Written by Nitika
Jason Bailey, aka Artnome, has a background in art and has worked in the tech industry. At artnome.com, he writes about technology and art. He learned about the blockchain from a friend in the late 2017s while working on a project. He did his research and collected artworks like crypto punks, crypto kitties, and some artwork. Later, he wrote a blog post titled “The Blockchain Art Market is Here,” which went viral. Since then, he’s been a vocal supporter of crypto artists and a proponent of the cryptoart community.
Martin Lukas Ostachowski is a physical artist who works with technology. His works have long processes that can take him a year or two to complete. In 2018, he tokenized his first artwork on the blockchain. While researching for his blog post, he discovered Rhea Myers, who created the first Ethereum art market smart contract four years before him. This discovery prompted him to convert his lengthy blog into an ongoing timeline.
He is fascinated by the long and rich history, which reflects what happened in the crypto ecosystem. It became his passion project. He explains that there were few applications or marketplaces initially, and most of the artwork was conceptual, centered on the currency or a darknet like SilkRoad. As the entries in the timeline grew after 2018, he began to include the dates, months, and years.
In his 2018 blog “What is Cryptoart?”Jason Bailey defines cryptoart as a decentralized global movement in which people created meme-based art stored on the blockchain. Before the term ‘NFT’ became popular, cryptoart was referred to as dank rares by some as a reference to Rare Pepes that came under the aesthetic category of ‘dankness,’ but they were on the blockchain, they could be considered as NFTs. He now considers Cryptoart to be art, not necessarily on the blockchain or in the form of a token. It could be a canvas or a mural discussing cryptocurrency, with digital art at the top of the hierarchy as cryptoart. “Not all NFTs are cryptoart, and not all crypto art is an NFT,” he explained. For example, some NFTs are landscapes and domain names that are not related to art.
Martin shares that there are two lines of thought in describing crypto art. One considers it an artwork regardless of the medium, and it could be a painting, a 3D piece, any collectible, fine artwork. The other considers crypto art as something that must be conceptually on the blockchain, known to be natively digital. He agrees with the latter by citing an example that conceptual works such as Rhea Myers’ smart contract “This contract is art” created in 2014 used blockchain technology and should be considered crypto art.
Micol emphasizes that the artists contribute to the history of cryptoart and provide context for current events. Jason tells the story of Nili Lerner, one of the first artists to use cryptocurrency as a medium of expression, who launched the NILIcoins art project on Counterparty in 2014. The art tokens are described in such a way that each one functions as a work of art. It was deemed wacky, and it received backlash as a result. Today, the same tokens are referred to as NFTs.
In 2014, Kevin Mccoy and Anil Dash both publicly discussed what is now known as NFT. “The further back in history you go, the smaller the audience becomes,” Jason observes. For example, a small group of creatives worked on innovative projects in isolation initially, unaware of each other’s experiments because there was a lack of audience.
Rare Pepe’s platform is responsible for the current momentum in the NFTs. It was the first platform not to charge artists, and it was the first to introduce access tokens, unique music tokens, and gift cards. As a result, what began as a joke evolved into the foundations for today’s truly decentralized platforms.
Following Rare Pepe’s, the next major project that contributes to the scalability of cryptoart was CryptoPunks. It is audacious in the sense that there has never been a precedent of 10,000 art tokens. They were early adopters of the ethereum cryptoart ecosystem. The amount of success they have today has brought NFTs to the attention of the general public. When it comes to meaningful scalability, Dada.nyc, a group of creatives, is working to empower artists worldwide by giving them a platform to show and sell their art.
Jason marks the cryptoart history in terms of the Rare Digital Art Festival.
1st year, 2018- More platforms than the artists.
2nd year,2019- Collectors entered the crypto art market.
3rd year, 2020- Secondary Market sales.
4th year, 2021- Ecological concerns and Technocracy (Variable Gas fees).
Martin discusses the early artworks created before 2014 when there was a need for an artistic representation of cryptocurrency, specifically Bitcoins as a physical coin. He uses Casascius coins as an example. There were conferences and art events organized when they approached artists to contribute murals and street art with crypto themes such as the Mt Gox scam, Satoshi Nakamoto’s mystery, ‘get-rich-quick myths, etc.
Martin believes that the cryptoart world has rapidly grown and lacks set values and standards for secondary markets. Many platforms appear to treat royalties as an afterthought, and artists themselves do not seem to take them seriously. For example, there is an Artists’ Royalties initiative launched by Matt Kane, Lawrence Lee, and other artists in 2020. Yet, a year later, we can see the lack of significance of royalties among artists, as well as any enforceable standard. Instead of assisting in creating the marketplace, the community should improve the system, not the artists.
