Title image: Chameleon, the Computer Viruses series by Stepan Ryabchenko (Saatchi Gallery, London)

The metaverse is around the corner. Currently we can see only some shadowy forms of what will become our new reality. This new reality – more than ever – can be designed and shaped by art which is now acquiring an unprecedented power to do so. Driven by interactive virtual experiences and cutting-edge technologies, the metaverse is a huge project created by artists, architects, philosophers, sociologists, developers and every one of us.

Digital art, the heir of the “nerdy” net-art, which dates back to 1960-70s, is now an integral part of the art market. It all began with the use of telecommunication networks as media and is now experiencing a real boom against the backdrop of the NFT revolution and its infinite possibilities to create, exhibit, collect, consume, sell, buy, and literally live within culture online. Digital art is set to grow and evolve within such trends as XR and immersive art, virtual art exhibitions, crypto art and NFTs. All these trends will keep growing exponentially in the nearest future.

According to the Art Market Report 2022 by Art Basel, the current art market shift to the online appears to be here to stay. Even though dealers reopened their galleries, the online market expanded in 2021 by 7% to $13.3 billion. At the same time, NFT-based art made an earth-shaking entry into the market the same year, when Beeple’s NFT digital collage was sold at Christies for $69.3 million. By the end of 2021 the number of NFTs sold stood at $11.1 billion, which is two times more than two years earlier. It is also reported that 74% of the high-net-worth (HNW) collectors bought NFTs in 2021.

65% of artists’ jobs in the US today are related to IT and digital art.

Another survey shows that the increasing popularity of digital art and the expanding digital art market has also recently instigated a remarkable growth of the job market, which means that more people will come for artistic education in the future – without any fear for their financial condition and well-being, felt before by the majority of creatives. E.g., in USA the number of artist jobs, especially digital artist jobs, is growing over time. The majority (65%) of artist jobs today are related to IT and digital art. These are decently paid jobs (over 60K), so digital artists do not need a second job to support themselves.

The art community is truly excited about the recent trends of digital reality, their own digital experiences, and the new opportunities metaverse is giving to them – to create, certify and monetize their art.

Jumping on the digital bandwagon

Many artists have recently rushed to embrace digital technologies and new ways of creating art while modern technologies offered them a real opportunity to convert their artworks into genuine digital assets. Our interviewees have no doubt that digital art will eventually be accepted by most art lovers and traditional artists.

Flower Beds by Zlatan Woszerow

Creator of nftmuseum.art, Jay Khalifeh, is convinced that for the next generations digital art will become the main focus and driver for new art creation, distribution and consumption. «Digital Art has existed since the 1960’s, but it has never been in vogue as it is today through the digitalization of our society, drastically accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic», – Jay asserts. He launched his museum with no walls in 2021 realizing that the new opportunities to acquire, collect and show art through blockchain technologies can eventually make his dreams come true.

Many artists underline the impact made by the pandemic on the current development of digital technologies in culture, and some, including digital abstract artist from Poland Zlatan Woszerow, even see this new reality lacking some forms of physical contact with art as a source of inspiration.

«Web3 and digitalization are now a reality that is now accepted even by the sceptics, – Zlatan says. – If we talk about art, on the side of the audience, «traditionalists» suffer the most from the lack of physical contact with art, but for many it is paradoxically a celebration».

A massive digital art expansion is clearly visible even in countries which are known as “lagging behind” when it comes to the population’s digital skills. One such example is Spain. Diego Iglesias, Aida Salán and Cristóbal Baños, the three directors of the MMMAD Urban festival from Madrid, have lately noticed an unprecedented burst of interest in digital art in post-pandemic Spain.

 While in the pre-covid era digital art did not have a strong presence on the local art scene and was not a cultural agenda priority for most institutions and sponsors, lockdown forced people to spend majority of their time in front of screens, everyone suddenly became interested in digital art as a new way of both consuming and creating.

When we started working with digital art it was difficult for the festival to even reach the professional audience. Everything has changed now, – Diego tells. – We started the festival back in 2019, holding the first edition in February 2020, a few weeks before lockdown started in Spain. The second edition took place in May 2021, a few months after lockdown ended. In such a short time – a year in fact – we noticed a huge change in how professional and general public perceive digital art, we finally feel that we share a common language. In that context we felt the need to grow further, develop a larger program and explore what digital art really means and how it affects our lives”.

