Is digital art going to change the way we create, consume and commission artworks?
We sit down with Trevor Jackson and David Rudnick for an open conversation on the digital art space and the ways in which it may alter our industry in the years to come.
Over the past year, many in our industry have been blindsided by the emergence of one particular area of digital artworks: NFTs. Largely, the instant reaction to NFTs is a slight aversion. Shrouded in language that can be difficult to understand and built within a system many are unfamiliar with, it’s easy to see why creatives may be keen to avoid it. There are also considerable concerns to reckon with; for example, reported environmental impacts and reasons to suggest these practises are perhaps unregulated. It may come as no surprise that in The Balancing Act survey completed by It’s Nice That readers, only 36 per cent of respondents were interested in the growing popularity of digital art, and even fewer (23 per cent) said they would actually create an NFT themselves.
However there are plentiful reasons why this is, in fact, an area our industry should be investing their time and effort in. For instance, it presents an opportunity for the value of digital artworks – a medium consistently shunned by traditional fine art institutions – to finally be appreciated. There are unique tools to facilitate profit being more equally distributed between contributors, and of course a chance to experiment with new media. The future for those entering our industry is possibly brighter with this development too, presenting new ways to directly connect and sell to audiences while growing a practice.
Yet, we’re still getting to grips with the matter ourselves. And so, to further understand exactly what opportunities may be possible, we’ve invited two renowned designers, Trevor Jackson and David Rudnick, to share their two cents on this often divisive subject. Creatives with established practises in graphic design, in collaboration with clients or in their self-initiated work, David and Trevor both entered this space in 2021. Reflecting on their thoughts, concerns and hopeful feelings for this emerging sector, the following text details an insightful conversation with the pair.
Both thoughtfully honest in their contributions to this conversation, we hope their transparency around their decisions encourages you to read on with an open mind. After all, we’re really only a year or so into this discussion, and its effects on our industry – negative or positive – are yet to be fully revealed, making this conversation all the more worth having.
It’s Nice That: I’d be interested to know what your first opinions were of NFTs specifically?
Trevor Jackson: I think if I’m honest, my initial impression was seeing people make a shit load of money from what appeared to me as doing very little. Beyond my design ethos, my ethos in life is to try and work as little and earn as much money as possible – I say with a heavy touch of sarcasm.
But fundamentally, I am always excited and interested in new mediums. I’ve had a fascination with digital art since I was a child, which up to very recently had been shunned by the art community completely. It’s quite interesting how the digital art space is becoming a bigger thing, and I think that to be honest I wanted to be involved due to my love of digital art.
David Rudnick: Although it’s strange to say, certain ideas of the blockchain, or that there was an emergent space ahead of us, like a virtual Library of Alexandria where our works would end up, has almost haunted me. It always felt like we were in the last days of something, that we were these dinosaurs who made physical work. It’s the same way that opera is a legacy institution. I say this with no disrespect to opera, but it’s a performance of rituals which makes people feel comfortable because they meant something to people before, but they no longer actually mean something now. We all love this work, there are cultural rituals that mean a lot to us, but there’s always been this fear within me that for the next generation it may all be like opera to them.
In the last couple of years I’ve been interested in what those systems might be and maybe had a trigger reflex to look out for moments that could be a major shift. Then, in early 2021, some people I knew launched a marketplace called Zora. I watched a deluge of mostly horrific work appear in the space, but also conventions that were brain-breaking: Zora didn’t take commission and people were bidding with these exotic cryptocurrencies and the amount it equated to was astronomical.
INT: Were you concerned?
DR: Well, around that time two marketplaces, Zora and Foundation, came online and others like Nifty Gateway and SuperRare were beginning to increase in volume. It hadn’t quite hit the peak of NFT buzz yet but it was like, okay, as people who make work in the cultural sector, we’ve been through this before. I’d been through the last ten years with these fears and was very sceptical of what social media, or Web 2.0 models, would do to our work – to a point which really alienated me at the start of my career. As time went on, people realised these things were damaging their practices, the monetary value of the thing they made, their mental health, their democracies. We reached a point, where, with this new paradigm emerging, it was logical to ask not what is this space going to offer us, but what is it going to destroy?
I made the decision to move into the space as I felt that what we might be seeing is a platform emergence that might be the baseline around which certain types of culture organise. I think some of the things it offers are generally remarkable; the way you can distribute equity, for example. The first piece of work I put on chain sold and it was pretty mind-blowing for someone who works in graphic design, a field where we’re so used to the value of our work being totally exploited. With the amount of mood boards created, it’s actually easier for other people to make money off my work than me once it’s publicly on the internet. To see a platform where you’re being assigned some of the value was exciting, but it didn’t feel like it had solved the problem.
