In 2018, a novel exhibition at the Delhi-based Nature Morte displayed art made in collaboration between man and machine. It was part of the first Artificial Intelligence (AI) show, Gradient Descent, by a mainstream gallery in India. It also marked gallerist Aparajita Jain’s first serious tryst with technology in art. “By then the entire world had been disrupted by technology—the way you travelled and functioned in everyday life. The only place that had not been disrupted was art,” says the 42-year-old director and co-owner of Nature Morte, a gallery founded by Peter Nagy, an American, in the 1990s.
The show sparked conversations with technologists—AI was still very new, Google’s Deep Dream project had just about launched. Then Jain, listed as one of eight influential women in Indian art by the online art marketplace Artsy, was invited as a speaker to a conference in Bahrain that featured 15 participants from the field of art and tech. “There, I got to know about the emerging world of blockchain and non-fungible tokens, or NFTs,” she says. “I realised that the key to making large-scale impact did not lie in physical infrastructural change but in digital infrastructure change.”
Jain envisaged a tech-based venture, based on provenance, that would make art accessible and transparent. “We would have been way behind the curve if we didn’t come up with a plan to democratise art using technology, hence the decision to look at NFTs,” she says. Last year, she launched Terrain.art, a blockchain-powered online platform focused on showcasing contemporary art from South Asia to a global audience, to start with. It seeks to provide a platform for young artists, across areas that may not be defined traditionally as art.
Terrain.art, largely self-funded at present, has two marketplaces: curated (selections made by six curators) and open (accessible to all creators, who meet certain criteria of provenance). They also have an educational segment that demystifies NFTs, and the process of buying them, through blogs, FAQs, etc..
The content is unique. There is, for instance, a 2.22-minute video by the interdisciplinary artist Sayak Shome, from Durgapur, West Bengal, who studied for a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communications engineering and is now a films/video artist. In the 2014 video, titled Tail Of A Symmetry (priced at ₹1.2 lakh; | BTC 0.039 | ETH 0.518), he looks at the reality of our daily lives through bird calls. Then there is the 2021 work, Oooooo 01 (priced at ₹30,000 | BTC 0.01 | ETH 0.13 | USD Coin, a digital stablecoin pegged to the dollar, 381.6) by Pranjal Kaila, also known as Ajeeb, who uses code, generative algorithms and visuals to create “moments of reflection for the ‘users’ of his work”.
For Jain, Terrain.art is about empowering creators who would hesitate to show up at Nature Morte’s doorstep with their work, or struggle to reach gallery representation as their work is in the digital realm. Earlier, such work—psychedelic work, glitchy digital videos, 3D rendering—would be distributed free on the net, now it’s on its way to becoming an asset class. “Till we don’t change things ground up, and look beyond the metros, how will we move ahead?” asks Jain.
She believes the newer generation has very different notions of art and assets. Her son, for instance, doesn’t find the art she curates at Nature Morte very “cool”; he finds gaming exciting. “For him, collection is about gaming. So, it is this new style of collecting that we have to keep in mind. At Terrain.art, the prices start at ₹5,000 and go up to ₹6 lakh. We are seeing traction in the ₹4 lakh and above category, and in the ₹15,000-30,000 category. It clearly shows people had been denied something so far,” she says.
So the platform, which had so far been looking at art—video, digital, films—is expanding to collectibles. It has tied up with Fanatic Sports—a sports-based travel company—for NFTs related to sports collectibles and memorabilia, and with Labyrinth Studio for metaverse gaming avatars. It’s also collaborating with students of Manipal University, Karnataka, on their NFT project, Moonets.
“We are really excited about the quality of content coming our way, whether it is Labyrinth, which has worked extensively in Hollywood, or through supporting younger talent that is emerging from universities. This is exactly what I dreamt of— working with creators across sectors and geographies. This is my Web 3.0,” says Jain. “We have also started taking cryptocurrency as payment for NFTs and are wildly excited that we can finally move ahead.”
