Art3: A Crypto Exploration

Artist and designer Bhoka came to speak to Crypto, Culture and Society about “Art3”, her frame for the intersection of art and crypto.

Art and technology have always been dependent on each other—right now is no exception. Bhoka did fine art her entire life; that was always the plan. But during her four year fine arts degree, she discovered a severe allergy to oil paint, so had to figure out an alternative plan. She fell back on making websites and graphics and, for the last decade, has been a designer for clients in tech, fashion, healthcare and education. She spent time at Adobe as one of the principal designers for Lightroom in 2017, and after burning out on corporate culture, Bhoka has more recently been working with consumer social startups.

People treat art and design as the same, but they’re different. Art is an intentional act, the vehicle of expression and vision, and the material manifestation of desire, dilemma, feeling. Design is the process or outcome of creative problem solving; design can’t exist without the problem, and it’s usually tied to the commercial industry. Think client work.

Recently, she’s been reading the book Women’s Work, which emphasizes that before the Industrial Revolution, the entire textile industry was dominated by women. It wasn’t because women are better weavers but because it was a useful job that could be done in conjunction with childcare. We’re still holding a gendered idea of who owns what and is good at what.

Art, tech and money are interdependent and influence each other. In web3, this looks like:

Within art, this is both NFTs as graphic images but also more complex experiments like music NFTs. Money here covers both cryptocurrencies and venture capital. Technology itself has driven both the money and the art forward through dApps and blockchains.

But if you go back to fine arts and look at, say, 1600s Dutch painters…back then, the art was narrower in focus, mostly painting and sculpture. What was the tech and money in the time of Vermeer? Technology, in this context, includes new techniques such as the camera obscura, an early type of camera that manipulates the image in front of you onto another surface. This need for novelty was influenced by money; in this era, the money came from singular patrons who provided a stipend for the artist to live. The masterpieces of this era took months to build.

Translating this trio into the early 2000s; there was a big trend for Oekaki, a style of in-browser live painting, shared to your “image board.” Tech pushed art forward due to the ability to have tools within the browser, but the money in this era was interesting as it was experimentation. Sites were often community-supported (with occasional ads).

Bhaumik Patel: From the perspective of the patrons in the 1600s, what was their motivation? How did they get recognition?

Bhoka: The most historically significant patrons were the Medicis, who weren’t nobility, although they started marrying into the royal families of Europe. A patron would be someone very rich with a motive that could be different from what they’d publicly state; really, it’s about immortalizing yourself, as often the art featured their own family. The motivation was to deify themselves and move culture forward with themselves as visionaries.

Bhaumik: Tell us more about Oekaki; what’s an example of a community supported art project?

Bhoka: Back then, the only way to move money online was Paypal, so sites would have donation links. If it’s $160/month to run servers for sites, then between a hundred people you can keep a site going. Some sites didn’t like ads.

Bhaumik: Were you active in this scene?

Bhoka: I spent a lot of time doing digital painting, which generated similar outrage to NFT art: the sense that you were cheating because you could erase, the sense that this wasn’t real art, the question of “what’s the value of a piece you can’t hold or truly own”?

Kristin Eberth: In the 1700s, to commission a piece meant patience—it would take a long time. It took a generation to make a building. Whereas art now feels more transactional and investment-driven. Is this an opportunity to invite more of that patience into the web3 art model, and is it a good thing that something takes a hundred years to produce?

Bhoka: Now, we’ve flipped to the opposite end of the spectrum where everyone expects everything done as fast as possible, and that’s also a hardship on artists. It’s generally driven by patrons, the clients and VCs, versus driven by you, the artist. In web3, I’d like to see people build with the idea of “cathedral thinking”: that whatever you’re building will last a few years. Every app I've ever made, the minute you hand it to the client, it’s often gone within a year or two either due to pivots or shutting down. There’s value in building more sustainable software. We’re wasting a lot of resources.

Right now, people are furious about NFTs and crypto. And there’s a purity aspect to this—to what people think art is—that are very interesting. Why wouldn’t these be considered real art? There was a big divide within the art scene, and it lasted for years. So the current divide around NFTs—the questions on “if this is art, and does it have value as art?”—has happened before. And it all boils down to authenticity. Of course NFTs are art.

