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November 27, 2023

The fx(hash) Conversation | Ciphrd and Zancan

The founder of fx(hash) and the revered generative artist discuss the art of nature and the platform’s bright future
Credit: Zancan, Charcoal Seeds #49, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
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The fx(hash) Conversation | Ciphrd and Zancan
fx(hash) 2.0 launches December 14 on

Back in November 2021, fx(hash) launched with a simple premise — to offer generative artists a space where anyone could mint work without curation. As a magazine that seeks to celebrate radical inclusivity, one of our first acts at RCS was to bring together the artists and collectors who had made their home on the platform. Two years on, we are proud to support the launch of fx(hash) 2.0, which sees the platform expand its reach to Ethereum while offering a host of new features tailored to its growing community. 

The brainchild of generative artist and software engineer Baptiste Crespy, better known as Ciphrd, it is hard not to see links between the art of code and the act of engineering the fx(hash) ecosystem. Other than the founder himself, perhaps no artist has made a richer contribution to the life of the platform than Michaël Zancan, whose early project, Garden, Monoliths (2021), set the benchmark for contemporary generative art by turning code into a pencil of nature. In this special conversation with Alex Estorick, the two great creators reflect on the journey so far and the platform’s bright future.

Jordi Gandul and markknol, (Still from) SMOLSKULLs × Monster Gaze, 2023. Courtesy of the artists
This conversation is also available as a podcast.

Alex Estorick: Ciphrd, you’ve described fx(hash) as “the world’s largest repository of generative art,” so any major changes are significant for the community of gen artists and collectors. What is changing with fx(hash) 2.0?

Ciphrd: A lot of engineering has gone into making this happen. The obvious change is that we are integrating Ethereum alongside Tezos. We considered how it would take form on the product side, wanting everything under the same feed to be cohesive and seamless. Upon launch, we’ll ship Ethereum open editions, while also publishing a new release calendar. 

Up to now, we’ve seen many artists promoting their projects on Twitter and Discord a few weeks before release, which can often appear out of nowhere on the platform. We wanted to give artists the ability to release their project beforehand, even if it’s a work in progress, to let people know that they’re working on something and to get collectors hyped about what they’re building. 

This will ultimately translate into a full artist studio where artists can prepare their projects off-chain in advance and refine them in a more sophisticated environment. They will then be able to release a project by clicking a single button without having to go through the full flow the day before a release, which can be very stressful. They will also be able to toggle projects between public and private. That is coming shortly after launch along with some other quality-of-life improvements. 

Ciphrd, RGB Elementary Cellular Automaton #89, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Zancan: If you are putting your work into a calendar weeks before a release, it becomes more public, which is good. That is all part of the work of communication around a project. Some collectors who are following specific artists want to know in advance when they will have to be there to buy a work. 

The calendar wouldn’t necessarily apply to me because I tend to do stealth drops where the release is a complete surprise, or I announce something a day or just a few hours beforehand. But I think that the new approach is a good one that gives artists a lot of tools with which they can release a project in the best conditions possible.

C: I think that it may be suited to your practice as well — not so much the release plan but the ability to have a stable state that you can iterate on, update the script, and see all the changes side by side. We’ve tried to keep artists’ different practices in mind when building out the feature, which has been in my head for a long time. We’ve done our very best. 

Z: If you can have your working process there until you press the release button, and you can iterate and make modifications even for an Ethereum project, that’s big. In the past, trying out your project on testnet required access to Goerli coins, which can be tricky to get. If I’ve needed to fix something, even just a single character, I’ve often had to pay a fee to replace the entire block. If one can skip those steps entirely, then it is game-changing as you are only paying a one-time gas fee when minting the project on the blockchain. 

Zancan, A Bugged Forest #113, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Ciphrd, in an earlier interview, you spoke of how the openness of fx(hash) allows “new and overlapping relations” between artists, curators, and collectors. With fx(hash) 2.0, it sounds like you are appealing to all corners of the community.

C: Up to now, it’s not always been our intention to accommodate all participants in the ecosystem. When I released the platform originally, it was tailored to artists and the collector toolset didn’t really exist — you only had the ability to mint and use the marketplace.

But as we listened to the voices of the community, we started to understand more about how the sustainability of this ecosystem requires all of the participants to have the tools they need to do what they do in the best possible way. 

We then shifted from focusing only on artists to dividing our focus according to 40% artists, 40% collectors, and 20% partners and curators. Something we’ve wanted to incorporate into the platform for a long time is the ability for curators and galleries to have their own space and to release without necessarily having to collaborate with an artist. We wanted them to be able to say: “I gave this project life and a physical appearance — this is where I showcase that.” The calendar is the first step toward giving people and partners the ability to showcase what they are bringing to the platform, which is eventually going to turn into a partner studio in parallel with the artist’s studio.