New technologies tackle the disadvantages of the traditional art market in terms of access to art no longer being elitist, market transparency improving fair art valuations, and ownership supposedly reducing the risk of fraud.

 Eugene Mandelshtam, CEO of the international AR-project Immerse lab which have got recently a prestigious Auggie award in LA, is convinced that after most galleries and museums were closed artists “were literally forced to start using digital tools to reach their audience”. “Currently, after the pandemic, not only young artists, but even renowned “traditional” masters are trying to stay cool and trendy starting to make projects in XR and NFT”, – explains Eugene. Immerse lab enjoys making common projects with real stars of traditional art and sharing with them all the digital sagacity the young team possess, adds Eugene, who is excited about the opportunities given by the upcoming metaverse reality.

Dawn by Stepan Ryabchenko

This reality inspires artists to create their most successful projects as it happened to the artist from Odessa Stepan Ryabchenko, who has conquered world fame in digital and media art and become one of the most successful Ukrainians under 30 according to Forbes. During lockdown Stepan has launched his signature project «Strange time» – an international virtual exhibition, where as a curator he invited famous artists from all over the world.

The focus of the “Strange Time” exhibition was not only works of art, but also the very format of artistic representation on the basis of an Internet site, which became a work of art by itself. “Strange Time” is the study of time and its ambiguity through visual language. The project was created as a developing organism, which is being constantly updated with new authors and works, expanding its digital boundaries, – tells Stepan about his experience. – At the time of the opening, the works of 54 artists from all over the world were shown, including such contemporary art stars as Kenny Scharf, Felix Schramm, Robert Lazzarini and others. Today, in connection with the war in Ukraine, I decided to update the project and now I am negotiating with new artists who will be presented soon”.

Digital artwork by Metalman (metalman.art)

More and more traditional artists will be jumping on the digital bandwagon because of NFTs and the general trend of digitalization, – says Metalman who has been a digital artist since the early 2000s and was actively involved on DeviantArt and now has his own site on .ART, – Many technologies are still in their infant stage now, but I would say the convergence of the metaverse and the artworld online virtual art galleries is to be the biggest tendency in the nearest future”.

NFT and the new era of monetizing art

NFT technology is generally perceived to be a real-life changer for the art market. Though the real value of NFT art is still to be determined, thousands of art creators and businessmen are already enjoying the benefits of this new way of monetizing digital content. This is also a new era for consumers who use NFTs as a means to raise their social status through showing their commitment to technological progress and cutting-edge technologies. Purchasing NFTs and using them as avatars on social media is very much en vogue

For decades two universes – contemporary art world and digital artists – lived two separate lives, but the NFT hype changed everything, – Eugene Mandelshtam elaborates. – Digital art became a valuable commodity for thousands of new crypto-art collectors, who wanted to spend or multiply their crypto-assets by buying NFTs. Mind blowing prices for artworks made renowned masters start their own NFT career and get a piece of this crypto cake, and now art institutions have finally opened their doors for «NFT artists» which is just a cool new name for digital art creators. While in 2020-2022 it was all about selling art, in the nearest future it will all be about showcasing, exhibiting, and entertaining. From the Immerse lab experience of creating theatre plays and exhibitions in XR we understood that the only right way of communicating with NFTs is AR gallery. That is why we made Dozar, a global service for creating augmented reality galleries of NFT art. This is how Immerse lab sees the future of digital art: you establish your own virtual gallery with architecture and interior of your choice, connect your crypto-wallet with all your NFT collection – and it is done, all paintings already on walls, you just send link to your friends or social media if you want everybody to enter your private virtual studio”.

NFTs have started a revolution in the way we can collect digital art

 Zlatan Woszerow thinks that “all these new technologies, including NFT, are mature enough to facilitate, better than traditional forms, art valuation, appreciation, storage and delivery as well as promotion and auctions. The problem is eternal: the public does not usually keep up with the new art or new technologies – in this sense it is an audience that is never mature enough”, – says Zlatan. “All these new technologies deal well with the disadvantages of the traditional art market in terms of access to art no longer being elitist, market transparency improving fair art valuations, and ownership rights which is in theory reduces the risk of fraud. For all these reasons, I use NFT”.

