Out of the Metaverse: Cincinnati Gets First Immersive NFT Art Exhibit and Education Event

NFTxCincinnati — a group of digital artists, collectors and NFT enthusiasts — is hosting "UNFIT" on Feb. 25 and 26 at Sample Space at The Banks.

click to enlarge A digital collage of locally owned NFTs by UNFIT co-curator Annie Burke - Photo: Provided by NFTxCincinnati
Photo: Provided by NFTxCincinnati
A digital collage of locally owned NFTs by UNFIT co-curator Annie Burke

Cincinnati is getting its first NFT (non-fungible token) digital art exhibit this month.

NFTxCincinnati — a group of digital artists, collectors and NFT enthusiasts — is hosting UNFIT on Feb. 25 and 26 at Sample Space at The Banks with a mission to educate, create an inviting space for the public to learn about this tech-heavy concept and provide the tools and knowledge to participate. And, of course, collectors and artists will showcase their art.

But, how? Digital art and the trendy phenomenon of owning and trading it isn’t easily grasped by those who haven’t bought into the virtual communities, possibly because it all exists and thrives in virtual reality (or the metaverse) and comes with its own vocabulary, currencies, marketplace and culture. Consequently, most people literally can’t put their finger on it.

“A non-fungible token truly is a way of proving ownership for unique digital items, and the history of this ownership is all recorded on the blockchain,” says UNFIT co-curator Noah Beiting. “There are several blockchain technologies that exist, but buying and selling NFTs is all done with cryptocurrencies. There’s also a variety of those that exist, but the most popular one for the NFT space is Ethereum.”

There’s also an air of exclusivity, considering the spotlight shines mostly on million-dollar sales. Arguably what initiated NFTs’ mainstream status was the $69 million sale of “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” a collage by digital artist Mike Winkelmann, popularly known as Beeple. That was nearly a year ago and since then, mainstream companies like Taco Bell, the NFL and Coca-Cola have made their own NFTs.

Now the global trend is catching on locally, a sign of longevity and an opportunity NFTxCincinnati seized to introduce it to our city, says Beiting.

Sample Space is a 7,000-square-foot “white box kind of experience,” Beiting says. It’s an event venue that hosts pop-ups, weddings and galleries. The exhibit will cover wallspace with more than 20 televisions and digital screens from 47 to 65 inches. Each screen is capable of displaying multiple images, so every artist or owner can rotate as much or little of their collection desired. QR codes will accompany each screen, providing artist and work details, pricing and what platform to buy or bid from.

“We’re really trying to preach inclusivity here. We want everybody to feel welcome with some of the topics we’re sharing,” Beiting says. “We’re definitely trying to promote and stand up local artists in the space. I think the other piece is that, you know, obviously the goal and some of the underlying tones around NFTs and cryptocurrency is the whole message of decentralization, which is kind of excluding a central or authoritative party. So with that, I think it’s up to people who are personally very vested in the space to kind of grab education by the reins.”

Annie Burke, UNFIT co-curator and featured digital artist, says there will be some tactile installments as well, including a real-life mural of a digital work (the artist and specific piece were not disclosed). She says for her, the metaverse is an extension of where we are now, and the mutual and necessary trust in all things crypto certifies that NFT communities and discords are full of like-minded people. With a background in architecture and design, Burke’s work is usually a mashup of something culturally or visually significant.

“When you put two things together, you get the best of both,” she says. “I typically take a photograph of something that is real and I spatially reimagine it or draw something into the space.”

She couldn’t say exactly how many works she’ll put on rotation for the exhibit but confirmed one of her notable pieces, “Ice Cream Paint Job,” will appear. The piece presents a Chicago skyline where clouds morph into drips of ice cream, seeping down the cityscape in an array of blue and pink hues that represent the tonal aura of a sunset.

“We are lucky that we have the space,” Burke says. “The biggest obstacle was displaying. Do we have enough screens? How fast are the things on the screens going to move? Are the words going to be on the screen or next to the screen? That, and if people want to actively participate, are they educated? Because you have to have a digital wallet, a Coinbase, a MetaMask, whatever, in order to get involved. And we don’t want anyone to feel like, ‘Oh I don’t have one so I’m behind.’”

The NFTxCincinnati team created a glossary for terms like MetaMask, blockchain and Web 3.0, just a few examples of metaverse jargon one must adopt and understand to participate. According to UNFIT’s website, MetaMask is a software cryptocurrency wallet used to interact with the Ethereum blockchain. Blockchain is an encrypted, decentralized, public ledger of transactions (public proof of ownership). Clearly, the vernacular is co-dependent but scannables around the gallery will provide definitions on demand.

Still confused? UNFIT will offer hours of panel discussions and help desks led by industry professionals like Andrew VanSickle and Nick Fontova, with topics exploring NFT 101, buying and selling, managing collections, how to set up a digital wallet and more. VanSickle is a local Pop artist who has been collecting physical art for 35 years, and he began collecting NFTs in July. Fontova has been collecting NFTs since May; he will touch on sharing and interacting globally. Together, their discussion, “Giving Up Physical,” concerns buying, selling and displaying NFTs and the “art community” in general.

Panels and discussion will be held from 12:15-6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 25. Buying or bidding should be easier after hearing from the experts. Both Burke and Beiting say that prices are at the discretion of the artist, but there will be approachable options.

Before NFTs, digital artists were burdened with verifying credit, authenticating work and collecting royalties. In its mission to amplify local artists, UNFIT affords these new, virtual practices to locals like Thomas Osorio, who is hoping for a breakthrough moment of grand success. Once a digital piece is minted (becomes a part of the blockchain), it is unalterable and the artist can sell it at any price and continue to benefit from sales after initial purchases.

Osorio hasn’t found the virtual market for his work yet, as he is fairly new to the NFT game, he says, but he likens it to the traditional world of art in which you cultivate a community of support and begin making sales there.

Osorio has been creating digital art since 2013, but his foundation is drawing and painting. Sometimes he scans hand-painted works and alters them digitally, and other times he downloads images and toys with lighting, glitch filters or colors. The result is a manifestation of his idea of the subjectivity of reality and the sometimes abstract, collage-like, outcome is retained in a signature style.

“I feel like digital art in many ways is the future,” Osorio says. “The possibilities of technology and computer-generated imagery, we can do so much with it. So it’s here to stay, and I feel like as with any kind of medium through history — some people didn’t like Rock & Roll when it first started or Pop Art or Abstract Expressionism — you can name so many things that people didn’t like at first that ended up having such an influence on everything in a good way. I feel like that’s just culture in general. People will initially be withdrawn from it because they don’t like change but there’s a lot of positives of digital art.”

As for the future of NFTxCincinnati, Burke and Beiting concur that a successful exhibit means the majority of people will leave without questions, anticipating the next event. And yes, in case you were wondering, there are Bored Apes (a popular NFT collection with 10,000 unique collectables) owned locally, and they will be on display. The UNFIT website says work by Damien Hirst, Dalek, Ian Murray and Shepard Fairy will also be on view.

UNFIT runs Feb. 25 and 26 at Sample Space (140 Marian Spencer Way, The Banks, Downtown). More info: unfit-art.com.

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About The Author

Katie Griffith

Katie Griffith is CityBeat’s arts and culture reporter. She proudly hails from the West Side of Cincinnati and studied journalism at the University of Cincinnati. After freelancing for CityBeat for many years, she is happy to continue sharing arts and culture news and stories in novel ways as a staff writer.
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