How London became a crypto-art capital

One of the more creative disruptions accelerated by the pandemic has been the explosion of interest in crypto art, or art that became tokens on the blockchain, both as an asset class and as a global cultural trend. The former can be put down to boom in cryptocurrencies, the latter to a year of isolation, making the digital frame almost our standard experience of images. NFTs or non-fungible tokens are the digital collectibles that result from this shift; they can be linked to art, tickets and other real assets.

Even though this world is digital, geography still matters – and London has been at the forefront. Its role is less as an exchange point – the majority of NFT marketplaces are hosted from New York or Silicon Valley – than as an engine for cultural creation, validation and innovation alongside cities like Berlin. Despite the recent labor migration across the wider economy, London still benefits from the wealth, global connections and absence of oppressive institutions that have nurtured its contemporary art, technology and media scenes since the 1990s.

Robert Alice, an artist and curator based in London, collaborated with Sotheby’s last June on “Natively Digital”, an auction of NFTs that combined “old masters” in the scene like Simon Denny and Anna Ridler with new crypto artists like Fvckrender and Mad Dog Jones. For Alice: “London has long had the support and curatorial interest in institutional and grassroots digital art programs such as Arebyte, Barbican and 180 The Strand. These spaces plus the growing presence of ordinary crypto companies in London have led to a diverse presence of artists, collectors and technologists placing London at the forefront of crypto art. ”

Multiple digital displays with bright color gradations in one gallery

Ben Grosser’s exhibition ‘Software for Less’ at Arebyte, a gallery that works with immersive or multimedia installations in physical and digital spaces

The invention thrives in the shadow of necessity, says Rebecca Edwards, curator at Arebyte, a gallery that works with immersive or multimedia installations in physical and digital spaces. It is growing, she says, “partly because of the recent cuts in art and culture in general. Artists turn to alternative ways of financing, selling and making art, and this undoubtedly includes cryptocurrency, NFTs and blockchain. “For Arebyte’s founder, Nimrod Vardi, it is precisely London’s empty, technological landscape” that makes room for smaller organizations that are more fluid and quick to respond “.

The city has so far relied on an eclectic mix of early users from across the city: from the Annka Cultys Gallery in east London to the Gazelli Art House in Mayfair to Furtherfield in the north of the city.

The Decentralized Arts Lab (Decal), run by Furtherfield, is a sign of the success of slimmer, societal organizations in fighting for blockchain as a more progressive ecosystem. Its director, Ruth Catlow, believes Fierfield has paved the way for critical and creative experiments with network technologies through its 2017 publication, Artists Re: Thinking the Blockchain, and its DAOWO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization with Others) initiative, which “seeks to produce a common for art in the network age”. Catlow says: “This is then turbocharged by London’s status as a financial center and its rich connections to the artistic, technical and activist communities of the Berlin scene.”

Portrait of a young woman

Lethabo Humas ‘Monday Morning’ (2021) from the Institute’s opening auction of NFTs shown at Unit London © Greetings from the artist

For Bernadine Bröcker Wieder, whose company Vastari helped organize Christie’s Art + Tech Summit in 2018, development is still largely limited to the private sector. “While Serpentine’s R&D platform has performed very important thought leadership,” she says, “traditional museum institutions have not been very active in the crypto-art conversation.” However, that is beginning to change as the British Museum now sells NFTs on more than 200 works by Japanese artist Hokusai to coincide with its new exhibition Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything.

London’s galleries and auction houses have also been quick. Christie’s is currently offering five works by Nigerian artist Osinachi as part of a collaboration with 1-54 contemporary African art fairs, and Gallery Unit London has just launched the Institute as “the first art-world-leading NFT. . . platform ”, which aims to build a bridge between crypto art and the“ old ”market. Its introductory exhibition, NFTism: No fear in the experiment, curated by Kenny Schachter, was hosted across Unit’s Covent Garden space and in the virtual world of the “metaverse” with works by Seth Armstrong, Yuma Yanagisawa and IX Shells, the best-selling female NFT artist.

For Unity co-founder Joe Kennedy, “bringing works into the gallery’s physical space is the key to demystifying NFTs and shifting the conversation from sales and commerce to the art form itself.”

A pink circle with blurred edges within blue and pink circles on a black background

Kevin McCoy’s ‘Quantum’, from Sotheby’s ‘Natively Digital’ auction of NFTs

The sale of NFTs alleviates the art world’s traditional problems of origin, ownership and record keeping. Verisart is the first company to certify art and collectibles on the blockchain, recognizing the importance of reliable origin and a transparent registration of ownership of NFT as a commodity. Its co-founder and CEO, Robert Norton, formerly of Saatchi Art, sees London flourishing as a cultural capital: which are so central to creating interest in NFTs. ”

Whether Institut, Verisart and others can bring down the firewall that preserves the old art world is unclear. What is not in doubt is the growing driving force towards digital collectibles in an age of dwindling physical resources.

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