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January 29, 2024

Where Next for Digital Art?

With Web3 in flux, Danielle King and Jason Bailey discuss what 2024 holds in store with Alex Estorick
Credit: RusticDigitalArt, The Passion of Artnome, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
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Where Next for Digital Art?

Alex Estorick: Since 2021, it feels as though there has been a wholesale rejection of the term, “NFTs,” by the general public. Meanwhile, “digital art” has only grown in popularity as the bear market has rumbled on. To me, that implies that the creative community of Web3 is becoming, or at least sounding, more like the centralized star system of contemporary art rather than the more decentralized, horizontal, and affordable alternative that RCS has always sought to cultivate. 

Recently, a number of NFT marketplaces have been forced to close along with the curatorial platform JPG. Meanwhile, Micol Ap has stepped down as CEO of VERTICAL, which has been a force for inclusion in Web3 thanks to its residency and projects like PROOF OF PEOPLE and FEMGEN. How have you experienced the space changing over the past year from a personal perspective and at a systemic level? 

Danielle King: From a personal perspective, a big turning point for me artistically was being part of the VerticalCrypto Art Residency, which has been a transformative experience for a lot of digital artists. I am sad to see [Micol] step away [but] I know she’s going to do great things. The residency was huge for me in that it made me take myself seriously as an artist again after putting it away in a closet to build a career and have a family. Since then, I’ve really been working on my practice in conversation with other artists, many of whom I met through the residency. 

More broadly, [Over the past year] we have seen art involving some sort of AI technology or collaboration move to the forefront. I have been collecting AI art since 2021 and started making work in 2022. Since then we’ve seen insane shifts in what is possible with more people picking it up — whether it’s artists who were already minting work on the blockchain or else people who, like me, came to art on the blockchain through the use of AI. But because these are financialized products it has obviously been tough recently, especially for artists and platforms. 

One thing that I’ve seen [in the bear market] is people being a little more thoughtful about how they collect and how they choose to create, release, and mint their works. 

The people who stuck around are the people who really care, who aren’t saying: “this thing pumped and I flipped it.” There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s a different kind of conversation. That said, I would be happy for everybody if artists could sell work again.

Danielle King for the VerticalCrypto Art Residency, Artificial Polaroid #7, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: It’s been wonderful to watch your career blooming over that time, which makes me wonder how you feel about your own collaboration with machines. Right now, there seems to be a contest between posthumanism — which places humans, machines, and natural organisms on a par — and transhumanism, which feels to me like an anthropocentric fantasy that extends the logic of extraction in ways that we don’t need.

DK: For me, one of the most interesting areas of exploration that AI [provokes] is that of memory, especially the collective memory versus my own limited and dwindling memory. My memories aren’t accurate — nobody’s are — but, as an artist, I can express feelings, thoughts, emotions, and narratives with the help of AI, producing evocative imagery that resonates with me and strikes on common experiences in a way that, if I were a painter, wouldn’t be possible.

AE: I felt that quite strongly when working on artifacts with Ana María Caballero. What resonated with me was this idea that, if you’re playing around with or in latent space, your outputs represent a kind of human-machine culture for which we don’t have clear terms of reference. That said, the language of the Web3 community is clearly evolving, while the mainstream media seems especially preoccupied with AI right now. I know that there are lots of people who were annoyed at the way NFTs colonized the conversation around digital art. Where do you stand, Jason? 

Jason Bailey: One of the things that I always found annoying was when the folks who had worked in digital art for a long time, whom I respect, felt the need over and over again to state publicly: “digital art didn’t start with NFTs.” That comes when people feel like they’ve lost control over the narrative.

Just because people are newly excited about something, it doesn’t mean that they’re morons. 
Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artists

We take older technologies for granted when they become part of everyday life. With AI, I think we are hyper-romanticizing the newest technology because it’s new and exciting and we haven’t really figured out how it’s going to settle into our lives. I suspect that it won’t be any more of a threat than a lot of previous technologies but it’s normal to interrogate new things as they come along. We naturally overreact to new technologies because we want to be excited about new things and we want a little bit of drama. 

I don’t know that digital art has changed that much other than in the way that NFTs have really helped people who saw it as something inaccessible or not something that they could collect or make, or who didn’t see a community that would support digital art, particularly those who were marginalized by the older system. The incentives have also changed a little bit — and I’m not making a judgment, merely an observation. 

