Rhea Myers, artist, hacker, writer, and senior smart contract developer at Dapper Labs, has been making crypto art before NFTs were a thing. Check out this episode to learn about Rhea’s work as an OG crypto artist, why she believes concerns over NFT energy consumption are overblown, and how NFTs are changing the art world. Show highlights
- Rhea’s experience entering the crypto space
- what inspired her to make Bitcoin-based transaction art
- what blockchain art she was creating in 2014
- how she helped Coin Artist create crypto puzzles
- what Rhea thinks about Cadence, the programming language for Flow
- what conceptual art and blockchain art have in common
- how Rhea minted her soul on a Dogecoin fork
- how Rhea came up with the idea of Secret Artwork (Content), which was recently sold at a Sotheby’s auction
- what cryptographic elements influenced Secret Artwork (Content)
- why Rhea was wrong about how the NFT industry would evolve
- why Rhea believes concerns over NFT energy usage are overblown
- how NFTs are changing the art world
- what Rhea thinks about the NFT DAO movement
- what about NFTs make them so fascinating, in a legal sense, to Rhea
Read the sidebar — and see Rhea’s artwork!
If you’d like to see the art discussed in the show, be sure to check out the sidebar I wrote on Medium:
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Digital Asset Research: https://www.digitalassetresearch.com/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/rheaplex
- Website: https://rhea.art/
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robertmyers/
- Secret Artwork (Content)
- Is Art
- Proof Of Existence 2, 2014, Bitcoin Transaction
- Art examples
- Artists Rethinking the Blockchain (book)
- Generative art (featuring Rhea Myers)
- Blockade games + crypto puzzles
- Unchained Episode: What Exactly Do You Get When You Buy an NFT? Three Lawyers Discuss
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Unchained, your no hype resource for all things crypto. I’m your host, Laura Shin, a journalist with over two decades of experience. I started covering crypto six years ago and as a senior editor at Forbes, was the first mainstream media reporter to cover cryptocurrency full-time. This is the September 21st, 2021 episode of Unchained.
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Digital Asset Research:
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Today’s guest is Rhea Myers, artist, hacker, writer, and senior smart contract developer at Dapper Labs. Listeners of the episode with pplpleasr will remember that it originally featured two guests. However, one guest’s audio and video files were lost in the ether, and that person was Rhea. I’m so glad to have her back now because Rhea is a true OG crypto artist who was making blockchain based art even before NFTs really existed, which is kind of hard to do as far as I can tell. So anyway, Rhea, why don’t you get started by telling us what it is that used to do before crypto, how you got into it, how you got into crypto art and NFTs, and also a little bit about what you do now?
So I went to art school a very long time ago. I did digital art and I just sort of decided that rather than having a struggling career as an artist with most of my time spent making the money to support my art, I would have a struggling career in software development and take the money from that and use it to make art.
So I sort of worked in industry. I kept making art, not least because making art is how I learned about things. It’s how I understand the world. And I sort of just kept making sort of different kinds of art using computers. There’s a famous essay about techno-utopianism called the Californian Ideology by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron. I joke that I took that that as a manifesto with, it’s not, it’s a critique, but I’ve sort of accidentally ended up tracking each development in technology and what goes with it and making art with it.
So I have sort of generative art bots on Tumblr that are still cranking out several drawings a day. I did some experiments with AI art like everyone else a couple of years ago and decided that it probably wasn’t going to be a major direction for me, which was a shame we slept in looking forward to doing something like that since I was a kid.
And then when I sort of moved to Canada eight years ago, I met a nice Canadian. Then she married me and imported to me. I was unable to work for a few months because we were sorting out my permanent residency and I was just staying here as a guest. And I was walking around Vancouver a lot, looking at the sort of changing city skyline and going to all the crypto meetups. Cause that was a new thing. Nobody really knew each other there. So as a new arrival, I was just sort of one of the many new people at this thing. And I got to see sort of the fire in people’s eyes, as they talked about this world changing technology. And I got to see something else in sort of some people around the edge of the room eye’s as they sort of saw this way to make exciting new businesses and maybe extract some money from the other people. I was struck by this because I’d seen this before. I’d seen this in the internet scene and the net art scene in the UK, in the nineties. And so I sort of dug into it. I learned about the technology. And as I say, the way I learn and understand things is through making art. So I started making art about it.
I crafted some Bitcoin transactions as art. That’s something you can do if you’re an artist. You just get to do something and declare it art, which is very useful to be able to do, because if it goes wrong, you get to say, hey, it’s part of the artwork. This is great, which has just as well. Cause like I forgot about change transactions during my first Bitcoin transaction and send all of the money that I didn’t send to the transaction I made to a miner. So some miner somewhere got to load a Bitcoin from me. So that was a good learning experience and the good old experience.
