London’s funds, talent, technology and legacy art scene have allowed blockchain think tanks and galleries selling NFTs to thrive.
One of the more creative disruptions accelerated by the pandemic has been the surge in interest in NFT art, or art converted into tokens on the blockchain, as both an asset class and a global cultural trend. The former can be attributed to the cryptocurrency boom, while the latter can be attributed to a year of solitary confinement, which has rendered the digital frame almost the default experience of images.
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are digital collectibles that have emerged as a result of this shift; they can be linked to art, photographs, and other physical assets.
Location location location
Even in this digital age, geography still counts— and London has been at the forefront of this. Its role is less as a site of exchange – the majority of NFT marketplaces are hosted in New York or Silicon Valley – and more as a generator of cultural creation, validation, and innovation, alongside cities like Berlin and Tokyo.
Despite the recent exodus of labor from the rest of the economy, London continues to benefit from the wealth, global connections, and lack of oppressive institutions that have fueled its contemporary art, technology, and media scenes since the 1990s.
Last June, Robert Alice, a London-based artist and curator, collaborated with Sotheby’s on “Natively Digital,” an auction of NFTs that featured “old masters” of the scene like Simon Denny and Anna Ridler alongside emerging crypto artists like Mad Dog Jones.
“London has long had support and curatorial interest in institutional and grassroots digital arts programs like Arebyte, the Barbican, and 180 The Strand,” Alice said. These spaces, combined with the growing presence of mainstream crypto companies in London, have resulted in a diverse presence of artists, collectors, and technologists, putting London at the forefront of crypto art.”
Artists as Innovators
According to Rebecca Edwards, curator at Arebyte, a gallery that works with immersive or multimedia installations in physical and digital spaces, “invention thrives in the shadow of necessity.” It is expanding, she claims, “in part due to recent cuts to art and culture in general.”
Artists are looking for new ways to fund, sell, and create art, which undoubtedly includes cryptocurrency, NFTs, and the blockchain. According to Arebyte’s founder, Nimrod Vardi, London’s incipient tech-art landscape “allows space for smaller organizations that are more fluid and quick to respond.”
So far, the city has relied on an eclectic mix of early adopters from all over the city, ranging from Annka Kultys Gallery in east London to Gazelli Art House in Mayfair to Furtherfield in the north.
Furtherfield’s Decentralized Arts Lab (Decal) exemplifies the success of leaner, community-facing organizations in championing blockchain as a more progressive ecosystem.
Their director, Ruth Catlow, believes that its 2017 publication, Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain, and its DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization ) initiative have paved the way for critical and creative experimentation with network technologies. “This is then turbocharged by London’s status as a financial center and its rich connections with Berlin’s artistic, technical, and activist communities,” Catlow says.
Vastari, an online portal that connects artists and museums co-organized the inaugural Christie’s Art+Tech Summit in 2018, believes that NFT developments remain largely limited to the private sector with traditional museum institutions being relatively quiet in the crypto art space.
That is beginning to change. With Vastari’s help the British Museum is now selling NFTs of more than 200 works by Japanese artist Hokusai to coincide with the opening of its new exhibition Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything.
The Race is On
London’s galleries and auction houses were also quick to respond. Christie’s is currently offering five works by Nigerian artist Osinachi as part of a collaboration with the 1-54 contemporary African art fair, and Unit London has just launched Institut as “the first art-world-led NFT… platform,” with the goal of bridging the gap between crypto art and the “legacy” market. Its first exhibition, NFTism: No Fear in Trying, was curated by Kenny Schachter and featured works by Seth Armstrong, Yuma Yanagisawa, and IX Shells, the highest-selling female NFT artist.
“Bringing works into the physical space of the gallery is key to demystifying NFTs and moving the conversation from sales and commerce to the art form itself,” says Unit co-founder Joe Kennedy.
NFT sales alleviate the art world’s traditional issues of provenance, ownership, and record-keeping.
Certify and Verify
Verisart is the first company to certify art and collectibles on the blockchain, recognizing the importance of trustworthy provenance and a clear record of ownership to the NFT as a tradable commodity. Its co-founder and CEO, Robert Norton, formerly of Saatchi Art, sees London as a thriving cultural capital: “London is well positioned to capitalize on the NFT zeitgeist, both through venture capital and the kinds of cross-collaboration between art and tech, fashion and music that are so central to driving interest in NFTs.”
It is unclear whether Verisart, and others will be able to breach the firewall and restore the old art-world order. What is clear is the growing trend toward digital collectibles in an era of diminishing physical resources.
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I write about blockchain, crypto, NFTs and other disruptive technologies and innovations.