At its core the quality of being fungible is the quality of being interchangeable, more specifically interchangeable with its likeness. Our currencies, ergo our financial systems, ergo our ways of life have been underpinned by the stability that a $5 note is worth the same as every other $5 note. This is perhaps why the word fungible has never really spilled over into everyday usage: it has traditionally been a word for legal documents and economics texts. However, in the last couple of years the word fungible has made its way out of the lecture theatres of law classes and into the headlines of mainstream news services. On the back of a crypto currency boom it seemed only logical that markets that utilised this new form of wealth would emerge, the most prominent of these being the, at times lucrative, NFT (non-fungible token) market.
Defining an NFT is problematic, because it is more about what it isn’t than what it is. People who have searched online looking for a definition will probably find an article or video that starts off with a semantic definition, e.g. it is a digital token with a unique signature making it unlike other tokens that are similar, which is then followed up by a spuriously comprehensible but ultimately ephemeral analogy. These definitions perhaps suffer by their ulterior motive of making NFTs sound more ground-breaking and more revolutionary than they are. If you were to say NFTs are like digital snowflakes, in that no two are the same, that might help, but it doesn’t add anything to their significance because whilst we may notionally find the idea interesting that no two snowflakes are the same, we ultimately don’t really care, and this doesn’t make any snowflake more important or valuable than any other. However, imagine a scenario in late capitalism where a certain configuration of snowflake has an exchange value greater than other configurations, or a scenario where a snowflake is worth more because Elon Musk once owned it.
In practice, NFTs are comparable to digital receipts that give the owner exclusive access to a piece of data. This data maybe a small digital image, it might be a gif, it might be a high resolution digital artwork, it might be anything that can be stored digitally. The allure or uniqueness of these pieces of data lies in their non-fungibility. They are acquired through a crypto currency exchange (more often than not Ethereum, but not necessarily so) and as such are verified and secure, though it is worth noting that in 2021 crypto currency theft totalled A$4.5b and money lost to crypto scams totalled A$11b (Lane).
There is an irony that emerges here in that the digital culture that has allowed the proliferation of fungible content has given rise to its own non-fungible counter-culture. It is as if the digital annihilation of Benjamin’s aura has been replaced by an 8-bit digital aura. Every $5 note may still have exactly the same value as another $5 note, and the actual Mona Lisa may be less beguiling now you can own it on a tote bag, but not every Bored Ape (an avatar comprised of a cartoon ape, generated by an algorithm) has the same value as another Bored Ape (see Bored Ape Yacht Club statistics). For example, less than 0.5% of generated Bored Apes have gold fur, making them more desirable, and all of a sudden it begins to feel like a familiar market with familiar characteristics of supply and demand.
2020 was a turbulent year, so it’s understandable that the seeds of some culturally significant trends were overlooked. Amongst these was the boom in the trading card market. This saw trading cards – those things kids buy in packs with their pocket money – become an investor industry. Sale prices skyrocketed during global pandemic lockdowns: for example, a LeBron James 2003-4 Upper Deck Exquisite Rookie Patch Autograph card (numbered 14/23) sold at Golden Auctions for US$1.84m; another version of the same card sold in April of 2021 for US$5.2m.
This boom in the trading card market rolled over into the early adoption of NFT technology within the sports trading card market, a development that has been generally glossed over. Well before Beeple’s sale of Everydays: The First 5,000 Days (a collage of 5,000 digital artworks sold as an NFT) at Christie’s for slightly under US$70m (see Guardian), NFTs were breaking new ground in the sports card market in the form of NBA Top Shots (an official NBA product produced by Dapper Labs). When a person opens a digital pack of Top Shots they reveal “moments”, uniquely serial numbered highlight videos lasting a few seconds. Sales of NBA Top Shots totalled US$230m in 2020 (Young). There is perhaps little surprise in this early adoption of the investor/trading aspects of NFTs, given the crossover between pandemic-era sports card collectors and crypto currency speculators (Yahoo! Finance).
Beyond these developments in NFT hobby collectibles, there has also been the development and gamification of NFT gambling in the form of horse-racing platforms like Zed Run. Zed Run allows users to race NFT horses in their virtual stable at the cost of a fee (payable in crypto currency), which is ostensibly a wager. Users can breed NFT horses with other NFT horses to create new NFT horses with unique characteristics, and then race them against other horses with comparable attributes. This platform, and ones like it, are playing a role in creating an unregulated gambling platform that operates on a global scale, at a time where many states in the USA are only years into a relaxed sports betting environment (in 2018 a Supreme Court ruling opened the door for all states to legalise sports betting; until that point sports betting was only legal in 4 states). It remains to be seen if the continued gamification of gambling will entrench itself further through means such as Zed Run, or if the practice will remain niche without the existence of a widely populated metasphere.
It is clear that we are currently in the midst of a wave, potentially a flood, of NFT content, and a majority of this content exists as a variation of the theme “how to make money through NFTs”. NFTs are currently considered more for their potential profitability rather than their utility. The residue of this is that non-fungible markets seem to be replicating the traditional markets that they are notionally trying to subvert, and the practical uses of NFTs, e.g. as a solution to issues of digital ownership, are being overlooked. Perhaps this is the new manifestation of the neoliberal ideology, or perhaps it is the case in point that future generations will look back upon.