In the early days, if you were drawn to NFTs, you were someone who was drawn to things that weren’t necessarily popular and you weren’t expecting to get rich off them. 

If you showed up later having learned about NFTs from news stories about people getting rich quick by speculating on this trendy new thing that famous people were buying into, that’s a completely different incentive and often a different kind of person. Not everyone comes in for the same reasons but certainly, as we move along, the incentives change and that also changes the sense of community.

Zancan, Earth and I, minted on Versum, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: It seems to me that crypto art was premised on the potential for NFTs to create a more inclusive art world by allowing artists, especially from the Global South, to build careers without needing to be routed through Global Northern institutions. But, over the last year, we’ve seen the decline of royalties as a means of engineering an equitable alternative, partly due to the growing dominance of the collector over the artist. 

JB: Early on, when we were talking about inclusivity, a lot of us were talking about something more akin to a tipping economy. A higher volume of lower spend lends itself to wider participation. But when we recreate the old system, whereby a smaller number of artists makes lots and lots of money, that can’t really scale. It’s almost like you can’t be inclusive and have a star system. I think we want to tell ourselves that we can by having a more inclusive star system, but does that really bring in more people in general? 

Look at the brands that are surviving and thriving right now in Web3. We lost Async and Versum and JPG, but Sotheby’s and Christie’s — centuries-old auction houses — are closing million-dollar deals. That tells me that the idealism of Web3 or crypto art in a lot of ways has died. 

I had a conversation the other day with the guys who invented the blockchain, W. Scott Stornetta and Stuart Haber, and I got the impression that they disagree on what blockchain can do socially. Scott is more of the view that blockchain could really improve things. 

What blockchain has been good at, whether on the cryptocurrency side or on the art side, is chipping away at value systems that have been in place for a long time. That said, it doesn’t necessarily offer the solution. Right now, I think that the older systems are benefitting from the shell of the crypto art ideals, but we also know that this space changes fairly rapidly with the bull and bear markets. Who knows what the next version will look like, but it is telling that these old world brands may be the only thing that survives while the ones that have helped to build the ethos and philosophy of this whole space are dropping like flies.

CryptoPhobia, Sounds Of JPG, minted on Async, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

DK: You definitely already see the gallery system of the traditional art world starting to creep in here, whether it’s a gallery such as Pace, or platforms with the feel of a high-end gallery like Verse or Tonic. If you look on their sites, they don’t talk about NFTs, they talk about digital art [and] generative art [with] very thoughtful writing as well as details about the creators. It’s not just a marketplace with a bunch of pictures so, in a lot of ways, that’s great if you’re a new person to this space who loves art and collects physical art for your home. 

Having some background and context can be inviting, whereas more uncurated sites like fx(hash) and, which I love, are a little harder to figure out. So there are pros and cons to these gallery sites, which tend to take a higher cut from the artist. That alone is a little bit less inclusive for artists from the Global South or else lesser-known artists who really need that money to live, who sometimes can’t justify giving up that cut when they could publish on another website where they don’t have to give away so much of their sales. 

I don’t want this space to be a duplicated online version of the traditional art world because I worked in that world for many years and there are many things that are wrong with it. 

We have the potential to correct those things or at least go down a different path, but it’s tricky because incentives also come into play and everyone wants and needs money, which is hard to balance with the communal and ethical principles on which crypto art was founded. Maybe the star system in Web3 is a bit more inclusive, but I also see that most of the stars are white men

Vera Molnar, 1% de Desordre – Bleu + Rouge / 3 (1% Disorder – Blue + Red), 1979.  Courtesy of The Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection

JB: If I sound like I’m a bit down, it’s partly because the space isn’t set up for someone like me anymore, which isn’t necessarily good or bad. I’m someone who likes really small and experimental groups that are drawn together to figure out what could be. That is what I’ve got out of this community but, over the years, as it has got bigger and more competitive and business-driven, I’ve become increasingly more uncomfortable. 

It feels like a lot of the artists and a lot of what is going on in the space has become businessified or corporatified. Artists who I used to talk to directly now have staff.