Micol expresses concern that artists have delegated their authority to platforms, such as royalties in the secondary market. There is no artist collective available to discuss what works best for them other than Twitter.
Jason explains that he believed in the ideological ideas of decentralization and cutting out the platform in the early days of his crypto journey. He assumed that artists would fulfill their obligations under their contracts. However, he realized that the platforms serve a purpose in promoting the artist’s work. He recognizes the community’s dissatisfaction with the heavy centralization of platforms. Nonetheless, he believes that as long as platforms experiment with different approaches, the system has a chance of surviving. “The biggest danger would be to stop experimenting,” he believes.
Some people compare the ups and downs of the cryptoart world to Zombie Formalism. What happened was a brief period in the art world in which many people overspent on new artists, but the system collapsed because there was no root structure. But in Jason’s opinion, the comparison is unfounded, he considers cryptoart as street art with a rich culture and historical significance. He says when something is built from the ground up with its subculture, style, voice, history, and vocabulary, it becomes difficult to shut down, which is why he is optimistic about crypto art culture’s longevity.
On the discussion on experimentation in NFTs, Martin shares early projects like the Bail bloc app fund immigrant bail funds before the limitations of file sizes and data formats. He’d like to see grander explorations beyond crypto art, like Kevin Abosch‘s.
According to Martin, Rarible was the first platform to implement the DAO structure. Which artist will be featured will be decided by peers. He believes it is a good way to remove platform gatekeeping. The cryptoart ecosystem’s DAO structures are unique. It is based on the basic income approach, in which the entire community benefits. He stresses that there must be communities willing to take risks and work through trial and error. According to him, no system has worked particularly well thus far.
DAOs, according to Jason, are structures that remove the speculative and transactional aspects of technology while demonstrating an equitable system for artists. He admits, however, that he sells his DAO tokens because he hasn’t seen a well-executed DAO system and questions its complexity.
DADA is a platform that is almost entirely decentralized. Jason explains that they pushed for royalties to artists in the secondary market in the early days and the idea that if an artist sold a piece, the proceeds could be shared by all. It addresses the issue in the art world that when one sees positive reinforcement for successful art, one is tempted to do the same thing, and other artists follow suit. That is the polar opposite of what is desired in the art world. Artists are expected to try new things and be challenging, and to do so, they require a supportive ecosystem. As a result, Dada proposed a universal basic income approach in which every artist could receive a sustainable income that would allow them to explore and grow. According to DADA.art’s Invisible Economy, it organizes economic activity around interdependence, creativity, and altruism. It takes advantage of the wisdom of the crowd without the market’s negative consequences. People are eventually compensated for their contributions with a basic income.
As Jason explains, DADA was aware that it is difficult for a new artist to gain initial support. They are more interested in the artist’s willingness to participate in the community than in advanced art. Martin describes them as “unique thought leaders in the cryptoart space.” The basic income approach is intended to encourage artists to continue creating.
Even if the art did not sell, it would still benefit the entire community. For example, Jason’s first series, ‘Creeps and Weirdos,‘ was forgotten for a long time until someone collected it first, and then it was quickly sold off. They made an effort to first build the ecosystem before releasing the artworks. There is much to be learned from their initiatives.
Micol brings up the less talked about projects like Rare Pepe‘s and why they are sidetracked from cryptoart history as the closing question.
According to Martin, people don’t realize that the entire Counterparty project was built by burning Bitcoins to generate a currency/token based on the destroyed value. The communities are frustrated because the projects are ignored. Rare Pepe was the first user-generated platform, which an individual or a corporation did not create.
Many of Rare Pepe’s conceptual art, such as the invisible Pepe, could be found in the Etherum ecosystems.
Eleonora Brizi’s Rarest book made a significant contribution to the Rare Pepe community. One of the reasons the project was sidelined was The Pepe being misappropriated as a symbol of hatred. In addition, when the Ethereum community published charts of projects on blockchains in 2018, the Rare Pepe project was completely left out, a practice known as Greenwashing. The community did not want Rare Pepe to be associated with the movement, even though the project made significant contributions and was influential in the creation of ethereum projects.
As Martin puts it, “It is important for us even if some part of the history has controversy which is uncomfortable, it is nevertheless part of the history, and it has to be shared. They have to have their place in history.”
Watch the whole conversation between Jason Bailey and Martin Ostachowski on the history of cryptoart with Micol here.