Using the Technology as a Tool

September 21st, 2021

The timeline of human development is a spring. Sometimes the coil is more compressed.

My undergrad photography program, like most liberal art programs, was built on a structure emphasizing fundamentals as a first step along a path of cumulative experimentation–in intellectual development, in visual style, and in tools used. The cornerstone was analog: shooting black and white 35mm film, developing the negatives yourself, and making prints in the darkroom. Later years had time devoted to large format view cameras, lighting, studio setups–all the stuff that’s been around for 50-100 years–and, of course, digital capture, editing, and printing.

In my last two years at school a department-wide debate emerged: whether to still require incoming freshmen to learn the wet darkroom or let them go directly digital. For a lot of younger students it made no sense to grok a skill and set of equipment they didn’t want to use. For a lot of older students it made no sense to experiment at the cutting edge without appreciation for the art’s history. Faculty, who practiced in a wide range of media, seemed caught in the middle.

Working in color captured these questions well. It isn’t practical (or really even possible) for someone to develop color film themselves, so shooting color means taking it to an outside lab as a first step; already once removed from the artist’s hands. Chromogenic prints cannot be made in the same type of wet darkroom as gelatin silver prints since no visible spectrum of light is safe to use with the paper, so they’re exposed in total darkness (in small individual darkrooms), and developed by a machine the size of a truck that’s accessed through a closet (at Tisch ours was a Colenta and probably cost $350,000 when new, in the 1990s). No hands in trays of chemicals, no fighting over control of the stereo. The complexity and relative absurdity of the process–working in complete darkness at each step, going in and out of different tiny rooms–in fact makes it far more esoteric than black and white printing, which can be done by almost anyone in almost any dark space with a few buckets and a red light bulb. But at one time, it was the vanguard. While I was in school, it was still the dominant method of printing color, and what you saw most often on gallery walls in Chelsea.

My thesis exhibition (in 2009) was entirely chromogenic prints, and if I remember correctly about a third of my classmates did the same. Within two years, the program’s head technician emailed me saying I could have the Colenta if I would get it out of the building.

Ethereum opened a new space and provides an opportunity for artists to work with a previously unknown medium. This is exciting to the point of mania-inducing, which is what makes it feel simultaneously hopeful and dangerous. It’s also what creates a financial bubble, which for the obvious reasons is dramatically exacerbated in the case of NFTs. Worst of all, it’s what often pushes aside the most interesting work being done, work which is trying to understand what the technology unlocks–what it enables in itself–separate from how it can merely transport an existing object (say, a JPEG) into a different realm (say, a hyperfinancial one). I’m talking about the work that literally cannot exist without the specific tool.

An excellent example of this is Robin Sloan’s Amulets project.

An amulet results from the appearance of sequential 8’s in the sha256 hash of a short piece of text; it cannot exist separate from the sha256 hash function (which is integral, but not unique, to Ethereum). The quantity of 8’s determines the amulet’s rarity (as established by the artist). The full definition and set of rules are very worth reading. It’s a nice game. It’s hard to imagine anyone paying a lot of money for these.

Framergence is particularly interesting because the creative mechanism is tied explicitly to Ethereum, in that the set of tokens that exists can be modified in real time on-chain by the owners. Each piece is algorithmically generated based on fractal patterns; the contract also rewards token burning by re-minting an n-1 amount of new tokens. This has led to people purchasing examples they intend to burn in the hunt for more pleasing iterations.

Ezra Miller’s Solvency, a personal favorite, is not only technically accomplished, with the assets stored entirely on Ethereum and Arweave, but the individual mints are also beautiful, aesthetically complex and varied, yet still cohesive as a body of work. Their infinite runtime is the kicker (I highly recommend viewing the full WebGL renders on a laptop or desktop machine).

These examples demonstrate the positive feedback loop that emerges from strong artist-tool relationships and leads to canonical outcomes. In the best cases it is indistinguishable from collaboration. I would go further and say that the strongest relationships depend on high friction environments. In these cases, the tools are new. They’re difficult to understand and often expensive to use. There’s a lot of trial and error. Much of the work has to be done “by hand,” and it’s slow going. The audience doesn’t have good references to understand the output; there’s probably very little criticism to place it in a historical context. The conditions are conducive to failure rather than success. And this leads to a lot of “failures.” Outside the small ecosystem of devoted creators and users, the work that employs the most experimental elements of a new technological space tends to be misunderstood, undervalued, and in many cases lost entirely.

