An Experimental Alternative to the NFT Market Frenzy

I first learnt of Hic et Nunc (HEN) in March of 2021, when artist Mario Klingemann began to tweet about the non-fungible token (NFT) platform and the experimental artworks he was minting on the site. I was thinking about how NFTs might reshape the digital economy, while wary of how they could exacerbate the rapid commodification of art and culture. I was also concerned, given how frequently NFTs are written about that there was too much focus on the market versus the actual art. HEN presented itself as a friendly alternative to the hyper-market-driven narrative around NFTs, offering a safe haven for many emerging or experimental artists.

HEN is an open-source project founded by Brazilian developer, Rafael Lima, who envisions the site as a decentralized “public smart contract infrastructure”. It runs on the Tezos blockchain, which enables it to keep minting prices low, making it more approachable to users across the world, especially those who are just beginning to learn about NFTs and seeking to experiment (at the time of writing, it would cost me 0.08XTZ to mint an NFT, the equivalent of 0.24 USD). Furthermore, Tezos runs on the Proof of Stake protocol, which is much more energy efficient compared to networks such as Ethereum (which run on the Proof-of-Work structure presently). The emergence of the platform was synchronous with the #GreenNFT movement, drawing ecologically and socially conscious artists to the site. These factors propelled the platform to rapidly be perceived as the “punk” corner of NFTs where everyone is welcomed, where artists share resources and are invited to proactively contribute to and collaboratively shape the community.

I was particularly drawn to HEN as I witnessed artists organize and come together to run or support initiatives that pushed for greater artistic exchange and accessibility, even as they seemingly defied market logic. DiverseNft (by Tais Koshino and Amelie Maia), for example, staged #OBJKT4OBJKT, an event which invited artists to exchange NFT artworks for free, to encourage every user to become a collector and discover new artists. The first edition took place on March 26 this year, while the second ran from April 23 through 25, amid the feverish media interest in NFTs and the market reporting record-breaking sales week after week. It was curious to experience how much traction such events garnered, despite being embedded in, or adjacent to, the rhetoric of NFTs as “cash grabs.” The connections shared between artists and the merits of the artworks, were placed right at the heart of such initiatives, contributing to a perception that HEN was the fun, free-for-all platform unlike any other.

Working in the arts, I frequently take part in conversations about building alternative economies, horizontal support structures and creating sustainable ways of fostering and exchanging art-making processes. As I watched HEN grow, I wondered if this was an example of what we arts workers often wish for. My idealistic read of the platform peaked during the platform’s first hackathon in May, when 150 artists and developers came together to work towards improving all aspects across the platform, solidifying each individual’s stake in HEN and its growth.

Unfortunately, on June 28, the momentum came to a halt. A hacker exploited a bug in the platform’s smart contracts which allowed them to steal multiple editions of a token through purchasing a single copy, exposing a flaw in the site’s code. Artists were quickly advised, by volunteers and active contributors to the platform such as @djangobits and @mumu_thestan, to unlist their available tokens and refrain from uploading new NFTs until the issue was fixed. Chaos and confusion ensued, my Twitter feed and Discord chats were flooded with anxious questions by artists about what they should or should not do, and how this violation could have been possible. The trust was broken, yet there was no active authoritative figure who could offer explanation and guidance, leading many to lose faith entirely.

Suddenly, the open model of Hic et Nunc that many loved and supported appeared to work to its disadvantage. Without clear communication from the people behind the platform, artists could not be assured about how the hack would affect the NFT income that they have come to rely upon. In comparison to other NFT platforms, such as SuperRare and Foundation (which are registered corporations with abundant funding and full-time staff working across its functions from software development to marketing) HEN is essentially Lima’s passion project, and he is assisted by a whole group of hardworking and generous enthusiasts who share a similar vision.

HEN has not felt the same since the hack. While I understand that any digital project, especially one in its early stages, will have bugs and flaws, and I am hopeful about the platform’s future development, I am reminded that HEN is probably not the utopic realization of a large, distributed, artist economy that I want it to be. It is, at its heart, conceptualized and developed to be an experiment, to imagine an alternative NFT economy and to experience how a decentralized public infrastructure can be utilized. Within a few months of its establishment, it has certainly achieved this goal and much more. It will continue to live out its ebb and flow, and I will stay on for the ride.

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