Art

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.

Apes, Punks & Phunks: Adventures from the frontlines of the IP wars

Gather ’round kids, exciting and fascinating drama is afoot and you know you want to hear all about it. Assuming you are excited and fascinated by IP shenanigans, because really who isn’t right? While I want to just charge right into the theft and murder, oh yes dear reader there is theft and murder, I worry that I sometimes go to fast and leave people behind. So I’m just going to assume that you understand that copyright means the copyright holder (often the creator, but not always) retains all rights and no one else can do anything, and conversely public domain means no one retains any rights and anyone can do anything. Between those two extremes there’s a million miles of grey area which has been somewhat navigated by Creative Commons, who create copyright licenses that intentionally wave some rights while retaining others with the intention of fostering creativity and sharing. For example this blog post is published under a CC-BY license which means while I retain copyright or my words, I also allow anyone to use my words, expand on them or make derivative works and even sell that so long as they credit me as the original creator. Which is super totally cool. I’ve stumbled across my work in countless places, and people have ended up here because they saw something I wrote somewhere else and followed the breadcrumbs. Thanks Creative Commons!

OK, getting back to the juicy stuff. A very popular thing happening in the NFT space right now is for people selling large collectors of Avatars to grant commercial and derivative rights to anyone who buys those NFTs. I haven’t seen any using Creative Commons, because that would be easy and straight forward. Instead most often they have some hacky chopped together Terms of Service filled with rando copypasta from various other projects and it’s confusing AF. The gist being if you buy an NFT you can use it in other work and sell that work without issue. Essentially they are transferring the IP rights to the buyer, which has created a vibrant market for derivative works, and is helping fuel the overall growth of not just individual projects but also the entire NFT community and ecosystem. So this is a good thing.

But as we know, nothing is ever as straight forward as it seems. And this is where shit starts getting messy.

For a few months everyone was trucking along peacefully making derivative work of NFTs they bought that allowed such a thing, and everyone was happy and there were flowers and rolling fields of green grass and sunshine and then Taylor.wtf burned an ape. Taylor is an artist/musician/producer and also a shit disturbing agent of chaos. He’s a friend of mine and I say that as a high compliment and would encourage everyone reading this to aspire to such a description. In NFT parlance, “burning” something is to intentionally send it to a wallet that no one has access to—essentially removing it from circulation. When I say “an ape” I mean one of the Bored Ape NFTs made by the Bored Ape Yacht Club (arguably the hottest and fastest growing avatar collection at the moment). So he burned an ape and then put a video art project of that Bored Ape being set on fire up for auction on OpenSea (the largest NFT marketplace). At first people were just shocked that he’d burnt an ape (as they were trading for about $4k each at the time – though burning money is a long established form of conceptual art perhaps most famously employed by The KLF who literally burned a million GBP) but it got much more interesting when BAYC filed a DMCA notice and had the fire video taken down.

Still from Taylor.wtf’s Burning Ape

Their position was that as Taylor had burned the Ape before releasing the video, he was no longer the owner and thus no longer had rights to use the work. However! As they were not the owner anymore either it’s questionable about why they felt the need to intervene, which they clarified by saying they were doing so with respect to the current owner – and would do the same for any ape transferred from one party to another if the previous owner kept using it. However however! Since the ape was burned, by all understanding it has no owner, so whose rights were BYAC defending? No one came forward claiming to own that wallet and protesting, and no one could prove that the wallet wasn’t actually Taylors. Or, anyone else who might claim to own it. Point being, no one said “I own this thing and I object to how it’s being used by someone else.” Once this came to light it seems BYAC realized this was a huge steaming pile of shit they’d walked into, and cautiously backed out of it. The video was re-listed elsewhere without protest and remains online.

