COVER STORY

Why Filipino creatives are divided over NFTs

Some Filipino artists are lauding the potential of NFTs to democratize local artists, while others are warning of its effects on artist inequalities and climate change.

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If you pride yourself as either a Filipino creative or just someone who generally lives online 24/7 like me, then you’ve probably already heard of NFTs or non-fungible tokens, the new digital craze sweeping over the art and crypto world. And if you’ve been following the stories around the Philippine art scene, then you must have also seen the growing divide in the community regarding this.

In 2021, Filipino artist Luis Buenaventura II and Argentinian artist Jose Delbo collaborated on a digital artwork they called “Satoshi The Creator - Genesis,” which they sold as an NFT for ₱19.5 million, making it the highest NFT sale by a Filipino artist so far. Luis has since then collaborated with Kajo Baldisimo, artist of the popular Filipino komik series “Trese,” and guitarist Marco Palinar to create three unique motion NFTs of the Trese characters, accompanied by a musical soundscape. The project has since earned 7.3 Ethereum or more than ₱1 million.

Artist Luis Buenaventura II collaborated with "Trese" artist Kajo Baldisimo and guitarist Marco Palinar to create three unique motion NFTs of the Trese characters, accompanied by a musical soundscape. Photo from OPENSEA

Even Art Fair Philippines jumped on the NFT and digital art train for their 2021 edition. For an organization that in recent years has become "the premier platform for exhibiting and selling the best in modern and contemporary Philippine visual art" to do this was controversial, but only expected. For the organizers, it was only natural. This growing community of crypto artists in the Philippines signifies there is an active interest of both creators and buyers in the local NFT market. Among their speakers were Filipino crypto artists such as Gabby Dizon, Colin Goltra, Chris Fussner, and Shelly Soneja from the Narra Art Gallery, and Xlvrbk and squirterer.

But also in 2021, the annual energy consumption used to maintain NFTs amounted to 107.79 TWh, which is the same amount of electricity consumed by the entire country of the Netherlands, and 53.79 Mt CO2 or the same carbon footprint as the entire country of Singapore.

It’s no wonder then that the debate rages on. This new technology has the power to turn a starving artist into a millionaire overnight, but also the same might to further hasten climate change. I personally know people who have invested their life savings into NFTs as an attempt to take a shot at hopefully earning more than what their regular jobs can afford them, but I also know people who have vehemently vowed to stay away from NFTs as a stand for artists’ rights and environmental protection. But before we delve into the debate, what exactly are NFTs in the first place?

NFT or non-fungible token literally means “non-interchangeable token.” This is a type of data that uses the blockchain (mainly Ethereum), or an online network of computers that acts as a digital ledger of transactions. Illustration by JL JAVIER

What are non-fungible tokens?

NFT or non-fungible token literally means “non-interchangeable token.” This is a type of data that uses the blockchain (mainly Ethereum), or an online network of computers that acts as a digital ledger of transactions.

When you buy an NFT, you’re purchasing the rights to say that a specific digital item — such as an artwork, website, photo, or video — is non-interchangeable or one-of-a-kind, and every computer on the blockchain will validate that yup, congratulations, you are truly the sole owner of this unique digital kitty or this artwork of a bored ape. Think of NFTs as limited edition baseball trading cards you brag about to your friends; in the same way, people participating in the sale of NFTs consider their purchases as investments in a collector’s game.

And it’s not just artworks that are being sold as NFTs. Music albums, videos, and even BTS photocards (fans threatened a boycott, but more on why later) can be NFTs. Remember the viral “Charlie Bit Me” video from the 2000s YouTube era? Sold as an NFT. The first tweet ever on Twitter? Sold as an NFT. A video of a Lebron James slam dunk? Sold as an NFT.

NFTs have even penetrated elite art auction houses such as Sotheby’s, where one auction raised $676 million or more than ₱33 billion, marking a change in the art market.

But what does this really mean? Can you truly be the sole owner of a digital piece when these are so easily copied and pasted across the internet, unlike physical pieces you can clearly take home and hang on your wall? In the open digital playground of the internet, it’s so easy to take a screenshot of something you like online and to pass this to your friends’ group chat.

