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March 2, 2022

Robbie Barrat on “The Lost Robbies”

Jason Bailey speaks to Robbie Barrat about his latest work and his (mixed) feelings about the big Sotheby’s sale
Credit: Robbie Barrat, Counterstrike Afterstory (detail), 2021. In-game spray for Counter-Strike, after Velvet-Strike. Courtesy of the artist
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Robbie Barrat on “The Lost Robbies”

Jason Bailey: How have you been, Robbie?

Robbie Barrat: I’m fine, I have a week off school so that’s nice. It allows me to do work that is not part of school.

JB: What kind of work have you been focused on?

RB: I’ve been doing a lot of cyanotypes lately — analog work in the form of icons. But I’m also making digital work such as landscapes. I’m trying to make work that I enjoy. I became interested in Orthodox Christian icons because they have a highly defined visual language. But they also influence my allegorical work about how the game Counter-Strike, especially older versions of the game, are currently changing. 

This is particularly true of the community game mode, called “surf,” which changes Counter-Strike from a fairly realistic shooter, set in the Middle East, into a non-violent game concerned with movement, almost like a dance. I wanted to explore this change through the the characters — The terrorists and counter-terrorists — using iconography. I’ve recently been overtaken by icons, which bring me back to my first experiences of AI, trying to figure out whether it was a medium, a tool, or a creative agent.

Robbie Barrat, Counterstrike Afterstory, 2021, In-game spray for Counter-Strike, after Velvet-Strike. Courtesy of the artist

With icons, there isn’t the same spatial depth as we tend to see in Western art. Instead perspective is reversed. With Orthodox icons, you aren’t looking into a focal point within the image, you are the focal point, enveloped by the icon. I had a brief conversation with a priest about the possibilities for icons on digital screens and whether or not that’s ok or allowed. They seemed to lean towards no. But I think it had something to do with the capacity of the Holy Spirit to inhabit the icon. I don’t want to pretend I fully understand their reasoning as Orthodoxy is a new interest for me.

JB: Are we not comfortable with the Holy Spirit inhabiting technology yet?

RB: I don’t know how much of it is about technology and how much of it is the fact that there is no real material component. Icons can be replicated and multiples can be displayed at once, all representing the same prototype. 

A lot of icons, especially of saints, involve engagement with the saint through prayer and prayer is conversation. In the early internet, people would log onto 3D avatar programs like Onlive Traveler and speak to each other through their avatars. And I thought that’s kind of like prayer. 

Robbie Barrat, Cyanotypes of Counterstrike: In-game gesture of knifing (left) and In-game gesture of reloading (right), 2022. Courtesy of the artist

JB: It sounds as though you’ve expanded your practice into new themes, using new tools?

RB: AI art started off with people exploring it as a mechanism or a tool. And now it’s become more of a medium. I think with NFTs as well, a lot of the very early explorations addressed the NFT as a tool. 

At the time we created the 300 cards for Christie’s in 2018, NFTs were exciting to me because I could finally use them to give people my digital work. It was not like it is now where people are focused on artificial scarcity, I was really trying to produce an abundance of work. 

JB: What do you think led to this explosion in AI art and NFTs? Was there something missing, a void that these are filling for people? 

RB: If we start with NFTs, what was missing was acceptance. I remember when you bought my first nude portraits we talked about you trying to prove that this is worth something, right?

JB: Yeah, I am inherently excited to be doing things that haven’t been mapped out and don’t work yet. I think we had a similar interest to explore NFTs because they were not mapped out at the time. I liked the idea that NFTs were emerging from a culture of absurdity: This idea of buying a JPEG that I can see for free via a token that somehow symbolizes it.

RB: I was really excited about selling it too, I mean, at the time. I don’t like to print out my work, you know, because it’s a digital image. I don’t feel like I should change it to be physical, just so that someone can buy it. I think that’s the only reason that I would have printed out my old work. 

