The first block of a blockchain is called a genesis block. These blocks are the start of a chain and the anchor for the rest of its future history. Art itself has its own genesis blocks, the works that came first – anchors to a new flowering of human creativity. The works brought together here count as some of the genesis blocks of NFTs.
Whether it is the genesis of generative art on chain with Larva Lab’s Autoglyphs or very early conceptual explorations of what crypto art may look like, taken together these works explore the many strands that make up the growing cultural space built on blockchains. Other works explore the concept of time and its relationship to blockchain technology and NFTs, These works such as Warhol’s Untitled (Flower) allow us to relate to history of digital art before NFTs while others question how the timestamps themselves can be manipulated and played with, like in Simon Denny’s work Backdated NFT/Ethereum Stamp.
The show takes its title from the iconic exhibition of Malevich’s Black Square at 0,10 exhibition in Petrograd in 1915. Itself a genesis work, ushering in the world of abstraction, 0,10 has been reformulated to reflect the minting of Kevin McCoy’s Quantum in 2014, the first NFT and the genesis block of this entire movement, presented here in Venice for the first time.
— Robert Alice
Robert Alice is an artist, writer and curator. The first artist to exhibit and sell an NFT at a major auction house, they are best known for the landmark work, Portraits of a Mind (2019 – ). In June 2021, Alice curated Natively Digital, a major NFT exhibition and sale at Sotheby’s. This year, they are exhibiting new work at Sotheby’s, Feral File, Art Blocks and Nifty Gateway, alongside writing of the first major art historical survey publication on NFTs. The seminal text will be published by a major publishing house in 2022/2023.
Kevin McCoy (American, 1967)
Quantum 2014 / 2021-05-28 0:57:40
On May 3rd 2014 the Namecoin blockchain recorded the minting of Quantum, the first ever NFT. Building from Kevin and Jennifer McCoy’s experience as new media artists, Quantum touches on recurring themes of their artistic practice, such as the pulsating ray of light taken from science fiction motifs. Set in movement by code and fixed in perpetual gesture by the gif format, this rhythmic orb of light is a mandala for a new age, a beacon for a new movement and its resultant cultural flowering. The artwork shares striking affinities with the experiments in digital sound and image synthesis of the early 1970s of John Whitney and Stephen Beck that helped define the computer as an artistic medium.
Hal Finney (American, 1956 – 2014)
Cryptographic trading cards 1993
Written as a blog post over two decades before Satoshi Nakamoto invented Bitcoin or NFTs were even a term, a programmer named Hal Finney detailed the conceptual layout for what NFTs could be. Indeed, the statement simply translates the mechanics of collecting and trading cultural goods into a cryptographic context, and if this blog post was written by anyone else it would be unlikely to sit as an important conceptual touchstone for NFT enthusiasts. Except Hal Finney would go on to be the recipient of the very first bitcoin transaction, sent by the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto themselves to Finney on January 12, 2009. One of the most important historical figures in the crypto community, Finney would go on to directly work with Satoshi on the bitcoin network before passing away in 2014. Some 25 years before, he foresaw the birth of the NFT space.
Dan Kaminsky (American, 1979 – 2021)
ASCII Bernanke 2011
ASCII Bernanke is an ASCII-rendered portrait of the former chair of the federal reserve Ben Bernanke. The image was encrypted on the bitcoin blockchain by American computer researcher Dan Kaminsky following the passing of his friend and fellow coder Len Sassaman, himself also portrayed below Bernanke. By embedding this image into the blockchain, it is not only a permanent tribute to the artist’s friend, but also one of the first examples of artistic production on the blockchain. This digital graffiti, a kind of modern day cryptographic cave painting, has the quality of flag planting – echoing the long lineage of ‘I was here’ type aphorisms and mark making that come with the exploration of new terrains – physical or digital.
Rare Pepes 2016
Pepe the Frog, originally created by cartoonist Matt Furie in 2005, has long had a deep association with online communities. First memeified, it was then co-opted by the alt right, before being reclaimed by the crypto community through crypto trading cards such as Rare Pepes. Through its multiple lives, Pepe has emerged as one of the ultimate symbols of the internet and of the meme economy. In 2017, the creation of the Rare Pepe wallet by Joe Looney allowed for the sharing and collecting of Rare Pepes on the Counterparty blockchain. The popularity of the Pepe themed digital trading cards and their “rare” derivatives is a keystone moment in the history of NFTs that helps understand the importance of irony, memorability and community as drivers of interest and value within the NFT and wider crypto space.
Mitchell F. Chan (Canadian, b.1982)
Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility 2017
Named after Yves Klein’s Zones Picturales de Sensibilite Immaterielles (1959), Mitchell F. Chan’s work clearly inserts itself, as well as NFTs more broadly, in a long-lasting lineage of conceptual art. Klein’s piece questioned the materiality and value of art by selling “zones” that were spiritually (but not physically) imbued with his iconic blue colour. The piece was simply presented as an empty white room and each purchase was materially symbolised by a transaction certificate, or token, signed by the artist. Chan reproduces and updates this work for the digital age by allowing collectors to purchase a limited amount of digital zones of sensibility via an ethereum transaction. To accompany the work and explain its underlying concepts, Chan published the “Blue Paper” – a title referencing the work’s double lineage in conceptual art with Klein’s blue and technological innovation with the practice of “white papers” – that gives an in-depth explanation of his conceptual approach.
