I can own your shadow, courtesy of non-fungible tokens

A Bulgarian artist is selling her shadow for $985 (Dh3,618) online. It is black, ephemeral and translucent, not too different from mine or yours. But to an eclectic art collector, it could be their next rarest possession. Others thought so too when they dashed to become owners of viral memes for as much as half a million dollars in 2021.

Welcome to the realm of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), where all things can be virtually owned, right down to the image of your shadow.

Wait, speaking of memes, why would anyone want to buy the silly ‘Nyan Cat’ GIF? Someone also bought a digital collage by American artist Beeple earlier this year for a whopping $69.3 million (Dh253 million). And no, the buyer did not get a printout of the piece. Crypto entrepreneur Vignesh Sundaresan happily walked away with a high-resolution JPEG file and a long string of code. In exchange for millions.

Fad or future?

“I find it bizarre,” Boryana Korcheva admitted in an interview with Gulf News, as she broke down the NFT craze with her shadow in tow. Painting and sculpting, two of her familiar tactile worlds, stand at odds with the latest trend in art. “Some think it’s a fad, others think it’s the future of art.”

The 59-year-old artist says she only ‘minted’ a NFT of her shadow to conduct a social experiment of sorts. NFTs can be attached to anything under the sky.

If somebody were to buy my shadow, will that mean they own a part of me?

– Boryana Korcheva, Bulgarian painter and sculptor

“If somebody were to buy my shadow, will that mean they own a part of me? The mere suggestion of this would be terrifying to someone in the Middle Ages.”

Yet for all their absurdity, these tokens are selling for the price of actual real estate. We spoke to artists, collectors and curators to pick apart the budding crypto sub-sphere. But first, what do NFTs really mean?

A token that is not fungible

NFT stands for non-fungible token that can be bought and sold online. It is a unique code used to verify ownership of a digital artwork, audio file, tweet or even a New York Times’ article. (Yes, a NYT column was bought for $560,000 (Dh2 million) by a Dubai-based entrepreneur in March 2021.)

To understand non-fungible, we need to crack fungibility. In economics, a fungible asset can be exchanged for another that is equal in value, like money. When we hand over a Dh5 cash note for change, we get five Dh1 coins in return.

Non-fungible assets cannot be traded for another. Think art, property and cars. Exchanging van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ with Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ would be impossible because they both have unique properties.

Bottomline? Two people cannot trade their tokens with each other. They can, however, buy and resell them on the NFT marketplace.

What do NFTs have to do with cryptocurrency?

NFTs and cryptocurrencies are backed by the same secure technology – blockchain. This is a digital ledger that publicly records all transactions ever made on it, so chances of funny business are slim.

Most NFTs exist on a specific blockchain called the Ethereum, where ownership details can be traced and verified. Buying and selling a token also requires crypto money. For instance, Korcheva’s shadow costs 0.25 Ethers, which is valued at $985 at the time of writing.

What about NFT art?

nyan cat meme
Someone bought the Nyan Cat meme from 2011 for Dh2 million.
Image Credit: Flickr/Rob Bulmahn

Though people are buying NFTs attached to all sorts of things – from digital pet rocks to video clips – the art world is especially enjoying the spotlight.

For struggling artists, it’s an attractive way to make money while being completely in control of their work. For collectors, they get to own a scarce piece of art, flaunt it and fund a community they are passionate about. Huge investment returns are no secret, either.

We got the market players to tell us like it is:

Artist Kristel Bechara

Lebanese visual artist Kristel Bechara finds beauty in the crypto-verse. Her digital art series of greyscale silhouettes selectively doused in colour speaks about the transparency NFTs afford artists.

“Having always been fascinated by the topic of Decentralised Finance (DeFi), I wanted to be an early adopter of this amazing technological development into how I presented my art to the world,” said Bechara.

kristel bechara nft art
Artist Kristel Bechara creates digital paintings specifically to be minted and sold as NFTs.
Image Credit: Supplied/Kristel Bechara

“I started by accepting payment in cryptocurrencies and eventually launched my own NFT tokenized art series, Beauty in DeFi, as I saw how beneficial NFTs are for creators and collectors because of the transparent transactional process that safeguards the authenticity of the artwork being sold.”

No matter how many times a NFT changes hands, the code will always declare the original artist. A buyer might own the rights to an art piece, but the creator still holds the copyright.