Another aspect of NFTs that people have clung to is that it’s bad art because it’s generative; it’s lazy and it’s low quality because it’s high volume, and no human hand sorted all the pixels on the screen so it doesn’t count. But generative art predates AI and wasn’t invented by software engineers. As one example, consider drawing machines. In art school, I did a final project where I attached a pen to a handheld battery fan and hung the fan from the ceiling so the pen would walk across paper on the floor. I touched the machine to start it and stop it, which were the rules. As for what came out—technically, I didn’t draw it, but it is art.

Also, the Dada movement was a mid-20th century art group looking to make sense of a shattered world after the World Wars. Their movement was based on random whims of the universe designed to reflect the helplessness they felt, so for one experiment, they cut paper then put glue on canvas, threw the cut pieces and saw where they landed. That’s also art!

Speaking of generative art and the profile picture (pfp) trend, I spent time in the Dollz universe in the 00s. There was a ton of in-group community drama between what was considered art and templates anyone could take and mess with.

Dollz, and their era, cemented the idea of the self-expression and value of the avatar creator beyond paper dolls. Avatars are complex to design, as they are both a technology and an art challenge—for example, the hat layer will be above the hair layer. Some of the pfps are more generated than others.

I feel passionately that the Internet has done so much in the world. It hasn’t hurt artists in some new or revolutionary way, but I’ve been disappointed to realize the Internet is failing artists and has been for a while.

You’d think by now we’d have more ways to support artists that aren’t “have $5? Buy me a coffee.” Artists can’t solely live off small commissions or being content creators; you can’t even fully promote your own work, you’re expected to be on someone else’s platform, and these platforms have their own rules. They’re driven by certain monetization incentives that drive a lot of money to some people and none for most. And theft continues to be a problem.

Tumblr brought out a reblog tool that gave artists exposure which was nice, but exposure doesn’t pay the bills. In another life, the ad revenue that came from the Yahoo acquisition could have been distributed to the people who made the platform rich. The people who make the most money from artists selling online are the platform owners who sell ads. We’re still failing artists.

So how can artists make money and share their work currently in the commercial art world?

With fine art, good luck getting into a gallery if you aren’t already connected. Illustrators have more options in terms of commercial art, and graphic arts guilds present a united front to share pricing and predetermined contracts. Going back to how tech is important as a vehicle for art, the most common way people support artists is by buying prints, but it’s not ongoing income. Plus, artists still have to pay for shipping and costs of materials.

People who are stuck on the environmentalism issue with NFTs and crypto don’t consider the resources used in the traditional art world, even square footage, as many items need to be stored in temperature-controlled, light-controlled spaces. Many of the toured museum pieces have an intense carbon footprint: packaging, waste, refrigerated trucks. We should be interested in art preservation, but that comes with a cost.

Vyara Ndejuru: What’s your take on Creative Commons? Are artists’ rights, and opportunities for compensation reduced because of this?

Bhoka: Creative Commons is very specific. One of the most exciting things about this entire web3 world is the smart contract, and how much agency people have from the start to consider royalties down the line. I joined Foundation when they launched, and had never thought about perpetual royalties to make sure artists have long-term income even from items sold decades ago. Artists don’t make a penny per stream on Spotify, but getting 5% on Foundation from future sales could be incredible.

In terms of CC, the main project that comes to mind is Blitmap by Dom Hoffman; artists submitted a 32x32 pixel canvas and the canvas would get remixed by someone else. Now people are making fan art of the Blitmaps.

How’s web3 changing art? Firstly, proof of authorship. The blockchain has a copyright timestamp which, in a time of web3 linkrot, is useful. US copyright laws are artist-friendly, but very few of us send a copy of our work to the copyright office to register—it’s a lot of work. Having a blockchain solely dedicated to authorship would be an easy way to check authenticity.

