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March 10, 2023

thefunnyguys and Artnome on Le Random

The renowned collector of generative art discusses his new digital institution with Jason Bailey
Credit: Zancan, Lushtemples — Highlights of the Hike (detail), 2021. Courtesy of the artist
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thefunnyguys and Artnome on Le Random

Jason Bailey: You’ve been a leading figure in the NFT space for a long time now. But I’m interested in what drove your original decision to join the community while remaining anonymous or pseudonymous?

thefunnyguys: For me it means that I can contribute in a meaningful way without giving up my personal life. It has never been an aspiration of mine to become a public figure, which is something I’d rather avoid. But through thefunnyguys I can still make meaningful contributions, I hope.

JB: The name, thefunnyguys, suggests more than one person. What prompted you to identify in that way?

tfg: It’s actually because I started collecting NFTs with my two brothers. My parents had one mutual savings account for the three of us. We used those funds to start building the initial collection. But my brothers are both doctors who are quite focused on their careers, while I’m collecting generative art and NFTs full-time. Nevertheless, they still own a substantial part of the collection. My brothers and I don’t take life toof seriously and we didn’t expect this to become a long-standing thing. We just had to come up with a name. 

I discovered the blockchain space in 2017, but at the time I didn’t know about NFTs — I was buying coins and learning about decentralized ownership. Then, in late 2020, I was studying for my exams and scrolling on Twitter looking for a distraction. NBA Top Shot was my first introduction to NFTs, and then, in January 2021, I went down the Ethereum rabbit hole and discovered CryptoPunks as well as Art Blocks. I promptly minted Ringers (2021) by Dmitri Cherniak. At the beginning, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, I was just experimenting. But that was a very important moment in my personal life. 

I felt I really understood generative art and how it needed the blockchain to proliferate. Ever since, I’ve shifted from being an NFT collector to being a generative art collector, dedicating most of my time to this specific art movement.
thefunnyguys original profile picture: NBA Top Shot, Zion Williamson Block, January 24, 2020, Cosmic (Series 1) Legendary #45/49, 2020. Courtesy of thefunnyguys

JB: Did Art Blocks or CryptoPunks come first for you?

tfg: It was CryptoPunks first. I noticed on Twitter that all of the leading collectors were using them as their digital identities. I didn’t really understand why these pixelated images were valuable, but I snuck into the CryptoPunks Discord and had some good conversations with a number of the OGs back when it was easy to get in touch with them. It only took me a few days to purchase my first CryptoPunk at a time when they were super cheap. At one point, I had five of them. But now I have only one left. 

NBA Top Shot was also an amazing investment for us. It went from $10,000 to six or even seven figures at one point. Those initial projects have actually fuelled most of my collecting journey. 

What made me collect Top Shot was the clear potential of NFTs combined with the brand value of the NBA. Even though I’m not a basketball fan myself, I know that the NBA has a billion fans around the world. The user experience was also very approachable. But we also needed a unique digital identity. At the time, we had this pseudonymous account name, but we didn’t have a face for it yet. We were using one of our NBA Top Shot moments as our profile picture on Twitter. But of course, those were editioned pieces, so 50 or 1,000 people could use the same image as their PFP. It always felt like we needed a unique representation for thefunnyguys. 

I fell in love with CryptoPunks. Aesthetically, it’s a great project. I’ve heard it said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, and it’s really true with CryptoPunks. For me, it’s definitely an artistic project and Larva Labs are true artists, not merely experimenters. But of course, at the time, putting thousands of dollars into CryptoPunks was a significant decision. I saw the potential, and was confident that it would be a good investment in the long term. On the other hand, I don’t plan on ever selling my CryptoPunk, so I’m not sure it really matters whether it’s been a good investment or not.

Larva Labs, Autoglyphs #101, 2019. Courtesy of the artists

JB: Do you view your first Art Blocks mints differently from the CryptoPunks? And when did you start to see yourself as an art collector

tfg: At first, I definitely saw myself as an NFT collector. It took me a few months to pivot to generative art specifically. 

