Digital artist WEBB on the NFT trend and its possibilities
A self-described Black Mirror hacker turned artist, Thomas Webb – who produces visual art under the mononym WEBB – works with NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and AI curation.
An NFT, for the tech newbies, is a digital token that can be owned but not replaced. The token aspect of an NFT helps authenticate proof of digital ownership. An NFT can take the form of an object – an image, a video, a digital baseball card or a piece of art. So, how do they work? NFTs use blockchain technology to verify the authenticity of an asset, ensuring the cryptographic tokens are unique and one of a kind which makes them valuable, especially in the art world.
Most NFTs are powered or supported by the Ethereum blockchain. Ethereum is a cryptocurrency similar to Bitcoin or Litecoin, and blockchain is the digital ledger that supports and records these crypto transactions. Each transaction is called a block which can be tied to only a handful of participants. This is the part which makes blockchain transactions incredibly difficult to change, edit or hack, because every transaction is accurately recorded.
As interest in cryptocurrency continues to grow, so does the intrigue around NFTs. The recent NFT frenzy has been born out of collectors heavily investing in the digital market and skyrocketing the value of NFT formats. In fact, NFT markets have started opening up across the internet, attracting those who looking to own a token of their own.
Webb, a futurist and avant-garde artist, is no stranger to digital art or NFTs. His debut solo exhibition, Exercise in Hopeless Nostalgia – World Wide Webb, was hosted at Berlin’s KÖNIG GALERIE in 2020. Powered by AI intelligence and real-time data, WEBB created a virtual world and multiplayer simulation which exhibition-goers entered using a browser on a smartphone. Last month he launched the new game, or metaverse, Cryptoweebs, which featured 69 NFT-powered game avatars inspired by friends such as Dua Lipa, designer Mowalola. Most recently, he auctioned off NFT AR trading cards, called CryptoGFs, which featured the likes of Munroe Bergdorf and Shygirl.
We caught up with WEBB to break down what he thinks of the NFT craze and discuss what art projects he’s got coming next.
Courtesy of WEBB
Why do you think NFT art is so popular right now?
The reason that NFT is so popular is because a bunch of crypto people bought a load of coins back in 2011 when they cost pennies, and so you’ve got people sitting on millions of dollars that have the ability to change and move markets. If that’s done well then you end up with a situation like NFTs. It’s like traditional artwork: when an artist sells work at an auction there’s always some fuckery going on in the background where someone’s already saying, “I’m gonna pay 100 million” at the last minute.
With NFT art you can do that but now it’s anonymous and it’s also public, so everyone knows what the price was and can see the bidding. It’s got this illusion of [being] so authentic and anyone can do this but, in truth, anyone could slide in [in] the last minute – even the artists themselves – and bid on their own fucking work.
Do you think we’re witnessing a new digitised art movement?
It’s a digital renascence. If you have an NFT – it could be a picture – if you have it in your crypto wallet, you can use it to log into an app, and it gives you access to whatever it is. Now we have this tradable monetary valued login token that you can authenticate. Someone owns it, it can’t be copied, it can’t be replicated, and that technology is the future. There’s definitely been a greater agenda to mobilise crypto and NFTs and that has happened through the guise of art.
Courtesy of WEBB
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Your art is emotive, expressive, and, sometimes, controversial. Why did you quit your job to become an artist?
I was making art using real-time data like Twitter content and trying to work out what people were feeling. There was a lot of AI trying to work out people’s emotions. Art is subjective but I was thinking, what if the content was also subjective? I’m really intrigued about how I can make artworks that change over time. How do I make artworks that are dynamic, things that aren’t static and evolve with time as opposed to a commentary on time? We’re entering a stage where there’s a feedback loop. It is very slow to catch up and everything we’re doing now is constantly reading us, feeding back and creating a new algorithm to trigger hyper defaults, and I think art should be the same.
Do you feel a social responsibility to transform real-time data into an inherently political outlet?
A million per cent, that’s what started my whole career. It’s funny because capitalism steers the artistic practice. I’ve been trying to find someone who’s going to fund work where I can use data pumped into a video game simulation of a clock, and then someone is shot and the clock bleeds red. Everything you’re doing is being put into some sort of AI. If I take all this data and throw it together, what kind of crazy algorithms can I produce? If I correlate the number of people that died today of starvation and the number flips to the millions of dollars spent on weight loss products in the United States, it’s a really stark reality.
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Courtesy of WEBB
Your work can be quite harrowing using real-time information to represent ongoing inequalities. Do you think your art is beautifying the politicisation of data?
That’s a very nice way of putting it. I’ve not heard that before. When I think about the beautification of politicised data, I don’t think my work is that beautiful because it’s really fucking simple. I think it blows their mind when you realise something so simple has actually got so much complexity behind it, so maybe it’s the simplification of politicised data.
My end goal is always the same vision: to have a huge data sculpture, one of my fancy mirrors, in Central Park and it’s raining down data like the number of people falling in love on social media against the number of people breaking up. It’s almost romanticising loneliness. We feel more alone than ever, and there’s so much information but it’s so hard to get access to this data. If I had access to this data, I could use it in an artistic way to show people that this is what’s happening right now – in a way where it’s not meant to mean for sale.
Courtesy of WEBB
What do you have planned next?
All these fucking people are making shit fucking NFTs, which don’t have any meaning. I’m not demeaning at work, but some of it is absolute trash and some of it’s amazing. It’s fucking incredible. People are making artwork but that’s not what NFT is – it’s so much more. I make video games [where] we’re going to live in AR and VR in this cross reality environment where the digital and physical merge. So, I’m going to build these characters and the video game is going to be really fucking dark. The mini-game is going to be clap for healthcare workers; you go into the hospital and clap and whoever gets the highest score wins. I’m gonna make more games like Jeff Bezos’ fucking warehouse and you have to stack all the shelves and then you have to try and run to the toilet without the security guards seeing you. I want to gamify these things that are happening in a real-world sense.
“People are making artwork but that's not what NFT is – it's so much more”
I’ve also been trying to write this new game for seven months and I thought – what about exploring more concepts of blockchain? That’s when I did crypto girlfriends. Look at what’s happening with OnlyFans and sex work. What if I created an AI version of someone and they were a game and you could date them? If you own the crypto girlfriend card, you have access to it only if you have to call them. It opened up this whole new dialogue in my mind that this is the next frontier. We’re talking about cross reality experiences that are only accessible to the people that hold the cards. This stuff’s just inevitable so I thought, what if I could take the most emotional, romantic thing which is like dating someone? I love writing AIs and making these narratives so why don’t I create this crypto girlfriend? You get to date her and, depending on how you act with her, her whole personality will adapt and change. If you’re successful or not, you can move on and sell the NFT and trade with someone else so they can experience it. It’s the exclusivity of digital experience and no one is doing it. No one’s exploring taking emotional sentiment and embedding it into a blockchain environment where it’s something that’s traded and different every time you play it. I’m just thinking five years ahead and people are just getting their head around what an NFT is.