So yeah, I started out with Bitcoin transactions, moved on to Dogeparty, which was the long-forgotten fork of the Counterparty system, which works on top of Dogecoin instead of Bitcoin. And then when Ethereum was starting to be proposed sort of thing, I was just, I was just ready for it. I’d sort of done some work in other systems, which really talking to the ideas around it. I was enjoying playing with the limitations of the systems. I saw Ethereum, like my original pitch to myself was it’s Bitcoin with loops. You can do all the code-y stuff you can do a Bitcoin, but you can sort of add logic, more logic, to it and then sort of do interesting things with that. In 2014 was making Dogeparty tokens, Counterparty tokens, sending Bitcoin transactions, and starting to look at how Ethereum could be used for art-making for them, not just for artworks, but for sort of commissioning art, critiquing art, or for servicing art.
And around that time, or possibly just slightly before, Coin Artist from Blockade Games sort of pop popped up, like the character in a secret agent movie who comes along and says, hey, I’ve got a mission for you, would you like to do this?
She was doing these amazing alternate reality games, although now they are called are crypto puzzle trails. I’d seen the first one she’d done and not really understood it, but then realized there was something there and worked very hard at understanding it. I helped Marguerite out on the actual cryptographic elements of some of the puzzle trails. She’d say, I want to do this. Can we do this? I know these are algorithms. Is there anything slightly different? And that sort of culminated in the painting she made called Torched Arts, which is one with the flames and the chessboard. We came up with what we thought was a slightly more difficult puzzle for that than the ones that we had been doing previously because people had cracked those very quickly cause a community had sprung up around them.
And so we thought let’s give them a bit more of a challenge. We came up with a hard bit of encoding for the flames. I handed Marguerite this written codes generated list of tall flames orange, red outline, curved left, and that kind of thing. And she painted 160 of those with perfect accuracy — a feat I’m still in awe of. Then we released it, the community descended upon it, and then nothing really moves forward for about two years. The $2,000 worth of Bitcoin that Marguerite put in the Bitcoin wallet that the flames represented the private key of, went up in value during this time to I think about 40,000 US dollars by the time someone solved it — which left me being very nervous about having the private key on my laptop. So I had to sort of move that off.
That was sort of when things really, really took hold on my imagination. I just kept working through the the program I came up with when I first looked at Ethereum. As a result of that, I’ve been working on Ethereum since before the initial release. I’ve been working on since the testnet. And so when Marguerite was doing a games company, I eventually said yes to joining up and working on the smart contracts. So that was Blockade Games and that was brilliant. And then after doing that, after the first round of smart contract development was done, I moved to Dapper Las in Vancouver. It’s my first time working for a Canadian company in Canada. And they’re lovely. So they make these little things, although I should be very clear, I’m not here to represent the company, I’m here in a personal capacity. And when I’m there, I work on the Cadence programming language, which is a really awesome smart contract programming language,
And it’s sort of like Flow’s version of Solidity.
It’s to Flow as Solidity is to Ethereum. It’s a very, very different kind of programming language, very deliberately so. I certainly first encountered Dapper Labs as the people who broke Ethereum’s blockchain by causing so many transactions by people buying and breeding Cryptokitties that Ethereum just couldn’t cope with the strain. So Dapper took their experience from that and sort of created Flow to be more scalable and for that kind of scenario and to make it more scalable and more robust. They took everything that they’d learned from using Solidity and made Cadence with that. I was quite sad to be stopping working on Solidity full time because I felt that it was just about kissing to the point where it was mostly robust with things I wanted to do and I wasn’t having to sort of check what had changed or which bugs have been fixed on each version. And now here I’m working on Cadence. It’s a really good programming language in my personal opinion. And then in my professional opinion, it’s perfect for Flow.
One thing I will say is that I had some of my real-life friends who are not into crypto read my book and, hilariously, one of them, even though CryptoKitties is not like a major plot point it’s definitely mentioned obviously, because it was a huge event in Ethereum’s history. But even though it doesn’t go super in-depth into that, when I asked her her thoughts in the book, like one of the things she just had to say was like, oh my God, that CryptoKitties thing, like, I think that’s so crazy. And she just didn’t get it. Even now, she still doesn’t understand NFTs.
But anyway, I actually want to go back to some of the Bitcoin art. What did you have to do? Like what were those art pieces — I’m so curious?
There are various different traditions of art in what I will shorthand as Western or international art. Historians can sort of take me out and rough me up later for phrasing it in these terms. I’m just shorthanding this. So one of the art movements that really interests me is from the 1960s and 1970s in America, Europe, and elsewhere, and that’s conceptual art. Conceptual art was a reaction to a very specific set of historical circumstances in the art world at that time. You had the first generation of artists who had been professionally trained in anything was assembling the sort of art degree type art school setting. You had the sort of absolutely iron grip of Greenbergian modernist art criticism. For those of you who don’t know, there’s this one art critic who had amazing power over the imagination of what people thought art could do, even if he didn’t have the sort of actual power to make and break artists so much at that point. Clement Greenberg. It’s an interesting name.
So conceptual art. There was this entrenched system of art exhibition, of art review, of art promotion, which if you’re an upcoming young artist, firstly, you didn’t have access to. And secondly, it just looked sort of really boring not very much to do the arts. So various different artists decided they weren’t going to have anything to do with that. They didn’t know what to do instead of it. So they just carried on. Over time, the conversations became the art, or different mathematical propositions became the art, or proposing to do things that they couldn’t actually afford to do because they weren’t part of the gallery system became the art.
