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June 30, 2023

Rhizome and the SEED of Digital Art’s Future

As Rhizome opens up its archive to TRLab, Michael Connor and Audrey Ou discuss their new collaboration with Jason Bailey
Credit: Postcards from StarryNight (preview image), 2023. Courtesy of TRLab
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Rhizome and the SEED of Digital Art’s Future

Since 1996, Rhizome has nourished natively digital creativity through commissions, exhibitions, and scholarship. Founded by the artist, Mark Tribe, as an email discussion list for early internet artists, it is now renowned for its archive and activities in preserving born digital culture for posterity. In 2014, Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash launched what is often regarded as the first NFT as part of Rhizome’s Seven on Seven program, while the acclaimed Net Art Anthology includes a number of vital figures from generative art history.

This month, Rhizome is partnering with TRLab on a new project, SEED, that invites collectors to explore the archive for themselves while picking up an NFT “postcard” for good measure. Here, Jason Bailey catches up with Rhizome’s Michael Connor and TRLab’s CEO, Audrey Ou, to learn what the collaboration means for digital art’s future.

Kevin McCoy, (Still from) Quantum, minted at Rhizome’s 2014 Seven on Seven event. Courtesy of Rhizome

Jason Bailey: I’m curious, how did the two of you meet and what prompted the collaboration between Rhizome and TRLab?

Michael Connor: We got to know each other through Rhizome’s Seven on Seven (7x7) program, which was an initiative that paired artists with technologists, asking them to make something new as part of a short-term collaboration. Famously, in 2014, Kevin McCoy minted the “first” NFT at Seven on Seven with Anil Dash — that’s one of our claims to fame but it’s been a long-running program. 

Audrey Ou: Michael came to one of the talks that I did when we launched season one of TRLab’s partnership with the Calder Foundation. TRLab specializes in using the capabilities of Web3 and blockchain technology to create online experiences that educate people and allow them to participate interactively with art in a new way rather than simply selling NFT art.

MC: We also have an interest in trying to deepen Rhizome’s engagement with generative art, with which we’ve had a really long relationship without necessarily using the same language as the generative art community today. 

We’ve wanted to find a way to build more connections between our work and that community, and we were interested in TRLab’s desire to experiment and willingness to take risks.

Screenshot from Entropy8Zuper! (Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn), Rhizome Splashed, 2000. Courtesy of the artists and Rhizome

AO: For TRLab, what we always care about is creating customized digital journeys through archives that highlight historical context. There are newcomers to the space who are unaware of generative art’s long history, including how it relates to net art. I first found out about Rhizome from a friend back in 2016, who told me about how much they had done to support artists in the born-digital art scene. When Michael and I sat down, Rhizome had been working on its Net Art Anthology and revamping the website. We discussed the potential ways in which we could collaborate on something that TRLab is good at in order to highlight Rhizome further.

MC: The conversation also started just as the market was changing a lot. For a non-profit, engaging with the heat of the market in 2021 felt really difficult. There was an expectation that Rhizome could just capitalize on this incredible run, but it was really difficult to engage beyond saying: “we’re here to contextualize and create space for conversation in a way that keeps the long game in view.” Now that has really shifted. 

It’s a great time to try a new institutional initiative because the expectations are not quite so solid. Instead, we can build a program we believe in with the resources of people who believe in it. I think it’s a different kind of moment that makes it possible to have this kind of partnership.

Marius Watz, System_C, 2005. Courtesy of Rhizome

JB: How did you feel when NFTs began to take off along with generative art, which brought an influx of people who hadn’t previously shown an interest in digital art?

MC: Mostly I feel validated for 20 years of curatorial work in this field that wasn’t always so easy. I’ve seen other hype cycles in the course of my career and I think there is an inevitable hype cycle that’s going to get attached to the rise and fall in the value of crypto and NFTs. We need literacy about what a scam looks like and for people to seek out the underlying value. I’ve always been more in favor of letting that underlying value build up rather than the hype. It’s been positive seeing so many come into the conversation through the desire to mint an NFT, maybe because they are looking for financial gain, and then get stuck into a community that is more focused on building a culture.

JB: Has Rhizome changed its mission at all as a result of the NFT hype cycle?

MC: The short answer is: “no.” This moment has been a validation of our mission, but an interesting pressure point has been that we have really lost the sense that we are able to speak to an entire field in the way that we used to. We’re a tiny organization with an important voice, albeit a small voice in relation to a burgeoning digital art field. 

I think the value that we bring in this moment is that there are very few institutions that have a long-term perspective on digital culture like Rhizome. That long-term perspective allows us to do conservation, commissioning, and curation in a way that others are not able to. 

Artists who are emerging in this context really want to work with an institution that has that perspective. Our artist programs are still seen as really valuable, and we’re trying to think about ways to scale them and communicate about them differently in order to reach a broader public. 

