Art

CryptoPunk #1060

Online Identity & Ownership

Online identity has always been some wild shit.

From the early days of screen names and /nick to usernames and avatars and anons and on and on we’ve continually struggled with (or perhaps played with, depending on who you ask) how best to represent ourselves online. Hell, how we represent ourselves offline is already difficult enough and forever falls back on who you know, who will vouch for you, and your reputation – all of which is easily manipulated. That’s 1000x more complicated online where in most cases you don’t actually have any idea who you are interacting with. The dismissive cliche leading up to the dot com boom was that anyone you spoke to online was really some overweight, socially inept dude still living in his parents basement, especially if they were representing themselves as an attractive woman. This stereotype was largely driven by people who weren’t online and saw no reason to get online and just wanted to poo-poo anyone else who did. But then “being online” got profitable and that made all these other people get interested and suddenly there was a rush and people who had been mocking anyone spending time on the internet needed a way to be on the internet but make it clear they weren’t like those other people on the internet. Proving who you are, while also allowing you to be who you want, has been a struggle ever since.

In Web 2.0 we started to see the desire to have a “single sign on” and transportable identity, as we were starting to build online reputations and social networks, we realized the problems of having a corporate entity control (and know) who communicated with. Having the same identity everywhere online seemed like a dream, but also could be a nightmare, and it wasn’t long before people started exploring ways to express their different interests online safely. Do people from your 9-5 corporate job really need to know which dance clubs you and your friends like to visit on weekends? Probably not. And that’s not even speaking to the problem of trying to connect all the social contacts you’ve ever had into one place. And those are the bigger structural issues, we also started realizing that we projected someone’s identity onto their avatar and if they changed that avatar they suddenly felt like a different person. Combine that with social networks finding new ways to shove “other content” into feeds we expected to be filled only with friends and it got complicated. Point being, it continued to be a mess.

One of the things that I and others have been thinking and talking about is how Web3 has to some extent freed us from the constraints of the avatar and given us some further flexibility as to how we manage our online identities. Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a lot of words about avatars and identities, largely focusing on community membership and how the ability to own an NFT which becomes your access to and identity within a community, and being able to have wallets with multiple NFTs that you can switch between depending on context was both scary and exciting.

One thing I observed was that being able to prove you owned an NFT which you were using as your avatar allowed for some authenticity and reliability, and while of course anyone else could right-click-save that image and use it themselves (and we’ve seen a lot of scams emerge doing just that) the increasing ability to gate some interactions or prove ownership as verification was quite the revolution. I can use my CryptoPunk while interacting in the private CryptoPunk discord and my Bored Ape while interacting in the private Bored Ape discord and in both cases everyone knows it’s me, just kind of wearing a different outfit to fit the occasion. Of course, we’ve also seen that people gravitate to one of their avatars more than others and begin to use that across platforms and that avatar starts being associated with them. This is super interesting for lots of reasons, not the least of which is what happens when an NFT avatar is deeply associated with someone and then they very publicly get rid of it as we saw with Punk #4156, or it becomes so much of who they are they couldn’t part with it? Are these little images now subject to typecasting? So once again a solution presents new complications.

And this is where things get super fascinating, because what if the image that becomes so associated with you and your online identity, isn’t “the real” thing (whatever that means)? Consider for a moment the case of CryptoPunk #1060 vs CryptoPhunk #1060.

I’ve written about CryptoPhunks before and won’t repeat myself here as it’s a complex discussion, but will just note for anyone unfamiliar that the imagery of the CryptoPhunks collection (released in 2021) is a 1:1 mirror image derivative of the CryptoPunks collection (released in 2017). There’s a lot more to it than that, but in this context that’s the important detail. In the case of #1060, one of these is used regularly as an avatar and the other sits dormant in an unused wallet. As an experiment I recently posted CryptoPunk #1060 on Twitter and asked people who first came to mind:

Obviously this is not scientific and is biased by who follows me and what communities they spend time in but the point I was trying to make was pretty obvious. Chopper is a developer who is very active in web3 building open source software and helping to manage several overlapping communities. Chopper does not own CryptoPunk #1060. He does own CryptoPhunk #1060 and has used it as his avatar everywhere for more than a year to the point that this image, regardless of which way it’s facing, reminds people of him. For all intents and purposes, in the world of web3, it is him. This is aided by the fact that the “original” CryptoPunk is sitting unused in a wallet that hasn’t been active in over 3 years. Is it lost forever? Maybe. Could it suddenly be reactivated and sell tomorrow? Maybe. But what does that matter, because the association between the person and the imagery is already so strong. And this is far from the only example, I could easily do the same experiment with the photographer Ruff Draft. This leads to the question how much does authenticity matter, or does the entire notion of authenticity need to be revised in this context. What happens when the derivative becomes more recognizable than the original? What if someone with ill intent bought CryptoPunk #1060 and started using it as their avatar? What if somehow Chopper came into possession of CryptoPunk #1060, would he change his identity to face the other direction? I somehow doubt it. We know that the value of a CryptoPunk can be increased because of how it’s used, so could the value of one also be decreased because it’s not used, or because of how a derivative is being used?

I don’t think the answers to these questions are as cut and dry as many of us would like to believe, and that complicates the relationship between ownership and identity, as well as how much value (financial and social) words and concepts like “original” or “official” or “authentic” hold. If actions speak louder than words, does that apply to avatars as well? Is this a new example of “use it or lose it?” Earlier this week one of the most iconic and recognizable CrytpoPunks sold for $4.5 Million dollars to an anonymous buyer. The previous owner held it for almost 2 years but didn’t use it as his avatar – will the new owner embrace and put to use this newly acquired identity they just spent so much money on, or will they neglect it and let someone else usurp them?

Top 10 Misconceptions About V1 CryptoPunks

I’ve been a fan of and have written about CryptoPunks for a long time now. Ever since V1s resurfaced in early 2022 there’s been a lot of confusion around the collection. If that first sentence lost you, perhaps read my earlier article explaining CryptoPunk versions before going any further. As I get questions regularly from people and I see the same errors pop up, I thought it would be helpful to address some of the most common misconceptions, with citations, to help everyone better understand both the history and current events. I recognize this is somewhat of a controversial topic but I think everyone is better served by understanding the actual facts, rather than having to make decisions based on rumor. Here are the 10 things I see mixed up most often:

1. “They were never intended to be released” or “They were just a beta release”
This is probably the most widespread narrative and it’s incorrect. The V1 CryptoPunks contract was published on June 9th, 2017, and released to the public. Of course it wasn’t called “V1” at the time, it was just called “CryptoPunks” and for several weeks these were the only CryptoPunks that existed. This Mashable article, published on June 16, 2017, discusses the release and notes that they are still being claimed. It’s very clear from this article that this was a real release and not just a beta test or something accidentally published. The marketplace function on the CryptoPunks contract wasn’t enabled until they were all claimed which happened on June 17th, 2017 and it was at that point the marketplace bug was discovered. The V2 contract was published on June 23, 2017. Also telling, On March 4, 2018 Larva Labs filed a visual copyright registration for “CryptoPunks” citing a publication date of June 9th, 2017 – so in 2018 LarvaLabs is on legal record stating that CryptoPunks launched on June 9th, not June 23rd and that registration remains active today.