For me, generative art felt like the most honest application of NFTs. And the way Erick Calderon set up Art Blocks was the ideal means of revealing the synergies between the art movement and blockchain technology. It took me a few months, but once I had discovered Art Blocks I really began to define myself as a generative art collector.

I’ve always liked collecting and, as a kid, I would collect trading cards that I bought from the supermarket. But I always viewed art collecting as something for people with gray hair; as a pastime after a long and successful career. Digital art changes the entire concept of collecting art, because the barriers to entry are much lower, especially on Tezos. No one can reject your access to amazing digital art. So that’s how I became an art collector at a very young age. It also trickled down from my grandfather, who was an art collector himself with a substantial collection of African art and Dutch masters. My mother is also very passionate about art — she always took us to museums and galleries. So there’s definitely some art collecting in the genes.

Snowfro, Chromie Squiggle #7997, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: Before we discuss Le Random, I want to understand your own collection and your personal collecting thesis.

tfg: It started in January 2021 before Art Blocks experienced an incredible surge that summer, when prices reached beyond anything I could afford at the time. That’s when I looked to discover more emerging artists via OpenProcessing and Instagram, including artists who hadn’t yet discovered NFTs themselves. I even tried to onboard some of them into the NFT space.

Then, at the end of 2021, fxhash was founded. That was a very important moment for me because I was looking for a more open platform to collect generative art. I think fxhash really unlocked all this creative energy in the generative art space. I’ve got a lot of work there, and I’ve collected a lot of 1/1s, both on Ethereum and on Tezos. 

AI art has also been very important for me — I see it as a subsection of generative art. Whenever I say “generative art,” it’s actually both procedural generative art and AI art. I’m a firm believer in both.
Ciphrd, RGB Elementary Cellular Automaton #1, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: When you’re collecting, what is it that draws you to a particular work? 

tfg: My collecting journey has always been a learning process. I went from having never collected art to someone who now owns over 6,000 pieces. It wasn’t always well-researched, indeed it has often been highly spontaneous. There are many different things that make me fall in love with a work of art, and aesthetics are definitely important. But now after having collected so many works by different artists, I am looking for something a bit more profound and truly unique. I also do more research when I collect, especially when it’s for significant sums. I try to collect from artists that have pushed the space forwards or bring something totally new to the table. But, ultimately, it is quite subjective to define. 

JB: From my understanding, Le Random is your way of combining everything you’ve learned over the past two years of collecting with some additional expertise to build a more targeted collection. But will the new institution house any of the works from your personal collection or are you starting from scratch with a new philosophy? 

tfg: I have only transferred three NFTs from my personal collection to Le Random, which are the first three generative art pieces I ever minted: Dmitri Cherniak’s Ringers #868, #930, and #999 (2021). That was a symbolic way for me to align my incentives with those of the other investors because it was the start of my personal journey in the generative art space, and now it’s also the start of a more serious endeavor with Le Random, which I hope will be an iconic journey.

With my personal collection, I only need to justify decisions to myself. Collecting for Le Random is very different because our goal is to build a generative art institution that tells the story of the entire art movement. 

Up to now, It has always felt like the large NFT collectors and investment funds mix everything within one collection — they’ll have an amazing piece by Manolo [Gamboa Naon] sitting next to a PFP, without contextualizing either. With Le Random, we will give artists room to contextualize their pieces and explain why they are significant. We take our time over each acquisition and we also have a very long-term horizon, since we want to build a collection that will be relevant 10 years from now. 

Dmitri Cherniak, Ringers #930, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: How do you define Le Random to people?

tfg: I call it a “first-of-its-kind, digital generative art institution.” We are solely focused on the generative art space because we feel it has a rich history that isn’t being emphasized enough in the NFT space. The history of generative art is like a treasure that we can use to make the collection stand out from the wider NFT space. 

