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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2022

entry arrow6:07 PM | In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 7: The NFT Nirvana of Meditating Cats

I know nothing about NFT art, but like many things, this is a perfectly good way to begin.

This is therefore an attempt at definition, and a scrutiny into what it has meant of late in the wider world, and finally an examination of how far Dumaguete art has taken to the trend, for better or for worse. It will also touch into meditating cats, but I’m getting ahead of my story.

To begin to know what NFT art is all about, one must start with untangling its acronym to its essentials. NFT means “non-fungible token,” and to get a clear picture of what that is, one needs to even go deeper and find exactly what its opposite—“fungible”—means.

Something is “fungible” if it is mutually interchangeable with another thing—in other word, it is still what it is when you replace it with another identical item, with the value remaining the same. For example, a fifty-peso bill is fungible with five pieces of ten-peso coins, and vice versa. A fifty-peso bill, therefore, is a “fungible token.”

Something however becomes “non-fungible” when there is a value added to an item, a value that remains undeterminable, because it can rise or fall depending on specific circumstances. Let’s take the same five pieces of ten-peso coins from the example above, for instance. Let’s say that these coins have been painstakingly glued together and transformed into an elegant small sculpture by the great modernist Ramon Orlina, and signed by the great artist himself. As a set of coins transformed into art, it is no longer the same five pieces of ten-peso coins that they were before. They have become a unique piece, and the value of this piece of art is no longer the old equivalent of fifty-pesos, so it cannot be interchanged with a monetary exchange of that value. If you are an avid collector of Ramon Orlina’s art, and if this art is truly unique among his creations, you will likely purchase this set of coins with a higher value—again, depending on circumstances. The piece therefore has become a “non-fungible token.”

This is the first thing one needs to know about NFTs.

Closer scrutiny will make you realize that NFTs as a whole, especially when it comes to art, truly reveals its province as one of “speculation,” and one that is tied to the idea of “investments.” The most avid collectors of NFT art essentially buy a nebulous promise that the pieces they have purchased will increase in value in the future. The market therefore is driven by speculation on crypto-currency.

This is the second thing one needs to know about NFTs.

Even closer scrutiny will reveal that when one owns NFT art, one only really owns its digital presence. It is therefore a completely digital asset, which is backed and authenticated by a unique digital footprint called a blockchain. A “blockchain” is a record of transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency [NFTs mostly use something called Ethereum, or ETH], which are maintained across several computers that are linked in a peer-to-peer network. A blockchain is a record that cannot be tampered with [or at least very difficult to], and thus guarantees authenticity. So when one buys NFT art, one really buys its digital presence, which can be authenticated by its connected blockchain. Other people may have copies of the same digital file of the art, may even own a physical iteration of it—but you alone is guaranteed to own its digital certificate of authenticity.

This is the third thing one needs to know about NFTs.

This third one is also the very heart with which I have always come to regard, for the longest time, NFT art with a good deal of suspicion. I just could not fathom being a collector and owning what seems to be just the “shadow” of the art I’m buying. For example, one of the biggest success stories being banded about regarding NFT art has been the sale of the popular meme, “Disaster Girl”—that piece of Internet curiosity showing a young girl smirking in front of a burning house—which garnered a record price of five hundred thousand dollars. The owner of that NFT art now has bragging rights to its digital authenticity—but the image itself is available to download and use by anyone who has an Internet connection.

When I first heard this, I shook my head at the seeming ridiculousness of it all—until I was reminded that most of the art world actually traffic in these “authenticity guarantees” and never usually with the physical art itself. You can, for example, cry yourself hoarse with declaring that a painting you own is an original, if obscure, Picasso. But unless you can have it authenticated as real—and the provenance of that painting well-documented—your “Picasso” might as well be a painting by your neighborhood artist who has no discernable claim to fame. If you think about it, the certificate that claims authenticity of a painting seems to have higher value compared to the painting itself.

This point was even driven deeper to me when I heard about the controversial banana and duct-tape installation by the Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan. His piece, titled “Comedian,” became an object of major scrutiny when it was exhibited in 2019 as part of Art Basel Miami—and then co-opted by Georgian performance artist David Datuna who walked up to the exhibit, detached the banana from its duct-tape, and proceeded to eat it. The whole drama ignited debates about the value of art and the meaning of art.

