Asian Scientist Magazine (Oct. 25, 2022)—Over the past four years, Singapore-based artist Brenda Tan has spent her time building the brand of PiguBao—an illustrated character based on traditional peach-shaped longevity buns.
In Tan’s work, PiguBao represents exploration and self-discovery. The character has been subtly featured in magazine illustrations, been the star of mini acrylic paintings and massive wall murals, invaded smartphones as an augmented reality filter and been screen-printed on t-shirts.
Now, Tan is embarking on an exciting adventure—non-fungible tokens, or NFTs—which involves navigating a new digital space that is still defining itself.
From blockchain to gallery
To understand what an NFT is, it’s important to grasp the concepts of blockchain and cryptocurrency. A blockchain acts as a digital ledger that keeps track of transactions in a thread of data blocks. Each block contains three important pieces of information—data, a unique identifier and the identifier of the block before it. If a block is tampered with, the identifier changes and every block after it becomes invalid.
But tampering with a block is notoriously difficult. Unlike banks or other record-keeping institutions, a blockchain is not reliant on one facility. Each block has copies across a network of computers worldwide that anyone can join. When a new block is recorded, each computer on the network launches a set of calculations to add that block to the chain and verify that it has not been tampered with. Simply put, a blockchain is like a list where each item is unique and meticulously checked by auditors all over the world.
Cryptocurrency, on the other hand, is a form of decentralized digital currency that is recorded on a blockchain. Cryptocurrency can be bought or sold with traditional money and used for purchases, both virtual and physical.
One such virtual item that can be purchased through cryptocurrency is an NFT. NFTs represent the ownership of a unique item, like a digital artwork, and were originally created to offer artists greater compensation and control over their work in an era of ‘reposting’ without credit.
When someone puts an NFT up for sale, their smartphone or computer executes a code that is stored in smart contracts and added to the relevant blockchain. Like traditional art collections, even when an NFT is sold, copyright and reproduction rights remain with the original owner.
“Content creators also get to interact with their communities directly,” explained Lee Wen Jie, a platform developer and chief technology officer at Singapore based contemporary digital magazine, Rice Media.
For artists like Tan who are new to the space, NFTs can seem daunting— particularly if the artist has limited tech and investment experience. Despite the NFT market reporting almost US$41 billion in global sales in 2021, the industry remains complicated and largely unregulated. With a significant number of collectors hailing from Asia, organizations, creators, curators and governments in the region are trying to shape the sector into an inclusive and responsible space for everyone.
Spreading the word
Initially unsure about the process of selling an NFT, Tan attended a workshop run by TZ APAC, a blockchain adoption organization that supports the Tezos cryptocurrency community in Asia. Unlike the more popular Ethereum blockchain, the Tezos blockchain and its related marketplaces are geared towards artists and art collectors.
At the workshop, Tan learned the ins and outs of creating, transferring, copyrighting and pricing an NFT. She was also given a small amount of the Tezos coin, Tez, to mint her very first NFT—naturally, a portrait of PiguBao.
As more artists enter the space, Asia’s NFT ecosystem continues to grow with the help of organizations like TZ APAC. “While the outpouring of interest across mainstream audiences has been incredibly encouraging, education is critical to ensure that people can enter the landscape in an informed and responsible way,” explained Katherine Ng, Managing Director of TZ APAC.
In addition to workshops, TZ APAC also collaborates with local art collectives across Asia to inject education and outreach into art fairs and exhibitions. Notably, they have worked with Art Moments Jakarta, a hybrid art fair for digital artists, and Art Fair Philippines, a prestigious platform for contemporary and modern art in the Philippines. To ensure no talent is left unseen, the organization also established a grant program called Ecosystem Growth Grants in conjunction with Tezos India to provide funding to creators who may not have the financial capital to begin their NFT journeys.
“These opportunities are two-fold,” explained Ng. “They give artists from the region the opportunity to showcase their works on renowned platforms within the traditional art world, while educating artists, collectors and curators on what NFTs are and what they can do as an asset class.”
Wild wild west
Despite the tight security of blockchain-based ownership, both artists and collectors have to navigate pitfalls, which can potentially cost money. Additionally, while some governments in Asia, such as Hong Kong and Vietnam, have begun regulating cryptocurrency, there is little to no regulation specifically for NFTs in most Asian nations.
“With the rise of NFTs, people’s consumption of media will be more extensive, encrypted and digitized,” explained Professor Hu Yu, director of the management committee of the Metaverse Culture Laboratory at Tsinghua University in China. “At the same time, there will be more copyright disputes, blind investment and fraud risks.”
