Sutu Eats NFTs

Interview with acclaimed artist Sutu about the future of immersive art and NFTs

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What’s the future of NFTs and Immersive art?

In this article producer Ana Brzezińska interviews acclaimed artist Sutu (aka Stuart Campbell) about the intersection and future of NFTs and immersive artwork. Sutu has been commissioned by the likes of Marvel, Google and Disney to create VR art for properties such as Doctor Strange and Ready Player One. He directed the first virtual concert for Jean-Michel Jarre and created key art and animation for The Weeknd, John Legend, Alison Wonderland and Kill The Noise virtual concerts.

He has also created three VR documentaries; Inside Manus for SBS, Mind at War for Ryot Films and The Battle of Hamel for the Australian War Memorial. He is known for his interactive comics including Nawlz, Neomad, Modern Polaxis and These Memories Won’t Last. He holds a Honorary Doctorate of Digital Media from Central Queensland University, is a 2017 Sundance Fellow and is the co-founder of EyeJack an Augmented Reality company.

Sutu, for those who aren’t familiar with your path, tell us about yourself and how it all started for you.

I’m a digital artist, and I work in multiple digital formats. I’m interested in exploring new media technologies to create art, and tell stories. I began with creating webcomics almost 15 years ago. At that time I was exploring Flash technology which was a big thing back in the days, an experimental web format for presenting interactive digital art. Because I tapped onto this early on, I started to explore new media technology, and to ride the wave of excitement that comes with technologies in general.

My interest in tech comes from the fact that it allows artists to comment on the times. Usually, when a technology or a new software is released, it reflects on where we are at that moment, it kind of creates a bookmark. I know where I was when I was creating in Flash, what my mindset was, what were my aspirations for the future, and where I thought I was heading. 

Even in my early Flash days I was imagining the moment when the browser would become transparent, and information would be floating. It was by no accident that 10 years on I would found my own augmented reality company, and present art floating in front of you. I am preparing for the spatial web, this is my trajectory. I feel like my whole life has been leading up to this moment, of the dawn of spatial web and immersive art. 

How do you see the NFT movement intersecting with immersive art?

It’s a really interesting moment in time. The NFT movement has been happening for a few years now, but only in the last few months it has spiked exponentially. It’s kind of ridiculous the boom right now, it’s absurd in many ways. What’s important is that the digital economy values digital art on a level that we’ve never seen before. 

My experience over the last two decades has been creating web art. With my webcomic, for example, I had a peak: won a Webby Award, and a bunch of other awards in a short period of time. It increased my readership up to 300,000 per month. I was experiencing a huge amount of traffic to the point it crushed the site, but in all honesty I was just selling some merch associated with my story that would make me like a 1000 dollars. With one NFT sale I made more money than I did across five years of making that webcomic. It was called a labour of love but why can’t you profit from the labour of love if they're loved so much? That’s why it’s crucial to take seriously a digital economy that values digital art. To make it easier for collectors and people who love your work to invest in art, and to let them know that by investing in it, they are verified owners of this work. We never had a system before where you could be a verified owner of a digital artwork. 

The other thing is that in the VR space we’ve seen a kind of peak, and that has entered creators into becoming spatial, immersive artists. It was the first time in my life where I could stand inside my own artwork, and walk around it, which was a groundbreaking experience for me. It totally changed the way I made art, and it changed my perception of people interacting with my art. Because it is a multi-sensory experience, your presence in the artwork becomes a part of it. This set me off on a whirlwind of creating seven VR projects, and becoming a part of the huge immersive VR community, sharing the artworks on Poly, sharing artworks in the MOR, and joining up with the audiences in these virtual spaces to talk about art and interact with it. Never before in my life have I been able to be in the artwork with other people. This was a huge kick of inspiration and adrenaline. 

Today, we are on a new precipice. In the coming months, Apple will announce their wearables. This is set to revolutionize the whole industry. All the hints and signs that are coming are that it’s the combination of ten years of thinking about the introduction of the spatial web. It’s not considered VR or AR glasses. It’s considered a new desktop. We’re going to use this technology to replace our desktop, and use it as our day-to-day device. With that in mind it’s going to usher the masses into the immersive, so artists who are in this immersive space right now, and putting in the hard yards to create and experiment, will be poised to become the next generation of this critical art movement when we migrate from the 2D browser into the spatial browser. Everything I’m working on right now is literally preparing me for that moment. 

From an artistic standpoint, what powers the NFT movement you describe? If you were to think about it as a new avant-garde, how would you define it?

There are different motivations, and for me these have changed a lot in the past few months, as I became aware of different factors. One is the financial aspect of actually being paid for your work. As simple as it sounds, it’s a pretty big revelation. It empowers the artist. You can invest resources into creating your next artwork, so what we are seeing with crypto-artists is a huge improvement in their work. I got a couple of buddies who are soaring with their technical capabilities, their approach to work, the message in their art and the effort they put into making sure that it is presented well. Creators are putting a lot of thought into how they are going to package their art so that it looks a million dollars. I have been seeing across the board that artists have been thinking way more seriously about how they present their work. It’s no longer: I’m going to throw this up on Instagram, and get a few likes. It’s the whole message. Because artists are being taken seriously, and people are putting value into their work, they are taking their work way more seriously. 

