After talking about it and thinking about it for months, weekend our family sat down and finished up a 3,333 piece generative NFT project, with my son doing the lion’s share of the art. He’s 12 now and has spent massive chunks of his life building amazing structures in Minecraft and we all really enjoy pixel art so it was natural for him to take the visual lead. Of course Tara and I contributed some art as well. While we love PFPs, we also wanted to do something a little different and based this project on bookshelves and the stories and inspiration they can hold. There’s a lot of fun stuff hidden in this collection as well as some 1/1s that we can’t wait to see who finds.
View the collection directly on OpenSea or check the verified contract on Etherscan or follow the project twitter account for news & updates. We used Bueno (a tool built by the Robotos team) to do the generative build and smart contract work and it was super smooth. We’re so excited to roll this out and see what stories this leads to next!
The TL;DR that you need to know before I get into this is that CryptoPunks is a “digital collectable experiment” from 2017 which predates but is also credited with kicking off the whole NFT craze, in fact helping define the standard. I wrote about the different versions of them earlier this year. One could argue, and I do, that most of the biggest and most popular NFTs are derivatives in one way or another of CryptoPunks. Randomly generated from a collection of traits, there are 10K individual CryptoPunks which people often use as avatars. Separately, CryptoPhunks is a 2021 derivative project which literally copied the entire CryptoPunks collection and flipped it horizontally (in either a cash grab or protest, depending on who you talk to and at what point in the story you are referring to – I plan to write more about this in the future), creating a mirror image and kicking off a huge debate about appropriation, fair use and IP rights in this wild west of digital art.
The CryptoPunks collection is incredibly influential, having spawned hundreds/thousands of derivative projects as well as millions of nasty replies from haters on Twitter with accusations of being a “crypto bro” for anyone who dares use one as their avatar. They get referenced all the time in clickbait articles proclaiming shock and awe about how much one of them sold for recently. Point being, people know about them. As a connoisseur of culture with impeccable taste I’ve really enjoyed seeing the creativity they inspire and I’ve collected some of my favorite derivative works in this little virtual gallery if you want to look around. I’ll be expanding that in the near future but it’s still pretty interesting at the moment if you want to follow the thread of inspiration a bit.
Recently I discovered an artist called PIV who has been doing studies of CryptoPunks in relation to fine art, namely Abstract Modernism and work in that orbit. I picked up a piece called “Pablo Picasso” which references the famous 1953 photo of Picasso by André Villers.
For the less visual and more musically inclined this is like Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails “Hurt” or Guns N Roses covering Wings “Live And Let Die” or Redman referencing Cypress Hill with “Sawed Off Shotgun, Hand On The Pump.” It’s one artist giving a nod to another artist. If you know the reference it’s an immediate reward, if you don’t and you are curious it’s an invitation to discover work you might have missed. I love this kind of thing so fucking hard. So in this “Punkism” series PIV is very intentional with their work, limiting their palette to colors and pieces of CryptoPunks.
Putting CryptoPunks in this context of Pop Art is kind of brilliant especially when you consider the influence that Pop Art has on contemporary culture it’s hard to argue that CryptoPunks don’t have that same influence on digital art and culture right now. So it’s a fitting comparison. Obvious as it may be, you can’t talk about Pop Art without acknowledging Andy Warhol and indeed PIV did that directly but also almost in passing with an earlier work entitled “Six Marilyns.” This piece inspired a larger collaboration with Tom Lehman (former CEO of Genius.com which itself was previously Rap Genius and focused on annotating song lyrics to help people understand the references artists were making – just to bring that around even further). The pair teamed up to create a collection of “Marilyn Diptychs” which, using code most often used to create generative art like the CryptoPunks themselves, they made endless variations on a single CryptoPunk which itself looks a lot like Warhol’s Marilyn drawing a direct reference to Warhol’s diptych.
Let’s talk about Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych for a second – did you know this was not initially intended to be a diptych? Art collectors Burton and Emily Tremaine were visiting and saw the two pieces displayed next to each other and suggested that they should be paired, which immediately seemed like the obvious choice. But Warhol’s Marilyn image itself is worth spending some time with. I really like Tina Rivers Ryan’s description of the work, she writes:
“Warhol’s use of the silkscreen technique further “flattens” the star’s face. By screening broad planes of unmodulated color, the artist removes the gradual shading that creates a sense of three-dimensional volume, and suspends the actress in an abstract void. Through these choices, Warhol transforms the literal flatness of the paper-thin publicity photo into an emotional “flatness,” and the actress into a kind of automaton. In this way, the painting suggests that “Marilyn Monroe,” a manufactured star with a made-up name, is merely a one-dimensional (sex) symbol—perhaps not the most appropriate object of our almost religious devotion.”
Like most of Warhol’s portraits he didn’t ask permission which occasionally caused legal issues, but also directly relates to the issues of appropriation and fair use that surround the CryptoPunks and many of their derivative works, and in fact one might say much of the entire NFT market. Warhol’s intentional repetition of his images, which would degrade over time as screens were used slightly changing each one, were meant to both desensitize people to the image, but also reclassify the icons already present in his audience’s cultural awareness. In many ways, a 10k avatar collection does much of the same things, though I’d argue that wasn’t the initial intent.
Coming back to these new Marilyn Diptychs and to play with the tech even further, if you own one of the diptych NFTs you can extract any of the individual Marilyns from the piece into its own profile picture/avatar which is now not only a derivative of Warhol but of the CryptoPunks as well. Again, I love this.
But as I said before, this is conscious. It’s intentional. It’s humans seeing one thing and taking something else and bending it to look similar to the other thing. Which is the art of it all, but it also got me thinking about the generative aspect more.
As many of you know last year I collaborated with my longtime friend, artist Shepard Fairey, on a generative NFT project called DEGENERATE/REGENERATE where we used scans and elements and details from his previous work as well as some of his better known iconography and using this kind of generative tech came up with 7400 individual pieces that are randomly generated but true to his aesthetic. They looked great, which we expected, but what we didn’t expect was that they would combine some of his work in ways he hadn’t previously considered sparking new inspiration which he’s taking back to his physical work. So you have this cycle of inspiration – human inspiring the computer, the computer then inspiring the human. The ever evolving body of work now has DNA from both going forward. It’s pretty exciting and I expect you’ll hear more directly from him about that in the future. But I’m getting off the point, which is about the ghost in the machine, so to speak.
