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Art + Activism at Esalen

Last week I attended a Track II conference at Esalen Institute in Big Sur. If you aren’t familiar with Esalen it’s worth reading up on, because it’s kind of legendary for many reasons none of which I’m going to talk about here. Like other Track II events, international relations played a big part as well as pressing global issues such as nuclear threats, climate change and cyber security. For this event there was a new addition to the normal diplomacy talks with a focus on art ant activism, which is how I ended up with an invite. I went in kind of blind but then realized I would be presenting some of my work to help with context so I threw something together one night and thought it would be useful to post here for reference as well. This was written as a talk and includes a lot of ad-libbing but I think it’s fairly readable as well. Please to enjoy.

Hi everyone. I’m Sean Bonner and I’m going to ramble a little bit here so it’s going to either be terribly confusing or make perfect sense, but probably nothing in between. In the early 2000’s the art critic Jerry Saltz once said of my Los Angeles art gallery that he looked forward to seeing us either succeed or fail fantastically, so I always try to do one of those two things. So I’m just going to tell you some stories and let some of my photos play here in the background while I do. These things are probably unrelated. 

The other night during our one sentence introductions I struggled to succinctly explain what I do because I do lots of vaguely connected things – I’m a writer, photographer, illustrator, entrepreneur, publisher, musician… Recurring themes in my work are solitude, loneliness and connections, relationships. Chasing passions, and chasing passion. Most of my work is connected to subcultures in one way or another. I call myself a misanthroplogist which is only half a joke. It’s been pointed out to me that all of my companies and projects and efforts are somehow in search of or in service to a community. I’m always hunting for my people, trying to find the weirdos I connect with.

Where I’m from is almost as hard to answer as what I do. I was born in Washington DC, but I’ve lived in Maryland, Texas, Florida, Chicago, Los Angeles, Vienna, Paris, Tokyo, and now Vancouver. There might be some things I’m pretty good at, but apparently sitting still isn’t one of them

My first job was a dishwasher at seafood restaurant Florida’s gulf coast, I was 14 and I got paid in cash under the table. Some of my friends were in bands and before long we decided they should have records but assumed there was no way any real record company would be interested so I saved up started my own. You could ask “why did you think as a high schooler you could just go start your own company?” and the only good answer I have is I didn’t know that I couldn’t. Over the next 5 or 6 years I put out about dozen albums by different bands, first releases for many and some of whom are still touring, playing live and writing new music today.

This experience had 3 long lasting impacts on my life:

  • I realized anything is possible.
  • I realized the seemingly small actions of one person can inspire someone else to do something amazing.
  • It made me basically unemployable.

That last point is important because knowing the power of the individual and that limits are imaginary is incompatible with most corporate and business structures. I’ve had a few office jobs since then, they were… well, complicated.

In the big picture I often find myself trying to identify problems to help solve, not that I’m terribly good at solving them, but I enjoy trying. One of my favorite ways to do that is to build a new thing that makes the thing causing the old problem obsolete. Don’t try to change it, just route around it. The people you leave behind will either ignore you and keep doing their thing oblivious to your improvements, or they will realize they’ve been overstepped and change their thing to try and catch up. Either one of those is a perfectly fine outcome. 

I wanted to spend some time talking about one of my projects that relates to a few of the themes we’ve been talking about over the last few days – namely open source, nuclear, art and activism.

By 2010 I had given up my half of an art gallery and walked away from global blog network that I’d started almost a decade earlier. I was pretty frustrated with both the art and tech worlds at the time and was mostly hanging out at hackerspaces and doing “black ops” for venture capitalists to help decide what companies (and teams) to invest in, but I was also trying to figure out what to do next with my weird art/tech/DIY skill set. I was privately hoping to stumble across a project I could throw myself into, though I couldn’t have anticipated how that would play out.

For a few years I’d been involved with an annual event in Tokyo called the New Context Conference. Put on each year by Digital Garage, we talked about what was happening online, and hypothesized about what might be next. Our 2011 event was planned for April but In March a serious earthquake hit Japan causing a Tsunami that crippled that Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant and generally made a really, really big mess. I was still living in LA at the time and so I called my friend and co-organizer Joi Ito to see if he was OK. He wasn’t in Japan either, and was also trying to get word about what was happening. For the most part, no one knew what was going on.

We started pulling people together to see if we could help. We’re hackers and internet people with diverse networks of smart people all around the world – if that would ever be useful for something this seemed like it would be it.

At first we thought we’d just go find the data. Turns out there was no data, as no functional sensor networks existed Then we thought we’d just collect the data ourselves. Turns out there was no equipment to be had, as essentially every geiger counter on the market had been sold in the last 24 hours to randos with survival bunkers in Ohio. So we began to realize that we needed to build a way to collect the data from scratch.

The previously scheduled April event changed from “what’s happening next online” to “what’s happening next in Fukushima” and we brought a bunch of the people we were talking to over to Tokyo and sat down in a room together for a few days to try and come up with a plan. Over the following days and weeks we’d put together the pieces and people for what would eventually become a non-profit called Safecast.

We built a hardware & software platform for people to measure radiation and share that information with each other. We didn’t know if what we were doing was legal, but we didn’t really care either and decided not to ask anyone. We’d just apologize later if we needed to.

This work revealed a new issue: Our data was very precise, existing data was averaged. Which led to the realization that all of the existing data was mostly useless and this suddenly became a much bigger project than we’d anticipated. Our data showed that evacuation zones were wrong, and they were corrected. The rest of the world had the same problem with data that was too vague, so the project quickly became global

Hundreds and then thousands of volunteers all over the world got involved and started collecting and publishing environmental data through our system – which was entirely open source and public domain.

Our dataset of radiation background levels is now almost 200 million data points – the largest ever available. Before Safecast governments had good data and the people had crappy data, if any at all. After Safecast the people had the best data available.

We purposefully pushed for the highest standard data and put it into the public domain, to ensure that the work will outlive all of us. 

