When non-fungible token (NFT) art is brought up, it’s usually in the context of money: this piece of NFT art sold for $100,000 at auction, or that one over there sold for $69 million.
But NFT art is about so much more than how much you can sell a token for. For many artists, it’s the reshaping of a medium to take advantage of emerging technology and better reflect the realities of a data-based digital world.
Bitcoin Association speaks to two artists with art projects published on the BSV blockchain via BullishArt – Roma Soida and Francesco Buonfino – about how they view the NFT wave and the impact they believe it has on art, artists and connoisseurs.
Roma Soida is a Russian-based interdisciplinary artist who recently created the Matches Box series of NFT-based art on the BSV blockchain.
Tell me about yourself, your background and your path to becoming an artist.
At the initial stages of my work, naive art (the art of outsiders) and projects independent of institutions appeared. I come from the Siberian city of Krasnoyasrk; for me, doing creative work was a means of preserving my own identity. When constructing my world based on my own individual mythology, I turned to childhood memories or even more archaic images that pop up in my imagination. As a scientific method, I relied on the psychoanalytic methodology of cultural research.
How would you describe your art generally?
Pictures consisted of casts of the unconscious, talking about the mysticism of the inner world, full of insights coming from the depths of the subconscious. I was able to accomplish a huge variety of tasks, but with a limited set of tools, and the rule of the method was to express myself with the help of “improvised means”.
With a limited set of fancifully selected tools and materials, almost all non-profit projects and graphic series that I created [were] on behalf of the alter ego ADIOS AMOR.
Artistic experience in primitives is primarily an existential experience and it is by no means experienced according to the laws of art. Mysticism opposes science with its proven laws and the gradual mastery of truth, and the primitive opposes conventional art, which presupposes the passage of a certain professional school.
In 2018, I won the main prize of the Untitled Prize “Artist’s Life” – with the painting [“Every Heart Seeking Affection”] (https: //www.romasoida. com / untitled). The prize was a two-year study at the British Higher School of Art and Design at the Department of Contemporary Art.
At the moment I am at the stage of forming a new set of beliefs and competencies in the field of contemporary art; I try not to lose my identity at the same time. Key research approaches of our time, as well as the range of problems of studying the art of modern times, contribute to the expansion of methods and criteria for assessing the cultural environment. I have been given a unique opportunity, from an empirical point of view, to assess the difference between independent and institutional approaches to the creation of art projects. I talk about this difference in my works, like a rebel who came to a white-collar holiday, I gradually cultivate myself.
How did the Matches Box project come about? Would you care to describe your vision for the project?
As I noted earlier, I was inspired by pop art and media culture, interbreeding with the fact that I had, in particular, a box of matches, which became an analogue of the can of Coca-Cola that we used every day (we had a gas oven). It was one of the aspects of self-expression that I wanted to differentiate myself from other artists. In addition, he became a kind of visiting card – a painted box of matches for all occasions, which I gave when I met a person or left in hotels. And this digital series is a kind of tribute to my background and at the same time a transition to a new pictorial plane.
Tell me about yourself, your background and your path to becoming an artist.
I was born in Benevento in 1989. I live in Milan where I moved when I was very young with my parents.
I approached art while still a child: my mother was a sculptor and my uncle a gallery owner, so I received a lot of input and stimuli being in the midst of creations, exhibitions and artists.
I attended art high school, but I experienced a great sense of incompleteness in my artistic expression, so slowly starting from simple scribbled sheets I moved on to the walls, becoming a graffiti artist.
How would you describe your art generally?
In 2008 I stopped [graffiti art] because I believed I had no more innovation. I started to paint with various techniques on canvas; acrylic paint but also spray.
Continuing my research, I dedicated myself to purely analogue illustration: ink, watercolour and pencils, diving into many complex lines. But the more time passes, the more I feel I have to synthesize, simplify my language. In this, the digital drawing has been a great help, coming to represent figures of my imaginary world only with geometric shapes that, put together, allow me to show you the world and what surrounds us in my way. From digital drawing, however, I love to bring out, give birth to, and materialize what is on the monitor on various supports. In recent months I have been creating low reliefs that arise from software and come to life on wood and other various materials.
How was the Living Alphabet project born? Would you like to describe your vision of the project?
Living Alphabet was born because I wanted to go back to playing with letters, as I did with graffiti. It arises from the need to express my forms with something that everyone can interface with, such as the alphabet or the single letter, with which to perhaps compose your name. They are childlike shapes, I put myself in the shoes of a child who goes to school but who doesn’t like the shapes of letters and so with his imagination he transforms them and creates a world to share with his classmates.
‘Crypto art is more than hype,’ says Roma Soida, a Russian artist and creator of the Matches Boxes series of art NFTs on Bullish Art.
‘It is definitely a wave that is changing the established level of world art right now, and it is here to stay.’
By the numbers, it certainly seems that way. NFT tracker nonfungible.com reported that in Q1 2021, the NFT market was worth over $2 billion, with NFT art making up just under half of the total. MarketWatch reported in September that OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace, experienced ten times the trading volume in August than in July.
Those newly initiated (or uninitiated) into the world of NFT art will sooner or later ask why tying a unique digital token to a piece of art is important. The common answer is that it allows people to securely own, value, purchase, sell and exchange art without having to worry about provenance or the endless duplicability of the digital world.
One reaction to NFT art is to question the relationship between art and value. Digital NFT art is being sold for millions and millions of dollars, but can that really be compared to traditional art? With more traditional art, the buyer is presumably receiving the physical art piece itself, but digital art is just bytes of data comprising a .JPEG or other image file which can then be copied ad infinitum. On that basis, what exactly of value is being bought and sold?
