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Daniel Arsham
Daniel ArshamCourtesy of the artist

NFTs don’t have to be so soul-crushing – just ask Daniel Arsham

The artist tells Dazed what makes a worthwhile NFT, and how he’s trying to build a greener, fairer crypto space with his minting service, CXIP

What do we talk about when we talk about NFTs? For most of us, the phrase non-fungible token probably conjures up an image of aspiring crypto bros sinking their life savings into a profile picture of a vaping ape, or maybe the cringe-inducing trend of celebrities selling their souls to hike the price of rudimentary JPEGs. Maybe it reminds us of the wave of bizarre “art projects” launched by everyone from Melania Trump, to Rishi Sunak, to Crazy Frog, or the bleak environmental costs of minting and crypto mining. Basically any way you look at it, the public verdict on NFTs in 2022 is: not good

But this can’t be the whole picture, can it? The tonnes of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere, and the broken promises about equal opportunities, and the multimillion-dollar security breaches are just teething problems... right? Someone’s out there solving these problems as we speak – the NFT revolution isn’t cancelled, just postponed?

Well, for a brighter vision of the non-fungible future, you can look to the artists who still believe in the revolutionary potential of crypto art – artists whose intentions go beyond the simple desire to “extract value” from a community of digital art collectors and DeFi degens

Daniel Arsham – the US artist best known for his IRL eroded sculptures: classical statues, cartoon characters cast in bronze, and “future relics” – branched out into NFTs in 2021 with a dynamic digital sculpture titled Eroding and Reforming Bust of Rome (One Year). “I think it remains to be seen how revolutionary certain NFT projects will be,” he tells Dazed. “I frankly think a lot of them are going to zero, in terms of value.”

Nevertheless, Arsham sees NFTs as a “very interesting” development in art history that opens up new possibilities for artists and collectors – even if he’s not entirely sold on the way they’re currently being utilised. 

This raises another question, then: what separates the worthless NFTs from those with real staying power? “The most relevant ones for me are ones that create utility or function,” he explains. “They do things that traditional artworks are not able to do after their purchase or acquisition.” This goes for any new medium, he adds: “It needs a purpose.”

Using the smart contract that assigns ownership of an NFT, for example, Arsham coded Eroding and Reforming Bust of Rome (One Year) to change over time; as suggested by the title, the bust deteriorates over the course of a single year, before reforming to start the cycle once more. Subsequent artworks in the “Eroding and Reforming” series are set to decay over different time frames, up to 1,000 years, outlasting the lifespan of their owners and building on the entropic themes that are fundamental to Arsham’s physical work.

So what about art that doesn’t make use of the technology in novel, or interesting, or useful ways? “Works that attempt to merely extract value right out of the community really have no function for me,” says Arsham. “I think that many of those may disappear entirely.” That being said, Arsham reckons that some profile picture projects – particularly CryptoPunks, the OG PFPs – mark a pivotal moment in art history, with through lines from the revolutionary work of Andy Warhol.

Which brings us back to the revolutionary promises of NFT pioneers, and the problems to overcome if they want to rewrite the art world for Web3. Many of these issues lie with the complex minting process that turns a digital file into an NFT. Research indicates that adding any NFT to a blockchain uses about 83kg of CO2 (that’s not counting the cost of bidding, selling, and transferring them) – meaning hundreds of thousands of trees would need to be planted to offset many crypto art collections. Similarly, a fragmented NFT landscape, where each platform mints NFTs with different methods, makes it easier to sell fakes or run scams.

For Arsham, the problems around minting represent an ongoing battle. “Every time a new technology comes out there are new problems that come up,” he says. In response to these challenges, he’s aligned himself with CXIP (pronounced “chip”), a creator-led minting platform that allows artists to claim royalties on the resale of their artworks across various NFT marketplaces – something that the IRL art world can’t, or hasn’t, offered artists in the past.

By bridging the gap between marketplaces, CXIP also promises greater security and permanence than other minting services. It also curbs its environmental impact with a mix of offsets and “batch minting”, though it’s yet to achieve true carbon neutrality – a vital development that would establish digital art as a real, credible alternative amid the climate crisis.

