NFTs or non-fungible tokens is quite a trend and quite a topic. Tens of thousands of articles have been written about it – some sensational, some factual, some making promises that are patently untrue. Platon has become one of the most famous NFT artists. His view of the NFT phenomenon is provocative and controversial. Would you expect anything less? He spoke to Candide McDonald about it.
In 2018, Irish conceptual artist Kevin Abosch put his photograph, Forever Rose, on the NFT market. No physical photograph was ever sold. He created a token with the same name and that token represented his photograph. He divided it into ten shares, so ten people could own a fraction of the original token. He raised US$1 million dollars, which he then gave to charity. But it would be another few years before NFT photographs soared as a trend.
In October 2020, Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist known as Beeple, sold his first NFTs, a pair for US$66,666.66 each. In December, he sold a series for US $3.5 million. In February 2021, one of the NFTs that originally sold for $66,666.66 was resold for US$6.6 million. Then on March 11, 2021, he sold the NFT token for his collage, Everydays: the First 5000 Days, via Christie’s for US$69.3 million. The collage of 5,000 digital images was the first purely digital work of art ever offered by a major auction house. Its sale price was enormous. It made headlines. The trend has since been an explosion.
So, what exactly is an NFT? Quite simply, it’s a piece digital art ‘minted’ or created on the blockchain. Given the nature of blockchain, its provenance and entire sales history is a matter of public record. And each time an NFT is resold, the system allows for the artist to receive a commission of the sales price.
One of the world’s most powerful portrait photographers of our time, Platon, is also using NFTs. Perhaps his fame is profiting from them? But the photographer who founded The People’s Portfolio in 2013, a non-profit foundation whose stated purpose is to use visual language to “break barriers, uplift dignity, fight discrimination, and enlist the public to support human rights around the world”, is using the power of NFTs in a new way.
Using NFTs differently
“I believe in the shared experience that you have to inspire everyone to feel that they are part of something beautiful again and rekindle the spirit of optimism. And when people say, ‘You’re just being hippie, dippie, and naïve,’ I know that I’ve seen the dark side of humanity more than most. I stood in a room in a morgue, surrounded by 300 dead bodies of immigrants who were trying to cross the desert for a better life. All women and children. They all died in the desert because they were running away from gang violence and poverty, not because they were gangsters. There were no knives or guns found on their bodies. I remember the smell of the bodies. But experiences like these make me realise that I can also do amazing things. And I feel such an optimist about life. But I do feel that we’ve got to use communication and storytelling. I’m not a powerful person. I don’t represent a government, and I don’t represent a company. I’m just me, so in many ways, I have nothing. But I’m a storyteller and sometimes the storyteller is the one who inspires people to think differently. Plus, I was trained to be a cultural provocateur, trained to provoke society to have respectful debates. And I am a human rights activist. So, part of my initiative with everything I’m doing now is to use storytelling to inspire people to deploy their skills and do something useful with their life. And that’s not me being preachy or being full of myself at all. I’m driven by my own inadequacies, my own fears like anyone else,” Platon states.
That self-appointed mission begins with an understanding that the world needs change and that real change is only going to come if people use their power. “We can’t stand around and bitch and moan about our leaders letting us down,” Platon notes. “I’ve seen intimidation and I’ve seen charisma in our leaders. I’ve seen authority and power. And when you’re up close to Putin, Gaddafi, or Mugabe, or your former prime ministers and certainly all my presidents in America, I see all those attributes, but I don’t often see service. I think we have to be that service. I’ve asked myself, ‘How do I use my platform, no matter how small or humble it is, how do I use it to be positive?’ If a young girl like Greta can transform the world with no platform whatsoever? Damn, what can we all do?”
Platon is using his talent as his power, his art as his voice, and NFTs as the machinery that delivers it.
