An NFT of the still image “52Hz” by Zomax sold for $168,000 on SuperRare, an NFT platform founded by Mainer Jonathan Perkins.

Jon Ippolito, professor of new media at the University of Maine, is capable of spouting all the technical jargon when it comes to explaining non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, the latest market-charged trend in the world of high-end art and collectibles. But he prefers simplicity.

“Basically, NFTs are a big receipt in the sky. That’s all they are,” said Ippolito, a former curator at Guggenheim Museum and an early specialist in internet art.

They’re a little more complex, but Ippolito’s comparison is a good starting point for understanding the latest art-world boom – or bubble, depending on the perspective – that became a mainstream cultural phenomenon when someone paid $69.3 million for an NFT of the digital artwork “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” by the artist Mike Winkelmann, known commercially as Beeple. The $69.3 million auction price was the most money paid for an NFT, one indication of the scope and potential of a new and quickly expanding market for art and collectibles – like trading cards, memes and even the first tweets of famous people – that is supported, in part, by an entrepreneur from Maine who co-founded the NFT platform SuperRare. On Friday morning, SuperRare sold an NFT of the video artwork “Destination Hexagonia” by the artist Don Diablo for $1.2 million. Digital artists from Maine also have begun dabbling with NFTs, exploring where and how to sell their digital artworks.

NFTs are difficult to grasp, because they’re not an actual thing. Each NFT represents a unique digital token of ownership, but not an actual artwork. “There are no rights or physical or digital assets, it’s just bragging rights to say, ‘I bought this.’ You can get an image if you want it, but that is not what you are buying,” Ippolito said.

Others say the NFT trend is a big middle finger to the art establishment and another example of the disruptive democratization of a traditional market, fueled by technology and social media and similar to the social-movement mentality that gave GameStop stock a wild ride on Wall Street a few weeks ago. “I don’t need an art critic or a gallery to validate my work anymore,” said Arturo Camacho, a doctoral student at UMaine who is following the NFT marketplace closely but has yet to enter it. “It’s no longer decided by a few, but by an entire network of people.”

The person who paid nearly $70 million for bragging rights to “Everydays” received a digital token of authenticity, minted on a digital ledger, or blockchain, that represents both the authentic creation of that work by the artist, as well as its legitimate ownership by the buyer. The digital certificate of authenticity allows an image that exists only in a digital realm to be traded and tracked on the blockchain. The appeal of blockchains is their supposed security; after data is recorded in one block, it can’t be changed without changing data in all the blocks that follow. That sense of security and authenticity helps create higher values for digital art.

“Everydays” is a simple piece of art – a collage of surrealistic jpegs that Winkelmann, a 39-year-old graphic designer from South Carolina, has been producing daily since 2007. The buyer is likely to store the token in his or her digital wallet, which almost certainly includes other digital assets, including the cybercurrency Ethereum commonly used for blockchain purchases, as well as other NFTs. When the owner wants to display the image represented by the token, the simplest way is to share it online – where it has already proliferated for all to see for free.

Nick Thompson from The Atlantic, left, and Jon Ippolito, professor of New Media at the University of Maine, at a panel on NFTs. Still from YouTube video

That’s why UMaine’s Ippolito describes NFTs as a big receipt in the sky. They’re a declaration of ownership, but they don’t necessarily represent ownership of any physical thing, said Ippolito, a new media writer, artist and digital-art pioneer, who commissioned some of the earliest internet art as curator at the Guggenheim and last week participated in a digital discussion, hosted by Sotheby’s and The Atlantic, about the changing dynamics of value, scarcity and ownership made possible by NFTs.

The actual artwork represented by an NFT – a video or audio file, gif, tweet or some other digital code – sits somewhere on the internet, perhaps on somebody’s web server or a secure peer-to-peer network or as an asset in another format. But it’s not part of the secure blockchain that houses the record of the artwork’s creation, sale and any subsequent sales. The key to the success of NFTs is the connection between the blockchain and the actual artwork – the digital fingerprint linking the blockchain file that contains data about who created the artwork, who sold it to whom and for how much with another file of coding, which represents the artwork related to the big receipt in the sky.

NFTs represent the latest resurgent wave in interest in digital art, and despite being built on potentially exciting technology that addresses issues of digital permanence, they also represent what Ippolito calls “an extremely conservative wave,” because of their lack of adventure. “The art being explored is largely still images, animated gifs and short videos – the kinds of things people can put on a T-shirt,” he said. “That’s not why we got into digital art. We got into digital art for the ability to engage with people and interact. That is what is exciting about it. For me, I see a lot of difference between the kind of work being supported by the NFT paradigm vs. the revolutionary potential of digital work that was made in the past.”

In other words, it’s a boring use of exciting technology.

Jonathan Perkins, co-founder of NFT platform SuperRare, outside his Portland apartment Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Jonathan Perkins of Portland has a different perspective. Perkins is co-founder of SuperRare, a leading platform for the sale of digital art. Perkins helps run the 3-year-old company, which he describes more as a peer-to-peer social network, from his Portland apartment. Artists selling on SuperRare did $30 million in business in March, up from $10 million in February and $2.2 in January. The surge in interest in NFTs may be fueled by the hype surrounding Beeple’s “Everydays,” Perkins said, but the burgeoning art market lurking below the hype is legitimate and almost certainly will be sustaining.

