For the last few months, I have been keeping my eyes on an art form called NFT art, as far as I can see. To be honest, I do not have a positive opinion about this new condition of the art. Because the works and projects on the subject seem to ignore often the valued and productive history of art, however, this vibrant emergence is undeniably interesting and significant.
In August 2021, Shunsuke Takawo, the artist continuously creating digital art pieces, made a generative art series called Generativemasks and started selling them as NFT art pieces. It became a bit of a buzz around those circles because they were sold out very soon. The Generativemasks developed 10,000 editions of dynamically generating face-like images. Some may recall the great precedent in this genre CryptoPunks because it also set 10,000 varied images of faces. If it was, regardless of whether Generativemasks had really referenced the CryptoPunks or not, such a pointing out should be proof that the NFT art is already getting historicized in only a few years since its birth.
Shortly after that, I interviewed him. My interest was in the attitude of the artist. What was his intention for participating in this new area? Please read the article for more details, but it was a stimulating and enlightening dialogue. It became an opportunity to start paying attention to the NFT art. After the interview, several trends were raised within my observation range. In this essay, I would like to discuss the attempts of the following two artworks from such cases. One is exonemo’s Connect the Random Dots, and the other is Masaki Fujihata’s Brave New Commons.
exonemo Connecting the Random Dots
Connect the Random Dots is a new series of works by exonemo, initially exhibited in October 2021 at WAITINGROOM, the art gallery in Tokyo. Primarily, this work is a book. The square book contains 30 variations of Connect the Dots, a children’s game. However, all dots in these pages are randomly positioned, and cannot form a certain shape as in usual Connect the Dots games. There is also uniqueness in the number of dots. Each of the first and second games contains only one dot. The restrained text in the beginning few pages suggests that a dot in the first game represents “I”, and the second represents “YOU”. Each game in #3, #4 and #5 shows two dots representing two personas and their relation. After #6, the number of dots increases gradually with games, and at #18, which uses two pages, the number of dots reaches 80,000. After that, the dots decrease gradually, and there becomes one dot again in the end. In the exhibition, all pages were exhibited on the wall and sold framed. Each of them was completed connecting dots by exonemo’s own hand with a pencil, but it is obvious that these works are not drawing pieces. Each exhibited one is only the result, and the work is the instruction of the drawing itself. So the positions of the dots on each page is the true nature of this work. Actually, the copies of the book were sold independently from the works itself at a reasonable price so that anyone could execute each game by themselves.
Meanwhile what exonemo intended to sell as the artwork was the ownership of each instruction to connect dots. Then, the idea arises that it doesn’t mean you own it even if you can execute it. This way of ownership of art resembles the wall drawings produced by Sol LeWitt. His peculiar form of art ownership will be mentioned in the latter of this essay. Still, here, we will first review the affinities between the exonemo’s work and John Maeda’s Design by Numbers.
The book Design by Numbers researched visual expressions which are deeply dependent on computer programming. The primitive instruction, such as connecting dots with a line, like the instruction featured in exonemo’s work, appears as an important and basic content in the book. Indeed Design by Numbers has a similar page with the drawn result of the Connect the Random Dots. The figure is put on the side of the 17th section titled “Network.” In Maeda’s book, the network is the connection of discretely placed numbers. In contrast, the network exonemo planned is not only the connection of dots but an embodied network with real humans connected with NFT.
A buyer of the Connect the Random Dots pays for ownership of a certain page. The ownership is guaranteed by NFT. Using the mechanism of blockchain to certify the uniqueness of digital data makes an exchange of the concept possible. The statement by the artist says that “the owners will be visible to each other as a small community.” This is the exonemo’s plan. Connect the Random Dots starts with a slightly poetic narrative that anthropomorphizes dots; “We had a new member / Randomly similar with me / Randomly similar with you.” A distance will be defined in the similarity, and a community will birth on multiple connections.
Apropos, Design by Numbers gives a brief introduction to random function in a few pages at almost the end of the book. In contrast to exonemo’s active attitude to randomness, the book seems to accept the random function reluctantly as an unwanted illegitimate child of computer aesthetics. The author said to readers pejoratively that “if this is the path you wish to pursue, then I hope that you get lost in earnest.” Though such a reference is not mentioned, exonemo must bear in mind the history of visual expression using computers that flows into themselves passed through digital artists like Maeda. As Design by Numbers is published in a particular book shape of 10-inch square, it is exactly the same shape as the exonemo’s Connect the Random Dots book. Whether it means homage or satire, it must not be a coincidence.
