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June 12, 2024

What the Punk!

Jason Bailey speaks with the team behind the new CryptoPunks documentary
Credit: Still from What the Punk!, courtesy of Darjeeling Prod.
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What the Punk!

With several years having passed since both the inception of the CryptoArt movement and, later, the speculative explosion in interest for NFTs, efforts are now underway to understand, contextualize, and document what happened for future generations. Earlier this year, we published our contribution — a collection of essays from RightClickSave, representing a wide variety of voices from across the community gathered over several years. Additionally, we saw the release of OnNFTs, an extensive (and expensive) book by respected publisher Taschen, positioned as an official catalog of the movement.

In the world of CryptoArt, which prioritizes radical inclusion and decentralization, there won't be just one official history. Instead, we can expect to see numerous books, documentaries, and oral histories. These accounts will showcase the diversity of the individuals who contributed to the early stages of the CryptoArt movement. Additionally, they will highlight the significant disparities in outcomes for participants, especially those who joined during later, more speculative phases.

What The Punk! is a fresh documentary directed by Hervé Martin-Delpierre and co-produced by Darjeeling, ARTE, and the OG CryptoArt collector TokenAngels. The film seeks to capture the essence of CryptoArt by spotlighting the community and the boom/bust market that emerged around CryptoPunks. It balances this narrative with the personal journey of an artist named Robness, a real-life crypto punk deeply involved in cryptocurrency and CryptoArt since the movement's inception. I recently had a discussion with Hervé and TokenAngels about their film ahead of its premiere at Digital Art Mile during Art Basel.

Credit: Official poster for What the Punk!, courtesy of Darjeeling Prod.

Jason Bailey: Why did you decide to make a movie about CryptoPunks?

Hervé Martin-Delpierre: Well, it's quite a story. I met Marc Lustigman in Sweden about four years ago, who introduced me to NFTs. Honestly, I was taken aback because I didn't know much about NFTs at the time. Marc Lustigman suggested making a documentary about them, which piqued my interest. Exploring this new world felt like diving into a new artistic revolution. As I delved deeper, I noticed similarities with past projects, like when I made a film about Daft Punk and electronic music. Initially, people dismissed it as not real music, similar to the skepticism around digital art, especially CryptoPunks. It also reminded me of when I explored manga and people said it was simple and insignificant. It's a recurring theme — new art forms often face criticism before being recognized.

JB: So is it fair to say that you're attracted to topics that incite protest from others as unworthy of attention? The more excitable and vehement the protest, the better?

HM: Absolutely! It's been a recurring theme in my career and artwork. When something is deemed worthless, it often marks the start of something significant. This pattern is evident throughout art history, like with the Impressionists in France. Initially, their work was dismissed as garbage. It’s a cycle or pattern that repeats itself.

JB: Interesting. Did your past documentaries help shape this film?

HM: Well, many believe filmmakers are drawn to similar stories, and there's some truth to that. Personally, I'm fascinated by being a witness to modern times. Margaret Mead, the famous American anthropologist, once remarked on the unique period we're in. She sensed that technology was rapidly reshaping our lives, with adults no longer in a position to explain the new world we live in to their children, as they had not experienced it yet themselves. For the first time in history, children were fending for themselves, trying to make sense of this new world on their own.

The creators of the CryptoPunks, Matt Hall and John Watkinson, faced an extraordinary global challenge, unlike anything most artists, or even most people, have ever experienced.

Their project gave rise to an entire economy with very high stakes. For me, the most captivating aspect of all of this is the human element of how they, as creators and as people, navigated this storm. While digital art and CryptoPunks are intriguing, it's the human story that resonates most deeply. Without this human connection, we're left with endless debates and skepticism about whether any of this qualifies as art. But if we can connect with people on this human level first, then perhaps everyone can begin to recognize digital art as a legitimate form of artistic expression.

Credit: Still from What the Punk!, courtesy of Darjeeling Prod.

JB: Things change so rapidly in NFTs and CryptoArt. Did you need to change the film to keep up with all of the changes in NFTs? Was it hard to keep up with this rapidly evolving target?

HM: A genuine documentary must have timeless appeal. It should be relevant not just today, but also in 20 years. In this context, the human aspect is paramount. While many things may change, the human story remains constant. It's true for individuals like Matt, John, and Robness, each of whom plays a significant role in our narrative. 

JB: How did you choose who to include in this story besides Matt and John? And what level of participation in the film did Matt and John have?

TokenAngels: Initially, we were uncertain about securing an interview with Matt and John.

HM: I was fine with that. I was ready to proceed with the film even without their interview. However, when we learned they would be in Paris for an exhibition at the Pompidou along with Robness, we realized we had to make the interview happen. We met them at the exhibition, and I believe Matt and John watched my film about Daft Punk, which helped them grasp the human story I aimed to convey.

JB: Could you explain your decision to include Robness as a primary character?

HM: It was essential for me. For those unfamiliar with NFTs, CryptoPunks, or the roles of Matt and John, Robness provides a foundational understanding of this world. Instead of spending hours catching up, Robness acts as a mirror, reflecting the experiences of Matt and John. Once I decided to feature Matt, John, and Robness in the film, it was serendipitous that they were all in Paris for the same NFT exhibition. It was like a sign from God saying, “Okay, it’s a good story. I will help you now.”