CryptoPunks

While Bored Apes are one of the hottest new Avatar projects, the grand daddy of them all is unquestionably Crypto Punks. It would just be bad form not to include them in this drama fest, luckily they are a magnet for it all. Let’s start with CryptoPunk #3100 – currently the highest selling Punk which sold earlier this year for 4,200 ETH or effectively just shy of $9 Million. There’s been much discussion about how an NFT is the token, and the image attached is just representative of the token – that is when you buy an NFT you aren’t buying that image so much as the digital token on the blockchain which is represented by that image. The conceptual artist Ryder Ripps decided to play with this idea by pointing out that the image representing the original CryptoPunks was a 24×24 pixel graphic entirely generated by a script. Ryder recreated #3100 by hand in 4000×4000 and minted it on several platforms. Same image on each, but each being a different token, different contract, and thus a different NFT. An interesting experiment that got much more interesting when Foundation was served with a DMCA notice by Larva Labs, the company who made CryptoPunks, and were forced to delist Ryder’s NFT. One might think “serves them right, that was obviously plagiarism” and many did in fact think that, but it seems many people don’t know about fair use and parody and this is where it got much more interesting- Ryder appealed the take down. You see, under the DMCA, a copyright holder can issue a take down notice to any service if they feel their IP is being infringed upon and the site has to immediately remove the infringing work, however if creator of the work that was taken down believes the action was erroneous, they can file an appeal and this puts the onus back on the company or person who filed the DMCA notice originally – and they now have 10 days to file a lawsuit supporting their claims – if they don’t they then are essentially conceding that they don’t have the legal position to support their initial action and the site in question is free to reinstate whatever was taken down. And again, because US Copyright law does specifically call out fair use and parody, Larva Labs backed down and Foundation has just reinstated Ryder’s Punks.

Rider Ripp’s CryptoPunk #3100

This is a pretty decisive victory and will likely be taken into account going forward, however there’s another very related situation at play that was going on before all this went down and came to a head before this was resolved. Enter the CryptoPhunks. Who make it very clear in their manifesto that this project is social commentary and a parody aimed at “flipping off the punks.” While Ryder essentially just scaled up the image of a punk in his work, the Phunks actually changed the art. Is it a significant change? That’s up for interpretation but when you are talking about a source image that is only 576 pixels to begin with, how much of a change is needed for it to be significant? Most notably, while all 10,000 CryptoPunks are facing right, the CryptoPhunks are facing left. While this was criticized as a “low effort rip off” by more than a handful of people – it’s an obvious enough difference to be immediately identifiable something that could not be said about Ryder’s Punks. But wait, there’s more! In addition to the flip, CryptoPhunks added a 1 pixel wide outline to the box the Phunk sits in, which is an unquestionable artistic change. Again, we’re talking about a 24×24 pixel image, so very subtle changes are actually pretty significant. You might think these changes made things easier for them, but you’d be wrong. The first take down of the Phunks happened almost as soon as they launched in what seemed to be an editorial decision on the part of OpenSea where they were listed. To their credit OpenSea has been working to take down fake accounts selling fraudulent NFTs and it’s unclear if they understood that CryptoPhunks was a stand alone project and not something misrepresenting itself as official, and this take down appears to be have preemptive and hasty.

CryptoPhunks

After much community uproar OpenSea reinstated the Phunks account and heated discussion started happening on Twitter which involved many CryptoPunk owners disparaging the Phunks and calling the project a “low effort rip off” or “blatant plagiarism.” Ironically, those are “low effort” criticisms that fall apart as soon as you read the project’s mission statement, because while it might not be something that is creatively appealing to everyone, it definitely has some thought and intention behind it. As noted earlier many people in this space don’t seem to understand how copyright or IP works or is applied, or the importance parody and fair use have in culture which can be seen in the reaction to the Phunks from the “NFT community” (if there is such a thing) at large. But things did not end there, OpenSea pushed back with several statements from employees on Twitter which imply they see derivative projects as somehow lesser than original works, and the longer term viability of the Phunks future remained in question. This didn’t slow sales at all, and it’s entirely possible that the vocal outrage from CryptoPunk owners actually served as marketing for the Phunks. Which, again, was kind of the whole point. The Phunks laid a trap and the Punks walked right into it. It kind of reminds me of a time when a music critic friend of mine got punched in the face by the guitarist of a band he’d recently accused of being brainless thugs. Anyway, having freshly filed their DMCA takedown against Rider Ripps, Larva Labs repeated the effort and sent a take down notice to OpenSea, who promptly removed the Phunks from their site. Again.

