April 12, 2022

Generative Art and the Decentralization of Creativity

Peter Bauman detects an emerging paradigm of communal art practice
Credit: William Mapan, Untitled (detail), 2021. Courtesy of the artist
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Generative Art and the Decentralization of Creativity

NFTs have given artists unprecedented control. From direct access to a global network of collectors to the ability to set prices and royalties, artists can now independently oversee the sale and distribution of their work more easily than ever. Yet paradoxically, the long-form generative art movement has seen artists relinquish creative control over their work like never before. This decentralization of control and ownership of art cuts to the heart of what I term “Art3.” 

But creative control is also a spectrum, with what Vera Molnár refers to as “intuitive” artists at one end. Art1 of this kind constitutes the era of artist-owned content. Like a conductor orchestrating a symphony, these artists create with direct intention, allowing intuition to do “what it does” while maintaining near total control from creation to curation. In other words, Art1 is a closed system. This control on the creation side ranges from the highly finished neoclassicism of Poussin to the staccato brushstrokes of Monet to the spontaneity of Pollock. Yet in each of these cases, the artist would fiercely control the outputs seen by their publics.

At the other end, generative art is inherently free of artist control. The generative artist cedes control to an autonomous system. The question of how much control they cede depends on whether they are a short-form or long-form generative artist. 

Vera Molnar, 8 Colonnes, 1985. Courtesy of Gazelli Art House

The short-form generative artist still maintains a high level of control as to what is publicly visible. Artists like Michael Hansmeyer create thousands of iterations, choosing only the very best. This follows Vera Molnár’s approach, whereby “I first open the entire spectrum. And say, ‘this is the part that interests me and not the rest.’” In a sense, this is Art1.5 — where creative control is relinquished but curatorial control maintained.

In long-form generative art, the artist has considerably less control. The outputs go directly into the wallets of collectors without the chance for an artist to intervene. This is Art2, where powerful, closed platforms control curation. Tyler Hobbs has described how, with such an approach, “the full range of outputs is a surprise to everyone.” 

There is currently a new class of long-form generative art emerging, Art3, which entails an even more radical cession of control. This is collaborative long-form generative art. Practitioners of Art3 collaborate with users — either collectors or other artists — to distribute control even further, denying any central gatekeeper. They have found prominence and patronage on the generative art platform fxhash

Here I would like to highlight three such standout Art3 artists and their category-defining work, which typifies an emerging artist-collector relationship of empowerment.

William Mapan, Dragons #391, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

William Mapan’s Dragons

William Mapan’s first long-form generative art project, Dragons (2021), released on fxhash, is a masterpiece of contrast and interpretation, with the artist sharing ownership of his creative process with his collectors in the creation phase.

In Chinese culture, dragons are auspicious creatures symbolizing benevolence, wisdom, and power.¹ In Western culture, dragons are associated with the devil and evil, destruction and sin. Contrast is a central theme of Mapan’s collection. The technique he uses to convey contrast formally, emotionally, and iconographically is chiaroscuro, the effect of contrasted light and shadow. 

The use of chiaroscuro in Dragons achieves three objectives. First, on a formal level the bold light-dark contrast conveys an impression of three-dimensionality. This creates an illusion of mass and volume which grounds the works in naturalism, giving the impression of organic creatures rather than rectangles on a two-dimensional surface.

“The key trick I achieved with Dragons was the lighting. Sometimes it will look 3D but really everything is drawn in 2D,” says Mapan, referencing a technique based on his drawing practice.

William Mapan, Dragons #479, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Secondly, chiaroscuro injects emotional depth into the collection, imbuing it with an intensely dramatic effect, exemplified by the powerful contrast of light and dark in Dragons #479. Here we see a dark background contrasted with a partially illuminated dragon. Like David’s face in Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath (c. 1605-10), one half of the dragon remains in shadow. The tonal balance implies an emotive ambiguity demanding the viewer’s interpretation. Is this a menacing Western dragon or a glimmer of hope and relief as in the Chinese tradition? Either way, the tonal contrast provokes powerful emotions. 

Mapan’s chiaroscuro also stands for generative art itself. In Dragons, the use of light and shadow alludes to the diametric nature of generative art, whereby the artist employs code as an ordering principle in order to create the chaos of art. If “generative art is about creating the organic using the mechanical,” rarely has an artist been able to accomplish this so convincingly in a long-form collection.²

Long-form generative art collections with emotive depth, symbolism, and art historical reach do not come together overnight. “I spent four to five good months on it (not full time),” says Mapan, “iterating, adjusting, reloading the page until every output looked ok.”

They are also not forged in isolation in the manner of Cézanne or O’Keeffe. Mapan is open about his willingness to share ownership of his creative process with collectors in the input phase, typically over Twitter. “It is more part of my creative process to just put my WIPs/fails/art somewhere in a chronological manner. It allows me to free myself about ideas I had somewhere stuck in my head. By sharing it, I say to myself, ‘alright, you can move on now.’” In this sense, sharing his work is a therapeutic endeavor with the public serving as Mapan’s interlocutor. 

