Catherine Harris-White, stage name SassyBlack, is apprehensive. It’s the fall of 2021, and life is tentatively unfurling into normalcy. The highly contagious omicron variant has yet to reach our shores, and Seattle venues that the electronic soul and funk artist warmed with her luscious vocals pre-pandemic are open, once more. But she’s gripped with nerves, because today, she will try something totally new: minting her first NFT.
Grasping what an NFT, or non-fungible token, even is proves a formidable hurdle for most people, given the intricate technological underpinnings and layers of abstraction. Of course, we’ll try. First, an NFT is not a piece of art—it is not the thing itself. It is a unique digital certificate of ownership, entered on a decentralized ledger of transactions known as the blockchain. Second, the applications of NFTs are not limited to digital art. Anything, theoretically, could be associated with a corresponding NFT. Your life story could be sold as an NFT. But more on that later.
In October of 2021, after weeks of careful research, SassyBlack sells a digital art piece entitled PROTECT: Self on NFT marketplace Zora. Her earnings: 0.48 ETH, or ether, a cryptocurrency native to Ethereum, the blockchain to which most high-profile NFTs are linked. At the time of SassyBlack’s first sale, 0.48 ether equaled approximately $2,000. Three months after that, the world’s first permanent NFT art museum opens in Belltown. Seattle NFT Museum founders Jennifer Wong and Peter Hamilton send opening night attendees home with a POAP (proof of attendance protocol), an NFT associated with the memory of the night.
That spring, with tremulous April light filtering through the front windows, Hamilton and Wong stroll through the industrial-chic gallery space. On a dais above the museum’s entryway, theCaféDAO distributes “coffee tokens,” which will eventually be linked to a blockchain and confer a share of company governance rights to anyone who buys one of the $5 pour-overs. Right now the Web3 coffee popup is in the pilot stage, and one of the contributors, in a pale tan barista apron, enthusiastically expounds on the concept to a museum visitor.
Web3, explains SassyBlack, is a catch-all term for technologies built on the principals of blockchain technology. Foremost among them is decentralization (the “D” in theCaféDAO), meaning independence from third parties like banks and governmental institutions.
“It’s like the Wild West,” says Hamilton, who is head of television commerce at Roku, of the emerging Web3 sphere. “The ideals of Web3—shared economies, decentralization—are so part of Seattle.” The fresh-faced idealism and raw talent of our tech community, our scrappy indie arts scene—that the world’s first IRL NFT museum should be here just makes sense. “The opportunity to be a Web3 city” is before us.
Wong, head of sustainability at Convoy, spoke at the inaugural NFT Seattle conference at the end of September, where crypto enthusiasts from around the city and the country convened to share knowledge and ideas. TheCaféDAO was there serving up pour-overs, and SassyBlack, now with nearly a year of experience integrating Web3 technology into her work, performed there in the flesh—and as a hologram. The future of which Hamilton spoke, of our city as a nexus for this emerging technology and its key players, is beginning to coalesce.
David All, a Seattle-based entrepreneur and former speechwriter for the U.S. Senate, also spoke at the fall conference. All’s company, ChangeDAO, seeks to funnel revenue from NFT sales to charitable causes through the use of Web3 technology like smart contracts. These coded digital contracts, which are linked to a blockchain, allow artists to define the terms of an NFT’s sale for themselves, and decide what happens to the royalties associated with each subsequent resale, without ever having to tangle with record labels.
On the first episode of the company’s podcast, Proof of Change, All relates the story of how a hackathon in 2021 gave rise to the prototype for an NFT marketplace based on charitable giving. Using the platform, someone like All’s sister, a nurse in Chicago mired in student debt, could attach her life story to an NFT which anyone moved by her plight could buy—thus paying off her student loans and earning an immutable souvenir, stored on the blockchain, commemorating their good deed.
There is widespread criticism of this technology—most prominently, that the computations required to make a new entry on a proof-of-work blockchain like Bitcoin are catastrophically energy intensive. Of this All is dismissive. “There is no lack of energy in the world…. I mean, there’s a lot of natural resources.”
