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June 26, 2023

When Generative Art Became Contemporary Art

Erick Calderon, KarateKid, and John Gerrard discuss the impact of the Pace Verso x Art Blocks partnership with Ariel Hudes
Credit: John Gerrard, Petro National (Gabon), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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When Generative Art Became Contemporary Art

This month marks the one-year anniversary of Pace Verso’s partnership with Art Blocks, which was designed to bridge the gap between the traditional art world and the emerging space of generative art. In 12 months, Art Blocks and Pace Verso have together launched six generative art projects, all by artists associated primarily with the “trad” art world. We’ve also invited members of the Art Blocks community to events at Pace Gallery, arranging meetups throughout the global art world and Web3 calendar to cross-pollinate our communities.

Yet, as the following conversation makes clear, the work of bridging these spaces and fully folding generative art into the contemporary art world has only just begun. I’m grateful for what leaders like Erick Calderon, KarateKid, and John Gerrard do to make the generative space a compelling one for Pace’s traditional audience. With Gerrard’s latest project, World Flag, launching this week, it felt like the right moment to reflect on the art world’s changing state.

John Gerrard, World Flag (China)(test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ariel Hudes: I thought we would start by going back in time and talking about how we each came to generative art. John, how did you come to work generatively?

John Gerrard: My starting point was with 3D scanning, which is sculptural. That was probably in 1994 when I was an undergraduate at Oxford University. I’ve been thinking about the image as an object ever since. My relationship with generative art is less online and much more about the game engine, which is a key language for contemporary art that I’ve championed for 20 years. After 15 or 16 years making game engine-based artworks, Pace Verso approached me with their partnership with Art Blocks. In the space of just a few short weeks, we turned around Petro National (2022) using a technology called WebGL, which allows you to put the engine in the browser. 

I realized I didn’t have to go to Miami to sell my work, that I could put it on the Internet. Tokenization allows people to acquire or dispose of it, and enjoy it in any way they wish. It’s a proper revolution.

What motivates me the most is putting WebGL data worlds into this context. And so that’s what I’m doing.

John Gerrard, Petro National (United States of America), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

AH: KarateKid, how did you come to generative art? What are some of the first projects that got you excited?

KarateKid: I got my first Bitcoin in 2014, so pretty early. But, like many people, I didn’t do much with it. Many years later, I discovered Hashmasks, which was super interesting in how the project was constructed. Then I got interested in CryptoPunks. As a newbie to the Punks Discord, trying to figure out which Punk to get, Erick was so generous with his time and his tips. That’s how I ended up with the CryptoPunk that’s my avatar today. At the time, the CryptoPunks Discord comprised nearly half of the people from the Art Blocks Discord, so everybody was talking about it. 

Elementals (2021) season one was my first experience of the magic of minting. Ringers (2021) had already been minted, but I was immediately drawn to the elegance of Dmitri Cherniak’s algorithm with pretty high conviction. I was like: “wow, this is going to be in a museum someday. I just really have to get this.” The Discord was also a super welcoming community and the Ringers channel very intimate and celebratory. Then came Fidenza (2021) and that was just sheer beauty — you could feel the power of long-form generative art, and I’ve never looked back since.

Erick Calderon: A lot of it is chance. I’ve been coding my whole life, but purely as a hobby, just tinkering. One time, I saw Amon Tobin in concert at Coachella — he did this projection-mapped piece that just made my brain explode. I’d never had an experience that I considered artistic at a music event like that. It inspired me to want to do something similar. I came home, and the reality of not knowing how to do 3D animation set in pretty quickly. 

I started writing my own projection-mapping software, and then turned it into something that would randomize the outputs, which turned into a generative piece. I thought to myself: “it would be really nice to share this with people — to let others randomize the generative outputs of the piece.” 

Then, in 2017, I stumbled into blockchain technology, claimed some CryptoPunks that June and realized that the blockchain could provide you with everything you needed to create the randomized version of the piece that you want to get. In 2020, I launched Art Blocks as an embodiment of what I’d always wanted to exist up to that point. All of my hobbies and passions came together in support of a group of artists that I thought were creating some of the most beautiful art in the world, albeit in relative obscurity on Instagram and Twitter. Art Blocks wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for p5.js and processing of that kind. By setting it as a visual language — a way of creating visually compelling things rather than a generic computer language — it really created an explosion of creativity. 

