How has the NFT art scene evolved in Korea? The author describes the scene in early 2021 in great detail, when NFT art first landed in Korea. This originated in the moment when the artists who gathered at the Clubhouse - an audio-based social network - succeeded in a process called minting, using their ‘collective intelligence’. The author compares NFT art to the ‘Eiffel Tower’, which was considered a bizarre abomination when it was first erected but is now considered as a ‘product of a transitional era’. NFT art may also provide the same kind of evidence. Can NFTs become another true ‘landmark’ artform for the 2020s?
NFT Art was born in conjunction with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise of Cryptocurrency, and the emergence of a new generation of artists equipped with digital painting skills. From these origins, it is already reorganizing the nature of art as well as the movement of the art market itself. Art in the metaverse is appreciated and consumed by countless users, regardless of time and space, and is rapidly gaining popularity, just like the rapidly expanding universe after the Big Bang.
From January to February 2021, during the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, people from all walks of life – but especially artists, cartoonists, illustrators, graphic designers, and software developers – started to gather in the audio-based social network, Clubhouse. Spread by word of mouth, Clubhouse emerged as the best online platform for those interested in NFTs to discuss and learn together, particularly as the offline social was utterly disrupted by the pandemic. Their activities in Clubhouse not only reflected the present state of Korean art, but also represented the beginning of the NFT art movement in Korea.
Clubhouse can be entered only by invitation and upon recommendation of existing subscribers, and this selectiveness strengthened the ties amongst users. Furthermore, Clubhouse has the peculiar feature that one is not able to record or rewind conversations, and this forced users to become immersed in the conversations and topics happening in the chatroom. Clubhouse has thus gradually come to operate as the 'primitive NFT community'. Community members do not hesitate to help each other by creating or actively collecting related information and voluntarily sharing it with each other.
The trials and errors of this new community were transcribed, which allowed texts and information to be accumulated and refined. The NFT community then expanded to KakaoTalk open chat. NFT community members went back and forth between Clubhouse and KakaoTalk open chat to share the latest NFT-related information and techniques, as well as to actively promote NFT artworks and activities. This ultimately lowered the entry barriers to the NFT art scene in Korea, while simultaneously inspiring other artists not included in Clubhouse to join the NFT art stream.
Korean NFT artists spread NFT art as if they were the early-adopters of games in their teenage years, sharing information and strategies for newly released games with their friends. For them, NFT art was a new game worth trying. However, simultaneously many mainstream artists found NFT art incomprehensible, absurd and unrealistic. For example, David Hockney criticized NFT art as making no sense, as being something people will just lose in their computer someday, and accused NFT artists of being “international crooks and swindlers”.
The birth of the NFT art scene in Korea
Meanwhile, the Korean painter Lee Yunsung (or leeyunsung) has led the development of NFT art in Korea by working, and was involved since the early days of the establishment of the Korean NFT community, such as in Clubhouse and KakaoTalk open chat. Since he was not affiliated with any specific gallery, he was able to perform independently. This fit well with the nature of NFT art, where the creator plans, makes, promotes, and sells his/her own work. This background allowed Lee to quickly progress as an NFT artist. Especially via his own continuous NFT community activities, Lee quickly synthesized and applied feedback about his work that he received from NFT art collectors, and thus gained loyalty and appreciation from his customers.
As NFTs became more popular in the industry, various concerns regarding NFT art began to emerge. In particular, the ownership, transaction history, and contract conditions are transparent for NFT art, making the sale and consumption of NFT artworks inevitably revealed to the public. Furthermore, since NFT art is a non-material work that exists in the form of a file rather than a real physical object, vigorous debate still rages about whether its value can be judged by existing standards.
Despite these concerns, a group of NFT artists including Lee took the initiative to organize the first Metaverse NFT art exhibition. After purchasing real estate from Cryptovoxels- a metaverse platform based on the Ethereum blockchain - Lee opened the Nu Gallery and invited 90 NFT artists to join the exhibition First NFT Art Group Exhibition of Korea (2021) for 20 days. This exhibition was a very personal event emerging from one particular NFT artist’s extended interest, without any wider or more specific intention or purpose.
However, this virtual exhibition had far-reaching effects. Numerous NFT artists connected to the metaverse for the exhibition’s opening and closing party, which spread widely through social media and amplified public interest in NFT art. As a result, various NFT artists became known to NFT art collectors, and this unexpected publicity led to the sale of many NFT art works.
Even in the off-line art scene, it is not very common to visit an art exhibition and immediately purchase artworks. Moreover, in the case of NFT art, the barrier seems high due to the unfamiliarity of the terms that must be learned in order to view and purchase the work. For instance, a long sentence like: “This is a Genesis- drop work that was minted for the first time upon opening by creating a MetaMask wallet in the Chrome browser and withdrawing Ethereum from Upbit” will only be familiar to those who were involved in the Clubhouse and KakaoTalk open chat, regardless of one’s own technical understanding. To those new to the NFT art scene, such a sentence would instead seem awkwardly strange, largely from the use of too much jargon.
