Davis launched Praystation.com in 1995 to showcase his work, as part of a new surge of creativity fueled by home computers and the Internet at the time. His works, which were originally created mostly with the Flash animation program, are made up of code that generates dozens, if not hundreds, of related images by repeating a sequence of rendering commands with randomly changing variables for color and line length.
The pictures are abstract, loud, and unsettling at times. Davis’ work established him as a respected digital artist decades before the first Ape got Bored, a, and as one of the modern scions of “generative art,” an artistic tradition with roots dating back at least to the 1940s. In its most recent incarnation, generative art combines computer science, biology, and physics to produce visuals, sound, and video using randomized materials and settings. The outcomes are frequently fascinating, but also frequently bizarre.
Davis and his colleagues, on the other hand, had to deal with a very real challenge for decades: money. Because their work was nothing more than bits, they couldn’t sell an individual, one-of-a-kind object like a painting. Davis and other artists have sold prints and publications, but they haven’t reaped the same rewards from collectors as other top fine painters. That is, until NFTs arrived on the scene.
Davis said of NFT technology and its great benefits for generative art, “I never dreamed this would happen in my lifetime.” “I had hoped that the following generation would find a way to value digital art.” I never imagined that digital art would be accepted as a form of art with provenance, collectability, and scarcity.”
While the media has concentrated on the speculative, frivolous, and occasionally ridiculous applications of NFTs, the technology has completely changed Davis’ otherwise respectable part of the art world. For the first time, they’re allowing a whole artistic legacy that had previously been fleeting and conceptual to enter the fine art market on firm ground.
What is the definition of generative art?
If you’re a lover of NFTs, you’ve probably heard the term “generate art” used to describe “profile image” NFTs like that Bored Apes, whose characteristics are chosen at random using a “rarity” algorithm. Pudgy Penguins and Wonky Whales are, believe it or not, descendants of ground-breaking work by some of the twentieth century’s most prominent artists.
One name came up repeatedly as a reference in my interactions with contemporary generative artists: Sol LeWitt. LeWitt began generating massive, geometrical wall drawings in the late 1960s, not by drawing them personally but by giving comprehensive instructions that anybody might follow. Galleries continue to show the works as interactive partnerships in which visitors participate in the drawing process.
As an artist, Joshua Davis believes his “aha” moment was realizing the same logic could be used more broadly. “There are judgments made when an artist stands in front of a blank canvas – the colors I use, the brush I use, the canvas I use, the kind of strokes I’m going to make… I could study [Jackson] Pollock or [Jean-Michel] Basquiat to see the types of strokes and gestures they used. I could program those activities.”
Other mid-century artists drew inspiration from then-emerging computer technology to help create the groundwork for generative art. Victor Vasarely, a Hungarian-French designer, created stiff grids and 3D illusions that were half a century ahead of computer graphics. Karel Martens, a Dutch designer, created dozens of iterative combinations of overlapping designs. Grace Hertlien was one of the first painters to use a computer to create work, and she claims that other artists dubbed her a “whore” and a “traitor” for doing so.
Along with these visual pioneers, other notable creatives were investigating themes of method and randomness. Beginning in the mid-1940s, composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham began employing “chance operations” to determine the length of a note, such as flipping a coin. Brion Gysin, a painter, and William Burroughs, a novelist, devised the “cut up” method of generative writing in the 1950s, which created new material by cutting up old text and randomly rearranging it. (As the heir of an adding machine empire, Burroughs was thus weirdly linked to early computing.)
These paths illustrate the two major themes of generative art: chance and systems design. As with his notorious “4:33′′ – a composition made up of the random noises in a concert hall for four minutes and 33 seconds – John Cage frequently eliminated his own aim from his work as a challenge to the romantic notion of artistic genius. Rather of aiming for the precision and control of Beethoven or Rubens, generative artists express themselves by manipulating the parameters of randomized systems.
“I believe thinking about systems is incredibly lovely,” says Zach Lieberman, a generative artist who teaches at the MIT Media Lab, co-founded the School for Poetic Computation, and collaborated with novelist Margaret Atwood. “We can ask incredibly intricate graphical queries and see where this parameter space takes us by modifying those parameters… The difference between 0.1 and 0.01, for example, can be rather significant. That, I believe, contains something truly unique.”
The rise of the digital
When personal computers put programming and graphics tools in the hands of the masses, these early analog works were ripe for growth. According to Davis, some of the most significant generative art of the 1980s and 1990s originated from hackers selling stolen software rather than galleries.
“You’d get cracked software with a [graphical] demo reel from the cracking team, and the goal was to do the most graphically robust scene in the shortest number of bytes,” Davis explains. Because this was the dial-up internet era, the goal was to create rich graphics from tiny blocks of hyper-efficient code running on the downloader’s system, ranging from flyovers of lush landscapes to intricate abstract shapes.