Not everyone within the crypto community agrees. All even acknowledges his is an “unpopular opinion.” Many in the Web3 sphere are taking steps to address the energy consumption associated with blockchain technology, and Ethereum made a long-anticipated transition to a more energy-efficient computational model on September 15 of this year.
The rest of the critiques, everyone seems to agree, stem from a lack of good educational resources about NFTs and blockchain tech. Lennox Matsinde, a product manager at Starbucks and cofounder of NFT Seattle, is more frank: “The only barrier to entry is ignorance.” He envisions the conference, with tickets starting at $139, as a foot in the door for the Web3-curious.
Carly Rector isn’t Web3 curious. Nor is the 14-year Amazon veteran ignorant about the technology. There are instances in which the use of NFTs for art sales makes sense, she concedes, as in the case of high-profile pieces that will likely be resold multiple times. But she thinks the way they’re currently used is, by and large, “wasteful.”
That’s partly why she decided to leave Amazon in early 2021 to found Co2ign Art, a digital art marketplace that includes a unique digital signature to verify authenticity and the purchase of carbon credits with each sale. Rector saw a need for a platform where small indie artists could actually make a profit from selling their work, and ownership of a piece of digital art corresponded with more than just saving a JPEG file, but balked that the environmental impact could be an afterthought.
Part of the reason, too, was how she saw her friends in the digital art world struggle. She spent years bearing witness to the relentless grind demanded of independent artists, and after the pandemic hit, her Twitter feed proliferated with calls for emergency commissions to help cover basic necessities like rent. Her friend Chloe Rozo, who now works at True Love Tattoo in Capitol Hill after years trying to make it in the digital art space, says that it’s harder than ever to get people to buy into what they view as a “luxury good,” with the economy so unstable. It’s never been easy to make it as an indie artist—but these are especially dark times.
Rozo, who has work listed on Co2ign Art but is mostly focused on tattooing these days, admits that she’s not an expert on NFTs. But from where she’s standing, they look like a pyramid scheme. It seems to her that the people who make real money from NFT art sales are the people who have already amassed substantial followings on social media and are well-connected in the Web3 world. Painting NFTs as a ticket out of the constant hustle of self-promotion for indie artists strikes her, then, as a false promise. If ignorance is the only barrier to entry, that’s just fine with Rozo; she doesn’t want in.
SassyBlack had her own reservations at first. She didn’t want to get hacked or scammed or lose a crypto wallet—a mistake for which there is no recourse. But since getting into NFTs, she’s been able to make “a decent amount of money” from sales, and she thinks that any artist who takes the time to educate themselves and build community via Twitter, Discord, and other channels can bolster their career with Web3 tools.
People from historically marginalized groups especially stand to benefit, she says. These tools unyoke them from the traditional industry gatekeepers. It just takes research to find out “where all the Black people are, where all the queer people are, where all the women are…there are people from these historically marginalized communities thriving over here.”
There have always been, and will always be, barriers to succeeding as an artist. “You would have to pay three to five Gs to have a decent marketing campaign for your record,” SassyBlack points out. And as a queer woman of color, protecting herself in a world that is indifferent to her success, at best, or hostile, at worst, is nothing new. The trade-off with NFTs—total self-determination in exchange for totally-shit-out-of-luck if you blunder—is worth it for her.
And that’s what most proponents will tell you. The problems with the technology, from the environmental impact to the scams to the lack of consumer protections, even its hyper-capitalistic foundations, are not unique to blockchain technology. And perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect that any technology could save us from these problems which are, at their core, problems of human nature. After all, tools can only do so much to change people’s hearts and minds. That’s what art is for.
“Can someone explain these acronyms, again?”
- NFT: non-fungible token, a digital certificate of ownership that’s stored on the blockchain.
- POAP: proof of attendance protocol, a type of NFT that’s distributed to attendees of an event.
- DAO: decentralized autonomous organization, or an org that operates using smart contracts and other Web3 tools for the purpose of creating shared ownership.
- Web3: catch-all term for technology built on principles of blockchain technology.