Steering an anticipatory traditional artist who wants to start in the NFT space
This article will attempt to inform artists who have little knowledge of the process of NFTs applied to art but want to experiment or sell within that space. Specifically, the interest is in helping Aotearoa/New Zealand and other geographically or economically separated artists participate in a green decentralised art space. There are many choices to be made when entering the space but one central point is to understand the environmental issues that surround the blockchains that run these spaces. The intention of the article is to steer the curious artist in the direction of Green NFTs and give evidence and links for such a choice. The emphasis is less on sales than on curiosity and experimentation. A case study on the HicetNunc.xyz platform will give practical information.
Historically, Australasian art and artists have had a distance disadvantage when compared with those in the Northern hemisphere. Not only the disadvantage of transportation of works, but seeing a benign neglect of the distinctive work that is coming from these countries. One could posit a blindspot to work that is not part of the European / UK / US centric art markets.
This is not to negate the breakthrough that artists such as recent contemporary Aotearoa / New Zealand artists Simon Denny, Michael Parakowhai, plus Australian, Indonesian and Taiwanese counterparts, but it is much harder for most artists from these regions to gain any recognition.
Perhaps because of this historical blindspot, even when work can be created and shown on the internet, such countries not in the art markets’ purvey still suffer from lack of recognition and awareness. It’s a running joke, how often New Zealand is left off maps even when ‘global’ inclusion is lauded by a show. Even more ignored are the unique creations of Pasifika artists whose nations are often completely unknown in the Southern hemisphere.
The current interest in NFTs globally, and the decentralisation of arts structures that accompanies it holds hope that global distance boundaries will be further transcended. But the concern is that in the rush to get on these platforms, and with a lack of knowledge that newcomers inevitably have, decisions will be made that don’t account for environmental concerns.
Currently NFTs are being hyped as every artists answer to lack of sales and notoriety. While there will no doubt be artists who are concerned just with selling their art, I expect many artists will benefit from an understanding of the social and environmental concerns before they step into this area.
Blockchain and energy costs
Briefly, art-based NFTs are tokenised references that point to a work of art held somewhere on the internet and authenticate the ownership. This authentication is handled by a contract written in a blockchain. A blockchain is a ledger of transactions (which doesn’t hold the actual work) and is connected to a cryptocoin such as Bitcoin. Most NFT systems use the Ethereum blockchain, known as a Proof of Work (PoW) system. PoW relies on complex calculations that require high energy inputs for security (the ‘work’). Consequently, the power requirements to run them are significant and have been a cause of concern for many. A few alternatives are available, most using Proof of Stake (PoS) systems. The energy requirements for PoS blockchains are significantly reduced, some say a million or more times so.
For many, the environmental impacts of Ethereum platforms are way too high. French artist Joanie Lemercier, who was releasing works on NiftyGateway, cancelled a new release after they would not respond with energy consumption requests, and started to look for more environmentally friendly platforms (promoting hicetnunc.xyz and participating in the Green NFT Discord).
Brief history of web art and NFTs
Like many, a few months ago I knew very little about NFTs. My own work deals with digital and tech waste in the area of photography. As such, I was interested in the potential to reach a diverse audience through showing work online, removing the need to make physical work (and waste). While the internet itself provides such a staging area, it competes with all the other uses and websites that abound and distract.
NFT platforms, however, provide a space where there is a specific focus on art (although that space includes collectibles and other monetisations). Unfortunately these are often promoted and talked of as just marketplaces, but artists are staking claims in much more diverse ways, especially on the more experimental platforms, with lower fees.
Of course NFTs have not come out of a vacuum. One reason is the recognised need for visibility, permanence and yes, compensation for artists who primarily produced electronic work, infinitely reproducible and transferrable.
The phenomena of digital and technology-based art has been around in many forms, predating even such artists as Nam June Paik, and electronic music pioneers like Kraftwerk. Early computer and code-based art is documented in such books as Art in the Age of the Internet * and Digital Art **, along with net based experiments that have often been mostly missed by the majority and left to linger in dark web corners, or suffer from platform decay (eg when platforms close down and take accounts and content with them – who remembers Geocities or [music platform xxxxx]).
The beginning of the web, when it was fervently non-commercial saw the rise of new art-forms that used the concepts of the network, the transmitted work and the connections built through an international way of connection.
