Establishing who owns digital “originals”
Marcel Duchamp’s infamous readymade sculpture Fountain – a urinal on a pedestal, signed “R Mutt” – rewrote the rules about what art could be. But the original no longer exists and its authorship is disputed. Though Duchamp submitted Fountain to the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917, it was never placed in the show and, after it was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, it was thrown away.
The original Fountain was gone, but the idea remained – preserved in the pages of the Dadaist journal The Blind Man, which published Stieglitz’s photo and an essay by Louise Norton – née Varèse – one of two women suspected to be Duchamp’s collaborator in the work (the other was the delightfully-named Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven). If you think you’ve seen Fountain, you’ve actually encountered one of seventeen replicas Duchamp produced between 1950 and 1964. When Brian Eno boasted in 1993 that he had urinated in Fountain, it transpired he’d faffed around with a vial of bodily fluids and only succeeded in soiling one of those facsimiles.
You may wonder why I’ve begun a piece on the newest art obsession, Non Fungible Tokens (NFTs), by talking about a long dead artist. Two reasons: firstly, because Duchamp would have been delighted by the notion of NFTs; secondly because they provoke as many philosophical questions and real-world problems as readymades did 104 years before.
Explaining NFTs sounds as baffling to the modern ear as conceptual works did to people brought up on representational art. Any explanation of what NFTs are has to begin with a definition from economics: Fungible (adj.) — readily interchanged with another item or items of equivalent value.
For instance, if I hand you a £20 note and you can give me two £10 notes, we both have the same value as we started out with.
Non-fungible assets existed in the physical world long before the NFTs were dreamed up. Michelangelo’s David and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa are non-fungible. They can be photographed or copied but it is impossible to entirely mimic the unique qualities of the originals, both in physical composition and provenance. NFTs are an attempt to bring uniqueness of ownership to a digital world where images, videos, and other assets are endlessly copied.
NFTs offer a way of establishing who owns the “original” of a piece of art — which could be any digital file — by recording that ownership on a digital ledger called a blockchain. As with digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ether, which also exist on blockchains, the record of who owns a particular NFT is maintained by thousands of computers across the world.
There’s nothing to stop anyone else copying the artwork linked to a particular NFT, but the person who owns it can verify they have “the original”. Often, the artist retains the copyright and can continue to produce and sell copies. It’s even possible for that artist to make a percentage if the NFT buyer decides to sell it on. Think of purchasing an NFT as like buying an autographed print or signed first edition, albeit one that can remain financially tied to the creator.
NFTs offer a way of establishing who owns the “original” of a piece of art — which could be any digital file — by recording that ownership on a digital ledger called a blockchain
While NFTs don’t physically exist, there is a cost to produce them. The creator has to pay a “minting” fee for the NFT to be processed on the blockchain, which involves computers doing a series of complex equations. The energy greediness of blockchain projects generally has led to serious environmental concerns. Servers mining Bitcoin and processing transactions use the same amount of energy per year as the entire nation of the Netherlands.
According to calculations by the computational artist Memo Atken, the average transaction on the Ethereum blockchain, which produces the crypto-currency Ether as well as NFTs, has a carbon footprint of about 20kg of CO2. Akten believes the average NFT has a footprint of 211kg of CO2, because a single cryptoart NFT involves dozens of transactions. That’s the equivalent of a return flight from London to Rome, or driving 1000km.
That inherent wastefulness has not stopped NFTs becoming a sensation in both the worlds of art and tech. In February 2020, an animated gif of Nyan Cat – a meme from 2011 showing a flying cat with a cartoon body trailing rainbows – sold for over $500,000. The musician Grimes, partner of Bitcoin-loving Tesla boss Elon Musk, sold NFTs of her digital art for in excess of $6m in early March, but her achievement was soon outstripped.
On 11 March, the American digital artist Beeple sold an NFT for $69m (£50m) in Christie’s first digital-only auction. Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelman, creates a new piece of digital art every day and the NFT bundled together 5,000 days (almost fourteen years) of his work. The buyer was initially only known by the pseudonym Metakovan, but swiftly revealed himself as Vignesh Sundaresan – a tech CEO with long-standing business interests in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
The fact Sundaresan was the Beeple buyer strengthened a widely-held belief that NFTs are at best a fad and at worst a bubble, or an outright scam. Whatever your position on them, there’s no doubt they’ve proved irresistible to tricksters and satirists, as well as speculators and tech advocates. Also in March, Morons, a Banksy original, which was already a critique of the art market, was burnt and destroyed on a livestream, then sold via an NFT for £274,000. Duchamp would have been delighted.
Mic Wright is a freelance writer and journalist based in London. He writes about technology, culture and politics