Truth to tell, anyone can actually “own” this piece by Cattelan, which the Guggenheim Museum in New York actually did in 2020. Anyone can also very well install “Comedian” by buying any banana from any grocery store and any duct-tape from any hardware store. But for the “value” to be “properly transferred,” it must come with a certificate from the artist himself asserting authenticity of the artwork; it also contains specific instructions regarding its installation, including that the banana—according to The Conversation’s Jo Adetunji—“should be hung 175 cm above ground and that it should be replaced every seven to ten days.” Again, it is not the physicality of the art that matters; it is the certification of authenticity. This is the art world that we live in right now.

And so, when it comes to NFT art, who says they have no value when you very well own the digital certificate asserting their authenticity and your ownership of it?

You can consider NFT art as a revolution, or as a disruptor to the old ways of art selling, and its current novelty has powered its surge of popularity in recent years. The surge can be traced to “Bored Ape Yacht Club” or BAYC, a collection of 10,000 unique, algorithm-generated variations of a cartoon image of an ape, developed by Yuga Labs LLC. When the collection went on sale in April 2021, it promised owners of the NFTs access to a private online club, exclusive in-person events, and intellectual property rights for the image. By 2022, sales of the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs totalled over $1 billion—with owners including Justin Bieber, Jimmy Fallon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Stephen Curry, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Paris Hilton, and Timbaland. [Madonna reportedly paid for one BAYC image for $500,000.] And of course, where celebrities are, aspirational wannabes with money to spare will go—even when it just means sharing a virtual space with them. This partly explains the surge to buy BAYC NFTs.

Since then, other artists have followed Yuga Labs’ lead—including American musician Grimes, who garnered $6 million for his fantasy art. The Kings of Leon released an entire album as NFT art. And Paris Hilton entered ETH-space with pink animals and clouds. According to 99design’s Elena Fitzsimons, “NFT art is a totally new way of categorizing digital artworks that enables designers to monetize their work. It’s supposed to be a quicker process and a more accessible way for designers to produce work and reap the rewards for their creativity. There’s no chasing clients for payment, there’s no preparing files for print, and there’s no waiting to hear feedback or changing and editing your work to suit a client’s needs.”

This includes paving the way for artists to get royalties for their work, especially in future sales, and dismantling the old tyranny of physical spaces [read: galleries] selling physical art by moving the whole platform of selling art into a digital space and thus guaranteeing a global, unfettered, reach. It’s the art trade democratized: anyone, therefore, who has access to the Internet can mint their own NFT art.

But it’s not all roses. With competition now tight among designers and artists hoping to make a quick buck over this novelty, there’s really no guarantee one’s NFT art will sell, not even if you’re a celebrity. Wrestler and actor John Cena considers his own attempt at selling a collection he put together with the WWE as a “catastrophic failure.” Skater Tony Hawk was widely mocked, even by fans, when he announced he was selling NFTs of his “best skating moves.” There are also unexplored legal ramifications. When director Quentin Tarantino announced he was going to sell NFTs based on his screenplay of Pulp Fiction, he was sued by Miramax, the studio that distributed and funded the 1994 film.

Minting NFTs is also very expensive. According to Fitzsimons, “Designers must outbid each other to get their artwork ‘minted’ on Blockchain. Prices fluctuate, depending on time and network, but it ranges from anywhere between $80 to $1000. This fee doesn’t guarantee sales for designers, but without paying it they cannot list their artwork on the market.”

NFTs, like crypto-curreny, has also been under attack of late for extracting a huge environmental cost. Because the blockchain has to be minted and maintained by a network of computers, the ecological footprint of NFT art in terms of energy costs can be greater than its real-life alternative of maintaining a physical studio or gallery.

But as one friend once reacted to my initial suspicions about NFT art as a whole, “This is the future, my friend.” And there is no denying that this revolution has come, and will most likely stay—changing how we do art from now on.

In Dumaguete, the first instance we get of NFT art is “Meditating Cats” by Evgeniya Spiridonova, a Russian graphic artist and entrepreneur who has made Dumaguete her home for the past thirteen years. She has admittedly fallen for both the city’s low-key charms and artistic potential that she has founded the creative enterprise Pinspired Philippines to showcase what it has to offer, creativity-wise. [I have written extensively about Pinspired in a previous installment of this arts series, “From Russia with Love.”]

