Jane Fonda, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Seth MacFarlane, Chris Rock and Ethereum cofounder Vitalik Buterin are the voices behind “Stoner Cats,” an adult animated series about five weed-smoking cats who become sentient and realize they must repeatedly save their 80-something-year-old owner, Ms. Stoner.
If this sounds like your kind of show, in order to watch, you’ll need to buy an NFT, which gives you access to the miniseries. An NFT is a non-fungible token, which is a unique unit of data that provides a secure record of ownership on a blockchain. NFTs are often associated with a digital asset — in this case, an illustration of different cats eating pizza, wearing sunglasses or holding a martini.
Buying a “Stoner Cats TOKEn” lets you watch the show (and collect a cat NFT) by connecting your crypto wallet to the “Stoner Cats” website. Being an NFT holder also allows you to join the show’s community and take part in the creative process.
“It absolutely has impacted the story. After people watch the first episode, we can see what they responded to. We can see what characters they love, and we can help make sure that the story that they’re getting served is the things that they like,” said Lisa Sterbakov, a partner of Orchard Farm Productions, Kunis’s production company behind “Stoner Cats.”
Glossary of NFT Lingo
- NFT: stands for non-fungible token. It’s a unique unit of data that provides a secure record of ownership on a blockchain for an item or collection of items. NFTs are often associated with a digital asset like an image or video that lives on a blockchain.
- Blockchain: a distributed database that stores information electronically in a digital format.
- Cryptoart: digital artwork that is minted with NFT technology, which contains unique tokens on a blockchain.
- Web3: the idea for a new iteration of the internet on blockchains, focused on decentralization and token-based economics.
- Cryptocurrency: a decentralized, digital payment system built on blockchains. Transactions are verified with encryption, rather than using banks.
- Smart contracts: digital contracts stored on a blockchain that are automatically executed when certain conditions are met, like when an NFT transfers ownership and the original artist receives royalties.
The show’s creators and producers have engaged with its community of NFT owners through Discord, Twitch and Zoom by hosting livestreams of the show, a Pictionary night with Ash Brannon, the show’s director and co-creator, a pitch night with Sterbakov and an animation contest. The NFT holders can also vote on story elements and character names in the show. Two community members even have their voices in the second episode.
“They have a real direct line to us. There’s very little veil between creator and audience on this project,” Sterbakov said.
Since the release of the first two episodes, Sterbakov said the phone hasn’t stopped ringing at Orchard Farm Productions. Everyone wants in on the new world of NFT entertainment.
“The question over and over and over again that we have to say is why does it have to be an NFT? Why does it have to be on the blockchain? Is it better served through traditional roots, or is it better served with this direct community involvement in this fast, fun, crazy world?” Sterbakov said. “We’re saying no to things that are hard to say no to.”
In response to this interest, Kunis and Sterbakov have teamed up with technologist Lindsey McInerney who is the co-founder and CEO of a new venture with them focused on how the world of entertainment intersects with Web3, which is the idea of a decentralized online ecosystem based on blockchains, rather than governments or corporations controlling the internet.
“Everybody’s going to have to really think about how to put the collector at the heart of the experience.”
“We’re taking a step back and mapping out the end-to-end creation of film and television, from ideation stage to red carpet. What are all of the different ways that these technologies can intersect?” she said.
Web3 has the ability to bring new creators into the world of arts and entertainment, McInerney told Built In earlier this year, which she predicts will lead to drastic changes in how films and TV shows look in the next 10 years. “At the heart of great art is a reflection not only of the environment that it’s produced, but the people it’s being produced around,” she said.
Creators and collectors are moving closer together, McInerney said. “Everybody’s going to have to really think about how to put the collector at the heart of the experience.”
The Potential of NFT Art
Artist Kevin McCoy is widely known as the first person to mint an NFT, Quantum, as a part of the new media art platform Rhizome’s Seven on Seven program in 2014, which paired artists with technologists to create a new project. McCoy and his collaborator Anil Dash came up with the idea of putting digital art on the blockchain, which they called monegraphs at the time. In June 2021, Quantum sold as an NFT for $1.4 million.
“The first time I heard of NFTs was not using the word NFT,” said Jon Ippolito, professor of new media and director of the digital curation program at the University of Maine. “The earliest NFTs … come from this kind of collector mentality. They’re basically like Pokémon cards.”
Some of the most well-known NFT collections today launched in 2017 like CryptoPunks, algorithmically generated pixel art images whose proof of ownership is stored on the Ethereum blockchain, and CryptoKitties, one of the first games on a blockchain, where collectors buy digital cat NFTs that they can breed and sell, in addition to playing games in the “KittyVerse.”