The entry barriers pertinent to the production and consumption of NFT art, including this type of terminology, actually resulted in the vitalization of a new community built around the Discord communication platform. NFT artists opened their own community room in Discord, where they announced the progress of their NFT art projects, and thus attracted a large number of existing NFT art consumers and newcomers to the market. This community room became an integral platform where members not only taught newcomers, but also exchanged information with others to purchase NFT art works. Members often used their newly purchased NFT art works as their profile pictures, and in this way they supported and promoted NFT artists and wider NFT communities.
At the same time, NFT artists have widely begun to propose specific roadmaps to secure a group of keen customers. For example, Takashi Murakami posted a series of 10 tweets on Twitter promoting his NFT project and succinctly explaining its significance and intention as if it were a business briefing session. In addition, NFT artists sometimes give NFT art collectors a mission to retweet by writing a couple of IDs together on the twitter roadmap. Such promotion strategies are successful because many customer accounts eagerly respond to the roadmap thread, as they themselves are struggling to be included on the ‘white list’.
NFT, the current Eiffel Tower
To some, the NFT phenomenon seems far from the traditional beauty of art. The amateur and controversial image of the artwork itself, and the endless profiles and replies to posts seem utterly foreign, while the speculative bubble caused by overflowing demand reminds one of the Eiffel Tower with its steel skeleton exposed. At the end of the 19th century, the Eiffel Tower was harshly criticized as a ‘useless and monstrous’ structure by contemporaries, to the extent that 47 artists, including Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and William Bouguereau issued statements against it in influential daily newspapers.
In fact, the Eiffel Tower represented a turning point in the history of art and technology precisely because it exposed its structure so clearly. Perhaps NFT art and the subsequent heated arguments about it can remind us of the situation in 1889, when the Eiffel Tower was completed. The mixed reviews to the tower were not only indicative of anger from contemporary artists, but were also a sign that we had already entered a new era in art. Similarly, the traditional dichotomous division between online and offline, or material and non-material, have become outdated topics for NFT artists. Instead, they have now started to focus on a more stable art platform that can be accessed anytime and anywhere.
Nevertheless, doubts about the digital images that seem worthless, as well as about who will consume and own these digital images, will not easily disappear. Who are these new collectors and where have they come from? Most of the Korean NFT art collectors today are those who, during the early days of the digital age, used to access PC communication services and spend hours downloading images of Ayanami Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion, as well as the MP3 files that would allow them to listen to the anime series’ opening song
These collectors, deeply influenced by digital culture, have collected NFT art works such as the funny-looking ‘Bored Ape’, a ‘Crypto Punk’ drawn with coarse dots, and the 3D rendered digital real estate ‘The Sandbox’ as their souvenirs. Nevertheless, there are Korean artists who break fresh ground in NFT art by expanding tattoo design, esquisse, parts of catalogues, and their own selfies into various formats.
Marching in step
The biggest advantage of NFT art is that it continuously and accurately records an artists’ activities. By being linked to cryptocurrency wallets, the platform fixes the format and concept of the artwork. NFT artists who straddle the online and offline worlds maximize the strengths of NFT art by using both the process and result of online contents, while bringing data offline for other activities.
The optimistic present of NFT art can also lead to a rosy future, as NFT artists emerged with the support of individual art sponsors, rather than that of governments or institutions. NFT artists will create numerous NFT artworks patronized by 21st- century Cosimo de' Medici (recall that the rapper Snoop Dogg claimed to be the NFT influencer Cozomo de' Medici). Many NFT artworks will be exhibited at Sotheby’s gallery in Decentraland, a virtual reality platform, which will excite many collectors and potentially endlessly expand the art market.
However, some doubt whether such this future will truly be so golden, while others wonder about the prospects of NFT art and the future of NFT artists. Currently attitudes seem to be divided sharply between the binary of either extremely positive or extremely negative. However, at this moment we can instead allow these two extremes to meet in a common vanishing point, and take a slow but courageous step forward. It is almost impossible to predict which NFT art will remain or disappear, or how the remaining NFT art will transform. However, everyone will benefit from some simple but valid advice: firstly, ‘work steadily’, and secondly, ‘keep things – i.e., photographs, videos, sketches etc. - well organized.’
Chung studied Woodworking and Furniture Design at Hongik University and received his master’s degree in architecture from Cornell University. He established SUPERELLIPSE, a project that encompasses architecture, art and publishing by collaborating with artists, photographers, musicians, game creators, graphic/product designers, etc.