Why digital art deserves more attention

It’s not just hype, as the art press would have you believe

Two Finiliar, Ed Fornieles, living NFT, 2016-present, ERC-721 token standard

Digital art still gets depressingly polarised press. It’s “hype”, it’s “speculation”, it’s “the ultimate expression of bad taste”, according to the traditional art press. The Times’ Waldemar Januszczak has gone further, describing NFTs as something “invented by Satan to lure fools into the artwork world and persuade them to spend their cash on nothing.” Art critic Ben Davis takes a more nuanced approach, although he spoke for many doubters when he posited that “the most engaged NFT audience is looking for a story, a hype cycle whose fluctuations they can bet on.”

For enthusiastic users of Web3, by contrast, there’s a dearth of critical engagement by participants, notwithstanding the advent of brilliant platforms like Right Click Save. This is an online magazine that asks questions like: “Is the blockchain a medium?” Conversations on Twitter and Discord aim to express solidarity and enforce a sense of community, rather than provide a critique. As each crypto winter sends digital art values plummeting, tweets will often read: “Market is down – but what’s keeping you up?” and share the latest addition to their collection.

If that paragraph reads like a foreign language to you, there is a middle ground: digital art that is more than just hot air – digital works that throw the world back at us in ways that can make contemporary painting look purely decorative, like an inoffensive rehash of history.

What these digital works have in common is being part of a genre or typography that are “generative” or “adaptive”. In the case of adaptive works, this label means they change in a “live” response to external data sources. Their appearance shifts to reflect a change in whatever the artist has connected them to, which could be the weather, or financial markets. Generative works, by contrast, incorporate chance using a predetermined computer program that will create similar-looking works with unexpected and uncontrollable differences. They are a creative synthesis of man and machine.

One work from 3FACE, Ian Cheng, 2022, adaptive NFT

Finiliar, created by Ed Fornieles in 2016, are an example of adaptive works. In the project’s own words, egg-shaped finiliar “are living digital artworks that use oracles to respond to fluctuations in the value of cryptocurrencies. They become happy and buoyant when the currency they are linked to does well, and sad or even sick when it performs poorly.” They function as what Fornieles calls “responsive NFTs”, changing state based on data drawn from an on-chain oracle. There are thousands of these eggs, with more constantly being added.

The work reflects the emotional bonds that traders form with commodities, and their strength comes from the meta melding of human psychology with machines in an irreverent and simple format. To many, they are cute as hell: anyone prone to this aesthetic cannot help but feel instantly attached to these contemporary Tamagotchi-esque creatures, which, according to commentators, can provoke an almost violent desire to possess, even to consume them, like falling in love with a puppy.

Finiliar have managed to turn crypto into a desirable consumer product. Finiliar’s rendering of invisible, world-shaping forces in a bodily format predates crypto mania – Fornieles has been working on these since at least 2017, with early examples tied instead to GBP. But in representing crypto markets a fitting synergy has emerged: within the last two years we have witnessed the rise of retail investing, through the advent of platforms such as Robin Hood, as well as the rise of meme stocks (shares of companies that gained a cult-like following on social media, often influencing share prices). Investing went from a generally sober, professional affair to a crazed sphere occupied by self-identifying “degens” (degenerates) coordinating their squeezes on the Reddit forum WallStreetBets (WSB). This was not without its casualties, an extreme example being the suicide of twenty-year-old “day trader” Alex Kearns in 2020, perceived as proof of the dire warnings about people betting their life savings on risky trades. These issues also plagued the spectacular capitulation of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, in which the BBC reported that various young people (mostly men) had potentially lost large chunks of their life savings.

Finiliar, and similar new forms of visual culture, reflect a wider shift towards mass emotional participation in online communities. For the thousands of people who live with a finiliar and its moods, the big question is: what does it mean when it’s happy or sad? How does it affect me and others? The series is instantly accessible, witty, artistic, and technologically impressive. They use their medium thoughtfully: these aren’t bits of digital art (jpegs) shoehorned onto a blockchain, but emblematic of the culture they aim to comment on. Could non-adaptive art not minted as NFTs achieve this connection? Probably not.

Ian Cheng’s 3FACE series provides a similar proposition. These are digital works that can be used as a personality test: thought-provoking, adaptive portraits of their owners that tell collectors something about themselves. Again, these works are successful because they put faces on otherwise invisible processes. In the project’s own words: “Every 3FACE is born as a unique energy daemon. Once held, 3face reads your wallet’s public transaction history and infers your personality traits. Then 3face begins to adapt itself to you…”

What does this mean in practice? When a collector buys one (and it is minted) they are offered several “daemons” to choose from, a series of animated personality traits that will partially determine the appearance of the work. The daemon then scans the contents of the collector’s crypto-wallet to determine their personality, using data about their investing habits in digital art. The resulting token visualises those traits. If the work is sold, the program will rerun to adapt to its new owner. Cheng’s daemons are likely a reference to Phillip Pullman’s “dæmons” in His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman’s dæmons are the external physical manifestation of a person’s inner spirit self, taking the form of an animal.

