Bad news for NFT haters everywhere: What if we were to tell you that the thing you despise most online, now exists offline?
If you’ve already muted the word “NFT”, you shouldn’t be reading this right now. I can only assume that you’ve either hate-clicked on this some other way, or maybe you’re a genuinely avid fan of crypto and the nonfungible token art scene. Or maybe you once saw Paris Hilton discussing Bored Apes in an interview with Jimmy Fallon and were curious about how serious these internet pictures might really be. There’s also a chance that you’re actually Sally, the super helpful PR lady who put us in contact with the Quantus Gallery team for a little snoop around. Either way, hello, and if you’re at this point yet somehow still have no idea what an NFT is, then here’s a child to explain it to you nocoiners.
As you can probably tell from the title, Quantus Gallery is the first permanent NFT art gallery of its kind in the UK, opening all year-round to exhibit art that has been minted on the blockchain, with an advice service on how to create, buy and sell NFTs. Of course, traditional galleries and even Christie’s auction house have dabbled in this new arena, but no other physical spaces have strictly only focused on NFTs in this way before, with an in-house advisory board and team of experts to help wealthy newbies decipher just exactly which internet picture may make them even richer. (Side note: there have already been plenty of shoppable NFT galleries in the metaverse.)
To be as transparent as a PNG, I am neither pro-NFT or against them, and despite previously trying to sell one for another article, I am no more than a humble lurker. Hoping to see Lindsay Lohan’s fursona or a rare Pepe the frog NFT before its official opening in March, me and VICE photographer Yushy logged off from our work computers and went on an in-person adventure to the premises at east London’s Fashion Street, arriving unfashionably early to inadvertently gawp at a Roomba through the window.
Inside, we unsurprisingly found ourselves surrounded by screens. Also, it smelt really nice, not like the lightly polluted stink of the street outside. Unlike most galleries that require silence, there was music playing. Whether this was to influence a specific vibe, thought or feeling, was unclear, but the last time I heard Goldfrapp’s “Lovelyhead” was in the Monkey Dust sketch where a recurring character constantly lies to his wife about his whereabouts by stealing storylines from well known works of fiction. (Eventually, she leaves him.)
“We have a number of artists that we’re currently working with,” explains co-founder Josh Sandhu. “Pierre Benjamin is strictly NFT digital art, but we’re also working with Bluntroller, who has an NFT series but he’s got physical works that back them.” Looking at us from behind these monitors were a series of artworks by the infamous Pierre Benjamin, that I Instantly recognised from scrolling through their Instagram the day before.
His NFT work, of which there are currently over 500, can best be described as a Guess Who of historic and political and cultural figures, whose spherical heads and bulging eyes aren’t too far off from the realm of Stewie Griffin fan art, though perhaps this pop cultural deja vu is what makes the work worth collecting in the first place.
“[It’s] due to the nature of NFTs being digital and what’s trendy at the moment,” Sandhu explains, after I ask why it seems like there are so many NFT collectibles. “I don’t want to say it’s easier – the artwork they are doing – but they can certainly produce more of it.” The only physical piece in attendance was Bluntroller’s spray-painted rendition of a police officer riding a space hopper towards a doughnut. (The space hopper is in the shape of a pig.)
At the heart of it, Sandhu explains, the NFT art world isn’t too different from the traditional art world, it’s just that the exchange of money is more obvious. “An NFT, all it really is is a certificate of authenticity,” he says, adding that scarcity is really what makes owning these images worth something. “So if we liken it to the art market [in that there’s] a physical painting that comes with a certificate that verifies who painted it, and that’s what an NFT is.”
The only main difference is that the NFT certificate lives permanently on the blockchain, whereas confirming who owns a physical art piece isn’t usually as straightforward. “The benefits of owning it is that you can display it anywhere you want, on your Apple watches, phone, and all sorts of things. It’s about owning the asset.”
It’s usually at this moment in the discourse when a troll would right-click and save the art, a joke that highlights that basically anyone could use a picture of the artwork you “own” regardless of who owns it. “If Bansky were to do an NFT, anyone could right click and save the Bansky image and say that they’ve ‘stolen’ the NFT, but they haven’t,” Sandu says. “They’ve just taken a picture.”
To make a traditional comparison, it’s just like how taking a selfie with the Mona Lisa doesn’t mean she’s yours to take home. I sneakily snap a few pictures of a bobble-headed girlboss Theresa May on my phone to get the most out of the experience anyway. Maybe someday I’ll sell my picture of the NFT as an NFT.
Theft is actually a real problem in the NFT world, but not from people saving JPEGs to their desktop. Emerging artists – as documented by the Twitter account @NFTtheft – now routinely find their work stolen and minted by complete strangers looking to make bank. But is there any way to tell whether a specific NFT isn’t legitimate? “If the artist is promoting NFTs on their social media, then it’s probably real,” Sandhu says. “If they’re not, then that’s a red flag and [you should] maybe ask some questions. I’ve seen people buy Banksys, but he’s not done any.”
After a bit of mooching about, it was time to exit through the exit, and actually process what just happened. As much as the thought of a real-life NFT gallery inspires a certain level of dystopian dread, it can realistically only be a good thing that there are in-person spaces where professionals can offer advice in an industry that is chaotically unregulated and confusing. In any case, Quantus Gallery is worth a visit if you’re interested in the current state of internet culture – or if you just so happen to be in the area with thousands of Ethereum tokens burdening your crypto wallet.