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Christopher Y. Lew and Examining Nascent Tech With Open Minds

Why artist are collecting each other's NFTs.

Christopher Y. Lew and Examining Nascent Tech With Open Minds

Christopher Y. Lew truly embodies LAGO’s drive to “push creative boundaries.” He has spent his career not only identifying important emerging themes across the art landscape, but has built spaces and provided platforms for artists to explore what’s new and next. His natural curiosity and inclination toward experimentation naturally lend themselves to NFT art. 

At the Whitney Museum of American Art, where Christopher was a curator for over seven years, he cultivated the talents of budding artists and introduced them to a wider audience. “A big part of this was trying to synthesize the artists’ work and their concerns in group contexts and thinking about commonalities and relevancy: Why now? How does this art speak to a larger societal moment? How does this relate to the things we’re thinking about right now in life and art?”  

Now, as Chief Artistic Director of the Horizon Art Foundation and, simultaneously, Chief Artistic Director of Outland, Christopher is able to use both positions to not only nurture and develop new artists but also further accessibility and diversity within the art world, something he’s passionate about. 

Horizon is both a platform for creative experiments and an artist residency program.

Outland is a platform dedicated to fostering critical conversations around emerging digital technologies and their connections to contemporary art. 

“We Don’t Fully Understand What It’s Capable Of”

When NFTs started making headlines, Christopher was hesitant, as conversations fixated on money. However, as things further unfolded, he was drawn to the experimental nature and sense of the unknown inherent in the space. “The same way you work with an artist and don’t know what you’ll end up with at an exhibition, here was this nascent technology. We don’t fully understand what it’s capable of.” 

He calls back to the beginning of Bitcoin as a parallel: “Here was this ability to take part in something and let it grow and mature into something that we all can’t fully anticipate what it could be. Artists are so good at reading the world and being sensitive to things that we don’t fully recognize what they are until years later. That’s the type of thinking that can really inform what NFTs can be.” 

Before his time at the Whitney, Christopher was at MoMA PS1, a space known for inviting artists in and giving them free rein to take over and create new work. Many times, Christopher didn’t know how things were going to come together until he actually saw the entire installation. 

That lesson remains true here: It’s hard to see what something can be right at the beginning. He wrote for Outland about how video art is a perfect encapsulation of this principle—in the early video days, so much work focused on artists performing for the camera. Today, of course, we have decades of video art that expand way beyond those concepts. Christopher believes NFT will follow a similar trajectory. 

“We’re living in a contemporary moment,” Christopher states. “How do you hold these thoughts and weigh things for yourself, knowing that something is happening right in front of you and it’s too new to judge? After time, we understand what we’ve lived through and experienced. It’s important to keep an open mind to any innovation for that reason.”

NFTs Keep Art Closer to What the Artist Intended 

Christopher pushes creative boundaries in his own life by continuing to seek out what’s new in different artworks. “Nothing is ever completely new,” he says, “but how do you appreciate the newness of something in the time of its creation?”

Several projects have been at the forefront of his mind lately, starting with James Jean’s Outland collaboration, in which he created his first PFP NFT, Fragments. Fragments is made of 7,000 digital, stained-glass artworks that were all hand-painted by the artist; the idea originated from a physical installation James was already building.

Artist James Jean

Examples of "Fragments" - a series of 7,000 NFTs by James Jean commissioned by Outland

Similarly, Rachel Rose, who is known for her installation video works, developed her NFT collection based on something she’d already created, which were drawings she sketched on her iPad to process intense postpartum depression. 

“She wasn’t thinking about them as final artworks,” Christopher explains. “Later, when she was feeling better, she realized these works were important to her and she wanted to get them out in the world but maintain the idea they were done on a screen-based platform. That’s how the process evolved. She didn’t want to just print out a drawing that was never intended to be on paper. NFTs keep it true to how it was made.” 

Artist Rachel Rose

Rachel Rose's L’informe series is comprised of digital drawings—intimate gestures that resemble, in aggregate, universes unto themselves. 

Another artist Christopher is excited about is Kevin Beasley, who recently launched an LA show. “The way he’s working with house clothes and other found objects to create sculptures and full installations—I’m really curious to see what he’s created,” Christopher says. “It’s not just physical materials, either. Sound is coming in, and live performance, and that feels really rich and exciting.” 

Opportunities and Challenges of NFTs 

An amazing aspect of NFTs is that it allows artists to be more in relationship and dialogue with each other and their audiences than other mediums. No creative works in a bubble, but with NFTs there is so much focus on more intimate interactions, which is rare and a big reason that some patrons are drawn to the space. 

Again, the inclusivity aspect is appealing to Christopher. “There are more tools for artists to do what they’re interested in,” he explains. “With NFTs, you can reach a very global audience in ways that you can’t necessarily otherwise. Everyone wins in that sense.” 

So, what are the potential drawbacks, if any? Christopher acknowledges that for people coming from a traditional art background, the technical barriers to entry may be pretty high. For example, setting up your wallet, working with an exchange, transferring funds, and the like all take some getting used to. 

He also feels that the buzz around NFTs may be another challenge for this crowd. “If we spend so much time talking about valuation, you’re not talking about the qualities of the artwork anymore, which can distract from the art and is not helpful.” 

At the end of the day, staying open-minded to the potential of NFT art requires awareness and commitment. Only time will reveal where the trajectory will take us and NFT’s place within the wider societal context and art community at large.