John Gerrard, World Flag (Yemen), Mint #0, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

AH: John, could you tell us about your upcoming Art Blocks x Pace Verso project, World Flag?

JG: We have been working on this piece for around eight or nine months, and we did mint zero yesterday, which was Yemen. Each work is a country’s flag printed in smoke and set in a future desert. We invented a system that allows us to print pictures in virtual smoke using an augmented particle system that we’ve absolutely mauled, reordered, and reprogrammed. The work comprises 195 unique, one-of-one generative art worlds.

We will mint in descending order of countries’ CO2 emissions. Number one is China, and number two is the USA. Since you know the minting order, you may be able to try and get a particular country; what you don’t know is which desert you’ll get, and the deserts are actually quite exciting. The most common landscape is a dusty orange sandy desert, which is one of my absolute favorites. The next most common is a gravel desert, while the most unusual are two very beautiful ash deserts: a black ash desert, and a white ash desert. There are only two of each of those in the whole project. KarateKid, I am wishing that you get a beautiful flag in an ash desert — the rarest of the rare! 

In a way, what this [project] says is: if we keep on failing to collaborate across borders, and if we stick within our nationalist silos, behind our flags, we are aiming for a future desert, which will be global. 
John Gerrard, Petro National (Australia), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

KK: I mentioned in a prior interview on Right Click Save that art is one of the ways that we interpret the impenetrable reality around us. Great artists help us to see reality in the way that they do. They make us stop and ask questions, and that’s what John does for me. He asks these profound questions through beautiful images and makes me think: “what am I seeing here?” That carries throughout his body of work.

Petro National starts with a thin film of oil that he turns into art, which is pretty mind-blowing. Here, art becomes a seed that tells the story of per capita oil consumption, making us think about the divide between the Global North and South. I thought: “I have to collect. I’m in.” 

AH: I’d like us to address generative art as a broader movement, and why we all continue to be bullish about it. Erick, what is exciting to you, right now? I know you’re having very intense conversations among the Art Blocks Curation Board these days.

EC: A few months ago, you said to me, “Erick, my job here is to give Pace artists the tools to express themselves in this medium,” and you’re right. I think that every artist who does something sparks innovation in another artist. Where there is technology there is also beauty. Of course, we index a lot on the visual and audio elements, but the distribution mechanism of this technology is just so powerful. You don’t have to leave your house to sell it, and people are so interconnected. 

Two years in, even the most expert generative artists are still figuring this out. But once the language becomes normal to us and distribution mechanisms fall into our thought process, there is going to be an explosion of creative uses. We just need to keep doing what we’re doing to give artists the tools to inspire them.

John Gerrard, Flare (Oceania), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

KarateKid: When we were in Tokyo [for Bright Moments Tokyo], we never talked about the market, only about art. It’s been an amazing two years and it feels like we’re in this incredible moment of expression and innovation. When you think about what Matt Kane did with Gazers (2021), or Kim Asendorf with pixel sorting, or the latest drop from Operator, who are now moving into generative choreography — all this experimentation is super exciting. So are the tools: from Art Blocks Engine to fx(params) to Bright Moments’ live-minting platform. We’re seeing this whole ecosystem develop. 

It’s also encouraging that there are now more voices coming into the space, including from traditionally underrepresented regions of the world. In AI especially, there are a lot of female pioneers, such as Claire Silver and Sofia Crespo. Having more perspectives and more voices is really exciting for me. Of course, we also have Art Blocks Marfa Weekend coming up, which is illustrative of everything I’ve just been talking about. 

Generative art is the art movement of our generation, but we are also really early to it. We’re going to see so much more, and not only art but also the experience of how we buy, mint, and share art. At Bright Moments Tokyo, the artists were collecting and bonding as a community, while the art was on the billboards at Shibuya Crossing
Installation view of John Gerrard, One Thousand Year Dawn (2005) at RHA, Dublin, 2006. Courtesy of the artist and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

JG: I’m an avid collector of Kim Asendorf and I completely fell in love with his work on fxhash. I’m embarrassed to admit the number of works from Cargo (2023) that I’ve collected. Another incredible artist is Jan Robert Leegte with his project, JPEG (2022). The blockchain mechanism has given artists like these the time and space to sit and craft their work in a way they never had before, producing denser, more complicated, and more interesting work over time. The contemporary art world and market, for the most part, didn’t do that. 