PIV’s work is intentional. They consciously decided to make art that references other art. But CryptoPunks are not intentionally referencing other art. They are just a collection of individual traits – hair color, style, eyes, mouth, glasses, etc thrown into a generator which was told to spit out a 100×100 grid with 10,000 individual combinations (This is a little known fun fact, unlike most avatar NFT collections today which generate 10,000 individual images, CryptoPunks is just one single image with a grid of the individual punks). It was an art experiment – no one knew how it would work out or where it would lead.
This got me curious, without the human hand and intention – could I find a similar but unintentional reference? I narrowed down the traits to sort through and began hunting, eventually landing on CryptoPunk #3725 which is, to my eye, damn close to Warhol’s Marilyn. The only real discrepancy being the green eye shadow. Blue would have been better and there is a blue eye shadow trait but it doesn’t appear with the rest of these traits – the mole, the blond hair, pale skin, etc anywhere in the original 10k CryptoPunks collection. But there was something about it that still wasn’t right. It was facing the wrong way. I immediately thought of CryptoPhunk #3725.
It’s perfect right?
I get so excited thinking about the randomness that led to its creation. A script blindly and emotionlessly assembles a hodgepodge of traits – essentially a realization of the infinite monkey theorem – and makes an almost perfect match. Years later a reactionary protest act puts on the finishing touch. Neither of these two actions intend on this result, but we end up here nonetheless.
I knew it was a crazy long shot but I reached out to the owner of Phunk 3725 and made an offer. To my surprise and delight, they accepted and I am now the owner of Phunk 3725. This piece draws a direct, yet accidental, connection between these two eras of art. It’s incredibly important, and I’m psyched to be its caretaker.
Since it’s been a topic I’ve been yapping about recently a few people asked me for a quick explainer on all the Cryptopunks V1/V2/V3 stuff so the other night I did just that in a Twitter thread but I thought I’d turn it into a blog post as well for easier future reference.
If you’ve spent 4 seconds in the NFT space or 4 seconds near the NFT space or just know some people have some crypto art or something you’ve seen Cryptopunks so I’m going to assume you know what I’m talking about when I say “punk” in this context. There’s no questioning the influence and significance of cryptopunks, there are a bazillion derivatives and they have made headlines for selling for bazillions of dollars. Hours ago in fact Punk #5822 sold for 8000Ξ which today converts to just shy of $23 Million USD. So yeah, they are pretty famous, and it’s important to understand that fame happened almost exclusively in 2021. Cryptopunks were actually released in 2017 and for most of that time very few people cared about them. Towards the end of 2020 people really started going after them and in 2021 they went nuts. But the cryptopunks everyone thinks of are actually the second version (V2).
Going back to 2017, a company called Larva Labs put Cryptopunks online as free to claim and promised the ability to trade/buy/sell them after they were all claimed. It took a few days/weeks for that to happen and once they were all claimed people started trying to trade them. But there was a problem. A bug in the code meant that if you tried to sell a punk the buyer got the punk AND the eth from the sale, leaving the seller with nothing. This is obviously a problem and as soon as it was found Larva Labs said “wait! Don’t trade them yet” and started working on a fix. Because things on the blockchain are immutable they couldn’t really “fix” the punk that were already out in the world, so they made new ones. They airdropped the new (V2) punks to everyone who had claimed the original (V1) punks and figured that was that. Potentially important detail: Larva Labs didn’t send the new punks to the the current punk holders – they sent them to the claimers. So if you claimed a V1 punk and gave it to a friend, you got the V2 punk, they didn’t.
Because the V1 punks were not really sellable everyone kind of forgot about them, and all focus was put on the V2 ones that people could easily trade. It’s worth noting that punks predate the ERC-721 NFT standard we know and love today. Cryptopunks are in fact ERC-20 tokens. In order for Cryptopunks (or any other pre-ERC-721 NFT like Mooncat Rescue) tokens to be traded on NFT marketplaces like OpenSea they need to be wrapped inside of an ERC-721 token. Wrapping is confusing but also really straight forward. It’s just putting one token inside of another. You’ve probably seen WETH which is just Wrapped ETH. Here are a bunch of V2 Cryptopunks that have been wrapped for example, and here’s LarvaLabs recognizing them. That’s apparently an important detail as some have suggested that wrapping changes or somehow negates the NFT that is being wrapped, which obviously isn’t the case. The socks your mother bought you for your birthday don’t cease to be socks when she wraps them in wrapping paper – same idea here. Anyway, for years people were happily buying and selling V2 cryptopunks both wrapped and unwrapped. But they just called them “Cryptopunks” and not “V2 Cryptopunks” because they were the only ones being traded so it was obvious what you meant. But in 2021 some people started working on a wrapper for the V1 Cryptopunks so they could be traded as well. This is where things get interesting. If you look at the incredible timeline Leonidas has assembled you’ll note that Cryptopunks is the very first 10k Avatar project on the Ethereum blockchain.
Despite claims made by lots of people, notably Larva Labs themselves, Cryptopunks are not the first NFT, but they are the first 10k avatar project. But now suddenly you have 2 Cryptopunk collections in motion. Both made by the same company, both pointing to the same art. Released within weeks of each other. Fun fact, the V1 contract calls them “cryptopunks” but the “fixed” V2 contract calls them “cryptopunksmarket” – anyway, with V1s being safely wrapped inside an ERC-721 wrapper they can now be traded, and people started trading them. Anyone who has spent any time around collectors knows that an error or a misprint or a fuckup is always super desirable – and that’s how people started to think of the V1s. They are this mostly forgotten mistake, which is appealing to some people.
