Last week, SHOWstudio attended the international annual NFT conference in the capital, which pledged to 'bring the NFT community together' through a mountain of talks spread across the Queen Elizabeth II Centre's six floors. Experts and enthusiasts across gaming, fashion, music and even finance gathered together for a meeting of minds, but shameless self-promotion and an overpacked schedule resulted in more problems than innovative solutions.
NFT.London was the first physical conference hosted by NFT.NYC since the pandemic, with the international event first launching in New York in 2018. There was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air, with people travelling from all over to London for the two day conference - some even had suitcases still in hand - and a host of satellite events.
NFT.NYC focuses on NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and the community around them, who typically communicate on platforms like Discord and Twitter, gaming or similar online platforms. In hindsight, off the bat one obvious issue is how important Twitter is to the community, (the social media platform came up in just about every talk we attended), considering the chaos that has ensued on the app in the last week, owing to Elon Musk’s purchase of the company for $44bn. Twitter was not only encouraged but hailed as the golden ticket into the NFT community, along with being a space ‘authenticity’ - under Musk, it could be dangerously so. Indeed, many of the speakers at NFT.London seemed to be most active on Twitter rather than Discord, and praised the app for its ‘honesty and authenticity’ for when artists want to connect with others and build their communities.
With tickets priced from £599 for general admission up to a staggering £1,499 for VIP access, there was an exclusive rather than inclusive feeling from the outset. This limited attendance to those with cash to splash, resulting in an age bracket of mainly 30 years old and over, outcasting the Gen-Z audience who are a huge driver in gaming and NFTs' popularity, particularly for fashion brands.
Divided into panel discussions and talks which ranged from just five minutes to 25, most speakers were forced to use their time to pummel home the latest projects by their own respective brands and businesses rather than engage in future-facing conversations, and attendees navigated elevator queues to get to talks on their favourite topics rather than discovering new ones.
SHOWstudio quickly sensed a growing feeling of disappointment amongst our Discord community, whilst as editor Hetty Mahlich and editorial assistant Christina Donoghue were on the ground at the event where they picked up on a similar atmosphere. Between us, we struggled to even scratch the surface of overlapping, overrunning and delayed talks due to just how many events were going on. On one hand, it ensures all attendees had something going on they were interested in, justifying the price tag. On the other, it resulted in the potential for cross-pollination of ideas between disciplines which a global conference can provide, quickly slipping away.
It's a huge shame that subjects like gaming and finance, or fashion and music, were kept so separate with little room to share or disperse knowledge between experts and enthusiasts. Indeed, an artist and speaker told Mahlich that they have little understanding of digital fashion, see no utility for it at this point, but are keen to learn more. Alas, they wouldn’t be bothering to attend the second day of events, which the fashion talks were packed into, due to the substance of the entire conference being so dull. With speakers given such little time to tackle huge subjects such as NFTs and Death, the whole event felt like it became more about summarising what’s happened so far in NFTs rather than fulfilling the conference’s potential to discuss and discover exciting new solutions.
Even when it came to new solutions, none of the proposed ideas seemed that revolutionary or even ‘new’. In one talk, The Future of NFTs and Art: What’s Next, panellists Jæn, Geo Merchant, Icki Icki and Cal Jepps were discussing the challenges of presenting generative and digital art to ‘non-crypto natives’, with one curator explaining the story of how her online gallery had a booth at Frieze art fair some weeks ago, something that was ‘welcomed with considered hesitancy’ by the fair’s audience. ‘For some, these were some of the first digital artworks they had ever seen. The most common question was “Well, how can I display it in my home?” and granted, there are only so many ways you can buy a digital screen’, noted curator and writer Geo Merchant. It's a fair enough comment. However, it’s important these issues are being discussed by the digital art industry, and with talk comes change. There is, of course, the metaverse, but as rightfully picked up by the speaker, ‘when a crypto non-native asks "how can i experience this at home", the last thing they will want to hear is ‘oh, go into the metaverse’.
