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Non-Fungible tokenism: where is the diversity in cryptoart?

The cyber-utopian façade of NFT and crypto art spaces is at odds with an elitist underbelly – we go beneath its decentralised veneer to uncover the mammoth effort to make the crypto world more inclusive

Taken from the autumn 2021 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

When multidisciplinary artist Latasha Alcindor, known to the internet world of the metaverse as LATASHA, joined the crypto artspace, she was determined to make a splash, to make space for people like her. She set out to create not only art, but a better place in her wake.

“It’s hard to be the face of history when you don’t have the equity in it,” Alcindor says. “No matter where we are, the systems that have been made in this time of our lives are just not always supportive of marginalised people. So, even in crypto, we’re still seeing that.”

She got her wish. An autobiographical work, titled ‘Intro to Latasha, caught the eye of collector Cyn Bahati. “(Bahati) tweeted out, ‘I want this piece but I don’t got the bread. I would love to create a DAO (decentralized autonomous organisation, used in the cryptoart space for pooling funds for purchasing works) around it.’ At the time, I didn’t know what a DAO was. I was like, ‘What the hell is a DAO?’” Latasha’s piece and Bahati’s interest in it led to the creation of the notable HERSTORY DAO, which has worked to shift the crypto artspace from a majority white space to a space more inclusive and hospitable for marginalised creators. The organisation was more than welcome in the crypto art space; it was necessary.

The cryptoart metaverse of NFTs, artists, and creators describe, caters primarily to white-held wealth and is plagued with covert racism and homophobia. According to many creators, it’s modeled after an antiquated, insular environment, a holdover from the fiat world (the physical world wherein fiat currency like the US dollar and British pound sterling are exchanged).

“Cryptoart or the NFT space, whatever we’re talking about, grows out of the DeFi (decentralised finance) crypto space, which is not a very diverse space in itself. Traditional finance isn’t a very diverse space. So when you take outer edges of the internet and combine that with finance and decentralised finance, which is even more risky, not many marginalised people have the opportunity to even be thinking about having enough extra money laying around to be extremely risky with that,” states Mark Sabb, founder of counter-culture digital publication FELT Zine. An early adopter of cryptoart, Sabb notices the community’s diversity improving, mostly because of the fresh art and culture scene, but acknowledges there is still work to be done.

Dee Goens, co-founder of progressive auction house Zora, agrees. A certain amount of trepidation and a high knowledge threshold accompanies the complex world of cryptocurrency, he acknowledges, ultimately impacting both vendors and consumers of the space. “Crypto, unfortunately, due to a stark degree of information asymmetry, has led to the technology and its adoption feeling inaccessible to the broader, and oftentimes, more Black communities,” said Goens.

“Digital art, internet art, it was a culture. Now with NFTs, it’s an industry… Now that it’s a business, it’s even more important to make sure that the audience is as diverse as possible and that not one type of voice becomes the dominant consumer voice in this business,” explains Sabb.

As Sabb fears, the environment is curated around cryptowhales (crypto wealthy benefactors and patrons – often white males) who seek out art which reflects their familiarities. “The people who have access to education and this knowledge on the market and who have access to (crypto) to get started, those are the people who are going to succeed. And they all come from the more fiat-driven world,” Diana Sinclair, the curator behind Superchief Gallery’s Digital Diaspora and a founding member of Herstory DAO, explains, noting a lack of diversity on the side of the crypto-wealthy, therefore the lack of diverse collectors.

Because these collectors seek out art and artists which reflect their own lives and interests, their absence of diversity bleeds down to create a disregard for art from marginalised creators. “When it comes to collectors, they’re collecting art that will be seen. They’re collecting art that seems profitable. When it comes to work from marginalised [artists] not being bought, it comes off as [this art] not being profitable or collectible, even though it is,” Blacksneakers states, a Black crypto artist whose art centers the colourful culture of Afro-American people.

“Because (the collectors) have the capital, because they have the control when it comes to the situation, when they decide [to ignore] a piece, it’s essentially saying it’s not worth the time, even though it really is,” she explains. Jesse Soleil, a nonbinary cryptoartist, voices a similar thought. “We’re not just working with artists and collectors of art. A lot of these people are finance majors. They’re largely not thinking about the social impact of what they’re doing and they’re more just thinking like, ‘This is a good investment,’ or, ‘This is just something I want to buy because I have a lot of crypto.’ There definitely is an issue with lack of diversity in collectors but also lack of social consciousness.”

“The people who have access to education and this knowledge on the market and who have access to (crypto) to get started, those are the people who are going to succeed” – Diana Sinclair

Though it’s often heralded as a meritocracy, creators dismissed this characterisation of the cryptoart space and warn of phantoms of white hegemony. “There have been moments where I have felt as if I have not been given (the same) opportunities as some… white counterparts. I’m not downplaying their work because some of them are really, really talented and work hard at what they do. But I also work hard, I believe,” asserts Blacksneakers.

