sell art to someone who came in to my gallery and made a statement like this. I don’t say that hyperbolically – when I had a gallery this was a topic that came up from time to time and we were unapologetic about refusing to sell work to anyone who asked questions like “how soon will I be able to sell this and double my money?” or “do you have anything that will match my couch?” Additionally I’d actively and vocally advise artists to avoid selling work to someone with this approach because while a sale might be nice today, in the long run buyers like this will most likely make decisions later that will negatively impact the artist. And if you think of art as a long term thing, as I do, selling to a buyer like this is basically failing the marshmallow test. This is investing in the art and not in the artist. To me, the artist is always more important than the art. As an art dealer, I wanted to develop long term relationships with artists and watch them grow, and help out where I could. I wanted to look back on my life and the careers of artists I worked with and be proud of what we did together. This artist-first approach wasn’t always the best decision for the profit margin of the business but it allowed me to sleep well at night, and that 15 years after the gallery closed I still count many of the artists I worked with as close friends tells me I made the right decisions. As a dealer, I worked for the artists not the collectors. I wanted the value of the art to go up just as much as anyone else (and it has) but I deeply believe that this happens much more reliably by making decisions that are in the best interest of the artist, and selling to someone who only sees art as an investment simply isn’t.

As an artist, I would be disappointed to know that someone bought my work and didn’t want to be thanked for it. I would be sad to learn that they didn’t have any interest in supporting me or my efforts. This statement is both hurtful and dehumanizing. It says that this person sees artists as nothing but a factory to crank out things which will make them money. Amusingly this is one of the reasons I eventually got out of the technology start up world, which I wrote more about in The Interest Driven Life, but I couldn’t stomach having meetings with venture capitalists who didn’t give a shit about me or my dreams or my goals and only wanted to know how much money I was going to make them, and how fast. Now, I’m not knocking this kind of investing approach – I just think there are ways to do it which don’t hurt people. Invest in shitcoins or flip some Bored Apes. That doesn’t hurt anyones feelings, or make anyone second guess their life choices. I guarantee you no one at LavaLabs is going to be suicidal because someone is rage tweeting that their Meebit hasn’t doubled in value yet. Pure investors don’t understand (or care about) the difference between artwork and a collectable, between individual artist and for profit company.

For most artists I know, just admitting you are an artist is unspeakably hard. It’s a position filled with self doubt, insecurity and questioning choices, but deep down we do believe in our work and our vision and have to trust that somewhere out in the world someone recognizes and connects with that. I make art to tell stories, and find connections, and find communities, and build relationships. Not to make some investor money. I do recognize that I’m in a position of privilege to be able to turn down sales that I don’t think are a good fit, to people who I don’t like. Not everyone can do that, but that’s also why I try to forge the path so that it’s easier for the next group of artists. And I’m pretty sure I can confidently say that standing here at 46 years old, everyone who has bought my work in the last 20 years has done so because they either wanted to support me personally or because my work meant something to them personally – and I’m deeply thankful for that. I would sell my work to someone who loved it and planned to keep it forever over someone who was hoping to sell it at a profit any day.

As an art collector, I despised buyers with this kind of an attitude. Selfishly, because they usually had more money than me and would buy things I loved and it pained me knowing they didn’t actually care about them. I much prefer the Vincent Price / Dennis Hopper approach which comes from recognizing the value that the artists bring to the world, to culture, to society and trying to support that. I forget where but I saw Hopper speaking once and he said something like “If you do it right, being an art collector means you are just a care taker” going on to say that he saw his job as protecting the art he bought until the “real art” world recognized it and made space in museums for it. He says something similar at the end of this short video. He viewed collecting art as documenting a culture and a community. I visited his house in Venice Beach once and and stepped over carefully rolled up Basquiats in order to get a better look at framed photographs by artists I’d never heard of hanging on the walls. His love for the art and for his friends was unquestionable, and it made me feel so much better about my own collection which is almost entirely work by friends. Some of whom I knew before I bought the work, some of whom I became friends with after buying the work. To me, those relationships are so much more valuable than any individual piece of art, but often the art is a physical representation of that relationship. The context is different but I’m reminded of the lyrics to Softcore by Jawbreaker which accuses “They just want the wrapping, They throw away the prize.” As a collector who values and appreciates the culture and the community, it pains me to know that work is sold to people who don’t care about any of that. I understand why it happens, but I don’t have to like it.