William Mapan, Dragons #7, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Feedback is another reason why Mapan shares his work in progress (WIP) on Twitter. In an interview shortly after the release of Dragons, Mapan said: “I like having feedback, so I like posting [on Twitter] a lot. People tell me, ‘yeah I like it a lot,’ ‘Yeah this looks bad.’ I accept a lot of criticism. Yeah just give it to me. Give me critics. I will take it. I will hear it. I like having this relation[ship] with Twitter. This is more or less a conversation.” He also derives a certain pleasure from it. As he tells me, “it’s fun! Sometimes people give good and constructive feedback or just interact by commenting.”

In addition to accepting criticism, posting his WIP introduces a social component to his practice: “Publishing work online triggers reactions and allows me to connect with people,” he says. It also serves as a learning experience. “I imagine a social network like a big classroom and when everyone shares what they’re working on that’s cool. Emulation and iteration can emerge if everyone does it. [...] I’m really eager to learn about everyone’s processes. So I like to be open about it too. Sometimes that is the starting point of [a] good friendship.”

Importantly for Mapan, allowing the collector into a creative symbiosis has benefits for both parties. “The real reason [I share] is I hope people understand where a visual comes from if they scroll through my work. It gives context.” No gatekeeper is telling Mapan how to iterate his work based on their preferences. He engages his community and involves them.

The artist also feels that by sharing ownership of the creative process with his collectors, they will be able to engage more fully and understand his work on a deeper level: “I generally spend so much time working/iterating on something that at some point, it becomes really personal. I want these personal feelings to transfer to whoever looks at my work.” When Mapan says “personal feelings,” it means he is not interested in telling you how to feel about his work. While drawing back the curtain to expose his creative process and producing highly emotive works, he leaves it up to the collector to ultimately interpret them, to partly own them. Are these evil, Western dragons lurking in the shadows or auspicious dragons swooping in to enrich his audience?

Sandstone. Photography by Matt Artz. Courtesy of Unsplash

Sedimentary Dissolution by Landlines Art

Where Mapan involves the public in the input phase of his project, Landlines Art shares control of his work by inviting the collector into the curatorial process, giving his users an ownership stake.

Sedimentary dissolution, the geological process whereby stones are chemically weathered to create the raw materials for new, sedimentary rocks, is nature’s generative art — a random, natural system that can produce stunning visuals without direct human control.

This process inspired Landlines Art to create Sedimentary Dissolution (2022), a long-form generative collection of 512 pieces in which various interactive algorithms distort, slash, and erode an original image or “sedimentary rock.” A single, customizable image is where most long-form generative projects would stop but Landlines provides 20 different versions per mint for the collector to explore. Each of these 20 original versions may be further manipulated with keystroke functions such as toggling on and off “erosion” or “rgb dissolution.” This lavishes each individual mint with hundreds of variations to traverse and inspect like a geologist. 

This vastness was no accident, and Sedimentary Dissolution attempts something fundamentally new for the artist. “One big difference [compared to my previous work] while creating this piece, was that I forced myself to slow down and deliberately explore as many possibilities as I could. I found this to be a really fruitful process.” 

Landlines Art, Sedimentary Dissolution #156, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Giving the collector the freedom to choose between essentially countless outputs has two implications. First, by turning over control of the outputs to his collectors, the artist repositions them as curators: “Allowing the outputs to be customizable was my way of inviting the collectors into the curatorial process that is always ongoing when creating generative art.”

Rather than choosing his own favorite variations out of the tens of thousands produced by the algorithm — as would a short-form generative artist — or simply providing each collector with a single iteration like a classic long-form genartist, Landlines permits the collector to partake in the joy of creation. In the process, he offers them “the opportunity to find a version that aligns with their preferences.” This approach of collector empowerment, which contrasts starkly with the artist’s more traditional peers, is also a direct and considered response:

The project was inspired by my observation that many generative projects don’t offer the collector much control over the artwork that is generated. Although their wallet address, or operation hash may be used as a seed, this process doesn’t offer any meaningful control over the resulting artwork.

Offering hundreds of different collectors “meaningful control” over his own work is one of the revolutionary facets of Art3, made possible through NFTs’ introduction of independently verifiable digital ownership. It also relies on the brilliance of artist-coders capable of producing algorithms that afford astonishing consistency of quality. In order to produce a genuine decentralization of ownership and control, the algorithm itself must be up to the task.

Landlines Art, Sedimentary Dissolution #497, 2022. Courtesy of the artist
Landlines Art, Sedimentary Dissolution #28, 2022. Courtesy of the artist
Landlines Art, Sedimentary Dissolution #432, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

The merit of a short-form generative artist’s algorithm is difficult to discern as they control which outputs are ever seen by the public. Landlines has the confidence, while accepting a level of vulnerability, to showcase the robustness of his algorithm for the world to investigate.