2. What exactly is “The Bug”?
What “The Bug” is: In the marketplace, eth from a sale is withdrawable by the buyer, not the seller.
What “The Bug” is not: A problem with the image, a broken token, a broken “picture frame”, an invalid NFT, a non-functional NFT, a backdoor to your wallet, etc etc etc…
Two points which need clarification here are 1) if you are not using the marketplace function, there is no problem with the V1 contract and no risk in holding the token; and 2) the marketplace actually functions exactly as it was written. The problem is that they way LarvaLabs wrote it and how they intended to write it, are different. This seems like nit picking but it’s an important detail LarvaLabs have expressed themselves repeatedly – this was the first solidity contract they ever wrote and they simply misunderstood how the code worked. It’s not a “ooops, we put the comma in the wrong place and broke it” kind of bug, it’s the “Well that works, it just works differently than we hoped it would work” kind of bug. If you would like to see exactly what was changed between the V1 & V2 CryptoPunks contracts this difference checker link makes it very easy to understand and see just how much additional code was added in the V2 contract.

Important Note: The marketplace in the V2 contract fixed the bug of the V1 marketplace so Ether from a sale properly goes to the seller now, and it added bidding which is massive new feature that didn’t exist in V1. That said, it also has its own “bug” in that bids can be frontrun and this happens regularly. What this means is Anne has a CryptoPunk but it’s not listed for sale. Billy makes a bid for it. Anne accepts the bid that Billy placed, but Chip was watching and using a script, instantly places a bid on Anne’s CryptoPunk that is a fraction of an eth higher than the bid Billy placed, and so Chip buys the CryptoPunk even though Anne accepted the bid placed by Billy. The marketplace can “accept bid” but it doesn’t specify which bid. This is a real problem that has caused a lot of heartbreak over the years, so it’s not like the V2 marketplace contract is somehow perfect either. This, as well as the lack of ability to place wETH bids on multiple CryptoPunks simultaneously (as is the norm on modern marketplaces) is a frequently discussed pain point.

3. Without a wrapper, V1 CryptoPunks have no image.
This one is slightly less straight forward only because most of our expectations are built on how modern NFTs (ERC-721 & ERC-1155 tokens) function. CryptoPunks predate these standards and are actually a modified ERC-20 token (more closely related to wETH, $APE, Matic, etc than to BAYC or CloneX) and unlike modern NFTs that each have their own image, both the V1 & V2 CryptoPunks contracts point to one single image that contains all 10k CryptoPunks. The token references a coordinate on that image and a web front end can then visualize which CryptoPunk in that one image the token is referencing. I must stress that this is the situation with V1 & V2 CryptoPunks. They are identical in this respect. Modern marketplaces like OpenSea or Rarible can display CryptoPunks because they’ve written custom code to handle the requirements of that specific contract function – something they’ve done because of the popularity of CryptoPunks. But this is also why you can’t buy or sell CryptoPunks on OpenSea or Rarible unless you first wrap them into an ERC-721 token. So again to be clear, when it comes to the image both the V1 & the V2 CryptoPunks function exactly the same, and in fact point to the exact same image.

4. What the V1 wrapper actually is/does, or “Wrapping it makes it no longer real”
As I mentioned in point 3, CryptoPunks are not ERC-721 tokens so they don’t work natively in environments designed for ERC-721 tokens. If you want them to, then you need to “wrap them” inside an ERC-721. Think of it like a box you might use for shipping something to a friend in another city. The wrapper holds the original CryptoPunk token and gives the holder an ERC-721 token which works natively in those environments. At any point the holder of the ERC-721 token can “unwrap” it and receive their original CryptoPunk token back. Since “the bug” is only in the marketplace function, wrapping it resolves this and allows the CryptoPunk to be traded safely on modern marketplaces. In fact this exact thing has been done for years with V2 CryptoPunks as well to allow them to be traded on other marketplaces. Both V1 & V2 CryptoPunks need to be wrapped in order to trade them on marketplaces like OpenSea, the only technical difference is that V2 CryptoPunks can also be traded on their own built in marketplace as well. A quick search on the CryptoPunks Discord shows that selling CryptoPunks on other marketplaces has been a recurring community ask going back many years.

5. “There was community consensus to migrate away from the V1 contract”
At the R.A.R.E. Digital Arts Festival in 2018 Matt Hall from LarvaLabs explicitly states on video that it was a controversial decision to make a V2 contract. Matt states that many people in the community felt that the thing they owned was in the V1 contract and the creation of a new contract would cause problems and complicate things (which it did, as evidence by the fact that I’m even writing this now in 2022), but he says they chose to ignore those concerns and “just hope for the best.” When they published the V2 contract they changed the official Marketplace to interact with the new contract rather than the old one, so the community had no actual choice but to move on with the new contract, for better or worse. A tweet by John during this time suggested they understood this forcing mechanism. This was not the last time Larva Labs would butt heads with their community and in their own statement regarding the recent sale of the CryptoPunks IP to Yuga Labs, they state “as this category of “Profile Picture Projects” (PFP) grew into an industry in itself, we found ourselves less and less suited to the operation of these projects. Our personalities and skill sets aren’t well suited to community management, public relations, and the day-to-day management” suggesting that “community consensus” was never something they were too deeply invested in.

6. Larva Labs (the artist) has disavowed V1s, and the artists intention matters most.
Matt & John at Larva Labs are brilliant artists who clearly have visionary foresight and have helped shape the world of digital collectables we know today, arguably more than any other artists. You can argue, as I have, that the entire current genre of 10k pfp collections are directly inspired by CryptoPunks. Another LarvaLabs project, Autoglyphs, is unquestionably the inspiration for a whole other genre of on-chain generative art now most commonly associated with Artblocks. What Matt & John are not is consistent with their statements. For example between 2017 and 2022 they made a number of conflicting and contradictory statements about what rights CryptoPunk owners had to their individual CryptoPunks, eventually resulting in some high profile community members walking away. In the 2018 video I mentioned previously, during the Q&A session at the end someone in the audience informs Matt that his claim that CryptoPunks were the first NFT on Ethereum is inaccurate as CurioCards launched several months earlier. Matt responds saying “Argh! We didn’t know so we just said it and figured if we were wrong someone would tell us, guess I have to change the slides now – so we were the second NFT.” Thanks to blockchain historians we now know that there were at least 8 NFT projects launched on Ethereum prior to CryptoPunks, but LarvaLabs never actually changed those slides, and continued making the claim that they were the first for several years. In fact the claim is still live on the welcome page of the CryptoPunks Discord server today.