Le Random is not only about collecting pieces, it’s also about contextualizing them within art history

That’s why we have a full-time researcher and writer, Peter Bauman, on our team who has also written for Right Click Save. He’s going to help explain why generative art matters, and how it’s relevant to art history. He will also help us to uncover stories about the pioneers from the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. In this way, we believe we can build a collection that stands on its own. I work very closely with Conrad House, known as nemocake on Twitter, who’s an amazing collector of generative art. I also want to emphasise how instrumental my co-founder Zack Taylor was in starting Le Random. He is in charge of finances and operations, and I don’t think we would have been able to launch this entity without his involvement.

0xDEAFBEEF, (Still from) Vol. 2, Series 0: Caves - Token 3, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

JB: My understanding is that you’re largely collecting on-chain generative art, while celebrating generative art history. But much of that history doesn’t involve on-chain art. Are you actively trying to bring some of the historical work on-chain? How do you plan to weave together contemporary and historical practices?

tfg: There’s definitely a tension there. I must admit, it’s sometimes hard to add significant generative artists to our collection because often they have already passed away before minting any NFTs. At the same time, we’re cautious about artist estates that decide to mint NFTs, since the artistic intent isn’t necessarily there. In other instances, the artists are older and do not want to embrace NFTs at all. In those cases, it’s impossible for us to bring their work into our collection. It’s a limitation that we are very much aware of. Nevertheless, a number of iconic generative artists have already minted NFTs, including Herbert W. Franke and Frieder Nake, who brought an on-chain software piece to the NFT space. Our collection proudly includes works by both artists. We regard NFTs as significant to their life stories because they both embraced computing before anyone in the art world took it seriously. 

We will soon be publishing a special timeline of generative art history on our website so that visitors can better understand why we are collecting artists such as Herbert W. Franke. We also have to make sure that our pieces are exhibited in a respectful way to as many people as possible. That’s why we will have a digital art gallery custom built on our website, which will be the main way that people interact with our collection. But we also want to showcase our collection at the most significant art events in the world. We want to make sure that people from different continents have the opportunity to experience our collection in real life.

Herbert W. Franke, Math Art (1980-1995) - Math Art 95 - No. 23, 2022. Courtesy of Le Random

JB: Why does art, and generative art specifically, matter to you? Why is it worth spending all your time, money, energy, and resources on for years into the future? 

tfg: Art helps me to better understand myself. When it comes to generative art, we live in a world that is digitizing at a rapid pace, and when people hear about computers and algorithms, they often think of Facebook, and how such platforms are using our data to steer our lives and determine what actions we will take next. 

For me, generative art shows that we can also use algorithms to create more beautiful and meaningful life. It also makes me appreciate nature on a deeper level. Through generative art one better understands the miracle that life really is, and also the crucial role that randomness plays in our daily lives.
Cornelia Solfrank, OG flowers #31, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

JB: What made you choose the name: Le Random?

tfg: Back in early 2022, I already knew that I wanted to establish a more outward-facing mission that went beyond my personal collection. I was listening to an old interview with Vera Molnar in which she talks about randomness — or in her words, “le random” — as the key component of her practice. For Molnar, randomness serves as a form of artificial intuition that helps her to develop an artistic vision by laying out all the available possibilities. 

While many have argued that the computer dehumanizes art, Molnar makes it clear that the opposite is true — technology actually humanizes art by bringing artists closer to what they had imagined. As a name, Le Random is therefore a tribute to Vera Molnar. It also celebrates randomness as a driving force behind generative art.
Helena Sarin, numpytillism, transcribing after Matisse, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

JB: We’ve had people building art collections for a long time that have often failed to be inclusive. How are you planning to structure the new collection to ensure it addresses this issue?

tfg: We want our collection to tell a very diverse story of generative art by including artists from across different continents and all different genders. Generational diversity is also very important to us and we don’t wish to focus solely on artists who started creating work in the last few years.

JB: What is your perspective on the question of royalties? Are there particular marketplaces that you’ll shy away from because they tend not to support royalties? 

tfg: I regard royalties as principally the responsibility of the seller of a work of art. Since they are receiving the funds, they are usually expected to handle payment to the artists. 