My last three or four collaborations haven’t really played out in the way they used to, when we would just go and have a beer and then work together. I feel like I’m back at Hewlett-Packard, [...] which is almost the antithesis of what drew me into the crypto art space four or five years ago. But maybe that’s just what scale looks like, where there are more humans involved and more at stake. It may be that that is just not a great fit for my personality, but I also look at things like the tezpole and think about how, five years ago, we would have been freakin’ thrilled if a hotel had let us put up a screen with our stuff on it. I’ve curated and I care a lot about the display of art, but gone are the days when you could be naively excited about having a place to show your work. 

Harold Cohen, Under Waterfront Park, 2014. Courtesy of Gazelli Art House

AE: Recently, we’ve seen a number of big museums put on exhibitions of digital art. These include “Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which juxtaposed historical works of generative art with traditional fine art movements including conceptual art, Op art, Fluxus, and Minimalism. There have also been notable shows on the subject of worldbuilding at Centre Pompidou-Metz and at HEK, Basel, as well as a novel exercise in blockchain-based co-creation at MoMA

This year, the trend is continuing with the Whitney Museum of American Art exploring the historical relationship of AI to art through the work of Harold Cohen, while the Centre Pompidou is set to launch a retrospective of the work of Vera Molnar. Danielle, what has been your reaction to the canonization of digital art by leading institutions?

DK: It is a great thing to see exhibitions showcasing histories of digital art as well as more recent developments. [Having] that stamp of validation is huge. [...] Of course, the Refik Anadol installation at MoMA was also a big draw — every time I visited there were just people staring at it and my own kids could have sat there for hours. I pulled them away eventually because there was also a video games exhibition on at the time.

Shows like these are introducing people to digital, generative, and AI-powered art, which is wonderful when it’s done by a museum whose mission is education rather than an auction house whose mission is profit-driven. 
Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion, Cutting Grass, 2013. Courtesy of the artists and 22,48 m², Paris.

It’s important that [digital] artists are seen as a part of a lineage and not just as a bunch of weirdos doing some stuff on the internet that no one really understands. The work of Tina Rivers Ryan at Buffalo AKG is also incredible — she’s been pushing on this for years through exhibitions and the inclusion of important works of digital art in their permanent collection. I hope that it can serve as a blueprint for other institutions because it would be dumb to ignore this movement that has been going on for quite some time and that is continuing to get more and more traction. 

JB: I think back to a conversation I had with Robbie Barrat where someone was asking him about why he includes video-game type content in his work and he was kind of like: “that’s the world I grew up in.” By contrast, for my dad’s generation, if you used computers you were the exception and considered a bit of a nerd. 

Back then, if you were going to do a museum exhibition of computer-oriented art, you would be tackling a niche topic. But now, we live primarily through digital media, so to ignore digital art is pretty much to ignore the dominant culture in which we live. 

It’s also not a matter of taste or of privileging Surrealism over Impressionism, for example. The question is: “do we choose to use museums and other institutions to talk about the dominant thing going on in our lives today or do we only look at things through the lens of nostalgia?” For more contemporary institutions, it’s not a novelty anymore to tackle digital art, it’s the dominant language that we use to communicate.

Linda Dounia, Chez Jo #21, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Reflecting back on the past year, one project that stands out for me is Mitchell F. Chan’s The Boys of Summer (2023) because I’m interested in how we are all folded into gamified networks. Which works or exhibitions have resonated the most with you over that time? 

DK: Two projects come to mind. The first is a work, which is Human Unreadable (2023) by Operator. Sadly, I do not own [a work in this collection] but it is at the top of my want-to-collect list. I was lucky enough to attend a talk in New York before the project was released where the artists broke it down and I was just in awe listening to them describe the year-long process of putting the work together — putting dance on the blockchain. They are conceptually rigorous in everything they do but the multilayered nature of this project really blew me away; it is visually striking and the works also come with a score ahead of a performance. 

One exhibition that comes to mind is “In/Visible” curated by Linda Dounia, who is an artist that I love and whose works I collect myself. The artists in the show, which took place on Feral File, all produced different series that sought to retrain AI toward less biased operations. If you’ve never used AI to make imagery, it is very biased and if you put in “Beautiful Woman” [then] nine times out of ten or maybe all the time you’re going to get a thin, white woman. The artists in the show played with how to get AI to give a more representative set of imagery. There’s some gorgeous art in it. I collected a couple of works, including one of Linda’s pieces as well as a work by Adaeze Okaro from her series, Planet Hibiscus (2023). 