Robbie Barrat, AI Generated Nude Portrait #7 Frame #64, 2018

With NFTs, finally there was a way for me to give people my work in a meaningful way that involved more than merely viewing it on their phone. As a digital artist, I was really excited about that, and the idea is still exciting to me. I don’t want to attack the NFT because at its core it is an interesting idea. But, at least for me, there are just too many downsides, concerning both the environment and speculation. 

I’m not against the idea of owning a digital image. I think that’s interesting. But I’m at odds with a lot of the attitudes in the space. I want NFTs to be better than they are now. I hope that doesn’t sound weird or snobby, because I’m still as excited as I was back in 2018.

If we consider the 300 cards that were gifted at Christie’s first Art+Tech Summit. They’re still the same works today. But at the time, nobody cared — they simply threw them away. Here was this gift economy that’s now turned into its opposite: A highly speculative treasure hunt, where nobody talks about the work anymore. I think that perfectly encapsulates, indeed exaggerates, what’s been going on in the wider NFT space.

Robbie Barrat, Card for AI Generated Nude Portrait #7 Frame #64, 2018

JB: Do you find it interesting to be part of the folklore around “The lost Robbies” or is it largely frustrating?

RB: I know that when an artist makes work, and the work is released, or sold, or even just published, it takes on a life of its own. And it’s not really in your control anymore. I can’t deny that this loss of control happens, because it does. It’s not even a question of people talking about my work in a way that I don’t like, It’s that nobody is talking about the work. They’re only talking about the token.

JB: It sounds like the problem isn’t that people talk about it as a token, the problem is that no one talks about it as art? If it were both, you know, we could have a debate about what the right ratio is, but the current ratio is all or nothing, right?

RB: Yeah! I remember very early on, it wasn’t this way. Once the space started to change, I noticed that fewer people were talking about the image itself, and the NFT as a delivery mechanism, and instead focusing on price. That’s the opposite of what I was trying to do with the “lost Robbies.” I wasn’t trying to create scarcity, I was trying to create abundance. I was trying to give my work to as many people as I could, because I was excited at the prospect of gifting digital art. 

Robbie Barrat, Card for AI Generated Nude Portrait #7 Frame #64, 2018

JB: At a very young age, you’ve received a large amount of attention from traditional auction houses and through NFTs. Most of these experiences do not seem to have been pleasant for you. Are you fundamentally against the idea of being paid for your work, or is it something else?

RB: I guess I did get exposure from the Christie’s sale, but it’s not as if the work of the auction house brought me that exposure. The Christie’s thing was an interesting conversation about generative art, about who deserves what in this arrangement, especially since a lot of generative art is built upon layers and layers of other people’s work. It’s the same with NFTs. I’m proud of the 300 cards, even though it’s being misconstrued right now, because it reflected my hopes for what NFTs could be — a way to let people own digital work. 

JB: It sounds like what you’re saying is that you’ve received an absurd, outsized amount of attention on multiple occasions for things that you’ve not been seeking attention for? 

RB: Exactly. But the NFT conversation and community just isn’t focused on art right now.

Robbie Barrat, Counterstrike landscape painting, 2021, landscape adapted according to custom game mode. Courtesy of the artist

JB: I definitely don’t want to be an NFT cheerleader, but I do want to ask whether we’re being overly critical of the new class of art collectors, which maybe lacks an art historical background? Maybe they just don’t have the vocabulary or experience at the moment? 

RB: Absolutely. At the very least NFTs can be good for spreading art, which is what I was trying to do with the 300 cards. Right now, the NFT space has a ton of exposure. And there are definitely very good qualities about the space, including artists’ royalties, and, to an extent, the sheer volume of money involved, which means that artists are getting paid for their work. But there are also downsides. If one does make an artwork into an NFT, it inherently gets reduced into a product or, literally, a token. And then there’s the environmental damage. 