And this was sort of very interesting because most artists proposed artworks or sketched out artworks or something. There’s always been this sort of final stage of a patron or the market saying, okay, I will give you the cash to do this.
Conceptual art just short circuited that. It took it out of the loop so artists could sort of do their thing.
The art world and capitalism in general likes nothing so much as something that it can’t buy. So very quickly, conceptual art became recuperated by the art world. And you will now find very, very, very stylish, enormous, great big text installations and galleries, and sort of very carefully preserved little bits of computer printout from 1967, which are now worth tens of thousands of dollars, whereas at the time the artists making basically parodying what people are doing for art at the time.
But for me, the interesting thing was this encounter between art and commerce, this encounter between art and network technology. At that time, people were using cheap jet travel to get around. They were using long distance phone calls. They were using video systems, teletypes. The text printing network. The way artists made use of both of the possibilities and limitations there just struck me as a very useful precedent for how I thought blockchain art could go.
So this was useful for me because I could say to the art world imagined audience that it’s okay. This isn’t a weird new technology that you should, the majorly hate and be scared of.
It’s fertile territory for making conceptual art. It’s a good resource for including in conceptual type works. And then the other precedent, which I mentioned earlier was the net art of the nineties and two-thousands, which is a very similar scenario to conceptual art. You had artists who were either embedded in universities, which had internet access to higher degree than the rest of society, particularly in Europe. Or you had people who were working as web designers or on e-commerce projects, who had access, not just to the technology, but to amazing though it may seem to anyone doing web design now, the capital and free time to sort of be a web designer half the month, and an artist the other half of the month. And net artists were very much sort of going into or onto networks spaces and sort of critiquing them. Not in “this is terrible way,” but in a let’s look around, let’s thinks about this, let’s reflect on it and see what’s going on here rather than just simply being swept along by it.
Sort of calling this art rather than political intervention or anything else. As I said, it allows you to get away with things that you couldn’t otherwise. People take you less seriously, which allows you to do things which they will then think about more seriously. It’s sort of a really useful effect.
So with the Bitcoin transactions, I was learning how to construct Bitcoin transactions. I was bringing in this history of conceptual art and of net art. And I was just sort of trying to demonstrate to myself and to others that there was something here for art. And so I started out with a self-portrait. If you take people around gallery who are not sort of totally, totally brainwashed by the art world, then they’re generally very interested in recognizable imagery, like portraits and that’s perfectly cool.
I put a portrait of myself on the blockchain, which was actually the cryptographic hash of my 23 and me genome. So I can absolutely prove that someone with the same genetics as me has existed since sometime in early 2014. So it’s a sort of proof of existence kind of thing.
By the way, when I was doing research for this show, I just kept texting my assistant and like laughing because this one, by the way, for people who don’t know this piece of art is called MY SOUL.
MY SOUL is actually a later one. So this is like a pure Bitcoin transaction with a hash. MY SOUL, in philosophical terms, is a bare assertion. So there were some of my favorite, shall I say, legacy artists, petrodollar art worlds. So my favorite fiat art world artists were a couple of Soviet ex-pats called Komar and Melamid – I can’t remember their first name, sorry, guys, who are working in the US in the eighties, nineties. And they were very into sort of parodying democratic pretension. They would commission like phone survey companies at the time who would call people up. So what do you like in art? And they’d get a hundred people say it, then they’d paint that, and invite the people to the show and they’d be horrified that they got nothing but what they actually wanted.
So another thing that they did was they would buy artist’s souls. So they’d give the artists like a hundred bucks getting to sign things signing over their souls. I think they managed to get Andy Warhol’s soul at one point.
So I thought, well, I can do better than that. I can cryptographically secure this and I can fractionalize it. And this will be worth much more. So I originally issued a hundred tokens get on the Dogeparty system, which is a fork of the Counterparty system on Bitcoin, but on Dogecoin. That sort of didn’t really go anywhere as a platform. So you know, so much for the blockchain is a permanent record. The data is there, but until someone resurrects that system, hopefully is not a project. It’s not going to be very easily accessible.
So I moved that to Counterparty and sort of people looked at it with benign amusement and confusion, and it wasn’t until a couple of years later. So you’ll notice the trend here. Things sort of go out into the world, and it takes a few years for people to really, really, really stir them and get through them. A couple of years later, people start saying, hey, can I buy part of your soul? And I said, sure, let me just look into it. And I was talking to my wife about this, and she was not unreasonably terribly offended by the idea of anyone other than herself owning party of my soul. So I’m actually not allowed to sell these tokens. So then they’re just sitting there and sort of people have said, can you make a proxy token for this? And we’ll buy that instead. But it’s still too much of my soul for the love of my life to be comfortable with me giving away. And I think you can understand that. And everyone does understand that when they say it’s.
