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May 2, 2022

The Life and Times of the NFT

Following the conclusion of her wildly popular project, Remember Me, Luna Ikuta speaks to Charlotte Kent about blockchain as an art medium
Credit: Luna Ikuta, Stages of “Life”, Remember Me, 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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The Life and Times of the NFT

On April 12, 2022, Luna Ikuta announced an open mint for a project called Remember Me. No one, including the artist, expected as many as 39,000 people to engage in shaping the work’s narrative arc. Its final conclusion on May 1, surprised many and prompted reflection from the NFT community on the role of time-based projects — often ignored in a blockchain space devoted to immutability.

An industrial designer-turned-NFT success story, Ikuta works independently out of her studio in Los Angeles. Her flower imagery has led to comparisons with Anna Ridler, whose GAN-generated tulips draw analogies between the 2017 DeFi boom and 17th-century Tulipmania. In contrast, Ikuta’s background in design and engineering has led to a focus on biological processes like decellularization as well as the limits of coded language in smart contracts. For Remember Me, she collaborated with the founder of Teknique to devise new ways of manipulating their affordances, turning the project into a form of performance art. As a participant in the NFT hypermarket, her challenge to its limited frameworks and the fixation on progressive, fiscal time, offers a vital commentary on the path being paved in Web3.

Luna Ikuta, “Afterlife”, Remember Me, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Charlotte Kent: For Remember Me, you adopted the PFP model of building hype to create a kind of prologue for this four-part production — though none at the time knew what was to come. The landing page flashed a Mary Shelley quote: “Nothing is more painful to the human mind than a great and sudden change.” Why that quote, at this time, for this project? 

Luna Ikuta: Lots of people think of an NFT as an image or a video, but it’s more like a package of information. That package can contain videos, images, html files, hyperlinks, raw text, etc. We wanted to leverage the multidimensional nature of the NFT and to use easter eggs as a way to engage viewers that paid attention to the details. The Mary Shelley quote was a nod to some of the shared themes between Frankenstein (1818) and Remember Me. Both explore the human relationship with knowledge, science, and, in our case, a specific new technology. There’s also a parallel in my process, working directly with plant corpses and creating new “life.” 

CK: Remember Me has four main phases: “Birth” launched on April 11th, followed by “Life,” “Afterlife,” and “Memory.” Did you have the design for all of them when you launched or did it develop along the way? 

LI: Almost everything was planned and finished beforehand: From the minting experience, to the details of the smart contract, to the assets at each step of the journey. The landing page was a custom-designed mint button. The prologue, “Birth,” was a greeting and an invitation meant to set the tone for the experience, but certain parts of “Memory” were built along the way. “Afterlife” is an ongoing series of mine, and this project is definitely an extension of that. 

Luna Ikuta, “Birth,” “Life,” “Afterlife,” and “Memory”, Remember Me, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CK: Your photographic process is extremely involved. Can you walk us through the multi-week steps to creating these final images of flowers?

LI: “Life” was an inverted time-lapse. The tulip bulb was suspended in water and staged below a grow light. It bloomed over five days, and was made into a time-lapse film with each frame captured every seven minutes. I took that video and spliced it into 999 individual frames, to be updated one by one in “real” time. The goal was to create a simulation of growth that digitally mirrored what took place naturally. When the tulip fully bloomed, I followed my standard three-week process of decellularization to make it transparent. Once that was finished, the flower was transplanted into an aquatic tank, filmed, and digitized as an infinite loop. 

CK: Why do flowers appeal to you so much? 

LI: I’m interested in material play, and how to manipulate the perception of things around us. One day, I came across a flower called the Diphylleia Grayi, and I was mesmerized by its natural ability to turn transparent in the rain. I studied the phenomenon to see if I could recreate it in my studio. Through a process inspired by biomimicry, vascular networks and the internal structures of plant anatomy became my visual focus rather than color and stripings. I often draw my subject matter from nature.

CK: From that first video, you then shifted to 999 photos. What was significant about that shift in medium as you made the transition from “Life” to “Afterlife”? 

LI: Instead of the standard “coming soon” placeholder image, we wanted to use “Birth,” a video sequence of animated text, as the prologue to the story of Remember Me. The switch to “Life” actually caused an unexpected issue with OpenSea, which didn’t handle the transition from video to image gracefully. For a little while, there was a bug where the prologue video was still showing behind the thumbnail of the flower. Teknique and I joked that we had “broken” OpenSea, because we had apparently exposed a use case it hadn’t prepared for. 

