Art on the blockchain

A bit of background
I trained as a Fine Artist (Painter) at Camberwell School of Art in London in the late 80s. I left art school and joined the design world (graphic and branding) — using computers to make images. I first created a digital image in about 1987 at St Martins School of Art on one of their Mac Plusses in the library (System 5 and MacPaint!). I used Illustrator v1 and Photoshop v1 in 1988 my first job in a London ‘big 4’ Management Consultancy. In the 90s I discovered the web and helped set up one the UK’s first web design agencies. The mobile app era didn’t interest me much and pretty much passed me by. About 15 years ago I returned to Painting. I struggled with making new work, having spent such a long time making digital images. However in-between ‘design consultancy work’ I made some paintings and prints; I exhibited in France and the UK. Some sold, some didn’t. My work is currently purely digital but I’ve found that people don’t ‘get it’. ‘How is it made?’. ‘Can I get the original?’…

Well now they can.

Me in the studio in 2016 with a digitally-made image printed on aluminium panel — 1m x 1m.

In January 2021 during the depths of winter and lockdown 3.0 in the UK, I was introduced to the world of NFTs and ‘digital originals on the blockchain’ by Yulgan Lira and Caina Gasborro; both blockchain experts from https://colb.global/ in Geneva. I’d been working with them on their tokenization offer and Yulgan posted me a link to one of the digital art portals.

I took a look and it was like about 50 lighbulbs all going off at once. I knew what blockchain and bitcoin was and started to understand the tokenization of physical assets. But I didn’t realise you can actually trade, own and sell ‘already digital’ assets, let alone ‘digital art’.

Another friend @KateBaucherel (in the UK), who speaks at conferences writes and speaks on the subject, gave me a few pointers and we had a lot of dialog on the subject via Whatsapp.

The whole world seemed to have an aesthetic all of its own. It’s quite memetic and full of geek and game and references that I don’t necessarily understand. It seems to me that it all comes from a tech background rather than art background and maybe suffers for it. It’s all very self-referential. There are of course exceptions, but I’ve noticed definite genres. I was always of the opinion that if you notice a bandwagon or a genre, a fashion or a trend, then usually you’re too late. The last thing you do is get on it. But I decided, that was a positive for me — my work will ‘stick out’ I thought.

The language needed some getting used to. It’s still very inaccessible to non-geeks. There’s a whole new world of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), Discord servers, blockchain wallets, $ETH, $WETH, token standards and ‘gas’ fees. WTF?!

So I decided to dive in. Prepared my work, got together my social links, tidied up my website. Luckily as an archiver and documenter of my own work that didn’t take too long.

The IRL gallery world is one which they take your work (if you’re lucky and they deem you to be viable and good), put it on their walls, perhaps invite their network, their friends, their mailing list, have a private view with bad wine and sell your work. Then they take their 50%.

I understood the crypto space to be a distinct and different thing from the gallery world. One in which it is end-to-end — you tokenize your art, the buyer has a digital wallet on the other side, buys it and it’s tracked via the blockchain. No middleman. I was wrong. (But I think that’s technically possible).

My first stop was via a couple of specialised portals. (I call them ‘gallery portals’). They allow you to ‘mint’ your work, it gets listed and people buy it — all on the blockchain. They do some promotional aspects, artist profiles and interviews etc. and generally replace what ‘the physical gallery’ does. They take a cut of course — this varies between 10–20% of each sale.

The first two I looked at were superrare.co and knownorgin.io. I leaned naturally owards knownorigin — purely because of the ‘visual brand’ and that it’s based in Manchester, UK. Superrare is good too, but seemed a bit ‘too cool for school’ – as a typographer I didn’t warm their ‘knowingly mannered’ typography (and I didnt’ see a lot of work I actually liked myself [more of that later]). But I decided to try and join in with several and see what happened.

It turns out, you don’t just join and get going on ‘minting’ your artwork. You have to go through a vetting process. Essentially it’s all about URLs, social media, verifications of ownership and ID all required. I’ve even had to make and share a short selfie video to prove I’m a real person (FFS. I’m not of that generation, so found it embarrasing). Usually applications are via a fill-out form. But even with all the material prepared, it’s a slow process. It kind of makes sense now, a few weeks on; provenance and provability are all super important in the sector; it’s the underlying ‘killer app’ that makes it all work. I’ve found the space has its fair share of chancers, bullshitters, and con-artists, so I’m realising the importance of that.