Ciphrd, Ethereal Microcosm #159, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

AE: With fx(text), you were solving a problem that the community brought to you, while fx(params) was a proactive way of encouraging co-creation between artists and collectors. How do you reflect on the evolution of fx(hash) thus far and why is this the right moment for fx(hash) 2.0? 

C: The way we build features is by listening to the community. But a good chunk of our iterations on the platform derive from our own creative ideas. fx(params) was something we had had in mind for a while that we knew could open up new creative possibilities. We ship what the community asks, but we also want to maintain a degree of surprise. That creative friction allows us to iterate in a way that people don’t expect. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. fx(params) was a bit rough at the beginning and we had to iterate in order for it to open opportunities for artists. fx(hash) 2.0 is more in the spirit of what artists have requested. Initially, I was reluctant to integrate Ethereum because my experience with it had never been great. 

During the bull market, I found Ethereum to be far from what I wanted for a creative space — you had low-quality and low-effort projects gaining incredible attention and making millions. But as we went into a bear market, I’ve seen the Ethereum space mature a lot.

We’ve seen artists on the platform releasing on Ethereum and receiving meaningful attention from collectors by virtue of being on a blockchain with a lot more volume, traction, and prestige. It made sense for us to propose that to artists, and it’s in that spirit that we wanted to offer Ethereum to our users.

Zancan, Garden, Monoliths #51, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Michaël, fx(params) affords collectors a stake in the creative process. It also poses the question of whether generative art requires pure randomness or whether it can also incorporate parametric approaches. How do you perceive such developments? 

Z: A long time before I was making generative art I was producing installations that enabled visitors to interact with screens or video projections. However, back then, I didn’t consider that type of work to be part of the realm of artistic creation because it wasn’t intended to engage an art-going public. 

For me, the real innovation and artistic value of generative art was the introduction of randomness and the fact that when you purchased an artwork, you didn’t know what you were going to buy. 

That was pretty bold and it changed the nature of art collecting. When fx(params) launched, I was excited by the possibilities it offered but I had no plan to use it. Sure enough, three weeks later I was releasing a params project. For me, it was astounding to witness the new level of interaction with collectors, especially the amount of time they were spending generating every possible output, trying each combination to make sure that they understood the algorithm fully in order to create an output that was most dear to them. Some outputs clearly triggered something very personal in the collectors, who always came up with something that was much more meaningful to them. The feeling and feedback that I received from that project was phenomenal.

Alex Mordvintsev and Ciphrd, ?, 2023. Courtesy of the artists

C: When we released fx(params), the artist Alejandro created pensado a mano (2023) and told us that it would be good to be able to control the parameters via the code itself. Based on this feedback, we allowed users to disregard our interface and build a fully interactive experience where they could gather user input themselves. I’ve done some interactive installations myself, and what I’ve always enjoyed most is the ability to refine user interaction without relying on the constraints of the tool. 

A browser is probably the technology most suited for user interaction, and we are seeing an increasing number of projects pushing co-creation beyond playing with a few sliders. Right now, we have artists going a little crazy creating the interfaces they crave.

Z: When you think about developing a project using params and code-driven params, it adds another layer to the concept. The possibilities are fully open with this system — it isn’t only about making code and generating random results, you need to polish your concept, build interfaces, and innovate. As soon as a user interface is involved, it takes a large amount of development time; you need to provide a smoothness of interaction and nice graphics, while allowing for user input. We are far from the simplicity of the little projects released in the early days of fx(hash).

C: I still love the simplicity and beauty of randomness-driven algorithms, and fx(params) shouldn’t completely replace that. Our goal is to provide as many inputs as we can and then let artists figure out a way to leverage them. I reckon there will always be beauty in manipulating randomness as an artist. We still regard this as the biggest quality of generative art on the blockchain. 

Yazid and Zancan, (kinder)Garden, Monuments #44, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

AE: Michaël, it is difficult to overstate the impact of Garden, Monoliths (2021) on the generative art community. I’ve often wondered whether the reason it had such an impact was because it is what it does — the subject is a garden and the code constructs an alternative form of nature. Can you say something about how your career has evolved since that project and how it has been impacted by fx(hash)?

Z: Garden, Monoliths was a turning point, and I wasn’t prepared for everything that came after it. fx(hash) was very young at the time and I kept hearing about collectors becoming obsessed with the platform. 

Back then, it was all about collecting as many works as you could because they were so cheap. 

It was fun and simple, and my collectors liked it, so I thought: “why not try something for them?” It wasn’t so hard because the editions that I was doing at the time were made with fully generative code. It was as simple as creating variations and ensuring all the possibilities were aesthetically pleasing. There was no pressure, but I also knew my project was a bit different to what was on fx(hash) at the time. I was confident that it would get some attention, but I wasn’t prepared for this. 