UN, IAEA, NNSA, etc have endorsed or use our work and recommend our best practices. Many people at these orgs told us they dreamed of doing what we did but could never get the internal approval to do it at their agencies and couldn’t figure out how a small group of nobodies like us were actually able to do it. I tell them we didn’t ask anyone for approval, we just did it. We helped force the NNSA to release the tax payer funded data they had for the US because the data we released made their “national secrets” not so secret anymore. We met with DARPA who told us they loved what we were doing but didn’t like that it was public, so they put millions of tax payer dollars into copying our work but making it private. The president of Tepco who couldn’t believe we weren’t trying to sell him something.

Air quality has a lot of the same problems – there’s no standards and the data is closed and confusing. We’re trying to see if lessons from one can apply to the other, but they are entirely different animals so in many ways we’re starting from scratch. 

This week we’ve talked about how to pay for these solutions and if there needs to be a disaster in order to get anyone to pay attention? I’ll just say from my experience most people don’t care unless there’s a disaster, and more specifically it needs to be directly impacting them.

Luckily Safecast has shown that you don’t need everyone to care, a very few people working together can build something that benefits everyone.

The directly impacted, the curious, everyone else

With radiation, even 10 years on, people still think of this as “that thing in japan” with air quality we see the same – we have all these fires here on the west coast and no good way to know air quality around them. 

We spec’d out a distributed system more than 5 years ago and funders told us ‘sounds interesting, we’ll get back to you’ and then they didn’t get back to us until there was a fire blowing smoke right at them. By then it was too late. Once the fires were put out they weren’t interested agaibn. We said “what about next year” and they said “we’ll get back to you” Then next year when smoke was blowing into their kitchens they called asking us if we ever got that sensor network up and running. So paying for these solutions is a real problem in and of itself.

We have some air sensors deployed, but not as many as we’d like. We recently codesgned a device with Blues Wireless called the Airnote and that’s helped get some more into people’s hands. 

In 2020 the pandemic ended travel and cancelled events which basically cut us off from all of our funding and we had to lay off our entire team – we were about 90% volunteer anyway and most of the people we had to stop paying kept on working in their spare hours. This shows that people genuinely care about solving these problems, but just caring doesn’t pay rent or keep servers online.

So thats activism, but how is this related to art?

Our devices have been displayed in several museum exhibitions. Our visualizations have been published in art books. Our data has been used for all kinds of projects, including this one released earlier this year which is what we’ve been listening to in the background. 

You can go to Safecast.live and hit play in the top left, or change the sample pack in the bottom right. The audio is being driven by the live stream of the data coming in from radiation and air quality sensors all over the world. Each reading triggers a different sample. The samples are taken from vintage synthesizers, a toy piano, or from the band Nine Inch Nails who released some of their audio with an open license as well. Sensors compose the audio. We’re listening to the world, right now. It will never sound the same, as the environment changes moment to moment and more sensors come online, this audio stream will continue to evolve.

This is one of many examples of art and technology coming together to make something new and wonderful.

Data integrity is something we’ve thought a lot about, because an open data set isn’t going to be very useful if someone can mess with the data. We wanted to be able to ensure that the data we are providing is the absolutely positively the same data coming off our sensors. We currently use a distributed cross checking methodology for that, but for quite sometime we’ve also been looking at blockchains as position solutions to the question of provenance and verifiability. As part of that we cofounded the Blockchain Research Lab at Keio University in Tokyo and have worked closely with the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT.

This year, art and tech came crashing with the explosion of NFTs. As such for much of the year I’ve been playing tech translator to my art friends and art translator to my tech friends. Not one to stand on the sidelines, I’ve been making and selling NFTs of my own work and have jumped in to help build one of the largest artist communities around NFTs. I’m really excited about the potential, we’re already seeing it dramatically shift the power structures of the art world and allow artists and creators to become financially independent on their own terms, allowing them to really focus on their work. This is bleeding edge stuff but I think it won’t be long before everyone is using them, and most probably won’t even know it.

I’m working on several related projects and hope to tie Safecast in someway soon as well. I’m looking forward to talking with everyone about this stuff in the coming days and seeing where we might be able to collaborate!

You Don’t Need Your Own Discord

This is a potentially controversial position to take, but these days when people ask me how to start their own Discord server I have one simple bit of advice – don’t.

This isn’t because I dislike Discord, quite the contrary and honestly I find it to be incredibly useful and powerful for community building. The problem is there are just too many Discords. At this point “come hang out on my Discord” directly translates to “come hang out on my Discord instead of someone else’s Discord.” That’s not intentional, but it’s a limitation of there only being so many waking hours in the day and a limited number of those that people can spend hanging out on Discords. I don’t have any extra hours at this point, and judging by conversations I’m having and seeing happening between others – neither does anyone else.

Discord lets people join up to 100 servers which used to seem like an impossible limit to hit, but I’ve hit it and now to join a new Discord I have to leave an old Discord. Because I run a few Discords for various projects that eats up a few of my options, because some of those projects have sandbox servers there goes a few more. I’m relatively new to the Discord universe so I can’t be the only one who actually has less than 100 spaces available. One might ask why Discord doesn’t just up to limit for everyone, but honestly I think a better move would be to decrease it. Chop it to 50. Or 35.

Here’s the thing, just joining isn’t the issue – it’s the time you need to invest and there’s only so much of that. So every Discord server is competing for your (my) time and attention – not just with other servers but also with the rest of my life. If you are like me, you find yourself stressing about where you are spending your time, what you are neglecting, and how to be more efficient in your social interactions – none of which are very fun things to have occupying headspace.

The next question I get asked frequently is by people who have their own Discord servers, and they are wondering how to get more engagement or activity there. I have a list of minor suggestions and best practices that I’ve seen work, but those are all secondary to the bigger issue that people just don’t have the time to spend on all these servers. So unless you are offering something incredibly unique or already have a very committed audience I think spending time trying to get people to your server is counter productive. And I want to explain that a bit more.

