When NFTs invade an art city

Last October, Erick Calderon stood in front of a crowd in Marfa, the West Texas city loved by artists, trying at a public town hall meeting to explain his new venture: a gallery showcasing NFT art. The Marfa Gallery is the physical embodiment of Art Blocks, a virtual platform for NFTs that Calderon launched a year ago. Since then, the platform has generated more than one hundred million dollars in digital art sales.

Behind Calderon, a slide show flashed a picture of one of his own algorithmically generated works of art, a rainbow-colored scribble known as Chromie Squiggle, which he had published in a ten thousand edition. “There’s a Chromie Squiggle that sold – and I’m just laughing a little bit because I think it’s completely insane – that was sold from one collector to another three weeks ago for $ 3.2 million,” Calderon said.

Calderon, a newly struck multimillionaire, used words like “revolution” and “movement” to describe the burgeoning technology that enables ownership – and therefore commodification – of digital objects. “We want to educate locals and visitors on the subject of creative coding,” he explained. “We want to celebrate the intersection of art and technology in a city that has served as a home for innovation.”

When Calderon opened the floor for questions, the answers were overwhelmingly negative.

“I’m feeling super depressed right now,” said visual artist Magalie Guérin. “I hear no conversation about criticism. What does this art do?”

Painter Christopher Wool was just as skeptical: “It sounds like you’re talking about art without aesthetics.”

Calderon, a bearish man with a white stripe in his dark, curly beard, seemed shaken. “What we have created here is very art-forward in the world of the NFTs,” he said with an edge of desperation in his voice. “If you compare it to any other NFT platform, we are much artificial alien. “

A few weeks ago, I locked myself in the Art Blocks gallery and then called Calderon on FaceTime so he could give me a tour. He was in Las Vegas for CES, the consumer technology conference that was to speak in a panel on NFTs alongside Paris Hilton. (She ended up canceling.) He had rented a suite at Caesars Palace because it came with a pool table, but it had not seen much action; The Omicron variant put a damper on the loop. Calderon admitted to being somewhat relieved. “I got a little burned out at Art Basel,” he said.

Most of the art exhibited in the Art Blocks Gallery emerged as on-site projects.Photograph by Hannah Gentiles / Courtesy Art Blocks

Calderon is a newcomer to art. The first time he had been publicly introduced as an artist was the day before, he told me. “I turned red,” he said. “I do not know if you have ever felt cheating syndrome, but I feel it every day.” His immersion in the art world has been exceptionally fast and thorough. For the past handful of months, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have auctioned off Chromie Squiggles, calling the work “legendary” and “iconic” and crediting it with “bringing conceptual art back to the art market.” New York Gallery Venus Over Manhattan will host an exhibition of Squiggles later this month. At Art Basel, Calderon said, “We got people from the traditional art world to tell us that ours was the best art exhibit in Miami.”

Until 2021, Calderon, who is forty years old, identified more as an entrepreneur than as an artist. After studying international business at the University of Texas, he founded an imported tile company in Houston. He spent his free time on creative projects adjacent to technology, playing with projection mapping and 3D printing. In 2014, he and a friend raised forty thousand dollars on Kickstarter to make programmable LED bracelets that people could wear to parties and festivals. Going into galleries made him nervous; because he could not afford to buy anything, he felt as if he was wasting people’s time by being there.

In 2017, Calderon browsed Reddit when he came across an early NFT project called CryptoPunks. Two Canadian software developers had written a piece of code that they used to generate ten thousand characters, each with a unique combination of features – sunglasses, a top hat, an earring, a cigarette – rendered in a blocked internet retro style. To claim a CryptoPunk you simply have to pay the cost of registering it on the Ethereum blockchain. Calderon thought CryptoPunks looked cool – who knew you could pack so much personality into one 24 x 24 pixel image? – but he was even more inspired by the ideas behind the project: that art could be generated algorithmically, and that ownership of a digital asset could be registered on the blockchain. He paid about thirty-five dollars to claim a few dozen CryptoPunk NFTs, including several of the relatively rare zombies.

Other people began to build on the Canadians’ idea and made their own NFT projects. Owning a CryptoPunk quickly became an indicator that you were either an early adopter of NFTs or had plenty of discretionary Ethereum. Last year, when NFTs exploded in popularity, the price of CryptoPunks rose to astonishing heights. I asked Calderon how many CryptoPunks it cost to buy the building in the center of Marfa, which is now the Art Blocks gallery. “It was a third of a CryptoPunk,” he said, sounding somewhat indignant. “But it was a very rare and special CryptoPunk.” (It was a wrinkled zombie with brittle hair.)

