Art Blocks NFT Faithful Partied in Marfa as FTX Collapsed


The world’s #2 cryptocurrency exchange had just filed for bankruptcy, its boy genius CEO had resigned, and millions upon millions of dollars were disappearing from his company wallets in real time with no explanation. But hundreds of miles from the noise of urban financial panic, in a former cattle feed mill in the West Texas desert, dozens of cryptocurrency creators were nodding and waving their hands in a synchronized display of vibrant scribbles.

the scribbles were Chromie doodles, the second explosively successful generative NFT art project from Art Blocks. To the delight and apparent astonishment of the barn’s occupants, these usually static Squiggles were dancing for the first time, in sync to the deafening tunes of English DJ Jamie xx.

“Scribble!” a reveler next to me kept yelling, as he raised his hands to the vibrating monitors, jumping in place. “Doodle, doodle, doodle, doodle!”

“Pray to the doodle!” his friend screamed dizzyingly.

It was November 11, 2022, and 500 fans had descended on the small town of Marfa, Texas, for the second annual Art Blocks Open House, a gathering of collectors, artists, investors, and charlatans involved in the growing art ecosystem. company.

Art Blocks Open House in Marfa, Texas, November 2022. (Photo: Sarah M. Vasquez)

One could assume the vibes at an event focused on non-fungible tokens—who in the last two years have gained obsessive devotees and angry enemies in equal measure, it would be profoundly affected by the pulse of the crypto market. And yet the Armageddon FTX it felt as far from the meeting as any great city ever had in the days when news was delivered in covered wagons.

That wasn’t because the NFT folks felt immune to market fluctuations. According to the host of the event, founder of Art Blocks and Squiggles artist Erick Calderon (aka Snowfro), it was because the meeting and his NFT company have virtually nothing to do with NFTs, let alone cryptocurrencies.

“I used to say that I want Art Blocks to be a platform to transcend crypto: drop the word crypto, drop the word generative, drop the word NFT and you just have art,” Calderón told me. “But we also want to transcend cryptocurrencies.”

As Calderón sees it, too many companies in the crypto ecosystem base their value propositions on the novelty of the underlying technology. To run-but earning crypto! Sweatshirts-but in the metaverse! cat picturesbut make them NFT! A mediocre TV show concept—produced by a DAO!

This fixation, he believes, only temporarily obfuscates the shortcomings of a company’s product.

“Why do our companies bet on emerging technology? Companies do not survive on cryptography alone,” Calderón said. “They survive on culture and they survive on their teams. We are trying to be an adult company. That means creating an internal organizational culture, which is really hard to do in crypto, where everyone is remote and dependent on the price of a CryptoPunk. But we struggled a lot to insulate ourselves from that.”

Erick Calderón (L) at the Art Blocks Open House in Marfa, Texas, November 2022. (Photo: Sarah M. Vasquez)

Art Blocks is a company of 40 people and growing, despite the devastating effects of the cryptocurrency bear market. It now has a full curatorial team that carefully selects and supports digital artists to feature their collections on the company’s massively popular platform.

Calderón attributes the enduring success of Art Blocks to his refusal to indulge in practices that became standard for most NFT projects at the height of the speculative bubble in early 2022.

“The worst state of mental health I’ve ever been in was when Art Blocks was going crazy in October,” he said. At the time, Art Blocks NFTs were selling for millions of dollars each. “People were saying ‘you need a token, reward your collectors, you don’t care about your collectors unless you make a token, look what SuperRare is doing, look what Bored Ape Yacht Club is doing.'”

Art Blocks never offered a token, or exclusive perks, or any other vague gesture on that oft-fetishized but rarely realized Web3 tenet: “utility.”

Offered publicly accessible art and community spaces (both digital and physical) focused on art. He emphatically resisted the temptation to provide anything else.

If Art Blocks sees itself not as a cryptocurrency company or NFT, but as an art institution, nothing showed it better than their three-day gathering in the legendary art Mecca of Marfa.