And especially if you have cryptopunks because they are historically important as a lot of people claim to, then this original version of the cryptopunks released a few weeks earlier is SUPER INTERESTING! (all caps for emphasis). This is where things which are seemingly clear get really messy quickly. LarvaLabs has an unclear relationship with the IP of the Cryptopunks. I wrote a bit about this last year in relation to their reactions to some derivative projects.
From their end, LarvaLabs didn’t have a license in place before they distributed them and have taken different and conflicting positions on the matter over the years, so there’s just nothing clear to fall back on which is why it’s such a grey area. 19/ Anyway, jumping back to now – V1 and V2 Cryptopunks are now on the market. Anyone with a V1 cryptopunk who couldn’t trade it before can now safely wrap it and then sell it. Guess who had a lot of V1 Cryptopunks? LarvaLabs. In what is now largely seen as a “bad move” LarvaLabs secretly wrapped a bunch of V1 cryptopunks and sold them for a couple hundred ETH. Then went on the attack saying that V1 punks were not legitimate.
As an aside, last year I wrote about how Blockchains have the potential to become social archives, and the documented provenance for each NFT might end up telling interesting stories about the history of specific NFTs and that’s exactly what just happened here. The 39 V1 Cryptopunks that were wrapped and sold by LarvaLabs are already being referred to as the “rainforrest punks” and have become especially desirable among some collectors in what is basically the Streisand Effect for Web3.
So LarvaLabs then sent a DMCA to OpenSea as they have been known to do, and OpenSea complied by taking down the listing for the V1 punks. Now if you’ve been following along this far you know that V1 punks were made by LarvaLabs. So they kind of just DMCA’d themselves. This is akin to Nike making shoes with a white swoosh, selling them and then deciding they want the swoosh to be red and then claiming infringement against someone who bought the white swoosh Nikes trying to resell them on ebay. In other words it makes no sense. V1 punks were made and sold by LarvaLabs. They can’t decide after they are already sold that they don’t like them and then claim they aren’t real, or that the secondary market is infringement. So of course the DMCA notice was appealed.
That happened yesterday, so now LarvaLabs has 10 days to respond (or not) until we get to the next chapter in however this plays out. At the moment V1 punks are not being sold on OpenSea but are being sold on their own marketplace and on LooksRare. I don’t know if those sites received DMCAs and just ignored them or if they didn’t receive anything, doesn’t really matter though. What happens next however is going to have very serious implications no matter which way it goes. If the DMCA is upheld the secondary market for almost all NFTs is suddenly in legal question. If the DMCA is dropped LarvaLabs will have to accept that their flagship IP isn’t as locked down as they thought, and that there are now 2x as many cryptopunks out there.
Interestingly enough, V2 punk owners have been complaining about how LarvaLabs has been handling IP for quite a while now leading a number of high profile punk owners to sell theirs in protest. So in some ways V1 & V2 owners have a common foe. Though maybe foe is too strong a word. LarvaLabs did make these cool avatars which everyone loves, even if their community relations/communication has been a bit lacking since then. And a lot of V2 owners actually own V1s as well, so it’s not really 2 different audiences.
March Update: In an unexpected surprise turn of events LarvaLabs announced that they sold the IP for CryptoPunks to Yuga Labs, producers of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, who immediately announced that they would not be pursuing any of the DMCAs filed by LarvaLabs and also that they would be granting commercial rights to CryptoPunk owners. As part of the deal LarvaLabs transferred their CryptoPunks to Yuga, including some 1000 V1 punks. Almost immediately the V1 collection was reinstated on OpenSea.
But what about V3? V3 Punks is a totally unrelated project created by fans and seems to be embraced by both V1 & V2 owners. It’s just a fun nod to the whole project distinguishing itself as different but also promoting unity and joy, which is kind of nice. Personally I’ve really enjoyed the very rich derivative world that Cryptopunks has spawned and I think the project is incredibly significant. I’ve bought pieces from a lot of the so called “shitpunk” derivative projects over the last year. I also really nerd out about the IP stuff which is obvious from last years article. I bought some V3s because I think it’s fun and I recently traded an NFT I received for free for a V1 because I think it’s a cool piece of history. I have no idea where this will go, or how that will impact values of anything. None of what I’m talking about should be seen as endorsements or speculation, but I find it super fascinating and look at it kind of like collector memorabilia. Anyway, that’s my quick catch up. We’ll see what happens next!
Let’s talk about NFT projects and “the floor.” As you likely know “the floor” is the absolute lowest price at which you can buy a piece from an artist or from a collection right this very second. This comes from the “price floor” idea in the Law of Supply and Demand where there is a minimum viable price that something must be sold for in order to cover the costs of supplying it. With digital artwork you have different production concerns so “price floor” became “floor price” and is now just called “the floor.” Let’s unpack this a bit more.
First and foremost it’s important to understand that the value of anything is decided by two people. The buyer, and the seller. Other people might have an opinion about it but that doesn’t matter. If I want to sell you something and you agree to the price, it irrelevant if your neighbor thinks that’s a good price. With retail prices of various products a significant amount of work is done to decide what the public will accept as a reasonable price. With used, secondary, etc sales it is more hands on. Craigslists, eBay, your local farmers market, a yard sale, whatever – all of this commerce depends on just two people agreeing on a price and it’s understood that sale stands alone and it’s indicative of an entire market. This is why people walk away from a yard sale saying “I got such a good deal on this lamp!” rather than “I can’t believe the floor price on hammers is crashing.”
I should take a moment to give some context as to why I think I’m qualified to run my mouth about shit like this. Between 1999 and 2007 I co-owned and operated an art gallery called sixspace, originally in Chicago and then later in Los Angeles. We produced monthly exhibitions by many artists including some that we directly managed as well. In addition to our in-house exhibitions we also collaborated with other galleries on events and participated in global art fairs. After the gallery closed I maintained relationships with both artists and collectors which have turned into multi-decade friendships. An art collector myself, I began buying work from artists and galleries in the mid 90’s and nearing 30 years later almost every inch of my living space (and probably too much storage space) is filled with art. So while I agree that the NFT space is too new to have experts about any of it, I have a lifetime of experience buying and selling art.
