inside-the-nft-rush:-speculators-offer-up-the-literal-formula-for-success,-plus-other-lessons-from-‘crypto-coachella’-–-artnet-news

This article is the third of a series about NFT.NYC and the culture surrounding NFTs. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

Throughout the NFT.NYC conference, I will hear many sincere testimonials about how NFTs saved someone’s life. People speak about searching for meaning or direction, and finding it in the NFT scene. The vibe during the event can quickly morph from trade show to Comic-Con to tent revival.

Will Gains, a boyish and performatively positive type who emcees part of Day 2, testifies about being a drug addict and having “gambled away seven figures on crypto”—but feeling grateful for the NFT scene for offering him a second chance. “We have one time and one time only to create generational wealth for our families!,” Gains exhorts the crowd.

In her presentation, a woman named Alyze Sam, wearing a Bitcoin ball cap and a shirt that says “Alyze in NFTLand,” recounts her story: “I was a hospice nurse. I killed people for 13 years.” Then she found NFTs. “CryptoKitties is life,” she says. She goes on to declare NFTs “the most significant artistic development since the Renaissance.”

A panel on “3-D NFTs” is moderated by Jacob Marko, the NFT Gorilla. He is wearing a gorilla suit and hauls a broken toilet with him wherever he goes. His story is less dramatic, more of a tale of Great Resignation–era reinvention: “I think the world has gone kind of bonkers,” Marko says, mentioning the recent revelations about UFOs and the soaring market in DogeCoin, a crypto-currency based on a dog meme. “I figured there’s no point in doing cookie-cutter jobs. I’m just going to go on fun adventures.”

Jacob Marko, the NFT Gorilla, speaks at NFT.NYC. Photo by Ben Davis.

Jacob Marko, the NFT Gorilla, speaks at NFT.NYC. Photo: Ben Davis.

Marko hopes he can sell his “3-D NFT” to Elon Musk, and appeals to the audience to connect the two of them. Recently he fell down and broke his toilet, but “if Banksy has taught us anything, it’s worth more now,” he jokes. But, he hastens to clarify: “I’m not selling the toilet. I’m selling the NFT of the toilet.”

A combination of disillusion with America’s crapshoot economy and a hope—sometimes sincere, sometimes defensively ironic—of riding this technological wave to Elysium, flutters in the conference’s air.

Much more serious is Marjan Moghaddam, who appears on a panel about digital arts. She has decades of digital art under her belt and has spent years making inventive “art hacks,” inserting psychedelic guerrilla AR sculptures into art fairs—an almost perfect symbol of how the commercial art world and digital art have seemed to operate in parallel worlds. Only now is digital art getting the financial heft to match its cultural reach. “We’re living in an era where the next art movement will not be geo-located,” she predicts. “The legacy art world is completely caught up in traditional practices of curation.”

And with the advent of this new kind of digital-art scene, Moghaddam says, she has found “the community and the tribe I have been looking for all my life.” Indeed, “community” is among the most-used words at the conference. The sense of openness, optimism, and purpose is part of what draws people in.

But Moghaddam is also a veteran who’s been through the lean years as well as the fat ones. I feel like I detect a note of doubt about how much of the audience that has showed up for this particular party is actually going to stick around, long term. By the end of her time on stage, the idea of “community” shifts subtly, from something discovered to something that you work to maintain.

Asked what advice she has for young artists, Moghaddam says, “Build an online community. When the crypto wave fades, you will still have something to fall back on.”

Promises and the Power Law

William Entriken is a technologist—he claims “lead author” status on the famed ERC-21 standard that enables most NFTs—and a boudoir photographer. He takes the stage on Day 2 for a presentation titled “Vision for NFTs: Year 4 of 10.” He throws up a slide featuring portraits of four Renaissance painters.

“Who are these artists?” he asks the crowd to scattered mutterings. They are, of course, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael—the Italian Renaissance by way of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

William Entriken speaks on Day Two of NFT.NYC. Photo by Ben Davis.

William Entriken speaks on Day 2 of NFT.NYC. Photo: Ben Davis.

“How many of these artists died poor?” Entriken asks the crowd. “All of them,” he answers himself, before building to a crescendo: “2021 is the year that artists stopped dying poor!”

Not to make too big a deal of this—it’s not the worst crime against art history here, and the general point about the injustices artists have historically faced stands—but this statement is false: Leonardo died employed by the King of France, supposedly with his head in the king’s lap; etc. This is not a big gotcha, just a handy symbol of how so much that is promised here is based on mystification and sound bites.

For the real dynamics at play, you have to stick around for the business talks, which far outnumber the art talks anyway.

Richard Chen, general partner at the analytics firm 1Confirmation, offers a presentation that, in its wonkish way, is a deflation of the utopian claims for the NFT economy. Although NFTs offer a “complete new business model for digital artists” and crypto-art became a $1 billion asset class in early October, Chen shows that there is a “huge power law” at play in the NFT market.

The power law is a distribution found, generally, in winner-take-all markets, where early success begets more success, so that opportunities disproportionally concentrate around an extreme minority. It is the opposite of the we’re-all-gonna-make-it economy.

In practice, that means that “the top 32 artists have more than half of the entire crypto market,” according to Chen. This is important to me, because it is the power law distribution that also characterizes the inequalities of the “traditional” art world that everyone thinks they are escaping, with its cutthroat concentrations of value around “blue-chip” artists. (I have written before about the power law in relationship to art schools, where just a handful of top-tier institutions—Yale, Columbia, CalArts—overwhelm all others as gateways to success.)

Chen’s data, in other words, confirms that in just a few months of its mainstreaming, the NFT space has come to conform to all the hyper-asymmetrical dynamics you’d expect. As one study by Massimo Franceschet and Sparrow Read put it recently: “It turns out that the crypto market is extremely concentrated among few artists and even fewer collectors: if crypto art were a country and sales the income of people, it would be much more concentrated than any other country at any other time in history!”

The Formula for Crypto-Success

After “community,” the second-most-used word at NFT.NYC is probably “rich.” As in, “Do you want to be rich?” The speakers ask the audience variations on that question a lot.

“They want to make money out of this talk,” burly, exuberant Karthik Iyer, of the P2P Foundation, reminds his co-panelist on a talk supposedly dedicated to NFT curation. Turning to the crowd, Iyer calls out, “How many people here want to retire in the next three years?” (He will go on to recommend that everyone invest their savings in the booming market for real estate within online worlds.)

Another talk is called, simply, “I’m Rich?” It’s by an artist named Ken Erwin, who created PixelMap, a very early blockchain-enabled project that allowed people to buy bits of a webpage. As interest in collecting early NFTs has surged, Erwin suddenly found himself sitting on a huge asset. His talk is an account of what it was like to discover that he had become an overnight NFT millionaire.