Masaki Fujihata Brave New Commons
Masaki Fujihata presented his art project Brave New Commons in the special exhibition themed on NFT art at 3331 Art Fair in Tokyo, October 2021. Fujihata excavated his scribbles drawn in the 1980s using his Macintosh computer and made them NFT art pieces available for purchase to anyone during the exhibition period. Its editions are generated as many as they are sold, and each purchaser’s final price becomes the price dividing the primal price by the number of purchasers. It means that the work sold to many people gets a lower price and makes many editions, and the work which only a few people buy becomes expensive but has a smaller number in circulation. All purchasers can get a perfect replication of the work because it is digital data. This distribution idea is simple but very critical for considering the value of artworks in its economic system. For example, work #001 titled “tmp” which is 1,000,000 JPY as the primary price was bought by 912 people and got its price 1,096 JPY for each finally. This trick that would cause capitalism to be malfunction assumes and criticizes the highly speculative situation of the current NFT art scene. In addition, Fujihata seeks to terminate the materialistic values from the supply and demand cycle and make the value system out of control. The contradiction between the infinite digital and the finite analogue generates a convolution.
The computer with MacPaint then he used to create the images was a Macintosh 128K released in 1984. Apple Computer made a famous TV commercial film with Ridley Scott for advertising this personal computer. The film was based on George Orwell’s novel 1984 but celebrated that computers could make the world better contrary to the dystopian future depicted in the novel. (In the same year, another visual attempt by Nam June Paik was broadcasted. It is also based on the same novel and advocated peace by technology.) In those days, there was an atmosphere to dream of such pastoral ideals. By this work, Fujihata thawed the cryopreserved air into 2021.
By the way, in the English version of the project’s webpage, the last sentence is not translated from Japanese. In this sentence, the Japanese title of the project is quietly appended. It is “素晴らしき新世界”. This phrase is the same as the title of the Japanese translation of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. It is obvious that the artist refers to another dystopian novel. The meaning of the sentence that remains in Japanese is as follows, “dreaming that this project will create unseen commons to connect people who don’t know each other but have the same interests, Brave New Commons.” Fujihata also posits the potential of NFT as the generation of new forms of community.
I’d like to consider that the word World has been exchanged by Commons. Semantically the world is not equal to the commons. However, has reality already fostered a situation that warrants and presupposes a short circuit between the world and the commons? Suppose this title of the art project suggests the people’s narrow view of believing that their commons is the world itself; in that case, it may remind that Huxley’s characters blindly immerse themselves into their belonging social class. They are happy to pander to the class society, entirely designed by the ruling class. Without questioning or even realizing something strange but not saying anything, they will accept such a society. Using drugs to numb their senses, they dare to mould the world and see it narrowly. In such a point of view, it becomes hard to tell whether an innocent praise or a malicious sarcasm Fujihata’s call for bravery is. What if the remaining situation that is commonly presented becomes true? Even if it is not fact, even if such a biased view comes controlled under the citizen consensus?
There is no overt conflict in Huxley’s dystopia. The citizens are happy in their way. The masses of our social networking age are much more like Huxley’s people than Orwell’s protagonists, who risk their lives to resist the surveillance society.
On the ownership and communities
Sol LeWitt is in a peculiar position among the artists who radically challenged the ownership of artworks. His wall drawing series he had been working on throughout his lifetime, are artworks with the drawing instructions as to its main body. Though the drawing can be held in a museum or with a collector, it is not the work itself but only the result of one execution. The artist sold the instructions, which can be executed as many times as necessary, and generate a new drawing in each execution. The way such work exists becomes a sign to distinguish LeWitt’s work from the immaterial practices by other artists of his time. His works deal with visual expression, but its main body is not a visual representation. It might have been one of the final forms of the conceptual art that LeWitt eventually produced.
The result of LeWitt’s wall drawing, I mean a carried out drawing on the real wall, has no original that a regular art piece would have. So it can exist in several locations at the same time. The originality and singularity of the artwork must be aborted. This characteristic has something similar to the tricks in the works of exonemo and Fujihata. They sell the concept, not a visible object. The difference with LeWitt would be the intervention of the digital nature of computers.
The exonemo’s works are programmatic instructions like “Line 10 30 100 70.” It may not be a children’s game anymore but shows the nature of computers, and besides, it remains the human’s hand forced to work as a machine that draws. On the other hand, Fujihata’s works were drawn by the artist’s hand but appear as roughly pixelated images due to limitations of the software in its infancy. Although their approaches are quite different, both representations reveal the discrete nature of computers that sometimes seems ruthless to humans.
The Connect the Random Dots book tells an allegory about an association. It allows considering how individuals expand to form a group and the threshold between a community and just a crowd. We might be aware of when we see someone’s silly remarks in social networking communication. Who is this person talking to? A poor taste joke that can only be passed on within a small community would be desperate violence for someone else. The realm they perceive as the world is not identical to mine. Embers of dystopia still keep smouldering. The question is, how can new communities be formed that are needed in our such networks. What can we design by numbers? Visual expression is not the only possible option.
Interestingly, both artists set the problem of community formation as part of the subject of their projects on the NFT system. It is more important that they are sensitized to the potential to form new communities than whether NFT has the potential. It would be more appropriate to say that they wanted to, rather than realizing the possibility. It should also be emphasized that both artists posit the similarity – or semblables – as the smallest unit of empathy that can be a preface of community formation. They are attempting some kind of response to the reality that conventional methods of community building are failing, and communication is becoming more dysfunctional by the day. These media artists are not predicting a likely future but are betting on the unpredictable future as a possible state.