NFTs are truly extraordinary things.
When we embarked on this project, we had only a vague idea of what Non Fungible Tokens actually were. We had a rough sense that they conveyed digital ownership of art and that this (waves hands!) opens up a whole realm of possibility.
When faced with something new and confusing, one response is to ask how the thing actually works. What does “fungibility” do? What is a “token” really? And then deeper: why are these blocks chained together? What are these blocks, anyway? What does this do? What does it imply?
We still aren’t experts, but this project has opened our eyes a little. Digital ownership is indeed a useful concept. But it’s the strange and sometimes counterintuitive things you can do with digital ownership that is where the new opportunities lie. Kate and Kostya have a longstanding art + science collaboration – Everything is Connected. We realised that NFTs could allow us to make meaningful artistic statements about connectedness. For us, making ownership digital is a means to an end – once digital, artworks can be connected together in interesting ways. Breeding artworks into a network allows a wholly new medium of artistic expression. Smart contracts can allow us to make new and valuable connections between art and the real world.
Helping take Kate’s work into the digital world has been a fascinating challenge, and an honour. Her works can be deceptively simple, they can look deceptively naïve, but they all have a deep inherent beauty. Watching Kate work is a delight. Seeing her place a blossom onto a picture, seeing her bend a piece of wire into a sculpture – one moment it is raw material, next moment it just looks so right.
When faced with something so mysterious and wonderful, I defaulted to asking how it actually works. This has involved the privilege of watching art being created in the moment and trying to capture just a part of it. Why does Kate choose the materials she does? How does she view her relationship with colour? And with texture? And with shadow? How does she place her objects so simply yet so beautifully? What are these objects? What do they mean?
Kate’s level of openness and trust in all of us throughout this project has been humbling; trying to do justice to her work has been a huge and serious responsibility. And yet this process has been a joy: acting as a translator, trying to form connections between Kate’s extremely lyrical creative outlook and rigidly deterministic computer code. Everything is Connected, yes, but how exactly?
For example, Kate has a deeply felt relationship with colour. Actually, in very precise computer terms what is colour? And once you have got a handle on that, how do you manifest a thoughtful request for a deep blue to be “more forthright” within the fundamental constraints of a computer’s RGB or HSL colour space? How do you represent Kate’s relationships with the objects within her physical works? How can you non-trivially reference crochet doilies and four leaf clovers hand made by Syrian refugees? Should you even try to represent the layers of meaning added by Kate literally writing on her work?
And in some ways, we have failed. Kate’s individual physical works have something about them that escapes definition and hence capture. However, by condensing some part of her works’ essence into our generative structure we have gained access to a whole new artistic vocabulary – the relationships between the generated artworks and the statements about connectedness that this enables. And we have gained access to the new concepts enabled by NFTs. In particular, digital ownership allows ongoing financial relationships between creators, collectors, artistic collaborators and charities. So, the new works are deeper in some ways, shallower in others: different.
Trying to do justice to Kate’s visual themes while working within the parameters of Everything Is Connected has led us into a middle course between two poles in NFT art. It is possible to take a conventional fine art image and “just turn it into an NFT”; it is possible to generate interesting mathematical patterns. What we have ended up doing is stumbling into the wide landscape between the two. We have created a family of artworks that are very obviously Kate’s, but which can be bred with each other digitally to create new, original artworks.
This was done in a fairly deterministic fashion – take a small handful of Kate’s artistic DNA, stir in some Mendelian genetics, some surprisingly regimented pseudorandom numbers, some Python code, a pinch of steganography (with a lot of googling of words we didn’t understand) and some very hard work by a growing and increasingly talented team. It was no accident that one of the very earliest prototypes was called “Perseverance”.
It was in exploring the uses of this DNA and the potential technical benefits of NFTs that we had the eureka moment that is at the core of the project. This relates to Kate’s use of words in her art. In her physical works this stems from an ancient Chinese literati tradition of losing oneself in an object (tree, scholars rock, art work) and then inscribing ones frame of mind on the object itself (carving, writing, painting). The object thus becomes a visual diary, a vessel of communication from one person’s soul to that of another. In our NFT work we approached this from a wholly different direction. We asked ourselves: if a work of art is made up of genes and incorporates the word “love” then what does the love gene actually do?
In the first instance this might be manifest on the face of the artwork. Love might make the flowers bloom, or simply make colours shine brighter. Or it might accentuate what is already there, good or bad. What NFTs add is to allow one work’s DNA to influence the outcome when it connects with another. And it allows this to be done in a way that embeds an artist’s world view into the networks of connections between the artworks while not being manifest in the individual artworks themselves.
Individual connections between pieces will be driven by collectors and we honestly don’t know the eventual direction of the collective artworks. However, Kate has her thumb gently on the scales of creation. In our prototypes, love is the most powerful force in the universe. In our initial connections there is always hope, no matter what. In Kate’s world, and despite the rigid nature of our first framework, chaos seeds creativity (until perhaps it doesn’t!)
So, after all that, how does the detail of this actually work? Ideally, we would like to maintain a little mystery. We want to tread lightly around the very precise trope of “0.01% of artworks contain this feature”.
Is one allowed to quote Star Trek in a fine art project? In the TV show, the Heisenberg Compensator was a critical component of the transporter technology behind “Beam me up, Scotty”. It served to overcome the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – a very real, fundamental and immutable property of subatomic particles that, bluntly, forbids real world teleportation.
So, how did it work? Well, when Time magazine asked the direct question, Star Trek technical adviser Michael Okuda famously responded: “It works very well, thank you”.