Lawrence artist launches NFT project addressing the future of art

Composite image of Richard Klocke and one of his paper pieces (from the artist)

Richard Klocke’s “Hereafter the Art” trades in digital time capsules

Richard Klocke always gravitated to the conceptual aspects of art making. “I see how artists work with ideas,” Klocke explained from his tidy North Lawrence studio. Indeed, artists using ideas as artistic material can take on many interesting forms; consider conceptual art pioneer Sol LeWitt’s diagrammatic wall drawings that continue to be installed well beyond the artist’s lifespan.

Klocke would know; he’s not only maintained a decades-long studio practice, he has worked directly with such artists as an exhibition designer at the Spencer Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Working with the likes of Light and Space master James Turrell, or Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi, who deploys the cartoon as sociopolitical critique, or the artist/activist founders of the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, Klocke has come to one conclusion: “Art is always in this revolutionary state; it’s never the same.”

Think of an NFT as a unique form of digital art . . . whose ownership and sales history are transparently recorded or “minted” in a cryptocurrency “blockchain” for all to see.

Years before, with an ongoing curiosity about ideas in art, Klocke wisely reached out to thinkers and creators in other disciplines to start a dialogue and get different perspectives. He was particularly interested in what physicists, philosophers, mathematicians, writers and professors thought about the future of art. Klocke’s correspondence yielded some interesting responses over the years. But more questions emerged during the pandemic.

Like many of us, Klocke had paid some attention to the blizzard of headlines in 2021 about NFTs or “non-fungible tokens” storming the art world with eye-watering sales figures in the tens of millions. Now, what’s an NFT exactly? Here’s a quick review. Think of an NFT as a unique form of digital art — either conceived solely for the digital realm, or unique digitized iterations of existing physical artworks — whose ownership and sales history are transparently recorded or “minted” in a cryptocurrency “blockchain” for all to see. Yes, you must own cryptocurrency to buy an NFT.

Detail from the series “Things That Are and Aren’t What They Are” (2022), a pierced and die cut Arches 400# paper piece by Richard Klocke (from the artist)

The very concept of an NFT as art is highly disruptive to the costly and opaque transactions of private mega-galleries and auction houses who dominate the global art trade. NFTs bypass the middlemen entirely, enabling individual owners to transact directly, globally, instantly, with other decentralized buyers and sellers.

Besides factors of quality and rarity, the value of an NFT can also take on some fascinating new qualities when programmed with “smart contracts.” For example, smart contracts can be programmed to pay royalties to the original artist each time it is sold — still unheard of in the IRL (in real life) art world. Other value-added components of an NFT, like documentation, drawings, essays, audio and video, can be programmed to be released during a period of ownership, like a time capsule.

That’s what hit him in the shower one day. Klocke wondered: Could NFTs be time capsules of ideas about the future of art? He thought about artist collectives; surely there had to be NFT collectives. He found one in Prague founded by a lawyer, graphic designer and curator called NFTense. The founders of the digital platform made their values plain: “Concern for making the world a better place, collaborative creative approach to working with artists, while also generating profit for the artist.” That sounded good to Klocke; besides, NFTense sought proposals for an NFT project with a philanthropic angle.

Klocke had to get in the game. That meant purchasing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum to be able to access grant money and be able to buy NFTs. Once familiar with the system Klocke applied for a grant with NFTense and won two Ethereum (approximately $4,000) to develop his project titled “Hereafter the Art” over the summer of 2022.

Klocke wanted to explore the research potential of NFTs by “inviting artists to think freely about what art is and what it might become.” Instead of just selling NFTs, Klocke explained, “Artists who become part of this project will forever be linked via the blockchain to something special and should realize they have a unique opportunity.” The opportunity being to use NFTs as an open-ended artistic medium and for artists to go on the record now about the future of art.

Graphic by Czech graphic designer Lukáš Bartoň for Richard Klocke’s NFT project, “Hereafter the Art” (from the artist)

Over the summer of 2022 Klocke and his project team at NFTense crafted their international call for entries to artists and curators. “Hereafter the Art” seeks 100 total artists, across continents and creative disciplines, who will create NFTs with two components: the first part visual, a self-portrait or “vision of self,” and second, a corresponding essay on the future of art from the artist/author in the form of a smart contract-controlled time capsule.

There is a catch, of course. Buyers of the 100 NFTs won’t know what artist they’re getting until they purchase it for one flat price. Klocke calls this “game-ify-ing the research,” that is, to infuse game elements to hold the collector’s interest. For example, buyers can choose to “publish” the accompanying essay or not. While leaving the time capsule closed may create more rarity for some works, it is a calculated risk as the smart contract is programmed to have random “openings” of digital works in the first year — determined by algorithm. Artists are free to design multiple factors for increasing the value of their NFTs.

At the time of publication, the project website www.hereaftertheart.com has officially launched with the initial artist call. Phase 3 of the project will involve the artist selection, most likely with an NFT collective serving as curator, followed by the development, finalization and marketing of the NFTs. Despite the recent turbulence in NFT markets, Klocke remains focused on the bigger picture. “What I’m hoping to have happen are some public conversations and programming, an exhibit, or to publish the essays. I want to challenge the way art is made and the way art history is taught.” NFTs as art may or may not stand the test of time, but the ideas and visions of artists will surely carry humanity forward into an uncertain future.

Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an art advisor, appraiser, curator and writer interested in all things art, cave painting to contemporary.

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