“... (Many) collectors (have) got a bubble of artists they look at and, a lot of the time, it’s anonymous white or white male artists,” Niall Ashley elucidates. Ashley is a traditional artist who explores the impact of social media on artwork. Initially enthralled by the ability to sell digital works and performance art, they found success but noticed a disparity in who sold pieces at high prices or at all. They’ve also observed an exclusion of queer artists. “I’ve noticed a lot of my queer friends in the community, they’re not making the same amount of values as other people who are not queer or openly queer,” offers Ashley, concerned the population may be left out of discussions of diversity and inclusion.

It’s a reality crypto-artist Klara Vollstaedt, a trans woman artist based in Calgary, Canada, can attest to. Auction prices of her art, joyous dancing queer-coded robots, suffer because of her gender identity. She conveys queer artists are not free to express their full selves in the marketplace. “It’s like, either we have to hide (our identity) or we have to work ten times as hard and also not be given as many opportunities. You see that all over the place and it’s kind of persistent,” she states. “A lot of people get either pushed to the side or get excluded from certain projects or are excluded from certain collectors. It seems almost like queerness and people who are queer are just glazed over.”

“In February (and) March, there was a massive amount of queer creators and I’ve seen a lot of people leave and bail or just move to the sidelines because they just don’t want to participate in it anymore,” observes Vollstaedt.

Since extant hegemonic power structures persist in many crypto platforms and galleries, diverse curators are not sought out nor are collectors of marginalised backgrounds courted. Some artists accused sites of not highlighting diverse artists to please the white male consumer base. But the space makes it easy to dodge culpability and harder to ascribe guilt. “Because this is a ‘decentralised environment,’ people think that you don’t need to actively work to diversify or to get more diverse voices at the top. But these sites are centralised. People own these websites. People are running them. People are curating them. We definitely need more black, POC (and) queer people in those positions because otherwise, we’re just going to repeat the same mistakes,” Soleil remarks.

However, it presents the problem of increasing engagement for creators of disenfranchised communities. Various creators like Sinclair and Soleil support crypto education to entice people of disenfranchised circumstances to join the space, others like Sabb suggest DAOs and community-held crypto capital to fortify and sustain growth. “It’s really important that these marketplaces set up collector relations with collectors who aren’t cis white males...Making sure that they also feel acknowledged and that their purchases are also valued is important to make sure that we’re encouraging a diverse range of collectors in the space as well,” Sinclair also proposes.

For now, creators have assumed the responsibility of the furtherance of diverse creators, insisting the space’s weakness can also be its strength. While its loose structure lends to shirked responsibility in terms of fostering diversity, it can also breed communities poised to overthrow the status quo. “Community really is the rider of everything because the space is made for that. It's decentralised; it's about the people,” Alcindor expresses. It’s central to the sphere; Goens even likened it to a superpower.

“I think it’s about removing the ease that older institutions feel they don’t have to include other visions, other communities and other mindsets” – Edward Zipco

One of the most well-known of these community driven initiatives is that of Superchief
NFT’s Digital Diaspora, curated by Sinclair. “(Digital Diaspora) was super positive for everyone. It was financially successful for everyone. But more than that, it allowed... for people that typically haven’t been welcomed into this sphere to give them the opportunity to get the community together and showcase the work that everyone is believing in,” says Edward Zipco, founder of Superchief Gallery NFT. The New York and Los Angeles in-person gallery recently added NFTs and has since hosted NFT exhibitions platforming marginalised artists. But Zipco acknowledges advancing diversity in the arts is a constant pursuit. “I think it’s really important to consistently be pushing in this direction,” he states. “I think it’s about removing the ease that older institutions feel they don’t have to include other visions, other communities and other mindsets.”

Even so, some like Ashley are wary this display of community could be fleeting. “Maybe, once it gets more commercial anyway... people from old institutions come in and put those batteries back in. We've got to be careful of that,” they comment. But Sabb doesn’t even flinch at this possibility. “The solution to it is on us,” Sabb declares. “I don’t look to any of these platforms to solve this for us. I don’t look to any major outside collector or some crypto whale to come through and save us. I think we got to do it ourselves.”

Though the task is not insurmountable, conquering systemic predominance is not, nor has it ever been, an easy task. After all, Soleil scoffs, cynically, “There’s no such thing as a complete ‘new world order’ unless something changes about the old world, right?”

Still, creators remain optimistic for true equity. The mission continues for Alcindor, the newly named head of community for Zora. “... I don't want to see (a lack of representation) for the future. I want to see us in the future. I know we are the future so it's all about the steps we take to do that.” She continues: “We’re born into hard history and real traumas and all of that, but I really believe that through crypto, we can turn the tables and make more seats at the table. And really transform the world, if we do this right.”