I started making applications to several of the ‘gallery portals’ and pretty much immediately got negative auto-responders or no response at all. My initial excitement took a major hit. It felt very much like the ‘IRL’ gallery system, where they file your letter or email in the trash. You feel as though some intern or inexperienced assistant is judging and filtering your work. The rejection email auto-response from Knownorigin was rather vague and suspiciously fast. Could it be an ID problem, could it be ‘we don’t like the work’ or simply ‘we’re understaffed and have no resources’?

I’m only a week in at this point, such was my excitement. But I crashed with huge disappointment.

In parallel, I had an ‘in’ with Known Origin — I’d been in contact with one of the founders/sponsors via a mutual contact. We’d been exchanging emails and she was very helpful in explaining how they worked and some of the concepts. She sent me to a link to fill-out an application, but it turned out that Known Origin was closed to artist applications until the end of the month.

More disappointment. It all seemed rather odd. Surely they’re just going to run out of (good) art when the rest of the world gets wind of it all?

I was advised to be patient. (ha! as if.). That it was ‘early days’ and this is going to be a big wave and I’m ‘hitting it at the right time’. Before now, this was supposedly a bit of a wild west and slightly specialist (read ‘full of geeks’). Now things were settling down and it was becoming viable for a lot of people to enter the space.

I used the waiting time to update / create social media profiles / create new ones, update my website to reflect ‘just this new and exciting work’. Resizing and checking the ‘publish-ability’ of the work already made and of course creating new work.

But my patience was wearing thin after ‘not hearing’ or just negative auto-responses. I was seeing a lot of work selling that dumbfounded me [again more about that later]. And there was me struggling to sell a beautifully made, signed and framed print — something that looks great on the wall and would enhance your life and home (beauty not function).

I compared notes with a new friend that i’d made via ‘#cryptoart’ on Twitter (‘Hi’ to Michael!). He seems to be on the same path as me. I loved his work, we’re a similar age and have similar opinions about the space. He too was frustrated that he was ready to go and seemed to be being blocked to even entering the space, same as me.

The whole point of crypto seemed to me to be able to just do it ‘end to end’ with no middleman, no application process, nobody filtering artist applications (and refusing them for whatever reason). It seemed to be ‘saying one thing but doing another’.

I’ve spent my life freelance. I had one full-time job for about 3 years and have never been salaried since. Art School (Fine Art in particular) teaches you independence. Nobody tells you what to make or gives you a brief. In my business I’ve been the office cleaner, MD, and IT support. Self sufficiency has been key to everything I’ve ever done. I was too young to be a punk but that culture’s ethic rubbed off — “do it yourself –– fuck ’em all”.

So I decided to find a way and try and go it alone. I set myself up account on ‘opensea.io’.

I ended up getting 6 or 8 pieces on there and I was wasn’t totally clear what to do next. ‘Verification’? Pay ‘gas’? Do I need another technology? Do I need a ‘shopfront’?… I found myself randomly clicking on stuff and not really sure what exactly does what. Such is the nature of the ‘going it alone’ approach. I’d not even got to the ‘auction’ vs ‘buy’ question.

There’s a lot of ‘collectibles’ which is a whole new world to me (again something I don’t get — I was never into ‘Panini’ cards as a kid). The art wasn’t much to write home about [subject for that follow-up post’], however, I started to see that the community is self-supporting. Everyone bigs up each other’s work, there’s a few ‘artists as collectors’. I decided it’s my place to stretch the aesthetic and the genres that currently exist. I needed to join in, to have an opinion and voice it, as well as support other artists. So over the last week I ended up creating a new project — (as opposed to mining my archives). Amazingly, I sold my first 4 pieces (of 10 related 1of 1s) on day one!

It felt like amazing thing to achieve after just one month in the space, I’d learned loads, made new work, made new friends, formed a new level of knowledge on a new thing and became part of something that I think, is going to be huge.

Article 2 is now live [here]

Links

My first project:

https://opensea.io/collection/100bisous

More on my project

Gallery portals
knownorigin.io
https://superrare.co/

Twitter folks mentioned

https://twitter.com/KateBaucherel
https://twitter.com/labelsonhumans
https://twitter.com/yulgan

Other
https://colb.global/

Crypto Artist. Fine Artist. Verified on Opensea. Design consultant and brand strategy.

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