On one evening, two meme kings, Brown Cardigan and Lushsux saw their drab brown .jpeg image sold for nearly AU$1,400.
This digital artefact was bought by an American blockchain idealist, who believes crypto assets will revolutionise creative expression.
Its seller: The two Australians behind Instagram account Brown Cardigan, a viral video clearing house best known for intensely Australian content and bizarre clips from deep suburbia.
At the same time, Melbourne graffiti provocateur Lushsux claims to have made half a million dollars hawking his digital art to investors. That collectors would buy the rights to a flat .jpeg or an animated portrait of Elon Musk should come as no surprise, given the recent wave of attention – and real-world money – flowing into the non-fungible token (NFT) market.
But insight from Australia’s biggest meme profiteers suggests a disconnect between the true NFT believers, and the creators who stand to profit from the technology.
On one side are the techno optimists, who believe NFT technology will radically reshape modern art and commerce.
On the other stand the social media mavericks and sceptical shitposters, who see the market as serious business – even as they refuse to take NFTs quite so seriously.
— B Cardi (@browncardigan69) March 4, 2021
Squaring up to blockchain
The “brown square”, and other NFTs like it, are limited-edition assets which exist on the blockchain, a digital system which self-verifies the information stored on it.
Ownership data is baked into the blockchain, making it theoretically impossible to ‘steal’ an NFT, even if you can freely copy what they ‘look’ like.
NFT creators can also use the blockchain to ensure they receive a cut of each successive sale, theoretically providing a revenue stream in perpetuity.
But smart contracts alone won’t make a thousand-dollar .jpeg.
Razzed up by a volatile cryptocurrency market, would-be investors have turned to a slew of digital collectibles for their crypto asset fix.
An opportunistic art market has happily complied, with big-name artists securing millions of dollars in new NFT sales.
Now, the NFT idealists must contend with the collectors surging into the market, who see NFTs as another speculative plaything for their crypto portfolios – and not necessarily as art.
Where ‘dumb shit’ meets big money
The brown square is the culmination of a decade’s work for Brown Cardigan, which has successfully leveraged short videos of rogue Australiana into a million-strong Instagram following.
But for all the strides Brown Cardigan has taken – and its improbable transformation of crass, booze-fuelled humour into a social media empire – the organisation sees NFTs as a throwback.
“It kind of harks back to some of the early internet stuff that I love, where it was very wild,” Brown Cardigan co-founder Jonny said.
Inspired by other social media creatives entering the NFT market, Brown Cardigan ‘minted’ the “brown square” on Zora, a blockchain protocol and crypto-asset exchange.
“I was just like, ‘Let’s give this a little play,'” he said.
“‘Zora is just out of the ground. It looks like it’s bubbling off a little bit. Let’s just put something up there and see how it goes.'”
The “brown square” quickly caught the eye of Zora co-founder Jacob Horne.
More specifically, the listing – which specified Brown Cardigan will retain a 69% stake in the asset – encouraged Horne to bid on the NFT himself.
His winning bid: 0.6969 wrapped Ethereum tokens, equivalent to nearly AU$1,400.
“They get the brand and the kind of dumb shit that we’re going for, I think,” Jonny said.
Despite his nod at the 69% gag, Horne seems unlikely to actually describe NFTs as “dumb shit”.
Zora spruiks its own manifesto, which rails against a “fucked” system where platforms “hold our audiences and content hostage.”
And hours after Horne secured the “brown square” rights, his business partner, Dee Goens, tweeted that NFTs provide a “paradigm shift” in the “permanence and perpetual equity of media creation.”
people are pimping NFTs for profit, press, and promo BUT the paradigm shift isn't in the profits. it's in the permanence and perpetual equity of media creation. don't miss this.
— 𝖉ee (@dg_goens) March 4, 2021
Jonny holds a sincere belief in NFTs as an investment and a creative outlet. Intriguingly, he also sees the potential for the technology to eventually broker smart contracts with subscribers, who would be reimbursed whenever their submission is used or sold.