One of the things we talk about right now is how important community is. It’s shaping up to be one of the defining factors of web3 in ways that some of us have been pushing for for decades. It’s exciting, and awesome to see. But you build community by contributing to a community, not by trying to get people away from other communities. And that’s what happening here, even if no one realizes it yet. That’s why I’m telling people in their heads they need to realize that asking people to come to their server is also actively asking them not to go to other servers.

So what’s the solution? Community. One Discord server with 20 artists is infinitely more compelling than 20 Discord servers for 20 different artists. This is the hypothesis that we’re playing with on Discord.art. I recognize that might seem like I’m asking you to do the thing I just asked you not to do, but I’m not. I’m just using it as an example. A number of us, many who had our own Discord servers that we were struggling with came together and decided to see what would happen if we combined forces instead. Invest in a community rather than trying to lure people away from others. And I think it’s worked, incredibly well to be honest. It’s super active, incredibly positive and has become a cultural hub for this moment in so many ways. That’s not because of any single person involved, but rather because the combination of all those people is greater than the sum of the parts. And hanging out together leads to further inspirations and collaborations that never would have happened if everything was segregated.

Another thing we did recently was look at what channels we have, vs what channels people are actually using. Again, looking to the community rather than trying to direct the community. We found that we didn’t need a huge chunk of those channels and deleted them – the result being a tighter and more active server. If you have your own Discord server I’d encourage you to take a hard look at your channel list and see what is actually being used, and consolidate anywhere you can. Having fewer channels means less cognitive load is needed to keep up, which takes less time and makes your server more viable. When I need to join a new server and I’m forced to pick a server to leave – 9 times out of 10 I’m leaving the ones with hundreds of channels because I’m already missing most of what is happening on them. I feel more connected to the servers with just a few channels because I know what is going on and who is there.

IF you can get your server down to just a few channels, my next bit of advice is to look around at the servers you also participate in. Are any others similar in size to yours? Some overlapping interests? Maybe even shared community members? If so, thats a prime candidate for a merger. Right now, every single say I’m being asked to join a new Discord server and that’s just impossible to manage. What I’d love to see in the coming weeks and months, is all of these disparate servers joining forces and consolidating under a unified roof. I would much rather be in 10 Discord servers that collect 10 different projects each, than 100 different servers for individual projects. And I think the communities around those projects will benefit from that sharing as well.

Let’s stop building new Discord servers and instead build stronger communities.

Avatars and Identity

My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. In fact I can date my childhood memories really well because I was in a different school almost every grade, so depending on which school or group of kids are in the memory I know exactly when it happened. This was the source of a lot of trauma for me (as soon as I’d make friends I’d move away and have to start all over again) which led to various trust and interpersonal relationship issues that I spent years working through, some better than others. This has manifested itself in various ways, one of which is that as you might know I’m deeply fascinated by and attracted to subcultures and communities – I never had “my people” as a kid, and when I finally found them in my high school years I never let go.

I gave a talk at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna once about my career, and jokingly said that bouncing from music to art to technology didn’t make any sense. The professor who had invited me to his class interjected that it made perfect sense, because the notable common thread through all my work isn’t the particular medium of the moment, but rather the community around it. He observed, perhaps better than any therapist I’ve ever been to, that in my work I’m always trying to build sustainable communities.Perhaps, he noted, because I never had a community growing up so I’m destined to spend my life chasing after them. Well thanks for that one there Prof.

But he was right.

I call myself a misanthoplogist which is only half a joke, most of the communities I dive into and immerse myself in are subculture, occulture even, and often skeptical of outsiders. Most of us are misfits and weirdos who didn’t fit in with the world we saw around us, so we built our own. Or since it’s so much easier these days, we found others like us and embraced the world they’d already started building. And once a part of this chosen family, which ever one that might be (or several concurrently, as I’ll get to in a moment) it becomes deeply important to us, shaping us as much as we shape it. We become the community, and the community becomes representative of us – our interests, our hopes, our dreams.

When I meet someone else from one of these communities out in the world we share an instant understanding and a bond that unless you are also part of that community, likely makes no sense. In fact, you might not even notice it. In this way, these friendships and communities become almost secret societies. Indeed, band logos, slang and inside jokes can map perfectly with some cryptic rune, sigil or foreign language. If you know, you know. If you don’t, you don’t. Forget music and just consider Hobo Symbols or Warchalking – just understanding what these markings mean puts you into a very tiny group. Now apply that same logic to graffiti’d gang tags or bumper stickers.

Those are physical world examples, but it should be no surprise to you that I’m heading towards the virtual. Years ago my ex-roommate brokep made a brilliant comment that he doesn’t use or like the then common abbreviation “IRL”(In Real Life) instead preferring to use “AFK” (Away From Keyboard) because in his perception, and for those around him, online was just as real as offline and the difference wasn’t which was real or not, but which had your attention at any given moment, and he didn’t want to perpetuate the false idea that things happening online were any less important or “real” than those happening offline. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One takes this a step further by making the online more important than the offline, and the introduction of metaverses. I’ll get back to that shortly.

(A few of the NFT Avatars I own and use in various online communities)

My son has lived all around the world. I like to think this was a conscious decision informed by expert learnings and my own lived experience, but it could just as easily be repeating the same mistakes my parents made. Time will tell. But the point being at almost 12 years old he’s spent significant chunks of his life living in Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo and now Vancouver. And he’s traveled to dozens of other countries in the interim. When I was a kid in the 80’s jumping from school to school in city to city, I often tried to be penpals with friends I’d made but that usually lasted one or two letters until we’d both forgotten about it. The internet changed all that as we know, and with my son any school he’s been in has been for at least a 3 year stretch and he’s stayed in touch with a number of friends regularly, for years now, in any number of online worlds, primarily Minecraft where he and his friends can actually build out a world that remains the same no matter where they are accessing it from.

