With interactive, utilitarian art and ‘easy access’, creators aim to ease anxieties around NFTs at India Art Fair

At the Crayon Art Gallery’s display of MF Husain‘s works, two girls use the exhibit lights to cast their shadows onto his art and take a photograph. Elsewhere, a man captures his reflection in one of the metal artworks on display at the India Art Fair held in Delhi from April 28 to May 1. Viewers of today, armed with their mobile phones, interact with art differently. No longer just spectators admiring the painting from a distance, they find ways to engage with the exhibits intimately.

Artworks bolstered by technology at the IAF deliver this immersive experience. At creative technologist Hasan S’ art installation, displayed at the BeFantastic booth in collaboration with blockchain platform Tezos, users can take a selfie with Vincent van Gogh in the backdrop of his Starry Night. The exhibit, Between.today, bridges the distance between the art and the spectator. Hasan puts it succinctly, “Of course, there is no art without the artistbut what happens if there’s no art without the audience? Between.today becomes art, the moment a member of the audience steps in”.

Hasan S with his art installation Between.today at the BeFantastic booth in collaboration with Tezos at India Art Fair (Credit: Sonal Gupta)

Hasan’s art also aims to create inroads for NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) in India by collaborating with Tezos to help audiences mint their selfies with van Gogh onto their blockchain platform.

Kamya Ramachandran, Director and Founder of BeFantastic, notes that “people are a bit nervous and unsure about NFTs”. “What we are trying to do here is help people go over the boundary. Some of the NFTs, that you can claim here, are limited edition artworks that the artists have donated to the India Art Fair forum to help people get excited and get a foot in the door,” she says.

One such donation includes the AI-generated images that form the storybook, Whale Tales. The storybook, which examines the role of whales in climate action, was born out of a fellowship with BeFantastic. The visuals have been generated through an AI software, Disco Diffusion, and the text has been produced through Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) 3, a language AI.

Tezos has minted some of the images from the bank of 5,000 that the AI-generated into NFTs. During the course of the fair, Whale Tales collaborators gave away these images for free. “In India, there’s apprehension around cryptocurrency, blockchain and NFTs. That fear is challenging tech-art from growing. So, we wanted to create easy access to NFTs. You don’t have to mint it, but just claim it as an asset that can be resold,” explains Nikita Teresa Sarkar, one of the writers and editors of the book.

India Art Fair Artists Nikita Terersa Sarkar poses next to the RadBots station at the BeFantastic booth at the India Art Fair (Credit: Sonal Gupta)

Another installation by BeFanatastic in collaboration with its partner Dara.network, RadBots, uses AI and NFTs to give back to the under-represented communities. The AI-powered video bots created by playwrights and artists from India, the UK, Sri Lanka, and Germany have been “alive” since the last year, evolving and learning with user interaction and data sourced from around the world.

Sarkar, who has worked with the project since its inception, states that the RadBots can be bought as NFTs (May 16 onwards), making the audience or the buyer a part of a community called RADAO. Through this, the buyer, the bot creator, and the AI ​​bot itself get a vote each on where to spend the money generated and which project to invest in. “When you’re working with tech the actual marginalized communities don’t really have access to it. Whatever money we make, we want to give back to the communities represented by each bot,” she says.

NFTs assign a unique code to a particular artwork, which can be tracked as it gets traded on the blockchain, ensuring the authenticity of the artwork that reaches the buyer. The NFTs can be bought through cryptocurrencies using blockchain technologies like Ethereum on marketplaces like OpenSea or Rarible.

India Art Fair The Whale Tales storybook at the BeFantastic booth includes AI-generated images and texts (Credit: Sonal Gupta)

Tezos, which joined the IAF to create awareness about NFTs, is one such blockchain technology. Om Malviya, the founder of Tezos India, tells The Indian Express that they aim to make NFTs accessible to everyone. It’s a decentralized platform so “even a student with a Rs 25,000 laptop can run the software as a miner or validator.”

“We have something called on-chain governance. It’s like a government system where all the people in the network, all the stakeholders, vote on changes. And whenever those changes are approved, the system upgrades itself automatically without any manual intervention. This makes it easier to adapt to new technology,” he says. Moreover, it uses less energy than other blockchains like Ethereum, reducing your carbon footprint as an artist or a buyer, Malviya adds.

On artists embracing the NFT space, Amrit Pal Singh, creator of the Toy Faces NFTs on display at the Terrain.art gallery, notes that there has been a lot of interest but “with the huge amount of technical jargon and friction, they are still figuring out how to go about it”. “While big auction houses like Christie’s have embraced NFTs, in India, it’s a mixed bag. Some don’t understand the space, so they avoid it or they don’t see digital art on the same level as traditional art.”

The Toy Faces artwork on display at the Terrain.art gallery at the India Art Fair (Credit: Sonal Gupta)

Making a strong case for artists to get on board, Singh talks about the democratisation within the art world through NFTs. “With NFTs selling globally, you don’t really need to be associated with a gallery. I have been selling art without a gallery or a middle person. There are also royalties for a secondary sale. If I sell an artwork for 1 Eth (Ethereum) today, and someone sells it for 2 Eths later, I get 10 per cent on it for the lifetime of the artwork,” he explains.

For those sceptical of cryptocurrencies, platforms like Terrain.art are also fiat compliant, allowing buyers to pay in government-sponsored currencies such as dollars or rupees for the NFTs.

Terrain.art Founder, Aparajita Jain says that NFTs function as a “mode of certification”. “With a digital artist, I don’t know how else we’re going to transact their work. If it’s a physical artist, then they have to see whether their work merits being digitised in that manner. But as a mode of authentication, it (NFT) is going to become the norm,” she says.

Jain asserts that its “imperative artists” for audiences and to embrace NFTs. “It’s like when the internet happened, it took a while to understand coding and how to put up a website. But now, if you want to start a business, you first have to be online. Similarly, NFTs are going to be your future. Soon you’re going to start seeing hybrid retail stores and our own avatars in the metaverse.”

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