Image by Maxwell Strachan
Even by the standards of a Times Square conference, NFT.NYC feels chaotic. Inside the New York Marriott Marquis, thousands of lovers of Bored Apes and cartoon Doodles rush by one another, up and down escalators, although it isn’t always clear in search of what. Ravers dance in the lobby and a marching band plays on the floor above. People don T-Shirts that exclaim “Satoshi is a female,” baseball caps that warn “This is not financial advice,” and stickers that read “WAGMI”—the crypto-friendly acronym for the rallying cry “We're all gonna make it.” (“PLEASE DO NOT PUT STICKERS ON WATER COOLERS,” ownership states throughout the premises.)
Whether they will all make it remains a matter of debate. Outside the walls of the conference, the broader cryptocurrency economy is grappling with a string of injuries, controversies, and embarrassments. Bitcoin and Ethereum have crashed. Stablecoins suddenly don’t seem so stable. The $10 billion crypto hedge fund Three Arrows Capital made overleveraged bets so catastrophic that it now threatens the financial stability of its associated lenders. A broader inflationary crisis has led to rising interest rates, emergency plans to reduce national gas prices, and whispers of recession.Ignore all that though, at least for this week, according to the promotional materials made available in Midtown Manhattan “f#%k the bear. we are hiring,” the decentralized app store DappRadar exclaims in cards made readily available throughout the conference. Say what you will, but it does not feel like a bear market—a period of pessimism and low prices—here, amid a Snoop Dogg impersonator called Doop Snogg, people roleplaying as gibbering goblins, and the dystopian scene of a crowd of people practicing yoga in Times Square surrounded by glaring ads for JPEGs that cost as much as a house (the yoga was not affiliated with the conference).
Nevertheless, attendees told Motherboard that the shaken economic confidence of the American people provided an opportunity to a savvy investor. “This is a great time to buy,” says Max Dauer, a 28-year-old life coach. Dauer says that while people are not ignoring the bear market inside the conference, “nobody's thinking this is the end of the line.” He personally hopes to use the downturn to swoop up some MFers NFTs “now that the prices have kind of calmed down a bit.” “When we see dips like this, it's a beautiful opportunity to step back and say, ‘Okay, where is the opportunity today?’” Dauer says.“It's a good time to buy right now,” agreed Ashwin, a 34-year-old digital artist and UX designer who owns several NFTs himself but declined to give his last name.Eternal optimism emanates outward from NFT.NYC. Ostensibly, the core reasons for attending are the art and the sense of belonging, although not necessarily in that order. But while both are on display here and there, including in numerous elaborate paintings of NFTs and the obligatory panelist preaching collaboration over competition, make no mistake: This is capitalism rebranded as community. Numerous overheard conversations involved people discussing their rarest NFTs or how many investors are interestested in a given project. Broadway is stuffed full of images of animated NFTs like those of the Toxic Skull Club, and proud digital artists take turns posing for photos as their hard work sits above the Nasdaq logo, as well as that of the digital art market SuperRare’s.
It is hard not to feel happy for any artist who can make a living these days. Less sympathy goes to the “crypto watch” company that bills itself as “the first smart wearable NFT” and enlists a horde of (presumably paid) people to shout “Whose skin? Watch Skins!” in a pseudo-protest on the sidewalk while holding signs that plead with attendees to “JOIN OUR DISCORD.”
Nearby, a truck emblazoned with a Bored Ape invites passersby to take a cookie in exchange for scanning a barcode. When this Motherboard reporter does as instructed, the cookie holder says she cannot turn over the cookie until I scroll to the bottom and click the Twitter icon, which takes me to the profile page of the Twitter user @tayl0rwtf, owner of Cryptopunk #9439. She then insists I have to follow the account (for a cookie). Back inside the New York Marriott Marquis, startups hawk innovations that include turning “any screen into an NFT display”—ignoring that, well, any screen is already an NFT display—a “members only real estate investment club,” and a metaverse registration for people’s real-life cats and dogs. (“Purchase records to authenticate human family,” the accompanying brochure suggests.) One play-to-earn game inspired by the fictional Frankenstein's monster highlights as proof of its legitimacy that it was in ownership of four entire Cryptopunks, and a group of men and women donning Stripperville.io T-shirts (tagline: “…where your Stripper NFTs earn $STRIP Coin for you!”) waltz around the premises. One representative for a project even bills itself as “The World’s First Pet Insurance DAO,” telling Motherboard that community members choose how to use the profits, though disappointingly, the insurance itself is not different from that on offer by the imperfect and decidedly un-Web3 pre-existing competition.