Knowing how insufferable I am in these posts, you can only imagine how much worse I am in person. My excitement this year about NFTs has infected every corner of my life and this has rubbed off on my son who has his own collection and is an active member of several related communities. So here’s what I’m starting to get at – when I ask him, out of all the places he’s lived and all the places he’s visited, which is is favorite – he points out that it’s not such a simple question as all the places have pros and cons. He’s a smart kid. If we’re talking about food then one city might be better. If we’re talking about hiking or snowboarding or bike riding then yet another city might be better. If he’s talking about where his friends are, then he knows exactly which Discord server he’d pick. Online or offline are the same – they are just different places where he spends time.

I get that. A few years ago I played some World of Warcraft with him, which was a game I spent a significant chunk of time playing in the early 2000’s. Walking through those in game cities felt every bit the same as it feels when I visit a city I used to live in, or a favorite place to travel. I know what’s around the next corner and where to get the good food. So I assure you, he’s not the only one who feels that way. I know a lot of people in my generation and a little older who would think that sounds crazy. But this is the future, and the younger kids all get it.

So to connect this back around, Discord servers are communities. Cyber cliques. Digital gangs. Virtual families. This is real life in every way, and the relationships we form there are just as real. I need more than one hand to count the number of friends who have had marriages end because of affairs being had with people they had never met in physical space. That’s as real as it gets. But that’s beside the point, which I know I’m talking a long time to get to, but here it is – offline I can I look at you and know who you are, know if I know you or not. Online, I look at your avatar. And your avatar can be anything. And if your avatar can be anything then you can be anyone, right? Right. That’s equal parts liberating and terrifying. If you can be anyone, how do you know who anyone is? Or maybe more importantly, does that even matter?

Going back to Ready Player One again, in the metaverse people were able to create avatars that were the perfect versions of themselves. Who they wanted to be, without the limitations of their physical lives (like, how much money they have or where they lived). And, they didn’t have to be just one person – they could be different people for different situations. This begins to really pick apart the idea of identity – but again this isn’t new or exclusive to the internet in anyway. People have had secret lives and kept separate identities offline forever. We all know someone who acts one way at the office and completely differently outside of the work environment. Or what about LARPers or Furries or hardocre Trekies. Or what about punk rockers who put on nice clothes to go to a real job between 9-5. I’m being a bit obvious but you get the point – the notion of being different people in different contexts is a very normal thing, and doing that online with an avatar in a community just makes it even more… well, real.

Back to my son – in the communities he’s a part of, no one knows he’s a kid. That’s intentional on his part, because he recognizes that people treat him differently if they think of him as a peer. And yes to alleviate any fears we know what he’s doing and who he’s hanging out with, and have regular open conversations about safety around that – but we also respect his wishes and love that he has this ability to safely explore who he is, and who he wants to be. His identity is connected to his Avatar. His Avatar shows his connection to this community, and unlocks special membership privileges. His Avatar is also a unique digital object that he owns, because it’s an NFT. There are a few thousand others who hold NFTs from this collection and while they might meet each other on the project Discord, they can also recognize each other anywhere else on the web as well. It’s a digital band t-shirt.

This week twitter announced plans to add web3 integration to the site with two examples of how they are going to do it – they are going to add tipping with Bitcoin, and verified ownership of Avatars. Now, if you’ve been reading the news or following related headlines you might have heard about the Bitcoin tipping part but likely didn’t catch the avatar bit. This is because most of the “technology journalists” writing about web3 have no idea what is actually happening and are just looking for recognizable buzzwords to drive stories and Bitcoin is recognizable but NFTs and Avatars are confusing so Bitcoin drives the story and the Avatar bit gets a passing mention just so that all the boxes are checked. I’m not just making that up, I’ve spoken with no less than 10 writers at major publications in the last 2-3 months who have all had similar stories. “I’ve written about art/web/entertainment/memes before so my editor just told me to put together something about NFTs but none of this makes any sense to me, can you try to help me understand what is happening?”

But this is a legitimately big deal. “Why would I buy it when I can just right click and save it?” falls apart the moment wallet verification is introduced, and a social platform as large as Twitter recognizing that what NFTs you own directly relates to your online identity is the tip of the iceberg. People already spend a lot of time, effort and money crafting and curating their online persona – the dismissal that they wouldn’t buy an Avatar to signify their connection to a community or social standing is silly. That’s so obviously where this is all heading. And the natural extension of this is if your identity is tied to an Avatar, and you have many different Avatars then you natively have the potential for many different identities. I might use my Bored Ape Avatar when I’m on the Bored Ape Yacht Club Discord Server and then switch to my Punk Cat Avatar when I’m on the Punk Cats server. Other people who hold NFTs from both collections might do the same, and we might recognize each other and intentionally connect those two avatars into one identity – but there’s no reason at all that I couldn’t keep an avatar in a separate wallet and when I switch to it also switch to a completely unique identity.

So far I’ve been talking about forums and websites, but as metaverses like Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, Sandbox, etc etc etc begin to pop up and start intermingling the situation gets much more interesting. When we’re talking about virtual worlds and not just screen names, it’s an entirely larger thing.

As someone who has been using my real name online for more than 25 years and has spent way too much time thinking about how identity and reputation and positioning impact online interactions, this is mindblowingly exciting. Scary as hell, but inevitable and totally obvious at this point. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Collectors + Investors

I woke up this morning to messages from several friends directing me to this tweet, asking my thoughts. Unsurprising, as anyone who knows me probably knows I’d have more than a few thoughts on something like this. I started thinking of snarky replies or gotchas that I could cleverly post and trust me dear reader, there were many that came to mind. But the more I thought about it, and read the replies from artists who seem to be bending over backwards to agree in hopes that the tweets author might check out and buy their work, I thought it would be better served with a more thoughtful response to illustrate why this is so problematic. Also, I would like credit for my display of maturity and restraint in not just posting a snarky reply. Sean from 20 years ago is wondering who the hell has hijacked his blog right now.

