It’s a classic quantum thought experiment: if an artwork is hanging on the wall of a gallery and also online, which one is the original artwork?
For artist Ry David Bradley, the answer is: time will tell.
“I came to the conclusion that it’s not up to me to decide,” says Bradley from his studio in London. One of his works hangs behind him, a woven piece that he initially designed as a digital file. “If the file will last longer than this thing behind me there, then the file is the only thing that’s left. And that becomes the original. And if this lasts longer, because there’s a magnetic storm and all the hard drives disappear, that is the original. And that emerges through time. It could take hundreds of years for that to play out.”
But before that happens, Bradley’s digital-born tapestries are on view in “Once Twice” at The Hole in downtown New York alongside blown glass sculptures by Hanna Hansdotter. Bradley’s gray-scale tapestries feature human faces, distorted to anonymity; he describes them as painted portraits for the 21st century. Hansdotter’s work similarly takes classical materials and reinvents them through a contemporary lens.
Interested collectors can purchase Bradley’s physical works, and they can also purchase the digital artworks as an NFT — nonfungible token — through digital art marketplace SuperRare, using the Ethereum cryptocurrency. (The physical art can be purchased from the gallery in U.S. dollars or Ethereum; his work is also being exhibited virtually via Decentraland.) Bradley’s first NFT artwork offered as part of the exhibition, “The Seer,” recently sold for 10Ξ ($19,119) to buyer @fastackl. According to SuperRare records, the buyer has spent an equivalent of over $400,000 collecting NFT artworks — in the past 30 days.
What’s the best buy for someone interested in purchasing the original version of one of his works? “If I wanted to truly own this [work],” says Bradley. “I would want both.”
In early March, Christie’s will be the first major auction house to sell a digital-only piece, by artist Mike Winkelmann. Lately, the art world has been buzzing over NFTs. Is it a gimmick, is it a bubble, or is it the future?
Collectors of NFT art purchase encrypted digital files. This exchange is recorded in a decentralized ledger as proof of ownership. If it seems unthinkable to pay so much to own an artwork that is only on your screen — that others, at least for now, can easily screenshot — the dubious can reflect on a time when other now-ubiquitous digital activities seemed fringe: dating, shopping, blogging.
“We do seem to be living through a shift away from objects and more into experience,” says Bradley, who has been interested in the intersection of art and the digital space for many years, and using cryptocurrency in projects for around seven years. “We’re moving to an ephemeral, digital world of paying subscription fees, with no physical goods.
“It was kind of illicit back then with Silk Road and all that stuff. It was our first introduction to what the whole crypto world really is,” he adds. “There was always this speculation that these worlds would emerge and that cryptocurrency in the future would do all these things. And it was all conjecture back then, but now it’s actually happening, and now it’s almost this undeniable part of this decade.”
For now, there is somewhat of a homogeneity to digital art — it’s often meme-based, rooted in a “lolz” aesthetic more than academic inquiry. (Although some of it reflects a high level of computer-aided design proficiency.) Artists like Bradley who are part of the gallery art world (and certainly tony auction houses like Christie’s) may lend legitimacy, and aesthetic diversity, to NFT collecting, although with the current price tags of digital artists, some might not be all-too excited to welcome the art world establishment to their ranks. But even those artists might find a benefit to the crossover: Bradley has had a few digital artists ask about wanting to show in a gallery for the first time.
He’s interested in digital art and questions around authenticity, but Bradley also appreciates the classic, physical manifestation and presence of his practice within a gallery. Casual visitors, with no knowledge of or interest in the crypto world, can step into The Hole and appreciate the art that’s in front of them, as they see it.
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