Dvora Gallery Jersey City
Dvora Gallery Jersey City

NFTs went mainstream during a national shutdown. With no way for people to go to museums, clubs, or galleries, receptivity toward digital art spiked. There were headlines: stories of NFTs sold for eye-popping sums, pushed by cryptocurrency hype men determined to stoke the fires of FOMO. Was this the future of art, or just another Internet-driven fad?  Were we just going stir-crazy?

In 2021, a few Jersey City artists plunged into the deep end of the digital pool and began producing and selling NFTs of their own. Yet our most prominent painters and sculptors have hesitated, and it’s not hard to understand why. NFTs confuse veteran collectors. Those who already struggled to understand blockchains and cryptocurrency blanched at the thought of another term added to the arcane lexicon of modern computer-speak. Many famous NFTs had a slapdash, unserious quality and tarred digital art by association; tales of napkin doodles moved for millions made the whole enterprise feel tawdry. Most of all, the massive (and growing) carbon footprint of cryptocurrency and blockchain activity has alienated environmentalists. Since our imperiled biosphere is a preoccupation among socially conscious Jersey City artists, it’s not surprising that so many of them have demurred so far.

I, too, have long been a skeptic. If the market craters in the not-so-distant future, I won’t be surprised. But in the short run, NFTs aren’t going anywhere. They’re going to be part of the story of local — and international — art in 2022. Even if lockdowns don’t come back, at least some NFTs will appear in local gallery shows. James Pustorino and Anne Trauben of Drawing Rooms, two of the most experienced curators in town, are currently showing a thoughtful and well-crafted exhibition that includes a tranche of non-fungible tokens. Scot J. Wittman makes prints of human figures from historical maps he’s redrawn himself. Many of the images in his “Solo Exhibition,” which is on view at DVORA Pop-Up Gallery (160 1st  St.), were crafted from humble analog materials: paper, ink, and glue. Twenty-two of the pieces in the show aren’t on the gallery walls at all. They’re fully digital, available on the NFT exchange OpenSea, and you’ll have to pay Ethereum, a cryptocurrency, to add them to your collection.

Wittman, who calls himself a mapographer, is no paper-napkin doodle vendor. His work is full of carefully rendered detail. That’s particularly true of his large pieces, which play on classical motifs, raise questions about the relationship between mapping and memory, geopositioning, mythology and storytelling. The tension between traditional drafting and mechanical reproduction is apparent in all of his work. Despite the regal overtones of his images, he’s no crypto-billionaire: his giant “King Corvinus” image was conceived and rendered long ago when he was working at Kinko’s, and printed on résumé paper. Wittman, an arts educator as well as an artist, is present to the ironies of the NFT marketplace. For instance, images of his paper works have already been uploaded to Artsy, thereby guaranteeing them a permanent digital existence. The NFTs will vanish once the show is over.  Before they do, we caught up with Wittman to ask him about the decision he made to play in this arena, and where we all might be headed.

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Tris McCall/Jersey City Times: I’d like to start with the question I get the most — both from curious artists and collectors.  When I purchase an NFT from you, what exactly am I buying? 

Scot J. Wittman: First and foremost, you are buying an artwork from me.  Creativity, effort and time went into the creation of the works.  They are for sale. People can purchase/collect/enjoy them. Full stop. There are other facets to this diamond, but the simple immediate answer is this — what collectors are receiving from me is really no different than one of my works hanging in a gallery right now.

TMC/JCT: Okay. But if I buy a print of a Scot Wittman image, I can put that on my wall. I can hang it in an office.  What can I do with an NFT?

SJW: Whether the wall is in your home or in your office, it sounds like a nice place to hang the work. You can see it as often as you like. Others at your home or in your office can enjoy it too. NFTs come in all shapes and sizes (moving images, sound, etc.) and have display spaces in kind. As my NFTs are purely visual, viewing on any screen would work. And, unlike your wall at home or in the office, anyone in the whole wide world (web) can enjoy the work if you wish/post.

TMC/JCT: But what, as an NFT owner, do I control?  Anything? Do I have any rights over the image?  Can I prevent someone else from generating a digital copy of what I’ve bought, and if so, how?

SJW: Your control is delineated by a “smart contract” when the transaction happens. I retain rights over the image.  When someone purchases any of my photographs off my own website Mapographer.com (or a gallery like Drawing Rooms in Jersey City representing me) I retain rights of those images too.

Can you prevent someone else from generating a digital copy of the image? No: no more so than you could prevent one of my photographs on my website being reproduced… although there’s a resolution sub-argument to be made. You can however, by public record (the distributed ledger) prove you are the single owner of the collected NFT itself.