To be clear, I don’t think this is a zero sum topic. You don’t have to care about the artist, or your investment. Someone can care about both the value of their investment and in the artist that created the art, and I’d wager to say most people buying art fit into that category. But a comment like the one above represents a hard far end of a spectrum which I can only sum up as “bad.”

When we’re talking about NFTs, which we often are these days, there is a tendency for investors to lump everything together. They see no difference between something created by hand or something created by an algorithm. This illustrates their deep misunderstanding of both art and NFTs. I think this is actually a dangerous mindset which can actually harm artists and communities, and would recommend steering clear of buyers with this approach. This is a brand new world and the collectors who love the art and want to build the community are still showing up every day. Let’s embrace the people who want to build something together with us. We don’t need to make sacrifices to make people who don’t care about us rich.

Blockchains As Social Archives

I’ve been thinking a lot about the transparency that comes along with transactions happening on-chain. Especially with art this takes some big steps to demystify a lot of what happens behind closed doors in the traditional art world, and the benefits to artists are obvious. While this doesn’t solve every problem, it’s the right steps forward for many. Shining a light onto this part of the business takes a lot of the power away from the dealers and puts it directly into the hands of the artists. It also makes the collectors who are more interested in flipping work a little easier to spot. Obviously this makes some dealers and collectors uncomfortable, but that’s how you know it’s progress. When the people who have traditionally held power start seeing the cracks in their structures, they start complaining.

Conversely, this is also really good for the collectors who are focusing less on the investment and more on the artists. The philanthropists and art lovers. Public ledgers make it much easier to know exactly what an artist wants and needs for their work without having to navigate through multiple layers of middlemen which has typically been the case. Even when dealers would put artists and collectors into direct communication, many were afraid to talk “business” out of fear of alienating a gallery or dealer who might feel threatened or cut out, and thus losing that resource for the future. Again, not every problem is addressed, but this is movement in the right direction.

But I think there’s an even more interesting aspect that hasn’t been widely discussed. We all know that the blockchain provides concrete provenance for the work, we’ll now be able to see everyone who owned the work going all the way back to the moment the artist minted it, or look ahead and find where something ended up. This is exciting because artists often lose track of where work goes once it enters the secondary market, unless the new owners are committed to being public about it, which many aren’t. We’ve all been talking about that for months, but another potentially fascinating detail is the ability to see everyone who ever tried to buy a work. The losing bids, the rejected offers – those are on chain too. At the moment we’re focusing on acquisitions and winning bids, but the story that gets us to that point is far more layered.

Imagine being able to look back in history and see everyone who ever tried to buy a Warhol, or a Basquiat, or a Haring – before they were popular. We know who ended up with the significant works, and work is being done by their foundations to fill in the blanks, but that focus is entirely aimed at knowing where those works are now. But consider how interesting it would be to be able to see the unsuccessful offers. To be able to cross reference those people and find someone who tried to buy work from all three of those artists, but didn’t. Then, being able able to see what work they did buy. Are there artists from that area that have been flying under the radar all these years? Did someone repeatedly get out bid by a specific rival? Were artists supporting each other?

I’m thinking about these on-chain transactions, documenting the bid history as a snapshot of community. Let’s talk about right now. A number of artists who are selling work in the NFT space are talking about how they are reinvesting their proceeds back into the community. They are putting some % of the crypto they make from sales back into the market by purchasing works by other artists. It’s been obvious to anyone paying attention that there is a huge (and important) overlap between people selling and buying work. Collectors are also selling their own art, artists are also collecting their friends work. That’s powerful today, but how about in the future? Think 20 years from now, being able to look back on a sale today with a bidding war between friends. This is evidence of a social network, and the power of a community. This of the forensics this will allow as well – being able to see the exact moment that an artist started gaining momentum. Or pinpoint a single collector who funded an entire group of artists with a buying spree, and how those artists in turn lifted others up with them. We’ll be able to see friend groups and shared interests – and divergences. Again, that’s pretty interesting today but it monumentally more so if a relatively unknown artist today blows up in the coming years.

Today we’re focusing on what all this changes and what is suddenly possible, but it’s all new in so many ways and I think we’ve only scratched the surface on how much this all will really change. I can’t wait.

