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Emerging Artists
March 22, 2023

Art in the Age of Algorithmic Selection

Three digital artists share what makes Web3 a different kind of marketplace with Katherine Howatson-Tout
Credit: Clint Fulkerson, teal nebula 2 (detail), 2021. Courtesy of the artist
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Art in the Age of Algorithmic Selection

Katherine Howatson-Tout: Right now, new generative forms of art-making point to an increased alignment between human, machine, and natural forms of creation. The use of algorithms or machine learning platforms that result in randomized outputs could be said to resemble organic processes that can be seen in nature. Does the evolution of technology still place it at odds with the natural world? How do you address this relationship in your work?

Evelyn Bencicova: My work addresses the relationships between humans, nature, and technology from a conceptual standpoint. Even though I have not yet explored the possibility of algorithms and machine learning in the creative process, these topics are so apparent in the world around us that they are difficult to avoid or overlook. Certainly, they are often present in the work of contemporary creatives who use both digital and more traditional media. 

For me, the idea that nature and technology stand as opposites is quite pessimistic and outdated. Technology is a tool that can be directed in many different ways. So if we are to speak about damage, human decisions and motivations are the real problem to be addressed. In one of my works, Anti-Atlantis (2021), I use multisensory VR to create an experience that takes the viewer through environmental catastrophe and its effect on our own body. It is a warning for a future that could still be avoided if we change our values and behavior. Virtual reality makes it possible to immerse the audience in an experience that has not yet happened — and hopefully will not — with the goal that we might take better care of the world around us. 

Dev Harlan: Nature is the best generative artist. The most sophisticated algorithmic artwork may have a stunningly uncanny resemblance to patterns found in nature, but is this confusing the simulacrum for the source? Art is artifice — a deliberate human construct, no matter how beautiful, surprising, or unpredictable. 
Dev Harlan, Five Body Problems: Limhamn, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Technology will remain at odds with the natural world so long as it has deleterious effects on the environment. Are my screens biodegradable? Can I use a computer that does not require mining rare earth minerals? The spectacular creative fruits born of technological tools are always inextricably linked to a system of capital, extractive industries, and unchecked consumption. This is the subtext behind much of my current work.

Clint Fulkerson: I’ve always thought of rules and limitations (math/information) as fundamental to nature. Working in generative art is therefore a way to further understand natural processes and get closer to nature through reverse engineering. I imagine that technology and generative design has the potential to unlock a new version of nature perhaps indistinguishable from it via bioengineering, or a completely digital version. 

I work generatively, but I am not a coder. I look at patterns in nature and try to recreate simplified analogs through rule-based drawing. I also like to “embody the algorithms” by drawing by hand, keeping the rules in mind in real time as the pieces develop. I provide the energy and thus bear witness to every moment of creation while maintaining a sense of control. My human errors gradually and inevitably add character (randomness) to the work. 

Evelyn Bencicova and Enes Güç, Work in Progress, 2020. Courtesy of the artists

KHT: With NFTs creating a mass market for digital art, Web3 seems to celebrate “born digital” artists more than ever. Is this a good thing? In what ways is a hybrid practice necessary for you? 

DH: Natively digital art has never been embraced in this way before, so I think it is fantastic. That said, my practice has always been multidisciplinary — it is in between the digital and the physical that most vividly depicts the contemporary condition. Despite a steady normalization of all things immaterial, technology still has a real presence with material impacts. It is both solid and ephemeral. It is real and hyperreal. Working across many mediums I try to acknowledge all the overlapping temporalities and materialities in our cultural present tense.

CF: For most of my adult life I have made physical art that people thought was digital or generative. I love material, texture, and physicality, but it is not necessary for my art. Digital art was once reserved for conceptualization or other specific project needs, but once NFTs arrived, I could monetize my digital art on its own and I decided to focus on creating digitally native art for my NFTs. I sometimes start with a physical that will never be sold on its own because it is either non-archival or in a temporary state, and then I develop it digitally. 