My point here is that just because an artist says something about their work doesn’t necessarily make that true, nor does that always match what they said about their work before or what they might say about it later. I don’t think anyone would say “Well LarvaLabs intended CryptoPunks to be the first NFT on Ethereum, and they are the artist and intentions matter most, so they are the first even though others did it before them.” We are still bound by the laws of time and intentions don’t supersede that. It is unquestionably clear that statements by LarvaLabs about the V1 CryptoPunks in 2022 do not align with their own statements in 2017. To be perfectly honest, their statements in 2022 don’t even match their other statements in 2022. Early in the year they were found to be selling V1 CryptoPunks from their personal accounts while concurrently stating that they were “not official” from their brand account, and then filed a DMCA against the NFTs they’d just sold penalizing the people they sold them to. They apologized for this and recognized that selling something privately while also disavowing it publicly was problematic to say the least. There are two ways to read this, either they were intentionally committing fraud or they were just artists embarrassed about early work and misstepped while using “artistic license” to massage history a little bit. I tend to believe the later. And that’s fine, an artist can not decide they don’t like early work and that they don’t want to draw attention to it, but they can’t say early work that has already been sold to the public is no longer their work because they decide they don’t like it. Imagine if Damien Hirst said he no longer liked his Spots paintings and didn’t consider them to be official anymore? Would they suddenly no longer be Hirst paintings? No, they would simply be Hirst paintings that he doesn’t like.

7. “Hemba stole 1000 CryptoPunks” or “So many V1s were stolen that LarvaLabs had to start over to rescue them”
At this point we are venturing into lore and what is firmly classifiable as “scene drama” but let me try to cut through some of that with facts rather than emotional reactions. LarvaLabs themselves have stated that they don’t consider anything that happened with “the bug” to be theft, the contract worked exactly as they wrote it to work. No one hacked it or found a backdoor, it was not exploited or anything like that, it’s just that what the contract was written to do and what they had hoped it would do were different things.
Hemba was the largest single claimer of CryptoPunks, legitimately claiming over 1000 CryptoPunks the same way the every other claimer did between June 9th and June 17th. He was also one of several people who discovered “the bug” on June 17th and used the contract function to “buy” a number of CryptoPunks and then withdraw the ETH they’d just used to buy them. There were approximately 89 transactions where this happened and Hemba was responsible for 63 of them, so he has quite the reputation. However these transactions were reverted with the release of the V2 contract, and since then Hemba has made attempts to return the V1 CryptoPunks that he received without paying for them to the people who were selling them. To date he’s returned 40-something CryptoPunks and continues to actively try to contact people to return the rest.

8. “V1s are just a Hemba grift taking advantage of suckers” or “V1 Punks are just Phunks who…”
You may be starting to see a theme here, I don’t think that’s accidental. Controversial characters attract attention, and that leads to gossip but again let’s try to separate that from the facts. Hemba did not make nor commission the wrapper currently being used to trade V1s, it was made in early 2022 by a developer called FrankNFT. Nor is it the first wrapper for V1 CryptoPunks, as there was an earlier wrapper in use in 2021 made by 0xfoobar. Importantly, Hemba has not been selling pieces from his V1 CryptoPunk collection, even when the floor briefly reached 20 eth in early 2022. The majority of V1 holders are either original CryptoPunk claimers, collectors of historical NFTs or fans of CryptoPunks. People who are passionate about a subject often talk about it (as I do here) and this has wrongly been painted as shilling by detractors and sadly that narrative persists. Another related narrative is that somehow the team behind CryptoPhunks or Not Larva Labs is also leading the V1 CryptoPunk community – this is easily debunked but for some reason persists. This assumption likely comes from the fact that V1 CryptoPunks are available to trade on the Phunks’ marketplace Not Larva Labs. This was not a collaboration rather it was a dig by NLL at LarvaLabs that simply took advantage of the blockchain functionality – anyone can make a marketplace and chose to sell any NFTs they want. Some of the people involved with NLL were also behind “ApeMarket” (now part of the Yuga trademark lawsuit) but the fact that BAYC NFTs were planned to be for sale on ApeMarket doesn’t mean BAYC/Yuga was a collaborator. Correlation does not imply causation, it’s just how decentralization works.

9. “V1 Owners can’t use them as their PFP, that violates copyright”
This is one many people feel very passionately about though there’s little legal support for this position. While the new license terms provided for CryptoPunks by YugaLabs is much more detailed it does discuss rights which potentially do not exist. It would seem the authors of these terms know that as there are numerous caveats throughout with statements about rights with “if they exist” or “may exist” qualifiers. The hard evidence is that there is only one copyright registration on file for CryptoPunks and it’s for the entire image of all 10k CryptoPunks. Copyright lawyer Brian L. Frye has written a paper which questions if individual CryptoPunks meet the standards to be copyrighted, and a 2012 legal paper by Tyler Ochoa asserts that it’s unlikely that existing copyright law is applicable to avatars anyway. For most of the last 20 years people have used anything they want as an avatar on any number of services only occasionally bumping into an individual platform’s Terms of Use. My read is that if someone could file a copyright violation against someone else for an avatar we would have seen that plenty of times by now, so I think this claim is more wishful thinking than reality. But Twitter is full of people using CryptoPunks that they don’t own as avatars so if someone wants to file a lawsuit I’d be interested to see how it plays out.

10. “V1s aren’t real!”
This is easily the most subjective argument on the list, as it ultimately depends on what any individual defines as “real” for themselves. Even LarvaLabs in the height of their criticism and backpedaling stopped short of that claim, instead stating that they were not “official.” I think that the classification of V1 as the original and V2 as the official makes a lot of sense. I also think it’s important to recognize that “official” is a title bestowed by someone else, in theory Yuga Labs could make a wrapper for V2s so that they function natively in ERC-721 ecosystems and then declare that the wrapped version is now the official collection. Not that they would, but the point there is no decisions by companies or investors can change the “original” status, but “official” is a bit more flexible.

So what is “real”? For me, the V1 “CryptoPunks” contract was written by LarvaLabs, published to the Ethereum Blockchain, the tokens were distributed to the public, and they spoke to the press about it. That’s about as real as it possibly gets. One might even argue that’s more “real” than an NFT minted on a platform’s shared smart contract, or something like XCOPY’s Grifters which were minted through Async for example. As a collector who understands the importance of provenance, I always prefer that an artist mints their work from their own wallet (or one they control). In the art world there are two relevant examples that come to mind: The Warhol Foundation and Banksy’s Pest Control. Both organizations are tasked with validating works by the artists. Warhol and Banksy are both incredibly prolific and have a lot of fraudulent copies floating around so having an authoritative body which can say “yes this is real, no that is fake” is really helpful. With Warhol, there is work that was made in The Factory with Warhol’s screens by Warhol’s assistants and The Warhol Foundation needs to definitively say “yes that piece is technically identical to this other piece but it’s not ‘real’.” This gets tricky because in some cases Warhol had his assistants do the work for pieces that are considered “real.” Similarly Pest Control has made it clear that Banksy will not validate any of his street work that has been removed from the street. So Banksy could put a piece up, everyone knows it’s a Banksy, but then someone cuts that part of the wall out and tries to sell it and the official line from Pest Control is that it’s no longer a real Banksy. How will that policy hold up in 100 years? I think it’s hard to believe that will be honored in the long term. If we found a painting by van Gogh in an attic with a note from him saying “this sucks, I never should have painted it, I don’t consider it my work” would the art world collectively say “throw this crap in the trash!” or would they celebrate a “lost” van Gogh that had just been discovered, regardless of what the artist personally thought about it?

Those are extreme cases to illustrate some pretty fantastic grey area, however I think the beauty of the blockchain is that these issues are negated. If Warhol minted all his work there would be no question of something was his or not. If Banksy minted all his work similarly all questions of authenticity would disappear. Luckily with LarvaLabs they did mint their work, and the blockchain evidence is there to document it.