For NFTs, Twitter Is The Marketplace

Last month NiftyTable published stats showing that more than half of the traffic going to the major NFT sites was coming from Twitter. At face value, that means more than half of the traffic across several sites for essentially an entire industry coming from one site… that’s insanity! But we need to consider a few things to put that into context. Traffic stats mean people are very regularly clicking links on one site and being taken to another. Not just once, but all the time. This would primarily be driven by discovery, new people finding new artists they are interested in learning more about. Now there are unquestionably lots of Discord servers filled with NFT discussions, but those are largely contained groups who follow each other on the NFT platforms as well, so there’s not a lot of discovery going on beyond the first introductions. (Some of you will note that discoverability is the number one thing I’ve been saying NFT platforms need to work on.) Facebook as well has some chatter, but again it’s not really a place people are discovering new work so much as seeing work from people they are already following or connected to.

Conversely, sites (or apps) like Clubhouse, Instagram and Twitter are more outwardly focused – that is, unless you have a private account, one of the features of these platforms is that they potentially act as a megaphone and can show you off to a much larger audience than you might have on your own. One might think that Instagram, being a primarily visual platform might be the most useful here when it comes to new artist discovery. Similarly the sheer number of Clubhouse rooms dedicated to giving new artists space to talk about or “shill” (I hate that term) their own work would suggest that a lot of discovery is happening there. That said, Instagram and Clubhouse are similar in that they don’t allow linking to other sites. You simply can’t post a clickable link. This means even if you do post (or talk about) a link someone needs to either retype it or copy and paste it into another browser tab, in which case traffic statistics would not know the origin of the that click. So I suspect it’s highly likely that traffic being driven by both Instagram and Clubhouse is being significantly underreported. To what extent it’s impossible to say, but the assumption that no real traffic is coming from those sites is probably incorrect.

But it’s not just technical luck either. No matter how that gets refactored there’s no getting around the fact that a lot of traffic is coming from Twitter, and there’s a reason for that. Clubhouse is fleeting – if you aren’t in the room you miss it. Instagram is more portfolio-ish, comment threads are silo’d and sharing work that you find and like is difficult. Instagram is also afraid of female nipples, among others things, which results in a lot of self censorship and a lot of posts being taken down for violating “community guidelines.” While not all art has nipples, some art does and if a platform is restricting what some artists can do other artists are going to be cautious about using it, even unintentionally. Twitter is non of those things. Sure it’s ephemeral to a degree, but you can easily search and find older posts and connecting different people and disparate conversations is a snap. And showing off artwork, your own or others, is really easy. And it’s also now, in that when there’s a hot topic of the moment, whatever that moment is, everyone knows they can go to Twitter and talk to people about it.

And it’s not insignificant that none of the NFT platforms really have a way to connect with people. Sure you can follow artists you like, sure they will shuffle you along to their Discord servers, and sure some are promising that they have a social component in the works, but right now onsite, there’s nothing social happening. So people go to Twitter, because that’s where all the social is happening.

I was one of the first 140 people to join Twitter in 2006 and a quick look at my archives shows that as much as I’ve loved it, I’ve been critical of the platform for a very long time now. I’ve come close to leaving several times. But I’m still there and I still use it because as annoying as it is for somethings, it’s incredibly valuable for others. Being able to engage with a community is one of those valuable things. As you can imagine after being on a site for 15 years, people ask me all the time if they should be on Twitter. These days, and for quite some time now, I most often tell them no. In general with social media I think it’s better to not do something than to do it poorly, and to do Twitter correctly you need to invest time in it. This is something most people are not willing to do. They want to create an account, post something once or twice a month and then suddenly have thousands of millions of followers. That’s simply not how it works. You have to be engaged, invested, and understand the social norms of the place. So I’ve told people that if they’ve already been on Twitter and have a community there then they should use that, but if they don’t not to bother trying to start at this point.

However.

I think my position on that has evolved in the recent weeks. It’s becoming more and more clear that the vast majority of the discovery, commentary, meta-commentary, community engagement and (barf)networking is happening on Twitter. Not just randomly, this is where people are asking for recommendations, where introductions are being made, where friendships are forming and where connections are being made. Which, oddly, is what Twitter used to be really good at before it got distracted by trying to be “where breaking news happens” or whatever crap marketing line they were using was. Now, my earlier position still holds true – if you aren’t willing or able to commit several hours a week at the very least to interacting with people on Twitter, that is not just posting, but actually engaging, then I still don’t think you should use the site. But if you have an account already which you just aren’t using, or you are willing to put in the work to build up a new one, there’s really no better place right now for interacting with other artists, collectors, and various people of similar interests. It’s not make or break, but it’s noteworthy enough and a shift in what I’ve been vocal about so I thought it should be mentioned. Hope that’s helpful.

