In recent times, digital innovations have been at the forefront of the forth industrial revolution where previously unimaginable concepts such as digitally encrypted currencies, self driving vehicles and augmented reality have became relevant. All thanks to a group tech savvy venture capitalists from Sillicon Valley and other parts of the Eastern world, the evolution into digital subversion is coming full speed ahead. Speaking of Sillicon Valley, Facebook CEO and former golden boy of the tech start up haven town – the affectionate title got retracted after he found himself embroiled in multiple public fraud and security breach cases – Mark Zuckerburg once eerily uttered the words “If you die in the meta verse, you die in the real life” after announcing the re-brand of his company from Facebook into Meta. These words are not to be confused as a story arc for an episode of Black Mirror. Zuckerburg’s unsettling foreshadowing of the intertwining of lived human experiences with digital technology was an emphasis of how drastic life as we know is changing.
The phenomenon is already unfolding as we speak. We are seeing a drastic shift of information and traditional customs being transferred into digital form. With-in this digital revolution there has been a fashion that has become prevalent. Unregulated and decenertailised trading is on the up and up allowing exchange of services by cutting out the middle man. Cryptocurrenties such as Bitcoin cut out the middle man, of which is the central banking system or monetary authority, by maintianing a peer-to-peer community instead. You are likely familiar with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, however, you may not be as well versed in blockchain.
A man looks at digital paintings by US artist Beeple at a crypto art exhibition in Beijing titled Virtual Niche: Have You Ever Seen Memes in the Mirror? Image Courtesy of Getty Image.
What Is Blockchain?
Blockchain is the underlying technology that makes cryptocurrencies possible in the first place. Blockchain is a decentralised digital ledger that documents transactions across a global network of computer systems. It provides a failproof way of verifying and recording information. As opposed to a centrally located server, IPFS is built around a decentralized system of user-operators who hold a portion of the overall data.
In the art world, blockchain-based platforms allow artists to register the copyright and provenance data for their art on tokens. These tokens are unique immutable assets, ensuring each piece’s legitimacy. Through tracking the non-fungible token’s (NFT) ownership and price history on-chain, the authenticity of the piece is assured. Tokens are then exchanged in peer-to-peer marketplaces with each NFT representing the official collectible version of the artwork as intended by the artist.
NFTs cannot be manipulated or hacked because blockchain technology is a storage system involving a complex network of millions of computers – only if all the computers agree the data is correct, the token is usable. This means the digital file is now a commodity that can be traded by its owner or creator. So even though anybody can see it on their devices, only one person can own or trade it.
With lockdowns frequently being imposed and revoked in the country due to COVID-19, it stands to reason that this growth would be even more significant than previously estimated. Art galleries and museums have been forced to put their regular operations on hold. This sudden shift has led to the rise of digital art. Out of necessity, institutions which previously relied on physical patronage are now making the shift to a focus on digital offerings.
During a time when being able to experience and interact with art from the comfort and safety of your own home has never been more important, we are seeing significant increases in the viewing, trading, and selling of art in cyberspace. Those who not so long ago maintained that they would never be interested in experiencing or purchasing art beyond brick and mortar galleries are deep diving into the world of digital art.
While more traditional galleries struggle to stay afloat or convert to virtual offerings, digital-based galleries are booming.
What does this mean for South African artists and collectors?
Earlier in the year South African apparel and lifestyle brand Shelflife reported SA’s first NFT gallery auction for work by local artist Norman O’Flynn – a moving image based on his painted series “Timekeeper”. The digital art series which was to be auctioned off, was expected to fetch between R60 000 and R100 000. In conjunction, South African digital artist Lethabo Huma auctioned her digital Art piece on Time magazine “Safe Haven”. She’s was one of the highest selling digital artists in Africa — and had sold her art at Sothebys. These were momental occurrences for South Africa’s contemporary art industry.
Norman O’Flynn NFT artwork from his painted series “Timekeeper”. Image courtesy of Shelflife.
Lethabo Huma’s NFT art work entitled, “Safe Haven”. Image courtesy of Time Magazine.
The advent of these new technologies opens the digital art space in new and exciting ways. Gone are the days of a select group of homogeneous individuals acting as gatekeepers to the entire industry. Investec blockchain lead Chris Becker stated the revolutionary nature of NFTs that, “put the power back in the hands of content creators, and the most popular marketplaces are being built as public utilities, not for private gain”.
Imagine a world where artists earn royalties for every sale of their work in perpetuity, a world where ownership of a piece’s history is public record? With the advent of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT) transforming the art world globally, that reality is here, and South African art and artists are entering the NFT game along with museums, and looking to transform the way art is bought and sold forever.
In South Africa, some in the art world are excited by the possibilities that NFTs represent, particularly due to the ability to implement what are termed “smart-contracts”, essentially terms of sale or re-sale that are built into the artwork, which have strong implications for authenticity verification and royalties. NFTs in the artworld have hit mainstream news over the last year, with several high-profile sales garnering millions of dollars (and rands ). According to Art Market Research around 5% of major sales at auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christies being made up from NFT sales.
This is a indication of the growing demand for NFT’s which could encourage a greater profit and independence for artists regardless of geography, access or class advantage. This is a ground-breaking development in the art world which many South African could extract great benefit from.