The more Calderon thought about it, the more guilty he felt – had it been selfish of him to claim so many of the project’s rarities? He thought of the excitement he had felt as a child when he had opened a new pack of baseball cards and looked in to see if it contained a holographic card. Was there a way to insert a similar element of randomness into the world of digital art? “I knew a mechanism could be written where I would press Claim and blockchain would present me with a punk, and if it happened to be a zombie, then it happened to be a zombie. But my chances would not be one hundred percent, ”he said.

For the next few years, Calderon refined the idea of ​​what eventually became Art Blocks, an NFT platform that emphasizes the element of surprise – you do not quite know what you’ll get until you buy it. Unlike on other NFT platforms, artists cannot list one JPEG file or video on Art Blocks. Instead, they write code that determines a particular set of parameters and variables. Buyers buy the opportunity to run the algorithm, thereby imprinting a piece of digital art.

When Calderon launched Art Blocks in November 2020, he was not sure if people would be as crazy about the idea as he was. His previous projects had had limited success; he and his friend ended up selling only about a thousand LED bracelets. The first piece he listed on the site was Chromie Squiggle, which he still thought of as less of a work of art than a proof of concept. The two hundred and fifty lines of code that Calderon wrote could theoretically spit out an infinite number of unique scribbles, even if he limited the edition to ten thousand. Each Squiggle has distinct characteristics: Nr. 7145, reproduced in red and purple, is pointed and jagged; No. 2268 has a bluish color palate and a smoother topography; and No. 7322, which is mostly green and yellow, resembles an ember.

Impressing a brand new Squiggle cost about $ 40 in Ethereum. Calderon was amazed at how quickly they sold; within five weeks, eight thousand had been claimed. Even better, people created their own algorithmic art projects. Many of the works on Art Blocks have the screensaver-like quality of generic computer art; there are lots of geometric solids, spirals, grids and gradients. The best ones, like the Chromie Squiggle, have outputs that are distinct and yet instantly recognizable. “It’s like a Nike swoosh, right?” said Calderon. “If you’ve seen one Chromie Squiggle before and you see another, you’ll know it’s a Chromie Squiggle. It’s that purity.”

Because you had to know how to code to put a piece on Art Blocks, the site tended to draw contributors from the technology world – video game designers, programmers, engineers – who evolved into a kind of community. When a new project was added to the site, hundreds of people gathered on the Art Blocks Discord server to watch and chat while the first editions were being minted. Art Blocks NFTs sold quickly in the secondary market, where collectors who wanted to complete a set, or own rarities, bid the prices up.

In March, Christie’s auctioned off its first NFT, a collage of works by digital artist Beeple, for twenty-six million dollars. Snoop Dogg, Eminem and John Cleese published NFTs, and Russia’s Hermitage Museum announced an exhibition of NFT art. Art Blocks were flooded with new users, many of whom only coined NFTs to flip them. New projects with a circulation of ten thousand were sold out within minutes; the prices in the secondary market became, as Calderon put it, “insane.” A piece that sold for a few thousand dollars in June was resold for $ 2.5 million two months later. In August, Art Blocks pieces generated nearly six hundred million dollars, including secondary resale; on August 23, the platform processed ninety-nine million dollars in transactions.

Art Blocks’ smart contracts are structured so that the platform gets ten percent of every transaction, including resale on the secondary market, while artists get five percent royalty. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, you make so much money, you must be so happy,'” Calderon said. “No one at Art Blocks enjoyed August. It was awful. It felt like we were being trampled on by speculation. “Like many blockchain evangelists, Calderon had dreamed of a decentralized, self-governing society free of gatekeeping. them.When the hordes moved on to the next hot asset, the early adopters would get rich, the laggards would be stuck in the bag, and contributing artists would be left with “bad vibes” and tank prices. Blocks that only consisted of twenty-five lines of code. “You could see this was just being tossed together,” Calderon told me. Reluctantly, he appointed a board to curate the projects that appeared on the site and introduced a new auction model. , which was to deter speculators.

Meanwhile, the traditional art world expressed interest in Art Blocks. Adapting to art institutions helped justify the awards that Art Blocks contributors, many of whom lacked an art-world pedigree, while allowing these institutions to make money on NFT craze. Calderon was grateful for the support, even though he occasionally questioned the motivations behind it: “I’m just scared of the idea that people give us all these compliments because they do not want to miss this NFT thing when in reality, they just look at it from a business perspective. “

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