NFTs for good
In April 2021, Platon’s Genesis NFT Collection became available on OpenSea – a peer-to-peer marketplace for NFTs, the world’s first and the largest. The auction ran for forty-eight hours and featured six mini-documentaries and twelve photographs. Three of the mini-docs focused on human rights stories and their proceeds went to support The People’s Portfolio. The other three mini-docs and accompanying photos featured thought leaders such as Edward Snowden, Quincy Jones, and Willie Nelson. His conversation with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden centred around the shared values of privacy, patriotism, morality, humanity, and how technology impacts these aspects of human life. Proceeds were set aside to neutralise the effort’s carbon footprint. At the same time, on foundation.app, Snowden and Platon auctioned a work that sold for $US5.5m, 100% of which was donated to Freedom of the Press Foundation. The artwork incorporated a portrait that Platon had taken of Snowden and a mosaic of pages from the landmark 2015 Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision which rules illegal the NSA mass surveillance that Snowden had exposed.
Platon’s use of NFTs can also be simply ingenious. In June 2021, he held his famous NFT series of irises, Eye Love You, Eye Hate You, on LGND.art. The first exhibition included twelve individual iris NFTs, thirty years in the making. For each NFT, Platon deconstructed one of his images, removing 97% of the film negative information, deleting all recognisable facial characteristics by re-scanning it at the highest resolution and then cropping in close on the iris to create a hyper-detailed image. These twelve images were put up for sale for US$111 each on 6 June. The buyers were not told in advance whose iris image they were buying, so curiosity was triggered and the rumour mill churned wildly, especially after Platon shared a short list for subsequent drops that tentatively included Harvey Weinstein and the first sale was confirmed to include Barack and Michelle Obama, Putin, Mark Zuckerberg, Muammar Gaddafi, Adele, and Prince. The iris’ identities were revealed to the buyers after purchase, and for each of the Iris NFTs, twelve collectors received a special portrait print from Platon himself, featuring one of the famous figures.
Platon is not oblivious to either the ugliness of the NFT craze or the practical benefit of NFTs to photographers – the removal of the middleman. “The NFT phenomenon is sort of a gold rush, a greedy charge of everyone just scrambling to chuck anything into this new technology and try and make a million bucks. And it’s gross. It brought out the worst in everybody initially for me. But I saw that there are a lot of really cool people trying to think differently with technology. And there is something very interesting about the concept for artists in that we can go directly to our audience.” This, Platon sees as change for good. The photographer is in control of the process and the sale process is fairer, he says. “I find it really interesting, too, that without going through a gallery the collector knows how the NFT was made, what’s in it, when it was made, and that it came directly from the source from the artist,” he adds.
The NFT opportunity
What interests Platon most though is the opportunity that the, so far, unabated passion for NFTs affords his aims as a social advocate. “People are always drawn to the latest thing in society. We always get obsessed with the latest thing. But what I’m always interested in is the content, the message that’s in that thing. If everyone is talking about NFTs and drawn to this as a new, shiny object for us to gossip about, I’m thinking, ‘Well, that’s interesting, because maybe I can try and harness some of that attention and redirect it to some important issues and try to stimulate some interesting debates. Do something positive and inclusive with this energy, because when people are drawn to something, that’s currency.’”
The NFT challenge
He acknowledges that there are issues with it. “And this is one of the challenges all of us have to face. Do we stand? Are we bystanders? Or are we upstanders?” he says. “If we’re bystanders, we’re moths dancing around somebody else’s flame. If we’re upstanders, we light the darkness ourselves with our own torch of compassion. Now, to be an upstander means you’re going to get your hands dirty. And you’re going to get involved in the battle. And that’s messy. You know, Mike Tyson told me once that everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face. That’s the bloody truth. It’s very easy to have a clear idea about right and wrong when you’re a bystander because you haven’t had to fight or get punched or get your hands dirty in the ring.” One of the issues, he notes, is the environmental impact of NFTs. “So, I’m talking to the platforms I’m working with and I’m saying, ‘I don’t think we should use that blockchain. Is there another blockchain that we can use, like the wax blockchain?’ It’s not as popular with collectors and I’m going to make less money, but I’m sending a positive message out to people that I’m using something that’s thousands and thousands of times more energy efficient. I’m choosing to make less money, but I’m also doing something that hopefully stimulates a discussion within the NFT community.”