Conclusion and my prediction
At the risk of sounding dismissive I think the argument over what is “THE CRYPTOPUNKS” kind of loses the plot. This is history and culture and all of these things play into the big picture, regardless of what value any individual places on any single element. V1, V2, Larva, Yuga – these are all fascinating chapters in a much more interesting and larger story. I’ve stated publicly long before I ever owned V1 or V2 CryptoPunks that I think these are incredibly important cultural artifacts which have had immense impact on both how we think of digital identity and the concept of collectable art online. I now own both, and I imagine an increasing number of collectors will begin to seek out “pairs” as I have. Having the original and the official feels like a complete set. There’s something like 120-ish wallets right now with the V1 & V2 of the same CryptoPunk and I suspect that number is only going to keep growing. And what about Yuga? In a recent interview on the subject a Yuga representative stated that they have “no current plans” for V1s, but they also own over 1000 of them. They know there’s a vibrant and active V1 community, which has a quietly growing overlap to the V2 community. If nothing else I believe Yuga is interested in building community, not fighting against it the way Larva did and that interest will inform their future steps. My prediction is that this is something they will eventually capitalize on, possibly by creating their own wrapper for V1s and treating them like the Mutants to the BAYC, or maybe they will make their own wrapper for V2s to address the marketplace issues. I think most people still don’t understand what V1s even are, and as more people learn the history and context I can’t see how their popularity won’t continue to grow.

The only one thing I’m 100% sure of however is that no matter what I say about any of this, someone will criticize me for it. Oh well. I hope this you found this article to be helpful and I made this handy chart to help you navigate your own explorations of the NFT space:

Shelves WTF

After talking about it and thinking about it for months, weekend our family sat down and finished up a 3,333 piece generative NFT project, with my son doing the lion’s share of the art. He’s 12 now and has spent massive chunks of his life building amazing structures in Minecraft and we all really enjoy pixel art so it was natural for him to take the visual lead. Of course Tara and I contributed some art as well. While we love PFPs, we also wanted to do something a little different and based this project on bookshelves and the stories and inspiration they can hold. There’s a lot of fun stuff hidden in this collection as well as some 1/1s that we can’t wait to see who finds.

You can go mint at shelves.wtf

View the collection directly on OpenSea or check the verified contract on Etherscan or follow the project twitter account for news & updates. We used Bueno (a tool built by the Robotos team) to do the generative build and smart contract work and it was super smooth. We’re so excited to roll this out and see what stories this leads to next!

Marilyn and Punks and Art, Oh My!

The TL;DR that you need to know before I get into this is that CryptoPunks is a “digital collectable experiment” from 2017 which predates but is also credited with kicking off the whole NFT craze, in fact helping define the standard. I wrote about the different versions of them earlier this year. One could argue, and I do, that most of the biggest and most popular NFTs are derivatives in one way or another of CryptoPunks. Randomly generated from a collection of traits, there are 10K individual CryptoPunks which people often use as avatars. Separately, CryptoPhunks is a 2021 derivative project which literally copied the entire CryptoPunks collection and flipped it horizontally (in either a cash grab or protest, depending on who you talk to and at what point in the story you are referring to – I plan to write more about this in the future), creating a mirror image and kicking off a huge debate about appropriation, fair use and IP rights in this wild west of digital art.

The CryptoPunks collection is incredibly influential, having spawned hundreds/thousands of derivative projects as well as millions of nasty replies from haters on Twitter with accusations of being a “crypto bro” for anyone who dares use one as their avatar. They get referenced all the time in clickbait articles proclaiming shock and awe about how much one of them sold for recently. Point being, people know about them. As a connoisseur of culture with impeccable taste I’ve really enjoyed seeing the creativity they inspire and I’ve collected some of my favorite derivative works in this little virtual gallery if you want to look around. I’ll be expanding that in the near future but it’s still pretty interesting at the moment if you want to follow the thread of inspiration a bit.

Recently I discovered an artist called PIV who has been doing studies of CryptoPunks in relation to fine art, namely Abstract Modernism and work in that orbit. I picked up a piece called “Pablo Picasso” which references the famous 1953 photo of Picasso by André Villers. 

l: Villers 1953 / r: PIV 2022

For the less visual and more musically inclined this is like Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails “Hurt” or Guns N Roses covering Wings “Live And Let Die” or Redman referencing Cypress Hill with “Sawed Off Shotgun, Hand On The Pump.” It’s one artist giving a nod to another artist. If you know the reference it’s an immediate reward, if you don’t and you are curious it’s an invitation to discover work you might have missed. I love this kind of thing so fucking hard. So in this “Punkism” series PIV is very intentional with their work, limiting their palette to colors and pieces of CryptoPunks.

Putting CryptoPunks in this context of Pop Art is kind of brilliant especially when you consider the influence that Pop Art has on contemporary culture it’s hard to argue that CryptoPunks don’t have that same influence on digital art and culture right now. So it’s a fitting comparison. Obvious as it may be, you can’t talk about Pop Art without acknowledging Andy Warhol and indeed PIV did that directly but also almost in passing with an earlier work entitled “Six Marilyns.” This piece inspired a larger collaboration with Tom Lehman (former CEO of Genius.com which itself was previously Rap Genius and focused on annotating song lyrics to help people understand the references artists were making – just to bring that around even further). The pair teamed up to create a collection of “Marilyn Diptychs” which, using code most often used to create generative art like the CryptoPunks themselves, they made endless variations on a single CryptoPunk which itself looks a lot like Warhol’s Marilyn drawing a direct reference to Warhol’s diptych. 

Foundation Supports Him” PIV & Lehman, Generative 2022
A collection of “OC Marilyn Diptychs” by PIV & Lehman, 2022
Marilyn Diptych, Warhol, 1962

Let’s talk about Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych for a second – did you know this was not initially intended to be a diptych? Art collectors Burton and Emily Tremaine were visiting and saw the two pieces displayed next to each other and suggested that they should be paired, which immediately seemed like the obvious choice. But Warhol’s Marilyn image itself is worth spending some time with. I really like Tina Rivers Ryan’s description of the work, she writes:

“Warhol’s use of the silkscreen technique further “flattens” the star’s face. By screening broad planes of unmodulated color, the artist removes the gradual shading that creates a sense of three-dimensional volume, and suspends the actress in an abstract void. Through these choices, Warhol transforms the literal flatness of the paper-thin publicity photo into an emotional “flatness,” and the actress into a kind of automaton. In this way, the painting suggests that “Marilyn Monroe,” a manufactured star with a made-up name, is merely a one-dimensional (sex) symbol—perhaps not the most appropriate object of our almost religious devotion.”

“Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” Warhol, 1962

Like most of Warhol’s portraits he didn’t ask permission which occasionally caused legal issues, but also directly relates to the issues of appropriation and fair use that surround the CryptoPunks and many of their derivative works, and in fact one might say much of the entire NFT market. Warhol’s intentional repetition of his images, which would degrade over time as screens were used slightly changing each one, were meant to both desensitize people to the image, but also reclassify the icons already present in his audience’s cultural awareness. In many ways, a 10k avatar collection does much of the same things, though I’d argue that wasn’t the initial intent.

