Visit Tokenize This and the site will generate a unique URL containing an image that's not much lower in quality than many of the artworks being peddled online by the non-fungible token, or NFT, crowd. It’ll be a basic gradient, fading from one color into the other, with an alphanumeric cipher resembling a cryptographic hash superimposed over it. But this URL is impossible to make into an NFT. As soon as you navigate away from it, it will self-destruct and yield a 404.
NFTs are digital artworks which come with unique, non-replicable cryptographic deeds of ownership that are logged onto the Ethereum blockchain. Literally anything—original works, stolen ones, screencaps, tweets, photos of oil paintings hanging in the Louvre—can be turned into an NFT, and these “tokenized” artworks have sold for astronomical prices, largely through social media.
The ironically-titled Tokenize This, on the other hand, cannot be tokenized, because the web page containing the image disappears when its owner tries to share or upload it. NFTs often simply reference images elsewhere on the web, so if an image is taken down at the source then the NFT will appear broken. This is exactly what Tokenize This achieves by self-destructing. As the Tokenize This "about" page explains, "While this structure doesn’t block someone from selling an NFT that points to a Tokenize This page, it does ensure that the page it points to will never be seen by the purchaser of that NFT."
Sure, the gradients can be screenshotted and tokenized, but such a counterfeit wouldn’t be the authentic "original." Good luck building hype around that.
“It’s resistant to being commodified.” said Ben Grosser, the creator of Tokenize This, in an interview. “It asks one to consider what it is and why it is outside of whether or not someone with a lot of followers will retweet it. It says, ‘I don’t want to participate.’”
Tokenize This is a statement that gels with how some digital artists feel about NFTs: that they are an immensely pointless affront to the environment that cause artists to subordinate creativity to the demands of speculative capitalism.
Grosser’s own work, in that light, seems uncannily familiar.
“The idea behind the design is it creates an endless series of banal digital objects,” he said. “They’re barely graphically interesting, and only exist for the person who loaded it, for whom it was created.”
Grosser, a 48 year-old artist and professor at the University of Illinois, has spent years producing wry, programmed artworks critical of the influence of Big Tech and social media. His previous works include the Facebook Demetricator, which removed engagement metrics from Facebook, and the Endless Doomscroller, an eternally unfolding timeline of context-shorn headlines such as “Numbers Paint Grim Picture” and “Future Uncertain.”
Speaking via Zoom from his home in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, Grosser explained that he came up with the idea for Tokenize This around the time an NFT collage by the artist Mike Winkelman, known as Beeple, sold for $69 million at Christie’s to the owner of a cryptoart platform that Winkelmann has a stake in. But while that sale “animated my thinking,” he said, “the initial inspiration is likely my seeing discussion of NFTs increasingly dominate my social media feeds in the first days of March, as some in my network became obsessed with the topic.”
Grosser is among many digital artists who have looked askance at the soaring interest in NFTs. While some view them as a useful way for artists to monetize their work, Grosser said it depresses him to see talented digital artists abandon old platforms and homespun websites to throw in their lot with speculative crypto traders. He said artists now pitch their work to Twitter, frame its value in terms of yield and saleability, and design it in the service of cash and likes instead of quality.
Until recently, he said, the digital art community was “disconnected in a happy way from the more conventional art market with its money motivations,” allowing critical art to flourish. But “with the intro of big speculative finance, it’s shifted a lot of artists towards focusing on, ‘How can I get in on the gold rush?’ Now I see artists erasing their own URLs from Twitter bios and replacing them with links to cryptoart platform pages, and turning their Twitter feeds into very noisy adverts for platforms, talking about bids, drops, sales.”
“That’s what I was thinking about when I made Tokenize This,” he said. “‘Tokenize this one,’ I thought. I was trying to create a work quite literally that doesn't lend itself to being tokenized.”
Grosser explored similar themes with the Facebook Demetricator. Released in 2012 and covered widely, the Demetricator left users, he said, with little sense of the objective, or even subjective, quality of posts they encountered on the timeline.
“In the presence of metrics on platforms, people develop rules for themselves on how to act without realizing it,” he said. “When people first installed the Demetricator, they emailed me saying, ‘Now the numbers are gone I feel stuck, I’m not sure whether to like something.’ They were basing whether they liked something on what likes there were already.’
In the same way, Grosser explained, the artistic merit of an NFT is determined as much by the positive reinforcement of high social media engagement as it is by the quality of the craftsmanship. Critics thought Beeple’s $69 million collage wasn’t much to write home about, and a tokenized fart fetched $85 on the open market. The stuff is often crap—yet punters are foaming at the mouth to buy it.
Even the core promise of NFTs—that they are “immutable”—is largely illusory, prone as they are to disappearing without warning, thanks to the confusing way in which the images are referenced on the blockchain. Stories have indeed emerged of NFTs linking to dead URLs and 404s, just like Tokenize This does by default.
But at least that project is open about such limitations. “If all you want is a broken link,” said Grosser. “I can give you an endless stream of them, for free.”
correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Facebook Demetricator was released in 2018, when it was in fact released in 2012. Motherboard regrets the error.