The internet is also still trying to grasp this new concept. For example, does this mean that when an artist sells an NFT, they no longer own their artwork? Why would I buy an NFT if I can take a screenshot of it anyway since it still exists online?

More importantly, what impact will NFTs have on Filipino creators and the Filipino art scene as a whole?

Digital collectibles vs. traditional art trade

For artists who have entered the NFT arena, the appeal of this new tech lies with how it democratizes artists to have more control over the sale of their work and directly links them to a wider market beyond the control of traditional galleries and institutions.

One such believer is Filipino-American rapper Apl.de.Ap. A staunch advocate for Filipino creatives, Apl.de.Ap was motivated to join the NFT space after he saw how cheaply Western corporations pay us for our work. In his eyes, NFTs will allow Filipinos to market themselves to direct buyers instead of relying on a middle man and will help creatives dictate a higher price for their work.

He has since collaborated with artists AJ Dimarucot and Tom Coben in launching four NFTs on Portion.io, which are special video clips of his newly-released music.

“Often, we just think about the brand but not the person who creates it. Especially creative artists in the Philippines. We’re always outsourced but not paid well. This is a way to get paid not in peanuts but with the true value of the art and their work,” Apl said in a 2021 interview with CNN Philippines Life.

For artists who have entered the NFT arena, the appeal of this new tech lies with how it democratizes artists to have more control over the sale of their work and directly links them to a wider market beyond the control of traditional galleries and institutions.

Another musician dabbling in NFTs is Nadine Lustre. She recently minted 1,000 editions of her new pop/R&B single, “Wait For Me” and is selling each at more than ₱1,500. (Minting is the process of making your digital item part of the Ethereum blockchain.)

The team from enter.audio, the Norway-based platform where Lustre’s NFTs are available, emailed us to explain how music sales via NFT differ from traditional music royalties.

“Streaming royalties are usually fairly low, and you will need very high streaming numbers to be able to profit from it. With NFTs, you can earn royalties on every resale of the NFT. Because it is minted on the blockchain, you can ensure that you always benefit from every single sale of the NFT. Here, the musician is in complete control of their royalties, while the buyer can authenticate the origins of the NFT by following the blockchain transactions.”

The team clarified that buying an NFT does not give you commercial rights to the original track.

“Unless something else is stated in the NFT, you only own that specific track,” enter.audio said. “You can think of it sort of like buying an art print or a physical CD. You own that particular print or CD, but you still don’t own the commercial rights for it. You can resell it on the second-hand market, and in that way be a part of the increasing value of your favorite works.”

Enter.audio says that their goal is to help musicians worldwide have digital scarcity of their works, secure royalties indefinitely, and completely remove the middleman from the equation. Seeing how pirated copies and art reposts have hurt artists’ sales for decades, could NFTs be the solution to proving digital creations are unique and therefore deserving of higher sales, too?

In Apl.de.Ap's eyes, NFTs will allow Filipinos to market themselves to direct buyers instead of relying on a middle man and will help creatives dictate a higher price for their work. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Why buy something available online?

However, as mentioned earlier, it must be made clear that the purchase of an NFT does not transfer the work’s copyright to the buyer. Recently, crypto group SpiceDAO tweeted about their €3 million purchase of a “Dune” book, which they declared they’d splice and sell as NFTs and use to produce an original animated series. They were immediately ridiculed by users online, who reminded them that their purchase did not give them intellectual property rights nor the copyright of the work itself.

So why would you then buy an NFT if it doesn’t legally give you ownership of the artwork, only of the digital token that points to the artwork? Funnily, according to many NFT buyers online, their reason was, “I don’t know what I’m doing. It just looked cool.”

But it’s no joke to pay huge sums of money for something that simply looked cool. For other more serious buyers, it really was about the ability to directly support artists they liked and the sense of belonging in a community. And this sense of community appeals to more pragmatic buyers with the opening of NFT clubs. For example, the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), one of the most successful NFT communities, has within its ranks celebrities such as Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Curry, and Post Malone. Being a BAYC NFT holder opens up a range of benefits to these members, such as exclusive access to Discord servers and clubs, and free NFTs they can resell and earn from.

The Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), one of the most successful NFT communities, has within its ranks celebrities such as Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Curry, and Post Malone. Illustration by JL JAVIER

This then leads us to an important — if not the main — incentive for many in the community: an NFT’s resale value. By purchasing an NFT, a buyer who now possesses this unique, limited edition token of an artwork can sell it to the next highest bidder. Platforms such as Nifty Gateway, Rarible, and OpenSea have been buzzing with activity this 2021 with the growing community of NFT buyers and sellers.

And who can blame Filipinos who want to earn via an alternative source of income? I’ve personally met friends who are active in the NFT gaming space, and they’ve confided that they earn twice as much via NFTs versus their regular jobs. Just search Youtube for play-to-earn NFT games such as Axie Infinity, Crypto Blades, and My DeFi Pet, and you’ll find a wealth of Filipino content creators providing tips on how to setup a Binance account, invest a starting capital for in-game equipment, and win games in exchange for earnings.

READ: Axie Infinity and the concept of play-to-earn

However, not everyone is fully onboard the NFT train, with many other Filipino artists raising points of concern. Momo, a digital artist known online as megaluhdon, said that her issues with NFTs pertain to the ethics behind it and its capitalist foundations, such as this resale value.

“That value is computed according to digital scarcity which, the more I read about it, sounds more like a scam than anything else,” said Momo. “To me, that’s fundamentally unsettling. It’s a slap in the face because it tells artists, ‘Your art isn’t valuable to me unless I can profit from it.’ And that’s an evil mentality that’s existed in a lot of forms just because a lot of people don’t want to spend for art unless it’s sold extremely cheaply and at the expense of the artist. The concept of the starving artist was born from capitalism.”

People against NFTs have since then launched what is known as the Right Click Revolution, where they right click an NFT and save it, as an in-your-face to NFT buyers of the absurdity of exclusivity on the internet. “You paid a million for this artwork, which I saved for free,” seems to be the common statement. Members of the effort shared that their main contention with NFTs was the imposition of scarcity on art for the sake of profit.

On art theft and climate change

Another issue hounding the NFT ecosystem is art theft, with crypto buyers stealing artworks from artists who aren’t participating in the community, in order to mint these pieces and earn from them.

Momo said: “As the hype around the lucrativeness of NFTs grew, so did the likelihood of art theft, which was already a major problem to begin with (from Instagram reposters to plagiarizers to unauthorized resellers). Many artists have claimed that their art was being sold as an NFT even when they themselves don’t make NFTs. For more popular artists, their art is more likely to be reported — but what about smaller artists whose works are unknowingly giving more profit to art thefts?”

Rye Quizon, a graphic designer and illustrator, is one such artist.

“I just got curious at the time when artists here on Twitter have been complaining about their artworks, specifically the ones uploaded on DeviantArt, have been minted by anon accounts,” he said. “That was also the time a number of them have signed up and paid for DeviantArt's security feature where you get notified if an image similar to your artworks posted on DA have been minted on NFT platforms. E poorita lang ako so yun nga, I searched sa OpenSea my DA username, tas dun ko lang nalaman.”

Illustrator Rye Quizon found that one of his artworks was minted and put up on OpenSea without his knowledge. Photo from OPENSEA

After learning that a certain Username 6AADE8 stole his old DA artwork, Quizon immediately reported this to OpenSea. But it was only after several weeks that he got a reply to fill out the takedown request form. Fortunately for Quizon’s case, the artwork was removed the next day.

However, not everyone is as lucky. Several other artists have tweeted about their experiences with reporting art theft and being bogged down by the paperwork. One artist shared on Twitter that they tried searching their name on OpenSea and found 132 instances of their art stolen by NFT sellers to make profit off of. Unfortunately, they discovered that the only way to take these down was to write emails to each listing and request the NFT be taken down, which they complained was too time-consuming for the victims themselves.

As I hunted for stories of Filipino artists online who might have had similar experiences of theft, it became apparent that there weren’t too many compared to the abundance of artists from other countries recounting their legal battles with NFT platforms. However, Quizon said it might just be a matter of artists not knowing where to start.

Quizon said: “Tingin ko marami lang din hindi aware? Kasi ako napa-what-if lang, tas nagkataon lang na meron… Mas kawawa yung more popular artists, kasi yung kanila gets stolen multiple times, kaya rin ako hindi naging super active sa paghahabol, at one point I thought sayang lang sa effort, I mean lalo na if kaya nilang magnakaw nang maramihan diba?"

