They’re portrayed as digital art, but they usually look like ugly gamer avatars. How is that possible? For IRL, Josie Adams finds out.
If you know anything about NFTs, you know that most of them look like shit. They were sold to us as digital art, and while there are a few hotshots – beeplethe estate of Rita Angus – making a lot of money making this dream come true, most NFTs don’t look very artsy. They look like ugly gamer avatars†
NFT social media representation is steadfast in the profile photo genre: head and shoulders, left to right, solid background. They are usually either highly pixelatedor extreme smooth and round-headed† There will likely be 7,776 very similar versions of whatever NFT you buy, each with a little tweak to make it “unique”. But why do so many NFTs look like this? Is it actually bad art, or are we being a bit harsh?
A design team was willing to sit down and explain themselves. London artist Ruben Varela and New Zealand-born, Australia-based NFT entrepreneur Adam Burns are preparing to release a new project together: WINS, a 555-NFT project meant to be long-term hold, not to flip. When I ask if they know what I mean by the “NFT look”, they both sighed. “Yes, yes, yes,” said Varela. “There’s definitely a look, but that’s just because of the design process.”
“If you do a front or side profile, you can create so many variations,” he said. Many NFT projects release thousands of variations, all with unique combinations of features. “It’s just because of how time-consuming it would be to do different poses.”
“That side profile,” Burns stopped and thought for a moment. “When you look at social media and how it’s used in real life with a real photo, I think people are trying to capture that in a digital form.”
Burns said some features of the NFT look, such as the 3D avatar style and the different background colors, are often the result of trends. “People who come into the industry and identify the projects that are successful may try to emulate them,” he said. He compares NFT artists to fashion designers, usually just adjusting trends, but sometimes completely resetting them. “That’s the evolution of pixelated [NFTs] to 2D to 3D, and what’s the next step after that?”
The WINS NFTs are not starting a trend, but they are early adopters of one: anime NFTs. Burns and Varela have been kind enough to give Spinoff readers a taste of what they’re working on. “I’m a weeb myself, so anime was the art I wanted to work with,” Burns said. “But it was also part of the vision to capitalize on the market trend, which is currently anime. It was at the forefront when we were developing this, but it’s all kind of fading as the trend now.
Recently, the WINS community voted on a design feature for the upcoming NFTs. “We asked if we wanted something specific in one color, or if we wanted multiple colors.” Multiple colors won the vote. Burns does not see the tuning of design as diminishing the artistic value of his NFTs. “As an investor, you naturally want to be involved in the choices the company makes,” he said. It makes sense, he thinks, to let buyers weigh in on what they buy.
It is also important, Varela emphasizes, that artists in a project like this are team players. “Even if I think a certain thing might be a little bit better, if they vote and say they want… [something else], then it is best to give the people what they want. They also feel involved in the project. It’s not just me.”
But at the end of the day, it’s just Varela sitting at his computer, turning all these design features into layers of Photoshop and Illustrator. He layers each eye color, mouth expression, and hairstyle until he has a stack of layers monstrous enough to be worked into a coding program that spits out about 5,000 unique arrangements.
The Spinoff’s creative director Toby Morris has explained NFTs as “bicycle locks like poems” for this reason.
Associate Professor Susan Ballard, Art Historian at Te Herenga Waka, is affected by this urge for uniqueness in NFTs; by the requirement that each in a collection of 555 is different and that each copy is logged on the blockchain as original. There are still expendable copies of NFT art – I sent her screenshots from cryptopunks and metaogue† But these copies do not have the utility or value of the original. “Is it going to convince us that there is something magical in the image? Or is it formed in the relationship between the owner and the image?” she wondered. “Rarity adds value, and that has been true of the art market for a long time.”
However, she believes that a work needs more than rarity to be considered art. “Even within the broader ecology of net art, these NFTs do not yet appear to be involved in the medium’s visuality or networking capabilities.” She pointed to projects such as: Trillionaire Thugs are engaged with the medium – the internet and blockchain technology – by acting as collectible cards; the art is an entry point into a community.
Ultimately, she said, NFTs are not yet at a point where art critics have a lot to do. “I think it is an impossible task to apply the question of aesthetics to these works, if indeed they are,” she said. “The NFT at the moment is a sales mechanism and not a medium, and thus impossible to judge as ‘art’,” she said.”
But she acknowledges that this may change in the future. “Maybe it’s because we don’t have the parameters to evaluate them yet.”
Artists like Varela also view NFTs as an art form in its infancy. He likes painting more than stacking digital eyeballs on top of each other, but sees making these NFTs as a testing ground for the future. “Now is the time for digital artists and 3D artists to step into the limelight and get the recognition they deserve,” he said. “And getting the payment they deserve, because they get royalties forever, and that’s priceless.”
He said wealthy buyers may not be famous art critics, but they aren’t just looking for cute profile pictures either; some are looking for emerging artists for the metaverses we could eventually start using. “Let’s say Picasso is alive and you now have a Picasso piece before Picasso was Picasso,” Varela said. “That’s an NFT.”