We are not currently selling any pieces, but if we ever did we would definitely respect royalties. I don’t really care if you can circumvent them in a technological manner. It’s a social agreement between an artist and a collector that has to be respected at all times. 

Should an occasion arise when a seller sought to avoid payment of royalties, we would push back, and we would make it very clear that we wanted them to respect the royalties. So far, for every acquisition that we have made, the artist has received full royalties for each payment.

Zach Liebermann, block gradient field, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

JB: What proportion of the collection do you wish to dedicate to AI art? Are you interested in prompt-driven works or more traditional, code-based generative art? 

tfg: At the moment, we have quite a few AI pieces — probably between 10 and 20% of our collection. We already have pieces by Mario Klingemann as well as a unique work by Anna Ridler, while we are also working on some commissions. We’re definitely collecting very actively in the AI art space. But as you can probably tell, these are all pioneers in the AI space who have a very intimate dialogue with their medium. They usually create their own data sets, train their own models, and control the entire pipeline. That systems-based approach to creating art is something I really like, whereby the artist creates the thing that creates the thing, as Casey Reas likes to put it. 

Prompt-driven work is different because there’s actually another organization that creates the system and it’s more like the AI artist is navigating that system, looking for elements of the latent space that they connect with. But I do think that is changing thanks to platforms like Emergent Properties. There’s also randomness in the minting process, which I think is also very interesting. 

Iskra Velitchkova, Generative Zlatna i, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: What’s the white whale out there for you? What are the big pieces that you would love to see in Le Random’s collection?

TFG: We have a work by Robbie Barrat as well as an Autoglyph, a Chromie Squiggle, and a hyperrainbow Squiggle. We also have Ciphrd’s RGB Elementary Cellular Automaton #1 (2021). We think that these four works already tell the story of on-chain generative art and completing this set was a must for the collection. I think that our white whale might be Iskra Velitchkova’s golden bird (Generative Zlatna i (2021)), although it’s not a very expensive piece. I do hope that we can collect a unique piece by Manolo, who is probably my personal favorite generative artist. I think he’s in a league of his own. 

JB: I want to thank you for being one of the first sponsors of RCS. We’re at a position where, in order to keep giving out content, we are asking other folks in the space to help support us moving forward. Why have you decided to become one of the first sponsors of RCS? Why does that matter to you?

TFG: I think that what Right Click Save is doing is super important for the generative and digital art space. I really hope that, in the future, we don’t have just one RCS, but ten. Of course, in the meantime, we have to make sure that the one and only survives. 

I think that readers can see the overlap between our approach and that of Right Click Save. We can’t hide that RCS is an inspiration for us. We really think that what you guys are providing is super important, helping to contextualize the space and create something with long-term value. 

I also support your initiatives like FEMGEN. I’m happy that Le Random is collaborating strategically with Right Click Save.

qubibi, gr13H6rs622Mf, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

JB: It means the world to us. I can’t think of a better partner and supporter. Before I let you go, I have to ask, is this a good time for people to collect generative art?

TFG: For me, it does feel like a good time to collect. I don’t think there’s a lot of FOMO in the markets, especially compared to 2021. Volumes are much lower and many masterpieces that were selling for millions can now be acquired for low six figures. So I do think it’s a good time to start collecting generative art. There’s no mania and you won’t see NFTs or generative art in the mainstream media, which for me is an indication that there’s no overall hype. I think the future for generative art looks very bright, and we’re also seeing the first glimpses of adoption by traditional art world institutions, which tend not to move quickly. In the meantime, I hope we can build our own digital institution that moves at a rapid pace. 

I think that the impact of generative systems will be enormous in the future, not least because generative art shows us that we can escape mass standardization. Hopefully, we can soon live in a world where, even beyond the arts, there are more unique objects of beauty in the world.

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thefunnyguys is a Belgian generative art collector who has assembled an exceptional personal collection of over 5,000 pieces featuring works by most of the world’s leading generative artists. An early participant in the NFT space, he was the first investment analyst at Metaversal, and has recently launched his own initiative, Le Random, a first-of-its-kind, digital generative art institution.

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