At this level it’s about provenance. I am using the blockchain to provide provenance for the works on paper in my Solo Show at DVORA too; I am using Verisart.com to digitally tattoo a certificate of authenticity with the work.

TMC/JCT: Why does any of this have to happen on a blockchain?  Why not just sell a watermarked JPG?

SJW: First let me say that I’m neither trying to say one way is better than the other nor am I comfortable acting as defender of all things NFT. But to your specific question, I find selling on a blockchain to have certain advantages.  First, it is a transaction that is verified by the blockchain itself.  There is no piece of paper that someone has signed at some point that got lost, burned by accident, takes on questionable verification, etc.  A “block” is a piece of digital information, and the “chain” is a public database.

Second, by selling on the blockchain, royalties can be established.  This was what first raised my eyebrow to selling NFTs.  This is already a classic scenario: if an artist’s work resells at a major auction house for $10M, the artist does not see a penny. If my NFT resells for $10M, I receive 1$M.  Automatically and instantly.  Perhaps while I’m sleeping.

TMC/JCT: I guess I like paper. It doesn’t seem quite as fragile as the Internet does. I’ve noticed that permanent-looking things on the Internet have a tendency to resolve to vaporware. Are blockchains really more secure?  Let’s say that the blockchain is compromised.  Could you lose all your NFTs?

SJW: Forgery is an issue with paper provenance but the blockchain acts as verification in the transaction itself.  Hacking is the only issue I see with NFTs being less secure.  The site you store your files on (OpenSea, Rarible, etc.) could suffer issues I suppose. From what I’ve witnessed, while it is still nascent, most in the space are not worried about such issues.

TMC/JCT: One of the advantages of digital media is the ability to make infinite indistinguishable copies.  Suggesting that there’s such a thing as a non-fungible digital artwork feels strange to me. It feels like giving up on the one clear advantage that digital art has over physical media: unlimited reproducibility. Do you believe there’s such a thing as an original work of digital art?  What differentiates that original from a reproduction you can make by copying and pasting?

SJW: You cite one of the joys of digital media.  Indeed.  If NFTs are meant merely to simulate something else, that would be a shame.  It’s a massive space that is unfolding rapidly and being used in a variety of ways.

When I first started using Twitter, people seemed most interested in telling me what they had for lunch. Now, Twitter has enormous pull in the spheres of politics, fashion, philanthropy, the list goes on. I’ve seen NFTs being collected for a variety of inspirational reasons.  Bands are using NFTs as tickets to concerts, that allow people special access.  In the wine industry, Hello Fam! Wine is allowing NFT purchasers to hold onto the NFT as long as they wish or cash it in for a case of wine that has been professionally stored all the while.  I myself am donating a portion of the Ethereum I make on sales to places that accept Ethereum (which are many and growing). When I have a gallery show, I try to support a local arts community and a local nature preserve close to the gallery. Ethereum makes donation swift, transparent and easy.

But I’m getting away from your question. Is there an original digital artwork? Consider this. Some people like collecting rare objects. Also, social media is not slowing down at all. People like to show friends a rare Picasso or perhaps a rare Nike. Now people can show the world they own the “original” of a digital asset. Yes, that asset may be reproduced, but here again there are analogs.

TMC/JCT: I do hate to sound old-fashioned, but as a veteran Internet user, I just think the notion of owning an exclusive digital asset is odd. The Internet, as I understand it, runs on the notion that anything can be copied and pasted.  What’s the difference between my NFT and a copied image of that NFT?  Is there any?  

SJW: I don’t think it makes you sound old fashioned. I’m trying hard to walk a line here to explain that I don’t think everyone needs to hop on the NFT trolley while at the same time offer some exciting ways that the NFT space is opening doors. Perhaps just one or two more examples of analogy. I’m told some people pay thousands of dollars for a napkin that [fill in your favorite celebrity] used at a restaurant.  That’s just a white napkin. But there is “authenticity” and ownership. I understand people wanting to own that napkin. Now, in the NFT space, there is that same authenticity and ownership at the click of a button, and that is verified on the blockchain.

I’m also thinking of another example from years ago. I used to meet someone in Second Life. We were states away from each other and could not meet in person, but this was a space we could meet that offered more of a “world” than the phone. Gradually we started buying digital furniture and digital clothing to make our meeting place seem more like “us.”  My Aunt and Uncle thought we were bonkers buying things that did not really exist.  I pointed to his own couch and asked if it was a bargain. He said “well, I paid a pretty penny for it because your Aunt loved it.” I asked if it was really so different. And Second Life was “merely pleasure” whereas NFTs might increase in value.

Scot J. Wittman
Scot J. Wittman

TMC/JCT: The NFTs on your page are on sale for .21 ETH (Ethereum).  That’s about $800, right?  How did you decide on that price?