Of course, there is an as yet generally unstated and significant point here, that what is being discussed is fungibility in terms of its non-ness. The mention of the term fungibility in a popular culture context immediately gives way to the consideration of the non-fungible, and the non-fungible is seemingly resolving itself, or at least can be understood, in the context of traditional wealth, with all of its fungible interchangeability. This issue of M/C Journal presents a range of insights and perspectives on this word that is increasingly flowing through discourses and practices. NFTs have a range of implications and a spectrum of potential uses depending on their context. But additionally, the usefulness of fungibility as a concept also comes into play here, as terminology traditionally shackled to other disciplines but increasingly pliable in the arts and humanities.
This issue’s feature by Russell, “NFTs and Value”, meets some of the above issues head-on by immediately addressing the dichotomy of NFTs as the start of a new art format or NFTs as Western society’s most recent bubble market. Irrespective of these two positions there is an undeniable reality that these digital artefacts can potentially have real world wealth. Russell explores the potential underlying factors of this wealth and in turn what creates artistic wealth. Here a combination of factors such as the discourse around the work itself, or the place that work has in the context of Western art history are all considered as potential drivers of this new wave/bubble.
Mason takes up the financial gains associated with some NFTs by examining the commodification of memes through the NFT format. In particular Mason considers the broader implications of this phenomenon outside of NFTs themselves by discussing the potential cultural and racial legacies at play. Mason’s work also notes the dominance of non-Black memes in the non-fungible market and the subsequent development of non-Black wealth that follows. Through this case study Mason touches upon an as of yet widely overlooked cultural implication of the non-fungible market, that of racial inequality and exploitation.
In a different wing of the art world, Binns focusses on film, noting, after highlighting the significant ecological price and damage that comes with making transactions on prominent block chains, that the implications of NFTs on the film industry are still emerging. Despite the presence of some emerging marketplaces and vendors, the full utility of NFTs within the film industry remains untapped and unclear. Perhaps NFTs will supplement crowdfunding by offering exclusive memberships or perks (similar to the Bored Apes Yacht Club), or perhaps the fad will fade into the background without ever leaving an impression.
In contrast, Robinson embraces the notion of fungibility as fungibility, stepping away from the contemporary discussion of “fungible” as being inherently “non-fungible” and looking at the interchangeability of identity and experience in online spaces. Through interviews Robinson considers how traditional notions of national and political identity are rendered fungible by digital spaces and how this aspect of fungibility manifests itself in invisibility, efficacy, and antagonism. This work is an important reminder of the suitability of fungible as a term in academic scholarship: Robinson’s notion of fungible citizenship opens up new perspectives in who we are, who we see ourselves to be, and to what we might aspire.
Lyubchenko’s work is concerned with the place that NFT art has within a broader sense of art history. For Lyubchenko, crypto art can be considered as the culmination of the Dada movement, influenced by its various iterations such as Neo-Dadaism and Pop-Art. The result here is not so much a digital embodiment of the anti-art movement, arriving to land the final blow, but rather the newest form of anti-art, whose existence seems to only breathe life into that which it intends to kill. For Lyubchenko, crypto art it not so much a threat to traditional art forms, but rather a call to arms, a catalyst to regroup and reassert art’s timeless values.
The place of the NFT in music is then the focus of Rogers et al., who seek to explore where music sits in the newly framed context of Web3. Whilst this position is not entirely constituted by the integration of NFT technology in music, it is at present a considerable factor and one that Rogers et al. explore through examination of functionality and discourse analysis. They note a degree of cynicism in the discourses surrounding popular music’s flirtation with NFTs, emerging largely from environmental impacts of blockchain ledgers and potential grey areas surrounding the industry’s legitimacy as a whole when it comes to claims of authenticity, security, and capacity. Interestingly they also note similarities in many of the cases they discuss with discourses surrounding previously emergent forms of music. Even seemingly banal music technologies in the past, such as the jukebox and the player piano, were subjected to comparable scrutiny. In the end time will give us a greater sense of whether the first few years of music within Web3 represent a cultural touchstone or a commercially driven false start.
Finally, this collection progresses the discussion on how NFTs themselves present new opportunities for art practitioners. As Wilson notes, there is an inevitability that artists will begin to embrace the production of NFTs as part of the artistic process, as opposed to simply porting over existing artworks to the NFT format. Wilson considers his own work and Damien Hirst’s 2021 NFT works as examples of how considered and practical adoption of this new format challenges the neo-liberal economic conception of what NFTs are and what they are for.
Bored Ape Yacht Club statistics. 16 Apr. 2022 <https://www.nft-stats.com/collection/boredapeyachtclub>.
The Guardian. “Christie’s Auctions 'First Digital-Only Artwork' for $70m.” 12 Mar. 2021. 16 Apr. 2022 <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/mar/11/christies-first-digital-only-artwork-70m-nft-beeple>.
Lane, Aaron M. “Crypto Theft Is on the Rise. Here’s How the Crimes are Committed, and How You Can Protect Yourself.” The Conversation 3 Feb. 2022. 15 Apr. 2022 <https://theconversation.com/crypto-theft-is-on-the-rise-heres-how-the-crimes-are-committed-and-how-you-can-protect-yourself-176027>.
Yahoo! Finance. “Collector Coin Becomes First and Only Cryptocurrency for Card Collectors.” 30 June 2021. 16 Apr. 2022 <https://finance.yahoo.com/news/collector-coin-becomes-first-only-185000184.html>.
Young, Jabari. “People Have Spent More than $230 Million Buying and Trading Digital Collectibles of NBA Highlights.” CNBC 28 Feb. 2021. 16 Apr. 2022 <https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/28/230-million-dollars-spent-on-nba-top-shot.html>.