By VITTORIA BENZINE, April 2022
Maybe we had a sneaking suspicion during the pandemic that digital art and the metaverse were byproducts of isolation. More than a year since vaccines became available, NFTs are a prevailing force in the fine art world and Metaverse populations are soaring. What once felt like joke fodder now seems inevitable–NFT talks at art fairs, Beeple at Jack Hanley Gallery, Metaverse fashion week, and now a mural festival in Akumal, Mexico on view in Decentraland.
“For centuries we have relied solely on our physical presence to navigate our lives. We are now faced by urgent challenges to tread lighter and diminish our carbon footprint,” says Luca Babini of Third Rail Art, an online platform that partners predominantly with street artists to release everything from print runs to clothing drops. “The metaverse is certainly not the cure, but it can be part of the solution.”
Third Rail Art’s ethos of openness breeds innovation. They’ve even sponsored three editions of Akumal Arts Festival, an annual mural event founded in 2018 that invites over 100 international artists to paint the Riviera Maya pueblo, once at peril of capitulating to the same massive resort developments that have overtaken nearby Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
Akumal proper extends from the pristine Caribbean on the east to the indomitable jungle on the west. A multi-lane motorway cutting through Akumal separates it into culturally distinct halves: playa and pueblo. “These villages on the jungle side of Highway 307 have been forgotten by the world and by the government,” Luca explains. “Everybody wanted to hang out on the beach side, and nobody had any reason to cross that bridge and go into a working class village.”
Since 2018, the fest has partnered with local residents to foster meaningful economic growth through paint. Between the tropical landscape, distinct architecture, and ceaseless walls of artwork, the pueblo is a sight unlike any other. “Now tourists have a good reason to cross that bridge,” Luca says. Although at its most bustling during the festivities themselves, tourists now cross the bridge year round. They often come for the rotating art, but stay for the food, landscape, and good vibes.
This May, Third Rail Art and Akumal Arts Fest take their partnership further with NFT-4-GOOD, releasing their first drop to inaugurate Third Rail Art’s ongoing charitable NFT art series and immortalizing 18 murals from the event’s latest edition in January 2022–its first full lineup in the new normal. Available in editions of ten through the BEASY platform, 85% of proceeds benefit the Akumal Cultural Foundation, “dedicated to a vital and well-rounded Akumal.” These 18 ephemeral aerosol artworks sigh and scintillate with animation from Cryptic Gallery, as if empowered by the authentic magic Akumal is so well-known for.
Third Rail Art’s curatorial approach in selecting the murals to mint challenged hierarchical traditions that place curators in positions of superiority. “You cannot only look at an artist from a purely aesthetic point of view,” Luca explains. “If you want the artist to be successful in this new mutation of the art world, you need to make sure they’re engaged and have a good community.” Detroit-born and NYC-based participant Konstance Patton, for instance, is just as much a leader as she is an artist, with an avid following and positive messaging highlighted by Kelly Clarkson and BRIC. Pairing visual substance with deep analyses of each artist’s fan base, Third Rail Art has assembled NFT-4-GOOD’s first drop with an eye towards democracy, accounting for the public’s preferences even more than their own.
These artworks let the festival’s story tell itself, with vivid hues and bold figures at home in the tropical climate. Luca began painting with the event as an artist in 2018, prior to bringing Third Rail Art on as a sponsor. In an interview for Kim Zanti’s forthcoming documentary about Akumal, produced with funds from an Orange County cultural grant, he declares Akumal Arts Fest “the best experiment of community engagement I've ever seen.” This year he painted the local library, the cultural foundation’s headquarters, which was a “disaster” when he first visited. Today it’s impeccable. “They redid the bathrooms, they have incredible art supplies, the rooms are freshly painted and clean,” Luca says. “Everybody can see tangible proof of the community being bettered by the festival.”
Even the act of assembling this drop offered a service. Like Patton, Jim Vision and Czr Prz both independently shared that NFT-4-GOOD marks their respective first releases on the blockchain. Third Rail Art onboarded each artist through the minting and creation process, then onboarded those artists’ supporters, who can participate by making purchases in their own currency rather than strictly crypto.
In that spirit, NFT-4-GOOD opens Akumal Arts Fest up to fans the world over by creating a slice of the action for ownership before these murals are inevitably painted over at next year’s event. Third Rail Art’s exhibition in Decentraland invites an international viewership to experience and support the art created in Akumal. Easy to log into and intuitive to navigate, Third Rail Art worked with Metaverse superstars AltCoin Radio to design accessible architecture for those maneuvering an avatar the first time, eschewing challenging features like elevators for straightforward stairs.
The two-story open air gallery offers a virtual portal into Akumal itself. Photos of all 18 murals are arranged on the white gallery walls, framed by backgrounds lush with palm trees and rich blue skies. They look just as much like windows out into the pueblo as artworks in their own right.
Beyond NFT-4-GOOD, Third Rail Art promises more surprises. The historically street art focused platform understands that “resisting change is never a good idea because the future, these days, becomes the present a lot faster than before.” They’re looking forward to fashion crossovers and NFT partnerships that deconstruct boundaries by introducing collaborations with multidisciplinary artists. While Akumal Arts Fest only comes once a year, the Akumal Cultural Foundation works year-round to enrich life in the community. Opening that magic to art fans around the world marks just another potential net positive of the persistent Metaverse paradigm. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // email@example.com // vittoriabenzine.com
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