Andy Warhol (American, 1928 – 1987)
c.1985. Tokenized in 2021 by the Andy Warhol Foundation
While not a genesis work itself, Warhol’s digital drawing made on early computers, and tokenised by the Warhol Foundation in 2021, showcases two important features of NFTs. The first is the understanding that experimentation with technology and digital technologies in art is not new, can be traced back to the 1950’s, and counts within its school some of the most famous artists in the world. The second is the ability of the blockchain to revolutionize the economic status of digital artists. Previously disintermediated from the commercial art world due to a lack of an ability to authenticate and claim ownership over digital works of art, NFTs provide a long awaited solution for digital artists. Before the blockchain was invented, even the Warhol Foundation had struggled to sell these iconic and historically important works.
Rhea Myers, (Canadian, b.1973)
Is Art 2014/2015
Is Art is an interactive artwork on the Ethereum blockchain. Each transaction allows the collector to alter the contract so as to set it as art – or not. The work turns the Duchampian concept of artistic nomination into an infinite performance played out by different owners and recorded on the blockchain. The work functions through the use of smart contracts, a development in blockchain technology by Ethereum, which allows for the insertion of code into blockchain contracts, giving artists and technologists the ability to provide complex sets of unchangeable instructions alongside tokens. The artistic possibilities are endless and present one of the most fertile aspects of NFTs. Is Art is the earliest artwork to explore the notion of smart contracts as an artistic medium.
Sarah Meyohas (French-American, b.1991)
Bitchcoin 2015, Cloud of Petals
2017 / 2021-11-29 19:24:07
Created in 2015, while Sarah Meyohas was pursuing her MFA in photography at Yale, Bitchcoin can be described as a proto-NFT. Each Bitchcoin represents 25 sq inches of any of Meyohas’ prints. Therefore, the work invites users to speculate on the artist’s success. With Bitchcoin, the artist takes her reflections on the immateriality of cryptocurrencies and decides to regain artistic agency and financial autonomy by creating her own currency and pegging its value to herself. The spectacular success of NFTs in the last years has spawned renewed interest in Meyohas’ work, and prompted her to migrate her work over to Ethereum in 2021. She simultaneously released a new series of Bitchcoins backed by her 2017 work Cloud of Petals.
Simon Denny (New Zealand, b. 1982)
Backdated NFT/ Ethereum postage stamp
2016-2018-2021 / 2018-10-15 20:32:11
Simon Denny has been exploring, thinking and creating work about blockchain culture since 2015. Both appreciative and critical of blockchain technology, Denny’s works always propose an elegant yet thorough critique on the crypto space. Backdated NFT is an exercise in time travel. Challenging the blockchain as an immutable timeline, the artist takes one of his physical works from 2016 – fittingly displaying a portrait of Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin – and timestamps it with a date in 2018. An NFT is made up of two parts: a hyperlink on a blockchain (the token) and an image or media file stored on a decentralised database. While the link on the blockchain itself is immutable, the image can technically be changed. By getting access to an earlier token and changing the image that its link points to, Denny’s intervention questions the fundamental principle of the blockchain’s immutability.
Right Click and Save as Guy
2018 / 2018-12-06 09:32:40
One of XCOPY’s early works, Right Click and Save as Guy is representative of the artist’s playful, colorful yet morbid style. In a GIF file reminiscent of tumblr era aesthetics, combined with glitchy motifs, this haunting character is stuck in an incessant digital loop. At the same time, through its title, the work acknowledges and comically reappropriates the common criticism that NFTs are useless guardians of authenticity when one can simply “right click and save as”. XCOPY represents the early crypto art scene of creators ignored by the art world proper, while they built large online following for their work. The importance of their work and their pioneering place in the history of NFTs is only starting to be recognised.
Autoglyphs 2019 / 2019-04-05 21:13:34
Autoglyphs are the first “on-chain” generative art works. Produced by Larva Labs, founders of the renowned Cryptopunks, these black and white geometric patterns are generated by code written into their smart contract. As is alluded to by their title, each Autoglyph is completely independent and their production automatic. These glyphs push the boundaries of the role of the artist by leaving visual production entirely to the machine. In 1923 László Moholy-Nagy began this conceptual exploration with his telephone pictures, where he created artworks by dictating instructions over the phone to a factory in Germany. With Autoglyphs, the human element of instruction based art is replaced by code in order to create truly independent generative works.
Chromie Squiggles 2020 / 2020-11-27 11:13:43
Chromie Squiggles are the original artworks of the generative art platform Artblocks. Through their playful “squiggly” shape and bright colours, they have become icons of the NFT space. Through the minting process, the collector becomes an active participant in the creation of the work. Each squiggle is unique, through its colour, shape, and texture, each of which exist in varying levels of rarity. This system makes value – through rarity – an integral part of the work. Therefore, the squiggles merge the conceptual aspects of generative works with the collecting aspect of early trading card works to embody a whole new genre of crypto art.