It’s unclear if the Phunks team submitted an appeal like Ryder did, though it seems pretty clear if they did Larva Labs would have to back down here as well. Guess we’ll see in a few days as that clock runs out. At the moment the collection is still not viewable on OpenSea, but they are live and for sale on Rarible and Cargo. And in case you’ve assumed that these are just cheap knock offs, let me assure you they are selling for very real numbers to very serious collectors who recognize the cultural significance of what’s playing out here. Longtime readers will know that the intersection of parody and copyright is of personal interest to me and I’ve have my own run ins with companies trying to shut down protected speech. In the 20 some years since that showdown with the Associated Press I’ve watched similar situations play out time and time again, and it’s amazing how poorly understood the law around this subject is – and not just from the companies involved. I saw a number of people in the CryptoPhunks community criticizing OpenSea for taking down the CryptyPhunks collection after they received the DMCA notice from Larva Labs. They were accused of “old thinking” and “clinging to stupid Web 2.0 ideas” which is honestly as ignorant as accusing the Phunks of being “low effort rep offs.” While it’s fairly well understood that the DMCA is a bad and broken law– it is still a law and companies operating within the US still have to abide by it regardless of how any individuals personally feel about it. But as Ryder illustrated, it can be fought and that’s what the Phunks should be doing. The idea of a company with no physical presence bound by no jurisdictional laws is certainly interesting, but it’s not reality and probably not a great idea if you dig deep enough into it. But these situations are most likely the beginning and not the end, as more NFT projects grant certain rights and others don’t, and companies and marketplaces try to figure out how to navigate through this mess I expect more showdowns in the future. In the end, this is all a result of creativity and challenging norms and expectations, pushing boundaries and seeing just what new things we can build on top of old structures before they crumble. I’m excited to watch it play out, as a spectator and participant.

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.

Blockchains As Social Archives

I’ve been thinking a lot about the transparency that comes along with transactions happening on-chain. Especially with art this takes some big steps to demystify a lot of what happens behind closed doors in the traditional art world, and the benefits to artists are obvious. While this doesn’t solve every problem, it’s the right steps forward for many. Shining a light onto this part of the business takes a lot of the power away from the dealers and puts it directly into the hands of the artists. It also makes the collectors who are more interested in flipping work a little easier to spot. Obviously this makes some dealers and collectors uncomfortable, but that’s how you know it’s progress. When the people who have traditionally held power start seeing the cracks in their structures, they start complaining.

Conversely, this is also really good for the collectors who are focusing less on the investment and more on the artists. The philanthropists and art lovers. Public ledgers make it much easier to know exactly what an artist wants and needs for their work without having to navigate through multiple layers of middlemen which has typically been the case. Even when dealers would put artists and collectors into direct communication, many were afraid to talk “business” out of fear of alienating a gallery or dealer who might feel threatened or cut out, and thus losing that resource for the future. Again, not every problem is addressed, but this is movement in the right direction.

But I think there’s an even more interesting aspect that hasn’t been widely discussed. We all know that the blockchain provides concrete provenance for the work, we’ll now be able to see everyone who owned the work going all the way back to the moment the artist minted it, or look ahead and find where something ended up. This is exciting because artists often lose track of where work goes once it enters the secondary market, unless the new owners are committed to being public about it, which many aren’t. We’ve all been talking about that for months, but another potentially fascinating detail is the ability to see everyone who ever tried to buy a work. The losing bids, the rejected offers – those are on chain too. At the moment we’re focusing on acquisitions and winning bids, but the story that gets us to that point is far more layered.

