More Than A Thumbnail Gallery? The Challenges Of Exhibiting NFTs In Physical Space


In our last WAC Weekly, the group discussed how NFTs complicate the typical practice of exhibition design and production, and how this blurs into the emerging market for physical NFT displays for the homes of collectors.

With Samsung launching NFT displays as wallpapers on their TVs, what more is there to showing blockchain artwork in a gallery environment? How does the display technology affect the work itself, and what say do digital artists have in how their own work is displayed?

Framing devices

The discussion began on the emerging NFT display market and what that means for private collectors. A few high-profile companies like Lago, Danvas, and Infinite Objects are making physical “frames” for minted artwork. These frames are positioned for the homes of private owners whether they be serious art collectors, or people who hold a few NFTs in their crypto wallets and want a nice conversation piece for the living room.

But they might also hang on the walls of galleries, whether those be dedicated NFT galleries, public museums, or digital art fairs like CADAF. As with so much in the crypto space — like the cavalier use of the word “curation” — the frames are suddenly subject to new considerations when they make contact with the traditional art world. One question raised in the discussion was: what say do the artists have in how their work is displayed?

As we see in a recent Decrypt article on these frames, there’s a lot of discussion around the technology in these frames. How they’re controlled with an app, how the screen works, etc. But as curator Christiane Paul mentioned, this focus on the tech specs is something digital art curators would never do. In that context, the discussion is always “what does the individual work need? How does the work want to be displayed?”

In the same way that curation protocols like JPG might “flatten” the works involved, making every individual piece fit the same spreadsheet, you could argue that these NFT frames force the pieces into the same shape. What input does the artist have on that?

Traditionally, digital artists are deeply involved with the display of their own work. The question for the curator is “how does this modify the space it’s in?”, and the artist is there to “protect” their work and make sure it’s displayed in a way that honors the intentions of the piece.

But NFTs have come about in the era of online art platforms like Sedition, where the collector buys a digital artwork that’s stored in their “vault”. The question of how this work is displayed never comes up.

Infinite Objects is unique among the NFT frames in that each artwork is “bound” to one physical frame. Even though the frames are all alike, the dedicated physical object gives each piece a specific and permanent context.

As the company’s CEO Joseph Saavedra says, “there’s no reason not to install an Apple TV app that lets you authenticate with Metamask … but then you’re gonna put ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or ‘Real Housewives’ on that same display.”

Exhibiting NFTs: more than a thumbnail gallery?

And this attention to context is one that digital artists still pay. CADAF founder Elena Zavelev recalls how at their first art fair, the team were trying to present fifty looping video pieces. Faced with limited wall space, they “stacked” the videos together on the same wall next to each other.

When the artists arrived at the fair, they protested. Some just refused to share a wall, some might have argued that their piece was changed by its presentation as part of a larger structure. The organizers changed the exhibition to one big video per wall.

When you arrive at an NFT gallery, you see the works presented on screen after screen. How does that change the individual pieces? If the work is not actually amended by the gallerist to be more palatable, what happens to the work when it’s presented in this uniform structure, “stacked” as it might be among the thumbnails on an NFT marketplace?

The NFT is just a certificate. There’s nothing in the technology that mandates it be shown a certain way. It would be possible for a publicly viewable, right-click-saveable NFT to serve as the “thumbnail” image for a very complex piece that has to be displayed a certain way.

Beeple has experimented with physical displays — his Human ONE astronaut appearing to be contained in a rotating glass box — and is setting up a studio to develop further ideas for exhibiting his own work. One such attempt is his recent showing at the Jack Hanley gallery, “Uncertain Future”, where he showed thirteen paintings at a high-profile opening, all of which had been sold before the night.

The works were sold as both NFTs of the digital works alongside the physical paintings, but it’s notable that if Beeple left a mark on the canvas it was only his signature. “I can tell you I’m not a painter,” he said, interviewed by Artnet on the night. That the paintings were done by his rapidly growing staff further complicates the question of what, exactly, is being bought when one purchases an NFT.

How smart contracts could add context

NFTs enable creators to put whatever they’d like in the metadata. What’s stopping artists from using the metadata to specify how the piece should be displayed?

The recording of that information is common in a museum context. Artists having their work collected for the long-term will be asked to fill out questionnaires about what materials are used, how the work should be displayed, preserved, and much more.

Not only could NFT platforms give artists the option of filling in this information, they could actually enforce it with smart contracts.

While elaborate smart contracts aren’t practical right now due to high gas fees, either platforms or a third party could create templates for artists to protect their work as it moves from one buyer to another. It would be useful to set the expectation now so that as many artists know about this option as soon as it’s available to them.

The simplest version of this would be a “kill switch” which allows the artist to disable the piece if it’s not displayed according to their instructions. Since the NFT is just a certificate pointing to a file, it would be trivially easy for the artist to delete or withdraw the source file if the instructions in the metadata weren’t obeyed.

This brings to mind Banksy’s recent edition of Girl with Balloon, instantly shredded at auction the moment after it was purchased for over $1.4 million. It might also bring to mind the John Deere tractors which are remotely switched off by the company if farmers make unauthorized repairs. If the artist can take the piece away at a moment’s notice, do you really own it? And if the artist doesn’t get a say in how the piece is displayed, do they?

If the piece comes in a smart contract about how it’s to be displayed, who enforces that? Is it the job of the marketplaces to educate collectors and “consumers”? The Apple Store offers classes on how to get the most out of their products, ranging from simple setup instructions to classes on photography and illustration. Is there a way that marketplaces could “cultivate” their audiences at scale?

NFTs, as Fanny Laboukay said, came with lots of promises about solving the problems with art sales and collecting. But whatever they’ve achieved, they’ve clearly opened up new questions as they mature.

What do you really ‘own’ when you have an NFT? Questions of copyright and IP in Web3.”

Join the next WAC Weekly on March 16th at 6pm CET!

WAC Weekly is part of WAC Lab, a new program unleashing the full potential of Web3 for the arts and culture produced by We Are Museums in collaboration with TZ Connect and Blockchain Art Directory, and powered by the Tezos ecosystem.



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