Coming back to these new Marilyn Diptychs and to play with the tech even further, if you own one of the diptych NFTs you can extract any of the individual Marilyns from the piece into its own profile picture/avatar which is now not only a derivative of Warhol but of the CryptoPunks as well. Again, I love this.

9 examples of “OC Marilyn PFP” by PIV & Lehman, 2022

But as I said before, this is conscious. It’s intentional. It’s humans seeing one thing and taking something else and bending it to look similar to the other thing. Which is the art of it all, but it also got me thinking about the generative aspect more.

As many of you know last year I collaborated with my longtime friend, artist Shepard Fairey, on a generative NFT project called DEGENERATE/REGENERATE where we used scans and elements and details from his previous work as well as some of his better known iconography and using this kind of generative tech came up with 7400 individual pieces that are randomly generated but true to his aesthetic. They looked great, which we expected, but what we didn’t expect was that they would combine some of his work in ways he hadn’t previously considered sparking new inspiration which he’s taking back to his physical work. So you have this cycle of inspiration – human inspiring the computer, the computer then inspiring the human. The ever evolving body of work now has DNA from both going forward. It’s pretty exciting and I expect you’ll hear more directly from him about that in the future. But I’m getting off the point, which is about the ghost in the machine, so to speak.

PIV’s work is intentional. They consciously decided to make art that references other art. But CryptoPunks are not intentionally referencing other art. They are just a collection of individual traits – hair color, style, eyes, mouth, glasses, etc thrown into a generator which was told to spit out a 100×100 grid with 10,000 individual combinations (This is a little known fun fact, unlike most avatar NFT collections today which generate 10,000 individual images, CryptoPunks is just one single image with a grid of the individual punks). It was an art experiment – no one knew how it would work out or where it would lead.

CryptoPunks, LarvaLabs, 2017

This got me curious, without the human hand and intention – could I find a similar but unintentional reference? I narrowed down the traits to sort through and began hunting, eventually landing on CryptoPunk #3725 which is, to my eye, damn close to Warhol’s Marilyn. The only real discrepancy being the green eye shadow. Blue would have been better and there is a blue eye shadow trait but it doesn’t appear with the rest of these traits – the mole, the blond hair, pale skin, etc anywhere in the original 10k CryptoPunks collection. But there was something about it that still wasn’t right. It was facing the wrong way. I immediately thought of CryptoPhunk #3725.

l: CryptoPunk 3725 (2017) / c: Warhol’s Marilyn (1962) / r: CryptoPhunk 3725 (2021)

It’s perfect right?

I get so excited thinking about the randomness that led to its creation. A script blindly and emotionlessly assembles a hodgepodge of traits – essentially a realization of the infinite monkey theorem –  and makes an almost perfect match. Years later a reactionary protest act puts on the finishing touch. Neither of these two actions intend on this result, but we end up here nonetheless.

I knew it was a crazy long shot but I reached out to the owner of Phunk 3725 and made an offer. To my surprise and delight, they accepted and I am now the owner of Phunk 3725. This piece draws a direct, yet accidental, connection between these two eras of art. It’s incredibly important, and I’m psyched to be its caretaker.

Explaining Cryptopunks Versions

Since it’s been a topic I’ve been yapping about recently a few people asked me for a quick explainer on all the Cryptopunks V1/V2 stuff so the other night I did just that in a Twitter thread but I thought I’d turn it into a blog post as well for easier future reference.

If you’ve spent 4 seconds in the NFT space or 4 seconds near the NFT space or just know some people have some crypto art or something you’ve seen Cryptopunks so I’m going to assume you know what I’m talking about when I say “punk” in this context. There’s no questioning the influence and significance of cryptopunks, there are a bazillion derivatives and they have made headlines for selling for bazillions of dollars. Hours ago in fact Punk #5822 sold for 8000Ξ which today converts to just shy of $23 Million USD. So yeah, they are pretty famous, and it’s important to understand that fame happened almost exclusively in 2021. Cryptopunks were actually released in 2017 and for most of that time very few people cared about them. Towards the end of 2020 people really started going after them and in 2021 they went nuts. But the cryptopunks everyone thinks of are actually the second version (V2).

Going back to 2017, a company called Larva Labs put Cryptopunks online as free to claim and promised the ability to trade/buy/sell them after they were all claimed. It took a few days/weeks for that to happen and once they were all claimed people started trying to trade them. But there was a problem. A bug in the code meant that if you tried to sell a punk the buyer got the punk AND the eth from the sale, leaving the seller with nothing. This is obviously a problem and as soon as it was found Larva Labs said “wait! Don’t trade them yet” and started working on a fix. Because things on the blockchain are immutable they couldn’t really “fix” the punk that were already out in the world, so they made new ones. They airdropped the new (V2) punks to everyone who had claimed the original (V1) punks and figured that was that. Potentially important detail: Larva Labs didn’t send the new punks to the the current punk holders – they sent them to the claimers. So if you claimed a V1 punk and gave it to a friend, you got the V2 punk, they didn’t.

Because the V1 punks were not really sellable everyone kind of forgot about them, and all focus was put on the V2 ones that people could easily trade. It’s worth noting that punks predate the ERC-721 NFT standard we know and love today. Cryptopunks are in fact ERC-20 tokens. In order for Cryptopunks (or any other pre-ERC-721 NFT like Mooncat Rescue) tokens to be traded on NFT marketplaces like OpenSea they need to be wrapped inside of an ERC-721 token. Wrapping is confusing but also really straight forward. It’s just putting one token inside of another. You’ve probably seen WETH which is just Wrapped ETH. Here are a bunch of V2 Cryptopunks that have been wrapped for example, and here’s LarvaLabs recognizing them. That’s apparently an important detail as some have suggested that wrapping changes or somehow negates the NFT that is being wrapped, which obviously isn’t the case. The socks your mother bought you for your birthday don’t cease to be socks when she wraps them in wrapping paper – same idea here. Anyway, for years people were happily buying and selling V2 cryptopunks both wrapped and unwrapped. But they just called them “Cryptopunks” and not “V2 Cryptopunks” because they were the only ones being traded so it was obvious what you meant. But in 2021 some people started working on a wrapper for the V1 Cryptopunks so they could be traded as well. This is where things get interesting. If you look at the incredible timeline Leonidas has assembled you’ll note that Cryptopunks is the very first 10k Avatar project on the Ethereum blockchain.

Despite claims made by lots of people, notably Larva Labs themselves, Cryptopunks are not the first NFT, but they are the first 10k avatar project. But now suddenly you have 2 Cryptopunk collections in motion. Both made by the same company, both pointing to the same art. Released within weeks of each other. Fun fact, the V1 contract calls them “cryptopunks” but the “fixed” V2 contract calls them “cryptopunksmarket” – anyway, with V1s being safely wrapped inside an ERC-721 wrapper they can now be traded, and people started trading them. Anyone who has spent any time around collectors knows that an error or a misprint or a fuckup is always super desirable – and that’s how people started to think of the V1s. They are this mostly forgotten mistake, which is appealing to some people.

