‘Magic alchemy’: Artists talk about inventing the NFT and digital art at Lincoln exhibition – Lincoln Journal Star

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‘Magic alchemy’: Artists talk about inventing the NFT and digital art at Lincoln exhibition

When Kevin McCoy began looking into Bitcoin in 2012, he realized that there was a kind of “magic alchemy” going on in the digital currency’s blockchain that could create something that was simultaneously scarce and ubiquitous.

Two years later, McCoy turned that revelation into a non-fungible token, or NFT, selling “Quantum,” a digital art work within a blockchain. The NFT, however, languished until about 2017 when it started bubbling up with sales and trades of CryptoKitties, virtual cats.

Gaining momentum in 2020, the NFT exploded in early 2021 — in multiple art forms as well as gaming and sports.

An NFT representing the meme animation Nyan Cat sold for more than $500,000. A collection of 33 NFTs from electronic dance musician 3LAU sold for $11.7 million. Kings of Leon sold their album “When You See Yourself” as an NFT.

And digital artist Beeple’s work “Everydays, The First 5000 Days,” the first NFT to be listed at Christie’s auction house, sold for an astounding $69.1 million.

Appropriately, last week, Collins Dictionary named NFT as 2021’s word of the year.

“I knew it was a big idea at the time,” McCoy said. “Like, this is going to change things. But then it had such a long winter of not understanding it, not caring and not engaging, you start to question that it might just go away for a really long time …

“Then the idea resurfaced and then, eventually, resurfaced in a big way. And it’s pretty surreal. It’s pretty weird. I knew it was a big idea, but I didn’t know how it would feel when it was a big deal for so many people and all the excitement and all the energy and all the craziness. It’s like ‘Wow, that’s pretty incredible.’”

So exactly what is an NFT? The Collins definition is “a unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or a collectible.”

Acting as provenance, NFTs prove the authenticity of an artwork as the blockchain serves as proof of ownership, so NFT artworks and their owners can always be identified, even if an image or video has been widely reproduced.

McCoy and his wife and collaborator, Jennifer, were in Lincoln earlier this month to attend the opening of “Lincoln Tunnel to Lincoln, Nebraska,” their exhibition at Fiendish Plots and to meet with students and faculty of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Johnny Carson School of Emerging Media Arts.

The exhibition is made up of a series of large black-and-white line drawings that are based on photographs that follow a driving trip that starts at New York City’s Holland Tunnel, moves through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa and, finally, Nebraska. (Indiana didn’t yield a picture worth using.)

The ink and charcoal drawings, however, weren’t made by the McCoys copying and interpreting the photos by hand. They were created by what the couple calls “the drawing machine,” which Kevin created during the pandemic.

“It’s more than a plotter because there’s a software that interprets photographic images,” Jennifer McCoy said. “And then you can use a variety of real-world media.”

The McCoys thought about bringing the machine from their Brooklyn studio to Lincoln. But hauling it 1,300 miles, getting the touchy machine set up and running properly was too large a task to undertake.

So the exhibition, which runs through December, has a video shot from above projected onto the gallery floor that shows the machine at work — and Kevin’s hands reaching in to adjust it.

The interaction between digital and physical embodied in the machine and its output is a common element in the McCoys’ art.

“A lot of our work does that in different ways,” Jennifer McCoy said. “It thinks about a concept that’s a digital one, like something like database, and then kind of strives to make a physicalization of it, kind of as a way to bridge it. But also as a way to just keep reminding people that there are concepts that are really important in technology, but they have physical consequences.

In fact, Kevin McCoy said, the physical aspects of their work were always embodied in the digital realm of software, programming, etc.

“These things can be abstract, and they are abstract, but there’s always a moment where the rubber hits the road, and they’re embodied in some way.”

The Guggenheim Fellowship-winning, Brooklyn-based couple, who each have master’s degrees in Electronic Arts, have for more than two decades explored issues of personal, mass media and commercial experience with new technology through film, video, installation and development of new uses of technology, like the NFT.

So far, there have been few NFT “shows” at galleries. Kiechel Fine Art’s September exhibition of NFTs by Lincoln video artist Michael Burton was one of the first in the country.

Similarly, museums haven’t yet figured out how to deal with the new technology for delivering art.

“Galleries and museums are just like spinning around in circles,” Jennifer McCoy said. “It reminds me of when everyone all at once realized if my company or institution or whatever, doesn’t have a website, we’re missing the boat. … With the NFT thing is, there’s a lot of just panic, panic and fear. And hope maybe, for people who have been slogging it out in the digital arts trying to sell video. I think they’re just like, ‘Thank God.’”

While the NFT makes sense for fine art, it is still taking shape in the world of music and music videos.

“It’s sort of a weird retrenchment, because it’s like how to monetize things that are already being given for free,” Jennifer McCoy said. “There’s gonna be some sort of aesthetic definition — when is a music video different than a music NFT? They easily could be the same thing. But I kind of don’t think they are.

“I think that the music NFT has to be thought of more as like a digital object. NFT started with fine art. … It doesn’t feel like some promotional thing. It feels like more of a direct experience of the artist.”

There are other issues with NFTs that need to be resolved, including reducing their environmental impact and questions about their preservation, which are common with much technology-based art.

That’s because the digital realm changes at an exponential rate — not just from year to year, but month to month.

“VHS had a great long run, but then it’s just like, oh, a VHS deck?” Kevin McCoy said. “There’s been 30, 40 years of digitization, and that’s just not over. It’s gonna just keep going, keep recycling. Then tokens will get thrown in there, NFTs or whatever, and that’s going to change things more.”

The students understand that well and peppered the McCoys with questions about their work, clearly aimed at taking some bit of knowledge from them to apply to the art they’ll be creating in years to come.

But Kevin McCoy pointed out that digital arts and NFTs aren’t just setting a path for a new generation.

“This isn’t some kind of future thing,” he said. “Of course, it will evolve in the future and change. But it’s also like ‘Oh, wow — it’s now.’ It’s happening already, It’s not in a lab somewhere. These changes are absolutely happening and quickly.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com. On Twitter @KentWolgamott  

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