Stepan Ryabchenko thinks that there are still a lot of flaws in NFT technologies. “There were several cases when works of art disappeared from the system without a trace. Also, most well-known marketplaces do now allow collectors to sell the works bought at a certain auction via another auction, – tells Stepan. – The main drawback is the time of existence of the digital items. I am sure that everything that does not have a physical component is just a fleeting ghost. All this digital environment will exist only until a certain time due to its ephemeral nature. Therefore, all my digital works exist in parallel in physical form as paintings, sculptures and installations».

Image courtesy of Madrid Urban festival of Digital Art (mmmad.art)

Aida Salán and Cristóbal Baños, co-directors of MMMAD Festival, are convinced that NFT and blockchain technologies introduce a solution to one of the main issues of digital art, which is authorship and reproducibility, something important both for artists and collectors. “NFTs have started a revolution in the way we can collect digital art, and we hope this will continue to expand and evolve to establish a stable market for digital artists to be able to live off their work. In the past edition of MMMAD Festival (May 2022) we launched our very first NFT exhibition in collaboration with the Spain-based blockchain platform art.army, – says Aida. – We wanted to explore other visions into the NFT world, which has been proven to be very white-cis-heteronormative, and so we invited Zaiba Jabbar from HERVISIONS as guest curator. The result is ‘Space of vision’, an online exhibition in a virtual space populated by artworks that develop alternative perspectives and working methods to explore new architectures based on biology, the micro and the generative”.

Digital art: democratic, cool, eco- and introvert friendly

Though there are still a lot of discussions on the value and meaning of digital art in comparison to the traditional forms, there is a universal agreement among the artists about the benefits of current digital art boom for creative communities and ecosystems. Today the art community witnesses democratization of the art market, which has previously been a niche available only for few.

I have always had a dream to found and constitute an art museum to make available for a broad audience my personal curatorial view, and digital and blockchain technologies have made it possible”, – says Jay Khalifeh.

Metalman also praises the new opportunities for art collection: “Art collectors are no longer men or women in suits holding champagne glasses. It can be anyone with a crypto wallet sitting in their bedroom. I’m sure that investors are out there looking to invest in the next NFT”.

Image courtesy of Immerse lab (immerselab.art)

Eugene Mandelshtam from Immerse lab notes that current trends are playing in favor of an audience segment that was not obvious as a such before –  people who are not comfortable with being in crowded places, who avoid mass gatherings in theatres or museums. “This audience has demonstrated itself as an important art consumer, previously often lost for museums, galleries and theatres. Different studies show that this group forms from 10 to 15% of the population, mostly people with higher education – so it is a rather large group. This makes us believe that new digital art genres, such as phygital exhibitions or location-based AR shows, will continue to emerge and get their audience in the upcoming future”, – Eugene asserts.

You can be the legal owner or co-owner of literally every work of art without physically owning it.

Many digital creators also feel that digital technologies and NFT are real game changers for the nature of art ownership moving us towards mindful possession and consumption and trying to satisfy both the urge for possession and the need for sharing, which is vitally important in the age of scarce resources. Zlatan Woszerow is convinced that digital art is not only introvert friendly, but also will eventually save the environment.

“Sharing economy emerged because we are trying to save the world from a catastrophe in the face of limited resources. Why have a car if you can use Uber, why have a house if you can rent it and enjoy freedom to choose a place to live, etc., Why have an artwork and spend a lot of money on it, since you can go to a museum, visit a virtual gallery or even rent it for a certain period of time?” This might run counter to the age-old human need to possess things, and blockchain comes to the aid of this atavistic need of possession, while remaining true to the tenets of sharing economy: “You can be the legal owner or co-owner of literally every work of art without physically owning it. Of course, for greedy egoists, this is not the best solution, but this will ultimately save the world. And not only world but also the art itself – so the future definitely belongs to digital art in a broad sense”.

As we are driving towards metaverse at an unparalleled velocity, artists are the main authors of how our new world will look like. May of the art creators are truly aware of their role in shaping the virtual experiences which will soon become our new environment. But art is something being traditionally inspired by real life which is now more than ever encouraging us to create new ways of interacting with each other and live in peace with the environment. That is our true responsibility, and digital technologies are offering us all the necessary tools to take it.