By Derek Edws and Stephen McKeon
In many ways, generative art is the tip of the spear to much larger trends related to digital art, NFTs, and digital property. Generative art is a category of digital art in which artists use a computer to intentionally introduce randomness as part of the creation process, producing both expected and unexpected results. In this article, we’ll take you through the past, present, and future of the generative art movement.
The History of Generative Art
In the early 1950s, generative art pioneer Herbert Franke would conduct unique photography experiments in his lab, playing at the intersection of light, movement, and randomness. In 9 analogue graphics (1956/1957), Franke created images on an oscilloscope using a friend’s computer, then photographed the images from a moving camera, aperture open.
Franke’s results were mesmerizing.
Later, Vera Molnár, one of the first artists to use computers in art, played with themes of “disorder,” frequently investigating variations in geometric shapes and lines. Her work, generated using the early programming languages Fortran and BASIC, was often showcased on the original raw printing paper, even opting to include each page’s perforated edges.
As computers proliferated in the 1960s, more artists began to experiment at the intersection of computer science and art to create line-bending generative works. New programming languages allowed artists to push digital boundaries in interesting ways, and redefine how computers could process orderly inputs into unique outputs.
Human-designed computer algorithms were core to the work of mathematician Frieder Nake. In Hommage à Paul Klee (1965), Nake found inspiration in a painting created decades earlier by renowned German artist Paul Klee, and generated a new piece from an algorithm that explored the proportion and relationship between Klee’s vertical and horizontal lines. The computer was empowered to make its own design decisions, given a pre-programmed set of variables.
Using various forms of controlled randomness as part of the creative process, these three artists helped contribute to building the foundation of the modern generative art movement.
Years later, Larva Labs and Art Blocks would do the same.
Blockchain-Based Generative Art
Over the last fifty years, artistic expression has become more strongly influenced by cultural trends in technology. The human experience has become increasingly digitized, which has informed the creative work artists make.
While digital artwork has unquestionably grown in influence, many of its creators haven’t enjoyed the same monetization potential relative to creators of physical works. Over the course of history, monetization around creative expression has been predicated on physical scarcity that travels with a given piece.
During the last ten years, blockchains have changed the game for immutable digital files. Bitcoin has illustrated that digital scarcity is possible in the realm of money. Ethereum extended the concept of digital scarcity beyond commodity money, enabling the information of any digital good (3D objects, music, files, GIFs, memes) to be tied to a unique “non-fungible” token (NFT). For the first time, creative digital works could enjoy verifiable scarcity, empowering the artist to endow authenticity and salability to downstream collectors of a digital creation.
It was only a matter of time before generative art migrated to blockchains, and that moment arrived with the advent of CryptoPunks.
Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The CryptoPunks
In 2017, a two-person game design studio called Larva Labs launched a digital art experiment on the Ethereum blockchain. The project paid tribute to London’s early ’70s punk scene, and came in the form of 10,000 unique, randomly generated, 24x24 pixel art images featuring humans, zombies, apes, and aliens. The full collection originated out of a Larva Labs algorithm that mixed together characteristics like species, hair style, and accessories to create a randomized combination of visual outputs.
Generative art had arrived on Ethereum.
Larva Labs’ CryptoPunks
Now recognized as the first historically significant NFT project to launch on a blockchain, values for these pixelated punk characters have skyrocketed in recent months. In March 2021, two of the nine CryptoPunk ‘Aliens’ in existence were purchased for 4,200 ETH each ($7.5 million USD).
In the summer of 2017, anyone with an Ethereum wallet could claim these tokenized digital characters on the Larva Labs platform for free, paying only a few cents in Ethereum transaction fees. Living somewhere between generative art piece, collectible, and technical achievement, CryptoPunks enjoyed three unique features compared to the generative work constructed in decades prior:
Each CryptoPunk was (i) verifiably unique, (ii) able to be self-custodied in an Ethereum wallet, and (iii) tradable on the Larva Labs marketplace.
Leveraging the Ethereum blockchain as a recording format, CryptoPunks had changed the generative media landscape forever. Inspired by CryptoPunks, the Ethereum community created a standard called ERC-721, for Non-Fungible Tokens. While CryptoPunks were traded primarily on the Larva Labs platform, future NFTs utilizing the new standards would enjoy the benefits of composability.