That’s, I find that hilarious because it is true. I think I texted him like, oh, I’d love to buy one of these. Good to know in advance that it’s off-limits. All right, well, why don’t we talk about another one of your pieces, which is the one that you auctioned off at Sotheby’s earlier this year, tell us about that artwork. And I love the title it’s called Secret Artwork (content). And so tell us about that artwork and then also what it was like to have your work auction off at Sotheby’s.
You can tell it’s very serious modern art if it has something in parentheses. If you put untitled in the parentheses, that’s a good one. So yeah, as I mentioned earlier, conceptual art, one of my favorite conceptual arts not artists, but groups of artists, is a very grumpy outfit called Art & Language, who performed in England and America in the sixties, and sort of whittled down to sort of a couple of core members who are still going. One of their early pieces was engaging with the certificates of authenticity that people people make to say this small crumpled piece of paper with some gravy stains on it is actually an artwork by me. So these certificates were very big at the time. Guarantees on artworks, you know, sort of like a guarantee that this is actually an artwork by me, but very closely related.
Art & Language sort of took this, ran with it, and made a perfectly black painting was a little certificate by it saying that the content of this hot work is secret known only to the artist. This is great fun. It’s a fun concept. It’s novel. It’s sort of pokes gentle fun at these structures that had grown up to make this often deliberately unownable art, very, very, very own-able and sellable and exhibitable at all.
So the reason I dug into this particular part of my toolbox was a a nice curator named Sam Hart, who was curating a show in the San Francisco mint. And they had a co-curator who I will go to hell for forgetting the name of, sorry about that. But anyway, Sam was my contact. So sorry about that. They were curating a show and they said it’s on the theme of secrets, would you like to do something?
I said, yes, I’m looking at ZK-snarks at the moment. We could do something without them. That’d be fun. I looked at the code libraries and explained was that ZK-snarks at the time. And my reaction was I’m an art student. I can’t understand any of this site. I don’t know what’s going on here. This is less spooky moon math and more math from another dimension where things just work differently. The toolkits were there, but very rough and ready at the time. So I had to go back to Sam and say, oh yeah, I’m not going to be able to do this like that. Let’s just do what we always do and do it go cryptographic hash and do something with that. Rather than a nice blank canvas with a certificate next to it, I sort of came up with something that would be interesting to go in an the artwork, created the cryptographic hash of the text of that, saved the original text somewhere in a bank vault or a cave and the top of a mountain or somewhere that people will not be able to access — having learned the lesson about not keeping things on my laptop. I personally genuinely cannot remember what it was now, but I can access it if I’m ever taken to court to prove that I did have an idea. So we took the cryptographic hash of that. That’s secure until someone breaks SHA256 and then that’s sort of placed on the blockchain with the token and some data associated with it.
And then there’s a nice web front-end. It’s like a dapp. The front-end tells you absolutely everything it can about the token. It just scrolls up the screen like watching a block explorer, showing new transactions coming in. So it tells you when the contract was created, the address of the contract, it tells you the transaction that created the token, the number of the token, the cryptographic hash contained in the token, the transaction that created the token, the block that created the token, the time of it. It tells you all of these are irrelevant details. It tells you them in written text, it tells them numbers and shapes and colors in musical notes, is one of my favorites and emojis. You have to make sure that you’ve got a good solid Unicode font installed on your, on your device that’s showing it.
It tells you absolutely everything in every way it can, as this grand distraction from the one thing you want to know, which is the thing promised in its title, which is the actual content of this notional artwork. And for me, this is a nice, I’m going to use the word allegory in an artistic context, which will get me taken to jail, but it’s a nice parallel to the experience of public-key cryptography.
You have these two guarantees with public-key cryptography. You have one of absolute secrecy. No one will be able to guess what has been encrypted with your public key. And you have this other guarantee of absolute identity. Nobody else can forge a signature that you’ve made with your private key. So you have this interplay of knowing absolutely everything about someone via their cryptographic key, via that public-key cryptography system.
And yes, at the same time, there’s just something hiding behind it. As I went on with this project, that really became for me very much what it was about. I make art when it doesn’t leave me alone, sort of when an idea comes to me and I can’t get rid of it. To be clear, I’m not just sitting there with a lightning bolt, hissing me; I’ll be sort of reading lots and lots of crypto theory and looking at lots and lots of arts, and my subconscious will be churning away in the background. This one came to be very much about the sort of dialectic between absolute identity and absolute secrecy in public-key cryptography. As with much of the artwork I’ve made about crypto, it’s a nice way into thinking about those scientists. If you’re unfamiliar with public-key cryptography and was certainly not born naturally knowing how RSA or ECC works, this experience of being able to provably see everything about something, but not quite knowing what’s behind it is a useful way to start thinking about those ideas. And if it looks fun when you project it or show it on the screen in the gallery, it’s got some movement in it, which is always good for drawing the eye.
So I made this for the show and it was exhibited in the show. It was projected on the lovely, solid metal walls of the vault of the old San Francisco Mint, which is absolutely delightful for a crypto art work. And as is like common threads in these stories. I then forgot about it for a couple of years until the Sotheby’s auction was being organized.