The medium shift in “Afterlife” emphasized the finality of that phase. Submerged in water, the ghostly tulip danced in the current, suspended in time in the liminal space between the beginning and the end. I think most people were a combination of confused and intrigued. Those who were wanting or expecting a standard reveal were upset, others were excited to see something different. As with most stages of this project, the reactions ranged across an entire spectrum.

Luna Ikuta, Garden of Transparent Tulips, Remember Me, 2022. Courtesy of the Artist

CK: It seems like using OpenSea was a crucial part of Remember Me

LI: Yeah, definitely. I used the OpenSea interface as part of the overall experience, silently nudging viewers into refreshing their metadata as a way of prompting physical engagement with the work. The metadata updated every seven minutes, but the thumbnails on OpenSea would only reflect the image it was last updated to. That led to a growing garden of tulips all at different stages of growth — a “living” community. To see them all grow together was something very special.

CK: Time seems to play a crucial role in this project: The flowers’ growth, the four phases, the alignment with annual events like Easter or the lunar calendar. Where does this interest in time come from and do you think the blockchain forces the issue of time onto artists?

LI: Time in the NFT space is so chaotic. Insanity is the new normal. Inverting that time back to “normal” using blockchain became interesting. I wanted to disrupt the existing flow, and see what that would feel like. I hoped that removing time and visual rarity from that dynamic might allow some people to experience the piece without the pressures of speculative value. 

It took the tulip about five days to bloom. On paper, that’s not a lot of time, but in the NFT space it’s an eternity. It felt so long! It’s a reflection of how warped all of our senses of time can become from immersion in this space. Forcing people to slow down and observe a flower growing at its natural rate became a way to bring us back to reality while, ironically, maintaining a simulation. 

Luna Ikuta, “Living” garden of tulips, Remember Me, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CK: You intentionally introduced manual elements so that people wouldn’t be able to read the smart contract and decipher what came next. Tell us about your design.

LI: The main part of the journey in the smart contract that Teknique and I wanted to obscure was the final transition to “Memory.” That was the only part we felt was truly dependent on surprise. The rest of the assets were hidden in plain sight, easily discoverable for anyone with knowledge of smart contracts. When people discovered all 999 “Life” images and the “Afterlife” video in advance, those social media “spoilers” added to the fun, chaotic atmosphere where no one was sure what was true any more. 

Like my work in real life, the plants eventually disintegrate and the end result is an empty tank; a black screen — the remnant of what once was. But in reality, it’s not just a black screen. Like I said earlier, an NFT is not simply an image or a video. It’s a collection of information, and the image is just the cover of the book. The smart contract and the information contained in the metadata of all 39,136 NFTs is the archive of our shared experience. As part of our play with time, we wanted to disrupt the permanence of NFTs. The range of reactions we have seen so far is both extensive and honest. I’m really proud of it.

CK: What was it like for you to turn the project off? 

LI: A bittersweet relief. The whole story went on for about three weeks but it felt like a lifetime. It was a lot of fun, and a rush that I’d never experienced before, but it was also an emotional rollercoaster. To turn this project off feels like I can finally turn my brain off, at least for now.

CK: It launched as a free mint with the expectation of a few hundred participants but wound up with over 39,000. What was that like and how do you feel about the bots that are a part of the audience?

LI: My initial reaction was complete shock. I announced the project only a few days before launch without any outside marketing. I treated it like a 1/1 release, expecting only my collectors and followers to see it. As it started to blow up, I couldn’t stop pacing frantically around the house. I felt a mixture of excitement, anxiety, fear, and joy. My sister got it all on video, so now she has blackmail on me that can never see the light of day.

The first time we refreshed our stat page, we already had hundreds of participants. A few minutes later, we crossed one thousand and thought it was a bug. We expected it to die down at some point in the day, but it just kept on going with a full page of pending mint transactions on our contract for the full 24 hours. Even though we limited people to one NFT per wallet as a way to discourage bots and I announced that there would be no cap, speculators and/or bots unintentionally became our marketing collaborators. 

CK: The belligerent tweeting by certain followers who demanded a cap made the speculative investment in crypto painfully evident.

LI: They aped in, shared it with their communities, and hyped it on Twitter anticipating a hard cap. By the time they were sure there would be no hard cap until after the 24 hours, they had already created a frenzied snowball effect leading to mass community participation. It was a wild day.