JB: I tend to lean toward talking about works that I’ve collected because I only collect work that I love. Throughout the past year, I’ve been collecting works by an artist who goes by the name RusticDigitalArt, whose work is very affordable. Part of the reason that I collect their work so frequently is because it costs somewhere between five and 20 dollars and checks a lot of boxes for me. 

If I’m honest about my own upbringing, the bulk of my childhood in the 1980s and ’90s was spent playing Nintendo in sweatpants with a bag of Doritos and a Mountain Dew. Those early games have a borderline religious meaning for me and RusticDigitalArt brings in a lot of early video-game iconography.
RusticDigitalArt, The Art of War, 2023. Courtesy of Artnome

Right now, I’m seeing a painterly aesthetic all over the place in digital art, but it’s not [created] through the mark-making process but rather through an AI-driven process based on approximations of the images on which [the AI] was trained. We are seeing faux brushstrokes that are designed to look like the original images, but RusticDigitalArt is using these digital tools almost like paintbrushes so that you can see the role played by the hand in the actual mark-making. 

I would also absolutely echo Danielle on Operator’s project, Human Unreadable. If Rustic represents the dream of Web3 still being alive: affordable art that is cool and unique that you can stumble upon that didn’t have a big marketing campaign around it, among the projects that did take many months and made a really big splash was that of Operator. And the reason is because generative art, which I’ve long loved, became really freakin’ boring for a lack of a better description. It just looked more and more the same. I’m in that group that feels like when all generative art is static images sort of inspired by art from the 20th century, I think we can do more with this new technology and we can break the visual language. 

By bringing in bodies and doing things that were less geometric from an aesthetic perspective, and then bringing in choreography and really thinking through why they’re showing what they’re showing, I see Human Unreadable as almost a critique of long-form generative art.
Generative choreography tuning rehearsal/performance hosted by JPG and MOCA at Bathhouse Studios, New York, 2023. Courtesy of Operator

AE: Finally, I’d like to gather your predictions for the year ahead. Jason, back in 2022 you wrote what became our most successful article, “THE NFT APOCALYPSE.” What is the current state of NFT security and where do you see that conversation heading in 2024?

JB: I don’t know if it’s just because it’s what I want to see but I feel like in the last month conversations around security and NFT construction have picked up a lot, driven largely by the fascination with ordinals

One thing that has always bugged me in Web3 is that people place a premium on the chain over the art itself. 

When the same artist produces comparable work on, say, Tezos versus Ethereum the work will sell for much more, which I can only ascribe to the chain. We’re going through a moment right now when an artwork that is inscribed as an ordinal is magically ten times the price. I’m not an expert in ordinals but I like that it is leading people to have the on-chain versus off-chain debate, which is a good gateway into the conversation about how these things are built and how we preserve them.

I’m deeply passionate about helping people to preserve their NFTs, but the bigger questions are: “how do we preserve digital culture in general?” And “how come we’re not having more conversations about link rot?” If you look at how we’ve managed to preserve buildings and books from hundreds of years ago yet we’ve lost the bulk of our early websites from the 1990s, that scares me a lot. At ClubNFT, we’re playing our small part but maybe we will see the conversation shift in the next year. A lot of times my predictions are just what I want to see happen. [Laughs]

Adaeze Okaro, Planet Hibiscus, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: I’m concerned that with the bear market running on and on, a lot of people are experiencing what it is to operate within the fragile infrastructure of Web3. Danielle, given the cyclical nature of crypto, is it possible to foresee the end of the bear market this year?

DK: I hope we come out of it, but I don’t know if I can predict that. I’ve had my moments of worry but I’m still here and I still believe in this [space] enough to stick around. With the proliferation of AI and how great it has become at imitating imagery and as a language tool, one of the things that should happen in the coming year is a serious conversation around the ethics of AI.

I think that one consequence of easier access to AI tools is that concept-driven work will become more highly valued. At a moment when anyone can create a cool or beautiful or shocking image, hopefully the ideas behind things are going to start to matter more to people.
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Jason Bailey is the creator of the art and tech blog and founder of ClubNFT, where he serves as CEO.

Danielle King is an artist, collector, writer, and curator based in Western Massachusetts. Her recent work uses AI technologies to explore alternative art histories and timelines, experiment with memory and the duality of self, and investigate capitalist and art historical ideals of beauty and femininity. After receiving her MBA from the Yale School of Management, she spent eight years managing the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She is currently the CFO & COO of ClubNFT and Right Click Save

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