The Art Blocks Origin Story
Snowfro, a Mexico City born generative artist and technologist, was there for the original CryptoPunk claiming event in 2017. Today he owns over 60+ CryptoPunks, including seven Zombies, two Apes, and a partial claim to one of the nine Aliens — the rarest CryptoPunk character. He’s also one of the few Larva Labs designated CryptoPunks moderators, and is recognized in the crypto community by his Zombie avatar.
There aren’t many CryptoPunks OGs like Snowfro, and even fewer who share his technical expertise and appreciation for generative art. After CryptoPunks launched, Snowfro had a few questions bouncing around his green Zombie head:
In November 2020, Snowfro launched Art Blocks, the internet’s first marketplace for on-demand, on-chain, generative media. In the time between the launch of CryptoPunks and Art Blocks, pioneer on-chain art projects like Autoglyphs proved that artists could store more of the art “on the chain”, which validated Snowfro’s design decisions around NFT permanence for a generative art platform.
To finance early dev work, Snowfro sold fifteen of his prized CryptoPunk Zombies. Snowfro also launched Chromie Squiggles, a generative project he had been crafting for years, and the first generative art project to ever list on Art Blocks (Art Blocks Project #0).
In each unique Squiggle, hex pairs in the hash control the starting color, rate of change of the gradient, number of points, plus some surprise features that make some Chromie Squiggles more rare than others (e.g. “Hyper” Squiggles). As it relates to generative art, these “controlling” hex pairs are referred to as parameters.
As the first on-chain generative art project on Art Blocks, pieces from Snowfro’s Chromie Squiggles tend to trade at high values. Originally, the price to mint a Chromie Squiggle was just .035 ETH ($70). Today, the floor price for a standard Squiggle in the secondary market is .55 ETH ($1,200), with rare “Hyper” Squiggles trading up to 45 ETH ($97,000 USD) just six months post-launch.
Quickly, both Chromie Squiggles and Art Blocks took off. In six months, Art Blocks pieces have already generated $15M in secondary market volume, with nearly 4,000 unique collectors of art from the platform.
Today, Art Blocks collectors can browse from a variety of different generative art projects, although new drops from hot artists tend to sell out quickly. When a buyer identifies a collection they like, they pay to mint a unique output of that work, much like a vending machine for unique art. Except, you don’t know what’s going to pop out of the machine when you hit the button. Artists watch the mints unfold with as much fascination as the collectors.
Upon paying for a mint, the collector receives the generative media in their wallet, which is both unique (1 of 1) and simultaneously part of a larger collection: 1 of 1 (of x).
The unique output could be an on-chain image (Cherniak’s Ringers), an on-chain interactive 3D model (ge1doot’s Ignition), or even the first on-chain generative music project (Zeblock’s Unigrids).
In this way, the types of on-chain generative media that can be minted on Art Blocks is limited only by the artist’s imagination, the unique scripts they create, and the total amount of mints permitted by each artist.
Similar to CryptoPunks, the demand for each unique generative piece (as well as the overall collection) is driven by context around the artist, aesthetics, perspective, the rarity of traits presented in the work, and the total number of mints that can ever exist.
For example, a popular Art Blocks project is Cherniak’s Ringers, which has enjoyed > 1,800 ETH in secondary sales. As of this writing, the projected annualized royalties on secondary sales of Ringers are currently estimated to be over $2M (USD), divided up between artist, the OpenSea marketplace, and the Art Blocks platform.
The Future of Generative Media
The Art Blocks platform has three key features that point towards the future evolution of generative media:
(i) Joint Creation: Artists set the parameters, but collectors trigger each randomized mint, creating a new vector for collectors to participate in the artist’s creative process. Unique generative media is tailor made for community formation.
(ii) On-Chain: One substantial challenge inherent in many NFTs is that the token points to a file that lives off-chain. If the off-chain file disappears, the pointer asset is an empty shell. In the time since CryptoPunks, on-chain art projects like Autoglyphs and Avastars have proven that you can store more of the art on-chain. Similarly, the generative scripts that produce Art Blocks pieces are housed on Ethereum, along with each minted NFT. This allows the media to enjoy similar security guarantees as other assets on the Ethereum blockchain.
(iii) The Playground: Art Blocks has evolved into a playground where any generative artist around the world now has a creative home to launch complex, on-chain, generative media projects — whether that project is static, dynamic, 3D, interactive, audio, or any combination thereof.