And we were talking about what I had, which was sort of both very early on and could be easily sold. A lot of my early work, I very deliberately made unsalable due to sort of art world hangovers about money being bad and also to sort of critique the currency basis of blockchain and sort of obviously cryptocurrency. We went back and sort of trying to work out whether we could resurrect any of the Dogeparty pieces other than MY SOUL. And whether we’d have to try and sort of cross-train transfer them to Ethereum or something. Cause you know, Ethereum was very much where they wanted it to be. I couldn’t transfer it to Flow for various reasons. And so the work sort of came up as the one, which was sort of the intersection of early and saleable on the Ethereum blockchain was Secret Artwork.
The experience was absolutely amazing. So without wishing to sound like someone’s in the awards show, the money was nice. I’m not gonna lie. I had a tax bill to pay from last year and then the money will help with that. But the thing that was absolutely amazing was talking to people who had read Artists Rethinking the Blockchain — the book. They sort of got what some of the early crypto artist, blockchain artists were doing and sort of having the fiat art world institutional power of something like Sotheby’s going, oh yes, there is something of interest to this work. Let us write it up in a way that is understandable by the auction going artworld public.
It was absolutely amazing. It’s sort of very sad to be, yes, another art world rebel who was gone, hey, you can’t buy my work. It’s on this blockchain thing that you don’t understand or use… to, oh, the validation from this hundreds of years old institutions is absolutely wonderful. Oh wow. Like, I totally know I am sort of, I guess, selling out there, but I’m deeply relaxed with selling out, so that’s fine.
The institutional attention, the the art historical attention they gave to it was, was amazing. And then the sale went up and sort of everyone else’s work, went up to millions and millions of dollars. And mine was hovering around, I think about $6,000 the night before the auction finished and I was really happy. So I set up a little display, which was refreshing and showing the price of my work to sort of make sure that number go up.
And it was at like $5,000, and that was great. This is more than I’ve ever sold before. I’m so happy. I woke up and looked at the screen and I thought, oh, no, it’s gone down because I hadn’t realized there was an extra zero at the end. So it’d gone up 10 fold overnight. And like, that was just amazing. I was really sort of going from not just being the hypocrite about, Hey, I don’t need art world validation to I’m so grateful for this validation to I’m making this resolutely non-commercial work. I don’t need your money to, Hey, I’ve sold this for lots of money. That’s amazing. The thing that to get back to my awards show speech, the critical attention that it got me was amazing.
Cause having been not quite shouting into the void for how long was it since 2014, like Artists Rethinking the Blockchain was published in 2017. I thought, oh, this is great. You know, it’s a book about blockchain. There’ll be dozens of these in two years time; this will be a fun historical time capsule. There’s still, to my knowledge, no other I’m phrasing this delicately sort of art world books on blockchain. There are plenty of guides to making your own NFTs. And I’m not talking about those, but sort of actual factual sitting artwork people down and saying, hey, what’s this blockchain thing or sitting our crypto artists down saying, hey, what’s this whole thing doesn’t seem to have taken off in the way that I was hoping it would.
People seeing Sotheby’s auction and looking at the write up and then at my work and sort of talking to people has been amazing because I wanted to create this dialogue between the crypto world and the art world, because they are very mutually suspicious. The sort of capitalist massives on the crypto side and the the sort of socialist bassists on the art world side have fairly different worldviews, to put it mildly. But I do feel that you know, that there’s useful knowledge and, and work and value that can be bought from each side. And that’s what I was trying to from the start and seeing sort of very, very serious curators and art theorists sort of notice that there is something here and start getting engaged with it.
As soon as we explained to them that it’s not all about $70 million image sales, that there are things slightly further down the long tail that they should probably pay attention to that that’s been the amazing to start having those conversations.
Yeah. So I want to discuss a little bit more about what the NFT art world looks like and, and your perception of where it’s going, but first, a quick word from the sponsors who make this show possible.
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Back to my conversation with Rhea. So you kind of said before the ad break something, I forget the exact phrasing, but just something about how you felt like the NFT art world I think was maybe going in a different direction from what you originally expected. I can’t remember how you phrased it. But so what did you mean by that? What do you make of what we’ve seen so far?
I absolutely love NFTs. I think they’re great. I think that artists being paid for art is a very good thing. And I have very little time for the frankly moral panic that we’ve seen from people who are determined not to think about NFTs. The energy usage culture that came up earlier in the year. It was sort of based on terrible math, terrible contributions, horrible math, and horrible thinking through who benefits and who loses in this debate. The party political broadcast ends here. Sorry about that.
So the thing that’s interesting to me about the way the art world on chain has gone, compared to what I was sketching out in 2014, I sort of viewed contracts as the obvious units of production for art. So I was thinking of net art. I was thinking of generative art, which has taken off recently on-chain.
I was thinking, this is brilliant. We can write these little programs or the smart contracts. We can make it so that they can manage their own exhibition and get exhibition phase for that. And this will be great. And it didn’t turn out like that. And I’ve thought lots about sort of, not so much where I went wrong, but where I went been different. And it was that sort of inherited art world to stay in for sort of artists directly having anything to do with money, which is a very interesting social and moral phenomenon that we don’t need to dig into here. But whenever you encounter people getting upset that artists are making money, do just pause for a moment and think, hang o, who else are you upset gets paid for their work? What’s that all about?
