No. 31 • 2021-03-26

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NFTs: Not the Future of Techno-Art

Let me start with a disclaimer… I am not an art connoisseur. Nor am I a cryptocurrency expert. And I admit that I really don’t get Banksy.

There’s been an irrational amount of hype surrounding NFTs, “Non Fungible Tokens”, which are a way of uniquely authenticating individual pieces of digital content. They are based on the blockchain, the same mechanism underlying cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin, etc.). NFTs are generating a wave of interest in “CryptoArt”, promising the ability to create unique or limited editions of digital artworks. Recent examples include auctions reaching $600,000 for a digital painting created by a humanoid robot and (insanely) $69M for a digital work by the artist Beeple (see above and judge for yourself).

So you might think that I, a self-proclaimed “creative technologist” who believes in the symbiotic nature of art and technology, would be a proponent for NFTs.

But as it stands now, I think it’s baloney. BS. A bubble that is going to burst, badly.

In this newsletter and elsewhere, I’ve stressed that blindly translating something from the in-person / physical world into a digital / remote setting usually leads to bad results. A stage play and a TV show are two very different things. Similarly, presenting your traditional classroom lecture over Zoom doesn’t work, it requires changes to be as effective.  Different affordances and concessions are needed for content to feel authentic to the medium. Yet, the NFT craze is the result of applying the physical standards and conventions of high art (particularly paintings, sculptures, and installations) to the digital world. It’s going to go badly.

An original painting by an artist (of any period) is truly unique. Even good copies or prints of it will differ substantively from the original. The original is then a scarce item, which endows its value: some are willing to pay (at times ridiculous sums) to lay claim to that uniqueness.  NFTs attempt to impose that uniqueness onto digital artworks: one digital copy can be authenticated as the “original” and thus someone could be the sole “owner” of a digital painting. But the nature of digital is that everything is *exactly* copyable, and it is trivial and nearly cost-free to replicate the bits of a digital file (this is the driving force behind the Information Age). NFTs try to graft an artificial scarcity on top of something that’s fundamentally abundant, digital bits. Thus, you may be the owner of an “original” digital painting, but I could have an *exact* copy of it. No difference. None. Nada. The only difference is that you have the bragging rights provided by the “certificate of ownership”. Well good for you. If it’s a good piece of art, I think I’ll enjoy my exact copy just as much as you enjoy your original.

NFTs also try to impose the values of a select few upon a medium (the Internet) that is designed for the many. When a small group of people tries to declare what’s “good” and “high value” by themselves and thrust that upon the world, well… that rarely goes well. Such an approach drives elitism and inequity. We’ve tolerated it in the world of high art because, well, really only a small number of people truly care (sorry). That NFTs try to create such distinctions in direct opposition to objective reality is the height of elitist hypocrisy (again, the digital art files are *the same*). So, it’s a hype primarily driven by those who want to be known as elitist tastemakers.

But artists need to be paid, right? First off, there aren’t many artists being paid adequately in the old system, so I can’t believe that sliding the values of the old system into the digital world will change anything. Secondly, the fundamentals of digital creation introduce new paths to monetization. Successful YouTubers (creators, gamers, and yes, educators) have taken advantage of the infinite replicability of digital content to build large audiences and make a (good) living. I want artists to be paid, but I want many more of them to earn a living wage. I don’t want a system where a select few get to make millions for their works. If this was the 17th Century, perhaps that’s the best way to do it, but there are far more artists than patrons, and very few will find a wealthy NFT benefactor. Creating a fake scarcity bubble with NFTs further encourages the cult of the “superstar” artist. 

Finally, NFTs impose a hidden cost to all of us: they are bad for the environment. Seriously. They require enormous amounts of superfluous computation, which requires power, which takes natural resources. I’m not talking about your laptop, rather massive data centers run by corporations, where much computation is devoted to the number crunching required for crypto-currencies and crypto-art. A large data center can match the power requirements of a small-mid size city (100 MW). At least Bitcoin serves a purpose: it really can make digital financial transactions far more efficient and secure, which has real value. The only value of NFTs is imparted by human vanity: the small cabal of those who wish to decree something valuable and those who want credit for grabbing it “first!”

