Conducting experiments and building capacity at the intersection of culture and technology.

In conversation: blockchain, NFTs and the arts

Q&A: Blockchain, NFTs and the Arts

A chat with technology and security consultant Nathan Cameron

At the time of this conversation, non-fungible tokens, aka NFTs, had recently entered the mainstream with the now-famous sale of Everydays, a unique digital art piece by the designer Beeple, for $US69 million.

As has often been the case when it comes to cryptocurrency-based ideas, the media hype was strong, the technical discussion, not so much.

Hoping to help address this imbalance, we asked Only Connect’s in-house technology and security consultant Nathan Cameron to provide us with more of the latter. We connected in March of 2021 via the federated Element chat app.

In a nutshell, why do you think creators should care about blockchains and NFTs and all of this crazy stuff?

Artists should care about these things because they present new opportunities for them to create work and to sell their work. It can also empower creators by addressing long-standing issues such as copyright and royalties.

Recently NFTs made a big splash in the news with the Beeple sale achieving meme-like status in the mainstream news. What other areas of crypto should creators have on their radar?

NFTs are all the rage, but we should back up a little as you only addressed one application regarding them so far, which is 2D art. The next generation of NFTs will be more interactive and will utilize virtual reality and other functions such as ticketing, subscription plans, and so on. Really anything can be made into an NFT – it is very feasible that NFTs will affect the way we watch movies in the future, for example.

Beyond NFTs, content sharing platforms that allow for microtransactions and monetization are something artists should watch out for. A good example would be LBRY/Odysee and Theta, which are emerging YouTube competitors that try to give creators a fairer deal.

People should also keep an eye on the evolution of smart contracts as they relate to artistic projects and the payment of royalties.

One final area to watch is DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations), which could revolutionize the current non-profit model.

How long have you been watching the crypto space for so far? What have you seen change and where do you think we are at in the evolution of it all?

I have known about the crypto space since the Fall of 2015 but didn’t fully get on board and participate in crypto till December 2017/January 2018. So for me it was a trial by fire as like many others I got in the market at the top and learned hard lessons. Over the span of these years I have seen crypto evolve from something that was often mocked and ridiculed to something to be taken seriously by institutions. We have seen that a decentralised world is possible.

When I was starting out the big trend was ICOs – initial coin offerings – in which companies in the crypto space, some of them shady, raised financing by issuing digital tokens modeled on traditional stocks. Later it was DeFi, or decentralized finance, in which investors use blockchains to bypass the need for traditional banks and stock exchanges. Now we have the NFT craze, in which the concept of a unique work of art is finding its digital expression.

With the rapid development of these technologies, the way we interact will surely be disrupted in the future if it hasn’t been already. As to where we are going, the major trend is decentralization and always has been. That has been the one constant regarding crypto over the years.

Can you briefly explain why decentralization is so important? And just to make sure I understand, you’re saying that crypto has become more decentralized over time?

The original Bitcoin whitepaper written by Satoshi Nakamoto outlined the dream of a new decentralized financial system separate from the centralized banking system. What has changed since then is that people have taken Satoshi’s initial concept and gone in many different directions. Today, while Bitcoin is still the big white elephant in the room, there are thousands of cryptocurrency projects all doing something unique. So yes, that is the essence of it: we went from one project to thousands and that is the definition of decentralization.

Without getting political, decentralization is very important because you are not at the mercy of a centralized platform. We are all aware of the enormous power of big tech and the ways in which these big tech platforms have abused their power, invading privacy, impacting elections, censoring and defunding creators, and so on. Decentralization can help us to offset that power and shift the balance back towards the creators where it belongs.

What are the biggest challenges and issues in the space at this time? If you were giving someone starting out a heads up about pitfalls and downsides, what would you say?

The biggest challenges currently are two-fold. The first is scalability and the second is the need for due diligence.

Regarding scalability, many projects such as Bitcoin and Ethereum have had a hard time scaling. Currently Ethereum is experiencing issues with GAS, which is the plumbing, if you will, that powers the Ethereum network. This in turn causes high fees and inhibits transactions. While there are solutions being worked on, the long story short is that the crypto space hasn’t found the “holy grail” project that scales smoothly.

As for due diligence, a project might be hyped up as the greatest thing since sliced bread, but that doesn’t always mean it is good long term. For creators, my advice is to not get wrapped up in the hype and examine everything with a careful eye. If you’re a beginner, I would stick to only well-established projects to get your feet wet.

Time to have some fun. Fast forward a few years. Describe to me what the crypto space for creators could look like if all goes well.

I’m no Nostradamus and this is educated speculation on my part, but I see the future with regards to crypto as very bright for creators.

With rapid advances in NFT technology, I fully expect NFTs to be a major challenger to the traditional media space like Hollywood and mainstream media. There are all kinds of specific applications. For example, I foresee NFT technology being used as a catalogue to declare ownership of the rights of books and/or music. A more out-of-the-box idea is a new approach to ticketing systems. Instead of relying on traditional ticketing, festivals, concerts, etc. will have a QR code scanner that uses NFTs as back end to verify ownership of a purchase.

In a crypto-adjacent space, AI art and VR/AR are quietly making rapid advances in the technology and are coming down in price. So in the future I feel 3D interactive movies and video games can finally be fully realized and will create new opportunities for artists of all stripes to create unique pieces. Imagine interacting with fractal art or watching/being in a TV show from a first-person perspective and interacting with pre-recorded scenes depending on decisions made. By utilizing the blockchain, you will see a very different, very exciting, media landscape.

What advice would you give to an artist who’s new to crypto and wants to start learning/exploring?

Do some reading and get a basic understanding of how cryptocurrency works and how it can be incorporated into existing projects. As a creator you don’t need to jump into the deep end and try to know everything at once – the crypto space is vast and is full of rabbit holes. I would focus on one or two areas and try and understand and master how they work.

Even if it means just making a wallet and giving people an option to pay for traditional art pieces in crypto, you are already ahead of most. If you’re a Youtuber consider experimenting with LBRY.

NFTs are specifically designed for creators. Learn about how they work and think of ways you can bridge your traditional works into this new space. For instance, if you’re a sculptor, you might take a photograph of a piece you made physically and upload it as an NFT. The buyer could receive the actual physical object in addition to the NFT. People have done something similar already with paintings.

Any final thoughts?

My biggest piece of advice is to take action. Such a simple step is often overlooked. Creators can get analysis paralysis and that will prevent them from taking their first steps in this space. Be cautious, don’t convert your life savings into crypto, but with that said aim be creative and have fun. It’s still early days and there’s this huge new medium to explore. For an artistic type of person, what could be better?

Nathan Cameron is Technology and Security Consultant at Only Connect. His opinions are his own.