TJ: As for the work I’ve done in the space, a lot of it stems from feeling totally overwhelmed by the increasing amount of media, information and news I’m bombarded by on a daily basis, whilst working within a variety of different mediums, all with their own diverse challenges. Due to this, I’ve been striving to simplify and refine many areas of my life and practice – both creatively and practically. Getting actively involved in a new space that is initially complex and difficult to understand and to fully navigate, that somewhat conflicts with my attempts to reduce all the noise. I’ve tried to approach it cautiously, regardless of how exciting the potential may be. I’m also fully aware that I am entering a “world” I’m not necessarily part of and have consciously tried to enter it bearing that in mind.
INT: You’ve both mentioned the aesthetics of NFTs, what is your opinion of the work currently being created?
TJ: I don’t think we can talk about the work as negative. The whole point is that there has been a subculture of people who have been involved in the digital world who are now having their comeuppance. It’s work that aesthetically I don’t like, but it doesn’t mean it is any less important. It excites me that a subculture is booming that I am not part of. It’s something I can take in parallel to PC Music. When I first heard it, I thought it was nonsense, Mickey Mouse J Pop. It took me ten years to realise that it’s genius because it was outside my reference points. In the same way, I think most people think these artworks are bad, it has nothing to do with them. It’s such an alien thing and I personally can’t work out why some things sell and some don’t.
DR: I think Trevor is completely right. You cannot treat this space with simple snobbery. It’s very possible that something you believe to have symbolic vocabulary is exactly the ciphers of the world this scene is trying to reject. The reason they’re buying apes is because they don’t want that legacy.
The obvious thing to say about this emergent generation is that they have spent, in some cases, more of their lives in digital spaces and therefore have defaults that emerge from digital culture, more so than cultural legacy in the physical world. Also, what they consider to be family, friendship, society or value, journeys around what happens in digital spaces.
INT: But you’ve both become involved in the space despite your works, and the ideas behind them, being visually dissimilar?
TJ: Well, David, your work is different. You’re an exception to the rule in that you have created a world around yourself. You’ve created an ethos, a manifesto, beyond the visual itself which translates to people in that space. I think that’s part of the reason your work has been successful. But other work on there, I see it and I cannot for the life of me understand why it is popular, why it sells. In a weird way, that’s kind of exciting.
DR: One of the reasons I wanted to get involved is that I do feel, to some extent, our generation – by which I mean individuals who have some formative practice that emerged prior to virtual value – has things that mean a lot to us that we want to test. The shocking factor is that those values are being called into question when we’re showing images and ideas to a generation that isn’t accepting the value we say is evident. It’s a beautiful opportunity – but also a burden – to make a case of why any of this stuff is worth looking at. If we don’t, we may lose the opportunity to bring any of that value into this space.
TJ:I agree with what you’re saying undoubtedly, but it’s a reflection of some of things that are going on, not the be all and end all?
DR: It’s emergent. We don’t know how much it will continue to form a central position of how culture organises, but I do think one thing that is unavoidable is that its emergence is scaled up to its volume. It’s based around investment in blockchain infrastructure, like Ethereum. The bigger that grows, the more of our world that is in this ecosystem will come to be dominated by ETH billionaires, not fiscal billionaires. The more of their taste, of what they feel represents culture, will then start to be manifested in the spaces around us.
INT: I’d be interested in the root as to why that bridge generation – those who have created work in physical and digital spaces – is so dismissive of this space initially?
TJ: They don’t understand it. As I said, David has set up his practice in a certain way and I think to summarise, you’ve always been a non-conformist creative. You’ve looked for avenues to explore your ideas in non-conformist ways. The blockchain has given you an opportunity to do that. Also, you’re a very intelligent person, and you’re young. I am an older generation. For me, if I am really honest with you, it's fucking complicated. So much of it I don’t understand. I think that’s part of it, people don’t understand it and so they are scared of it.
Another important point is that, for me personally, I’ve always had a problem with the balance between art and commerce. I don’t like talking about money, I like to earn a good living from what I do, but I never talk about money to anyone. From my experience with this space you have to be actively talking about money. Twitter is one of the communication spaces and to sell successfully you have to be like, “Hey, this is up for so much…”, “Wow, thank you so much for bidding” – it’s that crass. I don't want to be part of that world. I find it really uncomfortable. I think people from my generation probably feel the same way. It’s why people have agents!
