In the series ‘De Rijkenwhisperer’, VICE editor Tim Fraanje examines how easy it is to become a millionaire and whether one will still be rich in times of criticism of the elite, housing shortages and wealth inequality.
In March this year, internet artist Beeple sold a work as NFT for more than 60 million euros via auction house Christie’s. The hype surrounding NFTs, digital certificates of ownership that, like Bitcoin, use blockchain technology has been brewing for some time. But the sale of Beeple’s work shows that the established auction world also dares to burn its hands. Since then, almost every week something absurd has happened in the NFT world. For example, a British 12-year-old sold a picture of a whale for four hundred thousand euros, and Paris Hilton sold a mediocre sketch of a cat. NFTs are likable: In this technological revolution, for a change, it’s not flash traders or stock speculators who run away with the loot, but artists and even amateur creatives. I attended an NFT workshop with successful NFT artist and collector Terence Baier last September to find out if this wonderful vision of the future is too good to be true.
Terence lives with his wife and child in a cozy but unremarkable terraced house in Apeldoorn and drives a blue Opel with a child seat. There is no evidence that a future NFT millionaire lives here, because that is the plan. Terence has collected his first half million in ten months, but so far it is still floating through cyberspace as a cryptocurrency. “I have lived in financial need for so long that it would be unwise to cash it all at once,” he tells us as we drive together to Enschede, where he will give his workshop. Enschede is also the city where Terence graduated from the art academy a few years ago. He was nominated for a number of awards and exhibited his work, but could not make a living from his art. “I had all kinds of jobs. At the post office, working in a call center, cleaning, anything I could do to keep myself going.”
NFTs seem like a gift after ten years in which the Rutte cabinets have kept their hand on the art clip, and it seems to be an advantage for art buyers that the artist is already dead. NFTs are a gift, especially for artists who do digital work: the NFT for a gif, jpeg, meme or video is sold to one person. Ownership is recorded on the blockchain, and each time the work is resold, the artist receives a percentage of the proceeds. This makes digital art suitable as an investment object, whereas previously it could be copied and pasted ad infinitum without permission. In addition, NFTs are tapping into a new art market where people are pursuing a “decentralized” crypto-economy. It is not the government and the banks that have the power in this, but the users of the blockchain. Crypto-enthusiasts are therefore happy to sponsor the art traded via blockchain. Terence also believes in this future and, like many other NFT artists, is also an enthusiastic collector. He himself sold NFTs for 5,000 euros and invested all that back into other people’s art. “You constantly hype each other up.” And it is also necessary, he says, because: “The NFT community exists by the grace of its members. If everyone finds something else to invest in next year, it could collapse very quickly.”
In fact, Terence’s crypto wealth is mainly due to his successful NFT trading, which he does with great dedication. “I work continuously, non-stop. I’m very disappointed that I’ve lost time giving a workshop and this interview. I usually have Discord open on one screen, and Twitter and all the NFT marketplaces on the other. Buying other artists’ works and watching your collection grow is addictive. You feel like a kid in a candy store. I once spent 15,000 euros in one weekend that I had earned earlier that weekend in appreciation of another work. You see so much work go by and you get so many ideas from it. Before you know it, the day is over.” However, applying that inspiration in his own work sometimes falls short, also because Terence has a ten-month-old child. “After this workshop, I want to turn that play around a bit and make more art. People from the NFT community and my family sometimes say: are you still doing work at all?
We have arrived in Enschede. Terence’s workshop is part of the Gogbot festival that takes place there. Gogbot is a festival about the relationship between art and technology. The theme is “Infocalypse now”, and much thought is given to how the dystopian present, where the internet overwhelms us with often questionable information, can derail even further into the future. The station site has been fenced off and turned into a land ruled by a giant robot. The office building where the workshop is given, Warp Technopolis, is one big uncanny valley full of busy digital videos, computers, black lights and conspiracy slogans chalked on the walls.
A very suitable opportunity for a workshop on the potential of NFTs, believes artist Jacco Borggreve. Jacco has asked Terence if he will give the workshop in the Black Brick Underground, the basement of the building. Black Brick Underground is a work and exhibition space where he guides a group of young artists in making art. A large part of this group is present to try for themselves what it is like to make an NFT. Still, Jacco’s goal is not to sell the concept of NFTs. “The workshop is not intended as a technical showcase, but to take a critical look at the phenomenon of NFTs. I find the conspiracy side of NFTs interesting, so it fits the festival,” he says. “The idea that cryptocurrencies and NFTs are a revolutionary tool in the fight against the banks and big money that a centralized economy would aspire to.”
Jacco himself has reservations about the democratic potential of NFTs because he believes that they are essentially undemocratic. “I think you get a very bad culture if you take the idea of NFTs very far because it’s based on artificial scarcity. It goes against the philosophy of the Internet.” Jacco believes that copying and pasting is important. “The Internet has the radical condition that everything can be shared with everyone and that information can spread exponentially. The Internet is viral.” In his own work, Jacco experiments a lot with the possibilities of the Internet and, for example, had a chip implanted that shows where he is on a website. So he is very aware of the dystopian side of the partial philosophy. “Big companies as Facebook abuses this by attaching an advertising model to it. But the idea behind it is democratic.”
NFTs, which introduce a form of ownership to the Internet, are a step back in time, Jacco believes. He compares them to Andy Warhol’s soap boxes from the 1960s, which only have value because they are unique pieces, made by a well-known artist. He thinks that as an artist you should make good use of this technological development, and he is positive that people are making money with jpegs and gifs. “When it comes to dog pictures, who cares.”
But if NFTs really start to have the impact that Terence and the other NFT enthusiasts say, Jacco says, it will mean undoing the cultural revolution that the Internet has brought about. “I will soon install a kitchen in my project room. So if I want to know how to lay a pipe, I can just go to YouTube and I can lay that pipe. There are all kinds of books available in open source and archives that you can consult for a fixed monthly fee. Suppose you need a certain book soon and only five NFTs have been made of it. If more than five people need that information, the price becomes sky high.” Jacco itself therefore has no NFTs. However, he has invested tens of thousands of euros of his own savings in this space and created his artists’ collective in the hope that it may eventually become a state-supported institution with himself as director. “But maybe I’m very naive and principled.”
Other artists in the workshop also have reservations about NFTs. For example, Emily Ghazal mentions the climate impact. which is important because quite a few servers need to run to keep the NFTs up and running and to facilitate the crypto transactions. That she is ultimately the only one selling something to anyone on the internet gives her mixed feelings, also because art doesn’t always end up in the right context in the NFT world. A short fragment from her twenty-minute film about the Arab Spring was bought by someone who collects aesthetic images of cities. Still, the gold rush is in the air: when Terence mentions the large sums he is raking in, involuntary oohs and aahs rise from the audience. I also discover the silent hope in myself that I can sell my homemade NFT of a whale venom drawn in Paint for the absurd amount of around 5000 euros.
So far that hasn’t happened, and Jacco sent me an article last week about a fairly sobering study Nature where it was investigated that the NFT market may be as impenetrable as the normal art market: 75% of all NFTs bring in an average of 15 euros, while only 1% sell for more than 1500 euros. This makes Terence one of the few lucky guys who effectively surfs the zeitgeist, helped by his avant-garde artist’s eye, but certainly also by his willingness to take entrepreneurial risks.