Donoghue tackled many of the art-focused talks, and it was surprising to hear many speakers aren't on board with the metaverse in the same way they are with NFTs. ‘It’s a lawless world and where's the rain?’, humorously asked one speaker. Lawless it is, which creates its own set of problems as well as perks. Identities are completely anonymous and users can take on any shape form or fashion they want to - admittedly, this adds to the thrill of Web.30 and yet it became clear that comical usernames and anonymous identities weren't the issue many NFT speakers had with the space. Their complaints were just as cryptic as their messages with one speaker commenting, ‘If anyone thinks I want to spend my time in a Roblox or Minecraft experience with terrible resolutions, they’re bonkers’. What could also be bonkers is how many speakers went by their online URL names rather than their given names. Bringing virtual identities into a bleak and empty conference hall felt far-stretched. If NFTs are going to be taken seriously by the ‘traditional’ world then maybe we should start with taking the moon emoji out of an established male speaker’s name, and putting them in conversation with someone who could show them a different perspective.
On the fashion side of things, NFT.London fell into the pitfall of cornering digital fashion into the gaming space, although we're not surprised as NFT.London is marketed as celebrating the future of Web.3 gaming. In recent years, brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger have been relying on gaming platforms like Fortnite, Sandbox and Decentraland to engage with NFTs and digital fashion as they try to catch up with the art world. Balenciaga and Burberry have had the right idea when it comes to investing in in-house digital design teams to craft their virtual worlds from the ground up, made custom to what they want to look like in the metaverse. However, these developments were simply summarised at NFT.London, rather than discussed in the context of the future.
What we hoped to hear at NFT.London was a creative meeting of minds, finding ways that fashion can build into the metaverse on its own terms. Instead, the handful of fashion-focused talks rehashed problems like interoperability, whereby garment aesthetics depend on the digital universe in which they are housed. Indeed, in a separate talk on AI and NFTs, Seth Pyrzynski described the metaverse as a ‘trans-media experience.’ Although the brilliant Charlotte Clisby, Head of Global Partnerships for Space Runners, raised the interesting point that fashion brands all have their own agendas when it comes to how they assign metaverse strategy, whether that be in the marketing department or dedicated blockchain teams with different budgets and approaches evolving, the talks being so compartmentalised brought the community no closer to answering how varying strategies can truly innovate in the space.
Roxy Pistolea of Humans.ai was given just ten minutes to address the exciting potential for giving NFTs a voice, moving them from traceable JPEGS to life-like characters with voices created using AI. This subject was later touched upon by AR/VR investor Rahul Sood, who spoke about the blockchain moving on from just being used as a form of ownership; ‘Artists need to think bigger than a JPEG image and about building a community’, he said, with fellow panellist Chris Hart adding that ‘it should be about a revolution in identity not money’. Wouldn't it have been great to see these thinkers engage with fashion brands and creatives?
SHOWstudio and Nick Knight's upcoming NFT project ikon-1 is all about creating a gateway into SHOWstudio's own virtual future. Indeed, with Jazzelle aka @uglyworldwide as it's star, we're in line with the view that influencers and figures will be the 'stewards of Web.3' as one speaker put it, lending a helping hand to convince people of its potentials.
Fashion brands that think holistically rather than about NFTs in isolation was the one takeaway from the event. Clisby outlined possible goals for fashion, from future-proofing to fostering and growing a community, and creating a richer experience for the consumer’s physical purchases supported by Web.3. Non-binary creator Fat Baby later spoke about the potential for digital identity through fashion to become more inclusive and representative - an area of discussion which felt largely missing from NFT.London despite a majority of talks being themed under ‘community’ ‘identity’ and ‘women’.
NFT.London would have hugely benefited from more cross-pollination between areas. Attendees may then have learned something truly exciting about what the future holds. Most seemed to be more excited about all the satellite events, such as dinners and meet-ups, which happen around the conference, as it’s here where guests truly get to pick each other's brains. With NFT.NYC coming up next May, there's room for improvement.