This month at Eutectic Gallery in Portland, what looks to the casual observer like a small ceramics show is actually a quiet revolution.
Though the individual pieces in New Ownership are worthy of their own discussion, I want to devote these column inches to the things you wouldn’t be able to see for yourself if you walked into the gallery, the ideas and movements simmering under the surface of an otherwise unassuming ceramics show, trends about which there is so very much to say.
The only indicator that there is something different about this show is that opposite the picture and artist statement for each work in the exhibition booklet, you’ll find a scannable QR code unique to that work. If you aim your phone’s camera at that code, it takes you to the work’s profile page on the largest online marketplace for NFTs (think: Etsy for digital images).
An NFT, or non fungible token—to oversimplify something rather complicated—is a mechanism by which digital information can be bought and sold without it ever changing or degrading. It is a relatively new technology that, up until now, has been used to commodify digital art (and even things like memes, GIFs, and tweets). When you purchase an NFT, you have exclusive ownership of that image, which live solely in the digital space.
New Ownership is pushing the boundaries of NFTs by using them in a new way: to verify and authenticate artworks that exist in the physical world.
This past spring, when the NFT craze set the art world literally and metaphorically ablaze, at a time when the rest of us were swept up in the spectacle of it, Hannah Bakken, New Ownership’s curator, was imagining future possibilities that NFTs might unlock. She brought together Shawna Lipton, the chair of the MA in Critical Studies at PNCA, and Josh Hughes, a former classmate active in the world of cryptocurrency (upon which NFTs depend), to discuss and think critically about how this technology could be used in service of fine artists, regardless of what medium they work in.
It was from those discussions that New Ownership, which features the work of both Lipton and Hughes along with seven other artists, was born. The exhibition pushes the conversation about what it looks like to tie NFTs to tangible objects. That Bakken decided those objects should be ceramic—a material that is as far away from the digital realm as anything could possibly be—is downright subversive.
For this exhibition, the NFTs accomplish a number of things by acting as an augmented certificate of authenticity for each work. Because the NFT establishes an immutable digital record of the piece, in perpetuity, the identity of the artist who minted the NFT can never be separated from it, making it impossible for the work to be incorrectly attributed in the future.
Each time there is any type of transaction—a transfer from the artist’s cryptocurrency “wallet” where the NFT was minted, to the gallery’s wallet during the course of the exhibition, to the buyer’s wallet upon successful purchase of the physical object—each party is forever connected to that work. This is the most failsafe and effortless way in the history of the art market to establish provenance.
In addition, when the artist mints the NFT, they are able to stipulate a royalty percentage that will be paid out every time that work is sold after the initial sale. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Historically, artists have been shut out of profits from the sales of their work on the secondary market.
With an NFT-verified physical object, the artist (or the artist’s estate) would make money every time the physical piece is resold. (This is all in theory, of course, because it’s all so new. Eutectic and the artists in this show are in the vanguard, allowing us to witness some of these practices being adopted for the first time.) It occurred to me that someone could conceivably sell the physical part of an NFT-verified object on the secondary market and disregard the NFT entirely, thereby making more money by depriving the artist of their royalties. When I asked Brett Binford, the owner of Eutectic Gallery and an enthusiastic participant in the NFT/New Ownership experiment, what would keep someone from doing that, he likened it to selling a car without the title. Plenty of people will buy it from you, sure, but it affects the value of the object, and a serious collector wouldn’t do it.
I later realized that for Binford’s assertion to be true, the theoretical buyers, sellers, and gallery owners in that scenario would all have to embrace the importance of the NFT verification to begin with. And they would all have to agree that although the NFT is adventitious to the physical object, they are co-equal to the work. It made me understand how important these early conversations are and how much of the future of the NFT market is unwritten. Nothing about where any of this is headed is inevitable. It takes thoughtful people, like Binford, Bakken, Lipton, and Hughes, to actively conspire to shape a more just future for artists.
New Ownership is a proving ground for that future. When I speak to the group, they offer considered and compelling rebuttals to all of the most common criticisms of NFTs. Regarding the environmental impacts of the technology, which are notoriously terrible, they explain that the cryptocurrencies are only as sustainable as the energy grids they’re hooked up to. The more that people engage with these technologies and speak up about them, the faster the cryptocurrencies will move toward more renewable forms of energy. “I think of artists as critical thinkers and people who help point out problems in society to help to solve them,” says Lipton. “By scaring artists away from this space and leaving it to tech and finance bros and libertarians it will never become the most radical version that it could become. There are creative ways that artists can actually intervene in making these technologies better.”
My biggest concern about NFTs has always been that the inherent complexity of cryptocurrency and cryptocurrency wallets makes buying and selling art—two activities that need absolutely no help in being inaccessible to the majority of people—even more inaccessible. But Bakken, Lipton, and Hughes have a different perspective. “Cryptocurrency is about removing the barriers for people who are unbanked, because a lot of people have access to a cell phone but they don’t have access to a bank,” says Lipton. “It’s about empowering individuals, removing centralized technology platforms like YouTube or Instagram from the equation, and removing centralized finance from the equation.”
Hughes adds, “This really opens up the possibility for every artist—literally anyone with an internet connection and access to some kind of digital technology like a smartphone—to be able to integrate themselves into a larger art market and not depend on a brick-and-mortar gallery system.”
But the process seems so intimidating, I say to the group, wondering where someone like me who is completely unfamiliar with this technology would even begin. Hughes offers to walk me through the entire process of setting up a cryptocurrency wallet and minting an NFT from scratch, as he did for all of the artists in the show. (I took him up on his generous offer and recorded it so that any artist who is reading this and wants to create an NFT can follow along with us.)
When I mention the overrepresentation of cis white men in the cryptoart world, the refrain is the same: the more people that participate in the system, the more it will change. The technology is responsive to its user base, so a broader user base will have the ability to transform the way that the technology affects culture. (Also, Lipton sends me an email filled with links to information about the women and people of color who are already affecting culture in this space.)
I’m surprised by how simple, hopeful, and welcoming New Ownership’s message is considering how complicated, cynical, and exclusionary the world of NFTs often feels. I walked into the exhibition with a healthy measure of skepticism due to what I perceived was the cryptoart world’s disdain for the tangibility of art. NFTs have always felt to me like a threat to some of the things I most cherish. But I can call myself a convert now, having seen what it looks like when technology and materiality are married in a way that puts the interest of the artist above all.
New Ownership at Eutectic Gallery (1930 NE Oregon St.) runs through September 25th.