And especially if you have cryptopunks because they are historically important as a lot of people claim to, then this original version of the cryptopunks released a few weeks earlier is SUPER INTERESTING! (all caps for emphasis). This is where things which are seemingly clear get really messy quickly. LarvaLabs has an unclear relationship with the IP of the Cryptopunks. I wrote a bit about this last year in relation to their reactions to some derivative projects

Long story short on that, when Ryder Ripps made his derivative Cryptopunk LarvaLabs sent a DMCA notice to Foundation, Ryder contested it and LarvaLabs couldn’t support their infringement claim and the DMCA was dropped. That hasn’t stopped them from sending lots of DMCA notices though. Most people never appeal the DMCA so that is the end of it, but since Ryder did and won his appeal, it’s suddenly very interesting and there is question if LarvaLabs could even own the IP at all.

From their end, LarvaLabs didn’t have a license in place before they distributed them and have taken different and conflicting positions on the matter over the years, so there’s just nothing clear to fall back on which is why it’s such a grey area. 19/ Anyway, jumping back to now – V1 and V2 Cryptopunks are now on the market. Anyone with a V1 cryptopunk who couldn’t trade it before can now safely wrap it and then sell it. Guess who had a lot of V1 Cryptopunks? LarvaLabs. In what is now largely seen as a “bad move” LarvaLabs secretly wrapped a bunch of V1 cryptopunks and sold them for a couple hundred ETH. Then went on the attack saying that V1 punks were not legitimate.

As an aside, last year I wrote about how Blockchains have the potential to become social archives, and the documented provenance for each NFT might end up telling interesting stories about the history of specific NFTs and that’s exactly what just happened here. The 39 V1 Cryptopunks that were wrapped and sold by LarvaLabs are already being referred to as the “rainforrest punks” and have become especially desirable among some collectors in what is basically the Streisand Effect for Web3.

So LarvaLabs then sent a DMCA to OpenSea as they have been known to do, and OpenSea complied by taking down the listing for the V1 punks. Now if you’ve been following along this far you know that V1 punks were made by LarvaLabs. So they kind of just DMCA’d themselves. This is akin to Nike making shoes with a white swoosh, selling them and then deciding they want the swoosh to be red and then claiming infringement against someone who bought the white swoosh Nikes trying to resell them on ebay. In other words it makes no sense. V1 punks were made and sold by LarvaLabs. They can’t decide after they are already sold that they don’t like them and then claim they aren’t real, or that the secondary market is infringement. So of course the DMCA notice was appealed

That happened yesterday, so now LarvaLabs has 10 days to respond (or not) until we get to the next chapter in however this plays out. At the moment V1 punks are not being sold on OpenSea but are being sold on their own marketplace and on LooksRare. I don’t know if those sites received DMCAs and just ignored them or if they didn’t receive anything, doesn’t really matter though. What happens next however is going to have very serious implications no matter which way it goes. If the DMCA is upheld the secondary market for almost all NFTs is suddenly in legal question. If the DMCA is dropped LarvaLabs will have to accept that their flagship IP isn’t as locked down as they thought, and that there are now 2x as many cryptopunks out there.

Interestingly enough, V2 punk owners have been complaining about how LarvaLabs has been handling IP for quite a while now leading a number of high profile punk owners to sell theirs in protest. So in some ways V1 & V2 owners have a common foe. Though maybe foe is too strong a word. LarvaLabs did make these cool avatars which everyone loves, even if their community relations/communication has been a bit lacking since then. And a lot of V2 owners actually own V1s as well, so it’s not really 2 different audiences.

March Update: In an unexpected surprise turn of events LarvaLabs announced that they sold the IP for CryptoPunks to Yuga Labs, producers of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, who immediately announced that they would not be pursuing any of the DMCAs filed by LarvaLabs and also that they would be granting commercial rights to CryptoPunk owners. As part of the deal LarvaLabs transferred their CryptoPunks to Yuga, including some 1000 V1 punks. Almost immediately the V1 collection was reinstated on OpenSea.

But what about V3? V3 Punks is a totally unrelated project created by unrelated fans. It’s just a fun nod to the whole project distinguishing itself as different but also promoting unity and joy, which is kind of nice. Personally I’ve really enjoyed the very rich derivative world that Cryptopunks has spawned and I think the project is incredibly significant. I’ve bought pieces from a lot of the so called “shitpunk” derivative projects over the last year. I also really nerd out about the IP stuff which is obvious from last years article. I bought some V3s because I think it’s fun and I recently traded an NFT I received for free for a V1 because I think it’s a cool piece of history. I have no idea where this will go, or how that will impact values of anything. None of what I’m talking about should be seen as endorsements or speculation, but I find it super fascinating and look at it kind of like collector memorabilia. Anyway, that’s my quick catch up. We’ll see what happens next!

The Floor Is A Myth

Let’s talk about NFT projects and “the floor.” As you likely know “the floor” is the absolute lowest price at which you can buy a piece from an artist or from a collection right this very second. This comes from the “price floor” idea in the Law of Supply and Demand where there is a minimum viable price that something must be sold for in order to cover the costs of supplying it. With digital artwork you have different production concerns so “price floor” became “floor price” and is now just called “the floor.” Let’s unpack this a bit more.

First and foremost it’s important to understand that the value of anything is decided by two people. The buyer, and the seller. Other people might have an opinion about it but that doesn’t matter. If I want to sell you something and you agree to the price, it irrelevant if your neighbor thinks that’s a good price. With retail prices of various products a significant amount of work is done to decide what the public will accept as a reasonable price. With used, secondary, etc sales it is more hands on. Craigslists, eBay, your local farmers market, a yard sale, whatever – all of this commerce depends on just two people agreeing on a price and it’s understood that sale stands alone and it’s indicative of an entire market. This is why people walk away from a yard sale saying “I got such a good deal on this lamp!” rather than “I can’t believe the floor price on hammers is crashing.”

I should take a moment to give some context as to why I think I’m qualified to run my mouth about shit like this. Between 1999 and 2007 I co-owned and operated an art gallery called sixspace, originally in Chicago and then later in Los Angeles. We produced monthly exhibitions by many artists including some that we directly managed as well. In addition to our in-house exhibitions we also collaborated with other galleries on events and participated in global art fairs. After the gallery closed I maintained relationships with both artists and collectors which have turned into multi-decade friendships. An art collector myself, I began buying work from artists and galleries in the mid 90’s and nearing 30 years later almost every inch of my living space (and probably too much storage space) is filled with art. So while I agree that the NFT space is too new to have experts about any of it, I have a lifetime of experience buying and selling art.

Like all art, most NFTs are illiquid. This means just because someone wants to buy something doesn’t mean there is anything available at a price they are willing to pay. Similarly just because someone wants to sell something doesn’t mean there is anyone willing to pay the price they are asking. I own pieces by world famous artists and if I wanted to sell them It would take weeks/months of working with dealers and/or other collectors to find someone who wanted to buy them at a price I’d be comfortable taking. That’s illiquidity. If it was liquid I would just snap and they would be sold but that’s not how most art works.

With stocks or other investments it’s less of an issue as all shares are equal, with artwork there are more details to consider. Not the least of which is aesthetics, that is what does this piece of art actually look like? Not everyone buys or sells art for the same reason. Not every single piece created by an artist is the same. In the physical art world there are artists I love with pieces I’ve chosen not to buy because they just didn’t work for me personally. Maybe the color or the theme or something was just not to my taste, but another piece by the same artist was a direct hit. With NFTs, especially with larger collections how it looks plays into what someone is planning to do with it, as does various functions or rarities – so trying to project the demand for any one piece onto an entire body of work is a mistake. 

