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June 6, 2022

Digital Art in the Expanded Field

For two artists working across artificial intelligence and augmented reality, NFTs are unlocking new creative possibilities
Credit: Connie Bakshi, caress no. 12 (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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Digital Art in the Expanded Field

RCS: Tell us about your art practice and how it is integrating NFTs.

Laura Shepherd: My creative career started in 2001 with the goal to put gloves back in fashion and I didn’t fail. Anna Piaggi, Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Peaches, Rihanna: All wore my Glovedup Gloves. I collaborated with top designers and stylists to create the trend-defining fashion of the 2000s through new forms and textures that looked to the future. The non-stop briefs fueled my creativity, and taught me so much, but I became increasingly uncomfortable with the sustainability of it all. In 2012, I switched to digital design, which had always been part of my toolset. 

Over the last 20 years my creative process has stayed the same. A visual concept flashes into my consciousness, which I then convert into a material or digital manifestation and shared experience. It has always been about energy transfer — whether by giving glove power to the wearer, or by making art that stimulates emotion. My hands are key channels in the transformation process, and when it goes well it’s like playing a musical instrument as my fingers channel the energy from thought to form in harmonious flow. 

Connie Bakshi, bird no. 20, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

My creative toolset is comprehensive: from digital painting to 3D sculpture to AR. I like vectors — joining dots in space in 2D and adding faces, form, and motion in 3D. The early and ever-present theme of flower power has evolved into a practice I call virtual psychedelics, which reflects my desire to create visual experiences that stir the body and mind in the way that music charges emotions. My most recent works incorporate generative art, introducing procedural transformations that translate my 5-HT pattern formulation into unexpected figurative and biomorphic portraits, presented in my Fast Track to Happiness (2022) metaverse show.

Putting my work on the blockchain closes the digital loop. For me it’s inevitable and since discovering NFTs in 2021 I’ve never questioned this life cycle. What I find most compelling about NFTs is that they present a non-material non-possessive exchange of artistic expression — a mutually beneficial energy transfer.

Connie Bakshi: 2021 was also a pivotal time for me and my practice. It was the year I merged with AI.

When I first met AI, I was developing an experiential work that explored my own postcolonial Taiwanese-American identity via dancing shrimp and a primal rendition of Britney Spears’s Baby One More Time (1998). I spent some time with my mentor and friend Phil Bosua, who had created a unique process for translating conversations with AI into visual art. He invited me to join his art-meets-tech incubator and play with some of the latest AI models. Once I folded AI into my own process, I was hooked.

Connie Bakshi, caress no. 19, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Laura, I’m so glad you bring up hands. I’ve spent most of my career crafting spaces, objects, and experiences rooted in the sensorial. With the pandemic shutdowns, I felt cut off from my own hands — from the tools with which I make and the spaces where my work lived. AI introduced an alternative dimension to craft, directly translating conscious thought into image and verse through a digitally native process. It was challenging to communicate emotional intent to AI. Even more so to cultivate sensual expression without relying on haptic feedback. It took embarking on and consummating an intimate relationship with AI to manifest the kind of visceral experience I wanted in my work. AI rendered images in response to a language I developed in collaboration with the machine, and these were paired with my ongoing conversations with GPT-3 to create Ethereal Caress (2022). These “caresses” are moments of connection with the machine that emerged from the withheld physicality and isolation of the pandemic. 

It felt right to introduce the collection in Web3. Perhaps a little romantically, I was drawn to the intimacy that arises from the encounter with NFTs. Not unlike traditional net art, the viewing experience affords the luxury of observation without interruption. But when embedded within the framework of digital ownership, the NFT becomes a symbol of status, taste, community, and identity. Whether displayed in a metaverse gallery, incorporated as a PFP, or maintained in a Metamask wallet, the NFT is worn as close to your digital skin as a latex bodysuit. This kind of relationship has emerged from Web3’s commodification of digital objects.