I thought, hey, this is great. People will make smart contracts, and there’ll be like self exhibiting and then self agreeing to be included in books, and they’ll manage their own reproduction rights and that kind of thing. And then this was very much because I was trying to avoid commodification of things as money. I was trying to avoid financialization for the art world for theological reasons. And this meant that sort of work when I was doing a book launch for Artists Rethinking the Blockchain at the HackerSpace Decontrol, here in Vancouver, the people on before me were from the little startup called Axiom, then talking about their cryptokitties project. I was very interested in it, but I only knew it as the project that sort of congested blockchain. So I was totally on different paths at the time where NFTs were becoming a formalized thing. It took me ages to get my head around punks. It took me ages to get my head around counterparty.
So yeah, I was sort of looking in the wrong direction for ideological reasons. NFTs came in and people started making really interesting things from out of the gate. I love evolutionary arts. I am a big William Laytham fan who’s this artist who did swirly nautilus shapes and computer graphics that were artificially evolved forms at the time, and you need a room full of equipment to do that. And the Kitties having little genomes on-chain, I absolutely loved. I didn’t love everyone leaving after the Kitties team talk when I was meant to be talking about my book, but some of the teams stayed. But they were correct. So I was looking the wrong way. People did interesting things with NFTs. I did start using enough NFTs where it made sense for projects.
And then over time, I just noticed the price is going up at the start of the year with the Beeple sale. Everyone’s suddenly didn’t know what NFTs were or what blockchain was, but they knew they didn’t like it. And for me that, so the difficult thing about this, I notice the lots of young sort of marginalized people who I followed on Twitter, were suddenly guessing their first art sales, and they were getting money, which they wouldn’t otherwise have, which was paying for education, rent, food, medical expenses, and medication. So there was good being done here. And we can view this as like a tiny fraction of $70 million NFT purchase. But there was still a wider entirely new NFT art world native community here, which was benefiting financially from the fruits of their labor in a way which they otherwise wouldn’t. In ways, which would genuinely making their lives better. For those of you listening, who aren’t really into making people’s lives better, they’re also helping the economy move. So whichever angle you’re coming from, this was a good thing.
And if I tried to mention this as like, oh, they’re human shields. If I try to mention the energy usage of Bitcoin is interesting, but not a lot to do with Ethereum and certainly nothing to do with proof of stake based blockchains, people just genuinely didn’t want to hear it. It was like telling them that there are no fairies at the bottom of the gardens. It’s like a total mental shutdown.
Just out of curiosity, when you say, because Ethereum does use proof of work, are you saying that because they use GPUs rather than ASICs, or what?
I live on planet Earth. I’m a big fan of planet Earth. Ironic provocations I post to Twitter, notwithstanding, I’d like to see the Earth continuing, and my kids being able to live on it is probably on balance a good thing. Bitcoin’s energy usage is massive. A lot of it comes from waste energy from centrally planned energy production, which would otherwise not be created but not used. Some of it comes from renewables. Some of it comes from sort of waste hydrocarbons. So even within Bitcoin mining, the picture’s more complex. The argument, that this energy that could go to other things is kind of refuted by the fact that it doesn’t. The idea that it’s wasted energy is refused by the fact that it’s being used to secure Bitcoin, which is a use. However, this is not just energy created ex nihilo to do Bitcoin. And if we sort of bombed the capital of Bitcoin, it would stop using all this energy, that’s just not how it works.
However, it does use a lot of energy. It being more efficient would be, and will be a good thing. Ethereum uses a lot less energy to do the same thing. NFTs by artists use a tiny fraction of that energy, and if they stopped doing that, it would still run. They’re sort of obviously a sort of an echo of the wider environmental crisis here. If I stopped driving my gas guzzling car, then everyone would need to, and that’s a distraction from shipping container ships and the US military anyway. I’m aware that it’s possible to make this kind of excuse for needed systemic change, but then Ethereum is going to proof of stake anyway.
There are existing proof of stake systems, like Flow, which you may have heard of, is an excellent proof of stake system. And some of the other popular chains that artists are now on all proof of stake systems. And I’ve encountered people who simply refuse to believe that proof of stake users for less energy. It becomes an article of faith.
To unpack that. I look at this and I see an alarming, but decreasing over time and to decrease more in the future use of energy. And so I’m sort of less worried about that and more worried about paying publicists and developers and sort of everyone else who is doing interesting things in this area in the meantime. Watching the two art worlds emerge, watching the platforms emerge, watching artists sort of explore different types of ascetics has been absolutely amazing.
I was late to the net art scene, I wasn’t really in that because obviously busy with a young family and everything. I’m getting to watch this new art well blossom from first principles has been absolutely amazing. And I simply love NFT art. As someone who has written a very thorough sort of critical theory around the idea of using blockchain to make art, around the idea of tokenization. So there is something here. There’s something art historically critically here. It’s very interesting to look at. Not uncritically, but quite separate from any other concerns, I’m just loving seeing what people are doing and getting paid for the first time and getting critical interest for the first time and the communities that you are emerging. So I think it’s great.
