What is the “art” in generative art? Is it the algorithm, the outputs, or something else entirely?
Our latest project, Coalition, invites artists and collectors to contemplate this question and consider our answer to it. When users compare Coalition to our previous pieces on Art Blocks, the first thing they will notice is that Coalition’s output size is dramatically smaller than the others. Our decision to limit the project’s output to 36 mints — down from the 1,024 mints of prior works — is meant to challenge long-form generative exploration, the dominant paradigm in generative art for years now. Long-form generativism centers algorithms, specifically algorithms’ capacity to generate large numbers of high-quality, high-variability mints.
In his landmark essay, “The Rise of Long-Form Generative Art,” Tyler Hobbs defines long-form generativism as a “special class of artistic algorithm” that creates a “direct path from the script to the viewer,” obscuring the scriptwriter’s curatorial hand as the code provides a high volume of iterations. Under the long-form paradigm, artists and collectors alike have come to evaluate an artwork by its fidelity to these qualities. Long-form generativism has enabled artists to create beautiful iterations and revolutionary algorithms, such as Tyler’s own Fidenza script. Further, it has helped to catalyze arguably the most productive era in the history of generative art thanks to its prominence on platforms such as Art Blocks. The answer to our initial question therefore appears to be settled: the art in generative art is the algorithm’s ability to produce a large number of iterations with high formal variety and consistently good quality.
However, as generative art continues to develop, this solution becomes increasingly unsatisfactory. The long-form approach has emphasized some capabilities of on-chain art while stunting others. Namely, generative art’s potential for storytelling remains underexplored, and collectors do not enjoy the full potential of owning a share of an algorithm. Because the guiding principle of long-form generative exploration is infinite output, collectors own just one token from a script that could potentially generate tens of thousands of iterations. Coalition asks artists and collectors, What are we missing when we value artworks mostly for their high output capacity? How can future generative artworks foreground what has been neglected?
Coalition: Concept and Algorithmic Development
Coalition attempts to interrupt the rhythms of on-chain artistic creation and collection by encouraging users to focus not on the algorithm, but on individual outputs and the stories that they tell. This shift in emphasis begins with the cap that we placed on the script’s output; there are only 36 iterations in Coalition. Further, the iterations are comprised of bold and minimalistic visual patterns. Radically departing from the norms of long-form generativism, we limited both the variety and the size of the project, forcing users to focus on their mint and its relationship to the set, or coalition, of 36.
But how can random algorithmic generation and the intentions of artists coexist? This will be one of the central problems for the future of generative art. In the development of Coalition, we created a new source of randomness. To do this, we took hashes from token #0 in each of our earlier collections (Empyrean, Enchiridion, and Democracity) and combined them to randomly assemble visual elements that maintain consistency across tokens. This way, we honored the generative nature of Coalition while imposing formal, aesthetic constraints on its script.
Coalition proposes a new way to assess generative artworks beyond the paradigm of high output size and low variability in quality that Tyler Hobbs describes. We want collectors to enjoy a closer relationship to both their individual mints and the larger artwork than is allowed by long-form generative exploration. In Coalition, each token’s unique hash determines visual elements that are simultaneously random and constrained. Only select colors and shapes may appear in a token, but no one knows what pattern these elements will take. By combining random generation with limited iterative possibilities, we grant equal weight to the uniqueness of individual mints and the unified story of which each mint is part. Coalition’s contribution to generative art is neither a complete refutation of long-form generation or a return to short-form methods, but something new.
When viewers examine the project’s limited output, they will discover a story about telling stories. While an individual iteration of Coalition can stand alone as a self-contained artwork, the fullness of its design only comes into view when seen alongside its companion pieces in the 6x6 grid. The grid draws out patterns and rhymes across tokens that would be lost in the massive output size of a long-form project. By holding the output to 36, we foreground the relationship between iterations. Audiences can read the “coalition” like a book, looking for themes that tie separate mints together into a unified work. Collectors can have the pleasure of knowing that they own an indispensable part to the whole. Just as the larger coalition is vital to appreciating individual mints, individual mints are necessary to the cohesion of the coalition. By thinking of tokens as individual expressions of a complete and unified project, we highlight generative art’s potential as a storytelling medium. What would it look like to evaluate artworks for their narrative abilities rather than by algorithms’ generative feats? Coalition proposes that future artists and collectors might prize thematic patterns and visual cohesion over output size and variability.