Ms. Spiridonova, or Jane as she is referred to more popularly by friends and associates in Dumaguete, once worked as graphic designer for a toy company in China for five years—a phase in her life that was soon interrupted by a series of personal challenges, including a breakup with a boyfriend and the death of her father. This plunged her into a vortex of depression, which she knew needed healing. She aimed for India, hoping to traverse the entire subcontinent for six months, and hoping that the sensory overload of this ancient world would somehow provide the necessary distractions that would initiate a deep discovery of self—which she hoped could also lead to healing. One particular experience she would remember most during that trip is an immersion into a particular meditative practice called Vipassana. It required the most extensive discipline—for ten straight days, she meditated but could not speak to anyone. The experience blew her mind, and she realized the importance of meditation in the practice of everyday life.

But for all the excitement she elicited from India, the trip did not completely heal her. What did heal her was finally coming home to Russia, where she would throw herself into her first solo exhibition dedicated to her late father. That was also when she made another realization: she wanted to make the creation of art the focus of her life.

These two elements—meditation and art—perfectly explain the genesis of her NFT creation, except for the specificity of cats. Why cats? I once asked her. “Why not cats?” she responded. And why did I even have to ask. Because why not cats? As a cat person myself, I knew the answer perfectly well: cats are adorable, they rule the Internet, and their very existence as pets is defined by the fact that they seemed almost undisturbed by everything around them. Very Zen-like, very meditative.

Meditating Cats exhibit in Salaya Beach Houses, May 2022

Meditation led by Ms. Betita-Tan at the closing of the Meditating Cats exhibit in Salaya

Some of the Meditating Cats

Jane and her Meditating Cats at the 6200 PopUp at Robinsons Place Dumaguete

“Every Meditating Cat NFT can be a talisman or a reminder for us to be calm and peaceful in any unknown situation,” Jane writes in her website for the project, which she developed with three other friends. “Our Meditation Cats bring positive mood and fun experience with catchy art ideas. Every Meditation Cat NFT can tell a story, as we have multiple and complex layers which create different situations where we can recognize ourselves.” Indeed, for “Meditating Cats,” Jane prepared extensively the layers that would go into the mix of the algorithm that would create a specific NFT cat. There are about nine of them—which determine the eyes, the mouth, the fur, the clothes, the necklace, the platform the cat is meditating on, the background, and the various interstitials the cat happens to be juggling. From the various combinations of these, one gets a unique cat in meditation pose in various arrays of stories—6,000 images in total. All handpicked, all triple-distilled, each one designed to appeal to a specific story you have about yourself. You like sushi? There’s a Meditating Cat that reflects that. You like chess? You like dreaming on a cloud? You see yourself as a punk? You see yourself as a ghost-hunter with a penchant for tea? You see yourself as a Christmas Ghostbuster with a love for sunflowers? The individual stories are strangely unique, and endlessly appealing.

She opened the sale of her NFT art last December 2021, offering each piece at 0,021 ETH [or the equivalent of PhP1,300 as of 12 July 2022] on the OpenSea platform. [OpenSea is the preferred marketplace for NFT artists.] By late May, she opened an exhibition of prints of handpicked physical iterations of some of these cats at Salaya Beach Houses in Dauin, completing the show in June with a meditation session with friends with Samyama Studio’s Paola Luisa Betita Tan in the lead. During the 6200 PopUp initiated by DTI Negros Oriental at Robinsons Place Dumaguete, which ran from July 1 to 7, she gave a talk on embarking in this new frontier for making and selling art, and exhibited some more of her Meditating Cats alongside another Dumaguete artist, Angelo Delos Santos, who has followed Jane’s lead by creating “Bored Baboons.”

NFT art is a gamble and an adventure, and is still largely a puzzle to many, but Jane feels like the right person in Dumaguete to take the lead. Her explorer’s foray into this digital jungle of art-making and art-trading is certainly interesting to watch, and perhaps to emulate. This is the future, after all, and we have no other recourse but to yield to it sooner or later.

[To be continued…]

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