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October 17, 2022

How NFTs Changed Digital Art Forever

Jason Bailey speaks with Carla Rapoport, Founder of The Lumen Prize, about the value of an NFT Award
Credit: ZU-UK, RADIO GHOST. Shortlisted for the 3D/Interactive Award. Courtesy of the artists
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How NFTs Changed Digital Art Forever

Earlier this year, Right Click Save partnered with The Lumen Prize to develop a new NFT Award celebrating the remarkable community of creators working with NFTs. This week, the winner of the NFT Award and those of other categories will be announced in a special ceremony at the Barbican in London. Since founding the Prize in 2012, Carla Rapoport has turned it into a celebration of the very best art created with technology around the world. Beyond distributing prize money, the Prize has created opportunities for artists who have been longlisted, shortlisted, and won The Lumen Prize itself. As a former financial journalist, Rapoport understands better than most the arc of the global digital art market. Ahead of the award ceremony, she speaks with Jason Bailey about how NFTs have changed the game.

Lin Xin, The Order of Bugs. Shortlisted for the HUA Award 華艺数奖. Courtesy of the artist

Jason Bailey: I think we may be kindred spirits for having supported digital art for a long time both when it’s been comfortable and when it’s been less comfortable. We’ve not spoken since formalizing RCS’s sponsorship of the NFT Award, and obviously a lot has happened since then. With the final award ceremony taking place on Wednesday, it would be great to hear how the past year has been for Lumen.

Carla Rapoport: Well, we opened the call for entries in March, and we had a great response. 

The NFT Award definitely brought in a new ecosystem of artists. Indeed, we’ve had artists who engage with NFTs as a part of their practice in a lot of the other categories, which is very exciting. 

The call for entries closed in June, and then it went to the International Selectors Committee, which you and Colborn Bell are on for the NFT category, and they created a longlist of 70 works, published in July. All those artists become part of the Lumen community of over 500 artists, who are eligible for opportunities — we share ideas, commissions, and events that they might be interested in being a part of. Those artists who went forward for shortlisting were then seen by the jury panel, which includes Christiane Paul at the Whitney [Museum of American Art], Nathan Ladd of Tate, Melanie Lenz at the V&A, Boris Magrini at HeK Basel, and Silke Schmickl of M+ in Hong Kong. So that is our jury panel that created the shortlist, which was announced in September. The same panel then returned to finalize the awards, which will be announced on 19 October in London.

JB: Thanks Carla. It was a real pleasure and honor to participate in the initial round of judging, and it makes sense for the jury to have time to reflect on the projects in greater depth after they’ve narrowed it down to the shortlist. 

CR: We want every artist who’s involved with Lumen to feel that they’ve got a goody out of it, that they are part of the community. Having this slightly longer process means that they become part of what we do. Whether they win or not, we use our social media to spotlight longlisted artists and will continue to do that throughout the year. 

DISNOVATION.ORG, Life Support System. Shortlisted for the Futures Award. Courtesy of the artists

JB: One of the things I love about The Lumen Prize is that it’s an art prize, which in some ways is a contradiction because people don’t necessarily think of art as a competitive endeavor like sport. But I like the way Lumen handles it — treating everyone as part of the family once they enter and then optimizing the process to spotlight everyone. How has the shortlist been received? 

CR: People are so excited, and we’ve seen a lot of engagement on Twitter thanks to the NFT Award. In the past, we’ve been more Instagram-focused. A number of new partners have also been attracted by the quality of the artists. 

The change in the quality has been remarkable. In the past, when we went through submissions, we would see doodles that people had done on their iPads, which we sometimes jokingly referred to as “cats and baskets”. And now it’s really tough as there are so many good projects.

JB: This is the third year that I’ve been a preliminary judge, and I think that the quality and volume of work has really gone up. There are still a few cats and baskets that sneak in, but I think that they are important, too. You want to include artists wherever they are in their journey. I started in what you might call the cats and baskets crowd and arguably never got out of it. [Laughs] But as a judge, I agree with you that the general quality of work has gone up aesthetically and conceptually. Of course, I usually only judge for one specific category and this year it was the NFT Award. But I’ve been pleased with the submissions. 