This work was often created by coders or graphics people (even from others who dabbled in html but had more or a hacker or experimenter attitude or inspired circuit-bent enthusiasm) who never considered it art or themselves artists exactly, and perhaps at times saw it as ephemeral. Often creating for little reward or recognition. Some of these people were minor legends in the rise of digital and net based art, and some even broke through into the outside art world and offered venues and shows that conventional artists dreamed of. Most remain known only by a pseudonym to a few.
More recently, there are vibrant communities of art experimentation using code, AI / gans, pixel-art, memes, and other net-specific cultural items. Platforms like the web and router-based The Wrong have provided alternative curated zones that get media attention. The Photographers Gallery *** in London has recently been featuring network based art. Showcasing photographers who explore game environments for subject. Who use google as a camera. Who track and critique the delamination of images through their networked path, much as Hito Steyerls ‘poor image’ **** discusses.
NFT platforms such as Rarible, Nifty Gateway and SuperRare have been around for a year or two. Others such as Foundation and OpenSea are more recent starters. Some select their artists carefully, others are open access. All are showing sales numbers that might be surprising. And showing work that surprisingly sells.
The buyers on these platforms are a quite a mix and have different interests and motivations to conventional art collectors. They often come with a ‘collectable’ mindset. Art is marketed in timed ‘drops’, hyped and teased.
Some platforms cater more for the multiple, collectible high sellers, others have a wide range of pieces on show, from paintings photographed, images of sculpture digitised, to hybrid works, originating from traditional backgrounds but with digital interventions such as morph-like movement or modified by AI interpreted imagesets, through to true digital works that haven’t seen the outside of a computer (or tablet), and work that conceptualises and critiques the space it sits in (and the buyer/collector mentality that covets it).
Practical thoughts for newcomers
Some criticism is made of conventional art that is brought into NFT space. It’s seen by many as a place that should hold digital-native work only. Some platforms do tend to select artists who produce that kind of work predominantly. But many artists are finding that their real-world work fits well in some places, especially if a story is attached.
As a traditional artist entering the world of NFTs, you’ll need to explore platforms first, finding the one that is most amenable to the work you do. Prepare to be bewildered both by the tech aspects and the networked and memed cultures that exist in the space. You will likely feel an outsider and it’s worth noting that although the NFT space has a place for traditional 2D and 3D visual arts, it is also the primary space for digital artists (and collectable makers, and hucksters trying to make a buck).
You will find some who produce NFTs that are essentially documentation of a work, but then offer a copy of the real work in conjunction with an NFT (although this does have problems since the real work is not authenticated in the same way as the NFT). Others are reworking material into works that become hybrids, but take care that you don’t just make work because it will look good or sell well in this new space.
This is not a space where you can bluster in noisily. Often communities have been established and there is a much stronger consensus culture to all manner of decision-making. Yes- decisions. You will be joining more than just a platform, but the surrounding culture, whether through twitter, discord or other open (and closed – clubhouse invites for iOS users anyone?) forums, since this is a young, fast growing space that is forming and breaking rules.
You will need to learn, and expand your horizons. You’ll have the opportunity to meet artists (and coders) from around the world, although few so far from Maori and Pacific regions. The smaller platforms and their discord channels are lively and more multicultural than many spaces you might have encountered, no matter which culture you align with. Respect is paramount.
Artistically, you’ll encounter all manner of work that might be new to you. You’ll see work that is challenging visually. Work that is derivative and blatantly plagiarised. You’ll see work in editions of 10,000 with minor changes across each version (which sell better than yours). It will not be clear why buyers are buying those works and not your own. You may be disheartened with a lack of sales. Tempted to try out what you start to see as selling tropes.
The other seriously practical upskilling you’ll need is understanding the coin base that your nft will be minted in, as well as being knowledgeable about what exactly you are selling when you sell the nft. That is, a contract of ownership, not copyright. You need to understand this so that you can explain it to your buyers, your dealer, your friends. Most importantly so that you don’t break the terms of your nft mint – if you mint an edition of 10, don’t try and sell more. Much like setting an edition size in real life, but it’s easy to lose sight of this in digital space. A notebook or database for referencing your mints in some archival way should be on your mind.
You will also find the space to be heavily uncurated at times. Collectibles sit beside spinning coin memes, next to landscape and GAN experiments, video, text and audio, along with high and low conceptual work. There is generally no way to order your minted works other than that of the system default, although this may evolve.
So far, money has barely been mentioned. But most platforms push the monetary-value of the work (or its auction listings) above the art-value, or even of the artist name and title. Minimal interfaces strip away the context and often allow very small space for accompanying text. How you tell your story in this space can be another learning exercise, building on micro text output on the nft page itself, twitter minimalism, or Tumblr, Instagram etc. You can create a blog item or web page around the work, each part standing alone but adding to the ‘story’ of your work.
