American artist Kenny Schachter (1961-), currently based in New York, has been creating artworks, organizing exhibitions in museums and galleries, and teaching at universities for more than 30 years. Art lawyer Yayoi Shionoiri spoke with Kenny about the NFT boom and its impact on the art world. 【Tokyo Art Beat】
──Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. Diving right in, you have referred to your artistic practice with NFTs as “NFTism.” NFTism seems to be a stand-in for a lot of things. Of course, it refers to the token's name connected with your PFP project, CryptoMutts (＊), but it also seems to represent a generosity of spirit and a form of contemporary digital conceptual art that is schismatically different from other forms. What do you intend to mean by the term NFTism?
It’s all of the above and more. For me, NFTism is simply the people involved in the community and the creative work that comes from the connections among them.
But let’s take a step back. Soon after I started in the art world, back in the 1990s, there was a deep recession in the United States, and it was a dreadful time to try to make a living. However, during this very period, some of the most cherished, treasured moments of my art career took place. I was doing these short-term exhibitions in various locations before the term “pop up” even existed, showing artists like Vito Acconci, Cecily Brown, Wade Guyton, and Andrea Zittel. It was just art for art’s sake. There wasn’t a market for these works, nor did we ever dream there would be.
So, I was filling a void in New York by curating a full slate of exhibitions on my initiative, and at a time when there was really no other opportunity for an artist to get a foothold in the art world.
──How does the digital come to figure in this community?
There was a period in the contemporary art world when artists would have to send physical slides to art professionals. Then, there was the advent of social media, which obviated the need for that kind of physical back-and-forth. With social media, artists could blur geographical boundaries to communicate a visual image, and suddenly they had the capacity to access a new audience – whether they were based in Asia or Africa, or anywhere else in the world. Many artists got discovered that way, but they still had to rely on an antiquated, conservative system to have their art sold.
NFTs changed that part of the equation because they have allowed artists to communicate directly and sustain engagement with an audience. And again, it’s not about the money – the average NFT sells for $15 or $25. While the technology may continue to evolve, I think this form of direct communication between artist and audience is not going away.
Back to your original question, NFTism represents all creators who are together in this digital community, whether they are mathematicians, programmers, or movie makers. It’s an ethos that fosters exchanges between people, with people helping each other in ways that I haven't seen since the early 90s.
──Do you think the crypto art community will ever find itself in alignment with the traditional art world?
Of course. It’s already happening! I mean, there are established artists like Bjarne Melgaard, Tom Sachs, and Roe Ethridge – they’ve all begun to explore NFTs. They are the exception for now, but they’re also an example of an organic, incremental cross-pollination between worlds.
──Are you seeing resistance to NFTs in the traditional art world?
Yes. I think there’s been so much resistance because some parts of the art world have a zero-sum mentality. And other parts of the art world have jumped right in to capitalize, especially auction houses, which have become the primary dealers for NFTs, as galleries have remained hesitant.
──Are auction houses becoming a new form of gatekeeper in the crypto art and NFT art communities? Is there a difference between the NFT platforms that curate the NFTs on their platform – or is it the same as Christie’s selling NFTs?
I mean, look – they’re different. They have different business models. They have different constituencies. But to get accepted into an auction, you need to have a market. To get accepted into an NFT platform like Nifty Gateway, you also need to have a market.
But for NFT art, I also believe it’s a matter of self-creation. The efforts of the individual artist are important. It’s a change from the previous iterations of the art market because there are more opportunities to create yourself out of whole cloth today than there were before. Creators have decentralized avenues to access and build their own audience through social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter.
Because of this, all traditional art world stakeholders – galleries, auction houses, art advisors – need to be open-minded, flexible, and adaptable.
──Many in the traditional art world do not see NFTs as art historically relevant. Are there NFT projects that you think are art historically relevant?
I know brilliant artists that are making incredible NFT works under $50, like Sarah Friend, a great artist from Berlin. She studied painting and then taught herself coding. She works on community-based projects focusing on universal income and wage equality. She’s also very environmentally conscious, minting her NFTs on more energy-efficient blockchains.
Kevin Abosch is someone who’s been on crypto for a long time already – he’s really smart, and I like him and his practice. Finally, Rhea Meyers investigates NFTs as a medium, including thinking about how smart the “smart contracts” actually are. For someone like Meyers, the NFT is the art.
The problem is that a lot of the hype surrounding the recent NFT boom and bust has been about the influx of large amounts of capital buying digital images of penguins and cats, and that feels like a dumbing down of the art world. I always say that I went into art to run away from business, and then the art world became bigger than the business I ran away from.
──So, how are we supposed to work through this noise to find impactful art?
It’s like anything. You have to put in the work. Everyone can do it the same way I did – look, learn, and do the work. And for me, if I can help open doors for others by sharing my wins and failures to inspire and support people, that would be a cool legacy for me.
──You have become an influential voice supporting NFT artists. Is it important for you to have physical representations of your NFTs?
100%. Because I think art is visceral, and even digital art has a physicality to it. Nothing will substitute for the experience of seeing art – and in seeing digital art, looking at a giant video monitor is much better than experiencing it through a small phone screen.
In this new medium, being able to share NFTs with traditional art world audiences is exciting – whether it’s through my physical shows at Galerie Nagel Draxler, such as “Metadada,” or through one of Japan’s first auction-house-led NFT auctions, “NFT in the History of Contemporary Art: A Curated Sale by Hiroki Yamamoto” by SBI Art Auction, where I sold my video, “Money Money Money.” None of these audiences is mutually exclusive for me.
──Let’s talk about your CryptoMutts PFP project. There are 10,000 randomly generated images of humans and humanoids, each with different traits, and if you “adopt” a CryptoMutt, the owner gains access to an “Art Club” that you run, including direct communication with you through a very robust Discord channel.
I had no expectation I would sell even five of the CryptoMutts, but about 9,000 of them sold in the first 90 minutes of listing. That could have been a fluke, or it could have been because I was involved early. There’s been a lot of trading – over 800 ETH worth since September 2021. Each CryptoMutt is not expensive, but I do receive a small royalty from secondary market trading.
But as David Bowie said in the late 90s, the internet has changed the relationship between the artist and audience – almost conflated them. When I’m in the Discord channel, I sometimes get beaten up by CryptoMutt owners who paid $80 for them and think they own my soul! I receive negative feedback from the traditional art world, too, so I guess it’s not that different – it’s part of being in the public eye.
──How do you stay on course and keep pushing ahead when you receive negative feedback?
I’m not going to lie – it gets very hurtful because I do listen to criticism.
In terms of what’s next for the CryptoMutts, I don’t necessarily know. In fact, I don’t even know what I’m going to be doing six months from now. What I do know is that I’ve created this CryptoMutts project – it’s like a child and it’s become part of my life. So whatever I do, it will come along for the ride with me.
Having created CryptoMutts, I’m continuing to try and create more utility for the community. I’ve done free airdrops of other NFTs, created the NFTism token, and given away over 300 tee-shirts – mailing them to CryptoMutt community members all over the world. It has been truly beautiful to realize that there is a community that has come together from all over the world – connected by these digital NFTs.
NFT technology has enabled an easier and more concrete way of allowing an audience to directly support artists who have a conceptual practice. To that end, CryptoMutt holders own a stake in my career. They hold a share in my future as an artist.
＊──“CryptoMutts” is a collection of 10,000 randomly generated NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain. By “adopting” a CryptoMutt, purchasers gain access to the first “NFT Art Club” run by Kenny Schachter and receive 100 $NFTism tokens for each CryptoMutt they mint. The $NFTism tokens can be exchanged on Uniswap or traded.