As an art dealer, I would refuse to sell art to someone who came in to my gallery and made a statement like this. I don’t say that hyperbolically – when I had a gallery this was a topic that came up from time to time and we were unapologetic about refusing to sell work to anyone who asked questions like “how soon will I be able to sell this and double my money?” or “do you have anything that will match my couch?” Additionally I’d actively and vocally advise artists to avoid selling work to someone with this approach because while a sale might be nice today, in the long run buyers like this will most likely make decisions later that will negatively impact the artist. And if you think of art as a long term thing, as I do, selling to a buyer like this is basically failing the marshmallow test. This is investing in the art and not in the artist. To me, the artist is always more important than the art. As an art dealer, I wanted to develop long term relationships with artists and watch them grow, and help out where I could. I wanted to look back on my life and the careers of artists I worked with and be proud of what we did together. This artist-first approach wasn’t always the best decision for the profit margin of the business but it allowed me to sleep well at night, and that 15 years after the gallery closed I still count many of the artists I worked with as close friends tells me I made the right decisions. As a dealer, I worked for the artists not the collectors. I wanted the value of the art to go up just as much as anyone else (and it has) but I deeply believe that this happens much more reliably by making decisions that are in the best interest of the artist, and selling to someone who only sees art as an investment simply isn’t.

As an artist, I would be disappointed to know that someone bought my work and didn’t want to be thanked for it. I would be sad to learn that they didn’t have any interest in supporting me or my efforts. This statement is both hurtful and dehumanizing. It says that this person sees artists as nothing but a factory to crank out things which will make them money. Amusingly this is one of the reasons I eventually got out of the technology start up world, which I wrote more about in The Interest Driven Life, but I couldn’t stomach having meetings with venture capitalists who didn’t give a shit about me or my dreams or my goals and only wanted to know how much money I was going to make them, and how fast. Now, I’m not knocking this kind of investing approach – I just think there are ways to do it which don’t hurt people. Invest in shitcoins or flip some Bored Apes. That doesn’t hurt anyones feelings, or make anyone second guess their life choices. I guarantee you no one at LavaLabs is going to be suicidal because someone is rage tweeting that their Meebit hasn’t doubled in value yet. Pure investors don’t understand (or care about) the difference between artwork and a collectable, between individual artist and for profit company.

For most artists I know, just admitting you are an artist is unspeakably hard. It’s a position filled with self doubt, insecurity and questioning choices, but deep down we do believe in our work and our vision and have to trust that somewhere out in the world someone recognizes and connects with that. I make art to tell stories, and find connections, and find communities, and build relationships. Not to make some investor money. I do recognize that I’m in a position of privilege to be able to turn down sales that I don’t think are a good fit, to people who I don’t like. Not everyone can do that, but that’s also why I try to forge the path so that it’s easier for the next group of artists. And I’m pretty sure I can confidently say that standing here at 46 years old, everyone who has bought my work in the last 20 years has done so because they either wanted to support me personally or because my work meant something to them personally – and I’m deeply thankful for that. I would sell my work to someone who loved it and planned to keep it forever over someone who was hoping to sell it at a profit any day.

As an art collector, I despised buyers with this kind of an attitude. Selfishly, because they usually had more money than me and would buy things I loved and it pained me knowing they didn’t actually care about them. I much prefer the Vincent Price / Dennis Hopper approach which comes from recognizing the value that the artists bring to the world, to culture, to society and trying to support that. I forget where but I saw Hopper speaking once and he said something like “If you do it right, being an art collector means you are just a care taker” going on to say that he saw his job as protecting the art he bought until the “real art” world recognized it and made space in museums for it. He says something similar at the end of this short video. He viewed collecting art as documenting a culture and a community. I visited his house in Venice Beach once and and stepped over carefully rolled up Basquiats in order to get a better look at framed photographs by artists I’d never heard of hanging on the walls. His love for the art and for his friends was unquestionable, and it made me feel so much better about my own collection which is almost entirely work by friends. Some of whom I knew before I bought the work, some of whom I became friends with after buying the work. To me, those relationships are so much more valuable than any individual piece of art, but often the art is a physical representation of that relationship. The context is different but I’m reminded of the lyrics to Softcore by Jawbreaker which accuses “They just want the wrapping, They throw away the prize.” As a collector who values and appreciates the culture and the community, it pains me to know that work is sold to people who don’t care about any of that. I understand why it happens, but I don’t have to like it.

To be clear, I don’t think this is a zero sum topic. You don’t have to care about the artist, or your investment. Someone can care about both the value of their investment and in the artist that created the art, and I’d wager to say most people buying art fit into that category. But a comment like the one above represents a hard far end of a spectrum which I can only sum up as “bad.”

When we’re talking about NFTs, which we often are these days, there is a tendency for investors to lump everything together. They see no difference between something created by hand or something created by an algorithm. This illustrates their deep misunderstanding of both art and NFTs. I think this is actually a dangerous mindset which can actually harm artists and communities, and would recommend steering clear of buyers with this approach. This is a brand new world and the collectors who love the art and want to build the community are still showing up every day. Let’s embrace the people who want to build something together with us. We don’t need to make sacrifices to make people who don’t care about us rich.

Control

Control is an ever present topic as an artist. We’re taught the rules and then encouraged to discard them. We celebrate happy accidents, and endlessly tweak precision techniques. The craft vs the variables. As a photographer this is multiplied by the endless gear and negated by endless memory. Film is whispered to be more pure, but it’s really just adjusting when you make the important decisions, before or after. On camera or off. As a street photographer, observation is everything, and everything is anticipation. You can only control so much. All the planning in the world is pointless if nothing catches my eye. As a writer, I control the words but not what is inferred from them. At some point I have to let go. But even then, always holding onto something.

The struggle between controlling and controlled is only complicated when life gets all over it. 

Primarily, my work is directly eternally. I capture moments of things happening around me, not to me. I leave the interpretations up to others, and it doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong. It’s about the feeling, not the reality. Artistic license applied to real life. By intentionally giving up control, it can’t be taken from me. It’s defensive, and preemptive. I don’t know the story from my subject’s perspective, I only know how I perceive it. And in that way, I retain control.