Like all art, most NFTs are illiquid. This means just because someone wants to buy something doesn’t mean there is anything available at a price they are willing to pay. Similarly just because someone wants to sell something doesn’t mean there is anyone willing to pay the price they are asking. I own pieces by world famous artists and if I wanted to sell them It would take weeks/months of working with dealers and/or other collectors to find someone who wanted to buy them at a price I’d be comfortable taking. That’s illiquidity. If it was liquid I would just snap and they would be sold but that’s not how most art works.
With stocks or other investments it’s less of an issue as all shares are equal, with artwork there are more details to consider. Not the least of which is aesthetics, that is what does this piece of art actually look like? Not everyone buys or sells art for the same reason. Not every single piece created by an artist is the same. In the physical art world there are artists I love with pieces I’ve chosen not to buy because they just didn’t work for me personally. Maybe the color or the theme or something was just not to my taste, but another piece by the same artist was a direct hit. With NFTs, especially with larger collections how it looks plays into what someone is planning to do with it, as does various functions or rarities – so trying to project the demand for any one piece onto an entire body of work is a mistake.
Additionally, “the floor” lacks any context. It is ignorant of what other sales might be happening in an artists body of work (or in this case an NFT collection), it is ignorant of what personal, medical or business issues might be going on in the sellers life. The assertion that “the floor” says anything about anything other than what one person is willing to sell a piece for is absolute ignorance. And because these works are largely illiquid, if someone needs to get liquid fast – perhaps they have another opportunity they’d rather pursue or an emergency medical expense or any number of millions of reasons they might want to sell, this often means they are going to have to sell something below it’s potential value. Because again, lack of context. If a work is offered for sale for $1000 and someone buys it for $1000, all anyone knows is that it sold for $1000. Maybe the buyer would have paid $1500. Maybe the seller was willing to go down to $500. Who knows? Conversely, the very fact that a piece is available to be purchased at a “floor” price means currently, at this moment, no one is willing to pay that price being asked. If they were, it wouldn’t be for sale, it would be sold. So at any given moment “the floor” can be above or below the actual value of the work. Sometimes both at the same time.
Much more useful metrics for gauging current demand for a project are average sale price over some period of time (24h, 7d, 30d, etc which takes into account all the mid and higher end sales missed in “floor” discussions), what % of the collection is for sale and how that is changing over time (a decreasing % shows increasing demand), and how distributed the collection is. Do a few people own all of them (bad) or do lots of people own a few of them (good)? There are tools like Nansen, Icy and others which are helpful for a more comprehensive understanding.
Traders, flippers and speculators would have you believe otherwise. In any given project community would-be investors try to convince everyone listening that the “floor” is the end all be all metric for determining success or failure. The same people obsessing about “the floor” are the ones demanding roadmaps and asking about utility. Could you imagine anything more absurd than walking into an art gallery, walking up to an artist and demanding they tell you about their roadmap? Or saying “This is a lovely painting, I know exactly the place I want to hang it in my living room – but first can you tell me what the utility of this is?” Or, more egregious of all, contacting an artist and saying “I bought a piece from your gallery exhibition last year, what are you doing today to increase the value of it?”
If someone came into my gallery asking something like that I’d throw them out on the street.
An artist’s job is to make art. Making more art is the only roadmap they need. End of story. The work they made yesterday benefits and is complimented by the work they make tomorrow. Demand for work they made yesterday is increased by the work they make tomorrow. If you are worried about or trying increase the value of art work you own, hounding the artist is a waste of your time. You are distracting them from doing the one thing they are best suited to do, making art. What you can and should be doing is finding a way to increase demand for that artists work. Tell your friends, talk about why you love it, what attracted you to the work in the first place, why did you decide to buy it? As a collector, I love hearing these things from other collectors, and I’ve bought a lot of work because another collector tipped me off to something incredible. This is good for the artist, the collectors, the market and valuations.
You know what isn’t good for the artist, the collectors, the market or valuations? Crying about “the floor.” When I’m looking into a project if I see people throwing a fit about “the floor” I know that a lot of the owners bought in for the wrong reason and will be dumping soon so I would be stupid to buy in at whatever prices are offered today, rest assured they will be lower tomorrow. On the other hand when I discover something see collectors talking about how much they love the work, love the artist, love the project, I kick myself for not learning about it earlier. And because I know this, when I do see someone having a panic attack about “the floor” I know only one of two things can be true – either they are purposely trying to sabotage the valuations to drive prices down (potentially so they can buy in at a lower price) or they are an idiot. In either case, I know right away to ignore anything they say.
This all holds true in the regular art world where sales take days, weeks, sometimes months to complete. In the Digital/NFT space where sales happen in minutes, sometimes in seconds it’s even more true. Manipulation is real, and so are idiots. It’s best to avoid both. Buy art you love, by artists you respect. Do that, and you’ll never be disappointed.
In the summer of 1993 I saw the World Wide Web for the first time and to this day it remains one of the most exciting moments of my life. The possibility and the potential was so obvious. This was a place where anything could happen, and everyone could see it. Over the next few years it stopped feeling like a destination and I no longer differentiated between “the real world” and “online” – it was all real and always happening, sometimes I was away away from my keyboard.
By the early 2000’s these amorphous blobs of content we were putting online started to find ways to work together. Small pieces loosely joined. We were on the verge of connecting everything and it was going to be incredible. Tech conferences felt like summer camps. All the people you’d met online coming together and hanging out in hotel lobbies. We put faces to names, and stayed up all night imagining the future. That feeling changed in 2004 when the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference was rebranded as The Web 2.0 Conference. e-Tech became Web 2.0, officially.
That year I ran into a friend outside of the conference. They looked upset, almost distraught. I asked what was wrong. They told me they’d just taken an elevator that was packed with people they didn’t recognize. They’d looked at name tags to try and find a connection and rather than seeing familiar startups or friend’s projects they saw SAP, Oracle and various banks. I said “so what?” They said, “When the money and enterprise guys show up, you know it’s over.” I laughed off the comment at the moment but thought about it a lot in the following years. That was the beginning of the end, at least of our dreams of anything being possible.