Using NFT technology in that way would, genuinely, revolutionise how online creators are reimbursed for their work, which can spread worldwide without attribution, let alone payment.
But that ‘paradigm’ is, for now, not shifting at all. Brown Cardigan says it is reworking its video licensing agreements the old-fashioned way, without turning to futuristic blockchain contracts.
It “makes sense” for Brown Cardigan to dabble with NFTs, Jonny said, even if its submitters aren’t quite ready to earn their dues in cryptocurrency.
“But for other people, it might just be altogether too much – too much of a deep dive into the crypto world. They just want to send us funny videos.”
For now, Brown Cardigan has left Zora alone with its manifesto, a minor publicity boost in Australia, and a $1,400 patch of brown pixels.
‘Memes, Cryptokitties and Rare Pepes’
To become an actually trusted element of the new digital economy, NFTs must also shake off their perception as a ‘meme’ commodity, where ephemeral hype counts for more than actual value.
Crypto-evangelists will have their work cut out for them in Lushsux, the anonymous Melbourne street artist, who claims to have banked more than $500,000 through NFT sales.
“Can’t really complain,” he said.
“Pity it’s not even a quarter of what would be needed to go out and buy a house in Melbourne.”
High-ranking Lushsux NFTs on NiftyGateway, his marketplace of choice, include a portrait of Elon Musk scolding a Shiba Inu, the mascot of cryptocurrency Dogecoin.
One buyer is now offering to sell their 1-of-113 Musk portrait for $1.4 million.
Whether the work is actually ‘worth’ that much is another matter entirely.
“To be fair the majority of the art currently floating around in this new art ecosystem is trash, mine included,” Lushsux said.
cant wait to flex on all of you and sell this jpeg for 100k pic.twitter.com/5AAnPo6LDj
— @lushsux (@lushsux) March 6, 2021
It’s hard to untie this baked in cynicism from his self-proclaimed ‘meme artist’ status.
Lushsux’s work frequently draws on 4Chan lore, recycling edgelord content from the darkest, dankest fringes of online culture.
And to him, this bubbling cauldron of “memes, “CryptoKitties” and rare Pepes” is the true origin of the NFT scene, not some utopian vision of an equitable art marketplace.
“It’s the foundations of the culture in a way,” he said.
Like Brown Cardigan, Lushsux does see legitimate long-term value in the NFT ecosystem, which grants artists “direct access to very rich collectors with limited gatekeeping and greedy middlemen.”
“I’d feel pretty worried if I was someone who made his rent from those two lecherous fields,” he said.
And any new way to reach paying audiences will surely be welcomed by Australian artists, who have suffered through the COVID-19 pandemic and whose sector faces continual, brutal cuts to government funding.
But the flood of funding to Lushsux, or Grimes, or Beeple, hints at a future where the market obsesses over established players, safeguarding its Bitcoin or Ethereum riches in established artistic assets while leaving newcomers to flounder, alone in a sea of pixels, until investors move on to the next shiny, speculative toy.
Out of the blue, into the brown
Yet there are echoes of crypto-art speculation in the real-world market, grounding some of the the wildest proclamations from NFT adherents.
Some 60 years ago, French artist Yves Klein debuted “International Klein Blue”, an unbroken field of ultramarine, painted in a unique hue he claimed to have trademarked.
Anyone could theoretically paint the same canvas a near-identical shade. The value came in the inalienable character of Yves Klein Blue.
The Tate Modern gallery states Klein’s work toed the “fine line between shamanism and commercialism”, a nod to the conceptual worth of his paintings, and how buyers were compelled to shell out for what Klein himself described as a pure, annihilating void.
Regardless of its simplicity, or how easily it could be copied, galleries worldwide still display his work.
For the crypto faithful, the gallery of the future might display a new piece alongside “International Klein Blue”: a small .jpeg image, glowing dimly, projecting a flat shade of brown.