The same dynamic (with the opposite effect on market price) can apply to esoteric and “outdated” tools and processes that nonetheless are preserved by devoted practicians. It was no surprise that the best paper maker in Japan had custom-designed all of his equipment, worked without the use of any bleach or other additives, and had not changed the process first established by his family 8 generations prior. Of course, his output is 1/100th of what a modernized paper maker can achieve, let alone a factory.

What constitutes high friction (and low friction) is an ever-moving target and always relative. In 2007 digital photography was high friction (to achieve comparable results to analog, or to embrace the unique aesthetics of pixels), analog low friction. That has since inverted. Today, shooting 4K video on your phone feels easy; it will eventually feel cumbersome when most people have contact lens wearables, or something equally absurd-sounding.

I originally began this essay in March. Etheria has since been resuscitated; NFT archeology in the search of yield is an active pursuit. Generative art is now rampant with derivatives. Copies of copies of copies. As with everything, the financial mechanisms of crypto allow–if not require–this speedrunning. Thus, we are already in a transient period of low friction and increasing mania. We’re surrounded by work that deploys the technology as an inherent component, but is otherwise artistically unremarkable. Its newness nonetheless commands enormous value. This, too, can cause artists’ work to be overlooked. Launch a series on Art Blocks and you tap into an automatic market of collectors and liquidity. Launch the same series on your own site and you may be lucky to sell a handful (probably not in this market, but you know what I mean). This problem isn’t unique to NFTs; the same dynamic is built into the structures of the legacy art world. Indeed the same dynamic emerges any time a certain technology (and its associated market) becomes frictionless enough.

It’s a failure both when a technology is used as a non-tool acceleration vehicle, and when it’s worshipped as a self-solving perpetual motion machine. During a bubble the technology exhibits both properties. Everybody rushes in because it’s a money printer, and many of those involved begin to see it as a Rosetta stone device. Irrational exuberance. Soon after the bubble pops because it’s discovered that the tools are insufficient for the narrative they sell.

A similar mistake can be made with tools and their characteristics of nostalgia. This was at the heart of the debate at Tisch. Many saw digital photography as a fad, a shortcut, and aesthetically insufficient (“It’s a lower resolution than film, what’s the point?”). Thus black and white wet darkroom printing had to be learned; when the current iteration of digital technology was no longer in use, the artist would still have the through-line to grasp. A safety net, and therefore superior.

This is the common misconception of any new technology: riskier, less reliable, less future-proof. Because it’s iterating so quickly, it’s impermanent whenever and wherever it’s measured. It appears fleeting because most of it is fleeting. But that’s measuring the products of a tool; it’s not taking stock of the tool itself, on its inherent conceptual terms. Certain foundational components attain extreme Lindy status, while many cutting-edge experiments are ultimately relegated to history after leapfrogging each other during the rapid expansion phase. Here’s where we start arguing about Bitcoin and Ethereum.

Of course, even gelatin silver prints, the most Lindy form of photography in history, are becoming harder to make and more homogenized–the number of companies still producing the necessary materials (film, paper, chemicals) and equipment (enlargers, cameras) has shrunk dramatically, a process that began well before digital photography became superior (the market re-prices according to future developments, not current realities). For the few photographers still working in black and white wet darkrooms, they’ve had to further hone their craft. But most have moved on to digital.

DeafBeef understands this well:

Your old smartphone is junk. On the other hand, an analog signal processor can be repaired, repurposed, and scavenged for parts. Oscilloscopes remain useful tools for electrical engineers. Vinyl and magnetic tape recordings from the 60s can still be played. ASCII terminal screens, for those who know how to use them, remain the most efficient way to interact with a computer for many tasks.

Eventually, the old smartphone will also be a field to harvest. And it turns out that inkjet prints are actually more stable and conservation-friendly than chromogenic prints; they also don’t require the use of harsh chemicals. Thus the point is not necessarily to be faithful to a specific tool, but to a certain intellectual approach, which is reliant on an appreciation for and handiness with a certain set of tools, and an ability to recognize which tools hold the most potency for honing and distilling.

David Rudnick's EXODUS 2, VII – Jagged Quartz Towers
David Rudnick's EXODUS 2, VII – Jagged Quartz Towers

I’m reminded now of David Rudnick’s rhetorical device of primacy–Physical Prime vs. Digital Prime. We’re rapidly approaching the event horizon of digital primacy, the point at which we will spend more of our time in digital spaces rather than physical ones. The exponential deployment of digital objects as totemic and memetic devices is testament to this. These totems help us form narratives, and their appearance (in absolute numbers, in iterative qualities, in variability of aesthetics) has a direct relationship to our distance from the threshold.

