Where once modern art was primarily defined by style — think Surrealism or Op art — today contemporary art can be characterized by how it is tracked and traded. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are a type of digital asset connected to a public blockchain and certified to be unique and secure. The NFT as art was first proposed in 2014 by Anil Dash and Kevin McCoy to help artists monetize their digital works. As Dash has explained, however, what has followed is rampant opportunism and further commodification of art.
Critics of the established art market declare that NFTs are part of a counterculture that will lead the legacy art world from hierarchies to a networked utopia. Sites such as OpenSea, SuperRare, and Hic et Nunc offer an almost infinite amount of digital artworks in a wide price range. The truth is, unfortunately, much of the crypto art available on these auction marketplaces is unoriginal on any visual level, or worse, artistically vacuous. However, there are art platforms that want to use NFTs to empower digital and new media artists to benefit from the unbounded potential they hold. Feral File is one such platform.
Launched in March 2021 as the boom in collecting file-based art began, Feral File eschews the auction model commonly used to sell NFTs. Built using the Bitmark blockchain and initiated by artist and Processing programming language co-creator Casey Reas, Feral File commissions curated exhibitions with artists who use quantum algorithms and other generative techniques to make code-based art. It has set a standard for how a digitally native gallery should work. “Feral File is more of an artist-driven initiative,” curator and researcher Pau Waelder said when we talked over Zoom, “thinking more about the artist, about the community, about people getting to know and experience digital art, and making it affordable.”
In September 2021, Waelder curated the fifth exhibition that Feral File has held, Instructions Follow, a group show of 12 established-to-emerging digital artists. The artworks were presented as cultural artifacts and the exhibition was shown as a cultural event, “which is the main point, ideally,” explained Waelder. Each page of the exhibition included the technical specifications of the art and a brief narrative about the work. The artworks were sold in editions of 75 for $75 (Feral File now accepts Ether and Bitcoin, but originally priced works only in US dollars). Waelder and each of the artists got one edition from all the artworks, fostering a community of artist-collectors that gain from each other’s success. When sales started an hour after the exhibition opened to the public, it sold out in 40 seconds.
Another criticism of the traditional art world is the lack of transparency around prices. Transparency is built into Feral File through the clear artist and collector rights embedded in the smart contracts of the NFTs they sell. The extensive art sale agreement allows artists to harness one of the major benefits of NFTs: royalties in perpetuity. “What happened in the show that I curated is that in the end some artists made more money from the percentage they got from resales than from the original sale,” said Waelder.
The collectors’ rights were added to make sure that the digital works bought on Feral File are disseminated as much as possible. For example, when video art is bought through a gallery, usually the contract stipulates that the collector can only show the work in their private residence. Feral File has moved towards maximum distribution to expose the art they sell, encouraging collectors to present their collections in places such as public shows and museums, benefiting the collector, artist, and ultimately the platform.
Feral File collectors know what they are buying; they are tech savvy. In their conversations on Discord — the communication platform of choice for the NFT community — they discuss file formats and the finer details of the algorithmic and generative processes, much as a Pollock-lover might discuss his intuitive method. For collectors, it is also important to be able to sell on the secondary market. Feral File recently released Ethereum Bridge to enable collectors to migrate Bitmark NFTs to the Ethereum blockchain, allowing them to hold their artworks in an Ethereum wallet and sell on other marketplaces.
The unexpected market in NFTs in the past 12 months has encouraged major galleries into the crypto art space. Pace gallery launched a dedicated NFT hub — Pace Verso — in November 2021. Using buzzwords such as Web3 and metaverse to market the venture, Pace claim this hub is not an “NFT platform” to put JPEGs on the blockchain (Ethereum in this case), but rather they want to create projects within a digitally native space. Nevertheless, the first artists to have NFT drops on Pace Verso are not digitally native, excluding the type of artists exhibiting with Feral File.
Of course, Pace Verso will sell their NFTs to their big collectors who perhaps would normally not buy new media art. That is their segment of the market. “I think there’s much more interest in the digital art world, although I’m afraid it’s more monetary interest than cultural interest in many cases,” said Waelder. What sets Feral File apart is that it is created by and for the digital and new media art community, the very community that have been fighting for legitimacy in the legacy markets influenced by galleries such as Pace.
NFTs are popular among artists because the technology enables them to exercise control over their digital work, to more easily sell it, and to protect against others appropriating it. Being able to separate an artist’s initial creation from mere copies confers power. It is unfortunate that the current boom in NFTs has led to a focus on the market versus the actual art. Feral File demonstrates how digital artists and ethical collectors of file-based art can build a culture antidote to the opaque framework of collecting art through the established gallery system.