So, are platforms like CXIP the way forward to create a sustainable online art world and fulfil the utopian dreams of the first NFT proponents? Arsham thinks they can go even further than that. “Right now, I don’t think that we’ve explored all the possibilities of what minting an NFT can be,” he says. “I think we haven’t even seen all the possibilities for it.”

What do you think the NFT space offers that is missing from the traditional art market? 

Well, I think one of the things that NFTs do very well, that the art world and the art market don’t do particularly well, is create community. People can gather around a specific idea and be part of something and [the NFT can] give them immediate access to other content, or other benefits, things like that. It also allows artists, as I have done, to manipulate the way these NFT digital sculptures or works evolve over long periods of time. Through the smart contract, we can make these digital works change.

From an artist’s point of view, what attracts you to creating and sharing NFTs, as opposed to physical art?

In every area that I work, if it’s a new medium, I want it to do things that I’m not able to do in other mediums. It needs a purpose. And for NFTs, the smart contract allows me to create a sculpture that could erode and reform over the course of a year, to have works change their material over time, to have works disappear and reappear based on other attributes or things that are happening externally. All of these malleable qualities of the work after it’s been created are super interesting.

“[CryptoPunks] is the kind of project you can imagine Warhol doing if he were still alive… these are pivotal moments in the trajectory of art history” – Daniel Arsham

How do you feel about the rise of NFT collectibles such as CryptoPunks, Bored Apes, or CryptoKitties?

I do think that these PFP projects, specifically CryptoPunks, are going to have a long history. I think that project in particular marks a moment, really a moment in art history. There’s something very Warholian about the project, the simplicity of it, the idea of an infinite number of alterations or variations on a theme. 10,000 individual variations. It’s the kind of project you can imagine Warhol doing if he were still alive, and something that iconic that also broke the mould of the traditional art world, in such a way that has captured the public imagination and really engrained itself into culture, I think these are pivotal moments in the trajectory of art history.

Do you see the crypto art market moving in a specific direction? Would you like to see it moving in a different direction?

I do think that there is big potential for the collision of physical world works and digital world works. People want the access that they gain through digital means, but they often also want to experience these things in the physical world. We still want to touch, and feel, and move through, and smell, and experience art and other forms of creative output, and the digital doesn’t always do that in its entirety. But when the digital can be linked with that, when it can act as a conduit to a larger experience, this is where things can get very interesting. 

What inspired you to get involved with the minting service, CXIP?

My involvement with CXIP is based on this notion that the resale, or the secondary market sale of NFTs is a great new possibility for artists to capture the value of their work over time. So if I sell a piece on Nifty Gateway, if that work is resold later, I capture a percentage of that resale.

“We still want to touch, and feel, and move through, and smell, and experience art… when the digital can be linked with that, this is where things can get very interesting” – Daniel Arsham

What makes CXIP different from other minting services?

There was a workaround for that for people who didn’t want to pay the artist, which was to take it off to a different platform and sell it there. CXIP has solved that by creating smart contracts that are cross-platform agnostic. So whether you resell my work on Nifty Gateway or OpenSea or any other platform, the contract will actually capture that value and deposit it back into my account, which I think is a very fair and equitable way of treating artists in the future, where they can share in the long term value proposition of their works.

Right now, you know, I don’t think that we’ve explored all the possibilities of what minting an NFT can be. It’s like the public’s imagination around it is relegated to JPEGs, or GIFs, or videos, songs, and things like that. I think we haven’t even seen all the possibilities for it. CXIP is behind all of that revolutionary design.

How does CXIP address commonly-cited issues with NFTs, such as the carbon footprint of the minting process?

CXIP is using proprietary software for the minting process which does something called batch minting, which dramatically reduces any electrical use that results in carbon footprint. I do believe that over time there will be larger solutions to effectively make minting net zero or carbon neutral. You know, every time a new technology comes out there are always challenges around the deployment of it, new problems that come up. CXIP is at the forefront of solving many of those things.