However, I feel conflicted about offering a physical and an NFT of the same piece. In the future I want to offer prints or plots with my NFTs, but I haven’t done so yet due to the fiat costs and shipping.

EB: In general, I think expanding possibilities for artists and creatives to showcase and sell their work is positive. I’m very new to this space and still educating myself. Web3 is not only a place for possibilities, one also has a responsibility to understand its structure and challenges. Until now I have limited the number of projects and collaborations that I’ve worked on, for example Unsigned (2022) with Operator and Anika Meier. I’m open to future opportunities, but I’d never do something just for the sake of doing it, without understanding why. So I would say a hybrid practice is definitely not necessary for me, but Web3 has turned out to be an interesting journey and beneficial experience regardless, one that has brought new knowledge and an audience.

Clint Fulkerson, pixel peaks 1, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

KHT: In a context in which digital technologies filter experience, how do you understand the relationship between humans and their physical environment?

CF: I imagine we’re all in our little fantasy bubbles with our screens, scraping by in the physical world by any means necessary. 

EB: This relationship has obviously changed a lot over the last year. 

I remember sitting on the London Underground a few weeks ago, and not a single person looked up from their screen. 

We perceive a large part of reality through our devices, existing in many places at the same time, constantly updated and “online” wherever we are. Some years ago I went to a lecture that predicted a future where augmented reality would become so deeply integrated into our lives that it would be difficult to exist without it anymore. Today, our use of smartphones is becoming that reality. 

Digital interactions distance us from our physical environment, and sometimes they serve as a helpful source of information but at other times they are destructive and addictive. It is increasingly important to maintain a healthy judgment of what is really necessary and what is just noise, as well as the costs. In the current state where technology is integrated into our lives and bodies, this is a difficult task. 

DH: Industrial societies have normalized the immaterial telepresence of literally anything and anyone. However, the virtualizing effect of consumer technology has not liberated us from the world of material things. Perhaps in fact it has made individuals evermore reliant on physical devices to mediate experience. In the desire for always-on omniscience and instant knowability we lose the magic of the unknown. When was the last time you were really, truly lost? To quote Liu Cixin, “Once we know where we are, the world becomes as narrow as a map.”

Dev Harlan, Plus Basalt #15, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

KHT: Environmental responsibility cuts to the heart of the Web3 conversation. How is your work affected by such issues?

EB: I’m trying to keep environmental ethics and responsibility in mind in all my projects, both digital and physical. Of course, the production of almost anything is in itself not positive for the environment. But strong and meaningful work that has the power to change people’s behavior, or at least make them reflect, can be worth it in the end. I always keep in mind to make more sustainable choices, recycle installations, share resources, buy second-hand, etc. Most of my NFT works are available to buy on Tezos, and I only minted works on Ethereum after The Merge. There are still more steps to take, and I want to follow the path of environmental responsibility in all future works.

DH: Certainly a big ethical concern around Web3, and one shared by many, is the energy costs of maintaining a blockchain. That’s why I got involved with Tezos, simply because I couldn’t rationalize the wastefulness of other chains. My first mint was a simple collection of 3D renderings of a Macintosh Plus computer intersected with 3D scans of rocks. To offset my lingering ecological concerns about blockchain in general I decided to donate 50% of all sales in this collection to LES Ecology Center in New York, a local non-profit leading e-waste recycling and composting efforts.

CF: I started on Ethereum but was concerned about the energy usage of proof-of-work consensus, so Tezos felt like the ethical alternative.

Blockchains use less energy than the legacy systems they are supposed to replace. The production of paint, packaging, and shipping impact the environment more than my digital practice, so I feel good about it.
Evelyn Bencicova, Elizabeth Boeva, Giulia Gaffo, Arielle Esther, and Chanel Verdult, P-RN, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

KHT: ClubNFT’s discovery tool, Pathfinder, surfaces emerging artists based on collector preferences. How do you feel about being surfaced by an algorithm? Do we need a more affordable, horizontal marketplace in Web3 or a new star system?

