NFTs on Billboards: Blurring the Lines Between
the Tangible and the Digital
An Interview with Curators Mona Kuhn and Alejandro Cartagena about Obscura.io and TBC’s upcoming NFT billboard exhibition.
On February 7, 2022, The Billboard Creative debuts its ninth and latest billboard exhibition: a showcase of 30 NFT photographs by emerging artists from across the globe, located in clusters throughout Los Angeles neighborhoods. Developed in partnership with Obscura.io, a community-run platform facilitating opportunities for photographers to pursue projects through the sale of NFTs, the exhibited works were submitted in response to a public post on Discord and selected by artist Mona Kuhn and Obscura’s co-founder Alejandro Cartagena. By bringing the emerging digital medium of NFTs to the streets of Los Angeles, the exhibition blurs the line between the tangible and the digital, the traditional and the modern, and the micro and the macro.
The Billboard Creative sat down with Mona Kuhn and Alejandro Cartagena to discuss the upcoming exhibition and value, ownership, and reactivity in the digital art space.
ALEJANDRO, CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT OBSCURA’S WORK?
Alejandro Cartagena: Obscura is a community-run platform that is dedicated to helping photographers find the opportunities to do their dream projects. We’re made up of more than 1,500 photography professionals, philosophers, curators, artists, psychologists, and people who are interested in creating a community around photography and NFTs.
Being a photographer for 15 years, I know that oftentimes we have to work commercial jobs in order to fund the projects we want to do, as personal projects. It’s been a dream of mine even before NFTs to find a way to connect directly to patrons, people who are interested in supporting photographers to do these projects. I have always thought about the movie industry and how there is a whole system of finding producers who fund the making of a movie. We don’t have that in photography, so I created that. I have a system where I find 50 patrons from around the world, we tell them that a photographer wants to do a project, and we ask them, “Are you willing to pay upfront for production of those NFTs of that project?” They pay, we have a season pass, and they buy eight projects in advance. Through that funding, we can support eight photographers around the world to do the projects that they have been wanting to do, but weren’t able to without funds. We award eight $50,000 grants to eight photographers — that is the opportunity of a lifetime to do exactly what they want to do.
Who benefits from the idea that art should not be monetized?
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO CREATE THIS SYSTEM THROUGH NFTS?
The NFT space is a market where artists are seen as equals with collectors — that’s because there’s shared ownership. An NFT isn’t just a digital asset that you create, it’s something that will carry value for yourself as an artist and for a collector who owns it. It’s a joint endeavor. Think of a musician; if they do not tour or promote their album, the album doesn’t sell. NFTs are the equivalent for artists and photographers of putting out an album. You put out a collection and you have to promote it, you have to talk about it, do an exhibition and a book, and you have to explain why your work is valuable. The NFT space is an ecosystem of people listening to you. In the traditional market, to be seen and heard on the radio station or in a museum will take you years. We have built a space for people to listen to you. We have NFT radio programs that allow people to talk about their work, we write about work in a blog, and use Twitter and Discord. We create real time interactions between people, and allow that to happen without waiting a year to show your work in a gallery. By doing that, we create value for a body of work that needs value added to it now. This is what an NFT is: It’s not just making money, it’s a community of people talking about what photography is, what value in art is, and having a conversation about it. The repulsion that many people have with NFTs is that there is money involved; but who benefits from the idea that art should not be monetized? It’s not the artist, it’s actually the institutions who do the installations, who print the books, who sell the prints — it’s never the artists themselves, who are doing all the work. Yes, it’s icky to talk about money and art at the same time, and at the ground level, that’s what we hear complaints about in the NFT space. But nobody complains about Damien Hirst talking about money all the time, or Jeff Koons, or any of these big names. So why do people demonize emerging and mid-career artists talking about money?
ALEJANDRO, YOU AND OBSCURA ARE PART OF THIRD WAVE INTERNET. WHAT IS THAT?
AC: Web3 internet — or Third Wave internet — is the idea of internet of ownership. With the advent of the internet, the value of photography went down and down. It’s been 30 years of devaluation of photography. Why? Because, suddenly, people thought that if an image circulates for free, then nobody should pay for that. People believe giving credit to an image is all that’s needed, rather than monetary value, for circulation. Web3 internet is retroactively paying for those 30 years of devaluation of the photographic image, for the devaluation of the written word. If something circulates, it’s because people care about it, and they should have to pay for that. We’re just correcting the misinformation about how value should be looked at in photography. It’s about equalizing that we are creators, just like musicians, screen writers, and filmmakers. You can’t use anyone’s music or film without paying for it, so why is it different with photography? We bring value to culture, and we should be paid for that. On Web3, if you have an image that you created as an NFT, its circulation will always point back to the NFT creator, and it will appreciate in value as it circulates. It’s pointing to the prominence of who the owner of that value is: the photographer.
Mona Kuhn: When Facebook and Instagram were created, it was great because we had access to disseminate our work, but it was imposed on us that we had to give up on obtaining copyright. Oftentimes, our images would be used without even a credit. It took forever for people to start crediting. NFTs are a way around that — a new way of circumventing this practice that was imposed on the culture.
