New Mexico Artists Explore Creativity and Activism Through NFTs

SANTA FE, NM — I was sure I wouldn’t find anyone in New Mexico to interview for this article. I was wrong. 

“Artists and creative communities are the ones who are making things interesting right now,” says Sara Ludy, an artist who works across digital media and recently moved to Placitas, New Mexico. She’s right. Artists are using NFTs to operate outside of conventional art-world models. And thanks to smart contracts on the blockchain, they are establishing standards for themselves concerning commissions (typically 10 percent) on resales — income that for visual artists has been hotly contested

“It’s like the galleries are kind of spinning in circles, trying to grasp this moment and find ways to get into NFTs,” says Ludy, who has been vocal on social media and with Hyperallergic about her aims to create a more equitable split of her NFT sales. “One gallery I think has done an exceptional job is Transfer Gallery. They just had an online exhibition called Pieces of Me with Left Gallery, and in addition to a well-curated show, they created a preservation model where the works are properly contextualized and stored, and they also created a redistribution model where a percentage of all artwork sold would be distributed to those [artists] who didn’t sell.” 

Ludy adds, “These are the galleries to pay attention to, those who are creating inclusive and transparent models that benefit everyone. Galleries showing up with traditional art world models and opacity aren’t gonna make it.” 

David Stout, “Speak” (image courtesy the artist)

New media artist Adrian Pijoan is working with Silicon Valet (founded and directed by Wade Wallerstein, co-director of Transfer) on an upcoming solo virtual exhibition that will offer his minted NFT works. Pijoan, who is based in Albuquerque, has been researching the paranormal for the better part of a decade, making artwork about his participation in those communities and their relationship to folklore and the landscape of the southwest and New Mexico. Initially hesitant about working with NFTs, he became more interested once the concept, medium, and exhibition platform all made sense together, and after other blockchains emerged, such as Tezos, which uses proof of stake, said to be more energy efficient than proof of work used by blockchains like Ethereum.

“I was looking for a more poetic use of the technology. And this is the first idea that felt conceptually good to me,” Pijoan says.

The transparent, experimental, participatory community is a major part of the appeal. While some people are buying and selling at six figures and higher, the space is teeming with curiosity and mutual support on all levels. Artworks are bought, sold, and traded, with profits often going directly back into supporting other artists. 

Julianne Aguilar, “All this Time that I’ve Wasted” (image courtesy the artist)

JenJoy Roybal, an artist, curator, writer, and digital content maker in Santa Fe, started SearchLight, a “community-led curatorial body that creates and manages a Pre-Qualified NFT Artists Pool for the global NFT community.” Most recently, SearchLight curated a show for the NFT.NYC conference in early November. Roybal also works with multidisciplinary artist Andresss Furletti to onboard people onto the Tezos blockchain. “Every week we answer questions and help people understand the process,” she says. “That’s an important part of the community — bringing more people into the crypto space and helping them understand what it is.”

Other New Mexico net artists, such as Julianne Aguilar, who loves working with code and building websites, are finding their niche as well. “I noticed there are a lot of visual trends going on with NFTs. Artists are experimenting with 3D technology and doing inventive things with generative work,” Aguilar says. But, she adds, “it was all visually really maximalist. My work tends to go in the other direction and plays more with narrative. So I’m curious to see if there’s a place for that on these platforms.” She is also excited to use this format to experiment with short narratives generated by artificial intelligence. 

In July 2021, Kouri + Corrao Gallery in Santa Fe hosted an NFT workshop led by Roxanne Darling, a self-taught artist newly embracing the digital realm, and Shane Robinson, who has a long history of working with traditional and new media art forms. While the gallery isn’t dealing in cryptoart, its willingness to accommodate the event might indicate that others could follow suit. For example, photo-eye gallery director Anne Kelly recently posted a conversation with artist Reuben Wu about NFTs and photography. 

Sara Ludy, “ekaL nooM” (2021) (image courtesy the artist)

But, more than likely, it will be a while before Santa Fe’s Canyon Road, a concentration of more than one hundred galleries, is on board. Cryptoart is being generated by artists looking for something that the conventional art world can’t, or won’t, offer them. “In a sense, what we’re doing is taking the best of the traditional art world and carrying it forward, and we’re leaving the rest behind,” says Darling.  

Dr. Mario A. Caro (Colombian Mestizo), founding director of the MFA Program in Studio Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), is an art researcher, curator, and critic. He is interested in NFTs in terms of how artworks are produced, disseminated, and consumed or collected.

“As an MFA program, training artists to become professionals in their field and master the discourses of contemporary art, part of what we [IAIA] teach is an analysis of the differences between markets,” he says. “It’s also about code-switching, being able to address a market on its own terms and in its own language.”

David Stout, “My Arcturian Hands” (image courtesy the artist)

In addition to Santa Fe’s galleries and seven museums, the city hosts three major arts markets annually: International Folk Art Market Santa Fe, Indian Market, and Spanish Market. Upcoming exhibitions and events will indicate whether or not NFTs have a place in those spaces.

“An interesting thing for me is that there aren’t many Native artists putting out NFTs. But the few people who are out there are noteworthy, such as Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax̂). And some artists, such as Elias Oyxabaten (Suruí) in South America, are getting involved in it as a form of activism.”

The activism that Caro cites, addressing issues such as Indigenous sovereignty and the climate crisis, is being embraced by artists and platforms alike. Jose Rosero, artist and recently appointed board member of Currents New Media, and David Stout, accomplished intermedia artist (who has participated in Currents) and Professor of Composition Studies/Coordinator for Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts (iARTA) at the University of North Texas, are each focused on finding and supporting ways that NFTs can be less, or not at all, environmentally destructive. 

Sara Ludy, “v94uinba” (2018) (image courtesy the artist)

Rosero, who recently relocated to New Mexico from the Bay Area, got into NFTs as “a healthy skeptic”; today he is working with a soon-to-launch eco-friendly platform called DoinGud, an NFT ecosystem that strives to be community-owned and curated, and contribute to worthy causes. Artists on the platform will commit a minimum of five percent of their royalties from their primary and secondary sales to a vetted nonprofit or social impact organization.

Stout is involved as an artist and curator with Magi, a startup that describes itself as a “carbon neutral social NFT metaverse for transformational healing art.” 

According to Stout, “perhaps the most important thing for artists such as myself, who work in video, installation, and other kinds of generative digital art, is that we’re talking about the sale of, in some cases, images, video clips, sounds, etc., that don’t actually exist in what we think of as a physical form. To be compensated for work that’s more ephemeral is important.”

Julianne Aguilar, “We’re Going to Be So Happy in this House” (image courtesy the artist)

Whether or not cryptocurrency can offer lasting change for artists, in New Mexico and beyond, and whether the environmental concerns will win out, are yet to be seen. Alex Webb, associate professor of Emergent Technology and Stamm Professor of Advanced Design and Construction Practices at the University of New Mexico, sees a conundrum of sorts.

“Cryptocurrency subverts the role of government as being a treasury that then validates the currency that we use and as the holder of the currency we use. It buys into a sort of mid-1950s nuclear idea of energy,” he says. “It’s both incredibly pessimistic and incredibly optimistic — governmentally pessimistic and technologically optimistic. It’s a fascinating reflection of where we are.”

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