Is there anything in the world of technology today more divisive than that of the NFT, the Non-Fungible Token? Almost certainly not. It feels like a third of the world doesn’t understand what they are, a third of the world hates them and the other third are either buying or selling them.
In the infinitesimally small space between those groups exists a few artists and investors who genuinely believe that NFTs are not only a significant moment in art history, but also a valid way for creatives to secure a slice of the art world’s big-money pie that may otherwise be excluded from them.
Among one of the more unlikely announcements to hit the TechRadar inbox in recent times came the opportunity to talk to Boy George about his involvement in the fast-growing world of NFTs.
Yes, that Boy George, he of Culture Club and Karma Chameleon fame, and icon of 80s pop superstardom. Though a portrait artist in his own right, as well as a storied history as a pop music hitmaker, Boy George isn’t the first person you’d associate with decentralized digital currencies, peer-to-peer managed provenance, or even necessarily digital art.
But Boy George is set to enter the world of NFT art with his CryptoQueenz project, selling 9,999 unique works based on his Scarman series from March 1, in partnership with Pixel Potent, with a portion of proceeds set to go to the Elton John Aids Foundation and Shelter charities.
Matt Damon, Lil Nas X, Tony Hawk, Reese Witherspoon, Serena Williams, Eminem: all have been criticized and accused of gold-rush speculating in the NFT age without understanding the complexities of the technology behind it. But even tech-savvy Edward Snowden has got in on the craze. And we trust Snowden… right?
So what about Boy George? Looking to “democratise the stuffy artworld for everyone”, is his passion for art sold as NFTs for real? Or is he another speculator trading on credibility in other spaces to make a quick buck now?
After a call with Boy George, it’s hard to cleanly answer that question. While Boy George’s understanding of the tech behind NFTs is by his own admission surface level, his passion for art is real, and he does raise valid points around digital ownership, the difficulties behind making art profitable for the artist (and the role NFTs can play in addressing the balance in that respect), and the potential to level the ability to purchase unique works of art through NFTs, making an otherwise exclusive world at least slightly more accessible.
The message then may not be in the medium – the medium is the message, and the chaos surrounding NFTs (for Boy George, at least) only acts to make the whole endeavor more exciting, more punk.
[The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]
The world of NFTs: that is a pretty complicated subject. If you were to tell the layman in your view what an NFT is, how would you get it across to them?
It's a collectible. It's about collecting something – listen, I don't fully understand it myself, which is part of the reason why I'm so attracted to it. I think coming from the world of rock it is so exciting not to have everything laid out in such an obvious way. You know, everything's explained to you now. There's nothing to discover.
In the same way that people come to your gigs, they want to create things and they want to control things.
People now want to be everything. You know, they want to be curators, they want to be gallery owners, they've all got views on something because the internet has just introduced us all to each other. So I think this is about collecting things.
It's very exciting to be involved in something that's kind of, you know, just almost impossible to completely understand. Whatever I say about an NFT, someone will come and say, “that's not true”. That's part of the fun because I think it is evolving already. I always come at things from a creative point of view. I never really necessarily have to have things explained to me, like, I'm still going to be creative – whatever happens to me and NFTs is like another way of communicating your ideas.
So it's another point of reference. It's just, you know, why stop hanging a picture on a wall? Why stop, you know, projecting onto the side of a building. It's a different kind of ownership. And I think that's exciting, where it goes from here, it's anyone's business.
You mentioned ownership, and I think that's a really important part of it. Do you think part of the appeal of NFTs comes from the way we consume media right now? Take Spotify and Netflix for instance, which we rely upon but have so little ownership over the items we consume from those catalogues. How do you feel about that kind of thing?
It's a bit like burning books. Once something happens, you can't really go back and say I preferred it before. I think from a creative point of view, you have to embrace all sorts of chaos, you know, and the audience now has an entirely different relationship with me as an artist.
Forget about NFT's for a minute, but just as a musician, my relationship with the audience is entirely new. Because now the floodgates have opened and there's so many artists and there's so many people creating and I think that people do want to kind of have control over something. Yeah, it's kind of like an intangible-tangible or something. Like something that you own that you don't really own but you do own.
So is that part of the appeal then for you, this sense of a Wild West?
Rock and roll is supposed to be the Wild West. We went to rock and roll because of what it represented in times of chaos, and spontaneity, you know, that stuff. And I think that we used to get that from rock and roll completely. Ziggy Stardust, The Beatles, all of that stuff, and now it's changed. So I think people are just exploring different ways of being creative and different ways of experiencing things. And I think that excites me.
From a creative point of view, what I do, I would say, I'm gonna keep doing stuff anyway with whatever form it takes in the world. But I do think that the bottom line is kind of creating beautiful things and ultimately, it's about connecting with people, it's about new communities. It's about celebrating differences as well. Part of our thing is, you know, to promote otherness, which has for me been my life's work.
Do you feel that attitude of rock and roll has shifted to the tech realm then? Is that where rock and roll risk-taking lives now in terms of effecting change and societal influence?
I think there are people that have already been doing this for a long time, you know, embracing the tech world – Will.I.Am, Jay-Z. We all communicate with technology now. The extent that we can show things to each other. There was a time when, if you were in the fashion world or the music world, you really believed there were like 10 models and 10 beautiful people in the world. Then the Internet came along, and you went oh my god, there’s millions of beautiful people, there are drag queens everywhere. That chaos for a creative person, it pulls you in because that's part of the attraction that you know, you don't really want everything to be so on the nose and explained.
I've always wanted to be in the stink of everything. Ultimately it's about communicating what you have to say to the world and how you feel about the world. That's never been more important. Because you can't strip away the sort of person from what they create.
