Beeple, from crypto-success to mega-stardom

[13.04.2021]

To see Mike Winkelmann – shirt & sweater, small glasses and greying temples – you would have no idea that this ‘normal family man’ appearance hides the imagination of Beeple, a hallucinated world, populated by Hillary Clinton cyborgs, Mark Zuckerberg zombies and futuristic starships in vertical robotic cities. So… apart from being the most bankable crypto-artist of the moment, who is BEEPLE (1981)?

The JPEG that was worth $69 million

 Beeple, Hexagonia, (Everyday 06.25.16)

Beeple, Hexagonia, (Everyday 06.25.16)

The general public discovered Beeple after Christie’s online auction clock (which started on 25 February) stopped on March 11 with a record bid of more than $69 million (including fees) for a digital work titled EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS. The result was higher than any auction result ever recorded for the majority of the world’s most famous artists including REMBRANDT, Georgia O’KEEFFE and Jackson POLLOCK. Beeple is now the third most expensive living artist on the planet (all artistic media combined) after David HOCKNEY and Jeff KOONS.

The work in question is a single digital file containing 5000 digital images (The First 5000 Days) produced by Beeple in his family living room in a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina.

The genesis of this unique work takes us to Wisconsin, where Mike Winkelmann grew up. A computer science graduate in the early 2000s, he finally got tired of designing websites and started his project Everydays on 1 May 2007 creating one image per day, whatever the circumstances (his wedding, the birth of his two children, wind or rain, etc.).

In what was still only a methodology to improve his technique, Beeple was inspired by Tom JUDD’s daily practice. He scanned his production and posted it on the Internet. Over time, he switched to ‘all digital’, focusing on new software or a new technique every couple of years, for example Adobe Illustrator in 2012, followed by Cinema 4D in 2015.

On the walls of the family home there are no paintings or prints, but lots of screens.
It could be an art installation: the energy-hungry monitors, suspended with large cables above a bathtub to cool them down, are continuously connected to CNN or FoxNews.

An acidic commentator of today’s world, Winkelmann absorbes ‘news’ like the Impressionists absorbed ‘nature’. The omnipresence of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or Kim Jong-Un (to name but a few) in his First 5000 Days, proves the extent to which American politics, domestic and foreign, may have influenced his subjects of inspiration. There is also popular culture, for example when he hijacks emojis or Disney heroes in a similar manner to the work of Victor CASTILLO (but digital). In all, the work shows the evolution of Beeple’s style from the famous drawings of the beginnings in 2007 (at the top left of the “canvas”) to the colorful abstract forms he created using the new digital tools in 2011, and ending with the sci-fi landscapes populated by robotic structures in around 2015.

 Beeple, torial overLAUD w/ maximum blowage. (Everyday. 16-04-2010)

Beeple, torial overLAUD w/ maximum blowage. (Everyday. 16-04-2010)

In the digital world, Beeple is not unknown. He has some 2 million subscribers on social networks who have proven to be superb relayers of his daily creations. He has also established profitable commercial relationships with companies like Nike, Apple and SpaceX. His universe has also attracted the attention of personalities like Nicki Minaj, the group Imagine Dragon and Katy Perry who have entrusted their artistic image to him. His notoriety already had significant momentum last February when his Crossroads sold for $6.6 million (the artist received 10% on the sale) via the platform Nifty Gateway (a website specialised in the sale of digital art).

A new dimension to the art market

At the end of the Christie’s sale on 11 March 2021, a certain Metakovan had acquired the first NFT sold by Christie’s. Metakovan is actually Vignesh Sundaresan, an Indian entrepreneur based in Singapore. A blockchain specialist, Mr. Sundaresan is far from being a novice in the cryptocurrency world, since that’s how he became a millionaire. He has since claimed that by purchasing this digital collage, he wanted to illustrate his social ascension, “to show Indians and people of colour that they could also be patrons of the arts”.

Sundaresan settled his bill at Christie’s with 42,329 Ether (the currency of the Ethereum network), thereby participating in Christie’s first-ever step into the cryptocurrency field. This is the first time a traditional auction house has accepted to engage in a fully dematerialized exchange, authenticated in a blockchain.

Sotheby’s does not intend to let its rival monopolise a native audience of digital technology fans who may not be interested in the traditional art market. It has therefore announced its collaboration with digital artist Pak, founder of Archillect, a visual content-sharing platform based on Artificial Intelligence, for the sale of an NFT.

The value of cryptocurrencies exploded as of 2017. In 2020, the price of Bitcoin, the pioneering cryptocurrency, increased by over 1,300% and that of its direct competitor, Ether, rose by 8,000%. The cryptocurrency model, underpinned by the technology of a decentralized blockchain, is now being applied to the art market, both primary and secondary.

Artists who produce works of “crypto art” and whose digital works suddenly become unique and collectable, are seeing their prices explode. Matt Hall and John Watkinson, who run the NFT Lavalabs platform, are also the creators of CryptoPunks, a collection of 10,000 pixelated figures generated by an algorithm and equipped with various accessories. On 11 March, their “punk” n.7804 sold for 42,000 Ether ($7.57 million) .

 Matt Hall et John Watkinson, Cryptopunks

Matt Hall et John Watkinson, Cryptopunks

Being denominated in cryptocurrencies, the values of digital collectibles are of course rising and falling at a much faster rate than their counterparts in the analogue art world. Many experts believe that cryptocurrencies will collapse under the weight of financial speculation. Beeple himself, while taking full advantage of it, likens this frenzy to the Internet Bubble in the early 2000s. But crypto-art, the crypto-market and crypto-collectors look like they are here to stay. It’s a world where you can own a work of art… without actually possessing it.

As digital art circulates without any limits, the classic notion of ‘property’ is substantially modified and may be difficult for some people to comprehend. In essence, the blockchain system allows two key elements: on the one hand it simplifies buying and selling, allowing fast, direct and inexpensive transactions (i.e. more open to everyone). On the other hand it provides a totally reassuring chain of provenance and authenticity. Ultimately, what you ‘own’ requires no maintenance, cannot be destroyed or damaged, has a guaranteed provenance and does not require any insurance, shipping costs, storage costs or transaction costs in the event of resale. The work is known to be yours, but it can still be seen by anyone, as if you had forever loaned your RUBENS to a public museum. The crypto art market is in many respects a hyperized version of the “real world” market: it is subject to the vagaries of fashions, speculative bubbles and impulse buying, but probably to a much greater extent than its physical sister.