Imagine being able to look back in history and see everyone who ever tried to buy a Warhol, or a Basquiat, or a Haring – before they were popular. We know who ended up with the significant works, and work is being done by their foundations to fill in the blanks, but that focus is entirely aimed at knowing where those works are now. But consider how interesting it would be to be able to see the unsuccessful offers. To be able to cross reference those people and find someone who tried to buy work from all three of those artists, but didn’t. Then, being able able to see what work they did buy. Are there artists from that area that have been flying under the radar all these years? Did someone repeatedly get out bid by a specific rival? Were artists supporting each other?

I’m thinking about these on-chain transactions, documenting the bid history as a snapshot of community. Let’s talk about right now. A number of artists who are selling work in the NFT space are talking about how they are reinvesting their proceeds back into the community. They are putting some % of the crypto they make from sales back into the market by purchasing works by other artists. It’s been obvious to anyone paying attention that there is a huge (and important) overlap between people selling and buying work. Collectors are also selling their own art, artists are also collecting their friends work. That’s powerful today, but how about in the future? Think 20 years from now, being able to look back on a sale today with a bidding war between friends. This is evidence of a social network, and the power of a community. This of the forensics this will allow as well – being able to see the exact moment that an artist started gaining momentum. Or pinpoint a single collector who funded an entire group of artists with a buying spree, and how those artists in turn lifted others up with them. We’ll be able to see friend groups and shared interests – and divergences. Again, that’s pretty interesting today but it monumentally more so if a relatively unknown artist today blows up in the coming years.

Today we’re focusing on what all this changes and what is suddenly possible, but it’s all new in so many ways and I think we’ve only scratched the surface on how much this all will really change. I can’t wait.

For NFTs, Twitter Is The Marketplace

Last month NiftyTable published stats showing that more than half of the traffic going to the major NFT sites was coming from Twitter. At face value, that means more than half of the traffic across several sites for essentially an entire industry coming from one site… that’s insanity! But we need to consider a few things to put that into context. Traffic stats mean people are very regularly clicking links on one site and being taken to another. Not just once, but all the time. This would primarily be driven by discovery, new people finding new artists they are interested in learning more about. Now there are unquestionably lots of Discord servers filled with NFT discussions, but those are largely contained groups who follow each other on the NFT platforms as well, so there’s not a lot of discovery going on beyond the first introductions. (Some of you will note that discoverability is the number one thing I’ve been saying NFT platforms need to work on.) Facebook as well has some chatter, but again it’s not really a place people are discovering new work so much as seeing work from people they are already following or connected to.

Conversely, sites (or apps) like Clubhouse, Instagram and Twitter are more outwardly focused – that is, unless you have a private account, one of the features of these platforms is that they potentially act as a megaphone and can show you off to a much larger audience than you might have on your own. One might think that Instagram, being a primarily visual platform might be the most useful here when it comes to new artist discovery. Similarly the sheer number of Clubhouse rooms dedicated to giving new artists space to talk about or “shill” (I hate that term) their own work would suggest that a lot of discovery is happening there. That said, Instagram and Clubhouse are similar in that they don’t allow linking to other sites. You simply can’t post a clickable link. This means even if you do post (or talk about) a link someone needs to either retype it or copy and paste it into another browser tab, in which case traffic statistics would not know the origin of the that click. So I suspect it’s highly likely that traffic being driven by both Instagram and Clubhouse is being significantly underreported. To what extent it’s impossible to say, but the assumption that no real traffic is coming from those sites is probably incorrect.

