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Behind the Scenes at Art Basel Miami: The Biggest IRL Metaverse Party Yet

9 minute read

A version of this article was published in TIME’s newsletter Into the Metaverse. Subscribe for a weekly guide to the future of the Internet.

Given that the rise of NFTs happened over the pandemic, there have been very few in-person gatherings of this community. Last weekend however, thousands of NFT and crypto enthusiasts descended on Miami for the annual Art Basel festival, which has become a major sandbox for NFT art. They attended gallery shows, interactive experiences, concerts, panel events, parties and more. One of those attendees was TIME’s own Raisa Bruner, who has been covering NFT art and culture over the last year, and also attended NFT.NYC last month. On Wednesday, she published a dispatch about the collectors at Art Basel.

I wanted to learn more about the festival, and was frankly very jealous of her time on the beach, soI called up Raisa to learn more about what she saw. Here are excerpts of our conversation, edited for clarity.

Can you tell me about Art Basel Miami and why you decided to attend?

As someone who has started reporting more on the crypto and NFT worlds, and the intersection of those and the culture community, it quickly became clear this was a really unique week—because they were really meeting in a big way for the first time.

Why did Art Basel embrace NFTs so fully this year?

I get the sense that people who are interested in emerging art and the people who are interested in crypto or digital art are actually quite overlapping—and the people who have money to spend, especially in the younger generations of those two worlds, are pretty much the same. So while you do have a distinction between collectors who only have NFT works and those who are pretty married to their traditional works, I think that you’re only going to see those differences dissolve going forward.

So what was your weekend like? What kinds of events did you go to?

It’s a never-ending party, truly. Every company, every brand, every artist, every gallery is putting on an event. You could be doing five things at once, at all times of day, from sunrise to the following sunrise.

But the events I thought were the most interesting were the ones indicative of the intersection of the art and crypto worlds and how they’re growing together. On Wednesday night I went to a party put on by OneOf, a music NFT platform where Rae Sremmurd performed. They even changed some of the lyrics of their songs from “money” to “crypto. ”

On Thursday, I went to an event put on by Christie’s and the website nft now, and they were able to display the NFT artworks in a way that really made them pop. For me, it was a turning point, like, “Oh, OK, here’s how we can view this work in a way that is visually arresting and makes sense to a traditional art consumer.”

What’s the relationship between the NFT community and the traditional art communities there?

A lot of the more traditional art events were all taking place in Miami Beach, whereas the NFT and crypto events took place across the water in Downtown Miami or Wynwood. So there was an actual physical demarcation of these two worlds. That shows how they’re not quite one and the same just yet.

I went to the main convention of Art Basel itself—and inside, you wouldn’t necessarily know about NFT stuff because almost everything was focused on traditional artworks. But the one exception was Tezos, a blockchain platform that had a booth that was extremely popular, with a line of people waiting to get in. They had interactive exhibits and on-site minting [the process of uploading an NFT to the blockchain]. So that was an example of NFTs making a splashy entrance into the physical space of the traditional art world.

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What were some of your main takeaways from talking to NFT collectors in Miami?

What’s interesting about NFT art collectors is they don’t really see a distinction between the experience of collecting art and the experience of using art as an investment and a speculative play. But between the collectors, artists, crypto engineers and architects, there’s a definite community vibe. They’re there to party, but the party is not distinct from the work itself.

I was talking to one collector at a pool party, Jake Rogers, who had just under 500 NFTs. He had been educating himself primarily over Clubhouse. At Art Basel, he was bouncing around to like 10 events a day to see the artists and people he had met online. That’s what gave him great joy. That experience of being connected to a community of like-minded people.

So much of this space has been built virtually—on Clubhouse, Discord, Twitter—that the opportunities to meet in real life and hang out are really meaningful for these people, and that’s why there’s such a sense of hedonism to it all. And there’s no distinction between work and play, because those connections and networking will carry them forward into new projects.

How did the concept of the metaverse manifest throughout the festival?

The metaverse is everything. If art NFTs are the gateway drug, then the potential applications of this technology for metaverse creation is the end goal.

One event that was pretty cool was the popup of Aku World, a metaverse project by former MLB player Micah Johnson, who has created this narrative of a young black boy who is also an astronaut. He sold TV and movie rights for this universe. It’s this early new IP that is primarily virtual. At Art Basel, they had 4D body mapping for people to create their own avatars that will exist in the metaverse.

Body mapping?

It looked like a giant TSA body scanner, but cooler. People would go into it, get mapped and then turn that into an avatar. Like the Sims, they could customize what they were wearing and the different components of their physical characteristics. Sometimes that meant adding on another NFT of a piece of merch they had purchased.

I was there with a collector and an Aku investor, Cooper Turley. After he went into the scanner, he was scrolling through the many options; for instance, there was a set of sneakers he could choose that were designed by Fewocious, another popular NFT artist. The sneakers do exist in real life, and also exist in the metaverse as an NFT that you can buy and add to this character. So there’s an interesting process happening now where certain parts of the NFT world are making sense together within the virtual context.

In other conversations, property speculation in metaverse worlds was a big topic, as was the metaverse and crypto as they relate to gaming. It feels like as people are buckling down for a potential crypto winter, the next thing they have their eyes on is how metaverse projects are going to evolve and what opportunities are there.

It’s funny; I had almost the exact opposite weekend from you. I had lunch with my partner’s 90-year-old grandmother, and was telling her about this metaverse newsletter and NFTs. When she asked what those things were, I realized that not only would it take half an hour to explain any of this, but that none of it actually mattered to her life at all.

Absolutely. I think it’s going to be a real generation-definer in terms of who’s willing to become comfortable with metaverses and virtual experiences and who decides to reject it. Because Gen Z will be native adopters, and I think Millennials are going to be caught a bit in the crosshairs. It’s going to be a very confusing time.

I was talking to Clint Kisker, who is a co-founder of one of the companies helping to build out Aku World. And he was talking about how his nine-year-old son is so naturally interested and comfortable with the concept of having a virtual avatar, and what that looks like means in terms of social relations, especially given the pandemic and the past year of virtual learning. There’s an entire generation where the metaverse is already reality in a way it’s never been for those of us who are just a little older. I think that’s only going to grow. And yet, there is a life that has nothing to do with any of these worlds. It’s going to be complicated for brands and businesses to bridge those generational gaps.

Do you have any closing thoughts about your wild weekend at Art Basel?

Every subculture has its die-hard enthusiast early adopters and communities that are all about the conferences and the parties—and it may seem self-aggrandizing or silly to outsiders at first. But this is how culture is built, in a lot of ways. So the earlier we are all able to become comfortable with accepting that not all virtual realities are dumb, for a lack of a better word, the more we will be able to understand how culture is going to evolve.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com