After Garden, Monoliths, the pressure was huge. I had a lot of ideas for new fx(hash) projects, but I couldn’t get my head around the idea of releasing a new one because I had to confirm the success of the first project. It took me months before the opportunity came to release a new project, which was my collaboration with Yazid. That was handy because I had a deadline and I wasn’t on my own. That project helped me to return to fx(hash) and release all the pressure I felt at the time. It also changed the market because many generative art collectors who had previously collected exclusively on Ethereum became drawn to fx(hash) [on Tezos] as a result. They started talking in their circles, and we encountered a range of new collectors with greater liquidity. It helped the platform gain wider recognition and it launched my work to another level.

Ciphrd, (Still from) <iframes> #161, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Someone who is not a creative coder might be able to appreciate a visual output without appreciating the caliber of the code itself. Michaël, you are known for your ability to achieve natural morphologies with code. But there also seems to be a certain neoclassicism about your work. Is that something you recognize? Can you share some of your artistic influences? 

Z: You’re right. It’s always been there, though it wasn’t my intention — it’s just how I am. I’m not attached to a specific genre but this is the kind of aesthetic I like. I am always secluded when I create but I also make reference to classical paintings, including works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in which nature prevails. I remember being touched by my first visit to the Louvre when I was a teenager, which inspired me a lot, though I didn’t invest time learning about specific artists or works. I’m very impulsive, so when I have an idea, I immediately start to create. It’s the same with code. 

The code for Garden, Monoliths takes a “natural” form — it is very raw and not the cleanest to be honest. These days, when I write code, I can’t help thinking it will go public at some point so I’m more careful with the quality. 
Zancan, Garden, Monoliths #156, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Nature is important to both of you. Ciphrd, in an earlier interview, you spoke of the influence of microorganisms on your own art practice. I’m intrigued by the idea that, as artists, creative coders, and engineers you are engaged in morphogenesis. Humans are enfolded in digital systems and you are creating systems yourselves. Do you see the artist’s role as a bringer of digital life? Is fx(hash) a social work of generative art?

C: My interest in biology and microorganisms came about by accident. At the time, I was exploring video-game algorithms from which I discovered particle simulation. I realized that one could achieve incredible results by applying simple rules to millions of agents that would then exhibit emergent behavior and patterns that resemble what we see in the natural world. At the time, I didn’t know that the rules that I was designing were similar to those found in nature. I soon realized that most complex behaviors always derive from the application of simple rules within a given system. 

As an artist, you have the ability to create your own universe in which your rules shape the evolution of beings. 

There is no limit to the rules that we can design and explore, and there will always be new algorithms and ideas that we can apply. fx(hash) remains my biggest artistic project [but] it reassures me to think that the platform is more than a set of rules allowing people to interact — it’s also the product of a team of people who have put their soul into creating a system they want to be useful and sustainable for people they care about.

Ciphrd, Ethereal Microcosm #82, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Z: Baptiste finds this creative power and beauty everywhere in things that are probably obscure to most of us. I enjoy the fact that he considers fx(hash) to be an organism that grows and interacts, conceptualizing it as an artwork. That’s beautiful. I think that everyone relates to nature, which means that my graphic style can also be easily appreciated.

My works have always involved natural elements, but I wasn’t able to achieve their visual complexity with paint and brushes. The algorithmic medium opened doors to much wider possibilities. 

What Baptiste has described is technical beauty in its purest form. If you can trim down all the code to something deceptively simple yet capable of producing an extraordinary output or growth, that is purity. It also aligns with the way living organisms grow. However, where many generative artists explore the capacity of a specific algorithm to generate works of art, I take the opposite approach, similar to a figurative painter. I imagine the output and then I create or assemble the code that will enable the visuals that I have in mind. 

I’ve built a user interface that enables me to reuse my code and, more importantly, to combine existing things in different ways. Now that it has matured, my framework has become a kind of Photoshop, and my creative process is in large part about adjusting parameters and combining layers on a user interface. These features are like new assets in my creative toolbox. 

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Ciphrd (Baptiste Crespy) is a generative artist who is interested in the exploration of autonomous systems from which lifelike behaviors emerge. He is the founder of fx(hash), an open platform to collect and create generative art.

Michaël Zancan is a generative artist based in Bordeaux, France, who has worked as a painter and programmer for four decades. By synergizing his former practice as an oil painter with the medium of computer code, he enlightens the graphical potential of generative art. His digital artworks and their resultant pen-plotter drawings, which rely on technology to exist and to be traded, remind us of the necessary bond between mankind and nature. Zancan’s series, Garden, Monoliths (2021) and Lushtemples (2022), are the top-selling collections on Tezos, a carbon-efficient blockchain.

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.

fx(hash) 2.0 launches December 14 on