By ALFRED STEINER, June 2022
On June 9th, I flew to Austin, Texas to cover the art and NFTs at Consensus 2022, one of the largest conferences for all things Web3. The big takeaway was Art Blocks’ position at the center of the art/NFT universe, including a newly announced partnership with Pace Verso.
Some 17,000 people joined me at the conference, including many leaders in the art and NFT communities. I spoke to some of them, including:
- Erick Calderon, founder of Art Blocks, the leading generative art NFT platform, a.k.a. Snowfro, creator of the iconic Chromie Squiggle.
- Ariel Hudes, head of Pace Verso, Pace Gallery’s Web3 hub.
- Micah Johnson, creator of the NFT-driven Aku universe.
- Adam Lindemann, founder of the gallery Venus Over Manhattan and Snowfro’s dealer.
Aside from a close scrape with COVID, this is what I took away from the conference:
The Convention Center
There were few NFT exhibitors at the convention center. My informal survey revealed two: SecuX, which was promoting an NFT-focused hardware wallet with an LED display, and Orbis86, a Snoop Dogg-founded NFT project. (I tried to claim a free promotional NFT from the Doggfather, but lost patience trying achieve a member role in the project’s Discord.) There was also the NFT Photobooth (presented by TradeStation) and a “MetaverseZone,” which consisted of a chapel-like hallway with ten vertically-oriented monitors displaying psychedelic computer-generated graphics and a Demo Area with a few monitors and PCs allowing visitors to try out metaverse projects like The Sandbox. Maybe this is the best one can do at a trade show—I missed VeeCon and NFT.NYC awaits—but it didn’t make a compelling case for the nascent metaverse.
The NFT Gallery
Most of the official NFT action (speakers, panels, daytime networking) took place in a separate space two blocks away bedecked with dozens of large, vertically-oriented monitors (a recurring theme) that shuffled through the speakers’ NFT projects, including Goldstein’s Crypto Citizens and Johnson’s Akutars. I watched a few panels there, including Goldstein’s and Johnson’s, but I found talking with attendees and speakers one-on-one more productive.
Seth Goldstein (Bright Moments)
On Friday morning after Goldstein’s panel, we walked, talked, and grabbed a salad. Goldstein is the reigning monarch of IRL NFT ventures—to mint one of the pixelated Crypto Citizens, you have to be there, in person. To date, he’s launched roughly 4,000 of a planned 10,000 Citizens, moving his whole team from city to city as he does so. The first 1,000 were aliens (Crypto Galacticans), but the remaining 9,000 are (or will be) residents of various cities, including Venice (California), New York, Berlin, and shortly, London. Each Citizen represents one vote in the Bright Moments DAO, which selects each succeeding city, most recently, Mexico City, which will follow London. The project’s artist, Qian, is as formidable with pixels as he is versatile, compressing each city’s vibe into a 45 x 45 grid: New Yorkers with urban skylines and subway entrances, Venetians with surfboards and palm trees, Londoners with trenchcoats and Pembroke corgis.
But the superficial accessibility of the Citizens project (despite their solid generative, on-chain bona fides) may obscure Goldstein’s true aim, which is to support the most interesting artists working with NFTs, including Tyler Hobbs, Casey Reas, Emily Xie, and Matt DesLauriers, among others. In his own words (more or less), he wants to use ETH to generate art, not use art to generate ETH.
Nevertheless, Goldstein has also created the Bright Opportunities DAO to acquire and collect NFT art using “emoji consensus rather than a traditional investment management structure.” This will allow Bright Moments to focus on curating and producing generative art exhibits, while providing a convenient way for collectors committed to the Bright Moments ecosystem to support its artists and participate in the potential upside provided by Bright Moments’ curatorial acumen.
Ariel Hudes (Pace Verso)
Later that afternoon, I met with Ariel Hudes, head of Pace Verso. I asked her why Pace—out of all the major global galleries (along with Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner)—was forging ahead with NFTs while the others seemed to be adopting, at best, a wait-and-see approach. She told me that when Marc Glimcher (Pace Gallery’s President and CEO) hears others saying, “That’s not art,” as he did in reference to NFTs, he always takes that phrase as a cue to pay attention to what could become an important new art movement.
Pace Verso launched with Urs Fischer’s CHAOS—digital sculptures whose impossible intersections mimic his physical sculptures (like Things, 2018), but couldn’t exist in physical space—and has since done projects with Leo Villareal and Lucas Samaras among others. Fischer, who was one of the earliest established artists to enter the NFT market, and has to date minted and sold his CHAOS NFTs under MakersPlace’s standard smart contract, recently announced that all CHAOS NFTs will be migrating to a new, bespoke smart contract, a move consistent with his usual thoughtful approach to projects. During NFT.NYC, Pace Verso will launch John Gerrard’s Petro National and Jeff Koons’ Moon Phases, which involves sculptures actually being placed on the Moon.
When Pace first began exploring the NFT space, it found the larger marketplaces like OpenSea, Rarible and MakersPlace less than ideal for its purposes. Hudes noted that none of these platforms “put their art in a context that felt appropriate for our artists or like an extension of the gallery.” Instead, Pace Verso has generally created custom presentations for its artists’ NFT projects, just as they do for physical exhibitions. Creating custom presentations often requires working with partners, and Pace Verso may have found the model partner for NFT projects in Art Blocks given its commitment to work that engages the digital medium as opposed merely to linking a cryptographic token to an existing digital work.
