One of the goals of Lahore Digital Arts Festival (LDF) from the beginning has been to bring new awareness and appreciation to the digital arts industry in Pakistan. Due to a serendipitous coincidence, the whole world is now focusing on the digital art market after a digital artwork by Beeple was sold for 69 million dollars. The resulting push for art collectors to acquire digital artworks has showcased that digital art is here to stay, and not only that, it is a professionally viable option for artists.
What are NFTs all about?
For most people, digital artworks do not have the same value as a canvas or more traditional visual arts. After all, it is just a file that can be reproduced anywhere at any time. The name of the game these days, however, is ownership, through something called NFTs – non-fungible tokens.
Based on cryptocurrency, an NFT is a transaction in which the ownership of the file is encoded on the blockchain, a string of files that is essentially impossible to copy or change. This encryption cements the buyer as the authentic owner of the artwork.
It sounds complicated, and it gets even more so when you bring in the issue of copyright. An NFT sale does not grant the new owner copyright over the artwork; that remains with the artist. And rarely does it give the owner open permission to display the artwork wherever they want. What it does, essentially, is allow them to prove that they own the artwork. In many ways, it’s very much like an art collector buying a canvas – either they keep it to resell later, or display in their personal collection.
NFTs in Pakistan
Interestingly, NFTs and the sale of digital artworks – even the recent sale of Beeple’s work – has a special connection to Pakistan. Rashid Rana, widely considered as one of the leading contemporary artists in South Asia, was one of the first artists in the region to sell a digital artwork. Additionally, the auction was led by Christie’s, the same auction house which was involved in Beeple’s sale.
Dr. Deepanjana D. Klein, International Head of Department for South Asian Modern + Contemporary art at Christie’s shared this quote about the auction house’s participation in this historic moment and its connection to Rashid Rana: “At Christie’s, we have been continually looking to the innovative work done by digital artists or by traditional artists incorporating new digital tools. In 2006, we were the first auction house to offer a work by Rashid Rana at auction; an artist who is known for his digital collage and photomontage. It is extremely exciting for Christie’s to now be a part of this watershed moment for the development of digital art with landmark sale of Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, which sold for $69.3M. Beeple’s success is a testament to the exciting possibilities ahead for digital artists.”
Certainly, Rashid Rana has always been ahead of his time and has done invaluable work to nurture digital art, while proving through his own success the enduring value of the form. At the time of his historic sale at Christie’s in 2004, digital artwork was not taken seriously at all in the sub-continent. Rana’s work, which often uses digital collages and photomontages, had already been displayed at numerous international Biennales, but this sale gave legitimacy to the idea of digital art as its own professional medium. Many others have followed Rana’s example, and LDF proves that many emerging Pakistani artists are focusing on digital art.
In the past two days as art collectors rush to purchase works via NFTs, Pakistani artists have also benefited: Omar Gilani and Muhammad Nafay have both sold works. Gilani’s famous piece of the sitar-playing alien was acquired by the COO of DevienArt, Justin Maller.
What is the future of NFTs and digital art sales?
The new world of NFTs raises many of the same questions that this edition of LDF is asking around Post Reality. While many in the art world are dismissive of the current craze, many others see it as a sign that digital art is here to say, and certainly, it is a boon for many digital artists who have dedicated their lives to the practice.
Over the years the idea of selling digital prints has become widely accepted, but in a quick call for this article, Rana noted that NFTs is a step further, as it is a completely non-physical transaction, conducted with non-physical means and tokens.
For this article, we reached out to some curators and gallerists for their opinions on the situation. Mortimer Chatterjee, gallerist, looks at the different elements at work, saying that “The move to encode art transactions to block chain, as with other one-off luxury products that tend to move hands over time, is bound to become an increasingly important part of the arts ecosystem. The importance of digital artworks in the future is more difficult to quantify, only because there are so many different forms of art making practice which come under this banner: some have already been around for decades and others are relatively new.”
Greg Hilty, Curatorial Director of the Lisson Gallery, offers an idea on what might happen when the craze calms down: “The latest developments in NFTs clearly represent a leap – is it a leap to new level in the art economy or a leap off a cliff? These jumps happen when unrecognised value is recognised, either because it’s totally new or has a kind of hidden cultural compound interest. To be clear, there is no sign the current flurry has anything to do with new or hidden artistic value of the particular artworks that have received attention. There is much more visually and intellectually powerful work using the grid and pixel format by artists including Gerhard Richter, Thomas Ruff, Rashid Rana and much more powerful popular imagery by countless artists. If anything, the inexplicable auction result is a cumulative reflex valuation of the sheer weight of digital visual content, good or not, the tidal wave of imagery, that has overwhelmed our culture. Some equilibrium will eventually be established between three elements : that continuing tidal wave; the highly developed artworks that occupy a different place in the cultural ecology; and the money that looks to invest in value wherever it can be found.”