Historically, systems based upon artificial scarcity haven’t lasted long, and this one won’t either. Instead, I simply propose this: pay for art. Purchase works that you enjoy. Buy subscriptions to content. Support digital creators via platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon. And when it’s safe, attend performances and events. Art should be an investment, but not one seeking a financial return… the return comes through a better understanding of both the human condition and oneself. And that is always worth investing in.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • 30 Musicians Jam to the Mii Channel Theme [Alex Moukala] The well-known composer and producer asked musician friends around the world to jam over this funky version of the Nintendo Wii’s Mii Channel music, resulting in this awesome jam session!
  • 74 Seconds to Judgement [Arden Theater] Originally mounted as a stage production in 2019, this work has been reimagined as a streaming radio play. The play’s title references the killing of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop just 74 seconds after being pulled over (through March 28).
  • The Island We Made [Opera Philadelphia] I am simply astounded by the work produced for the Opera Philadelphia Channel this season. This unique art-opera film combines the ethereal electronic music of composer Angélica Negrón and narration by drag superstar (and fellow Uni High alum!) Sasha Velour to explore familial relationships and a multi-generational depiction of “Mother” (available through May).
  • A Symphony for Saint-Georges [Curio Theater] Joseph Bologne de Chevalier Saint-Georges was a composer, violinist, conductor, champion fencer, and colonel in Europe’s first all-Black regiment. born to an enslaved mother in the 1700s. This production is a physically distanced play/installation that combines video footage with sculpture, video, music, set design, and projections (through April 25).
  • Love I’m Given [Wolfgang A Cappella, NC State] The International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella competition (depicted in the movie Pitch Perfect) is all-virtual this year, and there are some amazing videos being created by college groups everywhere. I randomly came across this one, which takes the medium to new heights. And here’s another great video from the Villanova Supernovas.

What I’m creating…

We recently released our ExCITe 2020 Annual Report, capturing amazing work of our Center’s students, staff, and faculty throughout a year of unprecedented challenges. I believe we adapted creatively and found hope in our ability to continue with our work, albeit in different ways. The long overdue societal focus on racial injustice and equity validated our ongoing initiatives.

You can read the 2020 Annual Report here, and all of our annual reports (since 2015) are available online.

No. 30 • 2021-03-05

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A Year of Social Distancing

One year ago I was preparing to travel to Austin, Texas for the 2020 SXSW conference. I wasn’t quite packed, but I was confirming itineraries and hotel reservations when the conference was cancelled (the first of many). And since then, pretty much everything changed.

Conferences: We’ve now had about 9 months of virtual conferences, and I have to say it’s been pretty good. We’ve learned that much of the content (talks, slides, posters, etc.) translates well to an online format. Of course, the social component (catching up with friends / colleagues and meeting new ones) requires greater intentional effort, but it’s all possible. I think many, if not most, conferences (particularly in academic specialties) will continue as virtual or hybrid virtual/in-person events. The benefits of broader and more equitable participation and lower overall costs (travel and hosting) outweigh the downsides.

Performances: What can you do without a live audience? Streaming (both TV/film and live performance) is bigger than ever, and many arts organizations quickly developed video production expertise. But I’d argue the breakthrough medium of social distancing is the collaborative performance video. The explosion of such content, from elementary school choirs to professional works, is testament to our human desire to create together, no matter the constraints. The format enables a more participatory culture, and although it’s a process, more and more people are finding ways to contribute. I believe some form of this medium will continue, even after it’s permissible to gather in person.

Workplace: In early March 2020, how many people had even heard of Zoom?  Now, we’ve all learned to reflexively mute our microphones and be 100% certain our cameras are really off when we think they are. Dealing with audio issues like background noise, feedback, and delay are part of the daily routine. Only slightly less visible are the tools of collaboration: Slack, Teams, Google Drive, and other platforms that allow groups to work together, remotely. For the most part, the organizations that have maintained a high level of productivity through the pandemic were already familiar with such tools. For many others, it’s been a long process of learning to adapt and playing catch up.