Rafaël Rozendaal, into, 2010. Courtesy of Rhizome

JB: I think there is some sense in which that Seven on Seven event helped to foster a climate in which what many people consider to be the first NFT could be invented. Whether you regard NFTs as a massive success or something that perhaps grew too large, has your front-row seat changed your perspective at all — do you have any regrets? 

MC: The idea of an NFT was in the air at that time, while the blockchain really developed as a medium management technology before it was a currency technology. In a sense, the NFT was bringing it back to its original purpose. That moment did feel important. Kevin [McCoy] and Anil [Dash] went to TechCrunch Disrupt two weeks later, and it was like: “okay, this is happening now — this is going to be a thing.” But it was also hard watching Kevin struggle through the early years of Monegraph

In 2018 or so, I met John Crain and he was talking about his NFT platform, SuperRare. I was kind of like, “these things will never work. I’ve seen Kevin struggle through this for so long.” Then, in late 2020, I noticed a resurgence of activity. One of the lessons from all of it is that an idea might take a lot more time than it seems, but if the value is there, sometimes the world just has to catch up. Ethereum still hadn’t launched when Kevin did that demo. His original motivation was really about supporting artists, so it’s encouraging when I see that idea embraced in Web3, which happens a lot. 

Supporting digital artists is still a cause dear to my heart, and it is something that NFTs have so far done unevenly. 
Rosa Menkman, (Still from) The Collapse of PAL, 2010. Courtesy of Rhizome

JB: If the period between 2014 and 2021 feels like a long time for an NFT space to develop, the time it has taken for generative art to find its way into the popular imagination — around 60 years — is significantly longer. Are you surprised that it has taken off as broadly as it seems to have? Do you have any concerns about the speed at which the generative art bubble has blown up?

MC: Generative art is interesting because an infrastructure has slowly been building around it for a period of years. The Processing community has been a big part of that. I was at Processing Community Day in 2018 or 2019, and it was a really active and committed group of people pushing an ethos that was really inspiring. By championing born-digital art, Rhizome has certainly taken a different approach and maybe suffered for its broader frame, which didn’t create the same, highly specific, ethos that the Processing group was able to develop. When I look at what Art Blocks have been doing with their Marfa Weekend, it feels like a continuation of something from the pre-boom years. 

Generative art has a real underlying value that I think people will continue to respond to because code is such an important part of society. These works are not only about code, but also about the underlying patterns in the world. 
Postcards from StarryNight (preview image), 2023. Courtesy of TRLab

JB: What can you tell us about your new collaboration with TRLab, SEED

MC: SEED is a campaign to tell the story of Rhizome’s work on generative art and to extend it through a series of new NFT collaborations. It’s a project that opens up the next phase of experimentation, while also thinking back to its longer history. For example, we’ve been thinking about how the demoscene developed as a community that was driven by maximizing computational performance at a minimum file size. That community assigned value entirely self-sufficiently, and wasn’t interested in the validation of a place like Rhizome. Nevertheless, we’re looking at how Rhizome has covered, supported, and archived such different practices. 

AO: SEED is a pretty unique creative collaboration — “campaign” is probably the best description — that starts with a free interactive multimedia journey through Rhizome’s association with pioneering digital artists, tracing the evolution of generative art and the role that Rhizome has played in it. It then looks to the future by introducing different digital keepsakes from Rhizome’s archive, beginning with Postcards from StarryNight, a limited edition NFT series based on a 1999 digital artwork, StarryNight, which was lost for many years before it was recently restored by Rhizome’s preservation team. 

Further collaborations with contemporary artists will follow that adopt an historical perspective, with Rhizome commissioning new generative artworks that reflect on its position in this growing art community while supporting its mission directly. The website is at the heart of the experience.

Installation view of “Rhizome ArtBase 101” including MTAA (M. River & T. Whid Art Associates), 1 Year Performance (2004) at the New Museum, 2005. Courtesy of Rhizome

MC: We’re telling the story of generative art through Rhizome’s work over the years, which has been very fun to put together. It’s a very partial view, but one which involves selecting moments to be minted that tell the story of our work in digital conservation. The original work that Audrey just mentioned, StarryNight, was actually a Java applet that served as an interface to the Rhizome email list. 

Rhizome began as an email discussion list in the late 1990s and this year marks the 20th anniversary of our partnership with the New Museum. Originally, there was a process by which emails from the community were curated into an archive called “Textbase,” and StarryNight was a visual interface for Textbase where you could examine a field of stars — with each star representing an email — click on it, select a keyword such as “artificial life” and it would draw a constellation to all the other emails that used the same keyword. In that sense, it symbolizes thematic connectivity. The field of stars also always changed, so that each time the work loaded it would respond to different data inputs.

StarryNight was actually broken and inaccessible for a long time but was restored a few years back by our digital preservation team.