As someone who’s been passionate about digital art and generative art for 25 years now, I’ve always felt that it was underserved and unacknowledged. But over the course of the past year and a half, with people going crazy about NFTs — love them or hate them — it feels to me that they have pushed digital art into the mainstream. I’m curious if that’s been your experience.

CR: It’s been an absolute sea change, and not just for us but for many of the people in our universe who have been quietly scraping away at that coalface and are now suddenly getting requests to give lectures around the world. The change in what’s being asked of us is so marked: “How do we show nfts? How do we exhibit them? Should we be collecting them?” So we set up a consultancy. My colleague, Jack Addis, and I have been super busy fielding questions. It’s been delightful to have this engagement from new partners offering exhibition opportunities, as well as collectors from the traditional art world coming to us for advice. 

Rian Ciela Hammond, Root Picker. Shortlisted for the Moving Image Award. Courtesy of the artist

JB: NFTs are often criticized for making art more about money, but while digital art has obviously been around for a long time, it has also been ignored to some degree. With cultural institutions increasingly interested in digital art as a result of NFTs, what has changed fundamentally for you?

CR: My modest theory is that NFTs as a technology came to the art world first. Computers didn’t come to us first, nor did AI, nor did the Internet. 

Somehow this technology came to the digital art community first. So anyone who wanted to get to it had to come through us to understand it.

This industry is full of geeks, and there’s nothing that we, as geeks, like more than to talk about how technology works. I’ve talked to artists from Haiti, India, and around the world who have been working with NFTs to sell their art. NFTs opened up an opportunity for a global community of artists to make money from their work without needing galleries or institutions. And then the auction houses piled in and it just went rolling. And from a personal perspective it rolled into conversations with people who had nothing to do with my world, thoughtful people who had taken no interest in my work in the past. Now the controversy is gone. 

Mengtai Zhang, Lemon Guo, Diagnosia. Shortlisted for the HUA Award 華艺数奖. Courtesy of the artists

JB: I’ve spent four years thinking about this, but it never occurred to me that this is might be the first time that a technology started with artists and people came to artists to understand it. Obviously, the blockchain was around prior to that. But NFTs have really evolved out of art and design. When was the last time there was a broad public conversation about art that wasn’t simply about a record-breaking sale. 

In the past, the art world has been somewhat luddite about tech, which it has seen as replacing the human activity of creation. But as new tech moves into our everyday lives, artists are best placed to make us question and challenge it but also to allay some of the more unnecessary fears. Artists are now playing that role with respect to AI.

CR: I totally agree, Jason, and the shortlisted projects reflect that. There is such a participatory element to the works that use AI that forces people to get to grips with it through, for example, immersive and interactive art. A lot of this year’s shortlisted works go down that route. 

JB: Sometimes when cornered with a question like: “What’s the value of art or the function of artists in society?” I’ll often say: “It’s a way to look through many different lenses at the most important things that are going on in our lives.” We live in this tech-driven era and I think we need artists more than ever to help us navigate it. 

Julio Obscura, The Border Project: Fronterizo. Shortlisted for the BCS Immersive Environment Award. Courtesy of the artist

CR: We have works on the shortlist that comment on climate change and on feelings of isolation brought about by the experience of COVID. These works are often very moving, for instance, by putting you on a journey back and forth across the US-Mexican border. Of course, you can read about such things but you can feel them through art and be there through art. 

JB: I agree. Art fosters empathy rather than simply reporting information. And as these tech innovations emerge at what feels like an ever-increasing speed, you’re in an interesting position at the tip of the spear, where you decide how to create a taxonomy around this ever-changing environment. When you started out ten years ago the categories were quite different. Can you speak about how they have evolved over time?

CR: We started off in 2012 with three awards: first, second, and third. And everybody hated it because someone had to be third. So we had to get rid of third pretty damn fast and come up with some categories. So in the early days, we came up with something called the Creative Coding Award; we had an Animation Award; we had a Web-based Award. Now, those have all been dropped because they are in everything that gets submitted. Our 3D/Interactive Award emerged to address artists working with VR as well as dance, partly through the influence of the Welsh National Opera. 

