September 30, 2022

ClownVamp and the Art of NFT Storytelling

The artist and collector speaks to Danielle King about AI and the DIY NFT market
Credit: ClownVamp, The Truth #06 — The Nightmare, 2022. Courtesy of the artist
Now Reading:  
ClownVamp and the Art of NFT Storytelling

If you’re active in the Tezos art space, then you have probably heard of ClownVamp. An avid and respected collector, he emerged this summer as a highly sought-after AI artist in his own right. ClownVamp’s genesis series, The Truth (2022) used AI narrative art to explore alt-history and sci-fi, while his newest NFT project, Detective Jack (2022), is an interactive, DIY murder mystery. His model of NFT storytelling represents a new approach to gamified collecting, as well as a different genre of human-machine conversation. Here, ClownVamp tells his own story to Danielle King.

ClownVamp, The Truth #05 — The Boy, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Danielle King: Tell me about your background and your journey into Web3.

ClownVamp: I bought crypto pretty early maybe in 2013 and then sold it, thinking I was very smart. I told everyone for the next five or six years: “It’s a giant Ponzi scheme and none of it is real,” so it took a while for Web3 to hit home for me. Around 2020, a friend told me about NBA Top Shot. Having collected coins and trading cards as a kid, I checked it out and I got really into it during the pandemic. It was basically Pokémon cards without having to deal with binders and condition and all that gobbledygook which is divorced from people’s reason for collecting. 

It’s not about the piece of cardboard, it’s about what the cardboard represents, and the status that comes with it. So I started going down that rabbit hole. 

I was playing around on ETH, and I was lucky to buy [Snowfro’s] Chromie Squiggles really cheaply. By the end of 2021, I sold all my Top Shots because I realized I don’t really like sports. I was getting a little burned out on ETH and discovered Tezos because I saw people mentioning it in the CryptoPunks Discord. The people, the vibe, the energy — it was just so pure and sweet, especially with the accessible price points. It seemed like people were just collecting for the sake of collecting. 

ClownVamp, The Truth #20 — The Friendly Feline, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Then, in March of this year, I started an anonymous Twitter account and, for my PFP [profile picture], I bought one of the few CryptoPunks that has vampire hair and clown traits. But this expensive Punk was not really making me happy. So I sold it and used the funds to start buying crypto art on Tezos. Within a few months, I discovered this wave of AI artists who were using new latent diffusion tools. A friend got me into the Midjourney beta, and I started experimenting. I saw it as an epic storytelling tool to capture the imagination and show people your imagination. Nowadays, I’d say 80% of my collecting is AI art, maybe even more.

My career outside of Web3 has been pretty eclectic: I’m a writer; I do some investing; I do a bunch of work around crypto. A lot of the work I do relates to human potential. I’m really interested in things that give humans superpowers. With AI, every person in the world now has a magic lamp where the right combination of words and technique can produce shocking results.

ClownVamp, The Truth #37 — The Resistance, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

DK: Some folks aspire to curate a museum-worthy collection. Do you have a collecting strategy? 

CV: I do have a macro strategy. 

When investing in blockchain, people say: “Go where the devs are.” I think with NFTs, “Go where the artists are” is a good investing thesis. 

Obviously, that’s not financial advice because we are collecting JPEGs on the Internet during a speculative bubble. But on the AI side, I view this as a transformational year, and I feel like a friend hanging out with the Pop artists in 1960. Anything you bought at that point was inherently historical and valuable. I view anything I collect this year as probably a good decision. I’m definitely not someone who says, “I will never sell,” but in general, I’m a very long-term holder. I don’t think I’ve sold a single AI work that I haven’t created myself.

ClownVamp, The Truth #41 — The Conspiracy, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

DK: Let’s dive deeper into AI. There are two main camps of AI critics: those who say that AI art isn’t art, and those who take issue with the way AI programs like Midjourney and DALL-E use images in their databases without permission from the original creators. Do you have a response to those criticisms?

CV: I mean, the first argument is silly. Any time in history when there’s been a debate about whether or not something is art, those in the “no” camp have always lost. So I actually view that argument as indicative of AI’s importance. Initial responses to truly transformational technologies are moralizing. With crypto in the first few years, all the talk was about money laundering, drug money, and that kind of thing. We’ve established that digital media has precedent in art history, and with photography, despite the machine interface between the artist’s intent and their output, it’s art. 

The second argument — that AI programs lack permission — is much more interesting, though I personally disagree with it. Art is all about influence, and great artists spend a lot of time learning about the canon, and who came before them. 

With these AI models, instead of an artist going to museums, looking at pieces and synthesizing them, the AI is doing that learning for them. The job of the artist is to remix it and tell new stories with it. 

The one place I do agree with the criticism is when people just copy the styles of other artists. But that’s an ethical question, not a technological question. Mixing the styles of different artists together to come up with something new and unique — that’s great. But if you’re trying to build a career on copying someone else’s style — that’s unethical. 

ClownVamp, The Truth #47 — The White House, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

DK: It’s so evident from your series, The Truth, that you’re a writer and storyteller. With each drop, I’m drawn further into this world that you’ve created. Tell us about your inspiration and your process? Do you know how you want to conclude this story, or is it still evolving in your mind?

CV: I’ve always been obsessed with alternative history, which is my favorite genre — The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), etc. There’s something really haunting about these worlds that are set on our existing timelines where something is different. 

