Asian Scientist Magazine (25 October 2022)— Over the past four years, Singapore-based artist Brenda Tan has devoted her time to building the PiguBao brand – an illustrated character based on traditional long-lived peach-shaped buns.
In Tan’s work, PiguBao represents exploration and self-discovery. The character has been subtly featured in magazine illustrations, been the star of mini acrylic paintings and massive murals, invaded smartphones as an augmented reality filter, and been screen-printed on t-shirts.
Now, Tan embarks on an exciting adventure – non-fungible tokens, or NFTs – that involves navigating a new digital space that is still defining itself.
From blockchain to gallery
To understand what an NFT is, it is important to understand the concepts of blockchain and cryptocurrency. A blockchain acts as a digital ledger that keeps track of transactions in a thread of data blocks. Each block contains three important pieces of information – data, a unique identifier, and the identifier of the block before it. If a block is tampered with, the identifier is changed and every block after it becomes invalid.
But it is notoriously difficult to manipulate a block. Unlike banks or other institutions of record, a blockchain is not dependent on one facility. Each block has copies across a network of computers worldwide that anyone can join. When a new block is registered, each computer on the network starts a set of calculations to add this block to the chain and verify that it has not been tampered with. Simply put, a blockchain is like a list where each item is unique and carefully checked by auditors all over the world.
Cryptocurrency, on the other hand, is a form of decentralized digital currency that is recorded on a blockchain. Cryptocurrency can be bought or sold with traditional money and used for purchases, both virtual and physical.
One such virtual item that can be purchased through cryptocurrency is an NFT. NFTs represent ownership of a unique item, like a piece of digital art, and were originally created to offer artists greater compensation and control over their work in an era of uncredited ‘reposting’.
When someone puts an NFT up for sale, their smartphone or computer executes a code stored in smart contracts and added to the relevant blockchain. Like traditional art collections, even when an NFT is sold, copyright and reproduction rights remain with the original owner.
“Content creators can also interact with their communities directly,” explained Lee Wen Jie, a platform developer and chief technology officer at Singapore-based modern digital magazine Rice Media.
For artists like Tan who are new to the space, NFTs can seem intimidating – especially if the artist has limited technology and investment experience. Despite the NFT market reporting nearly $41 billion in global sales by 2021, the industry remains complicated and largely unregulated. With a significant number of collectors coming from Asia, organizations, creators, curators and governments in the region are trying to shape the sector into an inclusive and responsible space for all.
Spread the word
Initially unsure about the process of selling an NFT, Tan attended a workshop run by TZ APAC, a blockchain adoption organization that supports the Tezos cryptocurrency community in Asia. Unlike the more popular Ethereum blockchain, Tezo’s blockchain and its related marketplaces are aimed at artists and art collectors.
At the workshop, Tan learned the ins and outs of creating, transferring, copyrighting and pricing an NFT. She was also given a small amount of the Tezos coin, Tez, to mint her very first NFT – a portrait of PiguBao, of course.
As more artists enter the space, Asia’s NFT ecosystem continues to grow with the help of organizations like TZ APAC. “While the outpouring of interest across mainstream audiences has been incredibly encouraging, education is critical to ensure people can enter the landscape in an informed and responsible manner,” explained Katherine Ng, CEO of TZ APAC.
In addition to workshops, TZ APAC also partners with local art collectives across Asia to inject education and outreach into art fairs and exhibitions. They have notably worked with Art Moments Jakarta, a hybrid art fair for digital artists, and Art Fair Philippines, a prestigious platform for modern and contemporary art in the Philippines. To ensure that no talent is left unseen, the organization also established a grant program called Ecosystem Growth Grants in partnership with Tezos India to provide funding to creators who may not have the financial capital to begin their NFT journeys.
“These opportunities are twofold,” Ng explained. “They allow artists from the region to showcase their work on recognized platforms within the traditional art world, while educating artists, collectors and curators about what NFTs are and what they can do as an asset class.”
The Wild West
Despite the tight security of blockchain-based ownership, artists and collectors alike have to navigate potentially costly pitfalls. In addition, while some governments in Asia, such as Hong Kong and Vietnam, have begun to regulate cryptocurrency, there is little or no regulation specifically for NFTs in most Asian nations.
“With the advent of NFTs, people’s consumption of media will become more comprehensive, encrypted and digitized,” explained Professor Hu Yu, director of the management committee of the Metaverse Culture Laboratory at Tsinghua University in China. “At the same time, there will be more copyright disputes, blind investments and fraud risks.”
