Andrew Benson's healthy perspective on the NFTs realm is inspiring.
⁓ Contrary to what many people think, NFTs are not something new. They have been around since 2014, more or less , when Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash created the first non-fungible, blockchain-attached artwork during a Seven on Seven conference at the New Museum, NYC. Since then, non-fungibles have been quietly evolving far from the eyes of the masses. A few key steps after, including the Ethereum blockchain creation and the craze towards precursor projects like CryptoKitties, CryptoPunks, or Decentraland, we are facing the predictable mainstream breakout. It was just a matter of time. However, even if this new creative economy has been on its way for a few years, last months’ madness accelerated the game, unlocking and shaping exciting new ways to sell, collect, create, promote, and curate digital art. Web3 in full effect is definitely on the horizon and we can’t wait for it.
I have been keeping an eye on CryptoArt and blockchain-powered projects over the last couple of years, but my interest became more intense earlier this year, and as many friends, artists, and creators I am close with have been into it, I got drawn into it —to various degrees. Of course, my involvements through the digital art and media industry have been providing me with a correct understanding of the NFTs world —I guess— but I feel like I was missing out on the true magic by not being an artist. That’s why I reached out to LA-based digital artist, creative coder, and crypto enthusiast, Andrew Benson, and grabbed inputs from an artist's perspective.
Dry Stems - Valor, 2021
You've been very active on the NFT scene lately, and you were one of the first artists to mint on Foundation. Why did you choose FND to get started?
Foundation was my first introduction to NFTs. Lindsay Howard reached out to me to submit work in September of 2020, and I’ve known her and followed her work to support digital art since her 319 Scholes time. If not for her introduction I probably would have ignored it for a while longer. I had a work on the V1 of Foundation when it was on the xDAI blockchain, so when they relaunched in Feb, I already had a head start thinking about it and was very early in the roster. My first mints were #9, #11, and #12 on the platform.
Ironically, before Foundation, I was already talking closely with Casey Reas about the Feral File platform and had been involved with some of his other Bitmark projects like A2P. I had already created the work “Scrampled” that showed with the launch of Feral File “Social Codes” long before my first Foundation works. But it just so happened that Feral File launched a month after. So it was very wild to be involved in the launch of two very successful platforms in a short time, all while the whole New Media scene was going insane about NFTs. (A lot of friendships are probably not fully recovered still).
OK. So you were on the inaugural lineup of these two platforms but I’m pretty sure your interest in CryptoArt has been here before the craze, right? How did you get into NFT?
I was part of the early 2021 wave, but I was aware of it before then and had been involved with Casey’s other blockchain experiments. I always knew something like NFTs would come along eventually, and it’s not at all a surprise to me that they are so valuable. That said, I mostly felt for many years like CryptoArt and blockchain conceptualism was a topic that I would try to avoid at parties, but I would get cornered often because enthusiastic tech people are always drawn to me.
I regret now that I was so stubborn about it for so long because I would have taken to it if I had the chance, but I also think it’s nice to enter now when so many tools are being built every day. There’s an infectious energy to it.
I’m not an artist nor a creator but I have been working in the industry for over a decade. In many ways, this new creative economy changed how I perceive art and creativity, but I would like to know from an artist's point of view. What has changed in your case?
As you know, the digital art context has been very narrow for a long time. Only certain types of media artists would get gallery attention, and the best opportunities are to be found in places where you aren’t the artist that takes the credit. I’ve been lucky to have built a niche career doing music visual collaborations, occasional brand gigs, live performances, and technical consulting for interactive media projects. This situation now offers me the chance to just be myself, make weird things, and support my practice making the stuff I do best and enjoy the most. Since minting my first NFTs, I’ve been on creative hyper-mode and have made more work in the past year already than I have done in a long time. I can’t say why it’s so fun, but it is. I’ve always been somewhat prolific and self-motivated, but I feel a sense of focus, community, and context that was missing for me before. I’m excited to try a lot of things that I don’t have time to try yet.
The other answer to this question is that the greater NFT marketplace has caused a collision between a variety of internet communities that had been isolated from each other before. If you look at art history, points in time where there were big cultural collisions like that are usually a catalyst for transformative developments in art and music. I’m incredibly excited by whatever comes out of the next couple of years where pixel artists, generative artists, fan artists, illustrators, MoGraph jocks, GAN heads, and photographers are all looking at each other’s work and development. And then you have all of these artists colliding with developers and finance heads and people with visions for social engineering, it’s pretty wild.
