Should You Try NFTs? | Part 3 of 3 | Interview with Sabato Visconti
by James Heflin
Valley-based artist Sabato Visconti describes himself as a “Brazilian new media artist.” His work is inescapably tied to digital processes, so it is in some ways a remarkably strong match for the NFT world. In fact, he’s making most of his income through selling the NFTs he mints.
Much of Visconti’s work arises via “glitch” processes – altering digital images via manipulation of the underlying code, often through inducing “errors.” He might, for instance, process image code through audio software rather than visual. The end product is sometimes a still image, sometimes a GIF. These end products are a ready fit for NFTs.
Western MA-based artist, Sabato Visconti makes most of his income through selling the NFTs he mints.
Part of the series of 3D art by Sabato Visconti titled 'Samba Dance Club 2016.'
How do you explain to people what an NFT is?
I tell people that buying an art NFT is just like buying stocks, but instead of backing a corporation, there's an artwork and the cryptocurrency tied to it. The NFT itself is just a metadata file, like a certificate of authenticity.
This itself is nothing new to art – Marcel Duchamp was toying with the idea of securitizing art 100 years ago with his Monte Carlo bonds. NFTs are just that – a technology for securitization. Personally, I believe that many things in life should never be securitized, like housing, education, and healthcare, but an impeccably crafted animated GIF? Why shouldn't that kind of labor accrue value?
What are your NFTs? Do they include anything other than the artwork itself?
I've minted a variety of work – some of my most popular involve using software and video games from the ’90s:
“The Offshore Firm” is a series of interior scenes created in a 1993 3D0 video game. This series will be exhibited at the Athens Diftal Arts Festival. (Here is a spinoff work featuring video art by Sky Goodman)
A series of drawings I made on Deluxe Paint IV, a classic program for the Amiga computer.
A series of photogrammetry works as GIFs, still images, and 3D glb models like this one.
I also have a secondary account for 7-plus years of glitch art works made from Ecco the Dolphin video games.
These artworks don't possess any utility, but as with buying any kind of art, you are also buying into their art histories and the communities the art circulates in.
"It’s important to note that Twitter and Discord are the main social media platforms for NFTs these days. Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr can be downright hostile to NFTs..."
Your artwork is already quite centered on the digital realm, so did that make for an easy transition to selling NFTs?
Absolutely. My practice focuses on glitches and post-photographic imaging, so it casts a wide net and I produce a variety of works in different formats, from video games and drawings on obsolete software, to photogrammetry and 3D modeling. Glitch art also tends towards iterative processes resulting in many variations.
These conditions make it much easier to mint NFTs and adapt to a fast-paced and volatile market. There are many analog-based artists who do well in that space as well, from painters to nail artists, but what they have in common is that they are accustomed to sharing their work on social media, so that digital production workflow is already there.
Examples of Sabato Visconti's Glitch Photography.
Do artists need to have an audience that’s already comfortable with crypto and with digital artwork to make NFTs worthwhile? What do you think would be necessary for a non-digital artist or musician to successfully launch in this space?
Yes, this is essential, and not only an audience, but a community willing to share and amplify your posts. It’s important to note that Twitter and Discord are the main social media platforms for NFTs these days. Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr can be downright hostile to NFTs, although Facebook is wanting to cash in on the trend now.
You don’t need a huge Twitter following to sell NFTs, but you should have a willingness to grow your account, join different artist groups who will share each other’s tweets, join Discord servers, and try to network however you can.
For musicians, it’s interesting, because NFTs haven’t really taken off. I think it’s because there are already established ways to digitally sell your music tracks for fiat [currency] on Bandcamp or Apple Music, and also because touring still plays such a huge role in music economics.
I have seen a few visual albums do well on NFTs, like Ethereal Interface's Dream_Logs, and I think that for some musicians thriving in digital spaces, NFTs can be a great way to raise funds for a project. But that ties back to a larger point that NFTs aren’t necessarily for everyone, or every kind of artist.
"For musicians, it’s interesting, because NFTs haven’t really taken off. I think it’s because there are already established ways to digitally sell your music tracks for fiat [currency] on Bandcamp or Apple Music, and also because touring still plays such a huge role in music economics."
You’ve mentioned the “post-internet art scene.” What defines that scene? Are NFTs simply part of that?
“Post-internet” has been a way to describe a variety of digital art practices from the 2010s. For me personally, I was part of the Glitch Art scene on Tumblr and Facebook during that time.
Many of my friends started moving from Facebook/Instagram to Twitter because of NFTs forming a supportive community there – likewise there are similar communities for Latinx artists, queer artists, analog video artists, photographers, and so forth.
I think what marks post-internet art scenes are the prevalence of digital art distribution on web2 social media platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, and Vine. These platforms were highly centralized and extractive in terms of accumulating art, while also restrictive in terms of censoring nudity, political art, and satire.
Web3 for me marks a potential shift from that paradigm because blockchains are decentralized – if a marketplace shuts down, the NFTs remain on the blockchain and can be viewed through any number of apps or platforms. This structural difference can make a huge difference for cultural production if it can develop without being centralized or monopolized.
"To make a substantial income with NFTs, it takes about the same as making a substantial income in anything else: the privilege of access to connections, an already well-funded practice, generational wealth, et cetera."
What's necessary to make a substantial income selling NFTs?
To make a substantial income with NFTs, it takes about the same as making a substantial income in anything else: the privilege of access to connections, an already well-funded practice, generational wealth, et cetera.
