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August 3, 2022

Rhea Myers and the Logic of Technical Realism

The artist speaks to Benjamin Kandler about blockchain art, smart contracts, and the legacy of Harold Cohen
Credit: Rhea Myers, Blockchain Aesthetics — Hashes rendered as a 16x16 1-bit bitmap (detail), 2014-15. Courtesy of the artist
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Rhea Myers and the Logic of Technical Realism
This conversation is also available as a podcast.

Benjamin Kandler: Rhea, you’ve been a pioneer in Web3 for a long time now. Can you talk about how you integrate conceptualism with smart contracts?

Rhea Myers: I went to art school in the 1990s, and at the time I realized that I made art as a way to understand the world, to understand people around me, and my environment. Although it seems like a fairly rarefied thing to say, I’m trying to understand the world using smart contracts. 

The cypherpunk imaginary of the 1990s is very much the world we live in now, where everyone is more acutely aware of the networks of relationships that are mediated by the technology of money, as well as the money of technology. 

The cultural and intellectual milieu of the 1950s and ’60s, when early arts computing emerged, was the era of cybernetics, as well as systems, environmentalism, the Cold War, game-theoretic reason, and meta-rationality. And when these themes emerged in the art that people were making, it would reflect a relationship to rules. Vera Molnar was making art based on rules long before she ever encountered a computer; and Harold Cohen, who was internationally recognized as a colorist, began interrogating the question of what actually comprises an image when you put things together on the picture plane.

Rhea Myers, Certificate of Inauthenticity (Urinal 10/11), 2020. Courtesy of the artist

Technology and computer software is one embodiment of rules, and aesthetics is another. The domain of rules within which conceptual art started was questioning how we construct an imaginative space without an image based on the rules of the aesthetic game that we’re playing. This then came back into the existing art market through the rule of law — the use of certificates of authenticity, patents, and contractual agreements. Smart contracts take the idea of the legal contract, and try to replace it using computer code. At this point, most smart contracts don’t embody any kind of contract beyond the basic offer of sale. 

But for me, smart contracts were an irresistible embodiment of those ideas that relate to wider society, and I recognized the creative language of conceptualism was a really fantastic resource to explore them with. 

BK: Your work is so diverse in its use of concepts and media. Where do you situate your practice from the early 2010s to now, when there’s such a broad range of approaches — from generative art, to algorithmic art, to AI? Do you draw sharp distinctions between these fields? 

RM: I certainly have a project-based practice, which felt very natural to me considering that I looked at a lot of conceptual artists like Art & Language, and artists of the era like Julian Opie when I was a student. It made sense for me to produce a batch of work based on a theme, and develop my ideas from there, to go wherever they took me next. I’m absolutely not here to police anyone’s use of technology or ideas. The blockchain art world I imagined in 2014 was very different to the one we have now.

By 2017 or 2018, I looked around and there was a real crypto art world, which was both fascinating and very different, so I did have to refocus my vision. It took me a while to work through the idea of smart contracts for tokens and think, “okay, here’s a defensible way of me making a token for sale.” 

Most of the work I’d made before that was rigorously unsaleable [...] since I was very careful to avoid making anything look commercial. When we look at [works like] Tokens Equal Text (2019) or Certificate of Inauthenticity (2020), the structure of the contracts at the code level is a key part of the plastic, expressive, and even symbolic form of the work. Whereas with something like Certificate of Inauthenticity, which is in the auction [at Phillips right now], the point is that it’s a contract that I don’t have anything to do with. I am outside of the operation and completion of it. I’m very happy that [blockchain] technology has made the potential value of generative art, AI art, and illustration art much more tangible and easier to deal in. 

Rhea Myers, Tokens Equal Text #26, 2019. Courtesy of the artist

BK: I sometimes think that the blockchain would have been a perfect application for a Sol LeWitt work, or a Bruce Nauman piece, or even some land art, which is so tangible in how it occupies space.