Regarding the Sotheby’s auction for one of my gift pieces, I don’t want this to be construed as “look at all these bad things that happened to me,” or, “look at how bad the NFT space is.” I just want to stress that the NFT space could be a lot better. I’m still very hopeful that it will be better. 

JB: I think this mode of balanced assessment is crucial right now. It’s also what drove us to develop Right Click Save, which acknowledges that a bright future for NFTs is there if we can talk about the problems. Beyond just being a gift, what were the 300 cards given away at Christie’s about? 

RB: A lot of my very early work was focused on exploring the medium, or the tool of artificial intelligence, and this new way of making images. I was really interested in the idea that, up until GANs [generative adversarial networks], generative art had needed to be hard coded. If you’re a traditional generative artist and you’re trying to produce a landscape, you have to write a program to leave the top third of the canvas blank, etc. With these kinds of rules there can’t be any ambiguity, because otherwise the program won’t compile. 

Robbie Barrat, Saint Nazaire, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

With artificial intelligence, I was really excited about how the rules now come from the data sets. And they can be a bit more fuzzy or at least less strictly defined, which leaves room, without giving too much agency to the algorithm, for a certain kind of misinterpretation. My nudes were about me orchestrating a misinterpretation to achieve images that had certain qualities of traditional nudes without the overall structure. I know that people compare them to previous artists’ work, Francis Bacon for example. But I don’t really see it to be honest, beyond the distortion of the figure, which, for me, is really a consequence of the medium. 

JB: For me, you were born into a generation where digital technologies aren’t so much an intrusion as core to your experience of growing up. When I look at how you are using an overhead projector with Counter-Strike characters to make cyanotypes, or tracking down old Cathode Ray Tube monitors, or your appreciation of the unpredictable nature of GANs versus straight programming, I see a single quest: To extract an organic signal from technology. Am I barking up the wrong tree? 

RB: I think that’s very accurate regarding the CRT monitors, which I use to try and make technology feel less foreign, whilst acknowledging its lifespan. But there are also lots of examples of AI art, especially with Obvious and the Christie’s sale, where they intentionally mystify AI, to assign an agency to it, and render it less of a tool. I used CRT partly in the spirit of Nam June Paik, who is one of my favorite artists, but also because the color on CRTs is just a lot better.

Joeri Woudstra and Robbie Barrat, Radiate, 2021. Courtesy of the artists

JB: Lending technology a history also demystifies it, which increases the poetry of your art instead of killing it. If the audience understands the nature of the tool it also erodes the conceit of technology as an obscure magic trick.

RB: Also, relying on technological mystery for effect is just not interesting. I’m not trying to make my work mysterious, quite the opposite. I also agree with what you said about connecting the digital to the historical, which resonates with the occasions when I use AI to produce classical forms of art, like landscapes. Or when I use Counter-Strike to explore mythology.

JB: It seems to me that what disappoints you about the current application of NFTs is that it acts precisely to mystify the technology — to obscure the skill of the artist — in order to engineer a hype-based economy. But how does this apply to the 300 nudes that were given away at Christie’s, one of which is now being sold in a Sotheby’s evening auction? 

RB: At the time, I felt that this single nude portrait really embodied what I was interested in about AI. While the 300 variations, and their subsequent distribution, reflected my interest in NFTs. But then all the excitement and possibility of these new tools became overshadowed by a single component: Price, and the consequent speculation. I’m just a bit sad that the conversation has been flattened into a single mode of thought, and in such an extreme way. They were literally gifts back then and now they are being auctioned — the first time any of my work has been auctioned. It’s just very strange. 

I’m also very uncomfortable with the fact that it’s going for so much money — the estimates are over $1.5 million — when it was originally a gift. I mean, obviously I gave it away, I lost control, I acknowledge that. But still something really doesn’t seem right with it. 

Robbie Barrat, Digital Landscapes, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: It sounds like, for you, the NFT format suited a gift economy rather than what has emerged since. I’m also wondering if you see any irony in Sotheby’s now selling what Christie’s couldn’t give away in 2018.

