NFTs have integrated art into our everyday lives more intimately than ever before, allowing both marginalized creators and audiences to participate in the market for digital art. They have democratized the art world into what I have termed Art3 and, in the process, have decentralized creativity. In this NFT space, collectors can view their collections, purchase new works, and even shape artistic outputs simply by connecting a crypto wallet.
While blockchain technology and NFTs have catalyzed this development in the present, the principle of using new technologies to make art more accessible, removing it from the confines of the physical gallery, and reimagining the role of the artist emerged over a century ago with Constructivism. A crucial figure in the movement, Vladimir Tatlin believed that artists should be retrained as engineers to bring about a modern, industrial society. His plans for the Monument to the Third International (1919-20) — a rotating tower of iron, glass, and steel that was never executed — heavily influenced the kinetic constructions of Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner that, in turn, foreshadowed the experiments of Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) four decades later.
GRAV was a collective of eleven opto-kinetic artists active in Paris from 1960 to 1968. Founded by Julio Le Parc, François Morellet, and others including pioneering computer artist Vera Molnar, GRAV represented a spiritual successor to Constructivism in its focus on technical mastery, mechanical movement, and industrial materials. As expressed in its 1963 manifesto, the movement sought to engage the public through participatory environments. These included a Labyrinth, produced for the third Paris Biennial of 1963, whose goal was to provoke different audience reactions and to critique legacy art world institutions.
The thrust of this critique was three-fold: that art should not be found only in museums or galleries; that the concept of individual authorship was outdated; and that art should not be accessible only to an intellectual elite. Rather, enhanced interactivity required that art be taken directly to the public, should involve co-creation (and shared authorship), as well as universal accessibility.
Today, GRAV’s ideas have found a new voice in the anonymous, permissionless, and decentralized world of on-chain generative art, which refutes the idea that art exists in a world apart from everyday life.
Three contemporary generative artists exemplify this resurgence of collective authorship, interactivity, and democratization, carrying on the legacy of GRAV while forging a new path.
Most of the time the experience of this process is only accessible to the artists themselves whilst the audience gets only to see the final results… [I wanted] to give the participants at least a glimpse of the wonder and awe I still feel on those latent journeys. (Mario Klingemann)
Mario Klingemann’s Dy5p1ace (2022) invites both machine and audience to join the artist in the co-creation of each work, thereby eroding the barrier between art and daily life while reimagining the role of the artist. Exhibited in 2022 at the first edition of “Proof of People” in London, Dy5p1ace represents a technologically updated version of Julio Le Parc’s Lunettes pour une vision autre of 1965. But instead of glasses, Klingemann provided his audience with AI and a joystick by which to maneuver about and explore a controlled latent space. The experience did not end there, however. At a time of their choosing, audience participants could then select a still from the space to be minted instantly as an NFT. As Klingemann told me, “[a]ll one had to do to participate was show their wallet’s QR code to the installation’s camera — almost like paying contactless.”¹
In addition to elevating the role of spectator, Klingemann also values the unpredictability of the input parameters provided by Dy5p1ace’s audience. Like Le Parc’s commuters, no one experiences quite the same scene:
By [putting] a part of the creation process into the hands of the audience I relinquish some control over the outcome…[and] chances are the results will be very different and unexpected from what I personally would have selected. (Mario Klingemann)
Like GRAV, which sought to “smash the routine of a weekday in Paris,” the public component is also important to Klingemann: “One aspect about Dy5p1ace that is quite important to me is that it is also an immaterial performance — you had to be there in person to experience it.”² Today, the routines of daily life have been digitized: scanning a QR code, entering a password, opening an app. Klingemann fuses these banal digital routines with the exhilaration of artistic creation, thereby disrupting our own automated indifference.
Like GRAV before it, Dy5p1ace also questions the cult of the individual artist. But where Vera Molnar “shared her creative responsibilities with machines,” Klingemann involves both machines and human participants, building on his work with Botto — the decentralized autonomous artist. What all of these projects attest to is an evolution of the artist from lone genius to an engine of co-creation. As Klingemann says himself:
Just putting pretty images out in the world might not be sufficient any more to qualify as an artist [...] Maybe those who are able to give people a fulfilling creation experience by means of unique creation tools will be recognized as the artists.
While Klingemann incorporates interactivity into the creation phase, Marcelo Soria-Rodríguez does so through the curation phase of his work, el inefable momento (the ineffable moment of colorful discovery)(2022). Following GRAV’s logic that the audience should play a role in a work’s completion, Soria-Rodríguez seeks to question the notion that an artwork is ever fully finished.
The idea of getting rid of a finished object is indeed deeply rooted in some of my works. Generative art, to me, has a particular and deep relationship with this notion. (Marcelo Soria-Rodríguez)
Inspired by his own daughter’s drawings and released at Art Basel Hong Kong to a public audience largely unfamiliar with NFTs, minting, and generative art, the collection celebrated the joy of creative discovery and exploration of the new. For the Labyrinth of 1963, which consisted of a series of fun house-like rooms with opto-kinetic obstacles, GRAV dared the audience not to participate by drawing up the following regulations:
One installation featured a series of manipulable lights shining on a dark wall that spectators could turn to form their own designs. While the exhibit required engagement from the audience, they were the ones in control of the medium. According to Lily Woodruff, “the participation that the artists envisioned [also] depended on an element of surprise and discovery.”³ With el inefable momento, Soria-Rodríguez reiterates these concepts by relinquishing control to his audience and making surprise and discovery key elements of the work. With words that recall the Labyrinth itself, Soria-Rodríguez explained to me:
The artwork is not me as an artist saying “this is what I had to say, look at this magnificent image,” but rather it is a space of possibilities, where the viewer can choose to explore further.⁴
The work’s individual outputs consist of brightly hued, irregular sketches of stars, rainbows, hearts, and various basic shapes, randomly arranged on backgrounds reminiscent of construction paper. They also iterate, in the artist’s words, “in an endless scribble,” allowing the viewer to pause at any moment to appreciate the movement and serendipity inherent in a static construction. The viewer is also invited to alter the parameters of the project using simple keystrokes. In this way, they can add and remove elements, alter the resolution, and control the brightness, contrast, gamma, blur, and noise.