What we need is a new academy. The art school is in a complete crisis right now, and people are producing work that is more conservative and analog, and more influenced by the art fair, which is a catastrophe for contemporary art. I think contemporary art is backsliding into nostalgia. It’s disconnected from contemporary society. The space that’s not in trouble is where contemporary artists, such as Kim Asendorf, are using contemporary tools to respond to contemporary reality. 

Some of the greatest drivers of reality are coders, but code is missing from contemporary art. 

The art school is highly connected with the idea of the museum and the Venice Biennale. There needs to be an academy that talks about code as an artistic language in a really meaningful way. Casey Reas has done more than anyone to deliver this to the world. [...] Code is a very important language now, but there is work to be done.

John Gerrard, World Flag (UK)(test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

AH: To your points, John, one avenue for expanding access for artists has been the Pace and Art Blocks partnership. I want to talk about what our hopes and aspirations have been for that partnership. Erick, when we were kicking off a year ago, what did you hope we would do? 

EC: This partnership was one of the more organic situations that I’ve experienced in Web3. It’s no exaggeration to say that Art Blocks is approached with a partnership five times a week. You guys demonstrated a curiosity that was exciting to us. I’m driven more by curiosity than anything else, which is going to be the thing that onboards the next group of people into this space, not because their friends are making a bunch of money. At the time of the bull market, people thought that “the whole world is going to be into crypto.” [...] We were crucified for so long for saying: “buy the art because you like it. Buy the art because it looks good on your wall.” 

I didn’t expect the steep drop off that we are seeing today; I thought that there would be more people active within this community. But, right now, I’m also having the best conversations about art since I joined CryptoPunks in 2017. 

[...] People are making multiple decisions to get that one thing that they want: which wallet am I going to use? Which blockchain am I going to use? Which platform? We shouldn’t be waiting around for another bull run that causes people to join because of financial incentives. We need to find compelling use cases for blockchain technology that aren’t based on scarcity or FOMO. 

John Gerrard, Petro National (Chile), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

JG: The people who are not leaving the space include the Centre Pompidou, which just acquired a Petro National from Art Blocks, as well as Smoke Hands (Dark) (2022), which is a little project I released on Feral File with Pace. LACMA is also coming in. I agree that we need to consider what is going to be compelling for the broader public. My ambition for World Flag was to make something that nobody’s ever seen in the browser before. It also looks great on your phone, so when I want to show my work to somebody, I don’t have to bring them into my studio or my house. I’m fully bullish about generative art, on-chain, in the browser, and particularly WebGL. 

KK: I’m bullish on generative in a wider sense and I’ve talked about it everywhere. We were just in Tokyo, and I was reflecting that, 193 years ago, Hokusai dropped his edition of 800 “sketches” [an 800-page edition of Hokusai Manga, published between 1814 and 1878 in 15 stitched-bound volumes.] That project used the technology of polychrome woodblocks to make posters that everyday people and merchants could obtain, and it was portable. When I think about that, I think about generative art on apparel or how Erick has been playing with sculptures. I do think that there’s going to be an explosion of excitement of the kind that Hokusai inspired.

John Gerrard, Western Flag, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

AH: What role can a gallery play in bringing about those changes? What have we done thus far and where do we need to do more?

KK: I’m a newcomer to the traditional art space because it’s just been too intimidating. 

The few times that I’ve managed to work up my courage to walk into a gallery, I felt like I was not going to be given the time of day. And Pace, heaven forbid, there’s just no way I would ever walk into a gallery like that. But through this type of collaboration between Art Blocks and Pace Verso, I feel like I can now walk into Pace Gallery in New York.

JG: The gallery’s role is one of handholding and storytelling. We’re doing a global campaign around World Flag, including a press release, and we’re going to tell this story. Another of my works, Western Flag (2017), is quite well-known. People might even recognize it. Now suddenly, they have an iteration of it in World Flag. In the next five years, you’re going to see more people falling in love with collecting work in this way. At the moment, they’re still thinking: “how can you value a digital thing?”