And of course if you are on Twitter feel free to follow me, and if you are interested in NFTs of my photography you can check them out here.

NFT Catch All

As I continue to ramble on about NFTs in my usual stream of consciousness style I thought it would be helpful to collect things together in a little bit of a more easily parseable list.

My original NFT WTF article and the Part 2 follow up cover a lot of ground and I think are a really good 101 on what NFTs are and why they are interesting and important for artists.

I followed those up with a bit of a battle cry as to why artists hold all the power in this new medium.

After that I talked about what upgrades I’d like to see to the NFT Standard.

How artists should be pricing work is a very common topic and I talked about that arguing that we should be thinking crypto first.

I’ve talked about platforms a lot in this, and wrote quite a lot about the value of platforms and what questions artists should be asking before they choose one. And this is important because there are a lot of platforms, which is why I made this NFT Platform Comparison Chart – This is not meant to be comprehensive, rather regularly updated as more information becomes available about the most talked about platforms in the community. I’ve also talked a bit about why Twitter is important.

All the posts (and future ones) can be found under the NFT tag here on this site.

And finally, my own work can be found on the following platforms.

opensea.io/accounts/seanbonner
foundation.app/seanbonner
makersplace.com/seanbonner
zora.co/seanbonner
kalamint.io/user/seanbonner
ephimera.com/seanbonner
knownorigin.io/seanbonner (coming soon)

Control

Control is an ever present topic as an artist. We’re taught the rules and then encouraged to discard them. We celebrate happy accidents, and endlessly tweak precision techniques. The craft vs the variables. As a photographer this is multiplied by the endless gear and negated by endless memory. Film is whispered to be more pure, but it’s really just adjusting when you make the important decisions, before or after. On camera or off. As a street photographer, observation is everything, and everything is anticipation. You can only control so much. All the planning in the world is pointless if nothing catches my eye. As a writer, I control the words but not what is inferred from them. At some point I have to let go. But even then, always holding onto something.

The struggle between controlling and controlled is only complicated when life gets all over it. 

Primarily, my work is directly eternally. I capture moments of things happening around me, not to me. I leave the interpretations up to others, and it doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong. It’s about the feeling, not the reality. Artistic license applied to real life. By intentionally giving up control, it can’t be taken from me. It’s defensive, and preemptive. I don’t know the story from my subject’s perspective, I only know how I perceive it. And in that way, I retain control.

It’s harder to let go when looking inward at my own life and experience, when that dynamic is turned on end. I know the story, but no matter how desperately I want to tell it I’ve moved from the place of observer to the observed. When looking at photos I’ve taken of my life or my family, I know what was happening, but also what was about to happen. And how I played into that. Willingly. Unwillingly. Inconsequentially. Despite the consequences. The viewer only has part of that story, and I wrestle with how important the other part is. Or isn’t.

At the same time, I’m deeply attracted to community powered projects, shared decision making and consensus within a group. Finding a way for these themes to connect is both exciting and scary.

Some Thoughts on NFT Platforms & Marketplaces

Some may have gotten the idea from a previous post that I’m anti-platform. That couldn’t be further from the truth, I think platforms play an important role in this ecosystem in the same way that galleries play an important role in the traditional art world. But actively playing that role is important, and platforms that do nothing except take a portion of an artists sales are as worthless as galleries that do the same. So I wanted to spend a little time detailing a bit more what I want to see from platforms, and where they can add value as opposed to just taking it.

First and foremost let me direct you to a detailed comparison chart a few friends and I made between the top 30 or so platforms that are live right now, that can be found at NFTART.LOL. At the bottom of that page are links to several more comparisons that other people have put together some of which include platforms I didn’t. I also didn’t include at least 20 platforms that haven’t launched yet, or another 30 or so that I was promised are “in the works.” My point is that there are a lot, A LOT, of platforms and people making platform plays. In most cases each one is a little different, in one or two cases people couldn’t tell me why their idea was any different. And in most of these cases the platform plans to take a % of the sale (often between 2% and 30%), so understanding what the platforms are and aren’t doing is important before you decide to cut them in to your sales.

