Not selling the web, ok?

Tim’s in the news again, in another ridiculous NTF story.

Tim Berners-Lee’s NFT of world wide web source code sold for $5.4mThe Guardian
The NFT sold on Wednesday was created by the English scientist Berners-Lee in 2021 and represents ownership of various digital items from when he invented the world wide web in 1989. The sale effectively comprises a blockchain-based record of ownership of files containing the original source code for the world wide web. The final price was $5,434,500 and half of the bidders were new to Sotheby’s.

A tidy sum.

Tim Berners-Lee defends auction of NFT representing web’s source codeThe Guardian
“This is totally aligned with the values of the web,” Berners-Lee told the Guardian. “The questions I’ve got, they said: ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound like the free and open web.’ Well, wait a minute, the web is just as free and just as open as it always was. The core codes and protocols on the web are royalty free, just as they always have been. I’m not selling the web – you won’t have to start paying money to follow links. “I’m not even selling the source code. I’m selling a picture that I made, with a Python programme that I wrote myself, of what the source code would look like if it was stuck on the wall and signed by me.

That ‘not selling the source code’ doesn’t quite square with how this was being reported earlier, but whatever.

World Wide Web code that changed the world up for auction as NFTReuters
The original source code for the World Wide Web that was written by its inventor Tim Berners-Lee is up for sale at Sotheby’s as part of a non-fungible token, with bids starting at just $1,000. […] The digitally signed Ethereum blockchain non-fungible token (NFT), a one-of-a-kind digital asset which records ownership, includes the original source code, an animated visualization, a letter written by Berners-Lee and a digital poster of the full code from the original files.

NFT could almost stand for Not The Future

Most artists are not making money off NFTs and here are some graphs to prove itKimberly Parker
These numbers do not show the democratization of wealth thanks to a technological revolution. They show an acutely minuscule number of artists making a vast amount of wealth off a small number of sales while the majority of artists are being sold a dream of immense profit that is horrifically exaggerated. Hiding this information is manipulative, predatory, and harmful, and these NFT sites have a responsibility to surface all this information transparently. Not a single one has. […]

Truly the most shocking thing about these numbers is that they look ordinary. They look just like every other market. Everything about this is run-of-the-mill, banal, predictable capitalism. That is exactly the point. Despite the promises of revolution, equality, and “lifting artists up” this technology has changed nothing: the few people at the top continue to have the greatest amount of wealth.

The cost of a single tulip bulb surged to the same price as a mansion 400 years ago: are NFTs the ‘tulipmania’ of the 21st century?The Art Newspaper
The value of an NFT work, having no physical existence, is umbilically dependent on the price of Ethereum. If Ether is on a high, then Ether art is on a high. It’s all about the digital money. “Christie’s auction wouldn’t have been a success if it hadn’t accepted Ether,” Bourron says. “That was the key.” For the moment at least, with the price of Ether having more than doubled since the beginning of the year, it is onwards and upwards for NFT art. […]

To be sure, new technology has brought us enormous benefits, but certain aspects, such as speculation in cryptocurrencies, also bring risk. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, has called Bitcoin “a bubble wrapped in techno-mysticism inside a cocoon of libertarian ideology”.

Van Gogh, his sisters and the NFTs

I missed Van Gogh’s birthday last month, again. I meant to post these links earlier.

Warrior artistDublin Review of Books
Anyone who dips into Van Gogh’s letters will be struck by how much and how widely he read. He devoured and used books up as he did the people around him, though he never used people in a malicious way. It was just that few could match or live up to his passionate intensity. As Mariella Guzzoni, an independent scholar and art curator, writes: “It should be said . . . that though Vincent cherished books, he was not a book collector. More precisely, he was a book-user. For him, it was not important to physically possess books, but to make them his own.”

There’s more to his story than just him, though.

The woman who made Vincent van GoghThe New York Times
Twenty-one months after her marriage, Jo was alone, stunned at the fecund dose of life she had just experienced, and at what was left to her from that life: approximately 400 paintings and several hundred drawings by her brother-in-law.

The brothers’ dying so young, Vincent at 37 and Theo at 33, and without the artist having achieved renown — Theo had managed to sell only a few of his paintings — would seem to have ensured that Vincent van Gogh’s work would subsist eternally in a netherworld of obscurity. Instead, his name, art and story merged to form the basis of an industry that stormed the globe, arguably surpassing the fame of any other artist in history. That happened in large part thanks to Jo van Gogh-Bonger. She was small in stature and riddled with self-doubt, had no background in art or business and faced an art world that was a thoroughly male preserve. Her full story has only recently been uncovered. It is only now that we know how van Gogh became van Gogh.

