Near the doors to the Miami Airport Convention Center – by a parked Ferrari studded with kitten stickers, just across from a pavilion known as the “Metaverse Dome” – a man was trying to put ice cream on the blockchain. Jaunty and pimpled, he sat beside a truck that appeared to be giving away free samples.
Only the samples weren’t free, exactly. I could have one, explained the young promoter, if I opted to join the Discord server for Creemees, a collection of 9,999 NFTs (or non-fungible tokens) resembling individual cones. When I showed him that I’d done it, he handed me a Bomb Pop.
“Welcome to the community,” he said. I tapped on “leave server.”
Shilling is the heart and soul of the NFT economy, a place where something as simple as accepting a free popsicle is inevitably reframed as an endorsement of a speculative financial asset. Spend enough time there and you’ll end up shilling, too.
The occasion for this particular gambit was DCentral, a crypto conference timed to Miami Art Week – a balmy new landing for the blockchain invasion.
Most of the festivities centered around Art Basel itself, now a metonym for the entire cluster of events, along with Untitled Art Fair, Scope, NADA Miami, and many more shows concentrated in and around Miami Beach. This was where you’d find the paintings, the ceramics, the meticulously assembled romans photos. You might call it the “traditional art” side of this year’s Miami Art week.
The other, perhaps less inhibited side had to do with the arrival of NFTs, the crypto-backed mechanisms for “owning” files on the internet. They’ve been around, in tech circles, but it’s only in the past year that they’ve begun to collide with the traditional art world in a significant way.
Christie’s was the first major auction house to capitalize on the craze, thanks in large part to the efforts of a tattooed curator named Noah Davis. When the digital artist Beeple sold an NFT for $69 million at the storied auction house this past March, everyone else started to get it, too.
On Friday, when the website ArtReview released its annual “Power 100″ list of the most influential figures in art, it was the ERC-721 – one of the oldest and most dominant flavors of NFT – that claimed the top spot, beating out the likes of Fred Moten, Kara Walker, David Zwirner and Larry Gogosian.
“It’s hard to predict the long-term upset this bit of code will cause,” reads a celebratory blurb on the site. “But in 2021, all the old assumptions of the art market and art culture have been thrown into chaotic, creative uncertainty.”
That uncertainty was on full display in Miami, as a cabal of crypto believers descended on the city for an array of tech fairs in the days leading up to the major art shows.
Crypto people tend to love conferences (there seems to be a new one every week), and this may be doubly true for NFT people. The DCentral conference consisted of panels (mostly droning advertisements and promotional speeches, along with a few talks involving journalists) and a massive, mazelike “crypto fair,” complete with real-world NFT galleries and booths for companies. Fluorescents hummed; the smell of pizza grease was inescapable. Standing next to me in line for the bathroom, an attendee compared it (favorably, I think) to an oil and gas trade show.
Also in attendance was Hard Rock Nick, a stout, peculiarly bearded man, whose depraved viral videos about modern dating made him something of a niche meme a few years ago. He was there representing a DeFi company called Pangolin. “I need to flex,” he told me, holding a comically large Louis Vuitton wallet just a few inches from my face.
The panels at DCentral were reminiscent of those at NFT.NYC, the crypto conference I’d attended just four weeks earlier, in that they were mostly characterized by a kind of corporate technobabble. Web 3 investors and metaverse adherents pelted the audience with buzzwords. Finance would be disrupted, they said. Art was already being destabilized, even democratized. Attendees silently nodded along.
The week’s other major crypto conference, NFT BZL, drew from a similar psychic reservoir. The venue, FTX Arena (recently renamed for crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX exchange), was bathed in a discomfiting blacklight. Just outside, a DJ blasted a combination of trance and house music into the humid downtown air. I traced the perimeter collecting free t-shirts.
Despite all the talk of inclusion, there wasn’t a lot of sympathy for the uninitiated. The experience was more “have fun staying poor” than “WAGMI.”