Now, I’ll be one of the first to return to some in-person activities, once it is safe to do so. Hopefully, that time is now within sight. But resilience isn’t about returning to the same state as before; it’s the ability to cope with change, adapt, and identify a path forward. I believe that is what will be needed most in a post-pandemic world. It will be another new normal, and will introduce new challenges and opportunities. Those who solely seek to go back to the way things were will be forever playing catch up to the way things are.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Lift Every Voice and Sing [Berklee College of Music] A beautiful a cappella performance from Berklee’s We Will Rise Summit: Black Artists and the Soul of Our Music.
  • Sons of Liberty Cypher [Ham4Progress] Been a while since we had a Hamilton reference! Check out this original piece by cast members from various productions of the musical. From The Joy In Our Voices, an evening of hope, inspiration, and community celebrating Black art and artists (the whole program is worth watching).
  • Think & Respect [Commonwealth Youth Choirs] As mentioned above, there’s been an explosion of virtual collaborative videos. This Aretha Franklin medley by the combined forces of Keystone State & NJ Boychoirs and PA & Garden State Girlchoirs, is part of GFS’ Virtual A Cappella Fest program, featuring middle, high school, and collegiate groups across the region and beyond (again, the whole program is worth watching)!
  • Star Spangled Banner [QW4RTZ] One more a cappella treatment… Much merriment has emerged from the rendition of our national anthem at CPAC. Here’s Canadian a cappella group QW4RTZ’s heroic international rescue attempt to salvage this, shall we say, tonally ambiguous performance.

What I’m creating…

We’re nearing the end of the Winter academic term at Drexel, so I haven’t had much bandwidth to devote to other projects. So here’s a short video from a series I recorded about a year ago, performing one song from each of my 10 favorite albums. Another tribute to my formative years, the 1980s 🙂

No. 29 • 2021-02-19

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Virtual Music Education

Like everyone who participate in music ensembles regularly, I miss it terribly. There really is something magical about getting people together to make music. While some instrumental groups have managed to safely assemble in person, singing remains one of the most dangerous ways of spreading COVID (I don’t know of any groups that are singing together in person, only virtually).

Many experienced musicians are finding ways to cope and adapt, but for those still in the early stages of learning an instrument, singing, or playing in ensemble, the pandemic disruption could severely inhibit musical development. Given the challenges in reopening public schools, it’s not surprising that music lessons, orchestras, and choruses have been put on hold in many places. Others have shifted to virtual lessons, and while it’s not quite the same as being together, the back and forth interaction of lessons is a better fit for Zoom (it’s actually possible, as opposed to singing/playing together as a group, which is not). The most innovative educators are developing new forms of collaboration and performance, using technology to connect ensembles across schools and organizations.

The a cappella group I sing with, The Tonics, thought we might use the current limitations of our ensemble singing to raise awareness of the challenges in music education. Since we can’t sing together in person this season, we’re creating a series of virtual videos as fundraisers for local organizations. With the release of our latest video this month, we’re calling upon others to support the fantastic team at Play On Philly (POP), who provide musical instruction to K-12 students in our city. Throughout the pandemic, POP students have continued to participate in virtual instrument lessons and ensemble practice completely tuition-free. We hope you’ll join us in supporting this amazing organization!

And here’s to all music educators, especially those who are still providing lessons and rehearsals, safely, through the pandemic. Thank you for all you’re doing!

My publishing schedule has shifted to every other Friday. The next issue of Creating at a Distance will be posted in two weeks on March 5th.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Original iPhone Ringtones – A Cappella [MayTree] This may be the most a cappella-tech throwback mashup ever… Korean vocal group MayTree recreating the original iPhone ringtones. Also check out their renditions of Windows XP sounds and many other songs.
  • Trepak (Russian Dance) from The Nutcracker [Pennsylvania Ballet] This is a few weeks old, but here’s a lovely virtual holiday greeting from the PA Ballet dancers and orchestra (hard to imagine doing this with all the snow on the ground right now)!
  • Playing Music Together Online Is Not As Simple As It Seems [NPR’s Jazz Night in America] This video is from last summer, but it’s a nice explainer on the difficulties of live (real-time) music collaboration on the internet, with some jazz musicians who are making it work (within some constraints).
  • Creative Conversations for a Changing World, No. 1 [B.PHL Innovation Festival On-Demand] Last Fall, Jessica Zweig (Program Director at Play On Philly) and I co-hosted a 3-part series of discussions with innovators in the arts and non-profit sectors. The first of those events with David Devan (Opera Philadelphia), Valerie Gay (Barnes Foundation), and Melissa Talley-Palmer (Bartol Foundation) is now available for streaming.
  • Live From London Spring [VOCES8 & friends] The next installment of VOCES8’s online streaming festival of amazing vocal and chamber music has started, with premieres every week featuring some of the world’s finest ensembles (February 13 – April 22).

What I’m creating…

Made this for my wife on Valentine’s Day, and she granted permission to share it with everyone. One of my favorite ’80s early synth pop tunes that’s also become an a cappella classic. None of the groups I’ve sung with had this in the repertoire, so here’s my arrangement performed at my desk… with a few extra twists!