“NFTs lend themselves to a particular kind of art, which is resulting in a static image, typically that is the size of your web browser or smaller, and it’s a single digital file,” Ippolito said. “When you buy an NFT, you’re actually not buying the JPEG of the unicorn and the rainbow, you’re only buying a token that points to that JPEG on the blockchain.”
Even if much of the NFT art world revolves around static images, Ippolito points out that digital art can be so much more advanced — whether it is cryptoart or not. For example, generative art — art made algorithmically with a computer program — is one way that NFTs can push digital artists to be more experimental in their work, he said.
“Digital art can be something that takes up an entire room. It can be something that is moving and interactive. It can be something that is living on a website or is a website,” said Ippolito, who curated the first art exhibition of virtual reality at the Guggenheim Museum. “Generative art can be extremely creative, and it can make extraordinary works there’s no way you could possibly make by hand. It would be too labor intensive, and computers are really good at spitting out these things quickly.”
“In the last two years, I now know over 100 people that make a living on digital art. Not all of them are super wealthy or super rich like you see in the news, but they’re making enough that this can be the primary thing that they do now.”
Jason Bailey, founder of the art and tech blog Artnome.com, predicted the explosion of the NFT art world in 2017. Bailey studied traditional art history and practiced as a painter, sculptor and printmaker, but he struggled to find work as an artist after art school. He ended up entering the tech world and working for startups for 20 years. The combination of his interests in both art and tech led to a natural curiosity about the potential of NFT art.
“I knew intimately the art world problems around provenance and how people do forgery of a painting, and it’s hard to tell who owned the painting previously,” Bailey said. “A lot of my friends were digital artists, but there was no market for digital art because people didn’t see it as something you could own.”
Business was inconsistent for many of the artists Bailey knew, potentially with months between sales. Now, he says NFT marketplaces have opened up opportunities for artists to consistently earn income, especially if royalty agreements are included into their NFT smart contracts.
“I spent half my life at art school surrounded by artists and musicians. I knew one person who made a living making art … everybody else had side jobs,” Bailey said. “In the last two years, I now know over 100 people that make a living on digital art. Not all of them are super wealthy or super rich like you see in the news, but they’re making enough that this can be the primary thing that they do now.”
Making a Living Creating NFT Art
In March 2021, NFTs caught the attention of the mainstream when Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist known as Beeple, sold an NFT, a digital collage JPG File, at the auction house Christie’s for $69 million.
Such expensive sales contribute to the statistic that the top 1 percent of artists account for 48 percent of the total market share of NFT art sales (which was about $39 million dollars at the time), according to an analysis of 1,378 artists in early 2021 by designer and technologist Justin Cone. “That’s outrageous. That’s almost as bad as the regular art world,” Ippolito said.
Much of the promise of NFTs lies in the democratization of ownership and sales in the art world, where anyone can make significant money selling their art on NFT marketplaces. So far, NFT sales do seem to be concentrated in a small number of artists’ pockets (even less so for women or artists of color).
However, some artists have found economic freedom and greater exposure thanks to NFTs. Canadian trans artist Klara Vollstaedt, 25, first heard about NFTs in September 2020, right around the time she started experimenting with 3D art. She sold her first single edition NFT piece in February 2021.
“At the time, I think I sold it for like $1,200 to $1,400, which was pretty mind blowing,” Vollstaedt said. “All my paintings before then, maybe $300 was my biggest sale for my paintings.”
As an art student in Alberta, Canada, Vollstaedt was primarily living off of student loans and credit cards. Opportunities to sell her art at shows were scarce. When Vollstaedt started looking into gender-affirming surgery, she was told one procedure would cost $50,000 to $60,000, which was just the beginning. She considered doing a fundraiser to help pay for the procedures but realized she could sell NFTs to raise the money instead.
“I can leverage this technology to give people something for their efforts,” she said.
So, Vollstaedt spent three to four months creating 3D robots she called KBots. She ended up creating 4,000 pieces that sold out in seven minutes and raised about $400,000. Vollstaedt was able to pay for her own surgery and those of three to four other trans individuals, along with purchase lots of art from the queer and black artist communities. Being able to solely work as an artist by creating NFTs has shaped the art she creates, which often revolves around the relationship between identity and the digital world.