It’s a fascinating read, his sister-in-law Jo van Gogh-Bonger was remarkable. Here’s a photo of her from around 1909.

And there were other important women in his life too.

The fascinating lives of Vincent van Gogh’s three sistersHyperallergic
Vincent van Gogh’s three sisters — Willemien (Wil), Elisabeth (Lies), and Anna van Gogh — are highlighted in the historical biography The Van Gogh Sisters by Willem-Jan Verlinden (Thames & Hudson). The book was originally published in Dutch in 2016; the English version, translated by Yvette Rosenberg and Brendan Monaghan, includes previously unpublished letters, largely the result of research completed after the Dutch version was first released.

Through letters between the siblings, we read that Lies was frustrated that women didn’t have more professional options that were socially acceptable. We learn about how Wil often copied Vincent’s drawings and was his favorite model, and that the two wrote to each other about art and literature and inquired about one another’s mental health. The book draws you in with stories about the siblings’ pursuits of jobs, love, and artistic curiosities, as well as lush portrayals of each family home.

How Van Gogh paid for his mentally ill sister’s care decades after his deathThe Guardian
Vincent van Gogh remained penniless throughout his tragic life, which ended in suicide shortly after a stay in a mental asylum. Yet two decades later, paintings he had given to his sister were sold to pay for her stay in a psychiatric hospital, commanding such high prices that the proceeds funded years of treatment, according to letters published in a new book.

Willemien, the youngest of Van Gogh’s three sisters, shared his love of art and literature and, like him, struggled with her mental health. While Van Gogh was committed to an asylum after cutting off part of his ear and giving it to a prostitute in a fit of madness, his sister was institutionalised for almost 40 years until her death in 1941.

In 1909, the oldest sister, Anna, wrote of selling a picture that he had given Willemien, enabling her to pay for medical costs: “I remember when Wil got the painting from Vincent, but what a figure! Who would have thought that Vincent would contribute to Wil’s upkeep in this way?”

Speaking of selling Van Goghs, here’s a very realistic/utterly fake portrait of him by the ‘post photographer’ Bas Uterwijk that’s for sale.

I’ve shared a link to his AI-generated portraits before, but now several are for sale as—yes, you’ve guessed it—NFTs. (He’s not the only one, of course.)

I’m still struggling with all this, to be honest. Am I right in thinking that I can spend 20 Tezos (about £100) on something that’s exactly the same as the 1620×2048 .png file I can download if I right-click on the image on the webpage?

Another new world: NFTs aren’t just for cats anymore. What do they mean for digital art?Rhizome
The NFT boom has been a kind of revelation. It should always be the case that artists can keep the wolves from the door and have their creative labors validated, even when the result is a digital file, but the market has never really supported this; the idea that it’s even possible feels revolutionary.

At the same time, the NFT backlash has been furious. Highly visible NFT evangelists make unrealistic claims to be freeing artists from the problems of institutional gatekeepers, but there are clearly still problematic dynamics of race, class, power, and gender that shape these markets too, and artists still find themselves partly reliant on social media platforms and traditional institutions to build audiences and accrue value for their work.

As we’ve already seen, none of this is straightforward.

NFTs are shaking up the art world. They may be warming the planet, tooThe New York Times
“The numbers are just crushing,” he said from his studio in Pfarrwerfen, Austria, announcing that he was canceling his plans, one of a growing number of artists who are swearing off NFTs, despite the sky-high sums some have fetched at auctions. “As much as it hurts financially and mentally, I can’t.”

It wasn’t meant to be like this, obviously. Here’s Anil Dash, the man behind the technology.

NFTs weren’t supposed to end like thisThe Atlantic
The idea behind NFTs was, and is, profound. Technology should be enabling artists to exercise control over their work, to more easily sell it, to more strongly protect against others appropriating it without permission. By devising the technology specifically for artistic use, McCoy and I hoped we might prevent it from becoming yet another method of exploiting creative professionals. But nothing went the way it was supposed to. Our dream of empowering artists hasn’t yet come true, but it has yielded a lot of commercially exploitable hype.