DR: I agree with the fundamental criticism. You can’t have a leaderboard of creatives saying, “How much did that one go for?” Essentially placing a high score next to our work. That’s one of the reasons why I felt we have to get involved in this space if we’re even going to start conversations around these broken taboos of meaning and value, rather than price.
INT: What has been your experience with the platforms in which these works-on-chain are hosted?
TJ: I used Foundation because it is simple. I understand it. It was simply translatable, it had an FAQ. It worked for me, but in terms of their personal incentives I am sure it’s not too different from David’s. Hopefully they are people who have an idea of how to use this medium to explore creativity and make a living from it at the same time.
DR: The space is currently in beta. Trevor is completely right, a lot of the tools are not user friendly and it’s hard to penetrate. But, all the things being built to make this a normal, natural interface for creatives are being built in real time.
However, I am cautious of curated spaces where the industry is coordinated to 300 main characters who dominate conversation and control the aesthetics of what makes sense in the space. When it becomes a monocultural space, rather than a subcultural space. Certain elements, like an FAQ, lean towards a one size fits all of how to use it. As Trevor has realised, platforms like Foundation have a front page with 40 works on there, but it’s basically down to who gets those featured spots and it quickly becomes a centralised model.
I am placing work on Foundation because I didn’t think it was enough to just put all work on Zora; then we’ll be off in the ghetto with the weird art again and watch the mainstream go to Foundation. I am going to try to do work that I think is actually good, and think of ways to use a platform to push the conversation.
INT: But do you think there is space for something in between the two? The FAQ, curated model and a more open, but perhaps complicated to use platform?
DR: I am not arguing that the space should be for pro-users only. What is being built is perhaps a path to a model where it will be fundamental that everyone has a wallet where you can hold cryptocurrency. You can interact with the blockchain, build sites and this wallet is the primary mode of connection. Then there will be tools where it will be as simple as pressing a button, the same way you use a PayPal button to pay, to mint an image. No one in the space is mad that you can right click and save their jpeg, but the point is there will probably be a right click to bid on this NFT, or be able to look up the owner. We will get to that level of user normalcy if wallet adoption becomes normalised.
TJ: But then again even that is not easy! I had to ask three different people how on earth to set this up. This is why this conversation is so interesting. So much of what you’re saying is alien to me as just sorting a wallet, getting the crypto, was a pain in the arse.
DR Remember what it used to be like to connect to the internet, though? Buy a huge modem box, plug in an ethernet, listen to that whirring noise for a minute or two just to get online. The difficulty curve for user adoption is obviously steep and yes, it means people operating in the space have already passed a test to get there, but that doesn’t mean in five years getting a wallet won’t be as simple.
TJ: Actually, if it was so simple, I don’t think it would be a bad thing. In the sea of so much you need curators, undoubtedly for me the most important people in my sphere are the curators. Twenty years ago I would know everything, every record coming out, every book, film, but now it’s too much. My brain is overloaded and it really helps to have recommendations from others I admire or respect in a variety of mediums. I don’t have an issue with an NFT space that isn’t so democratic and potentially curated.
DR: The role of the curator is of course important, but I prefer the model where the curator is independent from the marketplace. It’s not Spotify’s front page that gives me my music recommendations, but instead a record shop, for example. To receive that recommendation from someone passionate about sharing the content. The roll-out of individual, user-focused tools will hopefully allow for more sites or gallery-style spaces to develop. I don’t think the future is sites, I think the future is essentially networks.
INT: I am interested then, if you have bought anything?
TJ: From what I see I think there is only a very small amount of people spending a lot of money?
DR: It’s definitely dominated by whales. I will say this, if you asked me when I listed my first NFT if I thought I would ever buy one, the answer would have been no, this isn’t for me. I have to say now, though, I don’t just have one or two, and there have been projects launched that I think are actually brilliant.
TJ: But would you say they are by artists in your community?
DR: They are by artists I admire, but it’s not an act of charity. For example, I bought a piece by Ezra Miller, a brilliant artist who is definitely of a different generation to me.
TJ: But he is from your world. Side stepping slightly, I think it’s hard for you to see it because you’re inside it, but you are unique in your space. You have created a mythology around yourself, which is a fascinating and fantastic thing to do, but it is unique amongst contemporary designers. In that space you have people around you which I would describe as a school. It is completely authentic, but it still remains potentially difficult for someone outside of that space to penetrate it and be successful. It goes back to why people are slightly scared of it.
