Laura Gascoigne – A Way with the Pixels

Laura Gascoigne

In April Lionel Messi put a signed pair of his adidas football boots up for auction at Christie’s. Customised with the names of his wife and sons, they were the ‘game-worn’ boots in which the Barcelona striker scored his 644th goal for his club, beating Pele’s previous record of 643 for Santos. Perfumed with the player’s DNA, they raised $175,000 for a hospital charity.

That’s a lot of cash for a pair of smelly old boots, but you can just about see how a stinking rich football fetishist might want to splash it to get close to his hero. (I’m assuming it was a he.) It’s less easy to understand how a range of digital footwear designed by 18-year-old ‘crypto-artist’ Fewocious for a virtual shoe brand, RTFKT studios, sold out in seven minutes at the end of February for £2.2 million. 

What did their purchasers actually buy? A ‘non-fungible token’ or ‘NFT’ asserting their rights to flaunt the virtual merch on their online avatars’ feet: basically, bragging rights. So central have bragging rights become to existence in the online metaverse that they command eye-watering sums in cryptocurrencies. A non-fungible Mars House designed by Krista Kim sold for the equivalent of $512,000 in March. You couldn’t live in it but you could show people around: it was the definition of a show home. 

Lost already? Bear with me. My 2002 edition of the OED – an actual book – defines the term ‘fungible’ as “precisely or acceptably replacing or replaceable by another item” in law. ‘Non-fungible’ is a more recent coinage designed to sneak the idea of private ownership into a public network – the Internet – originally founded on the utopian principle of being free and open. A non-fungible token, as defined by Wikipedia, is “a unit of data stored on a digital ledger, called a blockchain, that certifies a digital asset to be unique and therefore not interchangeable”.

For digital artists whose uploaded images could previously be viewed by millions without earning them a crypto-bean, the concept is a game-changer. In February an NFT for a 10-year-old cartoon meme, Nyan Cat, viewed over 180 million times for free on YouTube, earned its creator Chris Torres $590,000 in an online auction on a digital art platform, Foundation, launched just two weeks earlier. Naturally, traditional auctioneers were slavering for a slice of the action. In March Christie’s New York sold its first NFT, Everydays – The First 5000 Days, for $69.3 million. Touted as “one of the most unique bodies of work to emerge in the history of digital art”, it gave the buyer a lot of bang for his crypto-buck, representing the entire life’s work of American graphic designer and animator Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple. 

Winklemann has been a busy little Beeple: between 1 May 2007 and 7 January 2021 he drew and posted a digital artwork a day for his two million Instagram followers, and Everydays is a collage of all 5,000. Don’t underestimate Beeple, he’s a talented guy: sharp, proficient and unbelievably fast. His satirical squib Mike Pence: Lord of the Flies appeared within hours of the vice-presidential debate of October 7th, 2020. Everydays is undoubtedly a tour de force, though whether it’s a chef d’oeuvre is another matter. Like Banksy Beeple is simply an illustrator with a gift for visual satire, yet his Christie’s sale price now places him third in the most expensive living artist rankings behind Jeff Koons and David Hockney.

Hockney has dismissed Beeple’s drawings as “silly little things” and claimed that NFTs are for “ICSs – International Crooks and Swindlers”, but Christie’s have no problem with ICSs. “He showed us this collage,” said Head of Digital Sales Noah Davis, “and that was my eureka moment when I knew this was going to be extremely important”. For “extremely important” read “immensely profitable”, as the sale has opened up a whole new market of wealthy crypto-geeks who would never normally enter a physical gallery but have bags of funny money burning holes in their virtual pockets.

Christie’s announced that it would accept payment in the relatively new cryptocurrency Ethereum and, as it happened, the winning bidder – who used the pseudonym Metakovan – was later unmasked as Vignesh Sundaresan, owner of Metapurse, an NFT index fund that in 2017 raised $47.5 million on an initial Ethereum coin offering for which the tokens are now worth crypto-zilch. Small world. Like other speculators using the Ethereum platform to sell unregulated securities, metapump-and-dump impresario Sundaresan had found himself on the sharp end of the US Securities and Exchange Commission. So imagine his delight on discovering an unregulated market in which he can operate with impunity: art. The multimillions he splashed on Everydays were a small investment to secure the endorsement of Ethereum by Christie’s. As the art historian Tina Rivers Ryan told Apollo: “Art is being instrumentalised to inflate the value of a particular technology just as much, and perhaps more, than the other way round.” Or as the mafia puts it: “One hand washes the other”.

The question is, are there enough rich crypto-geeks in the world to support this market? Two aspiring young international crooks and swindlers, Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt of Unit London, are betting on it with the launch in September of what they claim will be “the first art world-led platform for NFTs”, Institut. Like Davis, they’ve spied an opening for a quick crypto-buck. Why sell pictures when you can sell pixels? With the market growing 800% in the first four months of this year, faster even than Covid, they predict that “NFTs are primed to be the leading emerging asset class for the new virtual economy… The future for artists, and the art market, has never been more exciting”. Yes, if you like flying through the ether by the seat of your pants. 

A major problem with NFTs for the eco-conscious is that their ‘proof-of-work’ calculations involve banks of processors guzzling energy like there’s no tomorrow to achieve a result formerly secured at the stroke of a pen. In July, when Damien Hirst inevitably entered the fray, he announced that his tokens would be launched on a new environmentally friendly ecosystem called Palm, connected to Ethereum but allegedly 99% more energy-efficient. Just as well, as there are 10,000 of them; Hirst has never done things by halves. Priced at $2,000 a pop, his mini-spot painting NFTs form part of The Currency, a project designed to challenge “the concept of value through money and art”, with a twist in its tail. Collectors will be given the option, before a year is out, of trading in their NFT for the original painting in enamel on handmade paper. If they keep the virtual version, the original will be destroyed. “Anyone who buys The Currency will participate in this work,” prospective buyers have been assured. “It’s not just about owning it.”

My money’s on the originals winning out, though there’s no accounting for the tastes of techno-geeks so averse to ‘real world’ paper they’d rather not wipe their bums on it. (With this market in mind, trend-aware bog roll brand Charmin has just brought out a new line in NFTPs – non-fungible toilet paper.) Hirst is right: NFTs are the latest manifestation of the disconnect between art and money. But are they the ultimate manifestation? In the metaverse the other half are now living in, I fear not.