The value of NFTs
Platon’s view of the NFT craze is also interwoven with how he values his work. His view is not conventional. The world is measuring NFT art by its value and he is not. “How do you measure beautiful art and important storytelling?” he asks. It’s a question he says he is asked often because so much of his work is for fundraising. “Well, how do you measure Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech,” he says. “Would you say, well, there was no violence that day at the March on Washington, so that makes it valid? Or would you say, there were 250,000 people there? That’s an interesting metric. Or you could say, I can’t measure the importance of that speech, so the speech is not important. But it was one of the most important moments in American history. There’s this idea that an NFT is successful if it made $69 million. I would say that’s not how you should measure something. If that’s the case, then you would have said that van Gogh’s paintings were rubbish because no one bought them. His brother was the only person who ever bought his paintings. He did it only to support his brother, Vincent, who was living in poverty. Van Gogh never sold one painting.”
He adds: “There are going to be artists doing really interesting NFTs, that no one’s taking any notice of, and then in 10 years, 100 years from now, that work is going to be worth $200 million. Whether it’s worth $200 million or whether it’s worth nothing is completely irrelevant. Art does something different. It moves you as a person. When I photographed Muhammad Ali, he was very ill. I said to him at the end of the session, ‘Muhammad, you are the greatest. The whole world knows you as the greatest. Teach me to be great. How can my generation be as great as your generation had to be during the Civil Rights era?’ He couldn’t speak very well. He could barely mumble. So, I had to get close to him. And he whispered in my ear, ‘I have a confession to make. I wasn’t as great as I said I was.’ I told him, ‘That is the biggest confession I’ve ever heard in my life, because the world knows you as the greatest.’ And then he said, ‘You misunderstand me. I’ll tell you what was great, and it wasn’t me. It was that people saw themselves in my struggle, in my story.’ A lightbulb went off in my brain. I realised that no matter what I do in life with this silly little skill I have of connecting with people and taking pictures and telling stories, that’s not a big deal. I’m just a messenger. But, if I can get people to see themselves in the story I’m putting forward, then I can bridge-build. We’re human beings together. We’re sharing an experience. And that’s when stuff starts getting interesting. If, on the other hand, I’m going to measure my work by how much money it made, then I’m going to go crazy.”
NFT call to arms
Money is also outside Platon’s realm of interest in NFTs. “If you stop and call NFT the art of looking sideways, if you turn it upside down, that’s interesting,” he states. “I’m dyslexic so I turn everything upside down. What if we could think about NFT as social activism instead of a money-making exercise, and what if we could harness all that attention on it? And if we occasionally make money for something good, like freedom of the press, or, you know, raising money for my human rights issues, then that’s great. So, I’m just beginning this, you know. I’m just at the beginning of the journey.”
It’s a journey that Platon hopes artists will join him on. “There’s a lot of talk about NFTs becoming like a private membership club. When you buy your NFT you’re actually buying into some kind of social currency. Because you own that NFT, you’re able to say, ‘I’m cooler than I was last week.’ I think there’s something interesting in that concept of a private club. And as a provocateur, I’m interested in saying, ‘Well, what if that club was filled with the most inspiring people in the world who want to change it, who want to fix it, and want to rebuild the world so it’s more socially inclusive, so it’s more democratic, so it’s fairer. So, it’s better for all of us. And part of it is fixing the technology within it, so that it becomes more energy efficient? Well, it won’t happen unless there are people inside driving it to happen. Because if you’re going to sit back and wait for the powers that be to change it, nothing is really going to happen No one is going to do anything when their job depends on them not doing it. Why would politicians – and some business leaders for that matter – change the world when they are benefiting from the world as it is? You, me, people together, if we get involved, we can change it from the inside. And if we’re going to have this private NFT club, I’m all for it. Let’s create that club, but make it a club of values, rather than currency. That club has tens of thousands of potential members, I promise you that.”
“Within the NFT community, there are a lot of really cool people who want to shape this into something beautiful and powerful and great, something inclusive and democratic. That brings power back to the little person. And I think that’s really important.”
Platon – www.platonphoto.com
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