DR: I hear you, but my perspective on why I engage with it is not because I want to be in it. You described me as someone who is a habitual non-conformist, but I believe this space is a part of where we will go. I am passionate, invested and concerned about the future of visual media. I participate not because I identify with it, but because some of the systems and techniques that emerge will define visual culture for the next 20 to 30 years.
I passionately believe that without people who are prior to this space getting involved and expanding the possibilities, there is a danger that we will sit back and let someone pick the answers for us. For those unfamiliar with the space questioning the participation they want, I would say it is not a spectator sport if you are creative. The work you buy will have an impact on the work you’ll be creating in a few years’ time, so you should really think about what you want to support. If you have a practice that is reliant on you being seen as an individual practitioner and you buy a bunch of apes to flip them, buyer beware, as it might make it harder for you to sell an illustration in the future.
INT: Outside of the work and platforms, environmental factors of NFTs appear to be our audience’s main concern. I do see how it is a valid concern, but feel confused if it is astronomically bad in comparison to everything else we do creatively?
TJ: For me, it was a concern but, as someone who has made unsold records on vinyl and CD, it would be hypocritical for me to make it a huge issue, having spent the past 30 years releasing music almost exclusively on plastic discs.
DR:I am going to preface this by saying this is non-trivial and we live in a time of ecological catastrophe where everything about the way we live our lives has to change. That said, the specific focus on NFTs as a source of environmental harm is unfair. There is no way in hell I would have received a threatening DM about publishing a book – a book that is printed on literal trees and has a much higher carbon footprint than any NFT I ever make.
Unfortunately, a few articles went round in the early days that massively, and deliberately, overstated the footprint of an individual transaction. In some sense, it’s right to force people to hold the industry to account, but the idea that NFTs have purposefully developed a uniquely evil form of data propagation is just not the case. I appreciate the concern behind this position, but I have to say publicly that we’re a community which fetishes beautiful buildings made of concrete, we love listening to records printed on oil and pressed on plastic. There’s a lot of things where we could be more cautious of the fact that aesthetics come with a price.
Also, let’s be completely honest. If NFTs were free, no one would be talking about this. It’s because it’s eye watering and you want to believe that someone buying a Beeple NFT for however many millions is immoral.
INT: Do you think that the emergence of works on chain will alter the commissioning process? For editorial sites like ours or agencies?
David: I hope so! The way those people have been commissioned over the last 20 years has been appalling and exploitative. One of the things I thought was really fascinating about last year was that a whole generation of creatives – who have really struggled at the mercy of a marketplace where opportunities come and go – realised they could make money far more reliably selling and controlling their own work than having to work as a client service. There are lots of negatives in this space but unquestionably the current model hasn’t been good enough for way too many people who are talented, passionate and want to make a livelihood making creative work.
TJ: That is somewhat over-generalising. Undoubtedly there are magazines or practices that have great relationships commissioning people. I don’t like the concept that all commissioned work is evil, I don’t even think direction is evil.
But this space is not everything. It comes back to what we’ve discussed around authenticity and you creating your own world. For me, I think in all forms of culture creating your own space is where the strength is at. It used to be that you had to live in London, New York, or Paris, but now you can live anywhere and creating your own space, with your own compatriots, will give you a better chance at succeeding.
DR: Fundamentally, one thing has been added to the equation: two years ago you couldn’t sell a digital image for money and now there are some circumstances where you can.
For me, any kind of creative practice that can create structures that preserve value on behalf of the creator is better. In this space, if you and your friends build a project that is successful, the revenue of that project can be retained by those who built it. I do think you’re right when you say that creatives like myself have a privileged view of what’s possible because we have an audience already, but if we just build a radio where only established artists are playing the hits, no one gets any opportunities. This, on the other hand, has potential.
TJ: I am trying to put any cynicism to one side as it’s unjust to judge anything I don’t fully understand and currently all my negatives are definitely outweighed by the positives. It does feel like you need to play the “game” to have any significant profile within the NFT art space, and that’s something I’ve never done in any field of work I’ve been involved in. I’ve always attempted to circumvent that, played and bent the rules to create the impact I’ve wanted. Currently, the structure doesn’t really let you do that, for me anyway. But, as we’ve discussed, the future is incredibly exciting and the possibilities almost infinite so I am far from discouraged and disillusioned.
If this article has interested you in learning more about this space, below are a group of projects to dig into further:
The Balancing Act
The Balancing Act is an Extra Nice-supported editorial series by It’s Nice That investigating how our industry has altered since the first wave of Covid-19 in early 2020. Developed from a survey shared with our readers, the resulting pieces are a reflection of the way the creative industry was feeling two years later.
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About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.