Digital Artist Tries to Sell NFTs, Argues Their Values Are Unaffected

The controversial crypto art craze could spawn a “musical physics game.”
March 19, 2021, 1:00pm
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A still from Team Rolfes' video announcing the auction

Team Rolfes, the digital art duo behind cutting-edge visuals for artists such as Lady Gaga, is planning to make an “experimental musical physics game” according to a recent post on Twitter.  The pair, consisting of brothers Sam and Andy Rolfes, produced an eye-catching video to accompany the news, including the contentious way it’s planning to fund the project; digital concept art is being minted on the blockchain and subsequently auctioned on Zora. An NFT-funded video game? Perhaps, at least if Team Rolfes can find enough crypto-rich buyers.

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We don’t know what the game will look like but the fraternal twosome has already sold one piece for 6.6 wETH to bankroll it—this works out at over $11,000. The buyer Joseph Delong has bagged himself concept art for a digital mesh “hype hive” which comes with exclusive music by electronic artist Kai Whiston. The artwork, a spinning drone-like object overgrown with fleshy tendrils, is an NFT, or non-fungible token, uniquely stamped on the blockchain network and thus verifiably scarce. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you’ll have seen the eye-watering sums these virtual pieces can fetch. 

A point the Team Rolfes video appears to make is just how grubby this frenzied cryptoart moment actually is, while also trying to join in. “We’re not above begging,” tweeted Sam Rolfes kind of ironically, but also kind of not, appearing to target cryptocurrency holders whose funds have rocketed in value over the past year. In the animated video, a creepy humanoid creature perches at a merch stand manically pitching the sale to a potential customer or “investor.”

It’s worth noting that Rolfes shared a note to pre-emptively answer criticisms of the funding model. One of its bullet points addresses the “environmental hazards” baked into both NFTs and cryptocurrency more broadly. The blockchain technology each of these is built on requires intense computational power and, of course, electricity, which, depending on its source, can result in significant carbon emissions. Rolfes admits that his proposal to purchase offsets is an “imperfect solution.”

Another point asks whether minting NFTs and participating in the crypto art world impugns Rolfes’ own self-avowed leftism, and the answer he gives is frustrating: “Not any more than participating in any other market.” This is an argument often used to justify problematic work within capitalism. In this case, it feels like he’s saying we all live under this system, so why not mint and sell an NFT, which isn’t actually a leftist position but one fundamentally disinterested in engaging with the real-world consequences of the technology. Zora’s protocol might well present opportunities to better compensate artists—i.e. Team Rolfes takes a 10 percent cut of each “hype hive” resale—but so too is the crypto art market a broadly elite pursuit which, as Rolfes seems to accept, perpetuates the looming threat of global ecocide.

It’s worth challenging Rolfes' idea that all markets are as bad as one another, a nihilistic line of argument which can lead to some pretty dark places. All markets are certainly not equivalent in their awfulness, politically, materially, or otherwise; neither are the effects of the climate crisis. If Team Rolfes insist on making a game using funds generated from NFTs, perhaps it should simply wait for a less resource-intensive and pernicious version of the technology to materialize. Of course, by that stage, the hype surrounding NFTs may have diminished, and if that happens, so will their prices; the time to execute a crypto art cash grab for your video game is evidently now.