New artworks on the block

“Art is humanity’s seminal achievement, our pinnacle form of expression as a species. Art adds beauty and depth to our lives (…) Artists, however, suffer from a universal problem: they capture only a small fraction of the total value they create. This has broad and under appreciated effects on all humankind.” (From R.A.R.E. Digital Art Network White Paper)

In this article we propose a transformation pipeline that inputs a physical artwork and outputs a digital and generative artwork tokenized on the blockchain. We give a working example and eventually clarify the motivation that drives us to pursue this approach.

The pipeline From Artwork to Network, or ART > NET for short, chains the following transformations:

Fine artwork > Digital artwork > Generative artwork > Blockchained artwork

Fine artwork
The starting point of ART > NET is an artwork that lives in the real world, even for a moment. It is endowed with physicality, and this physicality univocally identifies it. Besides the usual suspects, some examples we like include: a girl who improvises a dance on a temporary stage in a park, a macrobiotic recipe realized with mastery during a cooking class, an elegant mathematical formula — maybe the identity of Euler? — written on a wall of a railway station, a poem whispered in sleep by a child who had to learn it by heart.

Digital artwork
The first transformation of ART > NET moves from the physical to the digital world. From matter to bit. The digital artwork is a representation of the physical work that is understandable by a computer (basically, a long string of bits). We could film the girl who dances at the park, photograph the finished dish of the macrobiotic chef or the mathematical formula in the railway underpass, record the sleepwalker voice of the child poet. The digital work loses its physicality and becomes intangible. It does not faithfully correspond to its physical counterpart. This loss of information, however, will be somewhat compensated: what follows is made possible by the use of a computer and of its machine language, made of bits. Many artworks are natively digital, that is they are already born as digital works. In this case this transformation is superfluous.

Generative artwork
The generative artist mixes order and chaos using recipes, called algorithms, created in collaboration with the machine. The ingredients — order and chaos — must be blended with patience and dosed as required: the perfect order is boring and the total chaos is incomprehensible: both are unattractive.

“Delight lies somewhere between boredom and confusion. If monotony makes it difficult to attend, a surfeit of novelty will overload the system and cause us to give up; we are not tempted to analyze the crazy pavement.” (Richard Padovan)

The novice generative artist uses the algorithms invented by others, and perhaps introduces some timid changes. But when the artist becomes an expert, she forges, sometimes improvises, new recipes from scratch. The language the generative artist uses must be capable of wonder, amazement, and surprise: in a word, of poetry. Processing and p5.js are examples of languages capable of poetry.

“A programming language is, after all, just another language. And a language can be spoken in many different ways, with a variety of accents or inflections. (…) But if a language isn’t capable of poetry, it has clearly lost its relevance on the human side of the equation.” (Matt Pearson)

In this phase of ART > NET, the digital artwork is mixed by the generative artist, with the precious contribution of the machine. The contours of the digital work, still clear and close to its physical counterpart, are blurred. A sprinkle of randomness is added. The result is reminiscent of magic.

Blockchained artwork
In this last step of ART > NET the digital generative artwork is deposited on the blockchain. Here’s how SuperRare describes this step:

“When you add a digital asset (like an image or gif), a token is generated by SuperRare smart contracts and deposited in your Ethereum wallet. The token is permanently linked to the artwork, and is a unique, one-of-a-kind crypto-asset that represents ownership and authenticity of the underlying artwork. The artwork then starts its new life on the blockchain, where a fan or collector can purchase it, and where it can be subsequently traded or held by collectors like any other rare artifact.”

The work returns to be unique (or at least rare), as was its physical ancestor. We like to imagine that there exists a red thread binding the two works, the original physical work and its digital counterpart living on the blockchain; this thread never breaks, even if the real work fades: the macrobiotic dish is eaten, the improvised dancer finishes her dance, the walls of the station are painted, the child poet wakes up. It resembles the thread that binds child and mother, capable of surviving death.

Stringed: a series of artworks on the block
Stringed is a series of artworks that have gone through the described pipeline. The physical artworks were created and digitized by Hackatao, made generative by HEX0x6C and finally uploaded on the Ethereum blockchain using SuperRare marketplace.

The generative component was obtained through a sketch written in Processing, a flexible software sketchbook and a language for learning how to code within the context of the visual arts. The sketch depicts an image through a string of characters. The characters form a text that speaks of the image itself. The result can be read simultaneously through two channels — the visual channel (the image) and the symbolic channel (the text that forms the image) — a blend of meanings that brings out a result bigger to the sum of the parts.

“All art is at once surface and symbol.” Oscar Wilde

Organic randomness is then exploited to produce a visual effect in which the text forming the image sways. The movement of the characters is obtained using the technique known as Perlin noise developed by Ken Perlin working for the movie Tron (1982).

The first artwork in this series is dedicated to the father of Pop Art, Andy Warhol. His work Fourteen Small Electric Chairs, Reversal Series was recently chosen by Maecenas for the first auction that will fragment its value and distribute it through the blockchain.

Fourteen Small Electric Chairs is part of Andy Warhol’s 1980 Reversals series — a postmodern reworking of his iconic 1960s Death and Disaster Series (Maecenas)

“I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death” Andy Warhol

“Anyone can own a Warhol” Maecenas

We started from an original painting of Andy Warhol made by Hackatao in 2016 using graphite, acrylic, enamel and ink on canvas.

Andy Warhol | Graphite, Acrylic, Enamel and Ink on Canvas | cm 30x20x6 | 2016 | Made by Hackatao

We applied the Processing sketch programmed by HEX0x6C to the digital version of the painting borrowing the colors of Warhol’s Fourteen Small Electric Chairs artwork and the text used by Maecenas to promote the auction: “Live from 25th July 2018 onwards First Blockchain Auction on the Maecenas platform 14 Small Electric Chairs by Andy Warhol.” Finally we made a GIF from the sketch and we submitted it to SuperRare smart contract platform.

The Parable of the Talents
Ultimately, the meaning of all this endeavor for us is ancient and closely concerns Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Gospel according to Matthew 25: 14–30):

Everyone should live on their own talents. All artists should live on their own art.

data scientist generative artist blockchain enthusiast crypto art evangelist —