Principles of Art, Math and NFTs

Here is a collection of thoughts around how artist are using public ledgers and how it is an extension of the way artists have always worked.

1. Artists think of NFTs as a medium.

We tend to view cryptocurrencies through an economic or scarcity lens, but in fact it may be more useful to view them as a new art form.

We can absolutely be critical of individual NFT projects for being superficial, or wasting co2, or doing something that seems fairly obvious — but in fact new art projects are often an iteration, exploring new ideas, new rules and a new space. Critiquing them on their faults alone is like making fun of Picasso’s first childhood crayon drawing.

NFT projects, implemented by smart contracts, are better seen as an ongoing exploratory partnership between artists and programmers; where programmers are the paintbrush.

We are all artists in many ways. We all have opinions on culture design, the shape of our societies. Art isn’t just poking fun at the status quo or purely for visual appeal, or innocuous and irreverent. It’s often an exploration of our favorite topic: ourselves, with “us” as a material.

As Ronen points out — our whole western capitalist economic system is itself just one exploration of the possible space of ways that a community can define itself and formalize energetic exchanges.

What we need to appreciate is that what we’re doing is a highly sped up version of what others have been doing for thousands of years: exploring the possibilities of a consensual space of agreements.

The exchange of highly subjective and often even intangible concepts such as obligations, trust and value is worth exploring. This includes the way we signal each other, how we remember our relationships to each other, how we scale our societies. As cryptocurrency hackers we may now have well formalized contracts such as ERC1155, but this is just the beginning. Artists want to try variations on contracts, variations on ideas. A business predicated around one smart contract will ultimately fail in the way that an artist who creates one piece will fail.

2. Artists love to recycle, abuse and play with the materiality of our world.

Cory Arcangel builds art by appropriating, recycling and re-using media from the world around him, including video games and even source code. Effectively he is drawn to, and reflects on, topics that many of us might otherwise overlook. His work becomes a fun interrogation of what we take for granted, and is classically typical of the artistic gaze — stepping outside of our pre-conceptions and creating a satori moment for us.

Below I included one example of his work, a hacked version of Super Mario Brothers with everything except for the clouds removed. For me I see this as a liminal exploration of a very different embodiment or experience of a video game; this backdrop element often ignored, and strangely soothing when disconnected from the typical emotional rush of a video game. Arcangel is turning this video game itself into an unintended instrument with lovely consequences:

Cory Archangel “Clouds”

Steve Reich took found sound and explored repetition and attempted to escape the traditional “arc” of a musical piece — to make the process of creation itself visible. He had huge influences on Brian Eno, and in fact many modern noise musicians. This was all done very early; as soon as we had the ability to play with, loop and control sound.

An outcome of these tools is a whole genre of underground music that is palette cleansing; it resets a much wider possibility of music. The work of the Leisure Audio label is a good example.

Andy Goldworthy does the same thing with the natural world; creating an intersectional space between human and nature.

Inigo Quilez creates art with math and GPU shaders — in a way that is often surprising:

Of course Mandelbrot is well known for finding a beautiful complexity in fractals; one that perhaps resonates subliminally — speaking to a world where there are no straight lines, and where our minds were often engaged in sense-making in extremely complex and inter-woven landscapes.

3. Artists love creative programming frameworks that allow parametric and procedural exploration.

I won’t bother going through all the huge number of creative tools that we have today, suffice it to say that we’re in a golden age of artistic and creative possibilities. We’re all familiar with say Ableton, or Pure Data, or Blender3D or Figma or say Bevy3d or ThreeJS. It’s enviable how quickly an idea can be explored today as compared to say even a decade ago.

In a sense however we’ve left an age where the image or art itself is a “tell” on the virtuosity — even novices can execute work that appears beautiful by conventional definitions. It’s important to keep an eye on what is being said, if it is new, or has a deep meaning therefore.

Many of the large space exhibits we see; such as or say (at random) Beyond Van Gogh are able to fully saturate and overwhelm our senses. It’s possible to be “loud”. This leaves room to explore what is being said as a separate topic.

By a similar measure the “loudest” public ledgers or digital contract spaces are not necessarily the best or most meaningful. And there’s an absolute explosion of DEFI, DAO contracts and ledgers they rest upon; Ethereum, Cosmos, Polygon, Solana, Cardano, XDAI, the list just goes on and on — I can’t even begin to enumerate all the choices.

The question for an artist should be how flexible is the vocabulary? How fast is it? How distributed? How respectful of its participants? How empowering for stakeholders? How diverse the stakeholders? Who is in the conversation?

4. Art is a group practice.

Artists may work alone but art in community is like a coral reef searching for the light. An effort by many over time; highly subjective and highly specific to the urgent hungers and needs of those artists.

A ledger (such as Ethereum) holding many smart contracts, is an exploration of many ideas simultaneously. It is an evolving conversation, with a growing vocabulary. The way that Ethereum (in this case) itself has a currency or a ‘value’ is a side-effect of the way that a community perceives the entire topic as a worthwhile exploration. Value is a speculation on future implications, and a present day value (as compared to say fiat) reflects a creative utility to members of the group an an artistic or expressive tool.