Be assured though, you shouldn’t approach NFTs as a way to sell more and live off your art unless you a) already have a name and a following that will seek you out b) you happen to make the right kind of work and it can be found c) you are incredibly bullish at marketing yourself (and annoying a whole bunch of onlookers).
In terms of discovery, you’ll often find platforms attempt a simplistic curation by including a ‘theme’ or art-type dropdown selector. Tagging and keywords are common ways of trying to make the tens of thousands of works more discoverable. But the reality is that there are already thousands of artists who are way further down the track and familiar with the nuances of these spaces.
Since all NFT platforms are geared around selling work, you will need to figure a pricing structure and the editioning of your online work. Many NFT platforms have lower prices for work, although it is more possible to have larger editions. Don’t forget that you are now selling direct, but you are also in control of the marketing of your work. Twitter has become a key place to announce new mints of work. You may need to set up a new account and slowly gather a following there.
With these things in mind, you need to evaluate your reasons for investigating the world of NFTs. These might be just that you are curious, want to seek out new audiences, or show work in non-physical venues.
As mentioned, platforms using Proof of Stake are inherently less polluting than those on Proof of Work blockchains, and are commonly referred to as ‘clean NFTs’. Counter-discussion is that Ethereum is moving fast to ETH2 which will switch to PoS. However, this still remains speculative and follows two years of such suggestions. Many PoS platforms run on the Tezos blockchain which means you will require the tezos coin to participate. (In PoW systems you will generally need to buy Ethereum coin).
Going with a clean NFT now means you are immediately a lot better off eco-footprint-wise than minting with PoW.
But, be aware that PoS still does have an energy use as do other processes you will be using to create and mint work. For instance there is a growing awareness of general digital waste. There are many aspects of this, but consider that it covers both the technology directly, and the electronic space that uses energy and produces physical waste. For example, you might also want to consider the physical equipment you use. Are there take-back / supplier-recycling schemes for your computer, scanner, printer, camera, external hard drives etc (short answer, especially for NZ is no!). Secondly, consider the hidden power uses you create – cloud storage of your files (that includes sites like Dropbox), the archived material you leave around internet space (unused but still extant accounts, perhaps with gigabytes of data adding to redundant data storage). If you host websites, you might want to look at green webhosting, although in all areas there is a large potential for benefits to be more about greenwashing than real-world effects, to a greater or lesser extent.
So, minting cleanly is not the end goal of what you might want to achieve (and what your buyers, gallery, and detractors might want to question you on), and like many things, once you start down this path, people will expect you to continue, be perfect, not make any mistakes.
I mention detractors, and you should be aware that artists minting NFTs are getting such grief at times, especially those minting in platforms that still use Ethereum. But most detractors are not even aware of the differences in PoS and PoW so you may have an educational role as well. Know your facts!
Global reach (potentially, with self-promotion)
Secondary sales royalties (yes, these barely exist in the real world but they are a part of most NFT structures). Royalties are a percentage value that comes back to the artist, but these are configurable and you can also manually do whatever you want with those returns – at least one artist is distributing royalties to gallery staff.
Does my work fit the space?
Do I have the time up front to invest in the learning curve both of the platform and the marketing?
Do I have the time up front to invest in the community?
Do I have the basic technical ability, or help, to a) create, manage and document work digitally b) setup a wallet with (PoS) coin, and learn the workings of the platform as well as to keep work and wallet secure?
Hic et Nunc
In my own study of the area I checked three platforms – OpenSea, HicetNunc and NFT Bazaar.
OpenSea proved to be a shock both in the cost of minting works on Ethereum, and at the same time, Memo Atken’s article on the environmental costs of PoW came out. Joanie Lemercier pointed me in the direction of HicetNunc.xyz, a platform that runs on the Tezos network and is only three months old. NFT Bazaar is even more recent and not fully launched as of May 2021.
Perhaps surprisingly, hicetnunc (H=N) is built primarily by one Brazilian coder crzypatchwork voluntarily. The newness of the system (plus some concrete decisions) means it has a barebones look, and only very recently were the keyword tags that artists were encouraged to add, functional as clickable.
H=N refers to works as objkts (since they can be art, documents, music, etc) and in March there were just over 10,000, from about 500?? artists. Two months later, in Early May that number is over 71,000. H=N has seen a lot of growth given that it is one of the few functioning PoS platforms with open access that could be offered as an alternative when questioning of PoW became strong in March 2021. H=N itself still has few art discovery tools, but 3rd parties have built some very useful ones that are referenced in the H=N wiki document. This document also has information about wallets and the other necessities about joining up.
