On March 9, I entered the NFT space. More specifically, the modern, three-tiered gallery space in Belltown that is home to the Seattle NFT Museum. While I am laughably far from ever being able to be part of the NFT space in the more metaphorical sense (i.e., owning one), the recent cultural convulsion around them — Google “Jimmy Fallon, Paris Hilton, NFT” if you want to stare directly into the void — piqued my interest enough to pay a visit.
Seattle is home to such obscure museums as the Connections Museum, the Living Computers: Museum + Labs and the Seattle Art Museum, none of which I’ve ever felt the need to contemplate the deeper meaning of. The Seattle NFT Museum, on the other hand, seems pertinent not solely because of the things it contains but also what those things have to say about our current moment.
So what does it contain? Not receipt paper, appropriately, although the very friendly museum attendant did make a trip to the back to look. After settling for a text for my records, my companion and I entered through the gift shop. While there were plenty of NFTs on the walls, there were nearly more unique gift shop items. Definitely more, if you include snacks, which you are free to enjoy in a museum with no pesky physical objects to ruin.
The gift shop level was also home to a wall-sized explainer of NFTs — short for “non-fungible tokens,” by the way. I went in with a vague idea that they are a way of owning a piece of the digital realm, with proof provided by the infinitely expanding record of the blockchain — and that for some reason people felt the need to map that ownership mechanism onto weird-looking JPEGs of apes. I left knowing that it’s a lot more than just apes.
There are NFTs of guys that look like Fallout 4 NPCs dressed up for a big rave; NFTs of things that look like Windows 95 screensavers; NFTs of plants made by putting sensors on live plants to see what kind of plant they would want to make into an NFT; NFTs that look like chillwave songs rendered into the engine of a late 90s mech combat game that only sold a couple thousand copies; and of course NFTs of a wacky little cartoon guy you can pay a small fortune to make into your social media avatar.
Oh, and I also learned that it takes .25 Ethereum — the equivalent carbon of 133 miles in a passenger vehicle — to generate a new one, but it’s all good because the NFT Museum signed onto the Climate Pledge.
Also, because the owners — Peter Hamilton, former CEO of TUNE, and Jennifer Wong, a sustainability guru for gig trucking app Convoy — don’t own any of the NFTs; the collections are all there on loan. Fairly easy to offset a few big screens, even if they are in 8k HD.
In other heartwarming news, the current show, “Pioneering Women in NFT Art,” is dedicated to the creations and collections of women. That would be cool, except that, in this case, it just gives strong “half of those people should be women” energy. As far as I could tell from the placards, to be a creator you have to already be rich and to be a collector you most assuredly do.
Which brings us to what NFT art is all really about. Aesthetically, it’s nothing new. Digital art has been around for ages now and has muscled its way into exclusive contemporary art galleries, where it is listed for exorbitant sums of money. While the 8k HDTVs really made the more colorful pieces pop, much of the art I saw at the NFT museum was, at its core, pretty standard digital stuff. Lots of it was what you would expect to see on forums dedicated to fandom or gaming. The difference is that on those forums they don’t need to explain why it’s interesting. In this case, unmoored from the inherent meaning that comes with being attached to a video game or movie franchise, or even a modicum of the emotional resonance that typically makes contemporary art compelling, everything requires an explanation. I did not encounter a placard with less than two paragraphs on it, and very little of it had to do with what you were seeing on the screen.
A theme of all the explanations here, right down to the illuminating glossary of NFT-related slang (WAGMI, or “we’re all gonna make it,” in particular, denoting the idea that a collection will generate demand and make its early adopters money), is that the thing that makes an NFT interesting is not the aesthetic aspect at all. Rather, it is about exclusivity, artificial scarcity and the display of wealth.
“So what makes this a compelling purchase?” the text for NFT artist Krista Kim’s “Mars House” asks, obviously presaging its own sales pitch of an answer.
“Beyond the promise of buying into the lucrative NFT market, the home and all of the furniture in it can be built in real life by glass furniture-makers in Italy, as well as through MicroLED screen technology. Kim also has a strong vision for the art being projected as well. ‘Everyone should install an LED wall in their house for NFT art,’ says the artist. ‘This is the future, and Mars House demonstrates the beauty of that possibility.’”
Unfortunately, it’s probably pretty hard to hang an LED TV from a tent panel.
Another collection, owned by a person nicknamed emilyt.eth, emphasizes the importance of exclusivity as a driver of value in the NFT space.