If I have a recommendation therefore, it is build your community first — then write code or make art. Communities already exist, our role is often to formalize or energize them at best. Artists often are speaking to their friends and art is often valued by and is a reflection of the values of a given community. Art is the language between the participants.

5. Limited Edition Digital Objects are just one possibility.

What makes NFT’s so much fun is that we can play with the conceit that there is scarcity in digital worlds; even though we designed digital worlds to not have scarcity.

A well executed example is the Bored Ape Yacht Club. It riffs on a motif made popular on reddit and other forums. It introduces a consensual scarcity where people are reluctant to steal each others NFTs, and it wires together a community. This New Yorker article does the best job of explaining some of the subtleties here: .

Yes it is trivial to copy a digital image, so in some senses it feels like nonsense to even have the idea of a limited edition digital object. When you take that idea from the digital world, and bring it to our world, it makes no sense. But in the digital world it is possible to create participatory spaces where copying is not possible or more subtly, is perceived as gauche or rude; and it is in those spaces NFT’s thrive.

Other examples of course include cryptokitties and cryptopunks; but newer and different ideas are emerging. Everything is evolving.

Consider Ethereum Name Service which is a vanity plate in the domain name space.

Or consider Proof of a Place — which is a truly lovely way to collect small rewards that show participation in irreproducible events or moments in time.

Next year there will be new kinds of contracts, pay it forward contracts, or social justice contracts, or trust filter contracts. The medium itself is the art. Minting a copy of a jpg doesn’t have a lot of meaning; but making a machine that can produce generative art, in a new way, is an exploration.

There are extremely energetic communities playing with all of these possibilities; in such rich variation I can’t possibly capture it all here. I simply want to illuminate that there is a constant froth of new ideas emerging.

The current gitcoin developer leaderboard

6. Artists gravitate to solvents.

Darwin’s idea of evolution, informed hugely by Humboldt, was critiqued for many years. But the utility of the idea of evolution as a fitness function eventually dissolved other ideas into itself. It grew beyond the original utility, to speak to (rightly or wrongly) many other topics. The Santa Fe Artificial Life research effectively relies on Darwinian thinking as an axiom.

Artists often gravitate to perplexing inconsistencies; bridging over domains that are previously disjoint.

But programming in Solidity or Rust is non-trivial; and it is hard to write contracts that don’t have bugs. It takes many minds to audit a contract. This makes the medium challenging.

7. Artists have been inserting themselves into the ‘flow’ of other processes for a long time.

As Kevin Slavin points out there was an entire “Systems Art” movement in the 1960’s that mirrored a similar movement in Computer Science.

Some of us may be familiar with the ideas of cybernetics, and systems theory — that arguably emerged out of a frustration with traditional reductionist analysis that was simply failing to help us model the kinds of phenomena we saw in the world around us. Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics as “the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine” — for example the way that an ant hill exhibits an emergent behavior that is surprisingly different from the individual parts.

Wikipedia has this to say:

Systems art emerged as part of the first wave of the conceptual art movement extended in the 1960s and 1970s. Closely related and overlapping terms are anti-form movement, cybernetic art, generative systems, process art, systems aesthetic, systemic art, systemic painting, and systems sculptures.

Also see:

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs (1965)

Kenneth Noland, Trans West, 1965.

And Jack Burnam’s Beyond Modern Sculpture .

It’s worth noting that as an artist if you can kind of stick your hand into an energetic field or fountain and play with the flow itself, that some of your work is reduced. In the same way that a musician positions themselves at the control point of a wind instrument or a string instrument; where their slight inflection has huge variation in the output, there is leverage in being at just the right point in a process.

Hubert Duprat :

This perhaps stretches the definition of “art” a bit more but it also feels like artful to me — in the sense of an accumulated pattern library of ways to best impact natural systems:

8. How can we help artists succeed?

The question ultimately becomes how do we facilitate artists? What can we do to help creative minds explore?

I believe that what we need to do (as a technical community) is:

  1. Go easy on artists; let them play; especially in the flow of other systems.
  2. More technically, write and share lots of good examples of “contracts” or software code and scripts in a granular fashion that allow easy reuse (The Ethereum Open Zepplin contracts are excellent in this regard).
  3. Truly listen to artists; don’t downplay what they need, want or hunger for.
  4. Foster art communities; in our own work, and in work we do with other artists, go out of our way to bring people together and share ideas.
  5. Respect that what we do today is probably not good enough for tomorrow. There will be a constant need to improve and add fresh thinking.



SFO Hacker Dad Artist Canuck @mozilla formerly at @parcinc @meedan @makerlab

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ʞooH ɯlǝsu∀

SFO Hacker Dad Artist Canuck @mozilla formerly at @parcinc @meedan @makerlab