Shortly after the art platform Feral File launched “Social Codes,” its first online exhibition of NFTs, the site crashed. The culprit might have been the payment system, or the unexpected flood of visitors to the site. When the exhibition went back online, all the work was collected within an hour.
Feral File’s co-creator Casey Reas, an artist and one of the developers of creative coding software Processing, prefers “collected” to “purchased” to underscore the platform’s simultaneous embrace of blockchain technology and rejection of cryptocurrency. He partnered with the company Bitmark—whose encryption protocols have been used to secure medical data and build a marketplace where music producers can sell digital beats—to create a ledger for Feral File that establishes provenance and details the artists’ and collectors’ rights. But artists are paid in US dollars rather than crypto. Because Bitmark is a smaller, more specialized blockchain, it requires exponentially smaller amounts of energy than Bitcoin or Ethereum.
Austrian software artist LIA sees the relationship between code and image as an opportunity to play with chance, in the tradition of Duchamp. Her contribution to “Social Codes” is dada data (all works 2021), which rolls a rotoscoping arrangement of lines around a small red dot to create a hypnotic scaffold of interlocking structures. In can I go where you go, New York–based artist Maya Man interweaves her creative coding and dance practices. Man’s generative piece analyzes video frames of her performing an original dance composition; the viewer drags digital traces of the artist’s body with their mouse to choreograph Man in the browser. Another interactive piece, Raven Kwok’s 1DE94, uses the architectural form of a two-dimensional tree map to construct a grid in a state of permanent automated movement. The cursor that hovers over Kwok’s generative work is a hand, poised to pull at the seams of a tightly wound weave. The form can be torn and stretched, appearing to be in permanent flux, only to slowly re-suture its natural geometry.
Dmitri Cherniak, an engineer who had previously shared his art on social media, describes Transparent Grit, his contribution to “Social Codes,” as a visualization of algorithms, less about intrinsic beauty than the fact that a computer can easily automate what is perceived as intrinsic beauty. Concentric spheres tinged with red, green, blue, and mauve spin in an undulating, ever-changing collage. Cherniak is intrigued by how NFTs fit into a legacy of mass-produced art that he traces back to Andy Warhol. NFTs that use cryptocurrency, he observed, are like “art vending machines. You have programmable art and programmable money.” His “Ringers” series, one thousand algorithmically generated images that show how a piece of string can be wrapped around sets of pegs (released on Art Blocks and not included in “Social Codes”) is currently valued at more than $3.5 million, so the vending machine has worked well for him.
Feral File does not intend to make sales at the blisteringly high prices that have captured the media’s attention. It eschews the auction model commonly used to sell NFTs. Each work in “Social Codes” was released in an edition of seventy-five, priced at $75 each—a sum agreed upon by the curator and the artists. The ethos is to offer affordable art through a sales system that feels fair to everyone involved.
“Community” is a vague word, one often thrown around to describe digital niches. But Feral File’s documentation of mutual support makes the concept more concrete. When you click the “Collect This Work” button on an artwork’s page, you see a register of purchases. A quick scan shows that most of the artists in “Social Codes” collected each other’s work.
NFTs exploded into public consciousness at a time of high awareness about the art world’s economic inequality. Money is a problem. Most artists can’t sell enough work to support themselves. Then Beeple comes along and sells the third most expensive work ever made by a living artist. But the most profitable iterations of this new way of collecting digital art should not overshadow other possibilities. NFTs may be characterized by the brutal aesthetics of “very online” nihilism and Winklevoss venture capitalism, but they don’t have to be. Rather than dismiss NFTs based on the most egregious examples, Feral File has taken the new technology, primed it for generative art, and countered critiques head-on to build something better.