Opensea – untitled (printer fail #21)

This digital object, from the series collapse, is my first minted object, trialling Opeansea.io collections.
NFT – non-fungible-transaction – is a way of authenticating ownership of a digital asset. As well as digital artworks, this could be a gig ticket etc. In relations to digital works, which may exist as many copies, the NFT works to prove that you are the owner of a minted version. The work may be minted as unique or as part of an edition. The hype-generating blockchain is the method of proving ownership, authenticating sales and holding a chain of history. This is a new (2017 appears to be the start of it) area for art and ever-changing, with some potential fundamental issues.

This is a first exploration of the act of publishing, or minting a digital work, to find out what the world of exclusivity in digital visual art looks like. There are inherent issues here, one being the idea that an infinitely reproduceable digital work can become a unique digital object through proof of ownership. Secondly, there are problems with what is actually owned – the NFT includes a unique url to the file *at the time of minting*. This references a specific server and file position. If the server is retired or the file moved, the URL in the NFT no longer points to the object. Several systems are being worked at to slove this, the most basic being businesses offering long-term file storage, which have no guarantee of surviving long-term.

A third issue, one for the impoverished artist is the varying cost of setup and minting. Transactions are added to the blockchain at a cost (a cost that tries to give a return to the miners who incorporate new transactions). That cost is variable (you can also pay more for quicker transaction processing). It varies acording to demand for work, and also on the current value of the coin being used.

For NFTs, ethereum seems to be the coin of choice. Ethereum transaction costs are called gas and usually measured in kwai. Mintbase started to allow artists and others to set up digital stores and mint artworks for sale (or giveaway). Back in 2020, a store cost about $US2 and minting 5 works about $1. At this time – March 2021 setting up a store is more like $250.

For this reason I looked to Opensea, which bills itself as ‘The largest NFT marketplace’ and suggests that you can mint NFTs and sell for free ” Plus, there’s no fee! You don’t even pay for gas, and you can sell without paying gas as well if you’ve initialized an OpenSea account”.  How does that work if gas is a cost? Opensea hold off the cost of gas until you actually sell a work, which sounds pretty cool and workable for artists who, generally do not generate a lot of sales.

It turns out though that there are hidden costs with Opensea, that they elude to, but don’t make sense until you are at the point of attempting to list a minted item. Suddenly there is a demand to authenticate your account ‘you must first complete a free (plus gas) transaction’  for $0 + gas, and, hello, that gas cost, at the current time, is $US58. This is a one-off fee, but suddenly ‘free’ is costing real money. I don’t really care whether Opensea get any or it really is just gas costs (which it appears to be), its still $US58 to me.

A fourth issue, and one that should be the top of everyones list is that cryptocurrencies currently work on the basis of doing meaningless work that has a major environmental impact. That is, hundreds of thousands of pieces of hardware work away at knowingly complex mathematical tasks in order to keep the blockchain secure and trusted this is known as ‘proof of work’). This work uses power, lots of it. Fortunately there are studies into how much power and the impacts that is having. There is also work being done that may reduce the need for ‘proof of work’ and blockchain just may become less of an environmental distaster in the making.

A fifth issue, subjective perhaps, is that the work that is currently mostly being sold and praised on the various NFT platforms is often dull, stolidly meme-based (endless collages with bitcoin and eth symbols, or cats, dogecoin dogs), repetitive, ripoffs of minimal or graphic artists of the past or interesting but half finished digital experiments hurried to NFT fame. Indicative of the interest in the system over the art is the sometimes difficulty in even figuring out who made the work. Rarity, collectibility and value are the name of the game in the NFT platforms, I guess hoping that the buying hype, with people’s need to get quickly on the bandwagon (especially if you missed out on the cryptocoin winnings early on) will cause them to overlook quality or other aspects.