Polaroids and NFTs seem unlikely companions. For Rhiannon Adam, they’re anything but

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Adam speaks about experimenting with NFT technology to capture the magic of Polaroids developing but in the digital realm

From the age of seven to 15, Rhiannon Adam lived on a 42-foot sailing boat with her family. Setting off from the Irish city of Cork, where she was born, they travelled onwards and ended up in the Caribbean. It was an extraordinary way to grow up. But given that her early life predated the widespread availability of digital cameras, and she encountered few options to buy or develop film, Adam has no photographic evidence of her time at sea.

To fill in the gaps, Adam archived ephemera; mementoes of life that she kept in labelled canisters. “None of it meant anything to anyone else,” she says, “but they were little keys to remember a time, place or thing.” When Adam eventually enrolled in school in the UK, she struggled to convince her peers of her life before land. “Because I didn’t have a photograph of it, it’s like it didn’t happen,” she recalls. “I became interested in photography for that reason. I got into Polaroid because instead of collecting stuff, I could take pictures.”

In the decades since, Adam – now an art and social documentary photographer – has remained loyal to the Polaroid, fascinated by its technology and ability to instantly capture moments that would otherwise be lost to time. “Some people think of me as a complete Luddite because I use analogue,” she continues. “But all of these analogue processes were the groundbreaking technology of their day, and the process still entrances me.”

Arlington House, Margate. NFT. Polaroid SX-70 © Rhiannon Adam.
Tombstoning. Margate. NFT. Polaroid SX-70 © Rhiannon Adam.

NFTs exploded into the public consciousness in February 2021 when auction house Christie’s announced the first-ever sale of the digital tokens, including Everydays – The First 5000 Days: a compendium of art created daily for 13 years by the digital artist known as Beeple. It exists wholly digitally, and in mid-March the NFT sold for an eye-watering $69.3million, instantly pushing Beeple into the top three most valuable living artists.

An NFT itself is a unique and immutable digital asset stored on the blockchain. It can be a Polaroid, an artwork, a tweet, a song. Anyone with an internet connection can see an NFT, but only one person can own each edition. Many are one-offs. “The NFT, or crypto in general, is like inventing photography for the first time as a cyanotype,” Adam says. “It feels that revolutionary. It’s the kind of magic I’ve never been able to experience because everything was invented before I came along.”

Traditionally, artist fees are shared with galleries and other go-betweens, and when an artwork hits the secondary market, artists rarely see royalties at all. NFTs contain ‘smart contracts’ that detail a NFT’s history, such as who made it and who’s bought it since. They can also automatically reward royalties to the NFT’s creator each time it is resold. This potential to passively profit over an artwork’s lifespan through these smart contracts is not lost on Adam. “There’s something so liberating about that,” she says.

Bangkok. 2012 (remixed 2021) - Developing Polaroid © Rhiannon Adam.

Adam’s first NFTs are a selection of her beloved Polaroids. Her most recent release, auctioned on NFT marketplace Foundation, was a hypnotic looping video titled Bangkok, 2012 (Remixed 2021) – Developing Polaroid [stills from which are above]. The NFT is an iteration of a Polaroid capturing the Bangkok skyline taken almost a decade ago, scanned, and re-exposed onto Polaroid film earlier this year. Unlike the original Polaroid that Bangkok, 2012 (Remixed 2021)Developing Polaroid evolved from, anyone can experience the magic of the Polaroid’s process infinitely. Adam’s NFT captures the Polaroid developing into its final form before it resets and begins again. “It’s as close to owning the Polaroid as you can get, without me actually getting rid of the Polaroid,” she says. 

For every NFT enthusiast, there is a critic. Some include Adam’s Instagram followers who, upon her announcement, commented on the alleged ecological impact of NFTs. Indeed, in December last year, artist Memo Akten published The Unreasonable Ecological Cost of #CryptoArt on Medium, a two-part post likening the energy-spend of one NFT to “flying for 1500 hours”. But technology moves fast, and none quicker than blockchain, and a switch to ‘clean’ or ‘green’ blockchains, such as those operating on Proof of Stake – more sustainable than the current Proof of Work, or PoW, system – is already sweeping the industry. “When you start looking at anything [there’s an ecological impact],” says Adam, referencing the energy-spend of many industries. “[Those critics] are probably writing from a cobalt-ridden smartphone. I had this dude hating on me on Instagram who said, ‘I need my phone for work’, but it’s like, ‘Well, maybe I need NFTs for work’. Half of my work I make is about subjects like climate change, so there’s an irony in it.”

Adam does hear these concerns but believes that the way to evolve technology is by learning about its capabilities and then improving them. “It’s much easier to change systems by actually using them and understanding how to do it differently than it is to ignore them completely,” she says. “Not being involved in the blockchain is like saying, ‘I don’t believe in the internet. I think I’d rather stick to my printed encyclopaedia in my library’. People who say it’s a fad aren’t thinking of the bigger picture.”

Gasometer, Hackney. NFT. Polaroid SX-70 © Rhiannon Adam.
Monsoon. Bangkok. NFT. Polaroid SX-70 © Rhiannon Adam.

This bigger picture, Adam believes, will transform how we think about preserving and archiving artwork. “I’m interested in how technology can change how you think about your work by being able to make stuff specifically as NFTs that don’t exist in the real world. Or that can’t exist in the real world, but are very much part of your practice,” she says. Adam intends to continue promoting NFTs in her practice, and will soon undertake a remote NFT residency with the art/crypto collective Department of Decentralization. “The developing Polaroid is the direction I’m going in,” she says, “of being able to make stuff that’s impossible to keep hold of in 3D space. I love the idea of analogue and digital merging. Being able to use digital to preserve analogue, rather than competing and destroying it.”

Ultimately, Adam sees NFTs becoming as embedded in our everyday lives as social media is. “People loved Tumblr, people love Instagram, people love curating things on Pinterest to show what their taste is. People are obsessed with saying, ‘This is what good taste looks like. I have good taste; you should follow me’. So why is it such a stretch for people to understand that an NFT is a way of saying the same thing?”

rhiannonadam.com

Ashleigh Kane

Ashleigh Kane is a writer, curator, and creative consultant based in Melbourne and London. She was previously the Arts & Culture Editor at Dazed and recently launched her newsletter eye spied. She has written for Dazed, I-D, Another, The Face, Elephant, Highsnobiety, Crack, Brick, Riposte, Foam, Glorious Sport, Truth, Ambush Universe and others.