It wasn’t a night and day change and of course there was plenty of talk of “users” instead of “people” in what we now call the “dot-com era” or “Web 1.0” though we didn’t call it those things at the time. But Web 2.0 brought in the big guns. The focus became controlling what people could do, and owning their information. Our content, our data, anything they could get their hands on. This was the golden age of luring people in with free services and War and Peace length Terms of Service that no one read, so we didn’t realize how much we were giving up. Once we did, it was too late.
If you’ve been with me over these years you know I’ve been critical of Web 2.0. I have spent a considerable amount of time talking about the web and what we do with it, what we could have done, and where we went wrong. I had so much hope, and felt so much disappointment. Obviously I wasn’t the only one, which is how we found our way to Web3.
Web3 is not Web 3.0. It’s not a sequel or an update to Web 2.0, it’s a separate fork. You could maybe argue it’s a prequel but one informed by the errors of what was yet to come. While Web 2.0 was the fire started by sparks from the dot-com era, this a rewind and do-over with flameproof lining. Web3 looked at Web 2.0, saw the foundation was rotting and rather then renovating decided to build fresh on the plot next door. I could keep running with these analogies but I’m sure you get the point. When you see Web 2.0 talking heads steaming and stomping their feet that “NFTs and Crypto are not Web 3.0!!” they are right, but just not in the way they think. Web 3.0 was The Semantic Web – it already happened and chances are you never even heard about it. Web3 is something else.
Dialup ---> Dot-Com Era ---> Web 2.0 ---> Web 3.0
Web3 upends the power structures we’ve grown accustomed to and puts artists and creators back into the drivers seat. Without exception, every person I’ve spoken to who I know from my mid 1990’s internet adventures agrees this feels just like that. Suddenly there are possibilities again. Suddenly all options are on the table. Suddenly Anything can happen. It’s exciting. And scary. A little bit dangerous. It’s like the run down part of town where all the artists have studios because thats where they can afford lots of space. Sure you have to be careful where you park so your car doesn’t get broken into, but the creativity and inspiration around every corner is worth the visit.
After 2020 lots of people have been asking if there is actually a reason to go back to the office, to go back to a job they hate. Web3 is giving many of those people the ability to say no, they aren’t going to suffer through a 9-5 they hate just to barely scrape up enough to pay rent. Web3 offers a future where people are in charge of their own identities, not beholden to the whims of data hoarding corporations. People control their own accounts, own their own futures. Detractors are outraged that currency and wallets play a central part in this, but currency and wallets have always played a central role – the only thing that has changed is who benefits. It’s intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise. In 1993 John Gilmore said “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” and in a way that is what has happened here, but we’re talking about an economy rather than censorship. The Net interpreted walled gardens and institutional lock-ins as damage. Web3 is a creator economy like we’ve never seen – by and for the people.
Now that may sound idealistic and is, admittedly. Proudly even. Because that’s what a reimagining should be. If you are going back and starting over you need to be idealistic, you need to believe anything is possible and that the best outcome is realistic. The unified, decentralized dream is sitting right in front of us. Of course it’s not assured, and there are no shortage of power hungry or greed driven actors trying to centralize things for their own benefit. We’re already seeing compromises billed as simplification. We’re seeing sour grapes from people who called this a trend or a scam and expected it to fade away years ago. There’s no shortage of self proclaimed early adopters who didn’t adopt this early enough and are mad that they made the wrong call. That’s OK, it’s to be expected. The good is the momentum is strong and things are moving in the right direction. The secret is it’s not too late. We are still so incredibly early. The surface has barely been scratched.
Another incredibly important thing here – the kids all get it. For every person over 40 arguing about the legitimacy of cryptocurrency or the value of JPGs there are 2 people under 20 who don’t even question it. Digital gold, a catalog of avatars and identities – this is the world they grew up with. It made sense in countless video games, why not everywhere else? And when you take into account that there’s been a financial crisis almost non-stop since 2001, with an ever growing list of shysters and conmen getting caught for decades of scams and frauds, or politicians getting pay offs, or secret back room deals where almost everyone gets screwed – the appeal of a public ledger for all transactions becomes crystal clear. The next generation is all to aware of the short end of the stick they’ve been left to hold, and they are simple deciding not to.
So if you are asking “Why Web3?” The answer is simple. Web3 is the future.
My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. In fact I can date my childhood memories really well because I was in a different school almost every grade, so depending on which school or group of kids are in the memory I know exactly when it happened. This was the source of a lot of trauma for me (as soon as I’d make friends I’d move away and have to start all over again) which led to various trust and interpersonal relationship issues that I spent years working through, some better than others. This has manifested itself in various ways, one of which is that as you might know I’m deeply fascinated by and attracted to subcultures and communities – I never had “my people” as a kid, and when I finally found them in my high school years I never let go.
I gave a talk at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna once about my career, and jokingly said that bouncing from music to art to technology didn’t make any sense. The professor who had invited me to his class interjected that it made perfect sense, because the notable common thread through all my work isn’t the particular medium of the moment, but rather the community around it. He observed, perhaps better than any therapist I’ve ever been to, that in my work I’m always trying to build sustainable communities.Perhaps, he noted, because I never had a community growing up so I’m destined to spend my life chasing after them. Well thanks for that one there Prof.
But he was right.
I call myself a misanthoplogist which is only half a joke, most of the communities I dive into and immerse myself in are subculture, occulture even, and often skeptical of outsiders. Most of us are misfits and weirdos who didn’t fit in with the world we saw around us, so we built our own. Or since it’s so much easier these days, we found others like us and embraced the world they’d already started building. And once a part of this chosen family, which ever one that might be (or several concurrently, as I’ll get to in a moment) it becomes deeply important to us, shaping us as much as we shape it. We become the community, and the community becomes representative of us – our interests, our hopes, our dreams.