It seems to me that the broken art market is still far from being fixed. I wonder what the folks at Sedition make of all this.

What is cryptoart and should I care?

If you cross Simon Stålenhag’s digital painting style with Noah Kalina’s work ethic, you might end up with Mike Winkelmann, AKA Beeple. Here’s a mention of him from 2017.

“Do androids dream of electric sheep?”: A CGI master made a new artwork every day for 10 yearsDesign You Trust
Beeple is Mike Winkelmann, a graphic designer from Appleton, Wisconsin, USA. His short films have screened at onedotzero, Prix Ars Electronica, the Sydney Biennale, Ann Arbor Film Festival and many others. … For 10 years he’s been posting a new digital illustration—ranging from the abstract to representative, sci-fi to surreal, somber to sarcastic—every 24 hours.

All that effort has paid off, after Christie’s auctioned off a digital collage of the results.

Beeple’s opusChristie’s
Minted exclusively for Christie’s, the monumental digital collage was offered as a single lot sale concurrently with First Open, and realised $69,346,250. Marking two industry firsts, Christie’s is the first major auction house to offer a purely digital work with a unique NFT (Non-fungible token) — effectively a guarantee of its authenticity — and to accept cryptocurrency, in this case Ether, in addition to standard forms of payment for the singular lot.

That’s quite a lot of money, regardless of the currency.

JPG file sells for $69 million, as ‘NFT mania’ gathers paceThe New York Times
After a flurry of more than 180 bids in the final hour, a JPG file made by Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist known as Beeple, was sold on Thursday by Christie’s in an online auction for $69.3 million with fees. The price was a new high for an artwork that exists only digitally, beating auction records for physical paintings by museum-valorized greats like J.M.W. Turner, Georges Seurat and Francisco Goya. Bidding at the two-week Beeple sale, consisting of just one lot, began at $100.

With seconds remaining, the work was set to sell for less than $30 million, but a last-moment cascade of bids prompted a two-minute extension of the auction and pushed the final price over $60 million. Rebecca Riegelhaupt, a Christie’s spokeswoman, said 33 active bidders had contested the work, adding that the result was the third-highest auction price achieved for a living artist, after Jeff Koons and David Hockney.

Beeple sold an NFT for $69 millionThe Verge
The record-smashing NFT sale comes after months of increasingly valuable auctions. In October, Winkelmann sold his first series of NFTs, with a pair going for $66,666.66 each. In December, he sold a series of works for $3.5 million total. And last month, one of the NFTs that originally sold for $66,666.66 was resold for $6.6 million.

But has anyone actually looked at this collection of images? All of them? Whilst the futuristic sci-fi imagery shown above is interesting, if a little derivative, there are some major issues with the rest of it, to say the least. Let’s just say leaving off the titles of the original images was a very wise move.

I looked through all 5,000 images in Beeple’s $69 million magnum opus. What I found isn’t so prettyArtnet News
We’ve passed through a racial uprising and a reckoning with sexism, and the cultural project of the moment is… innovating new ways to worship decade-old, BroBible-level brain farts? During a time of immiseration, investors are competing to throw tens of millions of dollars… at this?

Nevertheless, here we are.

Beeple’s USD 69M NFT enters art historyCryptonews
A non-fungible token (NFT) piece of art thirteen years in the making was just sold for a whopping USD 69.35m at famous British auction house Christie’s, becoming the most expensive NFT ever sold, and positioning the author among the top three most valuable living artists. … According to Bloomberg, prior to the sale, Christie’s Noah Davis said that “there have been a handful of really dogged, really serious clients pursuing it, and they are mostly people who are very steeped in crypto.”

Very steeped in crypto? Who are these people?

Rich millennials are splashing millions on crypto artBloomberg
The decline [in art market sales due to the pandemic] would have been much worse were it not for wealthy collectors who spent more time at home and wanted to beautify their surroundings with art. It was a similar picture with virtual works. More hours glued to a screen encouraged crypto investors — flush with Bitcoin gains — to explore the nascent medium of art attached to a non-fungible token (NFT), a digital certificate of authenticity that runs on blockchain technology.

