NFT c’est quoi?

And what do you actually do with them? Answering these questions
is both simple and terribly complicated at the same time.

And what do you actually do with them? Answering these questions is both simple and terribly complicated at the same time.

Emma Stern
FERN-1 (Detail), 2021

A few weeks ago hardly anyone was thinking about NFTs, then suddenly there were a few new auction records: 69 million USD for a digital painting by Beeple at Christie’s, for example. Suddenly the whole world started talking about blockchain, cryptocurrencies, NFT marketplaces, and digital art.

Beeple was fairly unknown before the traditional auction house Christie’s announced their collaboration with the artist. A collage consisting of 5000 individual images, his entire œuvre, was auctioned off. For 13 years, Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, posted a new work online every day. He has 2.1 million followers on Instagram. That’s quite a lot, so he’s not that unknown. It’s just like the music scene, you know your genre, but everything else is unfamiliar at first—names you may have heard. Cloud rap, c’est quoi? Exactly! And that’s how it is now with digital art. Beeple, Pak, Mad Dog Jones, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips are now working with these artists. Something is moving. At first glance, money, a lot of money. As much money as was previously only paid for painting. And not all that often for living artists. Beeple, born in 1981—still quite young—is suddenly the third most expensive living artist. Since he overtook Gerhard Richter, Jeff Koons and David Hockney are the only two artists who are ahead of him. Most importantly, he’s done it with a file that anyone could save and store. The world thinks it’s crazy, criticizes and laments, is puzzled and perplexed. Is it all just hype?

NFTs are not going away any sooner than the Internet is, that’s for sure. NFTs are a technology, not an artistic medium. NFT stands for non-fungible token. A good comparison would be a contract that is not written on paper but into the blockchain. A contract that can be viewed by anyone on the Internet, in which there is absolute transparency with regard to prices, sales, and transfers. Essentially, when you buy an NFT, you buy a token as well as an object that is linked to it. This object could be anything: digital art, trading cards, music, or virtual land. NFTs are stored on the blockchain; they‘re unique, authenticated and tamper-proof. In short, an NFT serves as proof of authenticity for any digital file.

Exhibition view: The Artist is Online. Digital Paintings and Sculptures in a Virtual World at KÖNIG GALERIE, Decentraland, 2021

That is revolutionary. Digital art can be collected like painting and sculpture because there is an original: copies still exist, of course, but the original belongs to a collector. A purchase of the NFT collector 888 has currently appeared in the media. For 688,888 USD, he purchased a self-portrait of Sophia, a humanoid robot, on the NFT marketplace Nifty Gateway. There are a few marketplaces out there, the best-known ones being Nifty, SuperRare, Foundation, and MakersPlace, among others. These are curated platforms, and although there are online application forms, if you take a closer look, only artists and so-called creators have many followers on Instagram and Twitter. And there’s more to it that’s new and revolutionary: the marketplaces are an all-in-one platform, a gallery and an auction house at once. The works can be sold there on the secondary market, and the artists earn money from every resale. So, there’s a lot of talk about the democratization of the art market, but is it really democratic if the marketplaces get to decide which artists and works are being featured?

And where does that leave the galleries? Are they redundant now? For some artists, certainly. But that’s been the case ever since the Internet became ubiquitous. Galleries are still left with the same responsibilities they’ve always had. Consulting and supporting career growth, mediating collectors and taking over organizational tasks. Contextualizing artistic work and planning exhibitions. The marketplaces are solely oriented towards generating sales, but digital art is so much more and should be presented in virtual gallery spaces. Johann König has been involved with NFTs and the opportunities that come with it since summer 2019. The Artist is Online, an exhibition which we curated together at KÖNIG GALERIE , was on view offline and online from mid-March to mid-April. Initially, the exhibition was supposed to open last year. Due to the pandemic, it had to be postponed, and instead we launched a series of works planned for the group show as a digital solo exhibition during the first lockdown in 2020.

Surprisingly This Rather Works by Manuel Rossner is both a spatial intervention and a virtual extension. The digital visitors enter the space through the KÖNIG GALERIE app. The objects on display form a path that can be traversed with an avatar. Rossner transforms the brutalist architecture of the former church of St. Agnes, in which KÖNIG GALERIE is located, into a playful environment. Rules that apply in exhibition spaces are suspended in the digital world. We and the artists we work with are driven by the question of how digital art can turn into an experience. An NFT collector recently offered Johann a piece of land in Decentraland, a virtual world based on the blockchain. Rossner interpreted St. Agnes as a 3D model and built it up in Decentraland.

Addie Wagenknecht
DOGE (Detail), 2015

The gallery can now be visited in Decentraland on a piece of rented virtual land (across the street from the Convention Center) and is actually the first commercial gallery on the platform. Digital art is presented in its native environment. Rossner again exploits the potential of virtual space by tearing a hole in the side wall of St. Agnes through which the church can be entered.

29 works of 22 artists were sold in an auction on the open marketplace OpenSea. KÖNIG GALERIE took this unusual sales approach in response to an art world confronted with changes due to the proliferation of NFTs. In doing so, Johann hopes to adapt to a new environment and the habits of NFT collectors, who cultivate transparency with regard to ownership and prices. Where is all of this headed? Once the hype slows down, it will be the same as always: quality prevails.