Additionally, “the floor” lacks any context. It is ignorant of what other sales might be happening in an artists body of work (or in this case an NFT collection), it is ignorant of what personal, medical or business issues might be going on in the sellers life. The assertion that “the floor” says anything about anything other than what one person is willing to sell a piece for is absolute ignorance. And because these works are largely illiquid, if someone needs to get liquid fast – perhaps they have another opportunity they’d rather pursue or an emergency medical expense or any number of millions of reasons they might want to sell, this often means they are going to have to sell something below it’s potential value. Because again, lack of context. If a work is offered for sale for $1000 and someone buys it for $1000, all anyone knows is that it sold for $1000. Maybe the buyer would have paid $1500. Maybe the seller was willing to go down to $500. Who knows? Conversely, the very fact that a piece is available to be purchased at a “floor” price means currently, at this moment, no one is willing to pay that price being asked. If they were, it wouldn’t be for sale, it would be sold. So at any given moment “the floor” can be above or below the actual value of the work. Sometimes both at the same time.

Much more useful metrics for gauging current demand for a project are average sale price over some period of time (24h, 7d, 30d, etc which takes into account all the mid and higher end sales missed in “floor” discussions), what % of the collection is for sale and how that is changing over time (a decreasing % shows increasing demand), and how distributed the collection is. Do a few people own all of them (bad) or do lots of people own a few of them (good)? There are tools like Nansen, Icy and others which are helpful for a more comprehensive understanding.

Traders, flippers and speculators would have you believe otherwise. In any given project community would-be investors try to convince everyone listening that the “floor” is the end all be all metric for determining success or failure. The same people obsessing about “the floor” are the ones demanding roadmaps and asking about utility. Could you imagine anything more absurd than walking into an art gallery, walking up to an artist and demanding they tell you about their roadmap? Or saying “This is a lovely painting, I know exactly the place I want to hang it in my living room – but first can you tell me what the utility of this is?” Or, more egregious of all, contacting an artist and saying “I bought a piece from your gallery exhibition last year, what are you doing today to increase the value of it?”

If someone came into my gallery asking something like that I’d throw them out on the street.

An artist’s job is to make art. Making more art is the only roadmap they need. End of story. The work they made yesterday benefits and is complimented by the work they make tomorrow. Demand for work they made yesterday is increased by the work they make tomorrow. If you are worried about or trying increase the value of art work you own, hounding the artist is a waste of your time. You are distracting them from doing the one thing they are best suited to do, making art. What you can and should be doing is finding a way to increase demand for that artists work. Tell your friends, talk about why you love it, what attracted you to the work in the first place, why did you decide to buy it? As a collector, I love hearing these things from other collectors, and I’ve bought a lot of work because another collector tipped me off to something incredible. This is good for the artist, the collectors, the market and valuations.

You know what isn’t good for the artist, the collectors, the market or valuations? Crying about “the floor.” When I’m looking into a project if I see people throwing a fit about “the floor” I know that a lot of the owners bought in for the wrong reason and will be dumping soon so I would be stupid to buy in at whatever prices are offered today, rest assured they will be lower tomorrow. On the other hand when I discover something see collectors talking about how much they love the work, love the artist, love the project, I kick myself for not learning about it earlier. And because I know this, when I do see someone having a panic attack about “the floor” I know only one of two things can be true – either they are purposely trying to sabotage the valuations to drive prices down (potentially so they can buy in at a lower price) or they are an idiot. In either case, I know right away to ignore anything they say.

This all holds true in the regular art world where sales take days, weeks, sometimes months to complete. In the Digital/NFT space where sales happen in minutes, sometimes in seconds it’s even more true. Manipulation is real, and so are idiots. It’s best to avoid both. Buy art you love, by artists you respect. Do that, and you’ll never be disappointed.

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!

OpenSea And The Problem With Verification

Yesterday I was talking about a cute new digital collectable collection on OpenSea that I was considering buying into, noting that there were 10k which had recently sold out and the cheapest ones were getting more expensive by the minute. Tara was sitting across from me at the breakfast table checking it out as well. We talked about how cute they were and sent a few back and forth to look at. As Tara was getting ready to buy one she asked “wait, why are there only 800 of these, are they still minting them?” We quickly realized that she was looking at a fraudulent collection that had been named almost identically with only one extra letter, but was coming up first in the search results. I immediately sent a tweet to Nate Chastain who is Head of Product at OpenSea and he pulled down the fraudulent account right away. Unfortunately it looked like 30 or 40 people had already fallen for the scam while it was active, and for those people there’s no way recourse or way to get their money back. Had the real account been verified it’s probably safe to say that none of those people would have been scammed, it was only because Tara happened to notice the difference that we didn’t fall for it ourselves. And how long would it have stayed up if someone who knew who to reach out to on Twitter didn’t spot it?

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened with OpenSea, in fact it happens regularly – and much of that can be blamed on how OpenSea handles verification. And because transactions happen instantly, even if a scam is found pretty quickly the money has already been transferred to the scammer with no way to get it back. Essentially they have created a situation with high reward and low risk for scammers to just keep setting up fake accounts and collecting Ξ every single day.

But let’s step back for moment and look at how we got into this mess. Verification as we think of it today both began with and is the fault of Twitter. In 2009 Twitter was sued by Tony La Russa relating to a fake account in his name, and while the suit was eventually dropped Twitter instituted Verified Accounts in the wake of that suit to give them a solution for the future. Years earlier Friendster had gone to war with the so called Fakesters by just banning accounts left and right, which is arguably what caused people to flee that site in favor of MySpace. Following that lead, Twitter had been applauded for taking a more permissive approach to free speech / parody and in theory this step allowed them to keep doing that. You might think this was a good move and had it been rolled out as promised it might have been, but rather than being used to, you know, actually verify an account was who it was claiming to be, Twitter decided to monetize the feature. I wrote about this back in 2015 as one of the big problems on the site at the time, but essentially they gave verifications away to famous people to make it desirable and they would use a few verifications as a lure to companies to get them to buy ads. They also began threatening to remove verification for accounts they deemed to be in violation of their TOS. This had a terrible impact on the public perception of “verified” and instead of seeing it as “this account is who is who it is claiming to be” people began to see it as a kind of endorsement. It took many years of very loud objection to this by many people before eventually Twitter came around and stopped using it as a prize and published a clear set of criteria which allowed non-celebrities or paying customers to get the prized blue checkmark. Anyone can now apply to be verified and Twitter’s official position is that it is not an endorsement but rather confirms they have seen evidence that proves the account is or represents who it claims to. This is a good thing.

Conversely Instagram is still very much doing the “We verify accounts on a case by case basis, but we won’t tell you what our criteria is” thing which leads to incredibly high profile people unable to get verified and regular scams taking place on the app. I’ll skip the breakdown about how every other site handles this and get right to the obvious point – Verified should mean exactly that. The account has been verified. It is who it claims to be. That the site has seen enough evidence to confirm identity. End of story. It should not be seen as an endorsement, or used in an editorial manor. It shouldn’t be weaponized. And to be very clear, when a site decides to have a vague policy that is enforced on a case by case basis, that’s what they are doing – and it directly harms the community. Ironically, almost every site doing this claims to be doing it to protect their users. I know because I’ve talked with most of them. They care, but they are misdirected.