RM: Environmentalism ties into a lot of blockchain art. Much of the earliest art was about [the] energy usage of Bitcoin mining and the social situation of the individual within a transactional society. Some of the work in the [Phillips] auction is [on] Art Blocks and is very rule-based, tying into a Sol LeWitt rule-based drawing very clearly. There’s a nice lineage there — not to reduce the new to the old or to defang it in any way — [but] you can see the continuity.

Certificate of Inauthenticity is about three steps removed from Sol LeWitt, because the original piece was based on sarcastic certificates of authenticity for 3D-printed objects from an earlier project of mine called “Sharable Readymades” (2011-13). Furtherfield Gallery said to me: “Can you make us some certificates of authenticity to sell these?” And I said: “Well, I don’t own the copyright in the works — that’s part of the concept of the project.”

So I grabbed an old Sol LeWitt certificate of authenticity, got some Wite-Out, whited out the details of his work and just quickly wrote in the details of mine and photocopied it a few times and sent it to them. There is something ostentatious about the format of those certificates — they look very formal, very serious. They look like they carry weight. They are a form that has form. 

Harold Cohen, Summer Solstice, 2010. Courtesy of Gazelli Art House

BK: Where did your interest in Harold Cohen come from, and how did it influence you? 

RM: I was part of a book club when I was at school. We’d receive monthly catalogues from which you’d be able to order books. I remember I ordered a book on computers from the early 1980s, which revealed all of the wonderful things they could do — simulating airplanes flying, etc. There were also examples of how to use computers for art. One of them was Harold Cohen using [his program] AARON. It was the fact that [Cohen] had turned his back on being a “proper artist,” and an internationally regarded master of their craft, just to investigate the question: “what is an image?” He was searching for a medium through which he could engage with larger questions, and that turned out to be computing. Cohen made an engagement with computing that was logical and intellectually defensible. 

The thing that struck me was the technical realism of it — starting out with rule-based systems, going on to expert systems, then very object-oriented systems, and finally to the sort of Amazon Mechanical Turk-style human-computer symbiosis whereby humans perform tasks that the computer sets them. All of this fascinated me as a genuinely unique body of work.

BK: Could you talk more about the term technical realism? And about AARON’s different iterations?

There’s something strange about a 1960s abstract painter like Cohen halting his practice and deciding to learn [the programming languages] Fortran, C, and Lisp, and finding it more exciting than any of his internationally recognized canvases and prints. But from an art world point of view, you can see his perpetual engagement with form, rules, and the construction of images. He didn’t change his artistic direction completely. In fact, there is continuity between his abstract canvases and the very linear plotter art that he began working on. If you squint, you can see how the art historical, aesthetic, and formal interests intersect and flourish once you overcome the technical, machine-based, and programming obstacle. 

[...] Cohen was interested in rules, and computers are good tools for expressing rules. There’s a dual realism here, both in terms of the artistic questions of the day that Cohen adopted, and the technological, software development questions that Cohen produced a competent response to at each stage of the development of the programs that predated AARON, and then with AARON itself.

Harold Cohen, Under Waterfront Park, 2014. Courtesy of Gazelli Art House

BK: Harold Cohen was on the world stage in 1968, but other movements seemed to take over in the historical canon. Now we’re seeing a revival of interest in the generative art of Vera Molnar and Herbert W. Franke. But where does Cohen’s work sit in the context of more contemporary practices, including Art Blocks and your own work?

RM: I remember Cohen saying that he didn’t regard himself as a computer artist. He’d be asked to do computer arts events, but he certainly wasn’t producing programmer art. It was a different endeavor. Art Blocks [...] is tricky, because on the surface [it] is precisely the very clean, graphically expressed work that AARON is the opposite of. The task of making a perfect 1960-70s pen plotter — to draw robust designs for airplanes that won’t fall out of the sky — is very different from the smooth operation of rules at the macro level which much of today’s generative art follows. It’s more the child of LeWitt than of AARON. 