Quizon shared that he plans to keep his DA account open despite the theft, as a way of keeping evidence of his work in case other NFT bots also pop up with his artworks.

An artist called CirenSong has also taken the initiative to gather all reports of artists whose works have been stolen and minted as NFTs, in order to file legal action; Quizon has submitted his report to CirenSong as well. However, no such collective legal action has been reported in the Philippines yet.

“Sadly wala [pang nag-oorganize]!” Quizon said. “All the tweets I saw were from other countries although feel ko, matter of time na lang din siya bago mangyari. Bukas ang aking tanggapan para sa lahat ng mga nanakawan ng mga NFThieves. I may not have all the answers but I'll do the best I can to help.”

During the rare instances where I found Pinoy creatives whose artworks were stolen or who had stories of why they were against NFTs, my attempts at learning their stories were met with this palpable air of fear and requests to be excluded from the report. Unlike the active pro-NFT community, Filipino artists against NFTs haven’t seemed to organize as effectively yet, and it was as if there was this fear of going against the more visible collective of NFT buyers and sellers, and of possible retaliation.

Digital artist Jamie Cruz* shared that they did not heed the call to join ranks with NFT artists because of how unsafe the space felt.

“There have been a lot of scams recently, and even some people hacking artists’ accounts with big following just to promote NFTs and crypto,” Cruz said. “How am I supposed to trust and feel safe around those types of things, especially as an artist already doing their best to keep afloat?”

On top of the money woes of artists such as Cruz, creating an NFT requires a lot of capital, thereby creating an unequal playing field between Filipino artists who have money to participate and those who are barely getting by with their commissions.

“[Artists] who actually do make lots of profit from NFTs likely have the initial capital to do it, while the majority who don’t are left out,” Momo said. “To add, NFTs created a major impact in the competition within the artist community because now that there are a few artists who are able to do NFTs, buyers will be less inclined to commission non-NFT artists for personal art because they’ll be drawn to the NFT art they can profit from. Already, the divide between NFT and non-NFT artists tells a story of the profitable few versus the rest of the community.”

Furthermore, Momo mentioned the environmental impact of NFTs. It is no secret among the community that in order to create an NFT, large amounts of energy are needed to keep the system going. Since the blockchain acts as a digital ledger where the public verifies the provenance of an NFT, this requires the continued operation of computers and servers, which then results in increased carbon emissions.

“The "Filipino culture" that most creatives talk about involves respecting nature a great deal. I can't see how NFTs represent Filipino culture,” tweeted Bernie Mercado, managing editor of Penlab, a digital archive of Pinoy komiks. The tweet has since garnered more than a thousand likes, with other users and artists agreeing with Mercado and pointing out the irony of seeing other Filipinos creating NFTs on environmental art even as NFTs continue to raise energy prices, despite coming from a country whose history and values are intertwined closely with its rich biodiversity.

Even visual artist and animator Kevin Raymundo, also known online as Tarantadong Kalbo, tweeted his frustration over receiving an invitation to create 1,000 versions of his viral Tumindig fist art. His tweet also garnered replies from fellow artists dissuading him from joining the space.

One tweet even showed a photo of a room full of active servers, questioning why so much energy was being spent just for an NFT holder to brag about a token to an artwork they don’t legally own. BTS fans, who call themselves ARMY, decried the company’s move towards NFTs, saying that it was a poor move given the boy group’s environmental advocacy. Even the top gaming platform Steam banned NFT and blockchain games on their site given all these controversies.

Cruz added, “All I can say is: what is the point of earning more and faster, if it means my home planet will die faster? Even if there may be legitimate ways and maybe eco-friendly versions soon (which I personally highly doubt), as long as there are more and more people who are evil enough to twist the NFT system, I do not wish to be part of it.”

Interestingly enough, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) launched an NFT competition this year that sought to use NFT art in addressing climate change. And out of all the entries gathered worldwide, Filipino artist Bricx Martillo Dumas brought home the gold at this DigitalArt4Climate competition with his work, “Nexus.”

When asked about the irony of a climate art competition vis a vis the damage NFTs are causing the environment, Dumas shared that the NFT community is in fact already familiar with these and are thus attempting more eco-friendly systems.