CK: You have described Remember Me as an engagement with mystery, play, and storytelling. In many ways it has been a durational performance project in the NFT space but one for which you remained largely silent on Twitter. It’s hard for many artists not to intrude and specify how they want their work to be interpreted.

LI: Once it’s out in the public realm, it’s no longer mine alone and I don’t want to tell someone how they should feel about it. I used to do public installations and hospitality design, so maybe that contributed to how I approached this. I recently completed my largest public arts sculpture called Eternal Garlands (2021) — a 90-foot canopy of hand-welded stainless steel leaves and vines that spans a walkway in Culver City, California. One thing I love is that it’s free for anyone to enjoy. I wanted to apply this model to NFTs. 

Remember Me was essentially a public installation: Admission is free; participation is unlimited. There was no Discord, no white list, no prior requirements outside of a MetaMask wallet and some ETH for gas fees. That granted me the freedom to experiment in the way I wanted, and allowed the audience to react the way they wanted.

CK: How do you think your degree in industrial design contributed to your work and engagement with the NFT space

LI: Industrial design, at its core, is about understanding how things are made. From designing furniture I became more aware of object interaction and how material properties communicate to our senses. I’ve always been interested in the perceived value of objects, and how those objects subconsciously influence the perceived values of space. Materials have personalities and smart contracts feel the same. They have their unique strengths and limitations just like metal, wood, or plastic. 

CK: Your awareness of material culture and use of flowers forces me to ask about your stance on the environmental concerns that many have about proof-of-work blockchains. 

LI: My art has lived on Ethereum because I started in 2020 with SuperRare. I’m open to other chains, and am starting to learn more about the other options. There are so many emerging. To be honest I don’t have a deep understanding of the pros and cons of each, and definitely need to do my research before taking any hard stance.

CK: What do you appreciate about the NFT?

LI: When I discovered blockchain, I was drawn to its practical and archival properties. I spent about a year researching and developing this process with flowers, occasionally uploading videos of the work to YouTube and Instagram, accumulating a large collection of videos of each plant I worked with. Minting something as an NFT gave them a distinct fingerprint, a traceable tag. 

A smart contract feels like virtual product design, where the experience is built in code. It’s not as intricate as a video game but more complex than a regular digital asset. It’s like an analog synth — a tool that has limitations but endless combinations. In many smart contracts there are parallels with manufacturing systems in their automation and consistency. I wanted to add a human element back into a world of production-line perfection by attempting to create a “living” NFT. 

Luna Ikuta, Art Imitates Code - Code Imitates Art, Remember Me, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CK: There is an irony to Remember Me, which stems from your own exhaustion with aspects of the space. What led you to this project?

LI: I entered the NFT space exclusively as a 1/1 artist and was introduced to the world of Web3 specifically in the context of an NFT marketplace. Naturally, for a marketplace, everything is reduced to numbers and social currency is based on sales. Over time, this dynamic wore on me in ways that I wasn’t entirely aware of. I became exhausted by the price-focused, hype-driven environment, and I felt confined by unspoken rules and expectations. Remember Me is both an evolution of my “Afterlife” series beyond the 1/1 realm, and a natural product of the conflict I was feeling around these dynamics.

Perhaps because of my exhaustion, I was curious to find ways to celebrate mechanics that were unique to the blockchain as a way of providing value to a digital experience. I wanted to create a project that was inherently tied to the medium, and couldn’t exist outside of it. I felt confined by the rarity of 1/1s, and I wanted to step away momentarily from rarity-driven value by removing the concept altogether. It was liberating. 

CK: This is an emergent space, one being designed by artists and audiences as well as the growing efforts of corporations. What are your hopes for the blockchain landscape? 

LI: In any emergent space, there’s a natural tendency to create foundational structures as guidelines. There is rigidity in conversations that try to define what NFTs are, and I think those conversations require a lot more nuance. Different projects in different lanes have different incentives. We can think beyond the world of the 1/1, PFP, open edition. My hope is that within and outside of the blockchain landscape, artists listen to their gut instinct, and don’t feel boxed in by some messed up, external pressure to follow unspoken rules.

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Luna Ikuta is an artist whose practice is rooted in interdisciplinary methods of making, experimenting with various mediums and installation techniques. An industrial design graduate from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), her practice expands from sculpture, furniture, and digital media to experiential design. Her most famous work, Afterlife (2019-ongoing), is the artist’s ongoing series of bioengineered transparent plants arranged in ghostly underwater landscapes.

Charlotte Kent is an arts writer and assistant professor of visual culture at Montclair State University.