Briefly, in order to use any NFT platform, you need a crypto coin wallet that works for the blockchains you use. Tezos is not as widely supported as Bitcoin or Ethereum so you may need two wallets if you also want to use those coins.
1 – set up a wallet
There are ‘offline’ wallets – often on USB sticks, which are very secure and necessary if you have large amounts of a coin. Most do well with a browser based wallet such as Temple or Kukai (both wallets work with Tezos).
Wallets have a private key and a public key. The general rule is – never give out your private key. Store that key safely and securely – you won’t need it often but if you forget it, you will *never* be able to access your wallet, with whatever coin it has in it. Your public key is public and you can give it to anyone. H=N and NFT Bazaar actually use it as the web address to your collection of work.
2 – join H=N
You join, by connecting your wallet with the sync link at the top right of a H=N webpage. You won’t be able to mint or buy work because there is nothing in your wallet at this stage.
3 – get some coin
You will need an account with a crypto-outlet – a crypto coin trading platform. Tezos is not as commonly supported especially in New Zealand so you may need to research this. Unless you know what you are doing, don’t go with small, new or otherwise dicey platforms – there are many scams in the crypto-coin world. Check that your choice will sell Tezos – Dasset is NZ based. Coinbase and Binance are international and may be harder to set up accounts from NZ (or have lack of or no support – Coinbase as of March 2021).
Essentially, You need to join and verify yourself to the platform, which can be quite intrusive (sending face ID or even taking a picture of your face). You put some money into the trading platform with a credit card, bank transfer and then buy your coin. The coin is now on a wallet on your trading platform, and you can transfer it to your preferred tezos wallet such as Temple.
Be aware that you can’t transfer all of your coin over because a small amount is required for ‘gas’ (basically a transaction fee). You can get away with buying as little as $10 or $20 on some platforms.
3a) Tezos fountains
The friendly and accommodating nature of NFT platforms extends to them giving you free money. Fountains have been around for more than a decade, when you could be gifted 1 or 2 bitcoins just to get you started. There are fountains for tezos too. Often just individuals or collectives who want to help artists get started and may give 2 tez or 0.33 tez to allow you to mint a number of works
4) Minting and listing
Once you have a wallet with some value in it, you can buy work, and put up your own. H=N is straightforward once you’ve done it the first time. From the dropdown menu, click on OBJKT (mint).
You enter title, description and tags. You choose how many works to mint (called ‘editions’) and the royalty rate you want from 2ndry sales. Then, click Upload OBJKT and this allows you to select a file from your computer.
If you are uploading an image, it needs to be a jpg or png, gif etc. You will need to have prepared this file, titled and sized it. You may want to consider adding metadata to the file, and note that it is likely that geocoding information may have been added by your camera and you may want to strip this out (look up image metadata editing tools such as geosetter).
H=N can do a wider set of file types than many platforms including movie formats, pdf, svg and html, which allow authors, poets and coders to put work on there.
Click Preview to see that it all looks good. This information will not be editable once the work is minted, so double check it.
H=N will open the wallet, and show that there is are two small charges to mint.
Wallets (or blockchain connections) can be temperamental, and may take some time or even backtrack and fail so you may need to try a few times (if the transaction shows ‘backtracked’ you can safely try again). If you need to try more than once, make sure you wrote down all those description details etc – saving them in a file, with your copy of the work is one way of documenting the NFTs you create.
Minting only creates the NFT, but doesn’t list it for sale. It will show in your ‘creations’ but as Not For Sale. When you are ready to offer it, click ‘manage assets’ in the H=N menu. You then select the work and from its page click on ‘swap’. At this point, you can swap/list all the editions of the work for one price, or you can swap some for a lower price and some for a higher price, and even keep some in reserve (either as ‘artist proofs’ or available for you to send directly to someone’s wallet).
Pricing and editioning is an art in itself. It depends on the value of your work to others in many of the same ways it does in the real world.
NOTE – don’t list for free (0 tez) because bot accounts currently hoover those all up and start reselling.
Once you click ‘swap’ the item should (sometimes slowly) get listed with edition and price, and now collectors can find and buy your work. You will see that the work has an OBJKT number and you can use the page address with this number to promote the fact that it is available, in appropriate places (tweeting, on the share-your-objkt channel in the Discord, on Instagram or your website).