I was going to ask you because I don’t know if you saw the MET Museum Director basically kind of said he didn’t really see anything that was worth the MET doing with NFTs.
So that’s, that’s weird cause he should probably look in their collection in that case. I think that’s standard. No disrespect to the MET. I don’t know that particular person, so this is a general comment rather than any kind of diss. That will get column inches that will get headlines. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing for someone from a long running art world institution to say.
It’s completely wrong. It’s completely, completely wrong. We see some very interesting things happening in NFT land.
If you could also just tell me how it is that you think NFTs are changing or I’d be so interested to hear that.
NFTs are reinvigorating existing shoulders. Portraiture, which I mentioned earlier, there’s some very interesting portrait work going on in NFTs.
By that do you mean profile pics?
PFPs are interesting. 3d things are really interesting. Coin Artist’s early paintings which are tokenized of Vitalik and Beeple.
And it’s sort of the fact that you can get attention and revenue from doing this and that you can play with it sort of technically and aesthetically means that this genre, which if you showed to the average art critic, Hey, this is a show of portraiture, they would roll their eyes at you regard it as the most outdated thing possible.
We’re seeing here the start of experimentation with the genre as outdated as portraiture in a new and interesting way. We are seeing imagery and kinds of art that otherwise are pretty much what definition non saleable. I mentioned generative art earlier, which is sort of art created by little computer programs. You can download the source code for most generative art programs from GitHub. Now the artists can create things with that and then sort of get paid for that. And that gives them more time to work on it and more critical attention for it. Just people talking about different experiences in art.
I’ve seen African artists tokenize their art and revenue for that and get critical attention. Transgender artists. Many, many different kinds of experience are blossoming in this new NFT art world. Even if we accept, for a moment, that there is nothing of interest there today for the art world institutions, which I find absolutely incredible and would sort of raise both eyebrows at, the sort of the momentum that this technology has given to people means that there’s work being done, that wouldn’t be otherwise, and it’s going in directions that wouldn’t otherwise. There will be something here. It’s like sort of impressionist jumped on steam trains, and the results are still hanging in museums 150 years later.
I have forgotten the question that you asked me that by demonstrating how correct you were to mention that I talked too long.
How are NFTs changing art?
I think they are giving new audiences, with new capital, new access to new art. And within that, it’s enabling experimentation. I remember like back in the 1980s, reading one of William Gibson’s early cyberpunks books. One of the characters in it works in the gallery in Europe, selling art that is too expensive for anyone to own all of the whole. So they’re just spending their day buying and shelling service shares of art to deal. So this is fractionalized art. Yes, this is something that you can do with existing financial systems. Blockchain technology just makes art fractionalization incredibly easy. It makes collaboration to sort of collect and curate and sell work. Again, people can already do this, but it makes it fantastically easy to set up a DAO, start buying crypto art work, start sort of exhibiting it on different virtual and real platforms, and create a new context for the arts.
It meshes nicely with new currents in art, which are tech based like AI art, like digital illustration, or generative art. It gives people a reality anchor in people’s minds. It’s like, why should I pay you for this thing that you spent your life learning how to make, when I can just press a button and 20 come out? It’s like, well, I can establish the provenance of this one that I, the person who spent my life learning how to make this have, made it. You can’t press a button and make 20 of those.
It’s a world of possibility it’s and, and people are making good on that possibility. Even sort of beyond the platforms that are making sure that people get paid for their art or make art fractionalizable.
And let’s also talk about DAOs because I think those are intersecting with NFTs in an interesting way. There’s been some curation DAOs. When we did the pplpleasr conversation, she talked about the pleasrDAO, which is spraying up spontaneously. What’s your take on what’s happening with DAOs. How do you feel like that’s changing art curation or how will it change our curation?
I think DAOs are great. I’ve followed them since the people’s Republic of Dug on the Ethereum test net, which was a very early attempt of the DAO back when they were still called decentralized autonomous corporations. I haven’t read the books everyone else has read that have sort of proto-DAOs in them. So I had to come to them fresh. Like everyone, I’ve watched the DAO hack on the Ethereum chain with this horrified fascination.
I knew it would take DAOs some years to recover from that. And it has taken DAOs some years to recover from that. We’ve had some very good experiments in the meantime. Not to single out any projects cause I shouldn’t, but there’ve been various sort of art commissioning ones, which have been great.
The toolkits have built up. I mentioned earlier that you can get away with more with art. Art isn’t food supplies to pass for country. It isn’t national security. It isn’t medication. So if you get it wrong, with something dealing in art, you will lose people money, you will harm people’s reputations, people will be sad, but it’s not as life or death — with apology to all of my artist friends — as other systems that you can see blockchain technology being applied to.
Art DAOs are an obvious way of doing things. I like artists groups. I was desperate to see people use the blockchain for stuff other than immediate production of art. The emergence of collection curation DAOs, like pleasrDAO like a fingerprintsDAO, which bought some of my work which was an interesting experience.
