First, there was that AI song. The nonprofit Over the Bridge analyzed 30 Nirvana tracks and guessed at what a new one might sound like. Then the singer of a Nirvana cover band performed it. As it happens, the song sounds exactly as you’d expect: a watery imitation, a Gen-X dad band doing an “original.”
Now, photographer Jesse Frohman is further merging new tech and Seattle’s most famous band. On May 3 at 9am Pacific Time, the photographer will begin the auction for an NFT (non-fungible token) from his 1993 photo shoot with Cobain, the last formal one before he died in 1994. If you want to buy, you’ll pay in Ethereum, a type of cryptocurrency currently valued at $2,744 a token. The bidding begins at 27.27 ETH, or around $75,000, (because Cobain died at age 27—get it?) and runs through 3pm on May 7. This NFT will contain 104 images from the shoot, many of which are multiples of a famous Cobain look—the leopard print coat, the trapper hat, chipped nail polish, the big white sunglasses. You know, shots like this:
Frohman's website, to rationalize the price, notes that the NFT contains “some never-before-seen” images and each of these multiples contains a specificity: “Jesse left the shoot that day thinking he’d gotten one or two good shots. He was struck to find over a hundred, each imbued with a nuance unlike the others.” The collection—a high res scan of Frohman's images—comes with a print of the buyer’s choosing and “an opportunity” for a photoshoot with Frohman. Beyond that, the buyer gets “a chance to share ownership of a moment that is etched deeply upon the soul of music and culture.”
If you’ve been staying away from art news lately and don’t know what an NFT is, perhaps this all sounds reasonable—a historic collection of images for sale. An NFT, though, is a virtual certificate of authenticity that uses blockchain (the tech behind cryptocurrency) so people can charge a shitload of money for digital files. Earlier this year NFTs stormed the art world when an internet artist named Beeple sold an NFT of his work for $69 million in a Christie’s auction, the third-largest sale by a living artist ever. Other artists—including a few Seattleites, as Crosscut reported—have raked it in with sales as well. One local, the 18-year-old FEWOCiOUS, has now sold 3104 works valued at a combined $18.2 million, the fourth highest selling cryptoartist. Washington winemaker Andrew Januik is now auctioning off some animated digital wine labels for about $500 each.
NFTs exist at the intersection of two economies—the art market and cryptocurrency—rooted in buzz and projection. Unsurprisingly the rise of NFTs this year has pulsed with controversy: that people are paying to “own” art that’s widely available online, that NFTs are unsustainable (creating one has the same carbon footprint as a 500-mile drive in a typical car—though physical art is also shipped all over). There is more than a little absurdity to the whole thing—and some are already trying to take advantage—but in as much as NFTs are a way for internet artists to get paid for their work by selling directly to buyers, fine.
Where this whole market gets thoroughly stupid is with sales like Frohman’s. I am not worried about people soiling Nirvana’s legacy. It has been—it is—soiled. Anyway, the band’s work was partly about the crassness of consumerism, so can more crass consumerism tarnish it? (Frohman, in fact, thinks it’s the opposite. He told Rolling Stone that because Cobain “was very anti-establishment… I think he would be very interested in the NFT art space.”)
But what are you actually buying here? This isn’t internet art. These are film photographs. People already own prints of them, and Frohman is not selling the film—the actual thing to own. All the buyer is paying for is a virtual possession, the concept of artistic wealth, which might pay off, but will never be more than an expensive photocopy.