Every day, the Brazilian artist Taís Koshino takes a walk in her virtual garden.

She wanders an infinite white void, passing flowerlike blobs that hover in midair, each as vibrantly expressive as Matisse’s paper cutouts. Koshino’s garden is a 3D simulation called Jardim; since February, she’s logged in daily to tend to the shapes it contains, arranging and rearranging them like stones in a Japanese Zen garden.

This daily practice, however, is more than just a virtual plein air session or a respite from pandemic lockdown. For every new composition she makes, Koshino sells a unique memento as a nonfungible token (NFT) on Hic et Nunc, an emerging Brazilian crypto-art marketplace.

Hic et Nunc (the name is Latin for “here and now”) is the black sheep of the crypto-art world, as it is an open-source, bare-bones platform being built collaboratively by a community of volunteer developers. It has no invite system and no gatekeepers—only a constant flow of images, interactive objects, audio experiments, and PDFs. Beeple’s playground this is not: the median sale price of an NFT on Hic et Nunc is about $16, and each of Koshino’s Jardim pictures sells for the equivalent of $12.

Such small sales might seem insignificant in comparison to the billions of dollars’ worth of ethereum and bitcoin being spent at auction for high-visibility crypto-artists and meme creators elsewhere on the web. But if VC-backed NFT platforms like SuperRare, OpenSea, and Nifty Gateway are the Art Basel of crypto-art, think of Hic et Nunc as the DIY art fair — a scrappy, community-driven marketplace peopled with misfits, experimental creators, and established artists seeking a break from the big leagues. And, for artists in the Global South, who would otherwise be locked out of the booming crypto-art market, its accessibility has been a lifeline.

Although Hic et Nunc only became operational in early March, it’s grown quickly. As of this writing, the site is home to nearly 80,000 artworks by 7,000 artists from across Latin America, Southeast Asia, the U.S., and Europe. Sales are conducted in tez, a cryptocurrency that runs on the energy-efficient Tezos blockchain. While it can cost up to $200 to conduct a single transaction on the Ethereum blockchain powering most major NFT marketplaces, minting an artwork on the Tezos blockchain costs 30 cents. Tezos, too, consumes a fraction of the energy of its rival blockchains — minting a Tezos NFT consumes about as much energy as sending a Tweet — which makes Hic et Nunc an ethical alternative for artists and collectors alarmed by crypto-art’s much-publicized ecological footprint. 

Such crypto-economics can seem somewhat abstract until they’re understood in the context of working artists’ lives. Estelle Flores, a digital artist and printmaker in the Southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, has been living month to month for over a year, paying rent with her credit card and performing other “unimaginable financial balancing acts” as demand for her work as a designer, publisher, and printer dwindled during the pandemic. She sold her first NFT on Hic et Nunc in April — a small digital painting made inside The Sims 4 — for 1 tez, or about $5. “The feeling was surreal,” she says. “I’m still trying to understand it in therapy, because having your NFT collected is a new feeling. It feels like someone is investing in you, that someone trusts and validates your idea.”

For artists operating outside of a traditional gallery context, this validation from collectors is especially meaningful. Marissa Noana, an artist based in the northeastern city of Ceará — a region with few cultural institutions and little state investment in the arts — told Rest of World that she’s always struggled to be recognized by galleries. “It’s very hard to be selected in open calls,” she says, because they seem to only select established artists, “and me, as a black, poor, lesbian woman, all my artwork is about my trajectory and my life experiences, while institutions deny existences that don’t fit on a white, cis, heteronormative” spectrum. Now, since listing her graphic, neon-colored illustrations on Hic et Nunc for a few months, Noana has found eager collectors worldwide — and has earned enough money to buy a new computer.

Jéssica Luz, a graphic novelist from Curitiba, made most of her money pre-Covid-19 as a tattoo artist. After the pandemic forced her to suspend tattooing, she started selling individual pages of a graphic novel, Soft Dread, on Hic et Nunc. “I never thought that working with NFTs would be the source of income or that it would have such a great impact in my community’s life,” she says. “But it is real — I see the relief in my friends’ faces: they are paying debts, upgrading their working setups, and helping family members.”