Which brings us back to OpenSea. I’ve written about different issues on OpenSea many times this year but if you are new to this let me quickly summarize that they are the absolute largest NFT marketplace by user base and have raised more venture capitol than any of the other competing site. Unfortunately from an outside view, teams appear to have a fraction of the resources they need to get anything done. I will say that this has taken a significant step in the right direction with the addition of Nate Chastain who I mentioned above. Prior to his hiring the only way I could get any comment or issue addressed was to DM with one of several anonymous team members on Twitter who would promise me they would try to get the person “in charge” to do something and then cross my fingers and hope that it would work out. It did about 50% of the time. Now with Nate I can tweet publicly with a real person and get a comment or an issue addressed 100% of the time. That’s a wonderful step forward, but still incredibly problematic. OpenSea recently raised $100 Million on a $1.5 Billion valuation–that the Head of Product has to personally handle support requests sent to him on his personal Twitter is fucking ridiculous. I appreciate the personal touch of course, but come on–It’s not fair to him, and it’s not fair to the community. With that said, I truly believe Nate is trying to do the right thing, but I also think OpenSea’s policies are misdirected. And while misdirected policies on social media sites can lead to difficult social situations, misdirected policies on market places also end up costing people real money.

So what are those policies? Thats a good question and it seems to be somewhat fluid. To begin with, OpenSea has 2 different and separate kinds of verification. Account level – are you who you say you are, and Collection level – Is this a legitimate project or not? (To sell an NFT on OpenSea you have to make a Collection for it to live in). I’m verified on Twitter, and after connecting my OpenSea account to my Twitter account and tweeting out something OpenSea was able to confirm I was who I said I was and verified my account there as well. You might think that if OpenSea is confident enough in what they know about who I am that they can verify my account that they would use that information to automatically verify my collections. That would make sense, but that is not the case. Collections are verified separately and somewhat arbitrarily. Earlier this year only verified collections turned up in search results. Documents on OpenSea’s site recommended after you create your collection you tweet the link to them or post it in their discord and they would then verify it. That got overwhelming quickly and the backlog became insane, so they changed to allow all collections in the search results, but buying from an unverified collection gives you a popup saying that OpenSea hasn’t had a chance to verify it yet. But due to the sheer numbers of listings being added every day you are much more likely to see that popup than not, so it’s become easily ignorable noise – just enough for OpenSea to waive responsibility for people who get scammed.

These verifications before seemed to be based on someone looking at the collection and seeing if it looked on the up and up and then hitting OK. But that’s changed and OpenSea is now treating Collection verification as an endorsement. Officially, you can no longer request that your collection be verified. Instead, collections are supposedly verified after hitting a completely arbitrary bar of 100Ξ in sales volume, but there are “other ways” to get verified as well. Like being a celebrity (but not a famous artist). Or asking on Twitter. (And that doesn’t even begin to address the problem that tying authenticity to a sales number disadvantages lower priced work made in smaller numbers, in favor of higher priced work made in bulk – which suggests OpenSea is more concerned with how much money they are going to make and less about protecting people from scams.) In addition to having a verified account, other things that will not get you a verified collection include having other verified collections (every new collection has to start from 0), having impersonators actively scamming people by pretending to be you, or making what they consider to be an homage or derivative art. That last one is most troubling because all art is derivative, so this means someone has to make call about what they think is too derivative which means individual people are projecting their personal biases onto a system that is designed to protect people. This means if you like a project that individual employees at OpenSea don’t, they are less concerned with protecting you. I’m sure OpenSea doesn’t see it that way because they don’t want to think that their policies are hurting people, but thats exactly what is going on.

I’ve written before about the issues OpenSea has been dealing with in relation to struggles over IP, so their concern is fair, but all the more reason why they shouldn’t be getting involved with editorial decisions and stick to separating scams from legitimate projects. Let’s look at some cats as an example. Stoner Cats is a high profile celebrity backed project that received a mixed reception from the NFT community, including a competing parody project conceived and launched in 24 hours called Blazed Cats. Both projects are algorithmically generated collections of 10,000 images. On the Blazed Cats website they make many references to Stoner Cats, proudly declare their project as reactionary one-upsmanship and repeatedly refer to themselves as a parody. OpenSea did not rule this as an homage and verified it. Conversely, PunkCats is a collection of original hand made illustrations with the concept of being the matching pet to arguably the most famous NFT project ever, CryptoPunks. In fact several CryptoPunk owners reached out to the artist while they were being drawn and commissioned a cat to match their punk. OpenSea initially declined to verify the collection because it hadn’t hit the 100Ξ bar, but once it did (currently over 300Ξ in volume) they decided it was not transformative enough, too much of an homage and refused to verify it. In this case it’s clear that the decisions are both arbitrary and also reflective of individual biases. According to OpenSea, a pixel human head and neck and a full body of a cat are the same thing, but two full body cartoon cats standing on their hind legs and holding (or not holding) similar accessories in the same way are totally different.

Makes you wonder what other art OpenSea would deem too much of an homage and not worthy of verification?

The truth is I could nit-pick this for hours. I have hundreds of screenshots and links to support my argument that OpenSea is not uniformly applying their policy across all projects and instead making personal judgement calls on a case by case basis. Which is literally the only thing they can do to enforce editorial policies like that. This is unscalable and it’s not what they should be doing anyway. OpenSea should not be making judgement calls about IP, or deciding what is or isn’t a homage or is or isn’t derivative enough. That’s not their business and they shouldn’t be getting mixed up in it. They are a market place and their responsibility is to their customers who they should be trying to protect by verifying what is a legitimate project run by a known individual or company and sussing out the frauds and scammers. By creating these arbitrary rules and moving goal posts around, they are creating the absolute perfect environment for scammers to prey on their customers, and they are only able to react after the fact – after people have been scammed and money has been lost.

Make no mistake: The way OpenSea currently looks at verification makes it very easy for people to be scammed, and every single day they continue in that direction they are allowing those scams to persist, and people to be harmed because of it.

I’ve said this on Twitter but I’ll say it again here: OpenSea needs to immediately drop the 100Ξ barrier to verification and make collection verification a subset of account verification. Once someone meets the reasonable requirements for account verification, any collection they create should be automatically verified. This way new collections by known creators are verified the first second they make something available, and there’s no window for scammer to sneak in. Funds from the first 24 hours of sales on unverified accounts or collections should be held in escrow so that if a scam is detected people can get their money back. Anyone caught intentionally posting fraudulent work or scamming people should have their entire account banned. OpenSea should defer all IP claims to existing copyright law, they should let people files notices and appeals and respond accordingly, but they should not be responding to “requests” from people who may or may not have legal grounds to make those requests, nor be making judgement calls on their own. They should recognize that as an art market, all art is derivative and they should immediately stop acting like they are in a position to decide who’s ideas are original enough. They should also use some of those massive piles of cash they have to hire a proper staff to manage all this so that individual employees are not expected to deal with issues brought to them over Twitter.