When digital artist Robbie Barrat handed out free NFT coupons at Christie’s four years ago, most guests threw them in the trash, not realizing they would soon be worth millions of dollars.
Barrat, then still a teenager, had been invited by the London auction house to talk about the rise of online art.
As part of the presentation, he presented the crowd with 300 cards, each with a code that entitled them to a digital artwork he had created using artificial intelligence.
This was before the NFT market exploded last year, and so only about 20 guests bothered to keep their small cards.
Barrat later salvaged many of them from trash cans and the ground.
On March 2 this year, just one such work, ‘Nude Portrait#7Frame#64’, sold at Sotheby’s for £630,000 ($821,000).
Barrat, now 22, had worked with AI since high school in the United States.
He created his images by downloading 10,000 images of classic art nudes to his computer, then using two competing AI programs to distort them.
“My interest was: can I use this tool to do something that is not classic?” he told AFP in a video interview. The method is known as “generative adversarial networks” (GANs): two neural networks that compete with each other using algorithms.
“(They) kind of fight each other,” Barrat said, adding that he deliberately added glitches to the programs to make the end results more interesting.
The result was a series of shapeless “nudes”, unsettling masses of reddish and brown tones that resemble paintings by Salvador Dali or Francis Bacon.
Don’t throw this away
Barrat was invited to speak at Christie’s by art collector Jason Bailey, known in the crypto art world as Artnome, one of the pioneers of the NFT market.
“Nobody knew what an NFT was back then,” Bailey told AFP.
He asked Barrat to create credit card-sized coupons for the presentation, each with a code giving access to an NFT stored online using blockchain technology, which guarantees unique ownership rights. to anyone who has the code.
“I was telling everyone from the stage, ‘This is the future. Do not discard this card.’ Bailey recalls with a smile.
“But these people were traditional art collectors. They were just, like, ‘Who is this wacky guy on stage… nobody collects digital art.’
I am not interested
Today, the works of Robbie Barrat are very rare, to the point of being nicknamed the “Lost Robbies”. And the NFT market has gone wild, with total sales estimated at $44.2 billion in 2021 according to analytics firm Chainalysis.
But despite his financial success, Barrat was deeply disillusioned with the experience.
“Over the past few years, what I’ve found with my work is that no one is even really talking about the image itself. All they talk about is the price,” he said.
Barrat continues to experiment with AI, but says he no longer intends to sell his work on the NFT marketplace. “I really don’t like the NFT space right now. Unless it changes, I’m not interested. Also because of the environmental issues with it,” he said.
The large amounts of energy required to maintain the blockchain and mine cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin that are used for many NFT transactions are causing widespread concern.
Four years after the strange episode at Christie’s, Bailey still defends the validity of cryptocurrencies and NFTs, especially since they allow artists to receive payments each time their work is resold – unlike the market of the traditional art.
But he added: “I totally understand and appreciate Robbie’s desire to distance himself from NFTs. NFTs aren’t for all artists at this point. Especially when they’re so polarizing they overshadow the art itself.
by Jordi ZAMORA