Earlier this month, artist Robbie Barrat’s digital artwork AI Generated Nude Portrait #7 Frame #111 sold for 175 ETH, or approximately $343,761, on NFT marketplace SuperRare. The sale was notable not just for its impressive price tag amid a stagnant digital art market, but because it was made using AI. The SuperRare sale was not the first time Barrat’s work sold for six figures. Last year, another piece from the same series sold for 300 ETH, about $1 million at the time.
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It was perhaps unsurprising, then, that when earlier this month Christie’s announced a new digital art auction in collaboration with Gucci, “Future Frequencies: Explorations in Generative Art and Fashion,” the highest starting bid—220 ETH ($409,393)—was for another Barrat work, AI Generated Nude Portrait #7 Frame #190 (2018).
Yet, when the sale ended Tuesday, the lot was unsold, which raises the question: Is buyer interest in AI art dissipating?
Sebastian Sanchez, who joined Christie’s eight months ago as a digital art specialist, cautioned against drawing misleading conclusions.
“I don’t think this is an indicator of the AI market. There was a big boom at the beginning of the year but I think the real innovators, AI artists, are still very respected and coveted, and other AI works sold in the auction,” Sanchez told ARTnews. “We’re entertaining interests post-sale, and we’ll see if anyone bites.”
While the art and NFT markets are never completely transparent, sales in the digital art space have been erratic this year. Occasional bright spots have punctuated the overall bear market, like the successful Sotheby’s 3AC “Grails” sale last month, which generated more than $11 million, and Barrat’s SuperRare coup a few weeks ago. But, just weeks after the “Grails” sale, Sotheby’s laid off several digital art staffers . In many ways, the auction houses are still figuring out how to operate in the Web3 space.
“We’re still learning how to compete with these marketplaces,” said Sanchez. “We had this auction on Christie’s 3.0 [the auction house’s NFT marketplace] which doesn’t have any buyer premium.”
The buyer premium in traditional art auctions recognizes the value of the work that auction houses do to source lots for sale, like those by Picasso or Basquiat, which are typically held by a select few. When it comes to NFTs, however, the most valuable works are often found on a variety of platforms, like SuperRare or OpenSea. To stay competitive, Christie’s had to forgo the premium.
Christie’s is also working to stay competitive by leaning on their in-person programming and exhibitions. Barrat’s work was on display during this year’s Christie’s Art + Tech Summit in New York. The traffic of tech- and art-loving folk makes for good synergy. Many of the pieces that did sell in “Future Frequencies,” according to Sanchez, were to people who attended the conference.
While this year’s Art + Tech Summit didn’t seal the deal for AI Generated Nude Portrait #7 Frame #190, the exhibition was a bit of a full circle moment. At the 2018 edition in London, the auction house gave out a swag bag to 300 attendees. Inside was a card with a code that allowed recipients to claim ownership of a corresponding piece from the same Barrat NFT series on SuperRare.
“This was pre-NFT boom so everyone just tossed them,” Sanchez explained. “Only 36 had been claimed, and the rest are considered lost, so that’s the lore behind what’s called the ‘Lost Robbies.’”
As NFTs have become more valuable, the few who held on to their cards came forward to claim the “Lost Robbies.” In the case of AI Generated Nude Portrait #7 Frame #190, a previous attendee found the card and approached Christie’s about selling it.
However, for the “Future Frequencies“ auction, the item for sale was the physical card itself, which represents ownership of the associated NFT, not the display of the image that was on view at Christie’s, according to Sanchez. This differs from typical NFT sales which don’t typically have a physical artifact attached
Though most now associate AI art with text-to-image generators like Midjourney or OpenAI’s DALL-E, Barrat, like many other artists experimenting with AI, has a more involved process. Barrat creates his own generative AI software; this technical advance is as much art as the images it produces.
“For many artists who have been using AI for a long time, the artistic process was in large part actually researching and developing the AI software ourselves and making very many artistic decisions in generating that and then using those outputs to create artworks,” Harm Van Den Dorpel, an artist who uses AI algorithms in his own work, told ARTnews. “It seems to me that the artists using those kinds [of AI generators] are fine with being consumers of an existing corporate platform, instead of really going deep down into the algorithms themselves,” though he noted there are many artists who are able to do interesting things with text-to-image platforms like Midjourney.
Barrat is of the former camp of artists, having been scouted in high school by Nvidia, a major tech company known for producing computer graphics chips, after creating an AI that could write Kanye West lyrics. But Barrat has since focused on the artistic potential of the technologies that he loves working with.
In 2018 Barrat trained an AI model he had developed using images of nudes from WikiArt, and asked the AI to make its own version of the painterly nude. The results are glitchy, expanses of pale flesh tone, with nary an identifiable appendage or facial feature, yet they are beautiful in their own way, fascinating artifacts of machine vision.
Created five years ago, these works, now known as the “Lost Robbies,” already have a certain historicity to them. Produced by a homemade and already outdated AI, they may wind up as historical benchmarks of both a rapidly evolving technology and a digital art market primed to explode. So, if not this sale, perhaps the next one.
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