Who spends millions on NFTs? Meet Beeple’s crypto-rich early collectorsARTnews.com
The digital artist Beeple’s first major collector was Tim Kang, founder of Cue Music and an investor in cryptocurrency. Well before Beeple’s $6.6 million sale at Christie’s, Kang had broken all previous records by buying Beeple’s “MF Collection” for $777,777.77 on the non-fungible token platform Nifty Gateway in December of 2020. This sale launched Beeple from a niche artist working on the digital fringe to a force to reckon with, as the auction made clear three months later. […]

“Crypto and blockchain is more than just a stock; the underlying application is a paradigm shift. Anyone can have an opportunity to participate in a global market,” Kang said. “I have been waiting for so long for the breakthrough, for this to really impact the world beyond just cryptocurrency. Digital art is the perfect medium to communicate the underlying implications of blockchain on self-sovereignty.” NFTs demonstrate how blockchain technology can offer decentralized forms of authority: secure ownership without a gallery or foundation.

No shortage of hyperbole.

Beeple’s ‘5000 Days’ NFT sold for USD 69.35M at Christie’sDesign You Trust
“We must recognize the record-breaking sale of Beeple’s opus as what it is: a watershed moment for our industry. This sale will allow the public to see the capabilities of NFTs in the art space, however, it is just the beginning of the NFT revolution, which will ultimately change the way we live,” Justin Banon, CEO and Co-founder of Boson Protocol, the developer of a “capture resistant dCommerce ecosystem” using NFTs encoded with game theory, said in an emailed comment.

A “revolution which will ultimately change the way we live”? Goodness me. I looked up Boson Protocol, wanting to check if dCommerce was a typo. It seems not, though I’ve no idea what a decentralized, capture-resistant, autonomous commerce ecosystem that operates within a liquid digital market that unlocks two planetary-scale value pools actually is!

Decentralized forms of authority notwithstanding, theft is still theft.

Reports of stolen art on NFT marketplace raise issues for crypto collectorsHyperallergic
The blockchain has frequently been hailed as the future of art commerce, offering a way to ensure a work’s authenticity while creating an unalterable digital record of provenance on a public ledger. But recent reports of hacking on Nifty Gateway, a popular marketplace for non-fungible token (NFT) art, have raised questions about potential security flaws in the system. Several users have taken to social media in the last few days to claim they had NFTs stolen on the platform, with little recourse to get them back.

This isn’t limited to just slightly racist and homophobic digital collages, of course.

Quartz is selling the first-ever NFT news articleQuartz
Quartz is auctioning an article converted into a non-fungible token, or NFT, giving its eventual buyer unimpeachable, blockchain-verified proof of ownership. The process to do this, we found, was surprisingly easy.

Buy This NFT Column on the Blockchain!The New York Times
The first step in making my own NFT was setting up a digital “wallet” that would be used to hold my token, as well as any cryptocurrency I made from selling it. I used a browser extension called MetaMask and set up an empty wallet for Ethereum, the cryptocurrency network of choice for NFT collectors. Then I had to find a place to hold the auction. I chose an NFT marketplace called Foundation, which hosted the sale of the famous “Nyan Cat” graphic this year for nearly $600,000.

Crypto token of New York Times column sells for $560,000The New York Times
@3fmusic could not be reached as of Wednesday afternoon. The user appeared to be an avid collector of NFT artwork. In addition to the Times token, their collection on Foundation also includes such works as “The result of 2020,” an image of a sad-looking Kermit the Frog, and “Mushy’s Midafternoon Nap,” an image of a cartoon toadstool sitting on a log.

I tried getting my head around cryptocurrencies before, but I’m still none the wiser. Headlines like this don’t help.

Bitcoin’s record-breaking surge means one man ended up paying £440m for two pizzasSky News
Bitcoin’s volatility can also have consequences. Laszlo Hanyecz bought two pizzas for 10,000 BTC in 2010, back when the cryptocurrency was worth pennies. Fast forward to now, and this crypto stash is worth a staggering £440m.

One of the collectors above said that digital art is the perfect medium to communicate the underlying implications of blockchain on self-sovereignty. Everest Pipkin, digital artist and author of the following essay, would strongly disagree with that. It’s a long piece, and I’m including more than I would normally here, but I think its clarity is worth sharing. As he explains, it’s not cryptoart specifically that’s so environmentally damaging, it’s anything that’s “minted” on a cryptocurrency blockchain, be it Bitcoin, Ethereum or any other, because of a process called “proof of work”.