Hic et Nunc’s bubbling micro-economy might not grab headlines in quite the same way as a celebrity drop on Nifty Gateway, but it represents the global long tail of crypto art. On the larger crypto-art market, the average price of an NFT is about $1,400 (down from a spike to nearly $4,000 in mid-February), and while some of the platform’s more established artists sell artworks in this price range, Hic et Nunc is also set up to allow for the sale of inexpensive editions, allowing small-scale collectors — and fellow artists — to support emerging talent. Brazilian artists like Koshino, Noana, Luz, and Flores are earning a steady income from their work for the first time. They’re benefiting from the fiat-crypto exchange: an American collector might not think twice about dropping around $190 (30 tez) on an NFT. But in Brazil, $190 is equivalent to a month’s minimum-wage salary. “That makes a difference,” Koshino says.

“I see the relief in my friends’ faces: they are paying debts, upgrading their working setups, and helping family members.”

Flores, Koshino, Noana, Luz, and many others in the Brazilian criptoarte scene have ties to independent publishing and zine culture. For them, the notion of building a micro-economy outside of a mainstream gallery or publishing context is not only natural — it’s central to their politics. In March, Koshino and the British artist Amelie Maia — who run a diversity initiative called DiverseNftArt — launched #OBJKT4OBJKT, a weekend-long event encouraging artists to swap artworks with one another for free, to help build up diverse collections of work and cement interdependent social bonds within the community. This art free-for-all has become one of the most popular features of the platform.

Although very little of the work on Hic et Nunc is explicitly political — as on other NFT marketplaces, the feed is dominated by 3D renderings, generative digital work, and colorful animated GIFs — the platform’s collective values are palpable. Hic et Nunc’s founder, Rafael Lima, is a former social scientist from Brasília. After struggling to find funding for his project, Lima said he “broke with the ecosystem” to build the site himself, relying on volunteer developers from within Hic et Nunc’s community to refine the project further. The team regularly implements new features drawn from community suggestions. Lima sees the platform as a “social laboratory” with a horizontal power structure similar to Occupy Wall Street or the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, a Marxist land reform movement. “I find their mode of organization really interesting,” he told Rest of World. “It’s really similar to indigenous modes of organizing.”

Koshino, too, connects the site’s collectivist ethic and small ecological footprint to the lifeways of indigenous Brazilians. “Indigenous people have the right to have their land,” she explains, even if Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is moving to open up indigenous territories in the Amazon rainforest to commercial farming and development. “Bolsonaro has said that these lands, they’re not being used,” Koshino says, air quoting the word, but “indigenous people don’t need to destroy what’s around them.” They don’t plant huge monocultures of cash crops, like soy, that deplete the land. Instead, they produce what they need on a small scale, sustainably. “It’s another logic,” she says.

In the mainstream press, NFTs have developed a reputation — in many cases, deservedly — as the virtual equivalent of a soy farm in the rainforest. Many see the crypto-art market as analogous to the future-destroying inevitability of capitalism run riot. It’s easy to be turned off by the “hypebeast” culture of NFT drops or baffled by the eye-popping sums of money NFT collectors spend to own, seemingly, nothing at all. Treating art as a tool for financial speculation is not a particularly new concept. Is it really so transformative to do it purely online?

In the case of Hic et Nunc, it seems it can be. The site has given Brazilian artists — and similar communities of crypto-artists emerging in Malaysia, Turkey, and, the Philippines — financial security and the opportunity to become stakeholders in a rapidly emerging technology. Hic et Nunc recently overtook OpenSea as the NFT marketplace with the most daily active users, and tez has nearly doubled in value since the site launched. That this has happened in less than two months is testament to how productive artists can be when offered the freedom to experiment and build community on their own terms.

Hic et Nunc’s success is not something that simply appears as a consequence of a new technology, because of the blockchain. If we have learned anything from the old web, it’s that there are no technological solutions to social problems. We will bring who we are with us into this new dimension of cyberspace, and building equitable communities in the crypto space will take imagination and effort. “We are responsible for using technology according to our political visions,” Flores explains. “You don’t stumble into this sort of community feeling; it has to be actively shaped in a micropolitical way.”