Despite the NFT crash, a new book argues that technology still has the power to build a better digital art future

Despite the NFT crash, a new book argues that technology still has the power to build a better digital art future

Read an excerpt from the new book “The Story of NFTs: Artists, Technology, and Democracy.”

DADA Collective, Creeps & Weirdos, details and selections from the collection curated by Judy Mam and Beatriz Ramos. Struck as ERC-20 tokens in 2017, restored as ERC-721 tokens in 2019. Photo courtesy of the artists.

“I think one of the biggest ideas that I want to put forward is really trying to use and leverage this technology to redistribute power—these interlocking systems, whether it’s museums, collectors, free ports, auction houses, etc. I also think that one of the really beautiful things are the way this technology builds community. It’s something beautiful. It can be forever.”
– Cheryl Finley, professor, curator and author

Beatriz Ramos was working as a commercial illustrator building billion-dollar corporate brands when she and Judy Mam, a writer, began discussing a particular disparity in the art world: Artists were creatively building assets that they did not own. Artists could put their portfolios online and “people would give you a like,” as Mam said, but at some point, as Ramos said, “If we want artists to form a community, we have to give them the tools to do that they do best, which is making art.” Ramos and Mam envisioned a global collective of artists creating work together. The impetus for founding their platform, DADA, was to nurture creativity and bring people together. To join the community, you respond to someone else’s drawing with your own drawing – to participate in a visual conversation with others.

DADA was founded in 2014, well before the wider awareness of NFTs. Mam and Ramos envisioned this digital community as a space where artists could draw, create and connect with each other. To their surprise, they found that people enjoyed the creative freedom of drawing with strangers from all over the world—not fearing judgment from close friends, but experimenting.

The first DADA collection of NFTs, Creepy and weird, evolved from multiple artists in multiple conversations and was curated by Ramos and Mam. When asked about the title, they said it was because, considering the imaginative forms these visual conversations had created, “some were creepy and some were weird.” The name arose from Ramos and Mam’s desire to create a “coherent collection to be tokenized.” They were aware of the “creepy weird aesthetic” of Rare Pepes, which led them to choose “the creepy weird aesthetic on purpose.” They launched the project on Halloween 2017, which included secondary sales royalties for artists embedded in the smart contract, and have since reinvested money collected from selling their NFTs back into their community.

Later, DADA started a different kind of conversation: a series of “Invisible Economy” working groups. They envisioned a future where art production could be radically separated from the market and that a shared underlying economy could benefit the whole of society from the value created by its members. Ramos and Mam envisioned that even if the works could be sold individually, a larger percentage of the sale’s proceeds would go into a fund that would be distributed among all the active participants in society, providing a form of universal basic income. Mam told us, “Although individual artists initially received 70 percent of primary sales and 30 percent of secondary sales, today all proceeds from the sale of DADA’s tokenized collections go into a general fund where they will be distributed among all participating members of the community, including technologists , according to their contributions.” In other words, they organized a unified version of artists’ royalties, the percentage of a secondary market sale that goes back to the artist, in primary and secondary markets.

DADA’s pioneering work in adding automated royalties for artists also catalyzed a structural change regarding how NFTs are transacted: A group of artists led by Sparrow Read and Matt Kane were instrumental in establishing royalty standards for NFT platforms such as SuperRare and OpenSea.

The cover to The history of NFTs: artists, technology and democracy. Photo courtesy of Rizzoli Electa.

The questions of DADA get to the heart of the political potential of blockchain: Can it create new avenues for supporting artists individually and actually create forms of collective ownership, shared upside and profits that can be reinvested in artistic futures? We are in a situation where the world is changing rapidly and we are part of the changing world. As a result, the most critical thing to do is not to answer the questions, but instead try to ask and engage with the right ones.

One of these key questions is how these new forms of economic sustainability can come about through fractional equity and resale royalties. Another question is how collaboration and community practices are built around these systems of royalties and wealth creation, not only by artists but by other disinvested communities. Here the questions are not solved individually, but only by coming together with others. This necessity for collective action can lead to enormous changes in the power structure and enormous potential for societal governance models.

These questions center the democracy stories of blockchain – questions of redistribution, participation, inequality and inclusion. While there may not yet be clear answers to these questions, the importance of asking them was the impetus for our series. These questions are the subject of Whitaker’s research – and of many other researchers and practitioners that we were lucky enough to invite. Our purpose here, in Abrams’s term – and image! – is to curate the giant 40-scoop sundae of future questions , questions we could never answer alone, but which unite these intersecting stories of blockchain and lay out clear choices for how we choose to design the future.

Excerpted with permission from The history of NFTs: artists, technology and democracy by Amy Whitaker and Nora Burnett Abrams, published by Rizzoli Electa.

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