Art News

The Super Bowl of Cryptocurrency Comes to Denver

Annie Phillips and Rob Gray, of IRL Gallery.
Annie Phillips and Rob Gray, of IRL Gallery. Nell Salzman
Cryptocurrency and NFTs are discussed by their enthusiastic disciples with the complex, dissecting care of Talmudic scholars, which often leaves the rest of us profoundly confused.

But ETHDenver may provide more coherent conversation of the subjects. Pronounced "eeth-Denver," the ten-day, round-the-clock event is the longest-standing cryptocurrency conference — specifically centered on Ethereum. This fifth edition will take place at the Sports Castle and other Denver spots, both virtually and in person,  through Sunday, February 20.

Blockchain and cryptocurrency enthusiasts are coming from all over the world to network and attend workshops on the latest trends in decentralization, says Annie Phillips, an art steward for ETHDenver 2022 and founder of IRL Gallery, a space at 2601 Walnut Street that already displays NFTs and will be the official visual art and NFT gallery for the conference.

Asked to explain Ethereum and NFTs as she would to a five-year-old (or in this case, a tech-challenged 28-year-old), Phillips offers this:

"Ethereum is the second-largest cryptocurrency next to Bitcoin. What it has allowed are what's called smart contracts. In addition to doing a crypto-transaction, there is a smart contract tied to that, so it has allowed for really sophisticated types of transactions. The types of transactions that we are really exploring are art-related through NFTs.

"What the smart contract allows us to do with NFTs is ensure that anytime the piece of art sells in the secondary market, the artist automatically gets 10 percent of their sale for forever," she continues. "Smart contracts enable a coding into a transaction that ensures that artists receive ongoing royalties."

In other words, NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are specifically coded artworks that can be sold on a blockchain, in essence a digitally distributed and decentralized public ledger that allows for and tracks transactions made through cryptocurrency like Ethereum or Bitcoin. When NFTs are resold, the original seller still receives a percentage of that transaction.

But NFTs are just part of the conference. The greatest impetus for those attending ETHDenver could be the big crypto-cash prizes for different competitions that take place throughout the week.

"The overall mission of the conference is a hackathon, so there are different contests that we call 'bounties.' All of these people from around the world come to Denver to participate in earning large prize money for solving technical issues for different major organizations and companies within the blockchain ecosystem," Phillips explains.

"There's always been an art gallery, and it's a very community-driven event. It runs 24 hours a day and there are people working around the clock to win these prizes, but it's also tons of workshops, lectures and presentations, with a huge emphasis on education. A lot of people come to ETHDenver to scout potential collaborators or developers or employees for their projects," she adds, "so it's really a multi-faceted event."

As part of its role, IRL will showcase a metaverse replica of the Sports Castle in partnership with Decentraland, one of the leading 3D world platforms, that people will be able to access virtually. It will also host after-parties and cool-down events where conference-goers can reset after a long day of coding.

IRL chief marketing officer Rob Gray is excited about IRL's Culture Jam, which will run throughout the conference. "We have about 100 artists from across the country and all different styles of art that IRL will be representing," he says. "We'll have days celebrating each of these, from music videos to poetry to glass sculptures to physical art to digital art, because NFTs can really be anything that you can think of. It'll be a good example for people to come and see and expand their mind on what they thought an NFT was."

"A big intention of our Culture Jam exhibit at ETHDenver is to really show a full spectrum of what an NFT can be," Phillips adds.

A major misconception about NFTs is that they are digital pieces you can only see on a phone or the Internet. "That's not it at all," Gray says. "It can be a sculpture, it can be T-shirt, it can be the cup that you're drinking out of."

According to Phillips, NFTs, blockchain platforms and cryptocurrency like Ethereum have been game-changers for artists in particular. "A big reason why NFTs are so popular is that artists are now able to share their work in a more global audience," she explains. "Especially for digital artists: They didn't really have a way to sell art before NFTs other than just making prints, so that's what took off at first. But we've also seen expansion to where NFTs are sold as tickets to a concert, or audio NFTs, or music videos, or [artists are] including an NFT with their painting."

Although the decentralization of funds and selling art for decentralized money can sound like the height of globalism, Phillips is quick to note that ETHDenver is still very much a localized event. "In addition to the Sports Castle, on the ETHDenver website there is a fully interactive map and schedule," she says. "Anybody who is producing an event or meeting or talk can submit it to our calendar and schedule, so it's a really a citywide conference and very community-driven. There's the main conference hub at Sports Castle, but there will also be activations at Mirus, Temple, the Church, the Art Hotel, the Jonas Brothers building, the History Colorado building and more.

"And there's been a lot of support at the state level," she continues. "As part of ETHDenver, we also do what's called Colorado Jam every year, which is a bounty contest specifically for a partnership with the state. Last year we did a blockchain-based lottery game, and the year before that, we did blockchain-based licenses. For example, all driver license information is accessed through a blockchain."

Over 20,000 people have applied to join the free conference, and there's a big reason that Colorado is the hub, Phillips notes.

"Colorado and Wyoming are the most crypto- and blockchain-progressive places in the world," Phillips says. "The same legal team that helped REI and New Belgium go into employee ownership helped pass forward in 2019 the Digital Token Act in Colorado, which has allowed for an explosion in this technology. Colorado is often referred to as the Delaware for co-operatives, and a lot of crypto organizations are structuring themselves out with a big movement for employee and community ownerships. These crypto companies are coming to Colorado to register for that reason, and also because Governor Polis is such a blockchain and crypto advocate, as he is a tech entrepreneur."

While Gray is eager to show the friends he's met online around the city, Phillips says she wants to "show our creativity off. Rob and I went to an NFT conference in New York and to Art Basel in Miami, and we saw a lot of really cool stuff there, but I just feel like we've been working really hard to experiment with installations in terms of NFTs. So IRL will have quite a few really cool installations, and I'm excited for people to see what we're doing in person."

ETHDenver runs through Sunday, February 20; the conference will be streamed on Twitch and YouTube.  For more information, visit the ETHDenver website.
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Emily Ferguson is Westword's Culture Editor, covering Denver's flourishing arts and music scene. Before landing this position, she worked as an editor at local and national political publications and held some odd jobs suited to her odd personality, including selling grilled cheese sandwiches at music festivals and performing with fire. Emily also writes on the arts for the Wall Street Journal and is an oil painter in her free time.
Contact: Emily Ferguson