Now, if there was only one or two platforms and they were doing something no one else could do that would be enough, but that’s clearly not the case. And as you see from dumplingpets.com and fake.sale there’s no need to even have a platform – those aren’t white labeled solutions, they are writing the contracts themselves which I’ll talk more about later – but lets talk about where the value add with platforms is.

Discoverability. If you are an artist putting things out into the world, chances are you want people to see them and if you don’t have an audience already then posting things on a platform can help. This is the default benefit across all the platforms right now, though obviously it’s better with some than others. OpenSea for example has a massive user base, but also a fairly dysfunctional search and classification system so the chances of someone who wasn’t already looking for your art stumbling across it on OpenSea is fairly slim. Other sites like MakersPlace and Foundation don’t have a search per se, but instead have many different ways they sort and classify both artists and artworks so a collector looking for something similar to what you are doing has a better chance of finding you. Again, this varies from site to site, so be sure to spend time on the site you plan to list on. It’s helpful to go to a site without a plan, and just click around and see what you find and where it leads you – if you end up seeing work you like, that’s a good sign. If you end up scrolling through lots of work that isn’t really you thing, that’s probably the experience others are having too.

Promotion. While discoverability is largely passive, this more likely requires the conscious involvement of someone at the platform. This would be anything the platform is actively doing to promote the art or artist. Obviously it would be unrealistic for any platform to do everything for everyone, so this is largely a tiered situation where more is going to be done for one person and less for someone else. Those “more” situations are probably happening thanks to a prior agreement or arrangement. On the low end this could be retweeting announcement posts to the platform’s main twitter account. It could be something like pushing the art up to a “featured” position on the website for some period of time, or including it in a weekly emails or announcements. On the higher end, some platforms are taking an even bigger step and cultivating relationships with collectors who they are then introducing to artists via group video calls or even 1 on 1 chats. This gets into the kind of thing that artists would often hope galleries would do for them, and it demonstrates a desire to actually help out the artist (because even if the artist sells something elsewhere, if the collector they have a relationship with is interested they will likely follow), where as platforms who intentionally try to stay in between artists and collectors are probably more looking out for themselves. It should go without saying that in the long run looking out for artists is a much better plan, it should – but there are no shortage of short sighted plays being attempted in this ballpark.

Advice. This gets overlooked a lot, even by platforms themselves who often try to shuffle artists off to discord servers or clubhouse rooms hoping for “the community” to manage it which isn’t bad but also isn’t great. As people who are dealing with this market every single day, the platforms have an incredible amount of information that can be useful for artists planning next steps. And while best practices and things to avoid can be universal, thinking of artists in a one size fits all manor is also a mistake. The platforms that have people who can spend time with individual artists talking about their work, their goals, and their future plans are incredibly valuable and I personally think this is an area were most should spent a little more money on bringing in a few more people to really help develop those relationships. And relating to the previous point, developing a trusted relationship with an artist is a much better approach to retention than playing gatekeeper with collectors.

Community. I hope I didn’t give the impression in that last point that community isn’t worthwhile – far from it! Especially for early career artists, finding a supportive community can be life changing. This is one of the things I’ve been most excited about in lurking around the NFT space over the last few months, the community support, generosity and encouragement is unparalleled. And the platforms that are working to help foster that get big ups. Compare OpenSea to Foundation for example – Foundation has recurring “happy hour” clubhouse rooms where anyone can come and just hang out, the staff is super responsive to emails and messages on social media, while OpenSea just directs everyone to their Discord server which is nearing 45k members, many of who are begging for help or asking questions and there’s rarely a useful reply from anyone at OpenSea, and the team is unresponsive to emails and social media inquiries. (Granted this is just my observation and experience – I have accounts on both sites and I think there are pros and cons to what each is doing, but on this community issue it’s very clearly something Foundation has prioritized and seems to be something OpenSea has ignored.) Big picture – if you care about people who are using your site and work to find ways to help them work together with each other, that’s a good direction to aim for.

Support. Since I mentioned it, this is big. If you as an artist have a problem with something on the site, is there a way for you to get it addressed? A problem could be a technical issue, it could a conflict with another user or a case of infringement. It could be a mixup with a payment or a question about how something is being promoted or future plans. If there is a contact available to you that is responsive that is very good, if there’s just some help docs or a “community forum” that’s not so good. If I have a problem on a site and I can’t get anyone to help me, I have to seriously ask myself what value they are offering me to justify the money I’m giving them from my sales.

