The dawn of blockchain? CryptoPunks evangelist Noah Davis on why the Centre Pompidou NFT show is a game-changer

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The brand lead for Yuga Labs—creators of the wildly popular Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and, since March 2022, owners of one of the widely collected Larva Labs creations, CryptoPunks—says that an exhibition of NFT works that opened at the Centre Pompidou in Paris earlier this week signals “at least that museums are taking this space seriously”. Noah Davis, who left Christie’s last year for Yuga Labs, says museums are starting to “understand the potential for blockchain as a medium and NFTs as a medium to augment what artists can do. So having that validation is definitely important”.

The exhibition at the Beaubourg gallery, NFT: The Poetics of the Immaterial from Certification to Blockchain (until 22 January 2024), includes 18 blockchain-related works recently acquired by the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou. The acquisition—the first of its kind by a major French public museum—came as a result of a joint effort between scientific and administrative teams from the French Ministry of Culture and the Pompidou’s director, Xavier Rey.

“[The show] reflects the diversity of artistic cultures inherent in the Web3 landscape linking up the digital field of crypto art with contemporary art dealing [and] the specificities of a decentralised economy,” says a Centre Pompidou statement. Other NFT works by artists such as Aaajiao, Emilie Brout and Maxime Marion, Fred Forest and Jill Magid are included.

Jill Magid, Hand-hacked Bouquet 1, 2023, from the series Out-Game Flowers © Jill Magid. Courtesy Centre Pompidou, purchase, 2023

Davis helped bring NFTs out of the metaverse and onto the auction house floor with the sale of Beeple’s digital work Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2021) in March 2021. The sale marked the first time Christie’s accepted cryptocurrency for a work and the first time a standalone NFT was sold by an auction house. After 353 bids were placed by 33 bidders, some of which were raising the price in $10m increments, Everydays sold for $60.3m ($69.3m with fees).

“We took a weird circuitous route to this moment in time because of course the Beeple sale… that [sort of event] usually does not precede museum validation. So we’re going backwards,” Davis says. The Beeple auction was a “lightbulb moment”, he adds.

“That’s when I realised what it is that NFTs can do as opposed to just what they are. There’s a big gap in that understanding. People nowadays know what NFTs are. They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s jpegs.’ But they don’t understand that they can also be an immutable public record, that they can contain and communicate information in a more efficient way than any other technology we’ve ever had, and in a trustless way too.”

One of the first things Davis did when he started as brand lead was to go through the collection and earmark Punks considered “museum grade” that he wanted to donate to institutions. “The founders, I’m really grateful honestly, that they could see the utility in that. These are expensive assets that we are giving away, but they generously agreed,” Davis says.

CryptoPunks were minted in 2017. “There were 10,000 of them. There will never be another CryptoPunk. But we still have 400+ in the Yuga Labs collection,” Davis says. “The intention is to donate more to important museums.”

Yuga Labs, the creators of the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs, announced in March last year that they had acquired the intellectual property rights to Larva Labs’ CryptoPunks and Meebits collections. They also picked up 423 CryptoPunks and 1,711 Meebits in the deal for an undisclosed amount, according to Ocula.

Fred Forest, NFT- Archeology, 2021 © ADAGP, Paris 2023. © Fred Forest. Courtesy Centre Pompidou, gift of the artist, 2023

The NFT sector has had a bumpy ride since the frenzy of 2021. The volume of NFT sales dropped 83% in 2022, according to the NFT sector tracker NonFungible, and by the end of last year, around 18 months after the explosion began, many marketplaces had folded or lost almost all their value.

So where does the sector go from here? “We’re definitely experiencing growing pains. That’s the way I define it,” Davis says. “But again, I think it all comes back to what the technology does. As [artificial intelligence] becomes more and more powerful, how are we going to be able to discern the truth? Blockchain solves this. Blockchain is a great way to validate truth. I can imagine a future where there will be NFT-based certificates of authenticity.”

There is also the issue of resale rights. Last year, we reported that NFTs were supposed to ensure secondary sales royalties, providing an opportunity for recurring income that has historically evaded artists in many jurisdictions. NFT artists and watchdog communities like crypto ecosystem Immutable X have however been naming and shaming royalty-eschewing platforms.

Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion, Nakamoto (The Proof), 2014-18 Courtesy des artistes et 22,48 m², Paris. © Emilie Brout & Maxime Marion. Photo © Aurélien Mole

“Resale royalties, you can’t enforce them on chain. It’s just not something that you can do on the contract level. And human beings being human beings, we’re in a hyper-capitalist, thermodynamic society,” Davis says. “So there’s always going to be an incentive for people to figure out how to pay the least royalties to whoever it may be, whether it’s the marketplace or the artists involved. That being said, even without resale royalties that are enforceable by the blockchain itself, this tool is so important for artists to manage their supply in a transparent way, to understand who exactly their collectors are and to be able to reach out and connect to them.”

Meanwhile, other museums may soon receive a CryptoPunk NFT. “We’re talking to museums from all over the world,” Davis says. “There is a large contingent of British CryptoPunks and we would love to see a CryptoPunk represented in a major contemporary art institution in the UK.” Last year Yuga Labs also gifted the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami CryptoPunk#305, a nod to Miami’s area code.

  • NFT: The Poetics of the Immaterial from Certification to Blockchain, until 22 January 2024, Centre Pompidou, Paris

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