For many, the rapid digitization of the art world is an elusive topic. In this increasingly digital world, many sectors had to quickly adopt digital technologies to stay afloat this past year. Galleries and art fairs utilized online viewing rooms, auctions live streamed their sales on their websites, and all sectors of the art market kept user engagement alive by learning techniques to master each social media platform’s algorithm. Everyone understood that the art market lagged the technical sophistication often associated with other industries in the digital era—COVID provided the necessary push for the arts to take the final plunge into the age of technology.
While many knew that the art world would eventually adopt online platforms, very few would have predicted the rise of NFTs. For those that have never heard of an NFT, you are not alone. In order to understand the rapid involvement of NFTs in the art market, I conducted an interview with Burnt Banksy. Burnt Banksy—a persona—is a bull in a china shop. Not only did he purchase a Banksy, but he burned it… and he did not stop there. In addition to burning the banksy, he videotaped the burning and auctioned off the incurring video as an NFT. This act caused ripples across the art world marking him as a rebellious artist utilizing other politically driven art to create his own statement about the pretentiousness of the art market, to attempt to answer the question “what is art, and what gives art its value?” To fully comprehend Burnt Banksy’s motive and his opinion on NFTs—which he urges readers to actively call “digital art” for numerous reasons—read on.
Shaina: How and when did you get into NFTs?
Burnt Banksy: I’ve been in NFTs since about 2016 when they first came to light with Crypto Kitties. That [Crypto Kitties] was a very early version of what you are seeing today with Cryptopunks. However, they were obnoxiously popular and almost crashed the Ethereum network. That’s when I first got in.
Shaina: What was the motivation or inspiration behind burning the Banksy?
Burnt Banksy: The motivation was trying to explain the appeal of digital art to my friends and family. I’ve been in the crypto industry for so long, and whenever I tried to explain it to friends and family they couldn’t get past the idea that “if I can’t see it, if it’s not in my living room, if I can’t touch it, where’s the value in that, why should I care?”
And so I said alright fuck you. So essentially I tried to show all the people that doubted the appeal of digital art why digital art is valuable without being tangible. Choosing the piece was a deliberate action. I wanted to choose something that had proven value. The Banksy piece I chose was previously sold at a Sotheby’s auction. It was a Banksy, obviously people knew about Banksy, he had done a spectacle at auction by shredding his own work once the piece was sold. I wanted to buy the piece from a gallery that proved its value and authentication to Banksy. The piece we ended up purchasing was titled Morons (White) and it was an original screenprint made in 2006. The piece’s message is a deliberate critique of the art market. It has a Christie’s auctioneer pointing at framed paintings during an auction. After we purchased the piece, we knew that we wanted to burn it and digitize the act. The idea behind that was, if I am burning the original, will the value transfer over to the digital asset? And it did! We were very happy with how it sold and how everything turned out. It was more so a show—if we had both digital and physical copies of Morons, the value would have still been the physical copy. In the end, we didn’t really care about selling the piece, we just wanted to challenge public opinion that art has to be tangible to the art and that value only holds if something is tangible.
Shaina: Take me through the process of planning and executing the act.
Burnt Banksy: The idea probably started last summer and the burning took place in March 2021. At the time of conception, NFTs were definitely not as popular as when we did the burning or when Beeple had done the $69 million auction at Christie’s. At that moment in time the highest selling NFT was sold for $200,000 and it was a very crypto-specific thing. We really started planning the burning in late December. In late December we started doing research and I’d say that in early January we settled on the exact piece. We found that it was at a gallery here in New York which is where we are based. In January we walked into the gallery and asked to buy it—asked to buy it in crypto— (they don’t take crypto sadly) and ended up getting it the next day. Then we needed to find a videographer who could film us burning the Banksy. Then it was showtime. In the process, we learned that it was very difficult to burn shit in NY, understandably, so we had to use a friend of a friend of a friend’s house in Long Island because it was the only place that we could burn something and film it. We tried AirBnb and we got a lot of people asking what the fuck we were doing. In the end we did the burning and the week after the burning we started the auction. From that point forward we’ve been taking from that and started a decentralized auction house.
Shaina: What are your future plans? How do you see the future of NFTs evolving?
Burnt Banksy: I come from a crypto background and the future plans right now is we are building a decentralized auction protocol to deal with the inefficiencies. I think what we are going to see with the NFT’s market is that the nomenclature is pretty shit… and I think I am also to blame for this. NFT is just a technical term. It is a way to describe what it is: a Non-Fungible Token. It is good for art because it provides authentication but there is no reason why the word NFT should be synonymous with digital art. It is also very limiting for people who want to sell their own pieces. They would technically use NTFs but it would be like trying to buy, oh I don’t know things that aren’t crypto, but like buying a shirt and saying “Oh I’m buying cotton.” Well, at the end of the day you are buying a shirt that is made from cotton. And I kind of think that’s where we are right now in the NFT industry. Yes, other things are made with cotton, I don’t know why this is synonymous with shirts. Does this make sense? I also think you’re going to start seeing tangible art coming in. That is something that I am trying to build as well. NFTs are great for authentication for the fact of the matter of the technology behind it and it is easiest to be done on digital art but I think that, with enough work, it can be transferred over to the physical art. We are looking to do an art gallery across the street from the Whitney, the people that told us that NFTs aren’t art, and it’s called “Not An Art Gallery.” Additionally, we are working with a satellite manufacturer to bring the first NFT in space which should be pretty cool! It would be with Elon and going up in SpaceX and I am talking to an American satellite manufacturer about those details..