Reimagined as a parametric artist in her own right, the viewer can gain insight into the complexity of each work by revealing the hundreds of thousands of decisions built into each output. For Soria-Rodríguez, this level of curatorial interactivity can also “help the work reach new heights that the artist alone couldn’t provide.”
Having the public interact with curation increases diversity, engaging a greater span of backgrounds, opinions, feelings, and aesthetic aspirations to the environment of the artwork. (Marcelo Soria-Rodríguez)
That he allows the work to evolve beyond his original intention, building in audience agency into the equation, is characteristic of Art3. The project description makes this clear: “which one is the ‘finished’ artwork? All of them.” Like GRAV in the 1960s, ineffability is a part of the process.
While Klingemann and Soria-Rodríguez incorporate interactivity into the creation and curation phases, Ada Hyldahl Fogh (aka Ada Ada Ada) seeks to inspire action that transforms the social fabric beyond the artwork. She does so via an intersectional lens that seeks to disrupt the automated behaviors of her audience.⁵ As a transgender woman, transition is no abstract matter to Fogh:
In the case of my gender transition, my body is changing, but so is my social life and my professional life. Changing one thing inevitably changes another thing, which in turn changes a third thing.
Fogh’s generative project, Transition: Multidimensional (2022) reframes its audience’s preconceptions about “transitions [which] are generally viewed as going from A to B but this is not really the case. They are multidimensional.”⁶ For the artist, transitions are constantly “shifting between A to F to % to 9 to AA to € [...] This implies that binaries are merely imagined.”
In Transition: Multidimensional, simple geometrical forms become progressively multifaceted, with the artist incorporating elements of interactivity to further empower her audience: “seeing as intersectionality is a cornerstone of my practice, the accessibility of my works naturally becomes a focal point.”
With Transition: Omnidimensional (2022), Fogh evolves the politics of Multidimensional. “I started imagining Omnidimensional as being a sort of ‘view from the outside’ of the transitions that are present in Multidimensional. This underscores the point that transitions are not always viewed the same from each point of view.” As the name implies, Omnidimensional is a more visually complex collection that replaces the simple shapes of Multidimensional with amorphous, iridescent, multicolored forms that appear three-dimensional. For Fogh, “activist art has to be external [...] to change something outside of the artist’s world.”
Barriers (2022) is a more explicit “peer into the state of global LGBT+ rights via colorful circles,” with each iteration visualizing different countries’ legal regimes in relation to LGBT+ rights.
The largest circle signifies whether homosexual activity is legal. The second-largest signifies same-sex marriage. The third one, same-sex adoption. The smallest one is the legality of gender change. (Ada Hyldahl Fogh)
Barriers #14, which represents Uruguay, indicates full rights through its four complete circles, while its color palette reflects the country’s region and subregion. A thicker circle indicates more barriers and, thus, more unequal rights as in Barriers #135, which depicts a country where homosexual activity is punishable by death.
But Barriers is not only a collection of static images — users can also reanimate the works and switch them between light and dark modes. GRAV also believed that in order for art to address divisions in society, it must give participants the critical tools to modify “daily practices into the flow of a newly conscious social life.”⁷ One of the ways it did this was by moving art into the public sphere and away from canonical institutions that privileged the art of white men. For Fogh, NFTs can help to bypass institutions that have also failed to represent artists of color, LGBT+ artists, and feminist artists.
I think the NFT world, especially on Tezos, does one thing particularly well: low barriers of entry. This applies to both artists and collectors. It’s cheap to get started, and there’s barely any gatekeeping. (Ada Hyldahl Fogh)
At its core, participatory art is about ensuring the emergence of culture through horizontal exchange. Certified on a distributed ledger, NFTs are the natural next channel for this form of cultural flow. Where GRAV sought to remove the separation between spectator and object, NFTs eliminate the distinction between object, spectator, and economic future, with the capacity to enrich all three in the process. Taking art outside of the gallery always improves accessibility, but calling audiences to action is as urgent today as it was 60 years ago. Thanks to NFTs and the progressive artists they empower, we now have the tools to regenerate the systems that surround us.
With thanks to Alex Estorick.
Peter Bauman is an arts writer who works to contextualize on-chain generative art in art history. He is a founding member of Tender.art, where he contributed two of the first collection write-ups. He also helped to launch fx(text), the publishing platform of fxhash, where he contributes regularly.
¹ M Klingemann, interviewed on September 12, 2022.
² L Woodruff, Disordering the Establishment: Participatory Art and Institutional Critique in France, 1958–1981, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020. 70.
³ Ibid., 63.
⁴ M Soria-Rodríguez, interviewed on September 8, 2022.
⁵ L Woodruff, Disordering the Establishment, 26.
⁶ A Hyldahl Fogh, interviewed on September 4, 2022.
⁷ L Woodruff, Disordering the Establishment, 26. 17 and 22.