The irony of “WAGMI” – today’s reigning crypto meme, short for “we’re all gonna make it” – is that it’s come to stand for something profoundly alienating. The implication is that we are all going to make it. That is, we few warriors for financial inclusion, we knights errant with our JPEG banners. The “frens” on the inside. People muttered about the silliness of “environmental FUD,” the idea that crypto is somehow bad for the environment. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it; no point addressing the detractors. LFG!
A highlight was seeing Jeff Marsilio, the CEO of a crypto company called Niftys, acknowledge that tension explicitly. “[People] are going on Twitter and seeing lots of people bragging about all the money that they’re making,” he said. “That turns people off, man. Nobody wants to hear about the money that you’re making.”
It’s difficult to imagine the unconvinced being swayed by the blindingly expensive NFTs plastered on the attendees themselves. One collector told me he commissioned custom NFT patches (among them a CryptoPunk, a Bored Ape, and a Cool Cat) from a “tiny atelier in Paris” through a site called NFT-A-Porter.
Another trader, known online as @swagdolphinn, told me he had a shirt made of his cool cat: #6100 in the limited series of 9,999. “It’s the first cat I got,” he said of the NFT on his shirt. “I love it. It represents me. It represents everything about me. I don’t think I could ever sell it.”
After a few handfuls of Planters trail mix and a glass of complementary prosecco, I headed to an NFT talk at Untitled Art Fair, on South Beach, hosted by curators and artists from the traditional art world. Turnout was low, and skepticism was high. The interdisciplinary artist Ori Carino spoke about the line between populist crypto “collectibles” and what collectors might consider “art.” Many NFT collectors will readily cop to that distinction (how many members of the Bored Ape Yacht Club are in it for the art?) and yet there was a hint of defensiveness in Carino’s voice, as if pre-emptively countering the objections of any NFT cynics in the crowd.
And while the art side of the week remained mostly distinct from the crypto side, those boundaries started to blur at night, when everyone started chasing parties – suddenly, it no longer seemed to matter who was hosting. Soho Beach House was a communal hotspot; there was a “Coinbase Yacht” in the Museum Park Marina, which was more of a floating cocktail lounge than an active vessel; younger crowds found their way to the comparatively trendy environs of Mac’s Club Deuce and Twist, in Miami Beach.
On Wednesday night, at an event co-sponsored by this website, Pitbull gave a rousing five-minute speech analogizing the city of Miami to a “pineapple” before disappearing into the crowd, while in the lobby of the Beachcomber Hotel, guests staged impromptu photo shoots amid rows of physical NFT screens. Erykah Badu and Azealia Banks performed that night, too, at an outdoor party for the crypto social club Friends with Benefits. The show was technically reserved for holders of $FWB, the group’s governance token, but outsiders seemed to find their way in anyway. Here, the tech crowd mingled with bona fide celebrities (newly minted Bored Ape fan Diplo among them), brandishing plastic cups of undiluted tequila.
That sense of the collective – the thrill of finally being together in person, unmediated by Twitter DMs and Discord channels – was palpable at Zoratopia, a day-long event sponsored by the NFT company Zora, and led by a group of Black artists and influencers with experience in the space. Latashá Alcindor, a rapper and crypto advocate, played the role of the MC, curating the meditative “sound bath” that opened the morning, and wrangling a loose collective of organizers, developers and collectors for a group discussion on the pleasures and pitfalls of a blockchain-backed metaverse.
Zoratopia was partly a reaction to NFT.NYC, which Alcindor has described as feeling somewhat hostile, even racist. Near the end of that week, Alcindor said that a performance of hers was shut down after just one song, by a music director who claimed it was too “aggressive” (the venue, New York’s Public hotel, did not respond to a request for comment).
Friday was a rare moment of respite – an unexpected ending to the breathless hype cycle set in motion earlier in the week.
Back at NFT BZL, COVID protocols had been nonexistent; conference-goers milled about in WAGMI merch and hats that read “PRIVACY” and “$NFTZ.” On my way out I passed a group of uniformed middle schoolers, presumably on a field trip, slowly making their way toward the merch stands outside the main stage. I wondered what they’d buy there.