Art

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/V3 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 fans and seems to be embraced by both V1 & V2 owners. 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.

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. 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.

Ryder Ripps 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.

Update March 2022: A lot has happened since this post was written last year, not the least of which was the launch of NotLarvaLabs.com which mimics the LarvaLabs website in both appearance and function, providing a royalty free marketplace for trading CryptoPhunks which expands the parody and social critique from just the one NFT collection to an entire industry. Phunks team did not file a counter notice to LarvaLabs DMCA takedown at the time, however with the recent acquisition of the CryptoPunks IP by YugaLabs any action taken by LarvaLabs is no longer valid. To that end, Phunks have now officially requested that OpenSea relist the collection. This of course brings up a question: Phunks were playing the role of David to LarvaLabs Goliath, but if Goliath bows out and walks away what is left for David to do? What do Phunks stand for if the thing they were fighting against no longer plays a role. I asked a few public Phunk holders and they all seemed to say they’ve grown fond of the community and will stay because of that which makes sense, but it’s unclear what kind of a draw that will have for new people who are not in the community already. That said, there have been whispers that the NotLarvaLabs marketplace might be expanding to include at the very least V1 CryptoPunks but potentially other CryptoPunk related collections as well. Pivoting from a giant middle finger into a royalty free alternative to OpenSea for Punks could be a very interesting evolution and next chapter in the Phunks story.

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.