The Rise of Digital Art and NFTs

Shane Suvikapakornkul is both artist and buyer in the realm of NFTs

Shane Suvikapakornkul is a luminary in Thailand’s book and art scene. A veteran publisher and owner of Serindia Gallery as well as the Hardcover art bookstore and Good Design Store at Central Embassy, he also considers himself a cultural researcher and a pioneer photographer riding the blockchain express.

With a first degree in advertising and a Master’s in direct marketing from Northwestern University in the US, he gained book publishing and distribution experience in Chicago. His interest in collecting art is based upon personal preference, but recently he has ventured into the realm of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), as both an artist and a buyer. As an artist he goes by the name The Documentarian, with works such as MahaNakhon and Map of Time under his belt. As a collector he has amassed enough pieces to open his own digital gallery under another alter ego, Miss Otis. Here he talks to The Futurist about this foray into the exciting new world of digital art. 

Can you sum up quickly where your passion for books and art comes from?

At first I was fascinated with typing. Before personal computers became a household thing, there were typewriters. I learned how to touch-type very early in both Thai and English in one of those old shophouse touch-typing schools. It was cool. Typography and page-layout gradually became very natural to me. In high school I used to make newsletters with Roneo press-copiers. It was very liberating.

I also studied Chinese and was fascinated by calligraphy, the art form, and eventually Chinese antiquities. When I worked in Chicago as a specialist bookseller I witnessed the emergence of the Chinese contemporary art scene in parallel with the market for Chinese antiquities, and the art market’s fascination with Chinese antique furniture as a “design” discovery and philosophy. I’ve lived that artistic ride through bookselling and publishing. My touch-typing days became handy when word-processing and graphic design came around too, and I managed to produce catalogues of books for sale. This seems so ancient in the face of the internet, but people are still doing it today. Cataloguing is the heart of the bookselling and book-collecting culture.

What drew you to digital art and NFT's? What projects have you been involved in?

I was quite familiar with blockchain technology through an ongoing project about publishing and translation contracts and royalties. Then came NFTs, which is another application of the blockchain so I thought, well, why not, this is an amazing development.

Please tell us about The Documentarian, the MahaNakhon NFT series, and Miss Otis.

NFT has its own universe, an alternate reality one may say. And it is very difficult to explain it to people without boring them with the technicalities. So I thought one way to make people understand this is to practise it. In the NFT world, I created two identities for myself, one as an artist, and one as a collector. The conceptual artist is called The Documentarian, a photographer who exhibits and distributes his work as NFTs. The collector is Miss Otis who lives in Bangkok, has some crypto money and collects NFTs. She exhibits what she collects in a virtual gallery. Perhaps one day it can be exhibited in physical space.

As for the The Documentarian, I let it grow organically. I’ve amassed a vast number of photographs just from documenting Bangkok and picking which photographs are worth “minting” can be a slow process. MahaNakhon as an NFT is one photograph that tells of Bangkok’s complexity via an architectural manifest. It’s a concept statement for documenting the city’s stories. I’ve sold one piece to a friend in Singapore so far. It will need more promotion later on, but I will wait to build a body of work first.

Map of Time is a collage of photographs of aging wall surfaces. They’re actually wall surfaces with years of dust and pollution in an old factory that was recently demolished. Again, it is a practice to show that NFTs can be created with photography.

You recently won the chance to buy Damien Hirst's The Currency. Can you please describe this project, and why it is significant? 

It is a brilliant project that makes people understand the relationships between physical art and digital art and their inherent values, both financially and aesthetically. The basic problem is this: an established artist can look like a fool making NFTs because it’s a different world, as mentioned above. (Art elitists often dismiss NFTs as not true art). That is why The Currency is a perfect example in some ways — Damien Hirst is an established name, a proven artist who takes NFTs seriously. He asks buyers to choose one way or the other; if you buy this work, what will you choose to have eventually, a paper piece or an NFT? Once chosen, the other will be destroyed. When art is attached to a monetary value – in this case the crypto currency value – how will people react to it? It’s a perfect scene that brings the questions of art, value, aesthetics and financial expectations to the forefront.

Hirst asks for participation from buyers, to be an active player. When I first heard about it, I looked out for the days he would open for registration (it was from 14-21 July); you have to register your email address, verify your identity, and then wait for the draw. I believe it was oversubscribed by three times, with more than 30,000 people applying for the “drop”. The winning announcement was made on 24 July, and you had to pay within 48 hours. After that, you connected your crypto wallet to the account, and the NFT would be delivered to your wallet once released, which happened on 29 July.

It is a huge educational opportunity for people in the local art field, so I thought it would be useful to talk about it and let people see the action in real time on my Instagram account.

What is the attraction or satisfaction in art NFT's? Is it as an asset that will increase in value in the future, like regular artwork?

The attraction is of the whole new world of digital art. It does exist. The satisfaction comes from the liberation of the traditional art models. I’ve had a gallery; I know how it works. The problems of provenance, artist’s cut and so on can now be solved with the blockchain. How will you be part of it? How will artists use it to his or her advantage? 

The question of “asset” is also an interesting one. Art is an asset class, but it is only partially recognized by traditional financial institutions. For example, you may or may not use your art as loan collaterals and values are speculative. NFT’s smart contract brings the question of provenance on the same trust level as a currency. How will it go in the future? No one knows, but it is up to government regulations to catch up. 

Increase in value? Yes, some works are already quickly increasing in value. A few NFT artists I bought earlier now command substantial sums (say, an increase from hundreds of baht into tens of thousands of baht in a month). And because it is NFT, you can see the process unfolding clearly. The artist makes a good piece of work; the work is recognized by fans or buyers from all over the world; the work has a blockchain record of when and who it was sold to; their values can be compared among works in the same categories. The transparency of the process gives confidence to buyers, to buy or to bid. All of these actions, without the need for a single gallery or auction house! It’s all very liberating and you don’t have to deal with the BS of art talk and elitism. You do your own homework.

If market recognition is any measure, you can look at all the major auction houses who have gone into record-setting NFT actions that took the whole industry off-guard. I even have a certificate from a Sotheby’s class on the rise of NFTs. 

How does Thailand stand in this new art world at the moment?

It’s in a very strong position. Thai artists in the NFT space have big international followings. And the majority of these followers and buyers are not traditionalists. They are not regular gallery goers or art enthusiasts as we know them. It is a whole new ball game.