By James Tarmy,
In 2016, the artist Damien Hirst decided to make a massive piece of conceptual art.
“Ten thousand artworks were created, each unique, by hand,” says Joe Hage, who advises Hirst and is helping with the project’s launch.
The artworks might be unique, but all 10,000 are the same size, made with the same material, and designed to be visually similar. As a consequence, one work isn’t obviously better than another.
“One of the problems of the art market is it’s not easy to ascertain the price of, say, a blue period Picasso,” says Hage, who is the founder of Heni, an art services business. “The point was to create art that was freely traded enough, in a relatively frictionless environment, which had a value you’d actually know.”
Hirst conceived, in other words, a batch of artworks that could theoretically function as a currency unto itself. “It’s often said that money corrupts art,” says Hage, “but this is an attempt of art corrupting money.”
The project continued apace for two years, until Hirst became aware of NFTs, a type of digital smart contract that runs on blockchain technology. ( NFTs have been around since about 2012, and were initially used as coupons, subscriptions, and for exchanging digital goods in virtual worlds; only in the past year or so have they been be applied seriously to digital art.)
“And so,” Hage says, “he started planning an NFT project.”
The fruit of Hirst’s labor, a project called the Currency, launches on Wednesday, July 14. The artworks are all on uniform pieces of paper and consist of multicolored dots that cover the page.
In comparison with other, highly convoluted NFT “drops,” the premise of Hirst’s project is relatively simple.
Those 10,000 signed, dated, and titled artworks, which cost $2,000 apiece and can be purchased with Ether, Bitcoin, USD Coin, Dai, credit cards, and debit cards, come with a digital artwork of the original. That digital artwork is attached to an NFT.
People can sign up to purchase a piece from the Currency for the next seven days. Near the end of July, buyers will receive NFTs of their artworks and will be able to buy and sell them as they please on Hage’s website, Heni, or in Niftys, an online marketplace.
After two months have elapsed, an owner of a work can choose to redeem the NFT for the physical artwork, at which point the digital artwork and NFT will be destroyed; or they can hold onto the NFT, and—after a year has gone by—Hirst will exhibit the unclaimed artworks and then destroy them.
Hage wants to be clear: This is not simply a case of an artist applying an NFT to an existing artwork. “There are two artworks that are created,” he says: “the work on paper and the digital artwork.” It’s just that eventually, collectors will have to choose which one they prefer.
In my mind, it’s a conceptual work of art,” says Hage. “And [Hirst] definitely believes every participant in it is participating in a work of art—the holding and buying and trading [of the artworks] is part of the artwork.”
This is not the first time Hirst has attempted to monetize art in novel ways. Notoriously, as Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, Hirst auctioned his own artworks via Sotheby’s, which brought in around $200 million. His visible secondary market subsequently cratered and hasn’t recovered, though Hage argues his market is actually doing fine. “I don’t actually accept that his market is lackluster at the moment,” says Hage. “And this project is not designed in any way—or intended—to reinvigorate his market, whether it’s lackluster or not.”
There are other parallels to his past projects. Hirst’s existing oeuvre of spot paintings could be compared conceptually and formally to the Currency project. After all, each of Hirst’s Spot paintings—he’s produced more than 1,300—is by definition unique but similar to the rest.
Hage says that’s missing the point of the Currency. “He’s made [spot paintings] over 30 years. They’re all different in size, and they really are different artworks,” Hage says. “They weren’t all released together in one go to see what happens to the market.”
Most important, whereas the spot paintings are generally very expensive to buy and comparatively difficult (and expensive) to sell via auction houses and dealers, owners of the Currency works will be able to buy and sell digital and physical iterations on Heni.com; users will pay a 5% resale royalty.
“We’re happy for them to be traded elsewhere as well,” Hage says. “But we want to be able to provide that service, too. We believe in the importance of the market.”
Given that the market for digital art connected to NFTs is down significantly from its highs earlier this year, the timing of the Currency could be considered inopportune.
Hage shrugs it off. “I follow it,” he says of the NFT market. “Damien doesn't care about it.”
Ultimately, he continues, “I believe in the market. Whether it’s up or down doesn’t really bother me.”