I’m obviously implicated in some of this, so take anything I say about it with a pinch of salt. I’m excited by this. This is precisely what blockchain technology should do. It takes sort of human organization, human coordination and sort of makes it as easy to organize and allocate capital to projects.
As like from the metaphor I think I used before, imagine the difference between having to set up like a type press from the Renaissance and but every letter that you’re going to print into a thing and then squeeze something. It is sort of that compared to the Apache web server, where you can spin up a Linux instance on a cloud server somewhere, spin up a web server, write some code to configure it, and you’ve got something published in 10 minutes with global reach, with the ability to add all sorts of things to it.
DAOs do this for corporations, for charitable trusts, for partnerships, for LLCs, for all kinds of organization you can think of. And I’ve been watching the legal side of this very, very closely. Primavera to Phillippi did a good book about blockchain and law, which talks about this a bit.
The ability of individuals to sort of get together, pool their resources, sort of move democratically towards a shared common goal. I think that’s brilliant. I was very interested in blockchain co-ops early on. DAOs isn’t exactly like a co-op. And affordances there can be used for that kind of thing.
Yeah. it’s funny you bring up Primavera de Philippi. She actually ran some workshops that I attended I think it was in the first year that I started covering this. So like all the way back in 2015, if I remember correctly. I’ll have to check out book out. Where do you think the NFT space will go in the next year? We can talk about the law or even, cause I feel like we’ve talked a lot about visual arts, so even if you have thoughts on other types of creators that would also be interesting to hear.
I’ve got my nose to the two dimensional plane of the arts. And I can’t really go much further than that. I’m very excited to see, with apologies to all my free culture friends, I’m very excited to see sort of major IPS really leaping on to the blockchain. Obviously sort of working at Dapper, we’ve got Top Shot, and other ones that are publicly known to be coming up. And some of those are ones I personally love. The ability to get that connection to a brand — cuz I’m not a big no logo fan, unfortunately. I think brands can be fun. That’s good.
The other extreme as I said, seeing more and more people bringing in a few points that are simply excluded by mass media and finding an audience and place for that using NFTs. I want to see that take off and continue and sort of people to be surprised by the art they like and what it means and whose lunch they paying for.
I think sort of there are now so many NFTs out there. People are going to find more things to do, even with ones that aren’t going tokens. There have been various attempts at getting people to bring their tokens together and then use them for game type things. We did one of those when I was at Blockade and that was great fun. People using Punks and other portrait style images as their PFPs is the first step towards sort of people getting more functionality, more value, more use from NFTs in ways that probably weren’t originally intended for them.
We’re going to see systems and projects and companies springing up to say, Hey, you know, you should more with your NFTs. Here are some fun things you can do.
As someone who is #notalawyer, but sort of great greatly enjoys reading law with the knowledge that there is no worse interpreter of legal texts than software developer, I’ve been very interested to see the NFT world slowly rediscover copyright. How this works in art and how artists think of this, versus how the mass media thinks of this. Artistic, technological, and legal ideas of originality and copying of very different. NFTs is combined all three of these, which means there are very interesting tensions emerging. We had the arts theft panic a couple of years ago. It was sort of the various punk clones with people trying interesting legal theories to justify.
And so the whole question of what do you care when you buy an NFT? It’s certainly not the copyright, which I know surprises many people who buy them. But what is it? And I’ll be interested to see, hopefully not case law, because I don’t want people getting sued over this, but more clarity coming through over what does it mean to buy and sell an NFT. What rights do you get? How does this interface with genuine fair use and sort of appropriation and remix art in the way that we don’t recreate the losses that I personally view as cultural freedom has experienced over the last few decades as you’ve needed more and more and more permission to get around more and more and more legal and technological impediments to sort of just depict the visual environment that you find yourself in.
I want the NFT art world to continue growing, to continue bringing new people and new voices into it. To sort of realize some of the surplus-value all these NFTs have. If not get this legal house in order, and to be clear, I’m perfectly happy with the terms of service I’ve signed on the different platforms I’m on and that kind of thing, but you know, sort of get some clarity for everyone so that we avoid any kind of big lawsuits over NFT art and we can just all get on sort of producing art, selling, or buying art and creatively transforming art within the limits of this shared consensus, hallucination of sort of legal and artistic reality.
Yeah. And if people are interested in the legal issues, I did do an episode with Tonya Evans, Stuart Levi, and Olta Andoni on all of this. And it was super, super, super fascinating. So I will put that in the show notes for people because, yeah, lots of misconceptions around that. Rhea, this was so fun and exciting and interesting. I just love learning about your work. So where can people learn more about you and your art?
I have a website rhea.art. If you go to rhea.art/newsletter, I’m starting to put out a good old fashioned email newsletter so that people don’t miss out on things that are happening with my cause to my surprised delight, there are lots of things happening with it at the moment. And I’m on Twitter as @rheaplex.
Thanks so much for joining us today. To learn more about Rhea, check out the show notes for this episode. Unchained is produced by me, Laura Shin, with help from Anthony Yoon, Daniel Nuss, and Mark Murdock. Thanks for listening.