Now you can access it in our archives using emulation. Click on the link and it launches Windows 98 somewhere in the cloud and you can interact with the original operating system environment, which is a really magical thing that our digital preservation team has achieved. 

Postcards from StarryNight (preview image), 2023. Courtesy of TRLab

For the NFT, we decided to create a museum-quality screenshot of 150 keywords out of the original 500, based on a partial copy of our text archives. Each of the images is a one-of-one with words like “robotics” or “activism” assigned randomly in the minting process, so there will hopefully be a little bit of trading after the fact. We think it’s a nice way for people to show their connection to Rhizome. Our plan for the next NFT is to incorporate a community aspect that responds to ownership of your current one.

AO: Postcards from StarryNight is a captivating glimpse into what Rhizome’s early online community looked like. Michael and our team have done a lot of work piecing out the conversation in a way that makes the website experience less overwhelming for a new user. 

I see the work as both a manifestation of visual information and a memento of what it means to be a part of Rhizome. Having that NFT in your wallet will affect how you experience the works Rhizome commissions in the future. 

The way it serves as an artistic interface for this online archive of Rhizome’s email list dating back to the 1990s is unique.

Post by Mark Tribe in 1996 on Rhizome’s email list. Courtesy of Rhizome

JB: In a digital context, is giving away a “postcard” any different from giving away the actual digital artwork that inspired it? Could you not give away the digital art itself?

MC: In our archival work at Rhizome, we embrace the idea that a digital artwork often has multiple variations, which we call “variants.” In the case of StarryNight, the work was actively updated for years, and then a distinctly different version was created by our preservation team. We provide ongoing public access to that restoration on our website

Maybe this version is like going to the Sistine Chapel — it’s there in its original context for everyone to visit, but it might take some effort to get there, and it’s probably most suitable for institutional stewardship. 

The word, “postcard,” is meant to suggest an image that readily circulates, and is more suitable for a personal collection. The Postcards therefore have an exciting immediacy that the original artwork doesn’t have. 

AO: It’s almost like the work captures a long-gone memory that one wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience. It’s also the starting point of a new chapter in Rhizome’s work with online communities and generative art. 

(Still from) Easter Egg Version of Rhizome’s 2023 Logo, 2023. Courtesy of Rhizome

JB: Right now, the question for me is: how do we retain the specialness of collecting something, while also finding a way for as many people as possible to participate? 

MC: I think our NFT is priced pretty accessibly for something that’s also supporting our program. Owners of the NFT will actually be supporting the infrastructure that keeps the restored version of StarryNight online, for the public to experience free of charge. 

JB: Rhizome does a lot of preservation and a lot of education, but it doesn’t seem to have a heavy focus on collecting. Is collectibility important because it can lead to stewardship? Is there even a connection between collectibility and preservation?

MC: We’ve tried to encourage the collecting of digital art in the past, including works by the artists in our archive, because it is an important way for artists to get support for their practice. In fact, we sold an NFT as part of a benefit in 2018 — a single edition by Harm van den Dorpel

The way that NFT enthusiasts relate to artwork is through ownership and so the best way we can engage is by offering things that make people want a Rhizome-commissioned work in their wallet, which changes their relationship with us as an organization. 

I’ve always been in favor of putting tools into people’s hands that preserve the longevity of digital culture. I always hear stories about people using our Conifer tool to grab a blog that they heard was on the way out — all of a sudden, it’s the only meaningful copy left. We’re here to support that kind of fandom and personal connection with digital culture and not stand in its way.

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Michael Connor is Co-Executive Director of Rhizome, where he oversaw the Net Art Anthology initiative, an effort to retell the history of net art through 100 works, presented as an online exhibition, gallery exhibition, and book. He is also curatorial advisor for Kadist, a non-profit contemporary art organization, and Art Blocks, an NFT platform. His first online curatorial project took place in 2003 at FACT, Liverpool, where he organized an edition of the traveling exhibition, “Kingdom of Piracy,” with Shu Lea Cheang, Yukiko Shikata, and Armin Medosch. Connor is currently editing a book by Gene Youngblood about the work of Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz.

Audrey Ou is CEO and co-founder of TRLab, a curated global platform that fuses blockchain technology with fine art expertise. Alongside her co-founder, Christie’s Deputy Chairman Xin Li-Cohen, Audrey leads business development, strategy, and artist partnerships for TRLab. Her involvement in contemporary art derives from her family’s engagement with Rockbund Art Museum since its formation in 2010. Audrey is a member of the Asia Art Committee and Young Collectors Committee at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. She holds a BA in History from Princeton University and a MS in Applied Analytics from Columbia University. She has been recognized as a rising talent by Apollo Magazine and was recently inducted into Forbes 30 Under 30 Class for 2023. She is a frequent speaker on topics at the intersection of fine art, education, and Web3.

Jason Bailey is the creator of the art and tech blog and founder of GreenNFTs and ClubNFT, where he serves as CEO.