It’s harder to let go when looking inward at my own life and experience, when that dynamic is turned on end. I know the story, but no matter how desperately I want to tell it I’ve moved from the place of observer to the observed. When looking at photos I’ve taken of my life or my family, I know what was happening, but also what was about to happen. And how I played into that. Willingly. Unwillingly. Inconsequentially. Despite the consequences. The viewer only has part of that story, and I wrestle with how important the other part is. Or isn’t.

At the same time, I’m deeply attracted to community powered projects, shared decision making and consensus within a group. Finding a way for these themes to connect is both exciting and scary.

CryptoArt and Crypto Pricing

When I started visiting Japan I made it a habit of keeping track of the yen to dollar and was always doing the math in my head every time I bought anything so that I knew how many dollars I was spending. That made sense because while I was “visiting” in yen, I “lived” in dollars. After I moved to Japan I quickly realized that stressing out that the ramen I paid $5 for last week costing $5.25 this week was pointless and I should instead just enjoy my 500 yen ramen and stop worrying how much it was costing me in dollars. I was getting paid in yen, and paying for things in yen. I needed to get comfortable with yen and stop pining for dollars.

6 months ago 1 Ethereum (Ξ) converted to about $400, today it’s over $2100. In that time I’ve seen artists price their works in Eth matched against the dollar conversion they think is reasonable, only to lower the Eth price weeks later when Eth went up in value. I kind of cringed when I saw it happen several times but I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly. I mean, I get it – if you think your work is worth $500 one week it stands to reason you would think it’s worth $500 the next week and the value of some cryptocurrency shouldn’t impact that. Right? Earlier today I was looking at the value of Eth and thought about some work that I minted last week and thought I should probably lower the asking price since Eth has going up significantly since I listed them. So I did. And then I felt sick. And I knew exactly why.

Back when I used to have an art gallery how artists should price their work was a constant topic of discussion. The rule of thumb is simple, you can always increase a price but you can never decrease it. The logic being, if collectors see you lower a price they will never think your work is worth the listed price, and will always think they can get a discount or if they just wait a little longer the price will come down further. Conversely, if you only raise prices an interested party will quickly realize that if they are leaning towards something they should jump now because if they wait it will cost them more.

I keep saying that NFTs are a new medium and artists and creators should think of them that way, and embrace it. And the native currency of this medium is Eth. Sure some marketplaces take credit cards or other cryptocurrency but the dominant payment is Eth. And adjusting the Eth price to keep it matched to the dollar price still looks and feels like lowering the price. Because it is. We might have been “visiting” Eth before while “living” in dollars, but it doesn’t take more than a few weeks to start feeling like a local, and if you now “live” in Eth, then you should stop pining for dollars. An artwork valued at Ξ1 should remain valued at Ξ1 no matter what value Eth has to dollars. That’s a bold position and I get that, but in a way this is walking the walk. NFTs are crypto native, and if we’ve moved from tourist to resident, then we should embrace all that comes with that. That’s going to be a hard sell for many people, and realistically I know we’re not there yet. But we should see it on the horizon, and know what direction we’re heading.

On a personal level I’ve always been terrible at taking my own advice and can be firm with others but often second guess myself. In part because I can be sure of other people’s talents but I struggle recognizing my own. Call it imposter syndrome or insecurity or whatever but I know I’m not alone in that and many artists wrestle with what value to put on their own work. That said, I feel like I fucked up adjusting my pricing to compensate for Eth appreciating. I feel like I devalued my work. It’s not something I’m going to do again.

NFTs: All Power To The Artists

(This is part of an ongoing series of posts about art & NFTs.)

Right now, in the world of NFTs, artists have all the power. All of it. This is a battlecry. And when I say “artist” I’m generally referring to any kind of creator. I’ve already seen painters, writers, dancers, musicians, photographers, etc. all do fantastic and delightful things with NFTs. This is wonderful because in most industries where these artists usually live they are forced to compromise, be subordinate or end up beholden to any number of entrenched middle men. That’s a hard truth, but one we all know to be real.

By and large the current NFT marketplaces desperately want to assume that role. They are embracing the archetype of the established curator king in hopes that artist will assume the role of subject. And many artists are happy to do that as it’s all they’ve ever known. But at this moment we have the opportunity to flip that table and build a new castle with better kitchen appliances installed from day one. Artists rightly get excited about the prospect of attention from the Gagosians and Saatchis of the world not because they arrived on the scene yesterday and put up a cool sign outside, but because they have decades and decades of history, and story, that an artist might hope to become part of. The blockchain is a decade old, NFTs have been around for a few years, the really old NFT marketplaces are only 2 years old, most have not been live for even a full year. Almost every artist minting NFTs has an art career which predates these sites launching.

To be clear, I’m not trying to universally knock the platforms or the people working with them. However here are certainly people who see all of this as just a short term play with a hugh upside which they are hoping to cash in on, like they did with the last thing, before they move onto the next thing. And there’s nothing wrong with that, more power to them, but as artists we all should be aware of what is happening and take care not to fall victim. Right now, in almost all cases, artists minting work on Platform X does more to benefit Platform X than it does the artists, which is important to consider when Platform X is asking for 20% of the sale price as their fee. (Currently the platforms I’ve assessed are taking between 0% and 30% so it’s quite a range) Artists can and should be asking what Platform X is doing to earn that cut. If the answer is “we let you in” that really is not good enough. By minting on Platform X we are giving our attention, marketing potential and money to that platform, so it’s worthwhile to ask questions ahead of time.

Conversely there are certainly people at platforms that are thinking about the artists first, and thinking of long term mutually beneficial partnerships. I’ve talked to several of them myself, but I’d be lying if I said those people weren’t in the minority. This is why I say that artists have all the power. We can vote with our dollars, vote with our time, vote with our attention. We can demand that things be different. There is absolutely a value in curation, but there is also a very well known problem with arbitrary middlemen. The promise of all this decentralized technology is that it puts power and agency back into the hands of the people rather than keeping it locked away in the vaults of the companies. It would be a shame to embrace this new world only to hand that power back over to a handful of randos who showed up yesterday. All Power To The Artists.