When I meet someone else from one of these communities out in the world we share an instant understanding and a bond that unless you are also part of that community, likely makes no sense. In fact, you might not even notice it. In this way, these friendships and communities become almost secret societies. Indeed, band logos, slang and inside jokes can map perfectly with some cryptic rune, sigil or foreign language. If you know, you know. If you don’t, you don’t. Forget music and just consider Hobo Symbols or Warchalking – just understanding what these markings mean puts you into a very tiny group. Now apply that same logic to graffiti’d gang tags or bumper stickers.
Those are physical world examples, but it should be no surprise to you that I’m heading towards the virtual. Years ago my ex-roommate brokep made a brilliant comment that he doesn’t use or like the then common abbreviation “IRL”(In Real Life) instead preferring to use “AFK” (Away From Keyboard) because in his perception, and for those around him, online was just as real as offline and the difference wasn’t which was real or not, but which had your attention at any given moment, and he didn’t want to perpetuate the false idea that things happening online were any less important or “real” than those happening offline. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One takes this a step further by making the online more important than the offline, and the introduction of metaverses. I’ll get back to that shortly.
My son has lived all around the world. I like to think this was a conscious decision informed by expert learnings and my own lived experience, but it could just as easily be repeating the same mistakes my parents made. Time will tell. But the point being at almost 12 years old he’s spent significant chunks of his life living in Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo and now Vancouver. And he’s traveled to dozens of other countries in the interim. When I was a kid in the 80’s jumping from school to school in city to city, I often tried to be penpals with friends I’d made but that usually lasted one or two letters until we’d both forgotten about it. The internet changed all that as we know, and with my son any school he’s been in has been for at least a 3 year stretch and he’s stayed in touch with a number of friends regularly, for years now, in any number of online worlds, primarily Minecraft where he and his friends can actually build out a world that remains the same no matter where they are accessing it from.
Knowing how insufferable I am in these posts, you can only imagine how much worse I am in person. My excitement this year about NFTs has infected every corner of my life and this has rubbed off on my son who has his own collection and is an active member of several related communities. So here’s what I’m starting to get at – when I ask him, out of all the places he’s lived and all the places he’s visited, which is is favorite – he points out that it’s not such a simple question as all the places have pros and cons. He’s a smart kid. If we’re talking about food then one city might be better. If we’re talking about hiking or snowboarding or bike riding then yet another city might be better. If he’s talking about where his friends are, then he knows exactly which Discord server he’d pick. Online or offline are the same – they are just different places where he spends time.
I get that. A few years ago I played some World of Warcraft with him, which was a game I spent a significant chunk of time playing in the early 2000’s. Walking through those in game cities felt every bit the same as it feels when I visit a city I used to live in, or a favorite place to travel. I know what’s around the next corner and where to get the good food. So I assure you, he’s not the only one who feels that way. I know a lot of people in my generation and a little older who would think that sounds crazy. But this is the future, and the younger kids all get it.
So to connect this back around, Discord servers are communities. Cyber cliques. Digital gangs. Virtual families. This is real life in every way, and the relationships we form there are just as real. I need more than one hand to count the number of friends who have had marriages end because of affairs being had with people they had never met in physical space. That’s as real as it gets. But that’s beside the point, which I know I’m talking a long time to get to, but here it is – offline I can I look at you and know who you are, know if I know you or not. Online, I look at your avatar. And your avatar can be anything. And if your avatar can be anything then you can be anyone, right? Right. That’s equal parts liberating and terrifying. If you can be anyone, how do you know who anyone is? Or maybe more importantly, does that even matter?
Going back to Ready Player One again, in the metaverse people were able to create avatars that were the perfect versions of themselves. Who they wanted to be, without the limitations of their physical lives (like, how much money they have or where they lived). And, they didn’t have to be just one person – they could be different people for different situations. This begins to really pick apart the idea of identity – but again this isn’t new or exclusive to the internet in anyway. People have had secret lives and kept separate identities offline forever. We all know someone who acts one way at the office and completely differently outside of the work environment. Or what about LARPers or Furries or hardocre Trekies. Or what about punk rockers who put on nice clothes to go to a real job between 9-5. I’m being a bit obvious but you get the point – the notion of being different people in different contexts is a very normal thing, and doing that online with an avatar in a community just makes it even more… well, real.
Back to my son – in the communities he’s a part of, no one knows he’s a kid. That’s intentional on his part, because he recognizes that people treat him differently if they think of him as a peer. And yes to alleviate any fears we know what he’s doing and who he’s hanging out with, and have regular open conversations about safety around that – but we also respect his wishes and love that he has this ability to safely explore who he is, and who he wants to be. His identity is connected to his Avatar. His Avatar shows his connection to this community, and unlocks special membership privileges. His Avatar is also a unique digital object that he owns, because it’s an NFT. There are a few thousand others who hold NFTs from this collection and while they might meet each other on the project Discord, they can also recognize each other anywhere else on the web as well. It’s a digital band t-shirt.
This week twitter announced plans to add web3 integration to the site with two examples of how they are going to do it – they are going to add tipping with Bitcoin, and verified ownership of Avatars. Now, if you’ve been reading the news or following related headlines you might have heard about the Bitcoin tipping part but likely didn’t catch the avatar bit. This is because most of the “technology journalists” writing about web3 have no idea what is actually happening and are just looking for recognizable buzzwords to drive stories and Bitcoin is recognizable but NFTs and Avatars are confusing so Bitcoin drives the story and the Avatar bit gets a passing mention just so that all the boxes are checked. I’m not just making that up, I’ve spoken with no less than 10 writers at major publications in the last 2-3 months who have all had similar stories. “I’ve written about art/web/entertainment/memes before so my editor just told me to put together something about NFTs but none of this makes any sense to me, can you try to help me understand what is happening?”