“They’d be about 4 kilobytes,” Davis estimates. “It’s mind-blowing.” With the emergence of NFTs, that focus on efficient coding has taken on new significance, as we’ll see.
Despite the fact that the internet and home computing opened up new creative possibilities for generative art, artists still faced a huge challenge. “We’ve been struggling for years with how to sell this work,” Zach Lieberman explains. “How do you market a film or an image?” says the narrator. It’s difficult to say how this replicable object belongs into the gallery context.”
That problem appears to have been overcome by NFTs. Art Blocks, a specific NFT platform for creatives, allows them to upload algorithms that customers can “mint” variations of. Art Blocks has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, a huge boon to long-suffering digital artists. Bright Moments, a roving NFT gallery founded by Fred Wilson’s Union Square Ventures, mints pieces during live events, allowing customers to see variations of art like Tyler Hobbs’ “Incomplete Control” in real time.
Of course, there are skeptics and drawbacks to the technology. Concerns about proof-of-work mining have influenced the public image of NFTs, according to Lieberman, and they’ve become an issue in the art world.
He continues, “Some people say they’ll just perform proof-of-stake.” “And then there are some who despise it, even individuals I care about.”
A related disadvantage is an expense. Currently, minting an NFT on the Ethereum blockchain can cost hundreds of dollars, which may be prohibitively expensive for younger artists. Many in the generative art community, according to Lieberman, have turned to the Tezos blockchain for lower-cost experimentation.
Beyond jpegs, NFTs
NFTs have already shown to be a game-changer for algorithmic artists, but their full potential has yet to be realized.
“Artists that are playing with the underlying form of what an NFT is really fascinate me,” says Lieberman. “Hacking at the code layers.”
The rising emphasis on storing everything on-chain is the starting point for this. Many of the NFTs launched during the peak of avatar fever were rightfully mocked as nothing more than links to images stored on web pages that could go down at any time. That’s a far cry from CryptoPunks, the format’s forerunners, which are entirely on-chain.
“I felt CryptoPunks were a wonderful example of generative art,” Art Blocks founder Erick Calderon, who is himself a generative artist, told ArtNews recently. “Someone devised an algorithm that could generate 10,000 distinct characters with a tale from a 24-by-24-pixel photograph.”
Artists like Deafbeef are pushing the frontiers of what’s feasible for totally on-chain generative work, working under constraints reminiscent of the early 1990s demo scene. “On Art Blocks, the ideal decrease is between 5 and 20 kilobytes,” adds Joshua Davis. “So you have to write the most beautiful piece of code that has the most color diversity, variation, and is it interactive… It’s incredible to be able to put code on-chain that keeps creating those moments when you go back.”
Other NFT art possibilities are a lot wilder, and they provide artists alternatives they’ve never had before. For example, if pieces are bought and traded on-chain or through bitcoin interactions, their look can change. Rhea Myers, for example, uses Ethereum to produce graphical works that consumers can edit by burning ERC-20 tokens.
Another uncharted territory is how to display generative art NFTs outside of your laptop screen. Interactivity, according to Davis, is the killer app here, with visitors creating art based on their own inputs via motion-tracking devices. “I’m going to keep track of your movements, and it will form part of the on-chain generative art.” Your movements are turned into some form of artistic input, and you get a film of your 45 seconds at the end. I believe we’re only scratching the surface of what can be sold as a collector.”
A rising number of magazines and podcasts dedicated to generative art are discussing these unique technologies. Outland is a publication that publishes thoughtful writings on the interface of computers and cultural theory. Holly Herndon, one of the movement’s pioneers, also co-hosts the Interdependence podcast, which features talks with generative and digital artists.
The existence of those forums for exploratory pontificating also helps to underline the difference between risky fine art like Lieberman’s 2020 “Future Sketches” and the more conventional illustration and design technique used in many mainstream NFTs.
“I frequently compare painting to going through a new place. “It feels like you’re out late at night, it’s a little dark, and you get lost,” Lieberman explains. “The creative process is about navigating the unfamiliar and familiar, or returning to familiar territory with fresh eyes. Design, on the other hand, is always associated with the daytime. You’ve got a map. “You’ve already decided where you’re going.”
Yes, it’s still all about the cash.
For daring generative artists, the financial side of NFTs may be even more significant than for more commercially minded creators, due to their experimental mindset. Davis claims that this year’s monetary influx will allow him to focus on pushing the boundaries of his medium rather than chasing side jobs to pay the bills.
NFTs, on the other hand, don’t merely put digital artists on par with conventional painters and sculptors; they actively improve the situation. If a painter sells a piece for $35,000 in a typical gallery and it resells for $4 million five years later, she doesn’t get any of the resale money. NFTs, on the other hand, can be set up to transmit revenue from secondary sales to the artist indefinitely.