by piero scaruffi
Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence | My book on A.I. | My book on consciousness | Human 2.0 | Bibliography and book reviews | Contact/feedback/email
Blockchain technology has spawned all sorts of applications. Non-fungible tokens became popular at the end of the 2010s. "Non-fungible" means that something is unique and irreplaceable: money is fungible because it can be traded for other money resulting in the same thing. But the dollar bill that i just signed and dated on my desk is non-fungible: if i trade it for another dollar bill, it won't be the same thing. A non-fungible token (NFT) is software stored on a blockchain that certifies a digital asset to be unique. An NFT is different from copyright and trademark. There may still be copies, a countless number of copies, especially if the NFT is about music or images. The NFT says who is the owner of the original on the blockchain, but there is no difference between an original and a copied version.
Bitcoin's blockchain "invented" digital scarcity and NFT technology expanded the concept to physical and virtual assets.
NFT quickly became synonym with "collectible" in the blockchain world. And the story of collectibles on the blockchain world gets mixed with the story of memes on social networks such as 4chan. And so one needs a premise about memes that became collectibles, and Pepe is probably the most representative case. Pepe a speaking frog that originally appeared in 2006 in an web-hosted comic strip designed by Matt Furie, "Boy's Club". Somehow that speaking frog spread became a satirical joke on contemporary art within the virtual world Gaia Online. In 2008 someone started using Pepe's catchphrase "Feels good man" on a 4chan bulletin board. Created with programs like Adobe's Photoshop, variations on the original Pepe popped up in all social media. In 2012 a sad-looking Pepe became a meme on Tumblr. In October 2014 4chan users began referring to original images created for the Pepe meme as "Rare Pepes" and started "collecting" them online. These became so popular, even embraced by pop stars, that it sort of negated the original satirical meaning of Pepes. In Apr 2015 a 4chan user reacted by dumping more than 1,200 Rare Pepes on the social network. It failed to stop the craze.
Artists are frequently the deepest thinkers. Those who toyed with blockchain technology (the "cryptoartists") came up with intriguing artworks that were veritable thought experiments. The first thing to note is that cryptoart was often about memes, not necessarily about aesthetic: the meme "was" the artwork. The archetypical case was that of the "rare Pepes" for which Joe Looney created the Rare Pepe Wallet (2016) on a blockchain. The reason that Pepes became collectibles was that Pepe the Frog had become a popular meme, that thousands of people had worked on propagating the meme in more or less creative ways. The value of the "artwork" consisted in the work made by all the people who kept the meme alive. This distributed population of fans were the equivalent of cryptominers, and their activity was the equivalent of "mining" a cryptocurrency by decentralized miners. Nobody was interested in the artistic quality of the images the same way that collectors of stamps are not interested in the artistic quality of the stamp. Rhea Myers' "Mysoul" (2014) consisted in the artist's soul registered on a blockchain, thereby achieving immortality since the blockchain is immutable. Starting with Shaban Shaame's "Spells of Genesis" (2015), the "players" of virtual art galleries on blockchains were art collectors, thereby interpreting art collecting as a game and art collectors as gamers. When Marguerite de Courcelle hid bitcoins in the digital puzzle painting "Torched H34R7S" (2015), based on of William Shakespeare's poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle", she created an artwork that extended all the way to the day (three years later) that an anonymous person solved the puzzle and cashed the prize (five bitcoins). Primavera DeFilippi's "Plantoid" (2015) was a lifeform that lives and reproduces on the blockchain and feeds on cryptocurrency, thereby interpreting the blockchain as an artificial environment for artificial life. Sarah Friend's Ethereum-based game "Clickmine" (2017) makes fun of clicking and mining, both addictive activities that can get out of control, one by a person and one by a machine, and if the former can result in hypertension the latter can result in hyperinflation.
An important event took place in May 2019 at a Manhattan gallery called Lightbox: the Contemporary and Digital Art Fair (CADAF), that showcased works from cryptoartists available as NFTs.
Besides SuperRare and Rarible, digital marketplaces for NFTs soon included NiftyGateway, OpenSea, KnownOrigin, MakersPlace, etc. NFT creators would upload the file representing their NFT to one of these markets and pay to "mint" the token representing the NFT (to "tokenize" the digital art piece) on the Ethereum blockchain. This Ethereum token was as unique as the artwork itself.
History was made when in 2021 when "MetaKovan" (the code name of Indian-born Singaporean-based NFT investor and digital art collector Vignesh Sundaresan) paid $69 million for Beeple's "Everydays" NFT: for the first time ever a major auction house, Christie’s, sold a digital artwork in the form of an NFT. MetaKovan had already a history as an NFT collector through a crypto fund called Metapurse that he had co-founded in 2016. He had even hired "architects" to build the virtual city of Origin City in which a virtual gallery displayed his collection.
Originally, NFTs were static, typically a still image. Then looping GIFs emerged, and then audio NFTs, limited-edition audiovisuals experiences (typically encoded in the mp4 format) that were issued and traded as tokens on Ethereum. In 2021 four Florida kids started the Bored Ape Yacht Club, a collection of "bored ape" NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain that granted access to a private online club.
Originally, one had to purchase gas on Ethereum in order to mint an NFT. OpenSea and Rarible allowed users to create NFTs on Ethereum without paying gas. They introduced the concept of “lazy minting” by which the NFT creator puts the NFT up for sale without paying any gas fee and the fee is charged only when someone actually buys it.
By 2022 the most popular NFT platforms were: Alex Atallah's and Devin Finzer's OpenSea (2017) for the Ethereum and Polygon blockchains, which was catapulted to the top NFT marketplace in May 2019 when the twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (two Bitcoin celebrities) used it to purchase a cryptopunk, Jona Wilmsmann's and Fabian Emilius' AtomicHub (2020) for the Wax and EOS blockchains, Alexander Kehaya's Holaplex (2021) for the Solana blockchain, Craig Marshall's Objkt (2021) for the Tezos blockchain, and of course Rarible for several blockchains (Ethereum, Flow and Tezos). The OpenSea had become billionaires by the end of 2021.
Here is a timeline of NFTs and cryptoart
(see the history of blockchain technology for more details on the technical terms):
See also Blockchain technology and A Timeline of Blockchain technology (with timelines about new media art)
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