Here is the article you can send to people when they say “But the environmental issues with cryptoart will be solved soon, right?”Everest Pipkin
Proof of work, in essence, is a way to confirm that computational effort has been expended by “the prover” (the system doing a task). The idea was originally conceived in 1993 as a way to disincentivize things like spam or bots. Proof of work was supposed to be unnoticeable by normal human users, but would make things like the thousands of requests needed for a denial-of-service attack hard to run. It is like a little puzzle for your computer.

Fast forward to 2009, which saw proof of work (along with another technology called the blockchain, a kind of public ledger) used for a very different purpose; making the digital currency Bitcoin. This is a simplified explanation, but to make a bitcoin, Bitcoin “miners” task their specialized computers to solve those proof of work puzzles, competing with one another to validate blocks on the blockchain. A successful solution – which is somewhat rare – rewards the miner with the new coin. The more a computer “works” (the more energy is expended) the more competitive it is. You can think of it as a lottery, with every kilowatt-hour a ticket. This process is called mining.

This started innocuously enough – mining in 2009 was a background process that could run on a laptop as it idled. However, the difficultly of mining blocks in the blockchain is designed to increase over time. This is because as the network grows, the relative rate of new coins mined stays stable (for Bitcoin, about 1 block is mined every 10 minutes).

To solve the problem of more computers mining, the proof of work puzzles get harder. Miners get more computers, better GPUs. The puzzles get harder. Miners move to places with cheap electricity. The puzzles get harder. Miners retrofit warehouses, air-condition shipping containers. The puzzles get harder. Monumentally harder.

After a decade+ of a growing cryptocurrency market, what we’ve been left with is a financial network that uses more energy than Argentina, with no regulatory structure or federal oversight whatsoever.

I get that scarcity can affect prices; the more rare something is, or the harder it is to find, the more value is has — in the real world.

However, in a digital context scarcity must be constructed – there is nothing that demands the next block in the blockchain be harder to make than the last. If anything, the opposite should be true – computers grow ever more efficient and powerful. This means any scarcity is artificial, a process that demands ever more energy, ever more resources lost to continue to operate and return, for no other reason than to insure that tomorrow it will be even more expensive – which makes the wastefulness of today a good investment.

This is why cryptocurrency is valuable. There is nothing high-tech about it. There is no miracle. It is simply futures speculation without the speculation – no guessing required, because we know it will be more wasteful tomorrow; it is baked into the tech.

The whole thing makes my head swim. Here are some other attempts at explaining why blockchains and cryptocurrencies are bad ideas.

Why Bitcoin is so bad for the planetThe Guardian
In a year, bitcoin uses around the same about of electricity as the entire country of Norway. The digital currency is one that allows people to bypass banks and traditional payment methods. It is the most prominent among thousands of so-called cryptocurrencies and has been repeatedly reaching new records – but is it sustainable?

As NFT sells for $69M, artists question environmental impact of blockchainHyperallergic
As crypto-art speculation rises, however, so do the planet’s temperature and questions about the carbon footprint of NFTs. These unique works are typically sold in “drops,” timed online sales held by NiftyGateway, OpenSea, SuperRare, and Foundation, to name just a few of the most popular marketplaces. NFTs exist on the energy costly Ethereum blockchain; in layman’s terms, they are created (“minted”) based on a process known as proof-of-work (PoW), which necessitates the use of large networks of processing machines that emit CO2.

NFTs are hot. So is their effect on the Earth’s climateWIRED
The works were placed for auction on a website called Nifty Gateway, where they sold out in 10 seconds for thousands of dollars. The sale also consumed 8.7 megawatt-hours of energy, as he later learned from a website called Cryptoart.WTF. That figure was equivalent to two years of energy use in Lemercier’s studio. Since then, the art has been resold, requiring another year’s worth of energy. The tally was still climbing. The problem, as Lemercier saw it, went well beyond himself. His fellow artists were becoming millionaires overnight as the cryptoart world exploded. But so was their role in emitting carbon. Artists didn’t seem to understand the scope of this problem—Lemercier himself hadn’t—and the platforms making the sales didn’t seem interested in clarifying.

I know other areas of our online life affect the health of our physical world…

We finally know how bad for the environment your Netflix habit isWired UK
Netflix claims that one hour of streaming on its platform in 2020 [produces less CO2] than driving an average car a quarter of a mile.

… but this whole cryptoart topic seems so wasteful and unnecessary. To summarise:

Power into artthings magazine
In short. Watch more Netflix. Don’t buy, encourage, promote or celebrate cryptoart.”