Then we launched a Games Award but those kinds of works now gravitate to our 3D/Interactive or Immersive Environment categories. Then we had an AI Award which evolved into the Futures Award, which includes human interaction with AI. Then we had a VR [virtual reality] Award which became the XR [extended reality] Award and then the Immersive Environment Award. So the awards evolved thanks to the submissions of the artists and by working with members of the jury panel as well as the first-round judges. Then we recognized that we were all white, so in 2020 we developed the Global South Award which is now the Global Majority Award, and it has had a spectacular effect on the geographic reach and inclusiveness of the Prize. 

There are still many parts of the world which could have greater representation. But the quality of work coming through the Global Majority Award is just stunning. 
Nitcha Tothong & Kengchakaj Kengkarnka, Jitr (จิตร). Shortlisted for the Global Majority Award. Courtesy of the artists

This year, we were lucky enough to find a sponsor in China, which has brought in some Chinese artists, and we have a wonderful sponsor who runs a regional art museum in Norway, which does a Nordic award. So that gives us our geographic spread. Then, of course, there’s the Student Award, which is sponsored, free to enter, and always turns up something you can’t believe. In total, We now have 10 categories as well as a Gold Award. Hopefully that will be it, though there might be one more award to add next year, watch this space.

JB: How does the number of submissions you’ve received this year compare to ten years ago?

CR: It’s always been pretty steady. We almost always get around 1200 works each year, I don’t know why. Around 20% of those are people who have entered before. Past winners have also re-entered, which is fantastic. 

The NFT Award has been a magical way to bring in another community, while the HUA Award 華艺数奖 has brought in a huge number of Chinese works. 

Making sure that the categories are sharp helps us to ensure we hit our goal. But it seems to be a fairly tight group. Do you share that feeling Jason that digital art is not growing exponentially in terms of the number of people doing it?

JB: From my position in the NFT space, I think we are seeing a large number of new people coming to digital art. That said, there is also a small group of digital artists that has been operating for 25 years, particularly on the code-based side. That group is still active and has developed strong internal bonds over the years. I find it interesting that the numbers have stayed roughly the same, but the quality and inclusiveness have gone up. I’m going to try to help next year so that we can break our submission record, because I think there are people out there who just don’t feel like they’re good enough or qualified. 

ZU-UK, RADIO GHOST. Shortlisted for the 3D/Interactive Award. Courtesy of the artists

CR: We have had Refik Anadol win a Gold Award but, in most years, it is someone you haven’t heard of. This is a platform for emerging artists, who really do benefit from winning an award — they get great opportunities, they get noticed, they get commissions, it’s a wonderful way to boost your career. We’re trying to support an ecosystem, and we’re hoping it raises all boats so that everyone plays a bigger part of the art world picture.

So I say to artists: “Please, don’t be shy, give it a try.”

JB: I have to ask, when you first decided to add an NFT Award category, did you get any backlash at all? 

CR: Not a dicky bird. People were completely receptive, which was a wonderful validation of Lumen’s decision to do this. Even Christiane Paul felt it was a wonderful way to choose what’s the best, and she was all in. We polled all five jury panelists personally, and they all went for it. And then the entries came in and we even had NFT projects in other categories. So, all I can say is thank you for partnering with us on this. You have an all-voices-matter approach at Right Click Save and that was the approach we wanted.

JB: Thanks Carla. I agree, we’re completely aligned in our mission and I’m excited for the announcement of the winner of the inaugural NFT Award.

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Carla Rapoport is an interdisciplinary arts entrepreneur, speaker, and writer who aims to create new audiences and opportunities for artists creating with technology around the world. In 2012, she founded The Lumen Prize for Art and Technology following a career as a financial journalist working for the Financial Times, Fortune Magazine, and The Economist Group located in London, New York, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. In 2018, she founded Lumen Art Projects to manage both the prize and a growing business that provides consultancy, exhibitions, and commissions featuring artists in the Lumen community to a global roster of clients. This community now numbers over 500 artists who have been longlisted, shortlisted, or won The Lumen Prize.

‍Jason Bailey is the creator of the art and tech blog and founder of GreenNFTs and ClubNFT, where he serves as CEO.