As NFTs take the art world by storm, a major auction has made digital artist Mad Dog Jones the most expensive living artist in Canadian history.

The Ontario-based Michah Dowbak, also known as Mad Dog Jones (whose artist name originates from a video game alias, a play on his real initials) sold an NFT for $4.1 million last month at Phillips. The sale was the first of its kind for the auction house, which primarily focuses on more traditional forms of contemporary art. In the auctions’s first 24 hours, bidding rose to $2.4 million, but a last-minute spike finished the sale at nearly double that figure. The buyer, an anonymous newcomer to fine art, paid the millions in ETH. 

Other artists have made millions auctioning the non-fungible tokens — back in March, digital artist Beeple sold an NFT at Christie’s for a record-breaking $69 million. Despite Beeple’s higher price tag, Dowbak is still among the biggest artists in the space.

Inside the Mad Dog Jones NFT

Dowbak’s NFT, dubbed REPLICATOR, is unlike most others. While it may seem like a characteristically colorful illustration of a photocopier, the work is designed to replicate every 28 days, producing up to 19 unique artworks in total. There are seven generations of the NFT, though according to Dowbak, it’s impossible to say just how many can be produced once the process starts. The process produces fewer artworks each time, so by generation seven, there will be no more new NFTs. 

“REPLICATOR is the story of a machine through time,” Dowbak said. “It is a reflection on forms of past groundbreaking innovation and serves as a metaphor for modern technology’s continuum.”

Dowbak’s main inspiration for the work, photocopiers, are meant to mimic the nature of the self-replicating work. Dowbak finds them fascinating.

“At one point, they were the peak of technology and completely revolutionized the way people worked,” he said. “And now, in the digital age, they’re becoming more and more obsolete, just taking up a great deal of space in an increasingly minimalist world.”

And like a real photocopier, REPLICATOR can occasionally jam. A “Jam Artwork” occurs when a generation stops replicating. Jam Artworks occur at random, but there’s a 50% to 80% chance that a copy will jam.

From the crypto community to the art world

Dowbak rose to prominence in 2017 by making digital art on Instagram for his 250,000 followers, combining various Cyberpunk elements and colorful hues. Last November, he began experimenting with NFTs, selling 100 pieces on NFT platform Nifty Gateway for $1 each. After that initial success, Dowbak sold more work in the following months, which led to high-profile collaborations with the likes of DJ deadmau5. He then aimed higher, reaching out to a more traditional platform in the form of Phillips.. 

Rebekah Bowling, senior specialist at Phillips and co-head of day sales, specializes in contemporary art, so NFTs and other emerging technologies had been on her radar. When Bowling first heard from Dowback, she knew his work would make the perfect NFT debut for the auction house.

“There's this really meaningful relationship between medium, the NFT, and form: What the work looks like, and what the work does,” Bowling said. “They're inextricably linked; it could not function if it weren't an NFT. It's a really interesting piece of conceptual art, really.”

Since the pandemic, Phillips has doubled down on digital sales, which have proved successful as home-bound art collectors have no in-person auctions to attend.

“I think we did benefit from people being at home,” Bowling said. “We had a bit of a captive audience. People were spending more time in their spaces and looking at empty walls and just slowing down and thinking about things like art collecting.”

Mad Dog Jones cares about carbon

While the popularity of NFTs has exploded, so has their carbon footprint (along with the rest of crypto). According to WIRED, a single year of cryptocurrency usage — 2017, to be exact — used as much electricity as all of Slovenia (population around 2 million). Dowbak made it clear that the large carbon footprint is a main concern for him, and that he expects the industry to become more energy efficient with time. 

“There are already some great strides being made on that front, including the launch of new energy efficient platforms,” he said. “I think everyone involved is eager to see the market continue to head in a more environmentally friendly direction.”

Dowbak noted that the larger processes behind blockchain technology are the real issue — mining cryptocurrencies uses up remarkable amounts of electricity due to the gigantic computing power involved. “The bigger problems are not NFT's but how Proof of work blockchains are mined,” he added. “Dirty energy is the true enemy.”

The fact that REPLICATOR’s anonymous buyer is a newcomer to Phillips auctions indicates that crypto-wealth could soon flood the art market. Bowling sees a future where the two industries become increasingly intertwined, from art collectors dabbling in NFTs to crypto enthusiasts getting into traditional art.

“I’m really happy to have a foot in both of these worlds,” Bowling said.

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