“With more and more NFTs flooding the market each day, projects are getting creative on ways to stand out,” the placard reads, going on to explain that the collector’s “Utility NFTs” grant special access to “future collections, free airdrops, exclusive communities, direct lines of interaction with their artists, tools, information, games, launchpads, IP ownership, IRL/virtual experiences and more.”
The obsession with exclusivity is driven home even harder by the distaste with which NFT collectors regard the so-called “right-click mentality.” Twitter user @MidwitMilhouse, an NFT enthusiast, recently went viral for a tweet in which he explained that people who right-click and save NFTs were the same as people who make DIY gold-encrusted steaks instead of going to the infamous Salt Bae’s restaurant and paying $2,000 for the genuine article.
Right-clickers, he wrote, “don’t have the satisfaction, flex, clout that comes from having eaten at Salt Bae’s restaurant. The value is not the cost of the steak.” Indeed, for our friend Milhouse, such things are only interesting inasmuch as they are unattainable to others. To be fair to the NFT museum, they encourage visitors to take photos of the work, and were happy to share images of it with Real Change.
Unsurprisingly, a lot if that work also seems to be about tuning out from the outside world. From a description of “Submerged,” by Seattle-based NFT artist Sage Sarvie:
“In this dive-chamber turned living-room complete with its very own aperture, Sarvie applies a dystopian lens to display the challenge of minimalism against modern-day overconsumption and waste mis-management. As we contemplate visions of a world underwater, what might that really look like for us?”
Deep sea Scan|Design, apparently. But maybe we should ask the guys in eastern Europe with 80 graphics cards daisy-chained together who farmed the .25 Ethereum it took to mint this piece? Or better yet, the 12,000 people of Tuvalu, who are going to be among the first human beings to see their homeland completely submerged.
Beyond the climate implications, the amount of time these pieces spend decrying the totally un-chill nature of technology feels wild, given that many of them express full-throated enthusiasm for the metaverse in nearly the same breath.
A placard for Kim’s “No. 700 v.2” proclaims that, “Our society needs an antidote to the relentless disruption that social media is causing. We are bombarded with thousands of messages every day on our screens, and most of the time these messages are used to exploit us or to manipulate us.”
Ding, ding, ding. But what exactly does she think Web3 is for? The Louis Vuitton “#Louis200 visionary,” who has collaborated with Lanvin and Mercedes Benz EQS — besides launching the first “Sports Team metaverse NFT” for the Utah Jazz basketball team — would have us believe it’s going to be ad-free. To be fair, in the metaverse, pigs probably can fly.
Ultimately, all the visionary talk on the placards about migrating our lives out of “meat space” and into the metaverse just reads like people who are deeply unconcerned with the current plight of humanity trying to obfuscate the fact that they are so, so deeply unconcerned with the current plight of humanity. In fact, another one of Kim’s blurbs just says the quiet part out loud:
“Our future is unknown and unstable. There are difficult times ahead due to social and economic unrest due to pandemic risk, decentralization, automation and climate change[…] Our purpose is to present a vision of meditativeness and digital beauty to collective consciousness. The world is forever changed, and we must adapt with mindfulness, self care [sic] and connection to creative energy that will help us navigate the unknown.”
Word salad, to be sure, but it hits all the beats with regard to replacing care and empathy for our fellow humans with mindfulness and self-care. World crumbling? Retreat to the metaverse and contemplate it from afar.
Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we can’t have luxuries until we, one of the wealthiest societies in human history, solve our issues of material scarcity. Let them eat Canlis and all that. But there is something obscenely ostentatious about NFTs, which tallied up to an over $40 billion market in 2021, according to a report by Chainalysis Inc.
That dwarfs the 2021 contemporary art market, which was $2.7 billion. Art, even though it inherently lacks utility, at least tries to make a case for its own existence, purporting to be about truth and beauty. Lord knows it is often guilty of having been created just so that the very rich can own a rare thing, but the NFT movement seems to consider that to be the point of the exercise.
Exclusivity as an end goal.
And, in the end, the amount of truly superfluous wealth exposed by the existence of NFTs is pretty embarrassing, especially for a society that allows people to live unsheltered, die from lack of access to medical care and suffer from food insecurity.
Blowing tens of billions on effectively nothing is a very bad look. If you’re morbidly curious enough to spend time looking at bad things in brilliant color, the NFT museum might just be worth your time.