For artists, the anonymity of NFT users and the lack of a regulating body can result in copyright infringement or plagiarism. Consider the case of Indonesian illustrator Ardhira Putra, who was tagged in a Twitter post (tweet) that featured artwork that was eerily similar to his own—a multicolored ’90s-style ranger.
The artwork in the tweet seemed to exist as part of a profile picture project where traders could purchase different colored rangers for their social media profiles— in Putra’s distinctive art style and created without his knowledge. “It was a bit weird because the account didn’t have any information about the project. They had a very low follower count and only posted about three tweets,” shared Putra. “One of the tweets was an artwork that copied my work and it was the only one with a lot of engagement—so many retweets and quote tweets.”
In Singapore, where Putra is based, copyright laws extend to digital works and NFTs. However, without the identity of the plagiarist, a gallery to contact or a governing body, it can be difficult for artists to take action. After reporting the tweet, Putra decided to turn to the tight-knit NFT community. With the help of some friends, he managed to spread the information to enough users to hinder the popularity and success of the project. The account has since been taken down.
Communities are also extremely important when it comes to scams that target buyers. Often, users take to social media to raise awareness and warn others of suspicious projects. One common concern for traders is called a rug pull, where scammers advertise a project, collect investments and run away after abandoning the project completely, leaving traders at a loss.
In a report analyzing the relationship between the metaverse and public governance, Hu and his team stress that government intervention could protect the digital community. However, some traders believe that to maintain the value of the space, the risk of each trade should remain with the individual investor.
“Without regulation, projects get cut, investors get scammed and there’s a high chance of losing money,” said Jimmy Goh, founder of cryptocurrency collective and Singapore’s first in-person NFT gallery, Web3SG. “But without enough interest even the best project can crash to zero—either way you lose money. It’s the Wild Wild West and to benefit you need to accept that at any moment you can lose everything.”
As the NFT scene grows, so too do efforts to build a safe and responsible community around it. In Asia, organizations like the Association of Crypto Currency Enterprises and Start-ups Singapore (ACCESS) as well as the Vietnam Blockchain Association have recently been formed to protect the interests of blockchain users by conducting training, developing digital solutions and working with the government.
Breaking into the boys’ club
While PiguBao’s gender is resolutely nonconforming, Tan is entering a space where women remain underrepresented. According to a report published in 2021 by research agency called ArtTactic, excluding 16 percent of transactions where gender was unknown, female artists accounted for just five percent of global NFT art sales.
“It can be a bit of a boys’ club,” shared Tan. “But there are things like women-led projects and groups that offer some hope.” One such effort is the launch of a virtual NFT art exhibition curated by Hong Kong gallery Bamboo Scenes, featuring the work of five female artists.
“We wanted to take action and spotlight the steps female artists have taken in the space and let that be an example for other women who may not be as confident coming into the sector,” said Madelon de Grave, founder and CEO at Bamboo Scenes and curator of the exhibition A Woman’s World.
Private collectors are also doing their part to support diversity in the space. When Hong Kong-based designer, NFT creator and collector Payal Shah first started her collection, she gathered a group of women in the sector for weekly calls to bounce ideas off one another. Supported by this safe space, she started to invest primarily in female-led projects and female artists.
“That was the portfolio I wanted to start off with—supporting women whether they were moderators, founders or artists,” shared Shah.
Playing to the (digital) gallery
At Tan’s most recent solo exhibition, she worked with a gallery to release a series of 10 artworks. In her first foray into the metaverse, Tan explored the value of a physical work compared to that of an NFT. The series functioned as a social experiment, where each artwork was available as either a fine art print or an NFT. Buyers could choose to purchase the artwork in one of its two forms and the one that was not bought would be destroyed—giving collectors the opportunity to decide which one they believed had a more significant existence.
Tan has mixed feelings about her experience with the exhibition. “NFTs feel like a stepping stone. I don’t think the hype will last forever and NFT art can’t become something that you keep in your home forever,” she said. “But I think the metaverse will be the big thing. Maybe buyers can hang NFT art in their metaverse homes.”
As NFTs proliferate in Asia, stakeholders are constantly innovating unique ways to ensure safe and inclusive trading. “The uncertainty surrounding the metaverse and the desire to connect with others warrants further efforts to both understand and embrace this virtual world,” said Hu. “Rejecting this next wave of digital transformation will not move society forward. Instead we should consider how we can use the tech rationally and fairly.”
This article was first published in the print version of Asian Scientist Magazine, July 2022.
Click here to subscribe to Asian Scientist Magazine in print.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine. Illustration: Wong Wey Wen