“We think there is a huge opportunity here to make art collecting a digital experience, and if you think about how technology has unfolded in the past 10 to 20 years, many markets and many activities have been digitized. We order our food online. We buy our sneakers online. Now we all work online, and we all do our banking online,” he said.

Art collecting has not been digital, until now. That’s the potential that NFTs unlock, Perkins said. The blockchain on which they are based creates electronic permanence, which helps address the transient, or impermanent nature, of some electronic art. With permanence comes acceptance and the opportunity for building value. That is what we are seeing now, and Perkins said it’s just a hint of what’s to come.

“When markets become digitized, they often become bigger than the analog market,” Perkins said. “Art collecting is a $60-$70 billion per-year market. This is an opportunity to be a leader in bringing art collecting to millions of people who do not consider themselves art collectors.”

Michael Mansfield shows one of his digital pieces, titled “Eagle,” at the Maine Media Workshops campus. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But those people love their digital devices, and they love showing off the cool stuff they own on those devices.

In addition to the $1.2 million for Diablo’s “Destination Hexagonia,” other recent SuperRare sales include $337,000 for the video “Pantheon” by Mr. Misang, $168,000 for the still image “52Hz” by Zomax, and $68,000 for the video “Self Portrait” by Jonathan Yeo.

In addition to sharing their art online, people who collect digital art can project it on a screen or otherwise display it on a tablet or other device. Perkins said SuperRare has hosted gallery shows with clusters of iPads on the wall displaying digital artwork, and the company is “working on a product” to make it easy for people to display their digital art at home. Other companies have similar at-home digital-display products.

As to the idea that artwork, or any collectible, is less valuable in a digital format, Perkins nearly scoffs. “We are all spending an increasing amount of time on our screens,” he said. “I spend more time looking at screens than walls. I think people underappreciate the power of being able to share an image across the world. If you have a digital art collection you want to display, someone can look at it in Australia at the same time as someone in Hong Kong. That’s powerful.”

And it’s far more accessible than inviting someone into your home or apartment to see a painting on a wall.

Michael Mansfield, president of the Maine Media Workshops + College, at its Rockport campus Thursday. Mansfield is also a digital-media artist, who is dabbling in the mysterious world of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Perkins said he was not aware of any artists from Maine showing their work on the SuperRare platform. Michael Mansfield, president of Maine Media Workshops + College, is exploring the NFT marketplace as an artist, but has yet to place any of his small videos for sale as NFTs. He’s curious about the economic possibilities, but is more interested in the long-term integrity of his work, which by the nature of technology is always at risk of becoming obsolete. Blockchain technology addresses some of the temporal fears associated with collecting digital art, because it creates a permanent record of each artwork’s creation and its value, when it is sold or resold.

He can create a video that exists in certain formats, but that video is dependent on the software that created it and the operating systems that can play it. “Their existence is pretty fugitive,” he said. “The permanence of putting them into the NFT space is a different way of conceiving the lifespan of the work. It has a very different relationship to time” and is indefinitely available in the hands of a savvy collector.

That said, as Mansfield explored his options in the NFT marketplace in the post-Beeple bubble, he was left feeling bewildered. Just as he would be choosy in selecting a physical gallery to represent and sell his work, he will apply the same standards to any online gallery he might choose to work with. Disappointed with his options, he reconsidered his decision to place his artwork for sale as NFTs.

“I’m not sure what I am going to do,” he said. “There are certain social media elements to some of these websites or organizations that are hosting the transactions that felt kind of gross, or vulgar somehow, or unappealing. They were cultivating a culture that I find problematic – they were not open and inviting.”

Perkins’ SuperRare site was not among those Mansfield explored.

Misgivings aside, the art world is adapting – as it has been doing since the early 1990s when Ippolito began prodding the Guggenheim to become a leader in digital art. (During the discussion hosted by Sotheby’s on Thursday, Ippolito described himself as the “old man in the room” because he’s been involved in digital art so long.) Museums are adding cryptocurrency to their holdings, and auction houses are educating collectors, artists and others.

Eryk Salvaggio, who now lives in Virginia, studied cryptocurrencies as an undergraduate at the University of Maine, where he graduated in 2010. A game he played at the time, Spells of Genesis, used blockchain technology and what Salvaggio describes as “early progenitors of what we now call NFTs” for in-game collectibles, available for purchase. He’s been interested in the technology since.

In 2017, he placed some of his digital art for sale with a startup in San Francisco. “We weren’t calling them NFTs. They were a little bit different,” Salvaggio said, “but I never got into the business of selling them. This was a way of saying, ‘This is mine’ and having it stored somewhere. You can post something on Instagram, and then it’s out there in the ether. The driving idea behind NFTs is having proof of ownership, and now people are selling that proof of ownership.”

Salvaggio, who recently completed his master’s in applied cybernetics at the 3a Institute at the Australian National University, called the current trend “a very conceptual kind of game we are playing right now.” He compared it to a star registry, where people can “buy” a star for someone. “You can claim ownership of artwork the same way you own a star. You can point to a certificate on the wall and say, ‘That star is mine,’ but that doesn’t stop others from looking at it,” he said.


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