It’s a move forward from Patreon. Patreon gives creators ongoing sustainable income which is awesome, but that income is anchored on monthly tiers. It creates a cottage industry of competitive perks. I back an amazing photographer/sculptor, Christine McConnell, who posts most of her process videos only on Patreon. This gives her the time, space and agency to make the videos she wants to make and not rely on YouTube ads. But people are trained to expect something in exchange from supporting an artist on Patreon, especially a physical object like a postcard or handmade gift. Additionally, if you intend to put the videos on YouTube eventually to widen reach, then the videos aren’t exclusive and people question value. It’s part of the game—what people expect—but Patreon incentivizes an exhaustive ask of artists.

Going back to being a Medici, there are other perks with Patreon more focused on influencing the art. You can even request a commission at certain tiers. These perks build the relationship between artist and patron, but is it sustainable?

Joshua Nuttall: What do you think about composability and how crypto allows artists to build on top of each other?

Bhoka: If you look at the Blitmap smart contract, Dom added all the names of the artists he invited to take part, and I was the only artist who didn't submit because I was busy with my startup at the time. I get angry with myself when I think about that! Dom’s first experimental project that took off was Loot. Loot was white text on a black background; rather than having 10,000 physically designed objects, you had lists of objects, like “divine robes” and “necklace.” People took these lists and forked them so that when you input one of the Loot bags, some of what’s on the list materializes. It’s highly creative, because they’re basically building the game in reverse, with incredible creativity and speed. Like giving everyone the materials at a party and seeing what they do with them. I’m excited to see where this goes.

Existing web2 platforms have rigid and closed walls around content. People barely have control over their own posts. Twitter’s quote tweet feature is similar in that you’re building on something else, but typically it’s a mean comment versus inspiring.

Six months ago, this Tumblr-esque platform hic et nunc launched on the Tezos blockchain. Imagine Tumblr, but when you hit reblog, you’re buying part of the art. And it feels cool—cooler than a normal feed of images. Foundation’s great, but it doesn’t feel like a community site, it feels like an auction site. hic et nunc seemed indie, especially because Tezos is still cheaper and more accessible than Ethereum.

There was an interesting controversy where the founder of hic et nunc got mad and deleted the platform. The artists on it freaked out but, because the art was on the blockchain, people lost nothing bar the web address. So people forked it and put hic et nunc back up (which made the founder angry again). But that’s the model. The platform is now no longer in control of the users, their property or their images.

You can’t really get banned from the blockchain, which has its own problems and downsides. When Tumblr got sold for the fifth time and decided to delete all the adult content, they tragically erased years of Internet culture and content and shot themselves in the foot.

Web3 deplatforms the platform

The reasons web2 platforms are weird about adult content isn’t because they care (they don’t) but because of their venture capital backers. VCs invest on behalf of other groups, and many of these groups (like the fireman’s union) have “vice clauses” built in, which is why the content moderation rules for Instagram and Pinterest in the early days were so prohibitive. This decision affects both people’s businesses but also their expression. On sewing YouTube, tulle is a problem; this webby underskirt fabric is read as nudity by YouTube’s robots, so tulle is called “demonetization fabric” in the community.

Web3 projects Bhoka is excited by:

  • Crypto Coven are the current darlings. A great example of a community-driven art project; highly recommend checking out their smart contract and write ups of how they built this with their community.
  • Blitmaps - Dom Hoffman and guests. This is a cool way to think about group art projects.
  • Amulets4 is one of her favorite experimental early projects and one she think deserves more attention. Amulets reflects the level of creativity and cerebralness you can bring into the field. Essentially, you have to generate a hash and however many 8s the hash has will tell you how rare the NFT is. It’s poetic in both front and backend and truly marries art and tech so they are equal partners on this project.

Kristin Eberth: How do we preserve artists as central to web3 especially as more players are drawn to this space?

Bhoka: Whales is a term we use for these generally anonymous patrons who were probably early crypto adopters and are now active in the web3 art world. Within the art world, whales will sometimes behave more like traditional collectors, sometimes buy a piece and raise the floor. You can’t separate money and technology. Artists are often designing for whales, and whales want to hold the position of cultural influence they hold. If we want to keep artists as an integral part of web3, we need to dig deeper into whales.

Thanks to Kassen Qian for her help in putting this post together.

Further reading:

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