SJW: When I made the NFT works for my solo show I decided to sell them for what my smallest and most inexpensive prints in the show are being sold for: $500. I made 22 NFT works — one for each of the 22 works in the show. They are NOT reproductions of each work.  Rather, I chose one of the works in the show, the “Sparrow Couple,” and made 22 different iterations from scratch. I think it is easy for people to think I auto generated them, but each has a subtle difference.

Now the works are more valuable because ETH has gone up $300 more dollars since the show Opening.  But! – I am gifting for free an NFT to anyone who purchases one of the works on paper in the show.  And, each comes with its own unlockable gift within a gift: recently, I’ve been drawing 5”x 7” birds for an upcoming folio that a major NYC publisher is talking about printing.

TMC/JCT: Ethereum, like all Proof of Work blockchains, has a scary carbon footprint.  Was it always going to be Ethereum for you?  Did you consider other currencies and blockchains?  Do you have any qualms about encouraging collectors or artists to get involved with ETH?

SJW: When I first learned about this issue, I became concerned.  My work is about natural resources and natural land sites that are shrinking under the industrial cover. Of course the NFT Proof of Work issue is tiny compared to other online usage and toxic offline industries, but I still do think it’s an issue. I’m heartened that Ethereum 2.0 is fast approaching which boasts cutting down the issue by 99% and there are other players making similar maneuvers.

TMC/JCT: I’ve followed Ethereum for a long time, and they’ve been teasing a switch to Proof of Stake, or at least a greener system, for years now. Do you ever think this is a carrot on a stick situation? Before getting involved with NFTs, why not wait until the system has been made carbon neutral?

SJW: I am fortunate my “tech-milieu” is heavily involved in this industry.  I’m more of an “end user” than someone directly involved.  My cousin, who is a developer, points out minting and mining is a bit like an arms race, with computers trying to out-compute each other, and that it can’t last. One friend who just sold his company for over a billion dollars talks regularly with founders and CEOs of household name tech companies, and he says greener Proof of Stake and other processes will soon dominate. And things may flip when quantum computing becomes a reality.

TMC/JCT: I guess I just don’t trust any of these people. Tezos, for instance, is supposed to be a cleaner system, but it was founded by right-wing hypercapitalists. They don’t seem like the kind of people who tend to have artists’ — or the planet’s — best interests in mind. 

SJW: Interesting.  Are you aware of Polygon?  It’s a cryptocurrency associated with Ethereum that is making minting free across certain platforms.

TMC/JCT: There’s so much to follow, and new developments are coming so fast, that if you miss one, it can feel like you’re a decade behind.  Do you believe an artist has a responsibility to educate herself about NFTs before making one?  How much knowledge of cryptocurrency and blockchains do you think is necessary before she embarks on this journey?  I ask because there’s a lot of pressure on young artists to get involved in this, and I do wonder how much some of them know about what the heck they’re getting into.

SJW: This is a big question, because it’s about ethics writ large.  And its association with ethics within the art world.  You are asking me at a moment when I perhaps am most centered on this issue in my own career.  If we are in Web 3.0 now, I wonder if I’m in studio 3.0.  That is, when I was quite young, I was able to draw things convincingly. Later, at Cranbrook Academy, I learned the power of creating art objects that challenged people, asked questions, or perhaps even gave answers.  For the past few years I’ve been more interested in cultivating a community in Instagram (@OpusFlight) and realizing the importance of community-engaged ideology, ideation and action, with art that follows.  It has been influencing actions inside my studio, and indeed outside.  I am making more informed choices at the food market, in public spaces and interactions, and online.

The issue with NFT and energy consumption is not a black and white issue, in part because there are so many different players.  Also, the digital assets industry, when discussed with the larger creator economy (Rally.io as just one ecosystem example) universe, becomes very difficult to offer advice with any kind of authority.  I’ve been listening to pioneers like Anne Spalter in the NFT space.  She cites ways in which people have balanced with offset carbon purchasing, but also shares a vision of companies working towards greener outcomes. She’s been in the computer/arts sphere for decades and is quite knowledgeable.

There is an enormous amount of information out there, with conferences such as the recent NFT NYC and others, as well as the web in general.  Also, the artworld is exploding.  I teach teenagers.  They are a wild, wily and informed crowd.  They also are inheriting quite a world.  Just as steps are being taken by youth to work towards a better environment, I wonder too if the answer to your question about youth getting into the NFT space is best answered by young artists themselves. Not kids, mind you, but practicing artists who helped develop and shape the early contours of the NFT boom.

In addition to normal gallery hours for the analog set, “Scot J. Wittman: A Solo Exhibition” will be viewable via a Drawing Rooms Zoom walkthrough on Jan. 8.

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...