But this is a legitimately big deal. “Why would I buy it when I can just right click and save it?” falls apart the moment wallet verification is introduced, and a social platform as large as Twitter recognizing that what NFTs you own directly relates to your online identity is the tip of the iceberg. People already spend a lot of time, effort and money crafting and curating their online persona – the dismissal that they wouldn’t buy an Avatar to signify their connection to a community or social standing is silly. That’s so obviously where this is all heading. And the natural extension of this is if your identity is tied to an Avatar, and you have many different Avatars then you natively have the potential for many different identities. I might use my Bored Ape Avatar when I’m on the Bored Ape Yacht Club Discord Server and then switch to my Punk Cat Avatar when I’m on the Punk Cats server. Other people who hold NFTs from both collections might do the same, and we might recognize each other and intentionally connect those two avatars into one identity – but there’s no reason at all that I couldn’t keep an avatar in a separate wallet and when I switch to it also switch to a completely unique identity.
So far I’ve been talking about forums and websites, but as metaverses like Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, Sandbox, etc etc etc begin to pop up and start intermingling the situation gets much more interesting. When we’re talking about virtual worlds and not just screen names, it’s an entirely larger thing.
As someone who has been using my real name online for more than 25 years and has spent way too much time thinking about how identity and reputation and positioning impact online interactions, this is mindblowingly exciting. Scary as hell, but inevitable and totally obvious at this point. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Yesterday I was talking about a cute new digital collectable collection on OpenSea that I was considering buying into, noting that there were 10k which had recently sold out and the cheapest ones were getting more expensive by the minute. Tara was sitting across from me at the breakfast table checking it out as well. We talked about how cute they were and sent a few back and forth to look at. As Tara was getting ready to buy one she asked “wait, why are there only 800 of these, are they still minting them?” We quickly realized that she was looking at a fraudulent collection that had been named almost identically with only one extra letter, but was coming up first in the search results. I immediately sent a tweet to Nate Chastain who is Head of Product at OpenSea and he pulled down the fraudulent account right away. Unfortunately it looked like 30 or 40 people had already fallen for the scam while it was active, and for those people there’s no way recourse or way to get their money back. Had the real account been verified it’s probably safe to say that none of those people would have been scammed, it was only because Tara happened to notice the difference that we didn’t fall for it ourselves. And how long would it have stayed up if someone who knew who to reach out to on Twitter didn’t spot it?
Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened with OpenSea, in fact it happens regularly – and much of that can be blamed on how OpenSea handles verification. And because transactions happen instantly, even if a scam is found pretty quickly the money has already been transferred to the scammer with no way to get it back. Essentially they have created a situation with high reward and low risk for scammers to just keep setting up fake accounts and collecting Ξ every single day.
But let’s step back for moment and look at how we got into this mess. Verification as we think of it today both began with and is the fault of Twitter. In 2009 Twitter was sued by Tony La Russa relating to a fake account in his name, and while the suit was eventually dropped Twitter instituted Verified Accounts in the wake of that suit to give them a solution for the future. Years earlier Friendster had gone to war with the so called Fakesters by just banning accounts left and right, which is arguably what caused people to flee that site in favor of MySpace. Following that lead, Twitter had been applauded for taking a more permissive approach to free speech / parody and in theory this step allowed them to keep doing that. You might think this was a good move and had it been rolled out as promised it might have been, but rather than being used to, you know, actually verify an account was who it was claiming to be, Twitter decided to monetize the feature. I wrote about this back in 2015 as one of the big problems on the site at the time, but essentially they gave verifications away to famous people to make it desirable and they would use a few verifications as a lure to companies to get them to buy ads. They also began threatening to remove verification for accounts they deemed to be in violation of their TOS. This had a terrible impact on the public perception of “verified” and instead of seeing it as “this account is who is who it is claiming to be” people began to see it as a kind of endorsement. It took many years of very loud objection to this by many people before eventually Twitter came around and stopped using it as a prize and published a clear set of criteria which allowed non-celebrities or paying customers to get the prized blue checkmark. Anyone can now apply to be verified and Twitter’s official position is that it is not an endorsement but rather confirms they have seen evidence that proves the account is or represents who it claims to. This is a good thing.
Conversely Instagram is still very much doing the “We verify accounts on a case by case basis, but we won’t tell you what our criteria is” thing which leads to incredibly high profile people unable to get verified and regular scams taking place on the app. I’ll skip the breakdown about how every other site handles this and get right to the obvious point – Verified should mean exactly that. The account has been verified. It is who it claims to be. That the site has seen enough evidence to confirm identity. End of story. It should not be seen as an endorsement, or used in an editorial manor. It shouldn’t be weaponized. And to be very clear, when a site decides to have a vague policy that is enforced on a case by case basis, that’s what they are doing – and it directly harms the community. Ironically, almost every site doing this claims to be doing it to protect their users. I know because I’ve talked with most of them. They care, but they are misdirected.
Which brings us back to OpenSea. I’ve written about different issues on OpenSea many times this year but if you are new to this let me quickly summarize that they are the absolute largest NFT marketplace by user base and have raised more venture capitol than any of the other competing site. Unfortunately from an outside view, teams appear to have a fraction of the resources they need to get anything done. I will say that this has taken a significant step in the right direction with the addition of Nate Chastain who I mentioned above. Prior to his hiring the only way I could get any comment or issue addressed was to DM with one of several anonymous team members on Twitter who would promise me they would try to get the person “in charge” to do something and then cross my fingers and hope that it would work out. It did about 50% of the time. Now with Nate I can tweet publicly with a real person and get a comment or an issue addressed 100% of the time. That’s a wonderful step forward, but still incredibly problematic. OpenSea recently raised $100 Million on a $1.5 Billion valuation–that the Head of Product has to personallyhandlesupportrequests sent to him on his personal Twitter is fucking ridiculous. I appreciate the personal touch of course, but come on–It’s not fair to him, and it’s not fair to the community. With that said, I truly believe Nate is trying to do the right thing, but I also think OpenSea’s policies are misdirected. And while misdirected policies on social media sites can lead to difficult social situations, misdirected policies on market places also end up costing people real money.