It’s early days but Jain is happy with the response so far. “I see an emergence of a strong creator economy coming out of South Asia,” she says. “I think it’s the responsibility of art galleries and institutions to showcase moments that mark the obvious human changes in economy, social and gender constructs. For us, it is critical to showcase technology and its intense everyday impact on human behaviour.”
Certainly, the area seems poised for growth. Auction houses, venture capital firms and investment bankers are taking note. Earlier this year, the investment bank Jeffries forecast its NFT market-cap would be more than $35 billion (around ₹2.7 trillion) in 2022 and over $80 billion by 2025. “And all we want is a small percentage of that,” says Jain, adding that it’s too soon to share growth figures for Terrain.art.
This is not to gainsay the serious concerns about environment costs—many of the server farms that enable the raw computing power for NFTs are powered by fossil fuels—or copyright infringement. Or, that the going may be difficult initially since collectors have to start a digital wallet and may prefer to wait for a better-regulated system. But none of this deters Jain. “I have always maintained that new horizons come with their new set of issues, and as we traverse them, we work towards solutions. But to not walk new paths would mean an end to human endeavour,” she says.
Through it all, they are trying to create awareness and clear myths related to NFTs. For instance, many people harbour the misconception that NFTs are new forms of digital art, when they are just blockchain units certifying a digital asset as unique, thus offering collectors ownership over their art. As Deepanjana Klein, head of Christie’s South Asian art section, said in a recent interview, “Anybody can download the art but the token belongs to only one person.”
Jain, who completed a bachelor’s in psychology from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, used art as a means to understand and navigate the world, choosing to work in the area of fine arts. “I perhaps use psychology the most in my current role. To think beyond is almost critical in the world of art. To understand connections, to understand the thought and emotion behind a work, all requires a basic understanding of the human mind,” she says.
Jain, who was also a founding member of the Harvard South Asia Institute Arts programme, traces her interest in art to her childhood. “My grandmother bought art instead of jewellery since she was a teenager. We are speaking about a woman in newly independent India making some very bold decisions. She passed on that love for culture—art, poetry, music and literature—to me. In school, my principal, Mrs Darashaw, at JB Petit High School in Mumbai taught me about impressionism and I fell in love with it. Shortly after my son was born, I took a conscious step to foray into the world of art,” she reminisces. In 2005, she launched Seven Art, a niche gallery in Delhi, to showcase young artists with cutting-edge practices from India on the international stage.
“I did my first show in 2006-07, which was an intersection between art and design, and here I am in 2022, immersed in the world of technology and art,” smiles Jain. In 2012, when Nagy was looking for an Indian partner, she joined him. “I lucked out again as he is the best curator of our times in South Asia,” she adds.
Over the past decade, she has observed certain fundamental hurdles in the art ecosystem here. In the US, for instance, every child has access to good museums. In India, however, inviting art spaces are few and far between, and art appreciation and history are not part of the school pedagogy. “If the layman wants to understand anything about the arts or the art market, either you have to depend on good friends in the ecosystem or you have to struggle. There are hardly any platforms that are transparent and accessible. This gap has given rise to Terrain.art,” explains Jain.
There is still a lot of hesitation in the art world, though, about NFTs. A proliferation of NFTs in fashion, music, GIFs, and literature seems to have only added to the confusion. This may be because the space is so new, says Jain.
Education, then, is a big part of Terrain.art and the team is coming up with a course on NFTs and art history in collaboration with the Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru. Available free, the module has been authored by Beth Citron, adviser and artistic director at Terrain.art.
The effort, ultimately, is to create an asset class. “The question is, how do you get more liquidity in this market? If we call NFT an asset class, then it should be easily saleable. How do you ensure that people are getting good quality? Terrain is about allowing people to purchase what they consider art rather than what a gallerist or a curator tells you is art. This makes things more democratic and viable,” says Jain. “And when I say that, I don’t mean cheap art, just great art that is more accessible to a larger band of people.”