Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
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“Is tokenization existence?” Sarah Meyohas asks, rhetorically, of course. Meyohas, a conceptual artist whose art considers the nature and capabilities of emerging technologies in contemporary society, visually articulates the conceptual systems of the blockchain. By embracing NFTs, Meyohas allows buyers to speculate and bet on her future work and career. While the number of wallets interacting with the NFT space is still small, more than 200 people have taken her up on this offer to interact financially with her work — and some have made serious money, up to $350,000, reportedly, in the process. Cashing out may be the only tangible exchange (win or lose) of the process.
Her latest project, the Non-Existent Token, which launched in September of this year, is an infinite NFT auction: a public exchange for NFTs no one would actually own, but instead, would temporarily borrow on lease. It’s an overtly ironic experiment, utilizing the very technology Meyohas criticizes, in order to advance it. The project, which is both social commentary and digital art project, is her most technically and conceptually complex work to date. “It’s meant to be totally hilarious and totally metaphysical, you know?” she says with a smile.
A series of smart contracts, embedded in a sleek black veneer, exists as another trick object in her conjurer’s kit, where it is an artwork but also is pretending not to be. “I want it to feel a bit like a Charlie Kaufman movie. It feels like, is this a DeFi protocol?” For crypto-newbs, this stands for “Decentralized Finance,” a digital system (with a libertarian-bent, some argue) that does not rely on financial intermediaries and offers financial products on a public and decentralized blockchain network.
On the Non-Existent Token website, along with the instructions for the bidding war, are floating bubble animations — an obvious representation of the “bubble” discourse, a comment on the market’s speculative and frenzied nature. When you place your bid, the bubble animation is added to your wallet.
To enter the exchange, Person X must offer ten percent more than the previous borrower, Person Y. Once Person X places a bid, Person Y retrieves the initial value of their investment plus five percent. The NFT is transferred to Person X, and Person Y’s once-held NFT is switched into a receipt. A former bidder, as a cheeky experiment, sells their receipt for $20,o00 on Open Sea, Meyohas says, laughing. Meyohas’s royalties are baked into the smart contract automation.
You may be the winner of the Non-Existent Token for a day, for a year, or for a lifetime. As long as the Ethereum network continues to run — the auction marches on. In its two months of operation, it’s been traded 31 times by 29 owners. “It’s kind of like a Ponzi scheme, but an honest one, right?” Meyohas says. She pulls out her phone and opens Twitter. The founder of PleasrDAO, a cultish collective of DeFi devotees, has tweeted about the project, “I need my money back.” To her, this isn’t an insult, but a sign of engagement with the auction. Sarah Meyohas retweets his heckle.
To fully understand the online dialogue on NFTs, one would have to explore the exclusive, verging on cliquey, Twitter crypto-sphere — a world where a glossary and cliff-notes from insiders is a requirement of entry. Reading like metaphysical, anarchist haikus, “crypto-natives” use Twitter to propagate ideas about the optimistic potential of decentralized economies.
Meyohas laughs almost constantly as she describes her work, all the while layering in the more nuanced concepts of the crypto-world, which is still working out its kinks and limitations. She bemoans the limitation of the JPEG, then chastises herself, saying, “Well I better put my money where my mouth is, and build it out… Sometimes I wake up and I’m like, oh my God, what is my life? I work on metaphysical financial meme art? What a joke!” She giggles. “But it’s not a joke.” She corrects with a put-on visage of sternness.
“Yeah. So Non-Existent Token denies you ownership. Denies it.” She wags a finger saucily, continuing, “You can try … but you can’t own it.” This isn’t any different from a normal NFT acquisition. NFTs also withhold ownership, giving you no real legal rights to anything. If Meyohas stops paying the subscription service to keep her NFTs on Open Sea, for example — they are gone forever. The same is true for any NFT creator.
