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Familiar Scenes Inside the Goldmine

Future Art is stuck in the past.

Photography by Calvin Embleton.

As I moved through the growing crowds at VIVID’s Future Art, I could feel the energy of flesh and bone pulsating around the two-story building. I witnessed cocktails enslaved to the rhythmic dancing of their owners, tired eyes pried open by the gaze of a stranger, and legs following their invisible path forward through time. Oh, and there were NFTs.

Future Art, which saw its launch in early 2021 right here in Sydney, calls itself an “immersive NFT crypto-art event.” Focused on creating a gathering ground for veteran enthusiasts and the helplessly curious, Future Art draws in visitors hoping to peek behind the motherboard and experience what some are calling the future of art. So why does an event that prides itself on celebrating the future feel so tethered to the past?

Designed to be more like an adult selfie museum rather than a serious showcase of WEB3 technology, Future Art saw visitors engaging with a variety of digital art across both AR and VR. Two of the standout experiences were Tree VR and New Day Tomorrow, the former being a multisensory VR experience that saw visitors living through the life cycle of a tree in the Amazon rainforest. The latter was an AI brain named MNEMOS (after the Greek goddess of memory) that recreated visitors’ memories into disfigured visualisations based on its own interpretations. 

Although both were compelling concepts (the waitlist for Tree VR was over two hours), I found myself questioning their artistic longevity and merit. Neither moved me emotionally, nor did they express a sense of timelessness that great art does. Regardless as to what one’s definition of art is, I believe it should invoke a response from the viewer beyond being shared on Instagram.

In saying this, I should admit that the event was fun. Sneaky Sound System’s surprise performance was fun. The 3D AR art by Marc-O-Matic was fun. Embracing new technology and awakening people’s creativity and wonder is a beautiful thing that I believe should be applauded and embraced in order to fuel the next generation of thinkers and tinkers. 

But still, one could hardly categorise anything showcased as cutting edge, or something that, as Future Art writes “…brings the exploding digital art scene to the main stage.” Apart from the aforementioned showcases, the rest of the event provided nothing more than flatscreens looping through a variety of animations based around typical futuristic cliches. 

Virtual reality alone has become a somewhat commonplace technology that can be found in a great deal of households for both entertainment and work. I can remember playing around with augmented reality-based apps on my old iPhone when I was younger, so again, nothing particularly new there. Yet here we are in 2022, seemingly on the verge of a digital art revolution, and the best we have to offer are fancy GIFs?

Regardless of how one measures Future Art’s ability to deliver on its catchy marketing, what one cannot deny is that it succeeded far more at proving the lasting value of the physical interpersonal experience rather than building an argument for the digital world. Although visitors did spend time taking in the art and sensory experiences, a majority of their evening was spent sitting on lounges talking with others, roaming around and mingling while in line at the bar, or enjoying the dancefloor. Arguably, Future Art felt more like a nightclub event with NFTs and digital art thrown in as an afterthought.

All of which reflects the lack of ingenuity and utility of the NFT industry as a whole. Created to completely change how we think of digital contracts, the space has devolved into a digital gold rush built on arbitrary “rarity” scales, unnecessary IRL media integration, and endless scams. Ultimately, new projects must create an ever growing roadmap of target dates and promotions to keep their users engaged and distracted from the house of cards everything is sitting upon.

Although there is so much room for truly life-changing creations and experiences built on WEB3 technology, Future Art inadvertently created a sensory playground which made me feel even more rooted to this physical world. People don’t want their memories fed into an artificial intelligence. They don’t want the recreated scent of burning rainforests sprayed into their nose. They don’t want another screen getting between them and the real world.

We love the endless possibilities of the new digital frontier, yet cannot shake the deep love we have for the physical world. We share a curiosity for what could be in the future, but are keenly aware of the pitfalls of past digital revolutions. Future Art, for better or worse, provided a space for the future to shine, yet was distracted by the exclusivity of real life.