(As an aside, if you read this and take offense you should ask yourself why? You chose to see your reflection in the picture I’ve painted. If you don’t want to be accused of doing shitty things, don’t do shitty things. Don’t be one of the randos, think about what value you have to offer and realize you are lucky to have artists paying attention to you. Keep trying to do the right thing, and in a few weeks/months/years when all the dust settles maybe you’ll still be standing. Artists were here before this and will be here long after, we have support systems that we’ve built for ourselves. You are welcome to join us. I am an unapologetic artist advocate and equally happy to work with people who want to see artists prosper, or crush those who see artists as just another stepping stone.)

NFT WTF

(for easy reference this post can be found at the domain: nftwtf.art If you want just the spreadsheet platform comparison go to nftart.lol If you want to see newer posts I’ve written on the subject, start here)

If you’ve been anywhere on the internet in the last few weeks or months you’ve probably been hearing about NFTs. Like scores of others, you’ve probably been wondering just what an NFT is and if you should bother caring about them or not. Valid questions. I’d argue that you should, especially if you are involved in any kind of arts or creative work.

If you want to get a very detailed in depth understanding of the history, technology and cultural impact there are a number of long winded explainers and think pieces written for just that purpose. That is not the purpose of this article even though it is also long winded – I mostly just want to pass on what I think is most important. That said, if you want to take a half hour and read these few articles you will have a very solid grasp of the landscape:
• Cryptomedia, NFTs and the Next Internet – Bobby Hundreds
• What is an NFT? – Everything You Need to Know about Crypto Media and Tokens – Tim Stodz
• NFTs and a Thousand True Fans – Chris Dixon
NFT Art Goes Viral and Heads to Auction — But What Is It? – Valentina Di Liscia

The Basics: NFT means Non-Fungible Token. Fungibility essentially means interchangeability and in economics that means that all dollars are basically the same. If I take $10 to my bank and deposit it, and then wire transfer it to you and you go to your bank and withdraw $10 you technically have a different $10 in your hand, but because “a dollar” is fungible that doesn’t matter, because $10 is $10. The “value” changed hands, even if the actual physical representation of it didn’t. Now lets say I drew a little sketch of my cat and wanted to give it to you but you live on the other side of the world. I can’t just give that sketch to someone who then tells someone else near you to draw a sketch of a cat and say it’s the same thing, because the sketch is non fungible. You need the actual sketch I drew for it to have value (financial or emotional). Now, if you think of digital items then they are basically all fungible. If I send you an email with a photo attached, you aren’t reading the exact thing I wrote or seeing the exact photo I sent, you are reading a copy of it. But what even is original in terms of digital? That’s where NFTs come in, using the blockchain (which is the technology behind things like Bitcoin) this is a way to ensure that a digital file is the original and not a copy.

One of the hesitations towards and criticisms of digital art has always been that it has no rarity, as anyone can make a copy of it as many times as they want and it’s no different than the original. The same argument is used to denigrate photography and video art, though usually there’s some physical element (a signed and numbered print for example) that specifies the uniqueness. That isn’t typically a concern with a painting or sculpture which is obviously one of a kind. Of course there are forgeries, but they take a lot of effort and experts can usually spot them quite easily. An NFT is a cryptographical way to create that rarity and uniqueness in a digital item and prove that something isn’t a copy.

An artist can “tokenize” a piece of work and then sell it, and the buyer can prove that what they just bought is the original thing sold by the artist. And because the blockchain is public, every time that artwork changes hands it’s recorded in a public ledger and at any point someone can verify the piece is legitimate and trace the chain of custody all the way back to the artist who originally released it. (Or the impersonator, as the case may be) Like an old library check out card, the blockchain records who owned it for how long, and if it was given to them or if they bought it, and if they did how much they paid. Which is a fascinating way to track value fluctuation (hopefully appreciation) over time. In this example of the library book, the stamped library card is the NFT – it’s something that accompanies digital file (often an image or a piece of media) to verify the provenance of that file.

I think this is one of the biggest and most important details – whoever originally creates the NFT is hard coded into the ledger and can specify a royalty that they should receive anytime the work is sold in the future. Traditionally secondary market sales happen like this: Andy makes a painting and asks Larry to sell it for him. Larry has a gallery and sells Andy’s painting to Kirk. Andy typically gets 50% of that sale. So if Kirk bought it for $1000, Andy just made $500. Larry did too, but that’s a different story. Anyway, say 10 years later Andy has become a much more popular artist and Kirk decides to sell that painting and asks Christie to sell it for him, Christie will take a 20% fee for doing that and 80% will go to Kirk. Andy gets nothing. So if Christie sells that painting for $1M, Kirk makes $799,500, Christie makes $200,000, but Andy gets nothing. He’s still only got that original $500 from Larry. However if that painting was an NFT, and Andy is the one who made it Andy could specify that anytime that work is ever sold in the future, he gets a % of that sale. (Make sure to read part 2 for important clarification of this point)

Artists! This is important. If a gallery or curator or someone has approached you about making NFTs of your work and hasn’t told you about this, chances are they are putting themselves in that royalty seat so they, not you, get paid off every sale.

Think of an NFT like your domain name or your email address. Some of you might know first hand the problems that can come from letting a business partner own or manage your domain or email. Or your bank account. This has the potential to be a million times worse, and it’s one of those problems that you won’t realize is a problem until it’s too late. Take steps to avoid it now by making and publishing your own NFTs. It’s really not that hard, and the effort is worth it.

One final thing: Like iPhones vs Androids, there are two common standards at play here though in this case they were both made by the same people. ERC-721 and ERC-1155. ERC-721 is the older standard used by everyone and is for absolutely positively one of a kind items. ERC-1155 is a newer standard (and thus still gaining adoption) and is more flexible as it allows you to make one of a kind items, or an edition (only 25 ever made). If you want to understand more on that, read this.

