⛓ A Layman’s Guide to Generative Blockchain Art
Why generative NFTs are taking over Ethereum, and how to evaluate them (with 10 simple questions).
Let me repeat: Art Blocks, a niche generative art platform — that launches products in complicated Dutch auctions with a clumsy UX — is doing 1/5th of the volume the WHOLE global art market is expected to do.
Generative art isn’t new. People have been painting with computers since the middle of the past century. Algorithmic creation is an old artistic fetish: instructions, by Sol Lewitt, in the 70s, were codified steps to build an installation that manifested the artwork (differently) every time it was displayed. Many NFTs directly allude to LeWitt’s work.
Why, then, has this modality flourished so violently in crypto-art?
When The Token is the Art
Blockchain tokens are suited to represent digital property and verify the provenance of transactions. The art industry is plagued with fraud, and could very well benefit from their usage.
But the potential of the blockchain in art tracking can only be fulfilled in its entirety if the token, itself, contains the art. If there's no dependency on the outside world — no need for storing an image in a server somewhere, no painting hanging in a wall.
This is called the "oracle problem", in bitcoin vernacular — an old conundrum when it comes to the usefulness of the blockchain for registering any form of property outside of coins themselves. A system is only as safe as its weakest link. If one's registry depends on outside legislatures (to resolve disputes on the ownership of a painting, for example), then it's as (un)secure as that.
Well, it turns out — folks discovered in 2019 — it is indeed possible to embed art itself in a token. To close the gap between form and concept. To write, directly in the blockchain, independent seeds for eternally reproducible ideas.
Generative art has over half a century of history, but it seems to have found in Ethereum a path to immortality.
Autoglyphs and Its Children
Autoglyphs are the prime example of a self-contained mechanism for the creation and ownership of an artwork.
Their were launched by Larva Labs (of CryptoPunks pedigree) in 2019. Each piece was birthed by a "minter" — an Ethereum address that interacted, practically for free, with the minting contract. This contract also contains a "guide" for interpreting the results of the Glyphs' visual traits.
If you examine any of the 512 Glpyh creation transactions on the blockchain, the event data contains the full output of the artwork itself — codified instructions, in a character art pattern. In other words, both the instructions and the results for each piece live on-chain.
The Glyph community is today a tight-knit group of 139 owners, the floor price hovers near U$1M, and multiple distinct projects have created "derivatives" of the Glyphs. Since the instructions are all public, it's easy to apply different aesthetics and minting dynamics to seed new collections (see ColorGlyphs, PaintGlyphs).
The realisation behind Autoglyphs set forth a conceptual revolution. The creation, distribution and ownership of art defined by the very same program. What could be tested now that the blockchain was repurposed as an artistic medium?
Chromie Squiggles inaugurated what went on to become the largest generative art platform in the world (ArtBlocks).
Avid Lines pioneered a system for remixing digital art, where pieces were generated upon instructions drawn from Autoglyphs “whitelisted” by their owners, who in turn had rights to a portion of mint costs.
Mutant Garden Seeders explored the "clock aspect" of the blockchain with time-based “responsive paintings” that morph in different frequencies (daily, yearly, etc), deterministically preset since birth — each creature depicted by an ever growing sequence of SVG files of mutation states, recalculate-able from the data on-chain.
DEAFBEEF invented generative audiovisual works that degrade when transferred to another owner.
Amulets repurposed proof-of-work to produce poetry and devised a system to immortalise the rarest specimen on-chain.
The possibilities are endless. The list of innovators grows on and on.
What is Good On-Chain Art Made Of?
Nobody knows what will retain relevance decades down the line. The models people currently rely on, for critiquing and buying on-chain art, are still mostly heterogeneous expressions of personal preferences.
Manyfold.xyz states that a creator-centric minting contract should be (1) authentic (true provenance directly from creator); (2) interoperable (work with existing standards and marketplaces); and (3) extensible (uniquely designed for specific interactions or applications).
FingeprintsDAO proposes that on-chain art distinguishes itself by (1) permanent storage (the information for producing the artwork living on-chain); (2) programmability; (3) community dynamics (incentivising collective participation, ritual or games); and (4) financialization (exploring art's relationship with value and ownership through economic mechanisms).
I put together a list of criteria to navigate the landscape and evaluate a given collection (not individual pieces). Most of the public discourse revolves around the more evident aspects (to the left) of on-chain gen-art, while a smaller portion is devoted to the less evident aspects (to the right).
Level 1: The Surface
1 | ARTISTIC MERIT (proof-of-work)
Did it take time and work to produce? Does the collection strike a good balance between variability and cohesion?
Ex: Beeple's been drawing daily for 5000+ days — can't think of a clearer artistic "proof of work" than that (PS: not a generative collection).
2 | APPRAISAL VALUE
Does it make you feel something? Is it aesthetically unignorable? Does it confer immediate recognition within a group?
Ex: Fidenzas are aesthetically shocking, period.
Level 2: The Underlying
3 | DISTRIBUTION / SUPPLY
Is the supply limited (collection is "finished)? Is the artist dead or alive? What are the inflationary & deflationary forces?
Ex: Framergence's deflationary "burn to re-roll" mechanism.
4 | OWNER BASE
Is it widely distributed? How much % of the pieces are with "unique owners"? How much are up for sale?
Ex: Brotchain's strictly enforced one-per-wallet mints.
5 | COLLECTABILITY
Are there coded in incentives for long term participation? Spontaneous community rituals? Notable collective dynamics?
Ex: Pulsquares' gallery system, that give upgrades to committed holders.
Level 3: The Unseen
6 | CONTRACT PURITY
Ex: CryptoPunks —ask anyone who's read the contract for an opinion. So distinctive it actually inspired the creation of a standard (ERC721).
7 | "ON-CHAIN-NESS"
How many dependencies are needed to reconstruct it from the data available on-chain? Was there any innovation in compressing, encoding or reading the data in the blockchain?
Ex: 0xMons used calldata storage to save "the DNA" of animations too heavy to live in contract storage itself.
8 | FINANCIALIZATION
Does it spark unseen economic mechanics? Does it intelligently leverage the financial substrate it lives on?
9 | REFERENTIALITY
Does it acknowledge its predecessors? How does it connect to or extend them? Are references constructive or merely ornaments?
10 | CONCEPTUAL MERIT
Did it surprise you with a new possibility? Does it present you with an idea you've never had? Is it historically significant?