To NFT or not to NFT? That is THE Question!

A more divisive question than you might think…

This project aims to use images derived from the brain of The Artist Embodied to raise questions about disability, mental health/ill-health and the physical, social and emotional barriers that we all face on a day-to-day basis. The decision to make use of Web 3.0 technologies in the form of blockchain-based non-fungible tokens (NFTs) forms part of that discussion.

But why are NFTs the only viable way for a digital artist to present their art work and artwork in a secure, monetisable manner? I listened to a really interesting episode of NPR’s Planet Money Podcast which discussed this issue while interviewing the digital artist Beeple aka Mike Winkleman shortly after a digital montage of his “Everyday” series was sold at Christie’s in the form of an NFT for $69,000,000. Prior to that it was consultancy work and not his digital art that made him money. Certainly something to think about.

Back in December, while housebound, I gave a talk about my lived experience of disability as part of Disability Awareness Month. Fortunately, the magic of Zoom allowed me to participate from the safety of my height-adjusted faux-leather wing-backed chair (euphemistically referred to as my “throne” by members of my household). During the talk I made passing reference to the large amount of pro-bono (free) disability consultancy work that I and others do for various national and international public bodies, companies and assorted charities. It seemed to me that disability expertise and disability knowledge is valued by the organisations who request it, but not valued to the point that they are prepared to pay a market rate. The chair of the presentation expressed incredulity at this, seeming to be amazed that this would happen with large organisations. Once my talk was concluded, a colleague in the audience noted the irony that I was not being paid for giving that talk either. That’s the way of being an expert by lived experience.

As it happens, I am expert by qualification too. I have qualifications in various branches of law, philosophy and social science. More recently, I have studied hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, psychology, business and psychoanalysis. I plan to develop a therapeutic practice and will eventually find myself qualified as a Counselling Psychologist. However, that’s the future.

In the past, I have also been an entrepreneur. I always liked the term “social entrepreneur”: using my businesses where possible to try and help people. My pub served free food, with the motto “free for anyone so it is free for everyone”. My cocktail bar and restaurant ran summer activities for kids to challenge summer hunger. All my venues hosted live music as much as possible, we hosted performing arts events, and we created art gallery spaces. What we never succeeded in doing was making money. Something that it pains me to admit. Something that I still do not really understand.

I didn’t couldn’t pay my rent. I didn’t couldn’t pay my mortgage. I used the money earmarked for those things to pay my staff and operating costs. I used my disability benefits to do the same thing. Until, eventually, the money ran out altogether and I couldn’t pay my staff. And everything fell apart. I could point to things that “caused” my problems. I could complain about landlords, the economy, or any number of things. However, it doesn’t matter: the buck stopped here. And everything fell apart.

I’ve always had cerebral palsy: I was born with it. Or, rather, I was born two months premature and as a consequence have cerebral palsy. My price for being alive. My legs and hands do not work too well. One of my thumbs is deformed too which doesn’t really help matters. I’ve always been fairly blasé about it, and I don’t think I really “came out” as disabled until I was in my early twenties. (Something I will talk about at a later date.) I didn’t want how I was to define who I was. Things have changed quite a bit since then.

I think I first developed PTSD when I was 20, but it is hard to say. I only recognised it later. Trauma is as trauma does. (That is a discussion for later too.)

But, back to the recent past: when I could not pay my staff, I could not cope with it. And everything fell apart.

I remember, when I was being sued by staff who - quite rightly - had become fed up with waiting for me to sell my things to make enough money to pay them, that one of them said in paperwork something along the lines of “they use their disability as an excuse”. And that hurt a lot. However, I suppose it is how it seems. The truth is actually the other way around. I hid hide my disability and how it affected affects me. I remained silent for years about the constant pain, fatigue and cognitive dissonance I experienced daily. Hiding in plain sight behind ‘my legs don’t work’ and ‘my big thumb’. Cultivating a reputation for eccentricity and slight disorganisation to hide such symptoms as an inability to properly track the passage of time, constant exhaustion, disorientation, and any number of other ‘symptoms’. I think neurologists like to speak in terms of ‘deficits’ and I’ve got a few. (It is worth reading Oliver Sacks on this, give The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales a try for an interesting history of neurology/neuroscience up to 1985.) All of a sudden I find myself humming “Deficits, I’ve got a few, but then again too few to mention” to the tune of Sinatra’s “My Way”. Perhaps something repressed is being released, I’m sure that’s what a psychoanalyst would say. Indeed I have a few deficits, and I should probably mention them more. Occasionally I have mental health. Very often I have mental ill health. Sometimes I wonder if I wear a suit every day when out in the world to hide my crippling anxiety. Other times I know it. Also, wearing a suit in unusual situations contributes to my air of eccentricity. It also counteracts a little of the casual discrimination you get when your limbs don’t work. (I’ll talk about all these things more as the project continues.)

When everything fell apart, I became very ‘depressed’ and ‘non-functional’; my allusion to Shakespeare’s famous ‘to be or not to be’ in the title for this blog is no accident. It was a real question I considered almost daily as I experienced the feelings of psychic pain, guilt and entrapment. In honesty, I am playing it fast and loose with the use of past tense here. Therapy helps. It’s also why I felt called to train in psychology myself.

So I have first hand experience of what happens when things aren’t monetised and managed properly. I know the impact that running out of money can have on those around you. I also know the impact it had on those around me, and I am still dealing with it. In some cases, so are they. As committed as I am to narrative enquiry in arts, there has to be some financial value attached to the project as well as its intrinsic arts value. Disability expertise needs to be valued too.

NFTs seem to be the only way to do that. Plus, I have bills (and people) to pay.

Also, the fixing of the images in the blockchain raises interesting philosophical questions about capturing disability, mental health and personhood in the image and the token.

We ask:

Where does the artist end and the image begin?

Where does the image end and the artist begin?

But there also environmental and social concerns about entering the Web 3.0 space. One friend advised against it on the basis that it was not the kind of space to have the types of disability discussions I wanted to have. She expressed concern about making myself vulnerable and exposed in a world of ‘techbros’ and Wall Street-style crypto-trader attitudes. I thought long and hard about this, remembering (and still living) how vulnerable I had been on traditional social media when my business failed. However, the more I thought about it, the more it crystallised in my mind that if indeed it was true that disability is not welcome in the blockchain then the time had come to change that.

Another point of concern is the environmental impact of blockchain. It’s a real concern for me: the amount of energy that blockchain uses. A friend quietly slipped me an article titled Here is the Article You Can Send to People When They Say “but the Environmental Issues With Cryptoart Will Be Solved Soon, Right?. It’s worth a read. I like to hear all sides of an argument. I agree with some of the author’s observations, am terrified by others and take issue with the dogma of some of them. (I’m going to do some more work and research on this too.) These images are 41 years in the making and I cannot see a better mechanism for the narrative of the art (and the artist within it) than that afforded by the blockchain. That’s something that needs to be discussed too.

What do_you_ think? Tell me on Twitter @1924_me

Where does the artist end and the image begin?

The full collection of 1924 Pieces of Me will be available on Opensea to view and collect. Find out more.

You can also explore the collection on YouTube at the 1924 Pieces of Me channel.

Written by The Artist Embodied on 11 August 2022