DH: In a technological society we are all at the mercy of algorithms. The question is: how ethical is the algorithm? Is it exploitative or biased? Is it clever and inclusive? An algorithm is only as good as its maker. The only star systems I like are the ones you can see with James Webb.

CF: I think Pathfinder is great! Discovery is difficult for lesser-known artists, so I applaud being surfaced by an algorithm. I think we need really good cross-chain aggregators and search tools.

EB: This touches on one of the main issues of NFT marketplaces for me, which is the volume of work and lack of curation. I’m not saying that there should be less work — everyone is free to produce work and put it out there, but equally it becomes very easy to get lost both as an artist and as a viewer. 

When I first looked into NFTs, I quickly came to understand that it is not enough to mint work, the artist needs to build community, promote, and stay in touch with their network. In this sense, it is very similar to the traditional art world. But in Web3, these requirements are made more intense without galleries doing part of that labor, even if, in the traditional art world, it often feels quite inaccessible. In the Web3 marketplace, I have almost no time for my actual artistic practice. For this reason, I tend to do collaborations with Web3 curators. 

Algorithms can be a great way for artists to connect with collectors, lifting a bit of additional labor that might be used to produce meaningful work. Of course, it all depends on how the algorithm is designed.
Clint Fulkerson, discrete_cluster_color, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

KHT: Finally, we’d love to hear about any forthcoming projects you might be working on at the moment. 

CF: I have multiple series ongoing on Tezos, Solana, and Ethereum. I would also like to release a second project on fxhash, and I have a few local public art commissions of murals and sculptures in their early stages.

EB: I’m currently working on several things at different stages of development, including two big collaborative works. One is focused on worldbuilding with Screennoise, while another is an interpretation of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha with Enes Güç. Another focus is my personal project SimulacRAUM, an analog photographic project investigating constructed spaces which might soon evolve into digital form.

DH: A new addition to my “Five Body Problems” series is currently in progress. Recently, I also have been bringing together materials from my digital films into a real-time WebGL environment. I have had a great experience so far releasing these as generative 3D pieces on fxhash. Keep a lookout for more of these soon.

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Evelyn Bencicova is a visual creative specializing in photography and new media. Informed by her background in fine art studies at the University for Applied Arts, Vienna, her practice constructs compelling narrative scenarios that blur reality, memory, and imagination. She has held solo exhibitions around the world, including at the Goethe Institut, Bratislava; Alison Milne Gallery, Toronto; Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin; the Slovak Institute in Prague; Universität fur Angewandte Kunst, Vienna; and Fotografiska Tallinn. She has also won a number of awards, including the Prix Picto De La Photographie De Mode 2021 and the Kunstpreis Deutschland 2021. In 2022, she was shortlisted for The Lumen Prize Still Image Award.

Dev Harlan is a New York-based artist working in sculpture, installation, and digital media. He has exhibited in the US and internationally and has permanent commissions with corporate and private collectors. Harlan is a 2020 NYFA Fellowship Finalist in Digital Media Arts and winner of the 2022 MOZAIK Artist Grant. Solo exhibitions include Christopher Henry Gallery and Gallery Madison Park, New York. Group shows include the Sharjah Art Museum, UAE; the New Museum, New York, and the Singapore Light Art Festival. Harlan has been an artist in residence at the Frank Lloyd Wright School Of Architecture and the SVA Sculpture & New Media Residency. He is currently pursuing a BA in Earth Science at Columbia University.

Clint Fulkerson is a Maine-based abstract artist working in drawing, painting, public art, and digital art as NFTs. He received his BFA from Massachusetts College of Art in Jewelry & Metalsmithing. Since 2010, he has focused on abstract algorithmic drawing, developing an increasingly digital practice. He released his first NFTs in April 2021 and, in 2022, released his first fully generative project on fxhash entitled F(x)ields in collaboration with Orr Kislev. He has exhibited throughout Maine, and at The Curator Gallery and McKenzie Fine Art, New York. His work is in the collections of MIT and Kaiser Permanente, and he has installed murals at Google (Boulder) and Facebook (New York). 

Katherine Howatson-Tout is Assistant Editor at Right Click Save.