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NFTs and My First Venture Into Crypto Art

There has been quite a lot written in the last month or so about NFT (Non Fungible Token) Art and as I've had a passing interest in potential uses of blockchain since reading Michael J Casey's and Paul Vigna's The Truth Machine, a couple of years ago, I decided I needed to find out more about how these worked and decided to mint a piece of my own work as an NFT and put it up for sale. I do not want to write a "how to" guide here - there are plenty of newspaper/magazine articles and other blogs that do that. Nor do I want to get into a detailed discussion about the environmental impact of some cryptocurrencies - I'll touch on it, and it may be bad - but this is meant to be a reflective blog about the experience and what I learned. It is also about the work itself so that's where I'll start.


The basis of the work is a broken LCD television screen... mentioned in my last blog for making its final trip to the dump. The family were home from university for Christmas, one was expecting to stay home for an extended period to make the most of home comforts, and the other was keen to return to their university city flat for the start of the new term. Unfortunately guidance changed just after travelling here, and to add to the problems, both my wife and I were struck down (not seriously) with COVID just before Christmas day meaning that the whole household had to isolate.


Being stuck in London, not able to go out and see their London pals and not able to return to be with their university pals was clearly getting one of them down and one morning we got up, switched on the television and found that half the screen was obscured by a great spider web crack issuing from a point of some sort of impact. When questioned about what had happened, the perpetrator admitted that they may have thrown their phone across the room and it may have hit the television screen (which was switched off so no immediate signs of damage would have been visible). Was I angry? Yes, to the extent that replacing the television was an expense we could do without, but mainly I was sad and worried about what was happening that one of the family should be so enraged as to wreak damage like this (there was also some associated destruction which left ink splattered across the carpet and onto the walls). I know that the toll on many young people has been far more severe and has had more dire consequences than this, but the broken screen did seem to encapsulate a bit of what was going on.


A cake was baked to say sorry, we bought a cheap replacement television and after two negative COVID tests, a return to the university city was possible. Immediate issues resolved, but the cracks are still there.


I've wanted to do something with the broken television since the phone impact incident. I looked into the cost of repair just in case it was possible to salvage it as a working device, but this proved to be uneconomical - the screen is the main component of a television and buying it as a replacement part costs almost as much as the original television. So the least I could do was make some art. I tried using it as an extension screen for my laptop, but the damage caused meant that only half the screen was visible, and that only with quite a bit of distortion - also it was deteriorating all the time. I've made one short film of my laptop filming its own display of it filming itself in a very Nam June Paik inspired way. I really liked the results of this as it shows both the cracked screen and a projection of the cracked screen and creates a sense of motion in a neon lit night time cityscape with the half screen shot reminiscent of the framing in the Wong Kar Wai film 2046. I've added sound, an excerpt from Sound in Jökulsárlón Part 1, an underwater recording of the Vatnajökul glacier in Iceland by Magnús Bergsson, that I had used on a previous piece of work. The gurgling water, clunking of ice blocks and the occasional glacial crack create a different reading of the on-screen fissures. I'd hoped to do more using the screen with video playing, or just displaying images, but after a few weeks the screen would not display anything at all, so that brought the project to an end.


However, I had taken quite a few photographs of the original screen damage and I liked the strong vertical bars of colour linking the spidery cracks, and the pale blue horizontal lines which gave the impression of a watery surface. I'd been discussing reading about NFTs and discussing then with one of my fine art tutors and I thought I could do something with these images.

Having read about Jeremy Deller's The Last Days NFT and other works which tended to be self referential about the crypto art market, I'd though about centring a Bitcoin or Ethereum symbol in the origin of the crack, but decided there was quite enough of that sort of stuff and in making an NFT, and in particular using this image, I was not trying to say anything about NFTs, but rather something more about our current brokenness. I decided therefore to use what was already there in the vertical bars of colour and create a gif (or two) sequencing the colours or the bar positions. I did this using photoshop and it ended up being quite a tedious and time consuming procedure - I'm sure someone with more photoshop skill than me could have knocked these up in a couple of minutes - but I was happy with the results.


Selling NFTs is a fraught issue, but at least going through the process was forcing me to engage with, and learn more about, the environmental impacts of cryptocurrencies and the NFT marketplaces that rely on them. If you are not aware (but you probably are as you have read this far), the process of making transactions on blockchain, the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, is incredibly computationally, and therefore energy, intensive. There are lots good articles to read on this – I found one that pointed to the work of Joanie Lemercier and Memo Akten in Wired particularly useful.


This was my first foray into this area, and I was not practicing what is advised by those who have researched this thoroughly – I have put the NFTs on OpenSea using its lazy minting approach, which is slightly better in terms of energy consumption, but as it’s an Ethereum based marketplace it will still have a potentially high environmental impact if sold. Without going into too much detail, both Bitcoin and Ethereum use a process called proof-of-work to complete transactions and add new blocks to the blockchain. There are other less computationally intensive cryptocurrencies which use a process called proof-of-stake which uses a fraction of computation effort and those should be the environmentally preferred basis for an NFT marketplace.


The process has given me a lot to think about and I expect I'll continue to read about NFT art for a time to come, even if I do not produce any more myself. I'm concerned that perhaps I've been insufficiently considerate of the environmentally negative aspects of crypto art, and so far, apart from an initial set-up transaction that I had to make, creating the NFTs should not have had minimal energy cost, but if the sell... I'll console myself with following:

  1. This is probably a one-off and if I do it again, it will be on a non-Ethereum marketplace;

  2. They probably won’t sell anyway; and

  3. If they do sell, I now have lots of links to work out the carbon cost and how to offset that (I also continue not to own a car and not to fly).

Notes:

  • I found this blog by Toby Hazlewood very helpful when I was in the final stages of listing my NFTs.

  • With the escalating value of cryptocurrencies, the view that they are in the hands of the super rich, and the reported contribution to the climate crisis of sustaining these currencies, it is not easy to see blockchain technology as a force for good. However, the book The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and The Future of Everything (Michael J. Casey and Paul Vigna, 2018), provides many examples of social projects that could benefit from the technology.



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