A major risk is in not recognizing the threshold; the result is a digital-prime world built with tools we can’t understand, illustrating myths that only abstract our social relationship to them. It inflates a bubble. Life feels easy. But we’re really in limbo.

Dean Kissick writes of a similar problem between cultural output and friction:

Much of culture now has the hollow, vacant feeling of having been made by algorithm. Consider the drab, broken anti-spectacle of Addison Rae performing trending TikTok dances onstage with Jimmy Kimmel or NFTs sold for millions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s—it’s art and pop stripped of all verve, fertility, and eroticism. What’s left is the new aesthetic of lifelessness and void, a consumer culture of throwaway experiences that wash right over you like an Ambien. It’s made to be experienced without friction: seamless post-death entertainment from an empire ruled over by a sleepy, old man. “Avoiding friction,” the critic Rob Horning has noted, “becomes a kind of content in itself—‘readable books’; ‘listenable music’; ‘vibes’; ‘ambience,’ etc.” And this is in keeping with a generational preference for light demi-pleasures: bumps not lines; microdosing, not getting high; sugary milks made of oats; podcasts, not conversation; the simulated intimacy of ASMR. Each of life’s pleasures in small amounts.

Recognizing the threshold is particularly important for artists. They must grok the requisite tools and use them to shape the narrative surrounding the technological shift. They must sustain a high friction environment both as creators and for their audience. They must shock.

High tool fluency, up and down the spiral (closer to and further from the threshold), is necessary. One must know one’s history, and then push forward. Otherwise the response to an algorithmic existence itself is honed by algorithm, so as not to be too disruptive; to sell.

Part of what makes this urgent is the constant stream of legacy systems busting rivets left and right.

Maxar Technologies / Associated Press
Maxar Technologies / Associated Press

The ship as totem: a menacing combination of high meme content, an esoteric community, and structural fragility.

The physical prime world is literally breaking as it optimizes for digital prime users. Its systems are consolidating in the name of efficiency and introducing centralized weaknesses that halt entire networks. Its tools are opaque, if not entirely unknown, to its supposed beneficiaries. It is completely mispriced.

It’s easy to see this as a sign that all things analog are destined for obsolescence. There are many in the NFT realm who seem to think–or at least proclaim loudly, to sustain a trade–there’s no going back; a switch has flipped, we’ve discovered a new set of tools that are better in every way, and a panacea is upon us. That there’s a direct relationship between one’s financial exposure to said tools and one’s insistence on their panacean qualities is no surprise. It should be obvious that this binary relationship between past and future is wrong, but to extrapolate a bit: culture doesn’t lurch forward in a series of discrete steps. Generative art is not new. We might think of Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawings as generative artworks (Mitchell F Chan certainly does), or Marina Abramovic, or Bruce Nauman, or Lawrence Weiner… The Louvre predates photography and will still exist long after NFTs are outdated. A museum is a tool–a piece of infrastructure so implicit to society that it will both adapt to and force the adaptation of new aesthetics, new concepts, new media. If NFTs are successful as an artistic medium it will be because they expand culture, not fork it.

It seems to me that the turbulence of our time is a result of not allowing ourselves to cleave our digital selves from the physical and thus nurture both. We insist on bringing the algorithmic efficiency of digital primacy to bear on everything we do, eat, say, build.

A dramatic inversion is necessary, and this brings me to Loot.

Bag #2957
Bag #2957

Loot has been discussed mostly as a game primitive, but I think this is too simple. Loot is a generative artwork: a set of variables spawning artistic outputs off chain. Each bag is a recursive digital-prime totem, a memetic device that leads to expansive world building within digital primacy. A set of instructions.

Its recursion is a direct result of its pliability through time. It’s non-static; it reflects and refracts the underlying technology. Each bag is a tool.

The rapid and frothy growth of Loot derivatives (and knock-offs) is confirmation of this. It shows the power of the idea: ”this is so stupid that I must spend my time mocking it;” “this allows us to build our own universes, how exciting;” “this will make me a lot of money.” It immediately (well, it took three days) became a bubble market. Most of these derivatives will go bust. The naysayers will celebrate. The devoted will continue building, sometimes in the wrong directions.

But as with the bubble of generative blockchain art, and the bubble of NFTs, and the (current) bubble of crypto, there remains a potent signal to which we should pay attention.

Arweave TX
Ethereum Address
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