Reservation: A Precedent
Coalition is the second part of our longer exploration of the “art” in generative artworks. Coalition’s sister project, Reservation, centered the algorithm as the primary source of art instead of outputs. Reservation runs on a script capable of producing 1,000 iterations. However, we reduced the output to 50. Why do this? Reservation sought to change the relationship between collectors and their mints. One of long-form generativism’s greatest weaknesses is that tokens are not seen as representing partial ownership of the underlying algorithm, but as ownership of just one of thousands of pieces that the script can produce.
By contrast, Reservation gives collectors a 1/50th ownership of its algorithm. This way, collectors can feel empowered to explore the script on their own, displaying any possible generation on their wall, including “out-of-band” generations (something not possible in Coalition). This provides collectors with a greater range of options than the single, random mint that long-form algorithms assign to collectors. With a smaller ownership set, owners can get to know the project’s algorithm with enhanced freedom and depth.
A Surprise Ending
Like Reservation, Coalition’s ownership set is small. However, the project promotes ownership of outputs over ownership of an algorithm. In order to keep collectors’ attention on the outputs, we have encoded a surprise ending into Coalition’s script.
This ensures that the artwork that is Coalition will only ever consist of the 6x6 grid of 36 iterations. Nothing more, nothing less. No out-of-band iterations can meaningfully be a part of Coalition. Collectors therefore own much more than a script that can generate infinite outputs, they own an irreplaceable element of a one-of-a-kind artwork.
A long-form script can produce nearly unlimited iterations, most of which are not indexed on chain. This means that Fidenza’s outputs, for example, will never be as important as the Fidenza script itself. In Coalition, the 36 outputs are the artwork; the script is unable to produce any more iterations than these. To clarify Coalition’s break from long-form generativism, think of a museum display. In our view, the countless mints of a long-form generation not recorded on chain would be worth just as much as the small sample captured on chain. Why display one group of mints over another when the script that produced them can generate a thousand outputs of equal quality? Projects like Coalition, on the other hand, are singular, literally uncopyable. To truly experience the artwork, a viewer would have to see the original, minted, and self-contained coalition of 36 in full.
Our hope for Coalition is that it points the generative art world in new directions that can solve some problems of the long-form paradigm, such as the problem of ownership and the question of what constitutes “art” in the generative medium. That said, Coalition owes a debt of inspiration to works by analog artists such as Donald Judd and Pedro Friedeberg. Judd’s sculpture, “100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum,” consists of, as its title indicates, 100 separate aluminum sculptures. However, thanks to insight from a gallery tour guide at Marfa, TX, we saw that Judd’s piece was not 100 separate pieces, but 100 entities cohering into a single artwork unified under one name and story. We felt that generative art was ripe for Judd’s sense of storytelling. Algorithms can produce infinite numbers of out-of-band tokens, but rarely do these tokens add up to a single piece with something to say like Judd’s sculpture.
In addition to Judd, the surrealist Pedro Friedeberg exercised a critical influence on Coalition. Friedeberg’s analog works possess an iterative quality that foreshadows the styles of contemporary generative art, especially pieces such as 36 Perritos. Moreover, Friedeberg was as inspirational thematically as he was stylistically. At the end of Coalition’s project description, viewers will find Friedeberg’s famous dictum, “There can be no avant-garde because everything has been done.” This quote resonates with our sense of the current state of generative art. Long-form generativism has been astoundingly innovative over the last several years, but this approach is no longer the fertile ground that it was. Where there once was experimentation, there are now boundaries; where there was freedom, there are now rules. We have become fixated on what generative art should do at the cost of asking what it could do. Following Friedeberg, Coalition attempts to renew our belief in what has yet to be done.
Written in collaboration with Marc Blanc