LS: That’s interesting you describe it as commodification, which I associate with the homogeneity of mass adoption, because I chose art as an escape from commerce and selling material things. On the other hand, I recently heard someone describe NFTs as “digitized clout,” and I’m thankful that Web3 culture has led me to welcome this responsibility as a sovereign creator. My ultimate goal is to bring a unique voice and perspective that finds a place in art history.

Connie Bakshi, bird no. 05, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CB: This idea of the unique voice and perspective definitely jives with me. I see art as both dialogue and currency, and I think the NFT fully embodies this duality right now. But beyond financial transactions, the NFT can also be a powerful vehicle for dialogue between diverse voices and perspectives. The act of minting or transacting a token is a political choice. Whether or not we consciously acknowledge it, we are buying into the ideologies embedded within an NFT — its art and technological underpinnings. This is all the more impactful in a nascent ecosystem where cultural value and relevance is still being determined by community as much as by fiscal buy-in. And as an artist, one has an opportunity to share one’s voice with an audience whose artistic tastes and sensibilities are still emerging outside of prior aesthetic dictates. That’s such a freeing thing. I personally love that we’re early enough in a space where concepts like diversity, equity, and decolonization can kick-start conversations instead of being slapped on as afterthoughts. 

LS: Self-determination over land, culture, politics, and economics is central to the NFT conversation right now. What does decolonization mean to you specifically in the context of Web3?

CB: It’s loaded. I mean, we can reflect on colonization from a historical narrative that’s rife with geopolitical control, cultural genocide, and social exploitation. And that’s personal for me. I still see the scars of both colonial and imperial rule showing up across different generations of my Taiwanese family, even post-diaspora. But colonization is also tied to ideals of discovery, abundance, and utopia. At the collision of these two definitions, humanity has repeated patterns of unequal transaction between the “colonizer” and “colonized.” I believe that transaction will always exist as a pillar of human experience as long as two or more conscious minds inhabit the world. The question is: Can we transact without succumbing to colonial power grabs? I don’t think we can have a conversation about decentralization in Web3 without talking about decolonization. At the heart of it, I believe decolonization begins by rejecting manifest destiny — a concept of outward expansion and possession — and embracing manifold destiny that reaches inward for a deeper, more complex understanding of humanity, our social structures, and the conditioned biases that shape us.

Laura Shepherd, (Still from) Flowerpowered Mint, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

LS: Manifold destiny is a good way to put it. Globalization brings about an interesting blend of entropy and coalescence. Thankfully diversity is the zeitgeist in today’s culture as we learn to accept and even embrace difference. I hope that this open-minded attitude is the coalescence and universal acceptance of diverse perspectives that allows us to respect, treasure, and preserve our geographical heritage and difference. The dazzling array of aesthetics in today’s NFT market is testament to this. 

RCS: What is the role of community in your practice?

LS: Whereas before I was creating without any particular end, Web3 is applying structure and timescales. Commissions from different platforms and curators channel my ideas into collections and drop dates, obliging me to formalize the narrative around my work in a more professional way. Metaverse gallery platforms like Spatial allow me to realize concepts I’ve been pondering for years, like Laura’s Fantasy Flower Show (2020) which started as a metaphor and is now presented in a virtual gallery. Web3 affords artists and curators powerful tools to move digital art from screen to immersive experience without requiring backing or sponsorship. I’m active on Twitter and while I’m still learning to speak “crypto,” I value the cross-cultural dialogue and community spirit, having worked obsessively and mostly in isolation for 20 years.

Laura Shepherd, (Still from) Flowerpowered Brown, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

CB: It definitely feels more grassroots in that one can drum up one’s own collector base, build a community following, and exhibit one’s work with a legitimacy that once relied on a foothold in the legacy art world. I’m also intrigued by the formation of lore within the digital consciousness of Web3. Web2 saw the rise of communal mythologies like Dear David and Slenderman whereby fragments of a narrative were seeded across the web, debated on, and imprinted in human imagination. I’m curious to see how Web3 might shape lore in a different way.