Art Blocks X Pace Verso, 2022. Courtesy of Art Blocks

AH: Pace has a million followers on Instagram, and tens of thousands of people all over the world who read our mailers. I think that there has been a huge uptick in people who are familiar with the concept of generative art, even compared to a year ago. The question is: “how do you translate that interest into actual acquisitions?” That’s where there’s work to be done — to take that interest that we’ve built and mobilize it. 

EC: Unlike a lot of other brands that have entered this space, Pace hasn’t focused solely on marketing. The organizations that are open about sharing that part of their journey with traditional art collectors are rare. We need more of that. 

I believe that adversity can reduce the appetite for fine artists to enter the generative art space. We need artists to be curious about crossing the border, to want to figure out a wallet, figure out the blockchain, and figure out mint timings and all that stuff. 

But both artists and collectors will come around so long as there’s good art and good ideas. My fear is that the gap doesn’t get bridged because of artists’ trepidation about entering this ecosystem. The loss of the secondary market royalty is a huge shock for new creativity entering the space, and we have to aggressively pursue, not aggressively restrict, people from doing so. Right now, we are demonstrating at a luxury level — and 0.1 ETH is still a luxury for many — that there is appetite for what we’re doing, and that this technology has legs at a global level. That will help to encourage more artists to come in.

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John Gerrard’s World Flag will be released on Art Blocks on June 28 at 12pm EST.

Erick Calderon, better known as Snowfro, is an entrepreneur, artist, and technology enthusiast born in Mexico City and residing in Houston, Texas. He spent the first 18 years of his career operating a boutique ceramic tile company named La Nova Tile, working with high-end architecture and interior design projects across the United States. In his early 30s, he began developing artistic projects, creating works in multiple media including video projections, computer code, 3D printing, and sculpture. In 2020, he founded Art Blocks as a platform for on-demand generative art on the Ethereum blockchain. He released his own artwork, Chromie Squiggle, an algorithmic edition of 10,000 NFTs, as the first project on the Art Blocks platform. Calderon is a tireless advocate of NFTs as a technology, and is dedicated to elevating generative art as a medium of expression within the world of contemporary art.

John Gerrard explores the divisions between portrait, landscape, and history painting, generating moving images that no longer belong to “time-based media.” Gerrard rethinks the monumentalism of land art in the age of Google Earth and explores an expanded arena of choreography and performance, keeping pace with the complexity of the subject matter. The artist has developed a practice involving transhistorical collage, overlaying terrain, figure, image, and gesture captured from real bodies and sites using satellite data, intensive photographic documentation, 3D scanning, and motion capture. The resulting works are sculptures that exist in virtual environments that include algorithmic choreographies, multiple moving viewpoints, and cycles of day and night. The resulting works are a projection of a complex data set, every aspect of which is rendered in real time and left to unfold within the time and space of the virtual world.

KarateKid is the collecting account for a pioneer of Web1 and Web2 tech, whose efforts and innovations have changed the way we interact with technology and media on a daily basis. KarateKid is on the Art Blocks Curation Board and is an active member of Unicorn DAO and Bright Moments DAO. KarateKid is an investor in Bright Moments, Pinata, XMTP, Boss Beauties, and Dirt.

Ariel Hudes is Head of Pace Verso, the gallery’s Web3 arm. Hudes spearheaded the development of Pace Verso from its inception, helping position Pace as the leading art gallery in Web3. She has worked closely with Pace artists, including Jeff Koons, Loie Hollowell, Robert Whitman and others, to realize their boundary-pushing NFT projects with Pace Verso. She led the formation of Verso’s celebrated partnership with Art Blocks, through which the two companies together release generative art projects by Pace artists on the Art Blocks platform. Many of the projects Hudes has produced have included charitable giving components, leading to over $800,000 in donations to organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the NAACP. Prior to her tenure at Pace, Hudes worked as a Project Leader at the Boston Consulting Group and received her MBA from Yale University. Her interest in digital art began nearly 15 years ago at Brown University, where she studied under and collaborated with Mark Tribe, who founded Rhizome, a digital art platform with close ties to the genesis of NFT technology.