6) Secondary sales
If someone buys your work, they can also resell it (they just use the swap function on it). Because of the royalties tied to this, some works can generate appreciable secondary sales returns.
If you have any curiosity at all, you will see work by others that appeals to you. You can buy this and become a collector yourself (the work appears in your collections tab).
Because of the current prevalence of bots and copyminters (those who mint others’ work and pass it off as their own), it pays to check that the artist has made the work themselves. See the next section on authenticating yourself.
8) Authenticating yourself
Your profile will be identified by your wallet address until you authenticate it. You do this by filling out a form which asks a few details and asks you to send a very small amount of tez to them. You also include the ‘hash’ of that operation as proof. See H=N wiki for details
9) Read the H=N wiki / Discord
Find the link to the wiki in the link under About on the menu. Many questions will be answered here. Many more will be answered on the Discord server, also linked in About.
What is my NFT and where is it stored?
Your NFT technically is a receipt of ownership on the blockchain of the coin/token used. The blockchain authenticates this, but does not store the artwork. Several globally recognised systems can be used by platforms to store the actual artwork – such as ipfs, or with opensea, this can be your own hosting. Some may point out that these are new structures and not proven over time. You and/or your collectors could have concerns about the longevity of the works they purchase (although at least some works (jpgs, movies, pdfs) are able to be downloaded at the time of purchase)
As with the real world, DIY or through 3rd parties. Don’t shout or shill. Beware of twitter feeds that ask you to shill to them – most are more interested in increasing their reach, not yours). Find your audience and treat them well.
Your existing platforms (irl and online) – twitter, instagram, tumblr, facebook, blogs, websites, dealer website etc
Use of tags, keywords.
You do not own this space – humility
What can I mint?
On many platforms, file formats are limited – jpg, gif, mov
You will likely need to increase your understanding of blockchain and the coin you are to work with.
You’ll need to understand the workings and rules of the platform you go with, along with its culture.
Along the way, you will learn more about digital arts, decentralised systems, crypto-coin wallets and transactions and much more that will initially appear to be highly confusing.
PoW systems that mostly use Ethereum coin are expensive mostly due to the ‘gas’ cost of transactions. Expect to pay up to a hundred dollars (US) for setup, and for each artwork mint.
With PoS systems, the costs are much lower – setup can be free. You can get small amounts of coin from ‘fountains’ sometimes, which give you enough to mint a few pieces. Otherwise, you can buy the coin and you might only need $10 worth to get started (although the pathway to getting that coin will add various charges).
Most artists I know would not define themselves as collectors of art. Sure they will have art by others, often swapped or gained cheaply (or photocopied etc). Most artists I know are too poor to buy much physical art, and have little space to display it.
When you enter the crypto art arena as a creator though, it’s quite likely, especially on the alternative platforms, that you’ll find work that you like, or you’ll swap with others (H=N has recently run two weekend-long ‘swaps’ called OBJKT4OBJKT where thousands of pieces were collected by artists). You will be drawn into collecting because it can be cheap, and what’s more, it takes up no physical space. Finally, it is just fun and engaging with the community of creators.
So a warning too: don’t snap-buy, check the provenance of the artist to make sure they are indeed the actual creator. Selling of others’ work is becoming common-place; selling of plagiarised work is too. Check if the artist has a verified profile, a social media or web-link that looks authorative.
Articles and other
Memo Atken 1& 2
Wired article on Joanie Lemercier
Joanie Lemercier article
Curated and external shows of work
Phillipines show – Mono8
Cryptovoxels Hic et Nunc
World Art Day (fundraiser – click on ‘collection)
Chopperchunky Gallery – new found things
Copyright and Copymint
There are ongoing issues with popular NFT producers having work copied and/or plagiarised.
This information is correct as at May 2021. The area is fast moving and change is inevitable and unexpected. Expect technology failures and concept movement. If you enter this space you will be still on the cutting edge of a group of technologies and you should expect things to change, sometimes radically.
* Art in the age of the internet : 1989 to today / edited by Eva Respini
** Digital art / Christiane Paul
*** Hito Steyerl – In Defense of The poor Image
**** The Photographers Gallery
Stu Sontier: As a photographer, working in an experimental way with the materials and waste of the digital realm, the act of putting work online in general has been one I’ve been interested in for a long time. I built one of the first online galleries of photography in New Zealand in 1996, for PhotoForum and since then have built and organised many other showings of photographic work online. See my work here: https://stusontier.net and my H=N works: https://www.hicetnunc.xyz/tz/tz1U8mFPuyGr48BWnULky9kUqAVQk8ewBHtU