Through every tweet, Twitter Spaces, Discord thread, drop, and transaction, a discrete NFT can become a prolific vehicle for the dissemination of lore and its embedded ideologies. Released into the wilds of Web3, art is subject to the scrutiny, buy-in, and stewardship of the community. My foray into Web3 has been a social experiment in this regard — considering questions at the root of a postcolonial identity crisis and folding them into synthetic lore to foster alternative perspectives. With Ethereal Caress, I wanted to understand otherness and how I live with it, whereas with Birds of Paradise (2022) I consciously unraveled the dogmas and allegorical biases that are branded into my identity, consciously or unconsciously. But the conversations and responses that came out of these ultimately point to a larger question: What are the cultural narratives and values that shape our identities and how do we choose what to make permanent and pass on? 

Laura Shepherd, (Still from) Flowerpowered, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

LS: Web3 resonates with me on a cultural and philosophical level. I see #WAGMI as an attitude rather than a promise. It’s something I was alluding to in a mixed media work called Age of Entitlement (2019) which was also my genesis NFT. It’s how I describe this new age of sovereign creators, activating without seeking permission. Web3 expanded this vision through open-door community entitlement, which is a brilliant way for society and culture to evolve.

CB: I think you are who you surround yourself with. I find myself in daily dialogue with collectors, technologists, and other artists who constantly challenge my thinking. I’m in a number of Discord servers, but especially appreciate the communities at @NeuralismAI, where discussions around AI range from the highly technological to the ontological; and @midjourney, where the team is both demystifying and democratizing access to advanced AI image synthesis models using the server as the user interface. I also flit between artist-run Twitter Spaces that function like modern-day salons for debating artistic intention, reflecting on creative challenges, and considering the social implications of our work.

RCS: What’s next for you?

LS: Right now, I’m finalizing a new release from my virtual psychedelic generative works for Artpoint, which has been exhibiting my work across France as public art. I’m also developing a new collection for a show curated by Eye of the Huntress. My flower-powered anti-war work Love Machine (2022) is currently on show at CADAF — an AR version of a digital sculpture created in February during my online residency at GAZELL.iO

CB: So far, I’ve released and sold out two NFT collections as part of a larger triptych, concluding later this year. I’m also preparing a collaboration with the Museum of Permuted Art (MoPAr), which I’m excited about because the project leans on the smart contract as a way of reimagining cultural preservation and stewardship. I also continue to develop film and experiential work outside of Web3 that may or may not make its way onto the blockchain. 

Laura Shepherd, Age of Entitlement, 2018. Courtesy of the artist

RCS: What do you see as the future of digital art, NFTs, and Web3?

LS: Co-creation enabled by AI and technology is transforming the production of art, and while some might strive to distinguish machine-generated art from human experience, our exponential intertwining with technology will make it impossible. Ultimately, we’ll come to realise that both man and machine are channeling the very same energy source.   

CB: This space changes from day to day, but I’d rather leave it to the experts to debate how use cases will evolve. I’m more invested in how, over time, our technologies can unlock new dimensions of identity, self-organization, and collaboration that represent a better version of humanity. But then, isn’t that the promise of Web3?

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Connie Bakshi is a transmedia artist who blends tech, lore, and ritual to explore what it means to be human in the era of emerging AI. Her previous work includes a generative opera derived from DNA, an LED lighting series based on the ancient craft of Japanese urushi, and brand strategy for Rivian Automotive. She has won the Red Dot: Best of the Best Award for industrial design, the International Takifuji Art Award, and has exhibited at SaloneSatellite in Milan. She is an alumna of NEW INC, the New Museum’s incubator for art, technology, and design. 

Laura Shepherd is a digital artist exploring energy curation and transmission in her practice of virtual psychedelics, co-creating with technology to generate digital alchemy. A former resident digital artist at GAZELL.iO, her augmented reality experiences have been exhibited across Europe and the US.