“Connecting with people can lead to unexpected collaborations,” says long-time painter and recent cryptocurrency aficionado Masha Keryan. But what happens when a global pandemic grinds in-person connection to a halt? As the past year has shown, it migrates online.
After a year of working in near-isolation, this spring, the Yerevan-born, Boston-based artist collaborated with Armenian AR/VR (artificial and virtual reality, respectively) and game development app Arloopa on an experimental project to showcase some of her works digitally. The result was their first-ever AR exhibition of NFT pieces and VR Tilt Brush sculptures.
But before we get carried away, let’s first unpack some terminology:
Cryptocurrency: A digital currency where transactions are recorded onto an unalterable leger called a blockchain, maintained on a decentralized network. Notably, they allow for transactions to take place outside of the traditional banking system.
Bitcoin: In January 2009, following the recession brought on by the housing market crash, bitcoin became the world’s first digital currency. The idea was proposed in a white paper by the mysterious and pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, a 21st century Robin Hood (no, not that Robinhood), with a marked vendetta against banks and the middlemen of the finance sector.
Blockchain: A system of storing successive chunks (blocks) of information, where each block is mathematically intertwined with the next one. Storing information (like transactions) in this way makes it impossible to alter the information in an older block without having to recalculate all the blocks that come after it (which would be easily discovered). Cryptocurrencies use blockchains to guarantee the accuracy of an account balance by looking back at every transaction (flow of cryptocurrency from one account to another) ever made. The blockchain used for the Ethereum digital currency is the most common one used for NFTs.
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens: A 20 dollar bill is fungible, in that you can exchange it for any other 20 dollar bill; they all have equal value. But the specific 20 dollar bill that you earned from your first paycheck, identified by its unique serial number, could be considered non-fungible to you in that it is one-of-a-kind; it has an additional sentimental value that other 20 dollar bills don’t have. A better example of a non-fungible item could be a more common collectible item, like a signed baseball card. An NFT refers to a specific set of code in a blockchain; there is only one and it is uniquely identified.
So, what does any of this have to do with art?
The Tweet That Changed the (Art) World
In March 2021, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s first-ever tweet was auctioned off as an NFT at over $2 million. What followed was a wave of similarly-absurdly priced sales at dizzying speed. Eventually, international auction giant Christie’s announced in a tweet that it was auctioning off a piece by digital artist Beeple that only existed in digital form. The NFT sold for a whopping $69 million, becoming the third-highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. Overnight, the sale sent shockwaves across the art world. “Christie’s authorization is not a phase; it is an acceptance,” explains Keryan.
After half a decade of relative obscurity in its niche tech sphere, the NFT market value tripled in 2020, reaching more than $250 million. Like most new technologies, criticisms of NFTs are plenty, ranging from its incredibly high greenhouse gas implications to speculation that it is just a new playground for the ultra-rich and implacably bored to flaunt their lavish thrills. In any case, there is no denying that they have been a clear winner of the pandemic. While some have warned of the impending rupture of this “bubble,” it continues to balloon at warp speed. Or, as Keryan tells me, it is “a conceptual virus.”
And she’s looking to get in on the action.
Eight of the pieces in her AR exhibit are part of the series, “Will you be my mirror?” They are digitized and altered NFT versions of the original oil painting, which was stolen from Keryan’s studio and never recovered. In November 2020, she sold 25 limited prints of the missing artwork and donated all of the proceeds.
One of those prints, in its physical form, rests in my sister’s living room in Norwalk, Connecticut. I had a chance to view it before my chat with the artist. The palette is indubitably Keryan: minimalistic, striking, bold. Her focus on a singular color ignites the eyes like a burning sun against a grey sky. It is apparent that Keryan lives with flesh, texture, objects of color—not merely the abstract. There is so much feeling in it all.
So, how did a painter, who works with physical textures, colors and objects, get into the digital world of tokens, blockchains and cryptocurrencies? Two weeks before flying to Armenia, she saw the now-infamous Christie’s tweet. Over the next few weeks, Keryan dedicated herself to learning all about the burgeoning currency, the industry and the “next frontier.”