I'm still me, whatever happens. You could argue that anyone could do anything you know, that's been said about a lot of art, “anyone could do that”. But the fact is, art is about audacity. You know, someone could say, “well I could do that,” but you didn't. You didn't bother. And so, you know, if you're driven by the need to be creative, you'll always be doing interesting things, and looking for new ways to put that in front of people. And I think that's what an NFT is. It's like, a new way of discovering things without the old fashioned rules.
So what makes your Scarman series particularly right for NFTs?
It's a piece of work that is kind of about stripping things away. I do portraits. I mean, I'm a portrait painter and I often start with these very simplistic lines. Some of the stuff I do is beaded, some of the stuff is painted but Scarman particularly was about stripping away all of those excesses, which have become so much part of who I am publicly. It’s always about communication.
A lot of the time it's kind of related to music and songs. There’s a punkiness to my work that is so much part of the 70s you know, more than the 80s because I grew up as a teenager in the 70s .That's when I discovered music, rock and roll, fashion. Whether it was clubs, rave culture, all of those things. I've been very lucky to live through all these amazing cultural revolutions, you know, reggae music, electro, the beginnings of so many exciting things. And I just put that into what I do and I draw upon. It’s the outsider, you know, and I think that's who I represent.
What are your feelings about algorithmically generated art? When you talk about punk to me, that has always been a very visceral kind of art, the sense of it coming directly from the artists’ hands.
I hand draw everything to start with so it doesn't start as a digitised work, but then it goes on to embrace the digital experience. We live in a world now where anyone could do anything, you could dress up as a punk, as a rock guy – it's easy to adopt a disguise of anything these days. You can tell stories about yourself so visually on your phone.
But the one thing that you can never have is the person's intention, and whatever medium you put that through, if you don't have the intention, it doesn't have the same resonance. You have to be connected. Even if it's just your attitude to what you're creating. And I think that's what stimulates through any kind of medium in a way. You know, it's like, gentlemen, if you can't feel me then I'm not doing my job.
Both Culture Club and your solo works had the benefit of the record industry at its pomp. People bought records. So if you're a struggling musician today, what opportunity do you think NFTs represent for them?
It’s about doing things in a new way without having to sort of adhere to the old fashioned rules. I saw Patti Smith talking about this. She was saying it's amazing how the Internet has allowed everyone to create stuff in a way that couldn't be done before, that couldn't be seen before. No one had a platform, now everyone's got a platform and it's about how you get noticed. It's your personality or your hunger, whatever it may be, that drives you. You know, and that's why we look at people and say “oh look, they’ve a digital soul,” because it's another world.
Some people have called out NFTs as potentially having a negative environmental impact. They're quite energy intensive to generate. What are your thoughts on that? What's been done to kind of ensure that CryptoQueenz keeps its green credentials?
I went into this a while back and I think people are saying that the environmental effects aren't as bad as people say they are. I think it's probably safer than taking it on an aeroplane. Should I fly my stuff to New York on a private jet? You know, I think it's, unfortunately, a consequence and we should all definitely be very aware of where it leads. I think that's the thing. People are much more environmentally savvy now. So they get to resolutions much quicker. And that's what you want with this, to make sure that if it does become something that's impacting that you find another way to do it, or you change it.
How do you feel about NFTs in terms of singular ownership? So for instance, would you ever consider writing a song to be sold to be heard only ever by one person?
1,000 percent. It’s one of the things I've been so interested in. I consider myself to be a very prolific songwriter. I write hundreds of songs all the time. I don’t stop writing. And sometimes I think, “well, what am I going to do with this music?”
It will always have to be on some experience of my own, but I would say that human experiences aren't always that unique. They can be specific but not unique. And so it would be interesting because the record industry now doesn't really recognize an artist of my age group. There is this view in rock and roll that once you get to a certain age you have to keep repeating yourself. As a creative person, that's so not interesting to me. So you know, many years ago, I ventured back into the DJ world because that was what was exciting. I feel like my nose is always in what's happening because I can't help myself. Because otherwise what do you sing about, what do you write about? So I love the idea of you saying, “Would you want this song? It's your song.” I don’t know how it’d work. I own a lot of my stuff now anyway. I record and own all of my music now, not the classic music but things I write now. And I do like the idea of finding a new way of getting heard and seen.
I saw today that Sting is the latest person to sell the rights to his catalogue. Is that something you'd ever consider doing?
We have sold some of the stuff. A while back. So we weren't part of the early waves of that. But there's lots of bits of my stuff that I don't own. So that's an interesting question, because you asked me how I feel about singular ownership? Well, a lot of artists like me signed away their entire product catalogue at some point for like, not for very much – certainly not the deals you're getting now. For me, I think if you're an artist that solely relies on nostalgia then that's important, but for someone like me, I'm interested in what I'm doing next. I mean, I'm very proud of what I've done. It’s all great, but no, that for me that would just be like, Purgatory, that you would be a stuck record.
There are quite a few people who believe that NFTs won't have longevity, in terms of the kind of ‘boom and bust’ moment we're seeing here. How would you respond to that?
Everything great that's ever happened people said it wouldn't work. You can imagine like Ziggy Stardust on, you know, The Voice or something. “Oh, no, you know, you'll never get anywhere looking like that.” So I think that there's always… you know, change scares people. You think about art, over the years, we've all felt quite ostracized by it, you know, as a kind of concept. And now that's changing. People don't have to be a certain class, or have to experience things in a certain way because of rules. People are into everything now. And I love that. I think it's really good.
It’s your art, and you’re in control of the way you sell it.
It's just one aspect of what we do as artists. It's expensive to buy some art. So this is making it more accessible. And I think that that is perfect.