‘Apart from the visual pleasure of contemplating a physical object, almost all of the value of art is a kind of social construct,’ says Soida.
‘The collector buys the metal Koons’ Rabbit, what he buys belongs to the life, ideas, popularity and success of the artist. Crypto art, in this regard, is the ideal manifestation of the separation of a work of art from some kind of physical object. This is pure conceptual abstraction applied to the idea of ownership. Crypto art has an unconditional agreement that everything you buy is unique. An artist creates only one token, and by buying it, you are buying the exclusive right to call this work yours.’
Soida’s reference to Jeff Koons’ Rabbit sculpture is an apt one. Created in 1986, the series features three 3ft stainless steel sculptures of a feature-less rabbit, one of which was sold for $91.1 million as recently as 2019. Was the purchaser simply buying nearly $100 million worth of stainless steel? The answer to this is self-evidently no.
Is that answer changed by the fact that it is one in a series of identical sculptures?
Tokens as art
‘Of course, there are a number of ethical problems associated with the creation of works by an algorithm with the subsequent sale, the displacement of manual labour, the death of the author, copyright and much more,’ says Soida.
‘However, these problems exist in all areas of modern society and of course, they are also indirectly present in the crypto art environment.’
Soida’s words ring true when you consider the common reactions to each new record-breaking NFT art auction which earns millions of dollars for the artist. Critique often comes as a reaction to the price: how can a token pointing to a digital piece of art possible be worth so much money? You can read the back-and-forth over Koons and the price being paid for his work to see that these critiques have been applied to more traditional forms of art long before the arrival of NFTs.
On the contrary, the differences attributed to blockchain-based art are enhancing the form rather than reducing it. The internet and the vast array of digital tools available to almost anyone mean that the barriers to creating art are lower than ever, while the methods available to potential and experienced artists are increasing exponentially.
‘Blockchain technology has the ability to objectify and regulate many legal processes that were difficult to document before,’ explains Soida.
‘It seems to be that the art world had no other choice but to create a digital analogue of the art world, because the number of creative disciplines and participants has increased in a mega-volume, and everyone wants to speak out, leave a mark and, of course, get a profit from this.’
‘Accordingly, this changes the form of representation, the communication – but the mechanics of interaction remain the same. It just gets overgrown with new tools: curation, sale, collecting, assessment, promotion, legal services, ethical framework archiving, storage and so on.’
However, despite the many ways that NFT technology can serve both art and artist, the mainstream conversation surrounding tokenised art still seems stuck on price.
‘The same story has been happening in the art world ever since photographers and engravers began selling their works,’ opines Soida.
‘Autographed limited edition prints cost incomparably more than those produced on an industrial scale: the small the number of copies, the higher the cost.’
Even in light of Soida’s position, it would be understandable that too close a fixation on art prices might frustrate artists, but these ancillary considerations – not just how much an NFT might go for on the marketplace but which blockchain to use and how many editions to mint – are also a part of the artistic process. Does that mean they’re also an inextricable part of the art?
‘On this, many artists are divided – there are those who think it is a total innovation and those who do not give it their own credit,’ says Italian artist Francesco Buonfino.
‘The minting process involves decisions on the number of editions certainly, but also on the development of a series. I like to work in series, give continuity to the drawings, create a story behind the work I do. I don’t like a single work put there like this, without a sense or with a single empirical meaning.’
‘Everybody must be free to express themselves, and vice versa to travel in the creations of an artist and have the opportunity to collect something that has value that is not only monetary.’
Take Buonfino’s Living Alphabet series, for instance, which consists of 26 pieces of art representing each letter of the English Alphabet, as well as an index piece containing every letter. There are 50 editions available for each letter piece, and 300 for the index. But users who own the entire letter series also become eligible to apply for a reward of BART, BullishArt’s own token which can be used throughout the BullishArt ecosystem for things like art sponsorship and artist investment.
Or how about the recent, record-breaking REPLICATOR NFT by Canadian artist Mad Dog Jones. Each art piece replicates itself every 28 days, creating up to seven generations of artwork associated with the initial piece; ownership over the lineage transfers with each sale of the ancestor piece. However, like a printer, each replication has some chance to result in a ‘jam’ piece, which doesn’t replicate. REPLICATOR sold for $4.1 million.
Such innovations are inextricable from their medium.
NFTs, BSV and BullishArt
One of the choices faced by artists wanting to create NFT-based art is which platform to use.
Both Soida and Buonfino launched their NFT series on BullishArt, a curated NFT art platform. Artists appearing on BullishArt choose which blockchain on which to mint their NFT, and the platform has NFTs minted on many blockchains – one of the few to do so. Both Soida’s Matches Box series and Francesco’s Living Alphabet series are minted on the BSV blockchain.
‘My journey into the world of NFTs is together with BullishArt, a really positive, engaging team with whom we had a great time from day one,’ says Buonfino.
‘They have spent a lot of time informing me and other artists about the different options between blockchains. Unlike other projects, BullishArt truly cares for the interests of artists and offers various options. BSV was the most recent offering and I was very impressed with the idea that NFTs are 100% on the blockchain.’
‘I was not aware of BSV, but the BullishArt team announced this new solution for NFTs and I soon learned that BSV NFTs are 100% on-chain,’ says Soida.
‘This was very interesting, then I learned more about the benefits of BSV related to scale, and the conveniences in transactions.’