Rare Digital Art Festival #1 Anniversary: Larva Labs
RCS speaks to the creators of CryptoPunks, Autoglyphs, and Meebits about the rise of the PFP phenomenon
Credit: Larva Labs, Meebits, 2021
Rare Digital Art Festival #1 Anniversary: Larva Labs
RCS: Hey Matt and John! We’re looking to avoid asking the same questions you always get and to celebrate Rare AF by looking back on the last four years. Do you have any memories from the event itself that you’d like to share?
Larva Labs: Rare AF was very surprising in that we assumed it would be a really small, nerdy technical meetup. It turned out to be much larger than we expected, and about half the crowd was from the art world. You could tell who the art world people were immediately because they had very cool glasses and high quality jackets. There were people attending that day that told me they thought this was the start of a new digital art market. Because it was so early it seemed hard to believe at the time, but they were right.
RCS: We were all young and idealistic back at Rare AF, imagining a new decentralized future for creatives. What are some of the things you think we got right? And what did we maybe get wrong?
LL: The main idea that we got right was that the blockchain was a great way to edition purely digital art. It’s easy to forget that it felt pretty experimental back then. It wasn’t clear that people would accept this somewhat abstract concept of ownership. And we wouldn’t say that today everybody accepts it, but we think the digital art community does. They struggled to find a way to buy and sell their art for years, and now there is a solution.
One of the things we got wrong was how quickly things would happen once they got started in earnest. Over the years from 2017 to mid-2020 we had become convinced that this made a lot of sense, and what we used to think was “ten years from now there will definitely be a digital art market on the blockchain, but who knows how we’ll get there.” Then, what we thought would take ten years suddenly happened in the first six months of 2021.
RCS: What has been a highlight for you in the NFT space since Rare AF in 2018? Was there a particular moment that stood out? Why?
LL: Christie’s hosted an event in London in the summer of 2018 that was all about blockchain and art. We attended it, as did Jason [“Artnome” Bailey] and a few other blockchain art enthusiasts. The talks we gave about the promise of NFTs were essentially ignored by the audience at the time, but it still felt like a galvanizing moment. We were fighting the good fight! And, that’s where we met Georg Bak, which led to the two shows he curated at Kate Vass Galerie in Zürich. This all happened during “crypto winter,” and we think these events were crucial in giving the NFT space just enough life to survive until the upswing began in 2020.
RCS: I remember you had some hesitancy to call yourselves artists at first, but your work is now world-famous and even in museum collections. Have the last four years changed how you think about your identities and the work you do?
LL: It’s been flattering to have our projects become so widely known, but fundamentally we don’t think it’s changed how we view ourselves. We continue to use the label “creative technologists,” as that best describes our creative philosophy, and how we spend our days.
RCS: I think a lot of people assume having three hugely successful projects like CryptoPunks, Autoglyphs, and Meebits, must have changed your life for the better. But I wonder if it also makes things more complicated and challenging too?
LL: Yes, there definitely have been some challenges as we’re just a two-person team. The Cryptopunks and Meebits projects have a great deal of software and services that we’ve built around them that require tending and maintenance, especially with the heavy traffic loads we’ve experienced in the past year. To date, we’ve resisted growing our company because we think that would convert us into “managers” and undermine our core talents. It’s really important to both of us that we continue to be creators, so there’s a tension there that we haven’t really resolved yet. With all the drama and excitement of 2021, we found it essentially impossible to get back to our natural state of working. But we’re hopeful that we can settle back into that rhythm during 2022.
RCS: CryptoPunks complicate the boundary between digital art and collectibles. Is this debate important to you and what do you consider the likely consequences of a rise in generative art projects?
LL: It definitely does sit at that intersection. There’s something interesting that goes on in the brain when it sees lots of little things that are “similar, but different.” We don’t spend our time worrying about whether people will classify it in one category or the other, but we do like to draw attention to the key aspect of Cryptopunks that is often forgotten and we think makes it very unique: Its built-in marketplace. It’s an artwork (or collectible!) that comes with a built-in, always-on, decentralized, zero-fee marketplace. It makes it a very self-contained project, which we really love.
RCS: Have NFTs shifted the value of art further away from creativity towards the status accrued through ownership?
LL: Over these past few years, we feel like we’ve had a crash course in the art market and how it operates. And what we’ve learned is that anything negative you can level at the NFT market was present in the art market long before NFTs came along. So we don’t worry about “NFTs destroying art,” because art has survived to this point despite all kinds of bad behavior and aggressive financialization. We’re hopeful that as things settle down, the word “NFT” will be used less, because it will simply have become the technical underpinning of the nascent digital art market.
RCS: Autoglyphs seem to reference a long lineage: From Piet Mondrian to Sol LeWitt to the computer art of the 1960s. Do you think it’s important to connect the art of the NFT space with art historical prototypes?
LL: Yes — minimalist works like those of Mondrian and LeWitt feel to us like satisfying “resets” back to the fundamentals of design and expression. And so it felt right to do something similarly stripped down in the first blockchain-generated artwork. We like to think of the Autoglyphs as the cave paintings of on-chain art.
RCS: Owing to its extraordinary success, CryptoPunks has ironically become something of a standard template for the 1/10K PFP NFT. How do you feel about inventing a genre and the current tsunami of PFP projects?
LL: It was a strange feeling the first time we heard people using the term “10K project”! It’s especially wild that this became the standard since we took a shot in the dark when we decided to make the Cryptopunks a set of ten thousand. We wanted them to seem plentiful enough so that each one wouldn’t feel too precious (at least early on), but constrained enough that you could eventually get a feeling for the whole set. And it seems that that reasoning has held up! The three-quarter pose with a flat color background has also become a core part of the genre as well.
And yes, it is now a fairly established genre of collectible, and in hindsight we can see why these types of projects have been so successful. When compared to traditional collectibles (sports cards and memorabilia, stamps, cars, etc.) they have a very fixed and immutable set size, less risk of fakes, no such thing as physical damage, and a worldwide, low-friction marketplace. Plus, you can show off what you own to the whole world as part of your daily online interactions on social media, and your NFT becomes a sort of membership pass to a club of all the other owners. During the pandemic, a lot of traditional collectibles, such as sports and game cards, thrived as well. It will be interesting to see where it all shakes out post-pandemic, but we suspect that NFTs will be a permanent fixture in the collectibles space.
RCS: Is there any work out there at the moment that you find particularly interesting or innovative and are you planning to release any new NFT-related projects yourselves? We’d love to hear about anything you’re working on currently.
LL: The past year has been so hectic for us that we’ve had very little time to properly survey the greater NFT space and find really interesting, unique projects. We hope to get time to do that this year. In general, we are interested in NFTs that move beyond the “digital painting/video” phase and into works that don’t attempt to mimic physical media. That’s where we’re turning our attention in the coming year.
Larva Labs is John Watkinson and Matt Hall, long-time creative technologists and early innovators in blockchain art. In 2017 they created the Cryptopunks, one of the earliest examples of NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain. Along with a mechanism for digital ownership, the Cryptopunks contract also includes a fully decentralized zero-fee marketplace that has processed over $2 billion dollars worth of Cryptopunk transactions. Further work includes Autoglyphs (2019): The first fully on-chain generative artwork, and The Meebits (2021): Generative 3D characters with an integrated zero-fee trading system.