Credit: Still from What the Punk!, courtesy of Darjeeling Prod.

JB: The story of CryptoArt seems intertwined with the concept of a decentralized community. While I recognize that this is fundamentally about the experiences of Matt and John, it's worth noting that the popularity of CryptoPunks largely stemmed from the active community that embraced them. Community plays a pivotal role in this narrative. Are there other community members featured in the film?

TokenAngels: The community is what made CryptoPunks and CryptoArt in general great. That’s why we asked several members of the CryptoPunks community to be part of this project and share their experience, people like Tschuuuly, Hemba, DanPolko, Snowfro plus other very important figures in the CryptoArt history that gave their contributions like Judy Mam and Colborn.

Besides that, there have been several other collectors & curators that dedicated their time to meet with Hervé and our gratitude goes also to them.

Credit: Still from What the Punk!, courtesy of Darjeeling Prod.

HM: Absolutely. However, I'd go beyond labeling it as just a community. It's more like a utopia. This idea of utopia is central. Robness, for instance, starts with his involvement in Occupy Wall Street, moves on to Bitcoin, and eventually to Rare Pepe. It's all interconnected by this utopian vision. Similarly, Matt and John contributed to another utopian ideal by guiding artists on smart contract utilization. While community is vital, for me, the emphasis lies on utopia, especially considering the current state of the world.

JB: I share that perspective. Some argue that the early values of the CryptoArt movement got lost over time, turning it into a failed utopia like many others. However, my response is gratitude for those in every generation who continue to pursue new utopias as an ideal. It's crucial that we keep experimenting because without experimentation, we risk regression.

Pardon my ignorance, but I'm not quite sure what a producer does to help create a film. Could you help me understand TokenAngels' role as a co-producer?

HM: TokenAngels played a crucial role in making this film in various ways. Beyond merely providing financial support, like a good producer, he was willing to take risks at the outset, which is critical at the beginning of a filmmaking journey. He also facilitated many of the necessary introductions to key characters in the film and checked in regularly, helping to keep the film authentic. 

JB: What was the most challenging aspect of the film?

HM: The biggest challenge for me was navigating the complexity of the technology involved. It wasn't just about explaining blockchain, but also delving into the intricacies, like the controversy and events around v1 versus v2 Punks. I struggled with this for quite some time, seeking feedback from friends to gauge if I could explain it in a way that was both engaging and comprehensible. However, most people found it to be too technical and were left confused.

Eventually, I realized that, at its core, the story was about artists losing control of their own artwork in a historic way due to its permanence on the blockchain.

Simplifying the narrative in this way made it more relatable and resonant with audiences. By focusing on the broader impact of the technology rather than delving into every technical detail, I was able to convey its significance without overwhelming viewers.

JB: Did you have a specific audience in mind when creating the film?

HM: It's always a challenging question when making a documentary. We need a large audience to secure funding for the film, as filmmaking and distribution are costly endeavors. However, based on my experience with past films exploring digital music, manga, and other subcultures, I've learned that portraying the real story authentically can't be compromised for commercial success. Going the hyper-commercial route often leads to inauthenticity, which doesn't align with my approach to filmmaking.

TA: For me to invest in this movie was like saying thanks to the Punks community. This movie could have commercial success or not, but it’s a way to give back in the end. 

I agree. It would have been easy to make a popular commercial movie with A-list actors. But what sets this film apart is its authenticity. It's not flashy or pretentious; it's simply an honest attempt to portray events as they unfolded. What struck me is that after entrusting Hervé and Mark with the film, I was pleasantly surprised when I watched it for the first time in Paris.

I told Hervé, "You've captured exactly what I lived."

What makes this film special is its multifaceted narrative. While it's centered around CryptoPunks, it raises questions about who the real "punks" are. Are they the CryptoPunks themselves, Larva Labs (Matt and John), or Robness, the street artist who protested by burning a CryptoPunk? It's intriguing to see the clash between two types of "punks" — the nerds and the traditional ones — eventually converging in the same museum years later. So, to me, the film poses the question, "What is a punk, and who embodies the true essence of punk?" There are multiple layers to explore in this film, and I personally find its value lies beyond mainstream commercial success; it's already a significant and remarkable historical document.

You can watch the movie here:

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

Hervé Martin Delpierre directs documentaries that reveal his passion for 21st-century artistic and cultural trends. His style combines refinement and modernism and tells true stories that he manages to make universal. From haute couture to K-pop bands from YG Entertainment in South Korea, without forgetting Japanese manga – his subjects are wide-ranging. His most notable film is Daft Punk Unchained. This film, the only one existing about the most famous electronic band, was sold in more than 80 countries. It was broadcast prime time on the most prestigious channels such as Showtime in the US, Canal+ in France, and BBC 4 in England or Netflix. His other films, The Fan and Game Fever, have been distributed in more than 30 countries.

TokenAngels is the pseudonym for an Italian angel investor and art collector. After starting investing in the Blockchain and Web3 space in 2017, TokenAngels, who comes from a family of antiquities collectors, started approaching the artistic and cultural movement around it, becoming one of the most important collectors of CryptoArt, acquiring the most relevant projects.