CryptoKitties, released in 2017 as one of the earliest experiments with NFTs, aren’t just digital trading cards. They’re the output of code that randomizes their cartoon appearances, and potential input for future generations of kitties. They’re pieces in a game where players breed and collect cats, and their smart contracts set the parameters for play, encoding gestation periods to regulate the frequency of reproduction and genotypes to determine how each new kitty combines “Cattributes” of generation zero.
The founders of CryptoKitties wanted to prove the viability of a market for Ethereum tokens. To that end, they attracted people with cute visuals and gameplay. But another, perhaps inadvertent outcome was to demonstrate an affinity between generative art—that is, artwork that incorporates computer-automated systems—and the blockchain. Today, artists are bringing ideas and methods from a long tradition of creative coding to the field of NFTs, and it feels like a good fit. Art made with code is being traded on exchanges made with code. While galleries might worry over how to sell generative work—as software, as prints, or something as else—the vocabulary of NFTs offers a simple solution: collectors don’t buy the system but a token that represents it. Below is a small selection of artists working in this space, some of whom address the relationship between the artwork and its tokens.
Using openFrameworks, the creative coding software he developed with Theodore Watson and Arturo Castro, Zach Lieberman makes a sketch every day. His systems animate undulating, glowing shapes, whose moving curves and shifting colors produce illusions of volume and depth. Blob Extrude Study 1 (2021), minted on Foundation, follows the hypnotic ripples of a wide, round ribbon. It expands and contracts like a breathing creature, and takes on colors from a greenish black to translucent cyan as it bends. Lieberman likens capturing a segment of an ever-changing system to wildlife photography: he tries to identify a moment that best expresses patterns that can’t be depicted in full. His approach to making recordings is more or less the same for both Instagram posts and NFTs.
On her Instagram account, Itzel Yard, aka ix shells, shares the genesis of her work in chatty captions. They are conceived as collaborations with musicians, evocations of personal memories, or responses to prompts written by her colleagues in Creative Code Art, a community she cofounded. Afro Netrunner (2021), minted on Foundation, adapts visuals Yard contributed to a sci-fi video game; they appear there as a data map that an astronaut tries to decipher. Drawn in Processing, the image is a field of green and blue markings ordered on a black ground, blinking at regular intervals that suggest some alien logic. Yard uses the description field in Foundation to extend the work’s play of code and illegibility: instead of information about the piece, she offers an epigraph written in binary.
Andrew Benson works with Max, a program popular among musicians and performers, and his abstract animations, with melting, jagged walls of acid color, are often commissioned for music videos and concert visuals. When he was invited to mint work on Foundation, he wanted to make something different from the brash, wild movements that accompany performances or videos meant to be viewed by big audiences, and instead tried to create something more intimate, to be owned and experienced by a single collector. He still coded custom tools to smear and distort color, yielding forms that are rougher and more chaotic than the neat geometries typical of generative art. But in the looped videos of the “Active Gestures” series, you can see the lines traced on the trackpad—the mediated movements of his hand—as they run along and against the vibrant, blooming patches of the ground. In Stitched & Smeared Even Against . . . XO vol. 2 (2021), the jerky movement of blocks of color are softened somewhat by darkening gradients, and digital marker lines in red, yellow, and black dart from one edge of the frame to the other, tracking the artist’s interaction with a live, automated painting.
Art Blocks was launched in November. It’s a platform dedicated to generative art that transforms hashes, the alphanumeric strings that identify blocks on the blockchain, into colorful abstractions. Selected artists submit their code and determine the number of editions to be produced from it. When a sale is open, collectors can get a sense of the style of the work by viewing tokens that have already been minted, but they don’t know exactly what they’ll get when they press the “purchase” button. That action triggers the script that renders their iteration of the project on the Art Blocks site in their browser. Then the image is minted as a token, and the work appears in their Ethereum wallet.
Daniel Calderon, aka DCA, made the first work on Art Blocks, Genesis (2020). It visualizes a hash as translucent triangles and spare, volumetric outlines scattered across ruled planes in shades of green, pink, and purple. A second work, Gen 2 (2021), reads the hash two ways to render distinct outputs, then merges them in a chunky, speckled mesh. When Art Blocks issues tokens they appear on OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace, and collectors can resell them there. But the Art Blocks platform is its own small ecosystem, supporting a handful of works in a circumscribed array of styles.
In digital works, paintings, and prints, Travess Smalley responds to software tools that emulate painting and protocols of graphic file formats. His Emoji Script (2021) runs in Photoshop to draw faces with randomized attributes. All have the same round form of a cartoon smiley, but different neon hues pool in their planes, and other elements—like eye shape and the thickness of black contouring lines—vary across the portraits. They look expressive, but don’t convey any easily identifiable human emotion. Like the projects on Art Blocks, Emoji Script was released as a limited edition of five hundred, and collectors could see their tokens only after purchasing them. Emoji Script is the second project on Folia, a platform that operates more like a gallery than Foundation, SuperRare, or other NFT marketplaces. It features one work at a time, using the browser window as an exhibition space, and adapts its presentation to best suit single files or generative multiples.
Othello, the game of strategy, is often studied in computer science classes because its rules are simple but the number of possible outcomes is vast. Artist and programmer Billy Rennekamp—an avid Othello player who has competed in tournaments on the German national team—was making works that mapped possible arrangements of the game’s black and white tiles when he realized he could outsource the process by replicating the blockchain’s proof of work protocol, whereby computers on the network solve cryptographic puzzles to authenticate the system. And like crypto markets, Rennekamp’s system would offer participants rewards. His script is simple enough that it can be encoded in the NFT itself, along with the pattern of tiles, which is written in binary, making these rare among NFTs in that all of their data is stored on-chain.
Called Clovers, the project accounts for multiple approaches players might bring to the game, while aligning them with ways of using NFTs. They can try to mine symmetrical clovers, which can be turned in for a monetary reward, or they can look for pleasing designs, like asymmetrical geometric shapes or pareidolic images, and collect these in “gardens” or sell them to other players. Spare and meditative, Clovers expresses what the blockchain and generative art have in common. Computers crunch numbers and humans imbue the results with value—financial, aesthetic, or both.