For artists, the anonymity of NFT users and the lack of a regulatory body can result in copyright infringement or plagiarism. Consider the case of Indonesian illustrator Ardhira Putra, who was tagged in a Twitter post (tweet) that featured artwork eerily similar to his own – a 90s-style multicolored ranger.
The artwork in the tweet appeared to exist as part of a profile picture project where shoppers could purchase different colored rangers for their social media profiles – in Putra’s signature art style and created without his knowledge. “It was a bit strange because the account had no information about the project. They had a very low number of followers and only posted about three tweets,” Putra shared. “One of the tweets was an artwork copying my work and it was the only one with a lot of engagement – so many retweets and quote tweets.”
In Singapore, where Putra is based, copyright law extends to digital works and NFTs. However, without the identity of the plagiarist, a gallery to contact or a governing body, it can be difficult for artists to act. After reporting the tweet, Putra decided to reach out to the tight-knit NFT community. With the help of some friends, he managed to spread the information to enough users to hinder the project’s popularity and success. The account has since been taken down.
Communities are also extremely important when it comes to fraud targeting buyers. Often, users use social media to raise awareness and warn others about suspicious projects. A common concern for traders is called a blanket pull, where scammers advertise a project, collect investment and run away after abandoning the project completely, leaving traders with losses.
In a report analyzing the relationship between the metaverse and public governance, Hu and his team emphasize that government intervention can protect the digital society. However, some traders believe that in order to preserve the value of the space, the risk of each trade should remain with the individual investor.
“Without regulation, projects are cut, investors are cheated and there is a high chance of losing money,” said Jimmy Goh, founder of cryptocurrency collective and Singapore’s first personal NFT gallery, Web3SG. “But without enough interest, even the best project can go down to zero – no matter what you lose money. It’s the Wild Wild West, and in order to profit, you have to accept that you can lose everything at any time.”
As the NFT scene grows, so do the efforts to build a safe and responsible community around it. In Asia, organizations such as the Association of Crypto Currency Enterprises and Start-ups Singapore (ACCESS) as well as the Vietnam Blockchain Association have recently been formed to protect the interests of blockchain users by conducting training, developing digital solutions and collaborating with the government.
Breaking into the boys club
While PiguBao’s gender is resolutely deviant, Tan steps into a space where women remain underrepresented. According to a report published in 2021 by the research agency ArtTactic, excluding 16 percent of transactions where gender was unknown, female artists accounted for only five percent of global NFT art sales.
“It can be a bit of a boys club,” shared Tan. “But there are things like women-led projects and groups that offer hope.” One such effort is the launch of a virtual NFT art exhibition curated by Hong Kong Gallery Bamboo Scenes, featuring works by five female artists.
“We wanted to take action and highlight the strides female artists have made in the space and let it be an example for other women who may not be so sure about entering the sector,” said Madelon de Grave, founder and managing director at Bamboo Scenes and curator of the exhibition A Woman’s World.
Private collectors are also doing their part to support the diversity of the space. When Hong Kong-based designer, NFT creator and collector Payal Shah first started her collection, she gathered a group of women in the sector for weekly calls to bounce ideas off each other. Supported by this safe space, she began investing primarily in female-led projects and female artists.
“That was the portfolio I wanted to start with — to support women, whether they were moderators, founders or artists,” Shah shared.
Playing for the (digital) gallery
In Tan’s latest solo exhibition, she worked with a gallery to publish a series of 10 artworks. In his first foray into the metaverse, Tan explored the value of a physical labor compared to an NFT. The series functioned as a social experiment, with each artwork available as either a fine art print or an NFT. Buyers could choose to buy the artwork in one of its two forms, and the one that wasn’t bought would be destroyed – allowing collectors to decide which one they thought had a more meaningful existence.
Tan has mixed feelings about his experience with the exhibition. “NFTs feel like a springboard. I don’t think the hype will last forever, and NFT art can’t be something you keep in your home forever,” she said. “But I think the metaverse will be the big thing. Maybe buyers can hang NFT art in their metaverse homes.”
As NFTs proliferate in Asia, stakeholders are constantly adopting unique ways to ensure secure and inclusive commerce. “The uncertainty surrounding the metaverse and the desire to connect with others warrants further efforts to both understand and embrace this virtual world,” Hu said. “Dismissing this next wave of digital transformation will not move society forward. Instead, we should consider how we can use technology rationally and fairly.”
This article was first published in the print version of Asian Scientist Magazine, July 2022.
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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine. Illustration: Wong Wey Wen