But it’s not just technical luck either. No matter how that gets refactored there’s no getting around the fact that a lot of traffic is coming from Twitter, and there’s a reason for that. Clubhouse is fleeting – if you aren’t in the room you miss it. Instagram is more portfolio-ish, comment threads are silo’d and sharing work that you find and like is difficult. Instagram is also afraid of female nipples, among others things, which results in a lot of self censorship and a lot of posts being taken down for violating “community guidelines.” While not all art has nipples, some art does and if a platform is restricting what some artists can do other artists are going to be cautious about using it, even unintentionally. Twitter is non of those things. Sure it’s ephemeral to a degree, but you can easily search and find older posts and connecting different people and disparate conversations is a snap. And showing off artwork, your own or others, is really easy. And it’s also now, in that when there’s a hot topic of the moment, whatever that moment is, everyone knows they can go to Twitter and talk to people about it.

And it’s not insignificant that none of the NFT platforms really have a way to connect with people. Sure you can follow artists you like, sure they will shuffle you along to their Discord servers, and sure some are promising that they have a social component in the works, but right now onsite, there’s nothing social happening. So people go to Twitter, because that’s where all the social is happening.

I was one of the first 140 people to join Twitter in 2006 and a quick look at my archives shows that as much as I’ve loved it, I’ve been critical of the platform for a very long time now. I’ve come close to leaving several times. But I’m still there and I still use it because as annoying as it is for somethings, it’s incredibly valuable for others. Being able to engage with a community is one of those valuable things. As you can imagine after being on a site for 15 years, people ask me all the time if they should be on Twitter. These days, and for quite some time now, I most often tell them no. In general with social media I think it’s better to not do something than to do it poorly, and to do Twitter correctly you need to invest time in it. This is something most people are not willing to do. They want to create an account, post something once or twice a month and then suddenly have thousands of millions of followers. That’s simply not how it works. You have to be engaged, invested, and understand the social norms of the place. So I’ve told people that if they’ve already been on Twitter and have a community there then they should use that, but if they don’t not to bother trying to start at this point.

However.

I think my position on that has evolved in the recent weeks. It’s becoming more and more clear that the vast majority of the discovery, commentary, meta-commentary, community engagement and (barf)networking is happening on Twitter. Not just randomly, this is where people are asking for recommendations, where introductions are being made, where friendships are forming and where connections are being made. Which, oddly, is what Twitter used to be really good at before it got distracted by trying to be “where breaking news happens” or whatever crap marketing line they were using was. Now, my earlier position still holds true – if you aren’t willing or able to commit several hours a week at the very least to interacting with people on Twitter, that is not just posting, but actually engaging, then I still don’t think you should use the site. But if you have an account already which you just aren’t using, or you are willing to put in the work to build up a new one, there’s really no better place right now for interacting with other artists, collectors, and various people of similar interests. It’s not make or break, but it’s noteworthy enough and a shift in what I’ve been vocal about so I thought it should be mentioned. Hope that’s helpful.

And of course if you are on Twitter feel free to follow me, and if you are interested in NFTs of my photography you can check them out here.

NFT Catch All

As I continue to ramble on about NFTs in my usual stream of consciousness style I thought it would be helpful to collect things together in a little bit of a more easily parseable list.

My original NFT WTF article and the Part 2 follow up cover a lot of ground and I think are a really good 101 on what NFTs are and why they are interesting and important for artists.

I followed those up with a bit of a battle cry as to why artists hold all the power in this new medium.

After that I talked about what upgrades I’d like to see to the NFT Standard.

How artists should be pricing work is a very common topic and I talked about that arguing that we should be thinking crypto first.

I’ve talked about platforms a lot in this, and wrote quite a lot about the value of platforms and what questions artists should be asking before they choose one. And this is important because there are a lot of platforms, which is why I made this NFT Platform Comparison Chart – This is not meant to be comprehensive, rather regularly updated as more information becomes available about the most talked about platforms in the community. I’ve also talked a bit about why Twitter is important.

All the posts (and future ones) can be found under the NFT tag here on this site.

And finally, my own work can be found on the following platforms.

opensea.io/accounts/seanbonner
foundation.app/seanbonner
makersplace.com/seanbonner
zora.co/seanbonner
kalamint.io/user/seanbonner
ephimera.com/seanbonner
knownorigin.io/seanbonner (coming soon)

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.