Kevin McCoy has spent years thinking about a simple problem: as art reaches increasingly large audiences because of Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram, it has become increasingly difficult for artists to profit from their viral works. For the 2014 edition of Seven on Seven, a conference hosted by the New Museum and Rhizome where technologists and artists are paired together to make a new work, McCoy decided to test his idea of what would now be called NFTs. (Back then, they were called monetized graphics.) He and his Seven on Seven partner, tech entrepreneur Anil Dash, presented a new blockchain technology that would allow people to own digital assets. That idea now seems prescient, but McCoy spent the years after his Seven on Seven presentation trying and failing to convince people of the worth of his concept.
These days, McCoy has less trouble getting people to believe in the value of NFTs—he was able to auction off the NFT he created for Seven on Seven at Sotheby’s for more than $1 million in June. Now, at the Sundance Film Festival’s tech-focused “New Frontiers” program, McCoy and his wife and artistic partner Jennifer have released a new NFT project, titled The Inside World. In line with their past video installations focused on a widening wealth gap, their new project relies on NFTs to unlock a game set in a dystopian world where AI has taken over all labor in Las Vegas.
At the opening of Sundance, the McCoys released 4,000 NFT player cards that randomly merge the game’s 14 characters with props and locations. Some 4,000 more will be released at later dates. These cards are the basis for a long-term narrative game similar to Dungeons & Dragons where players use lore to create narratives. In The Inside World, players will be able use their cards to explore an AI-run Las Vegas and investigate a rumor that one of the AI workers is human. To hear more about The Inside World, ARTnews spoke by phone with Kevin and Jennifer McCoy to discuss how NFTs could ultimately bring together the worlds of gaming and art.
ARTnews: Why did you choose to make a game?
Jennifer McCoy: We’ve done a lot of projects that take apart narrative systems. The projects allow viewers to consider the basic elements that go into a story and give viewers an opportunity to look engage and experiment with these narratives, whether it’s an internet-based project or one of our sculptural works. Using NFT technology gives us a new way to offer real participatory engagement with the work because audiences will have actual ownership of the material in ways that wasn’t really possible before.
ARTnews: What inspired the narrative for this game?
Jennifer: The whole project came out of Kevin working with these artificially intelligent image generation systems that make images of human faces. Kevin got to thinking about what the interior feelings of these people were. [The Inside World] really is kind of a fusion between strategy gameplay and a graphic novel or TV show, with this episodic narrative conceit. Some of the NFTs are character cards based on AI-generated images that Kevin had initially worked with.
Kevin McCoy: Thematically, The Inside World is driven by questions of labor and technology. Our last two major projects over the last four or five years were films that were looking at labor in different ways. The first one, called Broker , about a woman selling a high-end apartments. Another one, called Cleaner , is about someone on the cleaning staff of a start-up company. Those projects explored how labor intersects with data and network environments in different ways. This project really is thematically and conceptually a direct extension of the thinking that inspired our previous projects.
ARTnews: How does The Inside World exist within your larger body of work? Do you think it’s separate from your work shown in galleries?
Kevin: There’s certainly been a lot of discussion in the wider world around the status of NFT works. People in the the traditional art world, as we understand it, have looked at NFTs and not really recognized them as artworks. But we’re uniquely in between two worlds, having come out of the art world but having also helped create this new NFT world. I don’t see the work as a distinct creative endeavor.
Jennifer: This project is a collaboration with the film and TV writer Annie Howell and with the graphic artist Peter Rostovsky, and we approached this collaboration in the same way as our past collaborations in film. The process is the same. I also think that the images that are being distributed in this first phase are fine art images. They’re really beautiful. They’re not the collectible profile picture kind of NFT that the art world doesn’t find so interesting.
ARTnews: Kevin, you originally made the prototype for the NFT with Anil Dash, who has since written that he became disillusioned with NFTs when the boom first came early 2021. There are many others who are staunchly critical of the way this technology is being deployed, but you seem to still believe in this project. Why?
Kevin: The basic thing here is that art matters, and money is one of the main ways that our world shows that things matter. We’ve seen the transformation of our world into a kind of network digital reality where creative media is so fundamental, but until this technology was established, there was no way to really value that directly. As I see it, this kind of gold rush or whatever we want to call it is a leveling-out or re-equilibrium that’s moving some of the value that was there all along much closer to the creative communities that have been providing it.
ARTnews: So you feel hopeful that, given time, things will calm down and the benefits of this market will flow in an equitable manner?
Kevin: That day in 2014 was the culmination of a year and a half of work where I was just thinking about how blockchains can affect and intersect with artwork. Since that time, I’ve been deeply involved in that community, even though for years most people didn’t get what we were talking about. But some people came around to the idea and built around it. It’s been a long time coming, even though it seems so sudden now. Maybe that gives me a slightly different perspective, where I can kind of look past some of the excesses because I’ve seen the other moments of the crypto transformation. So it’s true, I do remain optimistic, but I don’t want to suggest there’s a kind of inevitability or automatic nature to this more positive outcome. It requires effort and vigilance. It requires the kind of good faith involvement of a lot of different people to build that future.