When I started playing with AI tools, I instantly went to the idea of using them for alt-history, and then layering alternative art history on top of that — reimagining past artistic movements with different world events. 

The Truth is an alt-history, sci-fi dystopia told non-chronologically. Each piece is based on something my character witnessed and then painted. Each piece also comes with a diary entry, with the story unfolding as he shares them. I have milestones for the story, things I want to hit, but it also evolves as I collaborate with the AI. I’ll be working on an idea and the AI will generate something that’s unexpected, which will feed back into the plot. If you had a perfect visual memory of your dreams, there would be weird things that are unexpected, right? That’s sometimes what going deep into AI feels like. I’ve minted 30-odd pieces so far, doing drops every week or two. I’d say there are maybe six months more, maybe nine. I like taking my time to tell the story and build the world.

ClownVamp, Detective Jack, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

DK: Tell me about your new project, Detective Jack.

CV: I’m a huge inhaler of crime thriller novels by, for example, James Patterson. As a kid, I was really into the Give Yourself Goosebumps series and the idea of having some control of the story. Detective Jack combines those two loves using AI narrative art. So, for this project, people buy the cover piece, and then every week for three weeks, they get dropped two new pieces. They are required to burn one of the pieces every week. Each piece is a visual episode of the story. By keeping and burning, you’re deciding which path of the story you want to go down. The last one you keep will be your last page of the story. Some people will solve the mystery. Some people won’t. Some people may end up with outcomes that are sort of funny, some will end up with an outcome that is very dark or otherwise a cliffhanger. By the end, each person will have six NFTs, including the cover, from a total of 47 pieces across the set. 

What’s fun about this approach is that people can choose how to navigate their adventure. They may wish to pursue the narrative chain most likely to solve the mystery, or to produce a silly outcome, but they may also prefer to follow an aesthetic chain. Do they want to chase rarity by trying to retain pieces they think will have the lowest edition count in the end? This experiment in creating an interactive story works particularly well on Tezos, where gas fees are inconsequential, burning doesn’t cost anything, and it’s easy to airdrop. In my vision, this is the first season and then, every few months, we will drop another season. The main character, Jack, is a handsome but flawed detective, sort of Mad Men-era character. Over the seasons, we’ll learn more about him.

One of the cool things is that, each week, collectors have to hold onto a piece if they want to keep going with the storyline. If they sell, it stops the story, and there’s no secondary market for the month that the story is being released. 

I think market dynamics are really fun. But removing secondary market dynamics for a month will force everyone to take a breath and enjoy the story. 
ClownVamp, The Truth #45 — The President, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

DK: This is such an inventive way to use NFTs and AI — combining visual storytelling with interactivity. Big picture, where do you see AI going?

CV: I think animations will be next to take off. I also think we’ll see a ton of fully AI-generated movies in the next 12 to 18 months. Another huge thing is audio AI — character conversations and music that are all AI-generated. And then, of course, there’s video games. Once AI models are able to generate 3D worlds, you could be playing Grand Theft Auto and rather than having set maps to choose from, you’ll be able to say: “I want to play in a cyberpunk version of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s,” and that map will autogenerate. The pace at which AI is changing is astounding and I think we’re going to see this frenzied pace continue, which will feel shocking as new use cases emerge. But fast forward 20 years, and these models will just be another part of our lives.

DK: I saw that you recently returned a book advance in order to focus on art. What’s next for you, do you see yourself coding generative art?

CV: I was finding the traditional book I was working on very anachronistic. With Detective Jack, I’m currently working with a designer to produce a physical version of the book, with all the chapters included, at the end of each season. Readers will still be able to choose their own adventures. 

With coding, I never say never. It’s pretty easy to get something functional, but getting something I’m proud of feels impossible right now. Every time I’ve tried to learn to code, I always get frustrated. I get into the flow state, but I like to take breaks. And with coding you really can’t take breaks, you have to stay in it. 

With AI prompting, it’s a lot easier to step away. I don’t think my mind is built for six-hour coding sessions.
ClownVamp, The Truth #06 — The Nightmare, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

DK: Do your IRL friends and family know about what you’re doing in Web3? Have you converted anyone? 

CV: A lot of people don’t know about my Web3 life. I enjoy the anonymity, because it feels a lot healthier from an ego perspective. I’ve stopped doing personal social media under my real name because social media involves seeking validation. Under a pseudonym, you still have that, but it feels much less personal. If people say something nice or something mean, I take it less personally in both cases. Web3 feels like a massive video game where you can play a character, make friends, and create lore. 

I have a lot of pretty geeky friends, and I recently did an AI art night where I had a bunch of them over. I put a monitor on the dining table, and taught them how to prompt. They were all instantly addicted. Many people are skeptical when they hear about AI. But usually, once they try it, their eyes light up and they feel a sense of creative expression that has been conditioned out of them. AI acts as a conduit to revive it and express themselves. I’m fascinated by how AI is going to be used in art therapy, which is clinically supported. That combination feels really wild and powerful. I’m excited to see where the research goes.

🎴🎴🎴

ClownVamp uses a combination of AI techniques and narrative writing to explore alt-history and alt-art history. His work has been collected by the Tezos Foundation as well as fellow artists, including Zancan and Claire Silver, and his series The Truth, is one of the top 30 projects of all time on objkt.com. He is also an avid collector of AI art and a member of the MAIF collective.

Danielle King is the CFO/COO of ClubNFT, and the former manager of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.