With that out of the way, let’s move on.

So how do you make (or “mint” as it’s called) an NFT? Actually how you mint, list, and sell an NFT are closely related. For the purpose of this I’m going to be talking about minting and selling on OpenSea which is the currently the largest marketplace for such things, and is the service I used to easily mint my first NFTs.

There are several sites that will help you make NFTs and also several sites where you can sell NFTs. As long as they are using ERC-721 or ERC-1155 standards the NFTs you create in one place can be transferred or sold in another place. But in the same way you can’t take one painting and sell it to 5 different art galleries at the same time, one of a kind items can only be sold on one marketplace at a time.

Some friends andI created a comprehensive spreadsheet comparing the top 30 platforms. Each site has different policies, practices, and fees. Some have strict curation and you have to apply and prove yourself worthy to sell things there, some require buyers use their own in house cryptocurrency rather than something more widely exchangeable and some have pretty high fees for that convenience so caveat emptor. Again, to keep things simple I’m only talking about OpenSea.

OpenSea also offers “free NFT minting” which is a little misleading in that you still have to pay to initiate your account (technical limitation that you have to pay anywhere) but while other sites will charge you a “gas” fee every time you mint a new NFT, OpenSea won’t. (Gas is an important thing to understand, I spend more time talking about it in part 2 )

You will also need a wallet to accept all the crypto you will be making from your sales. You might ask why you can’t just use paypal or something? Because paypal deals in FIAT currency not cryptocurrency which is central to this entire thing. On OpenSea most sales are done using Ethereum (which is the second most popular cryptocurrency next to Bitcoin) though you can choose to accept a different type of cryptocurrency if you want. Think of OpenSea like ebay, they handle the transaction but they don’t hold money for you because they aren’t a bank. And neither is OpenSea, which is why you need a wallet. Most people use MetaMask which is simple browser extension, others prefer Coinbase Wallet or Rainbow which is an app you install on your phone. There are other options which you’ll be prompted to choose from when you first go to OpenSea, but you need one to go any further. Any money you make on the site from sales will go directly to that wallet, and if you choose that wallet when you decide where future royalties are sent then will go there too. But keep in mind that isn’t something you can change later, so make sure to write down all your wallet recovery details. If you lose your wallet, you lose your wallet. Literally.

Once you’ve connected your wallet your account on OpenSea exists. Keep in mind the two are linked, so if you go to OpenSea and use a different wallet, you’ll end up with a new (different) account. The little circle icon in the upper left corer is your avatar, and that dropdown will allow you to set all the basic profile stuff you would set on any site. Next to it is CREATE and you guessed it, this is where you go to create NFTs. Choose “My Collections” on that dropdown and on the next page you’ll be given an option to create a new collection which you have to do first as your NFTs will be part of the collection. You’ll get a popup asking for a name, description and logo.

One thing I didn’t realize, the collection is independent from the user. I guess because you can invite other people to help you manage collections. But point being, the URL will be based on the collection, not the user. For example when I created a collection called “D5Kglitches” I assumed that would be nested under the user “seanbonner” but it’s not, and creating that collection resulted in a URL that looks like this:

https://opensea.io/collection/d5kglitches

And as you can see on this page showing one of the NFTs in the collection, the attribution is to D5Kglitches, not Sean Bonner. In this context that’s not a big deal, but it’s worth noting. I plan to make NFTs of some of my photography and I’ll be making a new collection properly named when I do. (Update: I did.)

Once you’ve made a collection you can click into it and “Add New Item” which is the option you’ll use to mint an NFT. Before that you should click the “edit” button though and you’ll have a chance fill in more information including any links or credits you want to add, as well as that royalty thing I mentioned earlier. All NFTs in this collection will conform to this, so decide what % of future sales you want and put in your wallet address.

Once you’ve saved that, go back and hit that “Add New Item” button. This is where you choose the digital file you want to tokenize. Files can be a JPG, PNG, GIF, SVG, MP4, WEBM, MP3, WAV, OGG, GLB, or GLTF. Max size is: 100 MB. Add a name, a link to any external information about it (like your website) and a description. You can also add “lockable content” which is basically things that are hidden until it’s bought. I’ve seen people sell a collection of 10 blank white squares, with the actual image being locked content, so people didn’t know what they were buying until after they bought it. I’ve also see people sell a visual object and provide audio as the locked. Of course there’s no requirement to do this, it’s just an option if you want it.

Next is “Supply” and at the moment this is greyed out and limited to 1. However, if you paste “?enable_supply=true” into the URL and reload the page you’ll be able to edit that. BUT, you’ll lose anything you already added on the page, so don’t do that yet. Just go ahead with 1 copy and remember that for next time.

The next step is “create” which is where you’ll need to initiate your account with a transaction if you haven’t already, and then you can set the price/type of sale. Options are for a fixed price, auction, or declining price. Most people will want to just start off with a fixed price. If you have a following who is waiting on baited breath for your NFTs to drop then you could choose auction and see how much they are willing to pay. Declining price took me a minute to understand but this is a tactic to use FOMO as a marketing tool. You set a high price and a time period, and over that time the price gradually decreases until someone buys it or the deadline is hit – the idea being people will watch it and buy it before it gets too cheap and someone else gets it before them. I don’t know how this works in practice, but in theory maybe someone who only wanted to pay $100 might buy it at $120 because they are scared someone else will buy it at $105? Sort of a reverse auction or something.

Click sell, and you are rolling. You can tell people about your NFTs and people can buy them if you send them the link. They won’t be able to find them on their own though because there is one final step where someone at OpenSea has to manually “verify” that the collection is real and works and legal, once they do that then you are in search results on the site too. They say if you sell things you get noticed, but also just tweeting to them and asking for verification seems to work really well too.

If you have any questions let me know and I’ll see if I can help.

Part 2 of this post can be found here.

If this was helpful and you want to buy one of my NFTs you can see what I have available here.