MONA, HOW DID YOU LEARN ABOUT OBSCURA AND WHAT LED YOU TO ENGAGE OBSCURA FOR THE UPCOMING TBC SHOW?
MK: I was really interested in NFTs and met Alejandro in a Twitter conversation a couple of months ago. That’s the beauty of this — if you’re interested and want to get involved, you don’t need to be an insider. As I got involved in this space, I didn’t want to just do what would be best for me, but wanted to engage the broader community and bring this to everyone who is interested. So I reached out to Alejandro about bringing NFTs to the billboards. Just as Alejandro was saying, it takes years for artists to be heard and billboards are a megaphone out there. Something that can be living at this point in time as a JPG or Blockchain that might be on a Samsung screen or in the Metaverse can then be on a billboard in Los Angeles in a major intersection.
The NFT space is a market where artists are seen as equals with collectors
MONA, CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THE UPCOMING SHOW?
MK: We are looking at MacArthur Park. The idea is to bring clusters of billboards together so they can communicate with one another and create a conversation with the environment around them — rather than a single billboard competing with the busy city background. Right now, Alejandro and I are in the middle of selecting the works. We’re not selecting works to be in a white cube — we’re keeping in mind the audience and the fact that people will only be looking up for a quick second from their cars. It’s a very different selection process.
ALEJANDRO, WHAT INTERESTS YOU ABOUT WORKING WITH TBC? WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF PUTTING NFTS ON BILLBOARDS?
AC: Art should be about asking questions and this opportunity to put the most improbable thing on a billboard. An NFT that is supposed to be engaging with the digital world creates a great question: What happens when we take an NFT out of its ecosystem? What reflections will be had from that? There’s also an aspect of giving a platform to artists that might not ever be able to be put on a billboard. As an artist myself, this is a beautiful opportunity to participate in a project of finding new ways of how your work can be received, depending on how and where it is exhibited. In this show, we will be showing work that will feel site-specific; it will unite and converse with the environment around it.
MK: We have the funds from Obscura and have the platform from The Billboard Creative, and that’s a unique situation. Another unique situation is that those platforms have asked Alejandro and I to curate, which is quite different from the traditional curating world. It is usually someone that has a PhD and is specialized in that. This is for artists and by artists. The advantage that I see in that is that Alejandro and I are first and foremost artists on our own. We are in our communities. We have a handle on the pulse. We know what’s happening. We know what’s in the culture. And that’s what we want to bring to this platform. In a museum or gallery, where it takes six months to a year to develop a show, you cannot respond to, reflect on, or celebrate what is happening in the culture — there is an immediacy that is lost.
AC: By the time something is in a museum or gallery, it’s already a reflection of what has happened. Not to throw dirt at that way of creating a culture, but the idea of a museum is centuries old, and it’s time to nudge a little bit and see what happens if we do it a different way. We’re in a cycle of complacency that needs to be shoved.
Evan McQuaid Bedford
ALEJANDRO, NFTS DON’T HAVE THE BEST REPUTATION. YOU ALREADY SPOKE TO THE ROLE OF MONEY IN ITS MARKET, BUT NFTS HAVE ALSO COME UNDER FIRE FOR THIER IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT (THE CRYPTOCURRENCIES USED TO BUY AND SELL NFTS GENERATE CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO CLIMATE CHANGE). WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF THESE ARGUMENTS?
They are not arguments, they are opinions. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t carbon emissions being created from our ecosystem of NFTs, because that is a reality of having a house, of having a car, and of being a human being. The responsibility of us as artists and platforms is to try to find a counter-balance to those emissions. In Obscura, we work with Carbon.fyi
and Elessia and we offset some of the carbon emissions we are creating.
MONA, AS A CURATOR, WHAT ROLE DOES THE REPUTATION OF NFTS PLAY IN THIS SHOW AND ITS CURATION? WHAT DO YOU HOPE YOUR AUDIENCE TAKES AWAY FROM THIS SHOW?
My objective is to bring NFTs to the attention of Angelenos. I do want the conversation to come to the sidewalk and come to people of all ages, backgrounds, and socio-economic backgrounds. Good art should make us think, and in this show, I want our audiences to think about the micro and the macro. Is the billboard a macro and the NFT a micro, or is it vice versa at this point? Those are the types of conversations I hope the billboards spur, and I cannot wait to engage in those conversations about pivots in the art world and see The Billboard Creative start those conversations.
ALEJANDRO, WHAT DO YOU HOPE THE AUDIENCE TAKES AWAY FROM THIS SHOW?
Art in public space is an opportunity to think of ourselves as human beings. It’s an opportunity to have conversations that wouldn’t be had if those pieces were not there. It’s a way to activate public spaces and create passive consumption of art. My end goal is to put conversations in people's mouths, whether it be about NFTs, the work of art, the ecosystem, even the carbon emissions. When those conversations are had, we all win as humanity.