We believe these three primitives enabled by Art Blocks will lead to fascinating second-order effects for the art world, and generative media creation more broadly:
Joint Creation -> Community Formation
Most things in crypto boil down to community, and the joint creation process encourages the immediate formation of a community around each project.
While limited edition 1 of 1 artworks can connote immense value through scarcity, the powerful CryptoPunks community proved that unique versions from a single body of work can compound a different type of collective value.
Platforms like Async Art allow multiple owners to own unique layers of single works, leading to interesting community dynamics around single pieces. Similarly, Art Blocks enables collectors to mint hundreds of unique versions from a single artistic theme, allowing artists to tap into novel community-formation as part of the creative process.
One example is Squiggle DAO, a community-led project and decentralized art house powered by hundreds of Chromie Squiggles owners. Squiggle DAO acts as a place for on-chain generative art education, a financier of on-chain generative art, and a foundry for new generative artists. We expect to see more powerful communities form around generative media works in the future.
On-chain -> Composable Finance
The digital composition of CryptoPunks pre-dates the ERC-721 standard, limiting the project’s ability to be widely used in Ethereum’s trust-minimized financial stack. In contrast, most Art Blocks projects, like Chromie Squiggles, enjoy full composability. Further, the fact that many artist scripts are on-chain ensures permanence. Generative outputs can also plug into DeFi rails and applications, adding an interesting layer of financialization previously inaccessible by both generative artists and collectors over the last fifty years.
For example, anyone around the world can quickly list their Art Blocks pieces as collateral for a loan on NFTfi, Ethereum’s leading NFT marketplace for collateralized lending. In addition, and with just a few clicks, any collector can bid or buy an Art Blocks piece on secondary marketplaces like OpenSea or Rarible.
Over the coming decades, we also expect on-chain generative media, pioneered by early projects like CryptoPunks, Autoglyphs, and Chromie Squiggles, to play an important role as a new class of store of value assets — not unlike what we see today in the high-end physical art market.
The Playground -> On-Chain Building Blocks
With Art Blocks, any artist can use previously generated outputs as building blocks to create new projects in an entirely trustless way. The on-chain data that lives within each Art Blocks output will unlock future utility and intersect with metaverse projects like CryptoVoxels, AI-powered NFT projects like Alethea, or simply act as access keys for new artist drops.
One artist, Xenoliss, recently launched an Art Blocks project of 2,000 unique planets with infinite variations of terrain, shapes, and biomes that can be generated by collectors. Upon completion of all 2,000 pieces, each individually-owned planet will be used to construct an interactive solar system. From this foundation, Xenoliss will launch a second space-themed generative art project that can interact with the assets generated in their first.
Projects like this hint towards the intersection of generative media and gaming environments. Generative in-game items will be here before long.
Artists, digital storytellers, video game developers, and DAOs of all kinds will leverage the power of on-chain generative media to create groundbreaking works across multiple digital environments. You can even imagine an Art Blocks powered script that references a collector’s on-chain work credentials on RabbitHole, with each output unique to a collector’s previous work history.
We don’t know what projects will emerge as these on-chain building blocks unfold. The future of generative media, like our own lives, will be randomized and unique in ways we least expect.
One thing is for certain — Art Blocks, and the rapidly growing community within its digital walls, will play a large role in that future.
A special thanks to gmoney, Aftab Hossain / DCinvestor, Brian Flynn, Cooper Turley, Dmitri Cherniak, Donovan Escalante, Josh Hannah, Priyanka Desai, Aaron Wright, Snowfro, Yuan Xue, Robi (wrappedpunks), Quickrider, Akira, Flamingo DAO, The LAO, and our friends at Libertus Capital.
An additional thank you to Larva Labs’ Matt Hall and John Watkinson for getting the generative fire started on Ethereum.
Disclosure: At the time of publication, Collab+Currency or its members have exposure to some of the liquid assets and NFTs described in this piece, including BTC, ETH, CryptoPunks, Chromie Squiggles, Ringers, Ignition, Unigrids, CryptoVoxels land, and Autoglyphs. Collab+Currency are investors in a number of the infrastructure projects mentioned in this piece, including SuperRare, Async Art, NFTfi, and Art Blocks.