Words by Lauren Dei
Art has been a storytelling platform since the beginning of time. Creatively, the possibilities are endless – commercially, however, the closed network within which fine art is traditionally produced, rated and purchased caps just how far those outside the network can progress within it.
In a time where the concept of ownership is becoming less about bricks and mortar and more about narrative, a compelling story can be told through art, sold at a sky-high fee, and leave the seller free from the confines of class, place or medium. How? With NFTs.
Imagine a long row of people, longer than the Great Wall of China, standing shoulder-to-shoulder playing an epic game of pass the parcel. Everyone gives a parcel to the next person while receiving one from the person before. Now imagine that each parcel gains value every time it hits the next pair of hands until someone drops it, which means the value drops, too. This human line is blockchain and the parcels are cryptocurrency.
Have you got that part? Okay, now envisage this chain of people moving from that long Great Wall of China line and forming shapes – a house, a car, the pyramids of Egypt – all while continuously passing those parcels. Picture them standing in the form of the Mona Lisa, frame and all. Do you see it? Now you're looking at an NFT, a game-changing format for digital art that uses blockchain as a record of origin, giving collectors an item with real-world Ethereum coin value and artists from outside the elite world an opportunity to trade at top-shelf levels.
NFT stands for non-fungible (or unchangeable) token. Its uniqueness makes it attractive, and its fixed status guarantees that a) nobody can modify it and b) the artist can be identified as the creator and owner.
NFTs, like crypto coins, are powered by blockchain and valued in Ethereum. The sale prices of some of these digital artworks are stratospheric. To date, the highest-selling NFT, Everydays – the First 5000 days' by Beeple, sold for $69million at Christie's auctioneers. Before this, Beeple had only ever sold a physical print for $100 – he now sits among the top three most valuable living artists, with both the second and third highest-selling NFTs in his catalogue too.
These digital entities create culture shifts within the industry by creating new stories from a new wave of artists. The tools to develop NFTs are being placed into the hands of creatives whose voices add something new and needed to the fine art canon.
Enter team Yahoo. Yahoo Creative Studios is a multidisciplinary team of filmmakers, editors, designers, and strategists. It is passing its baton of extended reality (XR) innovation to educate those who can grow their physical art practice into a digital legacy. Eight selected artists signed to Disrupt Space, a Black art gallery and artist agency based in Brixton Market, south London, will be creating works using NFT technology for the first time under the tutelage of Yahoo's specialists.
Watch: Black art, Black stories, Black voices
With step-by-step meetings and consultations, Yahoo Creative Studio's LA team will digitise the works using the visual features of each artist’s choice – there is scope to slice layers into their work, embed hidden doors leading to other 'rooms' and dimensions, integrate soundtracks and narration – so the artwork then becomes an altered-reality expedition the viewer can investigate beyond the surface. This truly disruptive experience flips the usual methods of consuming art.
Disrupt Space is a perfect partner for such a world-changing project. Their roster showcases artists with a range of practices in painting, sculpture, film, photography and more. Based in the heart of a changing community, the opportunity to develop a lasting heritage is a huge driver for their involvement in the project.
"By nature, our position in the heart of a gentrified marketplace is disruptive," says Paul Reid, founder of the agency. "We're about introducing sustainable culture into spaces where you might not usually find it. The NFT space is an exciting opportunity to take the artists' work further, and we're excited to show the world what they come up with."
The idea for this project originated earlier this year through conversations between colleagues in Yahoo’s United employee resource group (ERG) and the Yahoo Creative Studio.
The thinking behind this particular approach is outlined as follows by the United ERG.
'United's purpose is to empower the voices of people of the world regardless of their heritage, race, culture or religion, and create a safe space that promotes difference and inclusion. This is why this partnership remains close to our heart. With the continuous fight for social justice, it is our responsibility to shine a light on the underrepresented.
'As part of our mission statement, United aims to promote the communities we serve to create economic inclusion and shrink the digital divide. What better way to do this than through art! It's the responsibility of the partnership to provide a safe space for these eight amazing individuals and artists to breathe their work to an international audience delivered by Yahoo Creative Studio. United is honoured and excited to see boundaries being crossed, walls knocked down and the doors opening for the next generation of artists.'
So what are the social implications ushered in by NFT art?
“We are recording our truths as seen by our eyes,” says Lady PheOnix, XR and NFT consulting specialist, founder of YesUniverse, and mentor to the artists throughout the project. “This is a dynamic that rewrites history. Now your memories can be linked to a forever type thing. The narrative behind the most famous classical artworks are a legacy, a mythos – now we can create our own. These artists are inviting people to enrol in a whole history now.”
New legacies considered whether the gatekeepers embrace this change or perpetuate the same hierarchies by being wealthy enough to own these works? Well, the distribution of ownership doesn't always fall to a sole owner or collector. Platforms such as PartyBids make it possible for communities or 'parties' to benefit from collective ownership, which gives multiple people a portion of the artwork, much in the way that fractional ownership of bitcoin is possible. And even those with the wealth advantage have an investment in seeing the scene grow.
“Network and community are the foundation of the NFT space,” Lady PheOnix. “There's a tendency for artists not to ask for what they need around money. Some people are crypto-rich, have the tools and are willing to help you because this is what they live for.”
Original art selling for massive figures is nothing new. However, the reality of who is selling this artwork is getting newer by the day. And with the potential for anything digital to be made into an NFT, the story is just beginning.
Watch: Black & Beautiful in Britain