“The organizers are aware of these concerns and are finding ways to lessen the environmental impacts of NFTs,” he said. “The technology is continuously developing and newer systems are expected to have less negative impact than the older versions, paving the way for greener versions of this technology.”

Dumas cited emerging eco-friendly NFT technologies whose founders were part of the DigitalArt4Climate organizing team, such as Conscious Crypto Creator and Unique Network’s Deep Polkadot Experience.

Dumas shared that his environmental advocacy began way before his participation in the COP26 competition, and he hopes that his landmark win will inspire more support for environmental orgs.

“What got me to join the DigitalArt4Climate competition and create my first NFT was when I saw the mechanics,” Dumas shared. “They partnered with environmental organizations for this event, and a percentage from the sales of the winning artwork on the NFT Marketplace will be donated to these organizations. As an environmentalist, I have been donating part of the proceeds of my sold artworks to various organizations since 2018. I figured that joining the competition and winning would be a good opportunity to be able to make a bigger donation to those environmental organizations that they have partnered with.”

The artwork features a fish-shaped plastic bag with a blue drink, a yellow straw, and a cigarette with leaves flying upward, all set against a deep red background. Regarding the creation of nexus, Dumas shared that he drew inspiration from different stories: a trip to Mindanao where he encountered a water vending machine that used single-use plastic, his nephew’s class report about climate change, Leonardo de Caprio’s documentary entitled “Before the Flood,” and his own consciousness that our everyday small actions contribute to bigger problems in our environment.

“I really can’t put it into words but I think that this is a personal historical feat not only as an artist but also as an environmentalist, because we have been able to raise awareness about the climate change issue in a span of a few days,” Dumas said. “I am hoping that this awareness will not end with the contest, and that the people who have seen my artwork will put the message of saving the environment to heart and to actual practice. Let us all minimize our use of plastics.”

Dumas believes that the debate on NFTs among Filipino artists today can be likened to the Amorsolo and Edades debate regarding the stark contrast between Academic/Neoclassical Art and Modernism, or between Modern Art versus Academism. For him, NFTs represent the future for the Philippine art scene, with its power to democratize and free artists.

“One might see the similarity of the impact of NFT's with how Marcel Duchamp — my idol — created a buzz and shook the art scene with his 1917 piece called ‘Fountain,” Dumas said. “NFT's are starting to pave the way for the ‘decentralization’ of galleries: Many artists and creative individuals now have more freedom to ‘curate’ their own pieces and showcase them online… I also believe that this is a call for other artists to try doing NFTs because I think this new world is the future of art, and it is a fun thing to venture into.”

Because of the increased interest in NFTs in recent years, the term "decentralized art galleries" is now often linked to the crypto scene.

It should be highlighted that even before NFTs, the attempt to decentralize galleries first existed in the early 19th century through art associations across Europe, in the 20th century through protest artists decrying the commercial gallery system, and then flourished in the '90s through artist-run spaces, which are galleries operated by creators themselves that intentionally attempt to bypass formal art structures. But because of the increased interest in NFTs in recent years, the term "decentralized art galleries" is now often linked to the crypto scene.

Momo shared that while she understands the allure of NFTs, as a Filipino who has to set her commission prices at the going rate of artists in the US just to compete, she still finds many aspects that need to be questioned.

“As a Filipino digital artist, I honestly see the appeal of NFTs, but it was always outweighed by the cons…” Momo said. “It’s difficult to be an artist in the Philippines, and NFTs have definitely given a few Filipino artists the opportunity to earn from their art — but at what, and whose, cost.”

With the exponential growth of the NFT market in the last few months, Filipino artists are still navigating their way and sticking around to see if this new tech will actually live past the hype and its speculative nature. Will it actually succeed in overcoming the cases of artist inequalities and environmental damage that riddle its rising popularity, through innovation and changes to the system? Or will the existence of bad faith actors and an imbalanced playing field that revolves around the valuation of scarcity continue to stunt the vision of democratization for Filipino creatives? Only time — and an active participation in the debate — will tell how much and in what way NFTs will transform the art community in the country.

*Name has been changed at the request of the interviewee

Cover Design by THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MANILA

Cover Illustration by JL JAVIER

Produced by DON JAUCIAN and GABY GLORIA