So what are those policies? Thats a good question and it seems to be somewhat fluid. To begin with, OpenSea has 2 different and separate kinds of verification. Account level – are you who you say you are, and Collection level – Is this a legitimate project or not? (To sell an NFT on OpenSea you have to make a Collection for it to live in). I’m verified on Twitter, and after connecting my OpenSea account to my Twitter account and tweeting out something OpenSea was able to confirm I was who I said I was and verified my account there as well. You might think that if OpenSea is confident enough in what they know about who I am that they can verify my account that they would use that information to automatically verify my collections. That would make sense, but that is not the case. Collections are verified separately and somewhat arbitrarily. Earlier this year only verified collections turned up in search results. Documents on OpenSea’s site recommended after you create your collection you tweet the link to them or post it in their discord and they would then verify it. That got overwhelming quickly and the backlog became insane, so they changed to allow all collections in the search results, but buying from an unverified collection gives you a popup saying that OpenSea hasn’t had a chance to verify it yet. But due to the sheer numbers of listings being added every day you are much more likely to see that popup than not, so it’s become easily ignorable noise – just enough for OpenSea to waive responsibility for people who get scammed.
These verifications before seemed to be based on someone looking at the collection and seeing if it looked on the up and up and then hitting OK. But that’s changed and OpenSea is now treating Collection verification as an endorsement. Officially, you can no longer request that your collection be verified. Instead, collections are supposedly verified after hitting a completely arbitrary bar of 100Ξ in sales volume, but there are “other ways” to get verified as well. Like being a celebrity (but not a famous artist). Or asking on Twitter. (And that doesn’t even begin to address the problem that tying authenticity to a sales number disadvantages lower priced work made in smaller numbers, in favor of higher priced work made in bulk – which suggests OpenSea is more concerned with how much money they are going to make and less about protecting people from scams.) In addition to having a verified account, other things that will not get you a verified collection include having other verified collections (every new collection has to start from 0), having impersonators actively scamming people by pretending to be you, or making what they consider to be an homage or derivative art. That last one is most troubling because all art is derivative, so this means someone has to make call about what they think is too derivative which means individual people are projecting their personal biases onto a system that is designed to protect people. This means if you like a project that individual employees at OpenSea don’t, they are less concerned with protecting you. I’m sure OpenSea doesn’t see it that way because they don’t want to think that their policies are hurting people, but thats exactly what is going on.
I’ve written before about the issues OpenSea has been dealing with in relation to struggles over IP, so their concern is fair, but all the more reason why they shouldn’t be getting involved with editorial decisions and stick to separating scams from legitimate projects. Let’s look at some cats as an example. Stoner Cats is a high profile celebrity backed project that received a mixed reception from the NFT community, including a competing parody project conceived and launched in 24 hours called Blazed Cats. Both projects are algorithmically generated collections of 10,000 images. On the Blazed Cats website they make many references to Stoner Cats, proudly declare their project as reactionary one-upsmanship and repeatedly refer to themselves as a parody. OpenSea did not rule this as an homage and verified it. Conversely, PunkCats is a collection of original hand made illustrations with the concept of being the matching pet to arguably the most famous NFT project ever, CryptoPunks. In fact several CryptoPunk owners reached out to the artist while they were being drawn and commissioned a cat to match their punk. OpenSea initially declined to verify the collection because it hadn’t hit the 100Ξ bar, but once it did (currently over 300Ξ in volume) they decided it was not transformative enough, too much of an homage and refused to verify it. In this case it’s clear that the decisions are both arbitrary and also reflective of individual biases. According to OpenSea, a pixel human head and neck and a full body of a cat are the same thing, but two full body cartoon cats standing on their hind legs and holding (or not holding) similar accessories in the same way are totally different.
Makes you wonder what other art OpenSea would deem too much of an homage and not worthy of verification?
The truth is I could nit-pick this for hours. I have hundreds of screenshots and links to support my argument that OpenSea is not uniformly applying their policy across all projects and instead making personal judgement calls on a case by case basis. Which is literally the only thing they can do to enforce editorial policies like that. This is unscalable and it’s not what they should be doing anyway. OpenSea should not be making judgement calls about IP, or deciding what is or isn’t a homage or is or isn’t derivative enough. That’s not their business and they shouldn’t be getting mixed up in it. They are a market place and their responsibility is to their customers who they should be trying to protect by verifying what is a legitimate project run by a known individual or company and sussing out the frauds and scammers. By creating these arbitrary rules and moving goal posts around, they are creating the absolute perfect environment for scammers to prey on their customers, and they are only able to react after the fact – after people have been scammed and money has been lost.
Make no mistake: The way OpenSea currently looks at verification makes it very easy for people to be scammed, and every single day they continue in that direction they are allowing those scams to persist, and people to be harmed because of it.
I’ve said this on Twitter but I’ll say it again here: OpenSea needs to immediately drop the 100Ξ barrier to verification and make collection verification a subset of account verification. Once someone meets the reasonable requirements for account verification, any collection they create should be automatically verified. This way new collections by known creators are verified the first second they make something available, and there’s no window for scammer to sneak in. Funds from the first 24 hours of sales on unverified accounts or collections should be held in escrow so that if a scam is detected people can get their money back. Anyone caught intentionally posting fraudulent work or scamming people should have their entire account banned. OpenSea should defer all IP claims to existing copyright law, they should let people files notices and appeals and respond accordingly, but they should not be responding to “requests” from people who may or may not have legal grounds to make those requests, nor be making judgement calls on their own. They should recognize that as an art market, all art is derivative and they should immediately stop acting like they are in a position to decide who’s ideas are original enough. They should also use some of those massive piles of cash they have to hire a proper staff to manage all this so that individual employees are not expected to deal with issues brought to them over Twitter.
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.
In the past decade I've lived in Tokyo and Los Angeles, and now in Vancouver. I've run hackerspaces and blog networks, an art gallery, a design firm and a record label. I'm one of the co-founders of the environmental non-profit Safecast, a Shuttleworth Fellow and have been an Associate Professor at Keio University and a Researcher at the MIT Media Lab. I take photos and make noisy ambient music under the name Delay 5000 (D5K). For most of 2021 I've been working around NFTs. Read more about me here. I don't use Facebook.
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