“We’re going into a matrix world,” she tells me, nonchalantly.
ARt Meets AR: A ‘Welcomed’ Collaboration
Keryan welcomes the fact that traditionalists are quickly turning a leaf on the stigma against digital art. As she announced on her Instagram, “Time is everything. So is progress.” NFTs are shaking up the art world because they have changed the game. Keryan believes that we are on the verge of a new art movement that could change the course of art history. When I asked her why she chose to digitize her work, she replied matter-of-factly, “crypto is here to stay, whether we like it or not.”
And so, that became the title of her experimental AR exhibit. “Whether We Like It” features Keryan’s artworks as NFTs, with a few Tilt Brush creations. But, Keryan stresses, none of it would have been possible without Arloopa’s hard work. Though she crafted the pieces by hand and turned them into NFTs on the OpenSea platform, it was the developers and designers who created the virtual gallery, placed the pieces in it, and linked them to OpenSea. “This is an example of what happens when an artist meets tech,” she tells me. “In music, everybody’s looking at the singer, but so much of the important work is done by the band members. I feel like a singer in a band,” she smiles.
And those band members are the Silicon Valley-created, Armenia-based app, Arloopa, which has been in the augmented reality game for a while now. And their model is clearly working. A science teacher in rural India has used the app to create interactive lessons for his students. Just before the pandemic hit, rocker Serj Tankian released a line of “musical backpacks,” where listeners could access his unreleased solo work via Arloopa’s app.
But the collaboration with Keryan’s artwork is Arloopa’s first NFT gallery. How does it work? It is simple. Download the Arloopa app and scan the barcode. The portal will pop up with all of the pieces and their descriptions, almost like a hologram but on your screen. It is as interactive as a space can get without physically inter-acting. At the time of this writing, the exhibit has been viewed over 10,000 times. That is roughly the number of people who pass through the MoMA every five days—or did, pre-pandemic.
Space has always been an integral component of art. While the concept was born in Yerevan, the exhibit sits at home in a virtual space—at once no man’s land and every (wo)man’s land. At least, wherever there is Wi-Fi.
Is It Too Good to Be True?
Of course, digital exhibitions are not new. Especially during the pandemic, museums and galleries across the globe scrambled to digitize their collections with a frenzied fervor. But a burgeoning artist collaborating with an innovative company to create a show with original pieces in a new form of digital asset is quite novel. And it looks like the first of many to come. Keryan explained that her inspiration for this project was “to explore the conceptual options of how a traditional artist can adopt the new possibilities that are entering our world and showcase them.”
But these new possibilities are not without fears. We discuss the example of Napster, the peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing software which, at the turn of the century, had musicians eager and hopeful that the new digital technology would give them more control over their work and a bigger cut of the profits. But enthusiasm quickly waned with the advent of limitless downloads, copies and online pirating. In effect, the opposite of what they desired happened.
But, Keryan says, this is different. An NFT is unique. Its scarcity is the value. Like putting a stamp on an original antique, no NFT can ever be replicated. And every time an NFT gets resold, the original artist always gets a cut. For artists like Keryan, the use of NFTs signals a new era of control, integrity and ownership for content creators who are too often taken advantage of by the middlemen of the industry. These values are not far off from the ones that propelled the enigmatic Satoshi Nakamoto to overhaul the financial system over a decade ago.
Just as the internet is more than cat videos and bawdy images, NFTs are more than just the headline-grabbing dollar signs attached to them. Yes, criticisms abound, and they will continue to proliferate, but this is a new frontier. Like all unchartered territories, it will take some growing pains to stabilize and find its grounding. Pioneering folks like Keryan and the team at Arloopa are ready to venture into this new space. Crypto is changing our world, and with Coinbase’s IPO last month, it does not appear to be going away anytime soon.
So, it looks like NFTs are here to stay, whether we like it or not.
To view the AR/VR NFT art exhibition, “Whether we like it or not,” download Arloopa’s app, and scan the barcode to access the gallery.