Allowing interaction via multiple outputs was a really useful way to show the diversity of the algorithm. For a medium like generative art, where there are an unbounded number of possible outputs, it seems like a shame to put unnecessary limitations on the variations that collectors get to see.

As a result, Landlines has allowed himself nowhere to hide, exposed like the geological strata he emulates to any number of potentially unsatisfactory outputs, all for the collector’s benefit. Moreover, he not only allows the collector to showcase their curatorship while gaining a sense of ownership, but also offers a glimpse into the astonishing power of his algorithm and generative art as a whole — opening the door to a room that was once locked. 

Allowing the collector to explore each of these layers allows for a more nuanced understanding of the algorithm itself.

In this context, the collector not only becomes the curator, but the artist, teacher, and student as well. This empowering of collectors has so far paid off. Of Landlines Art’s eleven fxhash releases, Sedimentary Dissolution has the largest market cap to date. Both the artist and the collector benefit when control over the creative process is distributed. 

Claus O. Wilke, BRIDGE #67 Into another world, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Camille Roux’s BRIDGE

Where William Mapan and Landlines Art relinquish control to collectors, Camille Roux shares control of his work with a multitude of other artists for fxhash’s largest collaboration.

In jazz music, a song’s first chorus commonly serves as the head — a previously composed (not improvised) melody that sets the stage for the other musicians. The subsequent middle choruses are then improvised by each soloist in turn, using the head as their guide.

BRIDGE (2022), a collaborative project on fxhash between 25 different artists conceived by Camille Roux, follows this same structure. Roux’s original framework, which laid out a basic structure for his collaborators to follow, serves as the head while his 24 collaborators riff off his code to create their own variations. Each of BRIDGE’s 520 editions is a visual jazz number, featuring a work by all the artists (including two by Roux) making up 26 iterations in total. 

The artist’s collaborators were free to use their own style and “implement their own artistic vision” so long as they respected the original base code he provided. By deferring control over the artistic process, he also relinquished control over the project’s ultimate destination.

“I don’t like to know where I’m going from the beginning. The more I don’t know where the project is heading, the more fun it is. I like that.” With a musical background, Roux is comfortable in a world of improvisation where artists can create on the fly, accidents are accepted, and inputs from others are essential.

Laurent Houdard, BRIDGE #301 Bridge-Tunnel, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

For BRIDGE, the inputs of others created some special outputs. With collaborators like lunarean, Makio (David Ronai), and Claus O. Wilke, BRIDGE offers collectors the chance to own works by some of the most exciting names in generative art all in a single edition.

Each piece has three functions stipulated by Roux: A background, foreground, and orthogonal tiles, reminiscent of Georg Nees’s Corridor (1965), one of the first examples of computer-generated art. From such a simple outline, works of impressive variety and creativity can consequently emerge. In addition to producing one of the most recognizable collections on fxhash, Roux also prioritized the empowerment of his fellow artists by decentralizing the ownership of creation.

When you collaborate or improv[ize] you accept ideas from others. You can create something that wasn’t possible to create alone, […] Collaboration is a strategy for artists to become stronger and more creative.

For Roux, as for Mapan and Landlines, collaboration is both an intellectual and social embrace of his audience: “I’m not at all an artist that works on something in his room and releases it without talking to anybody in between. I’m the opposite. I chat a lot, share a lot on my Twitter. I love the interaction. It allows me to go in directions I wouldn’t have thought about on my own. My work is also a communication/interaction with my community.” 

All of which makes BRIDGE a collection that no single artist would have achieved on their own. By releasing control of the creative process, Roux was able to transcend the individual’s agency and creative capacity, thereby unlocking the power of a decentralized art. 

lunarean, BRIDGE #54 /nt/r/t///a/, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Conclusion

Long-form generative art has been made possible and nurtured by the decentralized web. Naturally, this has had the effect of decentralizing ownership and art itself. Beyond the continuities outlined here, BRIDGE, Dragons, and Sedimentary Dissolution are all recent releases on fxhash — a platform which prioritizes artist-community interaction and collaboration without putting down barriers to entry. 

Ecosystems ripe for collaboration and decentralization are the new frontier for art today. Meanwhile, the age of the isolated artist controlling all aspects of creation and curation in a walled arena is coming to an end. The internet has taught us that the sharing of ideas without central gatekeepers offers immense creative power. In Web3, the users own the system. In Art3 the users — artists, collectors, and platforms — own the art together.  

🎴🎴🎴

Peter Bauman is an art enthusiast and collector who also writes about art. He is part of the curatorial platform tender.art.

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¹ L Yuan and Y Sun, “A Comparative Study Between Chinese and Western Dragon Culture in Cross-Cultural Communication”, Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, vol. 517, Dordrecht: Atlantis Press, 2020.

² M Pearson, Generative Art: a practical guide using Processing, New York, Manning Publications Co., June 2011, xviii.