In March, the artist Beeple made history by selling his digital art for $69 million using a non-fungible token, or NFT. Shortly after that, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sold his first tweet for more than $2.9 million. And scores of other artists, musicians and cryptocurrency enthusiasts jumped into the hyped-up market.
But Saskatchewan-based artist Cat Bluemke notes that there’s an “overwhelming imbalance” in who is actually making money from NFTs, and a lot of artists are actually losing money because there are fees associated with “minting” an NFT.
“It just serves the cryptocurrency, crypto market, to believe that as a digital artist, your practice is only valuable by your ability to get … a very small amount of cryptocurrency for God knows how much work you put into your render,” Bluemke said.
NFTs use blockchain technology, a digital ledger, to authenticate the originality and ownership of digital assets. It’s the same technology underlying cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies are used to mint (or to create) new NFTs.
Since March, the hype around NFTs has died down but Bluemke says there are benefits to the technology — especially for digital artists — that mean it might be sticking around.
Digital artists have unique challenges, such as having different versions of the same file and keeping a record of your work, Bluemke said.
“You can’t see everything you have in the same way that … you can see, like, a storage locker full of paintings,” she said.
NFTs can determine attribution and ownership of digital work, and they can help artists track how the art is shared. Unlike many physical art sales, each time an NFT exchanges hands, the artist receives a royalty.
Creating scarcity in digital art
Bluemke is minting NFTs through her art practice, Spekwork Studio, alongside co-founder Jonathan Carroll. Both also work out of the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina as digital program coordinators.
Carroll said NFTs are attempting to apply scarcity to digital art.
“One of the problems with selling digital art … is the sort of reproducibility of it and the fact that there is no scarcity of the images itself when it can just be duplicated over and over again,” he said. “And the way that the art market traditionally functions is on the idea of the art object and the scarcity of the individual art object.”
Beyond the fully practical applications, though, Carroll sees NFTs and blockchain technology as a new medium for artists to make work within.
“It’s a very simple video game where you just click to mine into this virtual environment and every time you click, it generates a real unit of cryptocurrency,” Carroll said.
With each click, you can “mine” a virtual plot of land, generating a token on the Ethereum cryptocurrency network.
“As you click into this virtual environment, you’re able to gain power ups to make your mining more powerful,” Carroll said. “But at the same time, you’re devastating this virtual environment that you’re in.”
He said the game is commenting on the environmental impacts that cryptocurrency mining can have.
Mitigating environmental impacts
Many cryptocurrencies use the “proof of work” system to create new coins and validate transactions. But proof of work is designed to expend energy in order to stop people from taking advantage of the system, and to create value.
The result is that some of the top cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum expend huge amounts of energy.
A single Ethereum transaction currently uses about 96 kilowatt hours worth of energy to verify and process — enough to power a home for about four days.
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Bluemke notes that there are alternatives for minting NFTs that are less environmentally problematic, such as proof of stake, where miners can create new coins and validate transactions based on how many coins they miner holds.
Bluemke and Carroll used the website Hic et nunc to mint their NFTs.
“It uses the Tezos blockchain, it’s called, which is a lot less valuable than Ethereum, which just means that you don’t have to pay as much to get in,” Carroll said. “I wouldn’t want to mint something on Etherium because of the energy usage, so I’m glad that an alternative exists for us.”
Understanding the technology
An NFT art project they’re working on right now is called Proof of Stake, where they’re minting NFTs of 3D scans of property markers in Nova Scotia, where they were staying in a cottage this year. They recently minted Proof of Stake-1.
The project will also use proof-of-stake technology to mint the NFTs.
“You sort of own that scan of this thing that was all about ownership in the real world,” Carroll said. “We’re locking it down again onto the blockchain to impose that same sort of scarcity that exists in the real world, trying to reimpose it. But in a way that points out that sort of contradiction. As an artist, you’re always working with these contradictions and trying to point at them.”
Bluemke is excited about the possibilities with NFTs, but she hopes digital artists understand that NFTs aren’t the only way they can support their work. She says Canada has a strong granting community and there are a lot of funds dedicated to supporting digital artists.
“Hopefully that allows for more people to, like, understand this technology, learn about it in a critical way, be able to reflect on that, create some interesting digital work, and maybe realize also that the market is not, like, the only way that you can make work,” she said.
She said the silver lining in the NFT boom might be that it introduced blockchain technology to artists.
Carroll agrees, saying he’s excited about initiatives by artists making art that comments on the blockchain as a technology through using it.
“I feel like a lot of artists have grokked [understood] the blockchain now that it’s, like, entered their world more. And we might see more uses of it that are maybe a bit more useful to artists even than NFTs are,” Carroll said.