San Antonio multimedia artist Michele Monseau didn’t necessarily set out to be a pioneer of new art technology when she applied to the Every Woman Biennial in New York, but she soon found herself on the front edge of a digital art revolution.

After being accepted for the show, Monseau had her video Darling, Work turned into an NFT, shorthand for nonfungible token, joining a wave of artists — and nonartists — converting their normally endlessly reproducible digital work into unique, sellable objects.

NFTs are the latest fad among collectors who appreciate one-of-a-kind objects, such as notorious Big Pharma executive Martin Shkreli’s $2 million acquisition of Wu Tang Clan’s single-pressing 2014 album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.

There’s a catch, however, when it comes to owning an NFT. In the 10 years since Chris Torres created the worldwide meme Nyan Cat, it has been viewed nearly 190 million times in its so-called “original” form on YouTube, but it was sold as an NFT in February for $580,000 to an anonymous buyer, who now possesses the pride of owning the only unique form of the meme.

Digital art, such as a JPEG, is essentially fungible, meaning easily reproducible, for anyone with a computer. An NFT is intended to imprint, or “mint” in NFT terminology, one unique version that can be owned, bought, and sold as if it were the Mona Lisa.

NFTs use the same programming technology behind cryptocurrencies, called blockchain – a digital transaction record that leaves a unique signature – one reason they are sold using Bitcoin, Etherium, or one of several other virtual currencies.

Partly due to the novelty of the form, NFTs have rapidly gained in value. A technology reporter for the New York Times recently tried an experiment by turning his Wednesday column on NFTs into an NFT. With a minimum value set at $850, the piece quickly sold in a bidding war for 350 Etherium units, roughly equal to $700,000, to a collector in Dubai.

The values of NFTs can be serious money. Digital artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, sold a collage as an NFT for $69 million at auction in March. In the past year, the market has shown 13,000% growth, for an overall value of more than $2 billion.

Will Monseau see a share of that market growth?

Mentioning Beeple as a relatively unknown artist before his groundbreaking sale, Monseau said, “They talk about this being sort of a bubble right now, but also in a way, it makes it kind of egalitarian — like anybody could somehow have a successful NFT.”

She sees a larger evolution happening than a simple shift in how artworks are sold. “It’s this cryptocurrency market that’s different from the regular art market. It’s comprised of a different group of people who maybe see art in a different way. In that respect, it could be a breaking open of the art market.”

As a video artist, “you don’t really take part so much in the commerce part of it,” she said, because video art does not traditionally have a stable market like other materials-based works of art, such as painting and sculpture.

Introducing NFTs to video art “gives us a chance to maybe sell work more,” Monseau said.

San Antonio has its own NFT gallery, NFT Art San Antonio, which opened in May with a physical location on Commerce Street. Of 12 artworks in its inaugural The Revolution Will Be Digitized show, only two have been priced, and none have yet received bids.

Generally, the artist or gallery will set a minimum price, such as .25 Etherium units — equivalent to $500 — for Monseau’s Darling, Work, and the work sells using an auction method in hopes of generating as high a price as the market will bear. One advantage artists gain from making NFTs is that they can obtain a residual payment when the rework is resold, which is not the usual practice for paintings and sculpture, where the artists receives no money after the initial sale.

A still from a video series titled <i>Darling, Work</i>, made by San Antonio artist, Michele Monseau. She explained that "this series comments on social issues, tech, relationships, gender equity, deconstruction/reconstruction of identity, privacy, fragmentation, and the worldwide insanity we're all experiencing."
A still from a video series titled Darling, Work, made by San Antonio artist, Michele Monseau. She explained that “this series comments on social issues, tech, relationships, gender equity, deconstruction/reconstruction of identity, privacy, fragmentation, and the worldwide insanity we’re all experiencing.” Credit: Courtesy / Michele Monseau

Beyond the commerce aspect, Every Woman Biennial curator C. Finley said, “I like NFTs because they are nonhierarchical and there are no gatekeepers,” similar to the overall approach to the exhibition, which runs through July 3 in New York and through July 9 in London.

The exhibition theme for 2021 is “My Love Is Your Love,” which follows the thematic track for what began life in 2014 as Finley’s Whitney Houston Biennial — a play on the highly exclusive Whitney Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Each year’s theme is based on a Houston song.

“We strive to highlight new voices in the world of art,” Finley said in an email. “We are committed to celebrating unique women and non-binary [people] you may not see in the museum.”

Asked whether the inclusion of NFTs in this year’s exhibition is an effort to introduce a diverse array of nonbinary, transgender, female, and other non-dominant artists to the world of NFT art, Finley answered in the affirmative.

“Absolutely, I want to flood the NFT space with artists who might not be there without this opportunity.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...