Deeper into the convention, the engrossing image of Gustav Klimt's painting “The Kiss" appears. I wonder what that is doing amongst the cartoon apes, and Markus Wiesenhofer of the Belvedere museum in Vienna, where the original Klimt masterpiece is located, says that the museum had struggled with attendance as a result of lockdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which inspired those involved to engage with Web3 and blockchain technologies. While the physical painting is owned by the Republic of Austria—and will “never be sold,” Wiesenhofer adds—the museum has digitally separated the painting into 10,000 distinct tiles and begun to sell them off as individualized NFTs. (“They're very different and you have a gamified way to obtain it,” Wiesenhofer says.)There is a never-ending number of panels on offer, but they feel like something of an afterthought, secondary to the mingling and free food. At a summit put on by the metaverse company The Sandbox, staff have to ask the audience to quiet down as a professor speaks about the economic significance of Snoop Dogg’s interest in NFTs. DJs play to empty dance floors and hip-hop artists perform in front of unenthusiastic crowds who sit in chairs, focused on their phones. One flier meets attendees where they seem to feel most comfortable, inviting all to a nearby party by saying: “Come as you are or come as your PFP.”
Attendees come from all over to attend NFT.NYC. One man, who asks that I refer to him only as “Sirius,” says he traveled from Virginia to meet some of the people he speaks to on Discord every day. Since entering the space a little over a year ago, he has purchased more than 200 NFTs, he says to my amazement. Recent events notwithstanding, he remains bullish. “The bull run wasn't gonna last forever,” Sirius says. He says he is in accumulation mode and preparing for the next bull run, when valuations explode and gamblers become kings.
Unlike Sirius, Liam Hinsley has yet to purchase an NFT, but he agrees that now is as good a time to get in as ever. He sees crypto’s downturn as related to broader macroeconomic forces and thinks it now provides a buying opportunity. “If the price is down, people that couldn't afford to get in can now afford to get in,” he says. The unanswered legal and political questions hovering over the world of cryptocurrency and NFTs sit nestled in the background of the conference, never far from mind. One company bills itself as a means through which “Tradfi Co-Signers” could “Become DeFi Buddies.” (Capitalism rebranded as community.) “Now, anyone can get a loan in seconds,” the company proudly states, seemingly blissfully unaware of the lessons of the housing crisis that took down the global economy 15 long years ago.
At one point on Tuesday afternoon, an attendee wanders over and says he does not understand how a fractionalized NFT (one NFT owned by multiple investors) could not be considered a security. When he directed his confusion toward one such company pitching shared ownership of the speculative assets at the conference, he says, a representative told him the company would take its chances in the current climate. At the NFT Awards, which is actually just a room filled with computer screens, the conference praises numerous members of the burgeoning industry.The primary winner of the awards this year is never in question, but just to confirm: Yes, it is the Bored Ape Yacht Club, which is honored with “Best NFT Business Model.” The Yankees of the NFT industry, the Bored Apes make their presence known throughout the conference. Bored Ape hoodies flash throughout the crowd, as owners and knockoffs alike both try to exploit the most well-known NFT brand in the world. One Ape owner informs me that he has created a Bored Ape pinball machine, which he unveiled to the world Monday evening. “It's a fully functional, fully playable pinball machine,” he tells me. “It's a one-of-one prototype. But we're looking to go to market here in the next two-to-three months.”
Next to the Ape owner stands Tony, who partners with individual NFT owners to produce toy versions of the NFTs, including a number of Bored Apes, which were on view for attendees to admire. The idea is catching on, Tony told me. He approximates that 14 people have come up to him already asking if they could make some toys, too.At the nearby Ace Hotel on Wednesday morning, as Web3 enthusiasts chat on Discord and take video calls from the lobby, Katie Geminder tells me that she is still struggling to educate the public about the potential of NFTs. One of the co-founders of a popular NFT platform, Geminder says the industry is struggling with “disinformation” partially resulting from an onslaught of clickbait headlines. “We want your mom to understand the technology,” Geminder tells Motherboard. “Because we want more people in the ecosystem.” As part of that push, her company, Cent, will soon allow people to make payments in U.S. dollars, as opposed to only using cryptocurrency. “The way I feel with Web3 is like: jump in; the waters warm,” she says. “I just think that a rising tide lifts all boats.” Dauer, the life coach, is doing just that. He recently decided to transfer his “IRL” practice into (what else?) the metaverse. Being at the conference, he tells Motherboard, made him more resolute than ever.“People who are here today are visionaries, creators, entrepreneurs—people who see the future and people who have really, really clear visions for what their place in that future is going to be,” he says. “That's why I'm moving my practice into the metaverse: to work with people who have big visions and dreams.”