Dry Stems - Annunciation, 2021
How does NFT impact your creative process, and how did you inject this new element into your practice? Did you change the way you work or something?
I never really thought before about collecting art, or what it means to someone to be a collector of something. It’s like a whole other aesthetic space that I was ignoring, and I’ve been really fascinated by re-imagining how the connection between myself and many collectors (many of whom are artists too) could be cultivated over time. I’ve learned a lot by looking at all of these PFP projects and things that are more starkly focused on collectibility. That said, I’m not sure it changed the way I work as much as just feeling emboldened to devote more of my time to digital art, thinking about visual ideas, and making up schemes. Being able to justify that investment of time has been fairly transformative for me.
I guess NFT has also been affecting your social life a lot?
It’s hard to compare the impact of NFTs to the impact of COVID socially. It’s been very difficult for me not to spend time around people and go to shows. I really miss the easy way being social was before, and I suspect it will be awhile before we get past the awkwardness of IRL gathering.
I’ve definitely been enjoying the connections I’ve had with really supportive strangers over these past months, and it’s also great to be reconnecting with many artists that I’d lost touch with. For example Nate Boyce was a close friend during art school and we had a great artistic rapport then, but we had lost touch over the years while he worked on 0PN shows and each of us changed cities. It’s great to see him and his work come back to my daily awareness. I’m also excited to explore how collectives like Undervolt could re-emerge at this moment with all of the new support structures that are growing.
Here is a question you won’t like. Let’s give it a try. =)
Do you feel guilty about the environmental impact when you mint a new piece?
I generally stay away from this topic publicly because it is so easy to misspeak, and many people are working with incomplete, imprecise, or biased information (maybe myself included).
I’m also not an expert on this topic, so I want to avoid getting into the details. I’ll just say I’ve made my peace based on my own research and beliefs, and it isn’t the first thing on my mind when I’m in the studio. Socially, I feel this topic has been a wedge that has created a lot of strife for artists I’m close to, and broken up friendships across the New Media space, and I found that to be a tragic outcome.
Dry Stems - Parlor, 2021
Imagine your friend, an artist who has not yet taken the step. What would you say to him to persuade him to get into the game?
I’ve had so many phone calls! Usually the conversations are more about how to strategize an entrance to the space than about being convinced. My general opinion is that you should want to be involved, so I try not to push too much. It’s a very difficult thing to dip toes into and feel satisfied, and there’s a lot to be gained from being thoughtful and acting with some intention. That said, there are some people, like our mutual friend Johnny Woods, who would be absolutely built for minting NFTs but are hesitant. In my experience, the thing that motivates a lot of my friends is when you start talking about the social and market experimentation, like DAOs and other forms of collective support, and re-imagining art world relationships. Most of us could do our work with or without a market, and we have! Being able to empower and support each other within a new and unformed space is pretty compelling.
OK, last one. How do you imagine the future of the NFT realm and crypto art? Hopes/Fears...
I believe it will expand and divide up considerably. Decentralization is a key philosophical concept within Web3 and crypto space. It’s likely as more usable tools become available we’ll see more gallery-level developments, more niches and specific groups forming and putting forward their visions independently of the big market platforms. I think right now there is a kind of tension between NFT art people and more traditional new media operators, which I think largely comes from the NFT space not yet providing a place for those people to contribute and benefit from their knowledge and experience. I think when that subsides and there is more collaboration it will be incredible to see. Overall, I would say NFT and crypto art is still a very wild west DIY warehouse kind of experience, and if you are someone who enjoys seeing the bare wires and having some influence on the direction things develop, now is a great time to be involved. We’ve only seen a small fraction of what will develop.
My biggest fear is that leveraged greed will prevail in some way that poisons the space, the way that social media began as a very utopian idea that became really predatory/parasitic when a business model had to be developed. For now I’m optimistic that the overwhelming energy is toward building structures that support the good things we love, and the big corporations are still too slow to keep pace. That likely won’t last forever, so for now the best thing is to support the good and ride the waves.
Thanks for your time Andrew.