Marfa was founded in the 1880s and, for almost a century, was indistinguishable from any other neighboring town that populated the Chihuahuan desert; rose to international prominence in the early 1970s, when renowned artist Donald Judd bought several buildings in the city and transformed them into contextless “anti-museums” for his gigantic concrete and metal installations, as well as the works of others artists. In the decades that followed, Marfa’s artistic reputation and exotic isolation attracted thousands of disgruntled citizens. Today, the city resembles a strange mix of Frontierland and Williamsburg, populated by barns, shuttered storefronts, art galleries, and matcha cafes.

Art Blocks opened its Marfa gallery in 2021. Some at the time colored the company’s arrival in Marfa like not welcomeand the crypto-tainted offerings of Art Blocks as a stark departure from the city’s esteemed artistic tradition.

I found no such tension in the presence of Art Blocks in Marfa.

“I think they’re a brilliant addition to Marfa, and I think they’ve integrated well into the scene,” said Rachel Beitz, owner of Rule, a gallery down the street from Art Blocks, he told me. “I can’t think of anyone who has spoken ill of them.”

Beitz also dismissed the idea that the medium of an art collection alone, including the baggage-laden blockchain space, could be determinative of a project’s artistic legitimacy.

“All of art history is the next big thing not being considered art to the key holders of what is ‘art,’” he said. “Marfa is a place where a lot of people come to experiment. It’s almost natural to me that this is one of the places where people come and try this.”

Art Blocks projects are most clearly different from traditional art in two ways. For one, they are NFTs, minted on the Ethereum blockchain and can be purchased by anyone with an internet connection. On the other, they are generative. Artists build computer code that sets parameters for what a piece of Art Blocks can look like; upon minting, the piece is randomly generated within those parameters, appearing in its first realized form.

“The NFT part is not that hard to explain. But when you dive deeper into long-form generative art, that’s when it starts to get a little more complicated.” Plutonium Fa pseudonymous collector of Art Blocks, told me about the obstacles he faces when discussing projects with outsiders.

Plutonium, along with two other Art Blocks collectors, were selected by the Art Blocks team to curate the collection on display at the November Open House, which they titled perspectives.

“I know it’s hard for traditional collectors and traditional artists to grasp the idea that you write code and it can create essentially an infinite number of results,” he said. Suitableanother of perspectives‘ community curators. “But in the best examples of generative art, the art is the code itself. It’s easy to be a painter. It’s hard to be a good painter. It’s easy to be a generative artist. It’s hard to be good.”

After a tequila-soaked weekend in Marfa, the Art Blocks faithful flew back to their hometowns, back to reality, back to a world that was finally paying breathless attention to their industry, but for all the wrong reasons: bankruptcies, infections, criminal charges, government investigationsY wavesto the wavesof layoffs.

The crypto winter continued to cool. The new year has not brought any relief.

But somehow, through the darkness, Art Blocks keeps flying. friendship bracelets, an Art Blocks project conceptualized by Calderón and made by French artist Alexis André, was released exclusively for existing Art Blocks NFT holders at the end of October. When the free coin claim period closed on Tuesday, the value of the collection skyrocketed and it became the top collection on the NFT OpenSea marketplace in a matter of hours. Friendship bracelets have, at the time of writing, generated over 14,300 ETH in trading volume (approximately $20.3 million).

That’s a standout in an otherwise bleak market. NFT trading volume has plummeted in a staggering way 87% from the highs of last January. Top-tier Profile Picture (PFP) NFT projects that were once sure bets they don’t look so sure.

Why doesn’t Art Blocks suffer too? Calderón believes the answer is quite simple.

“Yes [Art Blocks holders] they bought a piece of art, and they hung it on their wall, and that piece of art went to zero, they still have amazing piece of art,” he said.

How many other NFT projects can say the same? Remove Speculative Value, Crypto Marketing Angle, NFT Loaded Acronym; What is really left? If seen as an NFT company, Art Blocks seems to be an aberration. If you see yourself as an art collective using blockchain technology, things start to make a lot more sense.

Non-crypto companies using Web3 technology as a tool to achieve larger goals, whether related to entertainment, Commerce, Fashionor art, are doing nicely through the crypto bear market.

Art Blocks may be showing that projects born from Web3 do not need to be uniquely defined by it. Increasingly, that approach is starting to look like the way forward for crypto culture.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify eligibility to claim an NFT Friendship Bracelet.

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