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Art, memes, and a revolution: a conversation with Metakovan

Vignesh Sundaresan, better known pseudonymously as Metakovan, talks to The Peak about his landmark $69 million purchase of NFT art.

“There is so much money being printed right now, everything is getting inflated, and it’s not like governments can take back the money that they’ve put out. If anything, Fiat currency is the bubble, and crypto is the pin.” It’s a bold statement, and one only a handful of people are actually qualified to make. Enter Vignesh Sundaresan, better known as Metakovan – the nom de guerre under which he made history by paying US$69 million (S$92 million) for the Ethereum-based non-fungible token (NFT) of a digital artwork, Everydays: The First 5,000 Days, by American artist Beeple

It’s the third-highest amount of money ever paid to a living artist, and a not-insignificant sum that has further raised the recent frenzy around cryptocurrency-based assets. After all, it’s easy to be seduced by the growth of blockchain-based assets like Bitcoin and Ethereum – both of which have grown by several orders of magnitude over the past 10 years. Whether it’s a bubble or not, cryptocurrencies have minted more millionaires than any other piece of technology in history.

“The dotcom boom created maybe a few thousand rich people, but crypto has created hundreds of thousands. There are 2600 billionaires in the world right now, and if or when Bitcoin hits $1 million, the number of billionaires will almost double – there’ll be massive wealth redistribution, and it’ll be a very different world for sure,” says the 32-year-old Sundaresan.

(Related: 10 years on: How bitcoin continues to divide opinion)

He is also part of this statistic, having built his wealth in an astonishingly short period, from virtually nothing. “2013 was a very different time. When I first got into cryptocurrency I wasn’t even very familiar with the concept – I just knew that it was a new trend that I wanted to get into. It wasn’t until almost a year later when I started to realise its potential – it was programmable money that was decentralised, and it felt like it could be a global currency. 

I took the small amount of money I earned from offering escrow services for people and rolled it into other investments including putting some of the Bitcoins I earnt into Ethereum, which then blew up.”

But unlike the vision that countless self-styled cryptocurrency “gurus” plying get-rich-quick schemes through YouTube advertisements are selling, Sundaresan believes in a universe far beyond mere monetary gain which blockchain technology can build. “It’s freedom, it’s the future.” He shares, drawing the example of how blockchains do not just power cryptocurrencies, but also smart contracts and financial logistics. One of the applications he’s currently excited about is decentralised finance (DeFi), a model that bypasses traditional financial institutions like banks or exchanges to enable everything from peer-to-peer lending or even asset speculation. 

Asset class

Speaking to Sundaresan reveals him to be part blockchain prophet, part futurist, and on his way to becoming a hugely influential figure in the art world. While he seemingly emerged out of nowhere into mainstream attention, Metakovan – the pseudonym used by Sundaresan in the blockchain community – was already well-known in crypto circles for the $110 000 purchase of a virtual car on the NFT-backed racing simulator F1 Delta Time. Everydays: The First 5,000 Days is also not the first Beeple that Sundaresan has bought, having paid $2.2 million for a collection of 20 one-of-one artworks – which he then bundled with three commissioned VR museums as an NFT before releasing them publicly as tokens called B20 at $0.36 each. B20 is now worth $5.28 at the time of writing. 

All this is backed by Sundaresan’s belief that an NFT “captures the aura of the moment” in which a piece of asset is bought. Unlike in a traditional art purchase where records only exist between involved parties, NFTs’ existence on the blockchain means that the purchase record is not just timestamped, but distributed and immutable – creating a powerful snapshot of the zeitgeist surrounding what is seemingly immaterial piece media. 

“It’s like the Mona Lisa – people talk about it all the time, but it’s not like you can touch the actual painting. We don’t touch art anymore. The Mona Lisa is interesting because the physical piece represents the story – the same way this NFT captures all this. I’m a story fanatic. The money I paid for was not just for the art, it has all of this story that we’re sitting here talking about now.

With the $69 million purchase we almost broke the internet, broke art history – and I think it won’t be repeated for some time. Even if it was a bubble like some people say, it becomes part of the story – and I get to be a part of that.”

(Related: Charles Monat CEO Yves Guelat: “Unpredictability might be the new normal”)

The meme economy

If Sundaresan’s landmark purchase was a story, then one of the main co-authors would be Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann. Prior to putting his work on NFT-listing platforms, the most Winklemann had ever sold were prints of his work for small amounts – even though he already had a considerable following on social media. Much of this following is thanks to Wimkelmann’s oeuvre of  bizarre, often not-safe-for-work digital drawings and short animations that satirises internet memes and popular culture – like a naked (and very well-endowed) Joe Biden dancing in the Oval Office. 

Like every other person that has found fame and fortune through internet virality, Winkelmann’s work is very much part of a strange new world – one where jokes get turned into valuable assets like with Rare Pepe NFTs, or one where multi-billion dollar hedge funds are beaten out by retail traders that seem more concerned with making in-jokes than actual investing – like with the Gamestop saga. 

“Cultural context is very important. Some of the traditional people don’t see it as art, but I’ve been telling people Beeple is kind of the artist of our generation because fame on traditional media is so fleeting these days that the only way to become relevant is to become a meme. We’re making the meme economy real,” says Sundaresan. 

(Related: Cryptocurrency: An Hermes art exhibition combines crypto mining with fresh blooms and digital printing)

Brave New World

This economy is also part of what drives the “Metaverse”, a term first coined in 1992 by science fiction author Neal Stephenson describing a digital space similar to factual, virtual worlds like Second Life. The term has evolved beyond Stephenson’s original definition, and, as Sundaresan explains, has come to define any – currently unconnected – virtual space where social interaction can take place, and where an economy exists. Art, like the NFT pieces bought by Sundaresan, can be displayed in virtual galleries where people can view together in the same instance.  

It’s on the Metaverse where Sundaresan foresees creators like artists, musicians, and writers breaking free from the current limitations of the internet by heading into a decentralised, Wild West-type space.

“The internet is currently a very hostile place. The data is concentrated in a few places, and it creates a very Big Brother atmosphere. When was the last time you visited an artist’s website directly? We don’t window-shop the internet anymore, it’s all aggregated, and algorithmically pushed by a few major companies and platforms – and all of it is driven by how they can profit. 

The Metaverse  attracts a very diverse range of people, all with different ideologies – and it’s a beautiful place with an economy shared by its inhabitants. It’s almost like going back to a time before the internet. Where you could make friends based on shared interests in real time.”

Like Sundaresan’s choice to use the Metakovan pseudonym, the Metaverse represents a chance for people to reinvent themselves – and not just for the purpose of an online persona, but one with actual social and economic consequences. “In the gaming world, everyone uses a pseudonym. It’s weird to be called Vignesh in the gaming world. You always want something a little edgier, a little more wishful. 

No one gets a choice to name themselves – I recommend everyone trying a pseudonym. The process of arriving at one makes you question a lot about what you are. “