Collector Danosch Zahedi

Danosch Zahedi has been in the crypto game for four years now, so he has seen it all. From NFTs’ 2017 beginnings to the present art boom, he says “people did not realise the value of tokenising art then”.

When an artist creates or mints a NFT, they also set terms for a smart contract to earn royalties. Every time a token is sold and resold, the original creator automatically earns a percentage.

“Traditional artists have been suffering financially but with NFTs they get to have success and a huge following. It’s been a game changer for them,” said Zahedi, who also co-founded a Dubai-based incubator for NFT creatives, Arts DAO.

Traditional artists have been suffering financially but with NFTs they get to have success and a huge following. It’s been a game changer for them.

– Danosch Zahedi, co-founder of Arts DAO and NFT art collector

As a serial collector of NFT art, Zahedi is always on the lookout for “a diamond in the rough”. Close-knit communities on Twitter and Discord make the hunt easier.

“You get huge investment returns, get to build a strong community online and your NFTs will eventually be your assets in the metaverse,” he added.

Wait, what is the metaverse?

Metaverse has not happened yet, but it is our hypothesised future in the digital realm. Picture a parallel universe experienced through headsets, except everything in it – your assets and money – is real.

According to Zahedi, NFTs are leading up to the metaverse, where they will become our assets. Shrewd buyers know this and are already stocking up.

But why are NFTs so expensive?

Economics tells us when supply is low and demand high, market forces pull up the prices. Every piece of digital art essentially carries one NFT, so supply is really low for your favourite artwork. It’s a lot like how traditional art works. Take Maurizio Cattelan’s duct tape banana sculpture, for instance; it sold for $120,000 (Dh440,772).

Then the niggling question is: What’s driving the value of NFTs?

“There is a bit too much going on. It’s honestly puzzling to me why NFTs are sold at such exorbitant prices,” Mara Firetti, founder of Firetti Contemporary art gallery in Dubai, told Gulf News. The Italian entrepreneur offers art bundles that contain the physical pieces and their NFTs together for sale through her gallery.

“I’m sure the bubble will deflate, and what will remain will be work of quality and value. Right now, anyone can become an artist, anyone can create a painting, but by the end of the day – what are you really buying? Everyone is just diving into it. I value transparency so it’s important to me that the actual piece travels with the NFT,” she said.

Right now, anyone can become an artist, anyone can create a painting, but by the end of the day – what are you really buying?

– Mara Firetti, CEO and founder of Firetti Contemporary

In August, 2021, Firetti Contemporary launched a ‘phygital’ exhibit, where NFT versions were hung on screens alongside their physical counterparts. “But NFTs have helped me tap into a new group of collectors, those who are on the web. The younger generation get to purchase quality artwork without visiting galleries,” she added.

If you still want to mint an NFT…

Before we get into that, you might want to know minting NFTs is bad for the planet. Gulf News’ Your Money editor, Justin Varghese, defines NFTs as a unique serial ID or code that is digitally manufactured using heavy computing power.

In a year, mining on Ethereum consumes so much energy that it racks up carbon footprint equivalent to that of Norway. You can offset the impact by investing in green projects, like artist Beeple has been doing with all of his NFT artwork.

If you still want to mint an NFT…

There is a reason why anyone and everyone is creating new tokens by the hour. You don’t have to be a developer to do it.

Artist Bechara tells us where to go: “For the budding NFT artists who are about to mint their first art tokens, I would recommend starting with OpenSea. The platform is quite user-friendly and does not overwhelm you with information and technical jargon. Plus, their guides on minting are quite detailed yet comprehensible making it easier for anyone to start minting the moment they sign up to the portal.”

Meanwhile, Firetti tells us what you need: “You need to buy Ether (Ethereum cryptocurrency) and create a digital wallet. Then you can start registering the NFT with details like the date of creation, title and description on OpenSea. After you have minted it, you give it a starting price.”

If you’ve sold your art, congrats! You have earned virtual money in your virtual wallet. As disconcerting as that sounds, sweat not. Zahedi lists well-known regional exchanges that will convert your crypto money into real-life cash like BitOasis and coinMENA.

A side disclaimer

Though the tokens are one-of-a-kind, the art it is being minted for may be not. Basically, artists can still get duped if a copy of their digital work is re-minted by an impostor. All it takes is a right-click and hitting the ‘save image as’ option.

Plagiarism concerns still run high and nigh in the art world, NFT or no. My shadow or your shadow – who can really tell?

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