For me, 3FACE illustrates how we are collectively turning our lives into user-generated online content. While post-war consumerism reached its zenith in the ’80s, when individuals began to express themselves through the aesthetic of selected brands, the current “attention economy” makes the individual the ultimate marker of identity and expression. People have become their own consumable brand, by creating their own content on social media. Self-expression takes the form of user-generated content. The construction of identity has less to do with consumption than with an online, public performance of the self through Tiktok, Instagram and Twitter – or through BeReal, Whatsapp groups and Snapchat (the so-called “dark socials”) designed for a private performance among a select inner circle. 3FACE plays that out through a digital rendering of identity – an oven-ready piece of content to be shared and consumed.

One work from Hypertype series, Mark Webster, 2022

Both 3FACE and Finiliar are works deeply embedded in the cryptosphere: something huge numbers of people find alienating and irrelevant. But there are great digital works that aren’t concerned with crypto in the slightest. Mark Webster’s recent Hypertype is one such series. Visually, I found these works hugely compelling. They employ a simple colour palette and are made up of layers and patterns of crisp typography and geometric shapes, which simultaneously suggest digital abstraction and the possibility of language. These works are highly conceptual in that they evolved from Webster’s enquiry into text sentiment analysis: programs which attempt to interpret emotion in natural language texts.

Webster chose several articles about emotion, facial recognition and affective computing and analysed them using IBM’s NLP Sentiment API. This data was then used to create the unique generative pieces. The words confound any kind of literal reading of the texts or shapes, and this is their aim. Talking to Webster about the project, he tells me he was keen to avoid a “data visualisation”, because this data is meaningless. Webster’s conclusion on these sentiment analysis programs is that they cannot accurately predict emotion, and the ways they are used is harmful.

The works recall Trevor Paglen’s Airlines and Sentiments and The Disasters, which feature lines of texts culled from datasets. Unlike Paglen’s legible and physical works, however, Webster’s are ever-changing due to their generative nature. With each mint a new work comes into being, as the script runs again. This element of chance better exposes the arbitrary nature of the model it aims to depict.

Returning to the comments from Januszczak and Davis, I believe they demonstrate a certain laziness and lack of understanding about digital works, because they pit “NFTs” against “art”, speak of NFTs as a medium and often refer to digital artists as “NFT artists”. This is misleading because NFTs are no more than an authenticating token: a digital receipt. This contributes to a problematic discourse, making fine art antagonistic to this new, expansive form of visual culture, instead of embracing it.

In fact, it was through the “traditional” art market that I discovered all these works: I heard Ed Fornieles talk a few years ago at Carlos Ishikawa gallery, and came across Ian Cheng through Pilar Corrias gallery. Mark Webster exhibited his project with Verse, a platform that occasionally hosts exhibitions and physically exhibits works by printing them out. It all goes to show there is no need to play digital and “physical” art against each other: it is all part of the same ecosystem.

As I hope I’ve demonstrated, the technology is not the point, but the enabler, through which digital art becomes part of art culture. And this doesn’t just mean their authentication on the blockchain, but the community within which they exist. Speaking recently about Finiliar, Fornieles commented: “crypto at its best is an imaginarium: it’s not necessarily [only to do with] the underlying tech, as this could be enacted in other ways. It’s a heady mixture of community and imagination and it’s the community that facilitates this imaginarium to become a reality.”

Some critics suggest there is an emperor’s-new-clothes aspect to digital art, because of the wild speculation it attracts. But this betrays double standards in relation to traditional art. At the November auctions in New York, countless records were set, some by frankly derivative paintings, selling for millions of dollars, by artists who are far from household names. Take Nicolas Party, whose bland Landscape sold for over two million dollars at “The Now” evening auction at Sotheby’s. As a brilliant article from NYT Jason Farago last year made clear, the art market is controlled by speculators and value is accrued through speculation rather than through the museum shows, catalogues and critical support of before.

No one is necessarily to blame, and the growth of aforementioned platforms like Right Click Save will undoubtedly close the gap in understanding the importance of NFTs to art. What also helps is uncovering art historical precedents for many of today’s digital artists: the connections between photography, performance art, Dada, Fluxus and digital art will slowly help to place these works as just another development in the timeline of art history.

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

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Art, Arts & Culture, December 2022

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