To paraphrase Cohen, “either the works are all good, or none of them are” — either you have a successful system, whose roles do what you intend them to, and they create conceptually and aesthetically satisfying work, or you have not succeeded in your task. [...] Obviously now we have much more computing power in our pockets than early computer artists. But that engagement with constraints and with questions on the functioning of art, its construction, its reception, and its evaluation very much follow through in the art we’re seeing now.

Rhea Myers, Tokens Equal Text #3, 2019. Courtesy of the artist

BK: I find it interesting that artists are now spending two to three years to create the perfect algorithm, when ultimately they want the work executed on a plotter — to see the representation of the work in physical space and witness the tactile nature of it.

RM: In an era which [...] is largely digital, going back to something analog that still captures the digital is, again, a way of getting some sort of critical and representational distance from it. The example I go back to time and time again is the German Expressionist use of woodcuts — this very “primitive” medium for its authenticity, expressiveness, and its difference to the more genteel painting of the era. Plotters are a wonderful, retro way of problematizing the digital and just saying, “this used to be the future. This used to be the highest technology. Look at it now.” 

A 3D printer is essentially a plotter with a set axis. Certificate of Inauthenticity built on a 3D printing project, which was involved with ideas of intellectual property and representations of labor, both contractually and in terms of attribution. The blossoming of 3D printing coincided with the expiry of its patents, so there’s an interesting story there of how the engineering of structures and technology relates to its regulation and attempts to own the ideas of technology. 

Certificate of Inauthenticity was a reaction to the art world’s realization that the promise of the blockchain as this perfect authentication and provenance mechanism bumps into something called “The Oracle Problem” — the problem of getting off-chain truth onto your blockchain in a verifiable way.

In the general case, this is impossible, so we simply shouldn’t try to do it and shouldn’t worry about it. But all of the rare art or NFT art platforms that currently exist assume that it is possible to say: “I’m into this token. I’m the artist. And this is my art.” 

Rhea Myers, Simple Blockchain Art Diagram, 2016. Courtesy of the artist

The first few examples of people breaking that social contract worried some people, so rather than trying to achieve this impossible task of providing rules or contracts or technology, which would absolutely prove the authenticity of work, [they] went the other way, and decided to prove the utter inauthenticity of work. So if you own this token, and print out this certificate and exhibit it next to a 3D print of one of the models that I commissioned [...] of random objects — like a urinal or a balloon dog or a pipe or a soup can — this absolutely proves that I had nothing to do with the production of the work. It is easier to prove its inauthenticity than to prove it’s an authentic Myers original. 

[The work is] trying to engage with questions of form and also governance, and, if the blockchain certificate splits into two chains, which of the tokens on the chains actually represents the thing. This is a question of my aesthetic interest, but it’s [also] a wonderfully evocative question of social relations. And so being able to interface [...] with software and with law is just a really fascinating thing to be able to do and that’s something that smart contracts turn into a single medium that you can use.

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With thanks to India Price.

‍Rhea Myers is an artist, hacker, and writer originally from the UK, who is now based in British Columbia, Canada. Her work places technology and culture in mutual interrogation to produce new ways of seeing the world as it unfolds around us. She has exhibited globally, including at “Proof of Work” at Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin; “Natively Digital” at Sothebys, New York; and “Ex-Machina” at Phillips, London. She contributed to Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain (2017) and her collected writings, Proof of Work: Blockchain Provocations 2011-2021 (2022), are due for publication later this year.

Benjamin Kandler works in Private Sales and as the Project Lead for Digital Art at Phillips, jointly overseeing the auction house’s digital art strategy globally. Prior to working at Phillips, Kandler studied Art History at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has also worked for the Barbican and Corvi-Mora, London as well as the likes of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jennifer Packer, and Alvaro Barrington.