And that’s the crux of it really – when we are talking about justifying a % of sales these things are important. These are a very clear value add and if done correctly can provide a lot of benefit to artists using those platforms. Conversely, for the platforms that are not prioritizing these things I would suggest they should reconsider their model and perhaps move to a flat monthly subscription fee or something. I’d rather pay $5 or $10 a month and get no services than give a % of every sale I make in exchange for no services. But that’s just me.

To circle back to the issue I brought up earlier, there is no need for platforms. They are not required. But depending on what you are trying to do, they can be very useful and working together with the right platform can be mutually beneficial. But knowing what the “right” platform for you is requires thinking about what you are trying to do, and identifying which issues are important to you and then finding the platform that aligns with those needs. I write posts like this with the genuine hope that it inspires platforms to be better, to reflect on what they are doing (or not doing) and take steps to improve the weak spots. And if not, at least it gives artists better questions to ask. Platforms being better is good for everyone, so I hope this helps push things in that direction.

I’ve said this publicly a few times recently but there is an absolute flood of platforms right now and I don’t expect all the ones we are seeing today to still be standing in a year. Maybe not even in 6 months. Take a look at this post my friend Jonathan Mann wrote just 3 years ago where he compares the 4 major NFT platforms at the time, only one of those still exists. I think we’re going to see some platforms absorb/buy others, some pivot away to a more niche area they can focus on with less competition, and some simply collapse. Which ones remains be seen, but anyone who has seen these cycles play out time and time again can see the direction this is going. It’s going to be a fun ride, grab the popcorn and buckle up.

CryptoArt and Crypto Pricing

When I started visiting Japan I made it a habit of keeping track of the yen to dollar and was always doing the math in my head every time I bought anything so that I knew how many dollars I was spending. That made sense because while I was “visiting” in yen, I “lived” in dollars. After I moved to Japan I quickly realized that stressing out that the ramen I paid $5 for last week costing $5.25 this week was pointless and I should instead just enjoy my 500 yen ramen and stop worrying how much it was costing me in dollars. I was getting paid in yen, and paying for things in yen. I needed to get comfortable with yen and stop pining for dollars.

6 months ago 1 Ethereum (Ξ) converted to about $400, today it’s over $2100. In that time I’ve seen artists price their works in Eth matched against the dollar conversion they think is reasonable, only to lower the Eth price weeks later when Eth went up in value. I kind of cringed when I saw it happen several times but I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly. I mean, I get it – if you think your work is worth $500 one week it stands to reason you would think it’s worth $500 the next week and the value of some cryptocurrency shouldn’t impact that. Right? Earlier today I was looking at the value of Eth and thought about some work that I minted last week and thought I should probably lower the asking price since Eth has going up significantly since I listed them. So I did. And then I felt sick. And I knew exactly why.

Back when I used to have an art gallery how artists should price their work was a constant topic of discussion. The rule of thumb is simple, you can always increase a price but you can never decrease it. The logic being, if collectors see you lower a price they will never think your work is worth the listed price, and will always think they can get a discount or if they just wait a little longer the price will come down further. Conversely, if you only raise prices an interested party will quickly realize that if they are leaning towards something they should jump now because if they wait it will cost them more.

I keep saying that NFTs are a new medium and artists and creators should think of them that way, and embrace it. And the native currency of this medium is Eth. Sure some marketplaces take credit cards or other cryptocurrency but the dominant payment is Eth. And adjusting the Eth price to keep it matched to the dollar price still looks and feels like lowering the price. Because it is. We might have been “visiting” Eth before while “living” in dollars, but it doesn’t take more than a few weeks to start feeling like a local, and if you now “live” in Eth, then you should stop pining for dollars. An artwork valued at Ξ1 should remain valued at Ξ1 no matter what value Eth has to dollars. That’s a bold position and I get that, but in a way this is walking the walk. NFTs are crypto native, and if we’ve moved from tourist to resident, then we should embrace all that comes with that. That’s going to be a hard sell for many people, and realistically I know we’re not there yet. But we should see it on the horizon, and know what direction we’re heading.

On a personal level I’ve always been terrible at taking my own advice and can be firm with others but often second guess myself. In part because I can be sure of other people’s talents but I struggle recognizing my own. Call it imposter syndrome or insecurity or whatever but I know I’m not alone in that and many artists wrestle with what value to put on their own work. That said, I feel like I fucked up adjusting my pricing to compensate for Eth appreciating. I feel like I devalued my work. It’s not something I’m going to do again.