Shaina: Banksy is a political artist, however, there are many contemporary and postmodern artists that are not political. What are your thoughts on purchasing priceless pieces of art that have no political connotations from a blue chip artist, destroying it, taking a video of the destruction, and then selling the video online as an NFT? Do you think there is a difference in what you did with the Banksy vs. someone like you doing this to a blue chip piece of art that is not made by a political artist for political reasons?
Burnt Banksy: I’ve seen this. It happened after we burnt the Banksy so i’ll give you the best example in the world. Someone tried to do what you are describing in China and the auction fell flat on its face. I think it sold for like $60,000 or something like the fraction of the price it should have gone for. Because you call it “price” but at the end of the day price doesn’t matter. The idea is, we are not going to burn everything in existence, the idea of the art piece was to prove a point, and call it performative if you will, but in a sense it shows a mirror to the traditional thought about how we derive value in art. If you show the mirror it is going to simply be redundant. You can burn art but if you don’t have a message behind it you are just burning something that is beautiful. I think it is about the narrative that you set for yourself. I could burn political
art with no intention of it being political. I’ll give you a great example. If there is a war that I don’t know about and I get this flyer on my front door and in a language that I don’t understand and it turns out to be propaganda for this war I don’t know about, and I burn that is that me doing a political burn? Or is that just a burning? I have no concept of what I am doing. I think the idea comes around the idea of intent and methods rather than the physical act of burning.
Shaina: Do you think that NFTs are a fad or do you think they are here to stay?
Burnt Banksy: I think it is interesting. I think there was the idea of buying them as short term quick investments that you could flip—which I think was a fad. But I think you can still see NFT’s relevance, there was a $12 million auction for Cryptopunks last week. At the end of the day, an NFT… it would be better for the rest of this conversation to talk with the term “digital art.” Do I think digital art is here to stay? Yes 100%. I think it is backed by NFTs which is great. I kind of see it as similar photography in the 1920s when it wasn’t looked at as a true high-art form. And then slowly over time, I would argue over the last 30 years it has become a respectable art form. But I think digital art does not hold the same stature that traditional art does and I think, thanks to Christie’s and the changing market, we are starting to see that come to fruition. And what I really like about it is that the barrier to entry is very small—essentially a computer. Getting your name out as a digital artist is so much easier. This is one of those things where it could have “no more starving artists” come to fruition. You can do your marketing, you can do your work and get your word out without needing to share the profits with the middlemen of the art world.
Shaina: Without Beeple’s piece auctioned off at Christie’s how long do you think it would have taken for the digital art market to become what it is today?
Burnt Banksy: It was only a matter of time. You kind of saw this coming before, and I think Covid was a catalyst. I could have told you this would have happened when the Fortnight world cup was bigger than Wimbledon. It is pretty evident that we are entering a digital age and it is not surprising to me that digital art is part of the digital age. I think it got exacerbated by the pandemic. Everyone lived digital lives like working off of Zoom, etc.
Shaina: What are your thoughts on digital museums (places where people can open their web browser and see a digital museum that has a collection of NFTs)?
Burnt Banksy: Our cube is working on a digital museum. I mean it is interesting because it sheds light on our original critique and concept. If I can’t show people the art, what’s the use of it? Well, I mean you can, and we are going to make it easier for you to show people.
Shaina: Do you think there’s any cons to having a digital museum landscape vs. in person?
Burnt Banksy: It depends. Things don’t work for everyone and I don’t think you will ever get to a point where things work for everyone. Just you and I being on the younger side are probably more akin to the digital side. We don’t have to leave our computers. In the middle of a zoom meeting, we can just check out our friend’s digital museum. Similarly, younger generations are quicker to adopt the digital moment. That doesn’t mean one is right and one is wrong, it means that someone that is 85 probably is not going to go to a digital art gallery, but they will probably go to the MoMA.
Shaina: Do you believe that older collectors will begin purchasing NFTs for their collections or are NFTs solely a young collector’s frontier?
Burnt Banksy: I mean it depends. I think, eventually, you are going to start seeing a narrative shift into a non-distinction between the two [physical and digital art]. And then I think you are going to start seeing older collectors collect digital art. As time goes on, our generation gets old and then we become the old collectors. And it won’t take very long.
Shaina: What is your advice for someone wishing to collect an NFT? How should they go about it? What websites should they look at, artists they should research, etc.?
Burnt Banksy: I mean what’s been great is you’ve had a funny funnel into the world of digital art. Because you are having a ton of very famous DJs, especially famous DJs that were really famous 5-6 years ago like 3LAU and Flosstradamus. Now we also have Steve Aoki and deadmau5 joining the digital art market. I believe that there is no really big difference between physical art and digital art. For me it’s just art. So, no matter what, whether you like Rothko or whether you like Burnt Banksy, follow the artist no matter what you like and like their work on any medium, whether that be photography, statue, or papyrus. That asset is just the medium of expression, so enjoy the expression and enjoy the medium if you would. Once the stigma has kind of evaporated I think you’ll start seeing more and more acceptance. We have to get off this term “NFT.” It needs to be art.
Shaina: Do you think NFT is a detrimental term for art?
Burnt Banksy: I wouldn’t say detrimental because it has definitely gotten the word out and brought attention to this new asset and it has provided validity to the asset. Has it gotten the traditional market very confused? Yea. I remember people asking me what the hell an NFT was and I just said “Non-Fungible Tokens.” And they are like what does that have to do with art? And I’m like well it provides authenticity, it’s like the backbone of what it is, but at the end of the day NFTs are great. I love them, they are my industry but the association between NFTs and digital art is, in the long term, harmful.
Shaina: So, you don’t think there’s any difference between the two, except that NFTs provide the route to provide authenticity for digital art?
Burnt Banksy: Yeah. It is just art. It is all art.