We also start to look at the implications of this new technological infrastructure. Blockchain is using an incredible amount of energy. This is a new story for the art industry. I didn’t have a clue about it, because I wasn’t paying attention to the blockchain before. For me what happened was that one of my followers replied to one of my tweets saying: I’m not going to follow any NFT artists because of the impact it has on the environment, and I was like: what is he talking about? It led me down the rabbit hole: I researched it, and hosted a bunch of conversations where I invited founders of platforms, collectors, folks from (a tool that estimates the amount of energy your NFT uses). It was a mind boggling conversation! It just raised more questions, got a lot of attention online, and within weeks I was being interviewed by NBC about this. My friend Michelle Brown in Australia set up a CleanNFTs group on Discord to continue the conversation, and in a month we had 2,500 artists on the chat. This is how much these issues mean to people. Another popular artist, Artnome has set a special fund, and it has thousands of dollars thrown at him now. Founders of Known Origin have been really active in the group. They invested a ton of money in their infrastructure and, being on Ethereum blockchain, they said: we’re not going to play dumb here, we want to take a look at what we can do in this situation. Immediately they changed some of the rules of their platform allowing people to only mint once in a 24-hour period, changing the way their smart contracts work, so some of the transactions are off-chain, not going onto the Ethereum blockchain, which reduced their footprint by 30%. While the footprint is still a lot compared to the proof-of-stake blockchain, these are the efforts that we want to see industry taking. 

It’s a tricky territory to work with, but I’ve been so inspired just by the fact that people are taking it seriously, and making changes. What I’d love is that a year or two down the track this energy that’s currently directed at the art platforms to do better, that incredible artistic passion, we can take that, and put it onto the rest of the blockchain industry. Every case study that we applied to the NFT art platforms could 100% apply to the rest of the industries that are on the blockchain. This is one way how art and artists can impact our times. 

We can make art that is pretty, nice to collect and visually pleasing, but we can also make art that comments on reality, or is a part of the movement that changes the trajectory of the world. We should never underestimate the power that we can have as artists, especially those of us who are involved in the technological space. It’s great if we can take on some of that responsibility and guide the direction of this new movement. I’m not cancelling anybody out, but I’m trying to spark conversations, and provide spaces like the CleanNFTs Discord, so people can make decisions in an informed way. 

Being an artist today comes with a lot of responsibility, a lot of knowledge and skills that you need to have if you want to be in the heart of the conversation.

Early on I made that decision. I’ve been involved in art organizations like Big hArt that is a social justice and community development art organisation. I did my first project with them in 2006: it was putting a hip hop concert in my little town in Tasmania. I brought an exhibition, and the best hip hop artists to the town where we never had that kind of event before. It was an experiment, like all things I do. It’s playing the role of a artist, director, disruptor and anthropologist. We’re only on this planet once, and I don’t want to spend my time just making art. I want to engage in this world, and see what happens. I always encourage artists to get out of their comfort zone, to interact on another level with the planet, with people and our communities. Once you start doing that you can change lives, or your life can be changed, and these become some of the most rewarding moments of your life. 

When I moved to the desert to work with the Roeobourne Aboriginal community in Northern Westestern Australia, I thought I would stay there a year max, I  ended up working and  creating art with the kids there for seven years, these are some of the most cherished memories in my life. I know it had a massive impact on those kids, it was hugely rewarding for me, and it had real tangible results - the kids became co-creators of comic, films, plays etc. We still get the likes, you know, but it just means so much more. 

How do you see our community and our industry in 10 years?

I want to foster safe, immersive spaces where me and my little boy can log in together, play, and discover art, meet new people who are respectful, and share experiences  in those spaces in a positive way. My main goal is to think about the mindfulness of healthy online spaces, because we constantly witness how toxic the internet can be. As we are moving toward a spatial web, all the bad actors the current internet are going to roll across into  these new spaces. We have to be mindful how we frame the experience, and how we are entering it. I’m now working on a project with Director Lady PheOnix and Ju'Niyah Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s sister. Ju’Niyah had to experience grieving publicly, and was attacked by trolls online. You can’t imagine anything worse. It’s so outrageous you can’t believe it could happen. It prompted Lady PheOnix and I to think deeply about how do we foster safe spaces, and provide a roadmap for people to grieve. How can we create a space where people can come together, and support each other?

In the future, most of our immersive activities are going to be hanging out in a shared workspace, or in a gallery, or seeing friends in a virtual concert, these spaces are fairly manageable from a moderator point of view. But then you have those extreme cases on the spectrum, how do we create a safe space for people to mourn? By taking time to look at these, and thinking about how to manage them in a responsible way, we can establish a healthier digital space in general. I throw myself into those conversations because I want to learn how I can contribute in a better way. I want to improve my understanding of my role. What can we do to become better humans? Technology is going to change, and we are going to have completely different kinds of immersive experiences, but the core of it is to create meaningful safe spaces where people can feel comfortable within. That’s my goal.

Interview Conducted Ana Brzezińska on April 13, 2021