Like her personality, her work is playful, poking fun at the absurdity of an invisible market, all the while seemingly hyping it up. And yet her hypocrisy is transparent in her projects as hype-man and critic. And, as she speculates on other speculations, her fans and peers are making real money on a market that is intangibly abstract. What is not funny about that?
The Non-Existent Token is a greater fool’s theory, she explains. The essence of the theory being that as long as you’re not the last schmuck buying in, there’s someone more foolish than you, (the greater fool), and you could be cashing out big. The elliptical logic of this market is a wondrous flimflam. “NFT collectors are totally primed for conceptual artwork in a way that people don’t realize,” Meyohas says. “These are people who are digging on the internet and absorbing a lot of conceptual information.”
NFT early adopters are not just evaluating the aesthetic value of an artwork; they are looking at artworks as an investment, assessing the provenance of pieces and the chain of ownership. In this way, the exchange of art becomes a fundamentally social experience. While this may be, Meyohas still believes the art world and NFT space are still not quite meeting — despite many attempts by artists, website creators, and auction houses to develop a meeting place.
“I’m making a financial instrument as an artwork. That’s the new reality.” She stares unwavering into the distance. “What is existence on the blockchain? Does an NFT exist?”
Stephen Diehl, a London-based software engineer, has a simple answer. “If you’re going to talk about what the NFT market actually is,” he says, “ … calling it a ‘market’ is a very strange thing. What do people actually sell when they’re selling NFTs?” This question addresses what he believes is a common misconception — that the NFT is synonymous with the artwork itself. The NFT is actually more comparable to a ledger of receipts, pointing to the ownership of the artwork. It is not a physical market; it not is not selling goods, services, or equities.
On a windy day in London where his voice is garbled and grim, Diehl, a self-admitted crypto skeptic, uses the poetics of analogy to tell the story of technical obscurantism and mystique as a way of perpetuating the “postmodern Ponzi” of the crypto world.
While Zach Burks, CEO of Mintable — a digital platform on the Ethereum blockchain that allows users to create, distribute, buy, sell, and trade digital items through NFTs — likens his cyber-marketplace to an eBay, Stephen Diehl explains that it’s more like a “star market for art.”
“The fundamental flaw of the star market is that all you’re doing is basically paying somebody to say that this star is named after you [or] your significant other — and there’s nothing actually associated with that star. The credibility of it is basically on the person who keeps the registrar. And there’s nothing unique about that one, either, right. There could be multiple star registries … ” Which leads us to think, is there any intrinsic value in having a reference to a star or a reference to a piece of art?
Or does the answer even matter if people are profiting all the same? Diehl points out the similarities between cryptocurrencies and Pyramid Schemes or MLMs. While the comparison is not identical — they share fundamental commonalities in the urgency of recruiting, the uncertainty of endurance, and dooming the mass majority.
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“So, it’s a complicated scheme,” says Diehl. “But the essence is [that] the money flows up the pyramid from later investors to early investors.”
Whatever side of the joke you’re on, there seems to be excitement in the air — the prospect of investment returns, the emergence of new art forms, or the inevitability of the bubble “pop.” Acolytes, artists, investors, and cynics alike will agree that the market is being, at least partially, driven by mass speculation.
“Nobody will ever say that you can’t make money off an NFT, but you really have to look at what percentage of artists are actually making money,” Diehl says as he does the math over the phone. And we don’t yet know the rate of return for artists. For instance, what is the relationship between what artists are paying to mint (certification on the blockchain) and what they are getting in return? And ultimately, is this a legitimate opportunity for artists, or is it just a lot of smoke and mirrors?
“I find so many traditional artworks to be so uninteresting,” says Meyohas. “So much of the same, and it’s all a big business. And so [with Non-Existent Token], it’s this odd thing where I’m returning something to you that shows you something surprising, but that’s totally accurate.” While we may now know how blockchain technologies will function in the art space in the future, Meyohas asks the questions for which there are only conjectural answers.