Erick Calderon (Art Blocks/Snowfro)
Conveniently, my meetings with Hudes and Calderon overlapped. My first question for him was whether it was a coincidence that Art Blocks emerged in Marfa, Texas, home to the Judd Foundation and the Chinati Foundation. To me, it seemed like maybe too obvious a question, and Calderon readily confirmed that Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum at the Chinati Foundation were an inspiration for Art Blocks. But Rachel Monroe, writing for the New Yorker this January, was more skeptical, citing Judd’s focus on materiality and aversion to commodification. Regardless of what Judd may have valued, permutations within rigorously constrained limits are a primary feature of his works, as they are with Art Blocks’ projects. And one can hardly blame Calderon for his financial success—he created the algorithm for the Chromie Squiggle well before collectors began lining up to buy them.
Calderon has also faced skepticism from local artists, especially those working in media that do not easily translate into the digital realm. In response, I confessed to having minted one of my own watercolors on the NFT marketplace Foundation early on in 2021’s NFT boom, and to regarding it as an instructive mistake. Consistent with his affable demeanor, Calderon not only reassured me that watercolors were more naturally digitizable due to their relative flatness when compared to, say, oil paintings, he admitted to his own recent experiments with the medium.
Whether Calderon will create a generative encore to the Chromie Squiggle remains uncertain. In the meantime, he’s been making ceramics with his children, which provides a tangible respite from coding and the blockchain.
Adam Lindemann (Venus Over Manhattan)
My last interview of the day was with Adam Lindemann, founder of Venus Over Manhattan, with whom I spoke by phone. Although Lindemann has embraced NFTs more than most traditional galleries, he believes their value generally must be tied to community and utility—a point Goldstein had made earlier in the day. Lindemann mentioned hosting an event for Chromie Squiggle collectors as an example, a combination of community and utility crucial to the value of traditional art objects as well.
Despite his focus on community and utility, Lindemann admitted to owning two works from Damien Hirst’s The Currency, a project light on utility that requires its 10,000 owners to choose between a unique Hirst work on paper or a corresponding NFT, after which Hirst’s team will destroy the spurned version. Lindemann seemed to view the project as a cynical but apt take on money in art, and said, “He named it The Currency, that’s all you need to know.”
Regarding high-volume PFP (profile picture) collections, like the Bored Ape Yacht Club, Lindemann was adamant that the corresponding works were not art, likening them to collectibles, like coins or stamps. He didn’t change his take when I pressed him on whether he was really making a high art, low art distinction—the Apes are just not art at all. Luckily for Ape owners, Yuga Labs has delivered plenty of utility even if measured solely by the value of its Mutant Ape, ApeCoin and Otherside airdrops. Of course, that says nothing about their status as art.
Keeping things in perspective, Lindemann emphasized that we are still very much at the beginning of the NFT phenomenon, but that its nauseating volatility was scary indeed.
Micah Johnson (Aku)
On Saturday, I met with Micah Johnson, creator of the Aku universe. I knew of the Akutars PFP collection, and had seen news of its smart contract flaw that left 11,539.5 Ether ($34 million at the time) locked away forever. But I didn’t make the connection until after the interview, and I didn’t realize the full scope of the Aku universe or how ambitious Johnson’s plans for it are (an Aku television series and film are in development). During his talk, Johnson took full responsibility for the smart contract flaw that caused the problem, extolling the skill of its developer and recognizing that although the project should have been more careful, everyone makes mistakes.
Johnson used to play second base for the White Sox, Dodgers, and Braves, though he was wearing a Dodgers cap when I met him. I was curious about his transition to artist, and assumed he must have been interested in art from a young age. But Johnson actually didn’t turn to art until after baseball, so it was a surprise to learn that he was entirely responsible for the concept, design, look and feel of the Aku character and the Akutars avatars, each of which pictures a fully-rendered, game-ready 3D model of a boy wearing an oversized astronaut helmet.
The project also has a social dimension: The Aku character was inspired after Johnson overheard a young boy asking, “Can astronauts be black?” Unfortunately, the answer had been “No” until as late as 1983.
The War in Ukraine
One unexpected bonus of attending Consensus 2022 was learning that a team of concerned technologists, led by Michael Chobanian, President of the Blockchain Association of Ukraine, is working to digitize Ukraine's architectural marvels, museums and other cultural sites against the onslaught of Russia's invasion. Chobanian’s next stop was Art Basel to muster support for the project from the international art community.
Although NFTs are a small part of the official Consensus program, many leaders of the art and NFT communities were there. Many important players are working with Art Blocks and its artists, and Art Blocks announced a first-of-its-kind partnership with Pace Verso for digital art. WM
Alfred Steiner is an artist who lives and works in New York City. Steiner's artwork has been shown in one-person exhibits in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and abroad, and in group shows at The Drawing Center and Artists Space. Steiner is also a lawyer who advises clients on matters relating to technology, media and intellectual property, including NFTs.view all articles from this author