Artists in Iceland are using NFTs to change the landscape around them – forever.
On March 11th, 2021, an artist, known to his online fans as ‘Beeple’, made history. His digital piece, entitled ‘Everydays – The First 5000 Days’ was listed by the prestigious auction house, Christie’s, and sold for a whopping sum of 69.3 million USD. While figures like this are not uncommon in high-level art, Beeple’s work at the time certainly was. Why? Because what Beeple sold was an NFT.
NFTs, which stands for ‘Non Fungible Tokens’, are not the simplest concept to explain. Similar to cryptocurrencies, their existence and ownership is recorded via blockchains, and they cannot be replicated. NFTs can be memes, videos, paintings, digital art, music – in fact, more or less anything can be ‘tokenised’ and sold as an NFT, including, recently, tickets to the US Superbowl. These tokens are then bought and sold online using cryptocurrencies – which themselves are tokens that exist on a blockchain.
A record-breaking year
Confused? You’re not alone. But while many of us balk at anything relating to cryptocurrencies, the rest are looking for ways to seize opportunities. It’s undeniable that some individuals have become very, very rich from NFTs. Although their existence predates Beeple’s work, his sale last March – which was the first time a major action house listed a purely-NFT art piece – broke the record for most expensive NFT artwork sold. It also launched NFTs firmly into the mainstream, creating an almost hysterical frenzy around them. A year into the global pandemic, with the accompanying impending sense of doom growing every minute, many of us were stuck at home with additional disposable income and time on our hands. Desperate for distraction and stimulation, NFTs offered a salve to myriad needs: creativity, community, thrill, money. In 2020 total NFT sales amounted to 94.9 million USD; in 2021 that figure was 24.9 billion.
In addition to their popularity with investors, NFTs quickly caught the attention of artists as a way to monetise their work. All over the world, creators who had relied on second jobs to pay the rent were finding themselves out of work and terrifyingly broke. Iceland, with its emphasis on tourism and the gig economy, was no exception.
At the beginning of 2020, Norris Niman, originally from Sweden, was working in Iceland as a guide, building up his photography portfolio and Instagram following on the side. Things were going well – until Covid hit. Like most guides in Iceland, Norris’s job disappeared overnight.
“I read somewhere that you can call yourself a photographer when you make most of your income through photography. When I couldn’t guide anymore, I wasn’t making money anymore. I became a photographer by default,” he jokes.
He wasn’t the only one. Ryan Wanaka Newburn was also living and working in Iceland as a guide, and had actually just launched his own glacier guiding company before the pandemic struck. However, like Norris, he saw the lack of tourism work as an opportunity to throw himself into his artistic practice.
“I think Covid allowed us the opportunity to decide if we’re going to sink or swim,” Ryan says philosophically, of himself and his photography peers. “For better or for worse, COVID really propelled me forwards.”
Ryan remembers very clearly when he first heard about NFTs, in the spring of 2021. He’d just arrived back to Iceland from a trip and a group of fellow photography friends threw him a welcome-back gathering.
“We were sitting down and Dani Guindo mentioned NFTs. I didn’t really know much about them. It sounded kind of intimidating to me at the time. Much like most people, I just thought, ‘This sounds overwhelming.’” he explains.
He changed his mind quickly after he saw another friend, Cath Simard had sold a single NFT photo for 16,000 USD. “I called Cath straight away,” Ryan recalls. “I rang her and just said, ‘What the hell is an NFT and how do I make 16,000 dollars on one of my photos?”
Cath introduced Ryan to the process of creating, or ‘minting’ his work to sell on one of the NFT platforms, as well as, crucially, advertising his pieces via twitter. It turns out that Twitter is the main avenue for NFT creators, sellers and buyers to interact with each other – an online gallery community, if you will, with specific ways of conversing and jargon galore.
Ryan was one of the lucky ones – in the right place at the right time, as he explains it. The first pieces that he listed were snapped up by a renowned NFT collector, for 3 Ethereum (eth) – or the equivalent of 8,000 USD – each.
“Before this, I would get excited to sell a print for $100,” Ryan says.
But the attention around NFTs is far from wholly positive. NFTs, as well as the cryptocurrencies that they rely on, are incredibly energy-intensive. Ethereum, one of the most common currencies for purchasing NFTs, consumes the same amount of electricity as the entire country of Libya. Some estimates have put the carbon emissions of an average NFT at 211 kg – the equivalent of a two hour flight. One could argue that for photographers of Icelandic nature – an environment that is very much under threat due to climate change – there is an inherent irony in selling NFTs.
Photographer Rachel Wood disagrees. “I think the idea that the energy consumption of NFTs is so bad is not right, compared to other activities that you might be doing,” she protests. “This is the very beginning, kind of like cars. Yeah, they were horrendous, but now they’re getting much better. I think that’s gonna be the same thing with NFTs”
Ryan agrees, adding, “I find it really funny what carbon footprints people pay attention to, and what they choose not to pay attention to. They see people making money on this platform. So it’s like, oh, well, we’re gonna pay attention to that.”
“Here to stay”
Ryan also sees possibilities for Iceland specifically in regards to the decarbonisation of NFTs going forward.
“There’s a reason that Iceland has the largest Bitcoin mining platforms in the world right now,” he says. “I think that Iceland is going to be a place to really spark some conversation about utilising this sort of renewable energy versus other energy that isn’t so sustainable.”
For those who were hoping that NFTs were a craze that would simply blow over, it’s looking less and less likely. Later this year Ryan and some of his fellow NFT creators will hold Iceland’s first ever NFT convention, which they hope will draw visitors from all over the world. Despite sales slowing in 2022, he is convinced in the longevity of the concept: “If you want my brutally honest opinion, even if the bubble bursts, NFTs are here to stay.”
You can find out more about the artists mentioned in this piece through their social media accounts:
Norris Niman: twitter.com/norrisniman
Eyrún Lydia: twitter.com/eyrunlydia
Rachel Wood: twitter.com/0xWanderbitch
Ryan Newburn: twitter.com/SHBackpacker
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