“It’s taken a lot of pressure off of me,” Vollstaedt said. “A lot of my old art is very hopeless. It’s very down, and I found, even subconsciously, my new art … I look less torn, which is, I think is a big benefit of just being able to pay for shit with your art.”
Creating Art for the NFT World
Carlos Gonzalez, 41, a contemporary artist from Mexico City who goes by Moxarra, has completely shifted his artistic style for the NFT community. He studied classical arts and was a painter, designer and infographic illustrator for a newspaper before discovering cryptoart in 2015.
“It’s worlds apart. Mainly, the ones that I am making daily, they’re kind of simple and only crypto-related themes, and the painting stuff was more classical,” Gonzalez said. “It is really big for me because I wasn’t selling a lot of physical paintings. Right now, I throw a thing on the internet, and it keeps selling.”
Gonzalez said he sells around 20 NFTs per month, which earns him around $5,000 monthly. Artists can earn royalties when their NFTs are sold to new collectors if they are coded into the smart contract on a blockchain.
Lukas Robausch, 27, a multimedia artist in Austria who goes by SirGeilington, has found NFT marketplaces to both be a place to sell his existing art and inspire new types of art. His first collection of musical compositions and graphics called The Odyssey ended up trending on the music page of Open Sea — the most exciting part of which was being featured next to big names in the industry like Calvin Harris, he said.
“I have so much really good stuff I’m really proud of, and then I found OpenSea and how easy it is to create an NFT,” Robausch said. “As an artist, you can finally show off your stuff to the world, and people can actually, if they want, pay money for it.”
Robausch is passionate about sound design and is experienced with graphic design as well. He works in the fashion industry full-time and creates his NFTs on the side.
He teamed up with another artist, Kristina Reischl, who goes by issyray, to create art specifically for the NFT marketplace called CRYPTOSQUIDS. He creates the soundtracks, and she works on the animations and 3D.
“I’m just a small artist who loves his work and wants maybe just some recognition that some people want to actually spend money and say it’s cool, maybe buy it,” Robausch said. “This pushed my confidence already. I think it was already worth it.”
What’s the Future of NFT Art?
As for how cryptoart will fit into the greater world of art history, Ippolito said he predicts there will be different levels of interest in NFT art in the future. He expects museums might be interested in NFT artworks for their historical significance in relation to the emergence of cryptocurrencies, while others might be interested in cryptoart as a form of folk art.
“The curators at museums … they’re looking for long-term cultural value, and so far, NFTs don’t have that. They haven’t a proven track record in that. However, I think that a few examples will almost certainly make it into museums in some form or another and into history books,” Ippolito said.
Concerns about the toll NFTs take on the environment will also likely affect the future of cryptoart. Computers that create the cryptocurrencies used to buy NFTs require a lot of energy to run and release harmful carbon dioxide emissions. This has prompted discussions around how to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the sales of NFTs in order to sustainably produce them in the future.
“We’ve seen our media sort of dematerialize, and this spike of digital ownership going up and up and up. I’m betting that that’s going to continue. If we look at younger people, kids would rather have a Fortnight figure or an Animal Crossing figure in a video game than another hunk of plastic,” said Bailey, who also founded the GreenNFTs initiative to help explore and promote eco-friendly NFT practices. “NFTs, blockchain, they’re just currently the most exciting and best way to handle this inevitable shift towards digital ownership.”
While Bailey expects this trend toward digital ownership will continue to grow, he said he expects the NFT market to crash, coming off a year of astronomical growth in 2021.
“It’s just the nature of the crypto volatility that things go up and down,” Bailey said. “When all the speculators go away and the market crashes — and I don’t think it’ll crash forever — what will be left are a bunch of people who are here for the right reasons that care about art, tech and community and growing and building things.”
“I don’t think it’s going anywhere in the long term. I still think artists are going to capitalize on the technology, and it’s going to get implemented in different fields.”
Ups and downs have happened before, Bailey said. After the initial explosion in 2017, the NFT market tanked around late 2018, early 2019, only to surge again in 2021.
“The big art nerds like me, and all my friends like the builders and the tech people and the art nerds, we just kept on collecting and bringing artists in and trying to improve the tools and build a community and hold events,” Bailey said. “We’ll be building and growing, and in another four years when crypto goes up, I’m sure there’ll be another spike.”
The current NFT bubble will burst, Vollstaedt said, but artists will keep creating NFTs regardless.
“It will run its course on this insane hype bubble where everything’s going crazy, and it’s the new insane thing, like the internet boom,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere in the long term. I still think artists are going to capitalize on the technology, and it’s going to get implemented in different fields.”