Four years ago, when digital artist Robbie Barrat handed out free NFT coupons at Christie’s, most guests threw them in the trash, not realizing they would soon be worth millions.
Mr Barratt, then a teenager, was invited by a London auction house to talk about the rise of online art.
As part of the demo, he presented the crowd with 300 cards, each with a code that gave them access to digital artwork he created using artificial intelligence (AI).
This was before the NFT market exploded last year, so only about two dozen guests bothered to hold their little cards.
Mr Bharat later recovered many from trash cans and floors.
One such work, “Nude Portrait #7Frame#64,” sold for £630,000 ($821,000) at Sotheby’s on March 2 this year.
artificial intelligence fighting
Mr. Bharat, 22, has been studying artificial intelligence since high school in the United States.
He made his images by uploading 10,000 images of nudes from classical art into his computer, then using two competing artificial intelligence programs to distort them.
“My interest is: Can I use this tool to make something that’s not classic?” he told AFP in a video interview.
The approach is called a “generative adversarial network” (GAN): two neural networks that use algorithms to compete against each other.
“(They) were kind of fighting each other,” Bharat said, adding that he deliberately added glitches to the program to make the end result more interesting.
The result is a series of invisible “nudes” in disturbing shades of red and brown, similar to paintings by Salvador Dali or Francis Bacon.
“Don’t throw this away”
Mr. Barrat was speaking at Christie’s at the invitation of art collector Jason Bailey, known in the crypto art world as Artnome, one of the pioneers of the NFT market.
“No one knew what an NFT was at the time,” Mr Bailey told AFP.
He asked Mr. Bharat to create credit-card-sized coupons for the demo, each with a code that gave access to NFTs stored online using blockchain technology, which guaranteed the unique ownership of the person who owned the code.
“I told everyone on stage: ‘This is the future. Don’t throw this card away,'” recalls Mr Bailey with a smile.
“But these people are traditional art collectors. They’re just, like, ‘Who is this weird guy on stage… nobody collects digital art.'”
‘I’m not interested’
Today, Robbie Barratt’s work is so rare that it’s even dubbed “The Lost Robbie.”
The NFT market has gone wild, with total sales estimated at $44.2 billion by 2021, according to analytics firm Chainalysis.
But despite his financial success, Mr Bharat was deeply disappointed by the experience.
“What I’ve seen from my work over the last few years is that no one really talks about the image itself. All they talk about is the price,” he said.
Mr. Barrat continues to experiment with AI, but says he no longer intends to sell his work through the NFT marketplace.
“I really don’t like the NFT space right now. Unless it changes, I’m not interested. Also because of its environmental issues,” he said.
There are widespread concerns about the large amounts of energy required to maintain the blockchain and operate cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin that are used in many NFT transactions.
Four years after Christie’s bizarre incident, Bailey is still defending the validity of cryptocurrencies and NFTs, especially since they allow artists to receive payment each time they resell their work – unlike the traditional art market.
But he added: “I totally understand and appreciate Robbie’s desire to distance himself from NFTs. NFTs are not for every artist at this stage. Especially when they are so polarizing, they overshadow the art itself.”