RB: It’s ironic that, for a moment, the majority of my work resided in a dumpster behind Christie’s. I stand by my intention with the 300 variations, but NFTs and what they stand for have changed a lot and that’s where my concerns lie. Of course, if somebody asked me today whether I’d like to give away 300 NFTs at Christie’s, I’d say, “hell no.” But that’s because it’s no longer a question of what is possible with NFTs. When people threw away their nudes, we saw that there was absolutely no incentive for profit at the time. And now it’s changed to a point where I really don’t like the NFT space. 

Part of my concern is with people thinking that I am selling an NFT at Sotheby’s. It may sound shallow but I worry about how this reflects on my artistic practice. If it’s perceived that I’m selling NFTs, which are crazy speculative and crazy bad for the environment, at a huge auction house. It’s just not the ideal place that I want my work, conceptually. And it’s something I don’t really have any control over.

JB: I sympathize that this sale is something you don’t have control over. Indeed, this interview is born of a desire to put forward a counter-narrative. I do have to ask, though, with the availability of proof-of-stake blockchains like Tezos, do you think there is still a valid environmental criticism of NFTs?

RB: I know that people have said that Ethereum is going to switch to proof-of-stake soon. But they’ve been saying that for over a year at this point. These more environmentally friendly chains emerged after I was already done with the NFT space. Maybe I would consider doing an NFT project eventually, at a time when the space isn’t so awful, when a smart contract ensures that the work won’t sell above a certain amount. There is a lot of talk about speculation being good for enabling artists to earn money from their work, but in my case the speculation is actively blocking me from selling any work.

Robbie Barrat, Digital landscapes, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: That makes sense. I don’t think it sounds like you are saying “NFTs are stupid, I don’t want to participate.” It requires a huge amount of energy to participate in the NFT space because there are so many valid concerns blended in with misunderstandings. And unless you’re really excited about getting into those debates, it can gobble up all the time and emotional energy you need to actually make work. 

RB: I agree. Like I said, the reason I was interested in NFTs back then doesn’t really apply to the current space. It’s gone from a place where anyone can collect art by artists that they like to something highly exclusive. Even before NFTs, there was something that I really liked about working with a digital image, that it’s very easy to share. This Sotheby’s sale embodies the opposite of everything I’d hoped NFTs would turn into.

My work is something very personal to me. And although we’ve talked about the technical aspects of it, I still make a lot of work about my life. So seeing something very personal being reduced and in the process amplified in price and exposure. It’s really uncomfortable. 

I think it’s also important to consider that these mechanisms that allow artists to be paid don’t necessarily serve artists. The people doing the 10K Profile Picture Projects receive far more royalties than a single artist ever would. Meanwhile, a significant number of artists on OpenSea haven’t even sold a piece yet. So while it’s better than the traditional method, I think something is definitely lost in the NFT sale, especially when the person collecting your work isn’t even a person, but a VC or hedge fund. If I’m making work that’s personal to me, I want people to have a connection with it. 

So questions remain about how the negative aspects of the old system are reflected in the new system, and what good things we are losing from the old system even when the prices are going up. Just focusing on price is a very NFT-centric way of looking at things.

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Robbie Barrat (b. 1999) is an artist whose work in the past has concerned the use of AI as an artistic tool. He has worked in a variety of mediums; collaborating with Ronan Barrot on a painting-centered dialogue through work in 2019; with Acne Studios on their AW/20 menswear collection; and producing a video sculpture as part of a collaborative performance in 2021 with DJ Torvs/Joeri Woudstra. Barrat makes classically-informed work and has gained widespread attention for his earlier landscapes and nude portraits produced with AI. He continues to produce work with AI, mainly through landscapes, but is lessening the weight of AI on his artistic process. He is currently a first-year student at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, Netherlands. He is represented by l’Avant Galerie Vossen, and publishes his work on Twitter and Instagram.

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