I think this speaks to some misconceptions about NFTs. The first is that all NFTs are the same, and exist in the same space. NFTs are very specific to a currency’s blockchain, and these individual cryptocurrencies (like Ethereum, Solana, Tezos) don’t interact with each other directly. Like [with] currencies from different countries, you have to go through an exchange forum. Also, many of these currencies operate using different technologies, with some being magnitudes greener than others.
I think the media focuses on Ethereum NFTs because of the absurd auction numbers and the trollish ugliness of ape PFP [which stands for both “profile picture” and “picture-for-proof”] projects, but this skews the reality that there are different scenes within the crypto world on different blockchain, and while Ethereum may generate the most tempting valuations, the most active and supportive international artist-driven community is currently on the Tezos blockchain.
The second big misconception is that the NFT market is only about PFPs like the Bored Ape Yacht Club or World of Women. While this market of “collectible NFTs” makes up most NFT transactions, they don’t make up the entire online digital art scene that’s using that technology.
'Stories from Neo Miami' is a series of AI-generated art by Visconti.
Focusing only on the ugly and artificially overpriced NFTs on Ethereum erases the countless other artists and developers, many from the Global South and from marginalized communities, working to create new decentralized cultural institutions using web3 technologies.
It's also important to understand that unlike digital art, which has existed for many decades for and unto itself, PFP projects are a new fad that purport to provide some sort of “utility,” starting with exclusive access to Discord servers and events, but supposedly building up to video games, movies, and virtual-reality applications. This makes PFP projects a perfect vehicle for scams and MLM-type schemes, and all sorts of unsavory and disappointing things.
I think there are valid arguments against Ethereum and Bitcoin’s proof-of-work algorithm for its environmental impacts, and I share the distaste for libertarian “cryptobro” culture, which is why the majority of my NFTs are on the Tezos blockchain – as I said before, the best NFT art communities are centered on Tezos, though many artists sell on different blockchains.
Tezos gained popularity for being super affordable, (right now 1 Tezos equals $1.81 while 1 Eth = $2,045.00) and for cultivating artist-centered marketplaces like Teia (formerly Hic et Nunc), FxHash (for generative code-based art), and Objkt.
For many of us in that space, the question is less about making bank than it is about being able to make a living with a daily digital art practice. It’s definitely possible, albeit challenging at times, especially when crypto prices crash and IRL cost of living keeps going up.
Sabato Visconti on making a living with NFTs
Here's an honest assessment about what it takes to make a living with NFTs:
1. An art practice where you produce a fair volume of works without burning yourself out;
2. an openness to spend time on Twitter and Discord schmoozing with other NFT artists and collectors (this includes collecting and sharing works);
3. a level of comfort with cryptocurrencies or the willingness to learn how to use a bunch of new random apps; and
4. the patience to grow a market of collectors by making consistent work – no one shows up out of the blue and sells thousands of dollars’ worth of NFTs.
It's hella lot of work, but for many digital artists like myself, it fits with our production workflows, and can be a great source of supplemental or primary income.
Are you concerned by the recent volatility of the NFT market?
Yes, absolutely. This is probably the worst aspect of selling NFTs, because it ultimately decides the value of your labor. Sadly, I think many artists (myself included) join the space with too much naivete about these price fluctuations. We’re unaware that things like Federal Reserve minutes, inflation reports, a war in Ukraine, and speculators liquidating their bad bets, can suddenly mean you’re making less than the day or week before. This highlights an important point – that many artists don’t sell NFTs because they love cryptocurrencies, but because they feel there’s a lack of opportunities elsewhere, and this speaks to larger economic issues of precarious labor conditions, meager wages, rising rents, and widening inequality that we are facing today.
What do you say to those who call NFTs things like vaporware, or say they’re akin to an MLM? Do they have a point? And what do you say to people who say they can just take a screenshot of an artwork and own it?
They absolutely have a point. The crypto world is an unregulated space for financial speculation, so there are going to be all sorts of terrible things happening there, but as I said before, there are also legitimate projects by communities of artists and developers looking to build better things, [like] mutual aid networks, artist funds, tools and apps, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), and more.
Being from Brazil, I think anti-NFT sentiment here in the U.S. is also very privileged. For many artists in the Global South, the opportunity of being paid in a currency that’s more expensive than the U.S. dollar can be life-changing. Hic et Nunc was a platform started by Brazilians for Global South artists. It has since gone global, but during this whole time, I would say that Hic et Nunc has done more for emerging Brazilian artists than any cultural institution since the Lula era in the 2000s. Tezos isn’t a high-performing currency like Ethereum, but it’s affording many of my queer, Black, working-class artist friends from around the world food and rent.
"The whole effing point is for you to take a screenshot of the art. Please right-click, save, and remix, because this is how digital art thrives."
I'm happy you brought up the screenshot, because here I think people fundamentally misunderstand digital art. The whole effing point is for you to take a screenshot of the art. Please right-click, save, and remix, because this is how digital art thrives.
Digital objects attain their value through distribution, through virality, and through community. Any talk of scarcity in terms of digital art is pure sophistry, because digital art is the visual language of a post-scarcity world that many of us would wish to inhabit. NFTs don’t make a digital artwork less scarce – that’s not the point, just like how buying a stock in Facebook doesn’t make Facebook less scarce.The point is to create mechanisms for valuation for digital media whose transmissibility have long defied traditional models of valuation due.
Digital artists have long been creating works for free on extractive social media platforms, and remain underpaid in creative industries and underrepresented in the art world. For better and for worse, NFTs ushered in an era where people are considering digital art in terms of their basic format – GIFs can be appreciated as GIFs. This is a break from how digital artists were previously absorbed by the art world, where a few art school alumni were given the privilege to create conceptual installations for institutions. Digital art has always held a democratizing potential, and NFTs are an imperfect step in that direction.