Non-Representational Generative Art and the Non-Coders Who Love It.

Putting words to the feelings that you feel when looking at shapes made from hieroglyphics that you don’t understand.

Plasticity #449 by P4stoboy, released via gm.studio

For me, the best thing about getting into NFTs a year ago has been the opportunity to see and learn about more art than I ever have in my life. Yes, art is just one sector of NFTs and, as I’ve written previously, I don’t find very much value in the term “NFT Art”, but one of the most prominent categories of art that you do see within the NFT world is long-form generative art.

To be reductive as all hell: this kind of art is practiced by creative coders. That is artists who rather than picking up a brush or a drafting pencil and using physical materials to express their vision instead use code (often JavaScript) to design algorithms that will output an image each time the code is run during a project’s release that is both totally unique but also of a piece with the entire series of outputs from that algorithm. Again, that’s very simplistic and if you still have no idea what I’m talking about I’d suggest watching this.

Selections from Theatergoers by Michael Perusse a generative project with 365 different iterations released on the Tezos blockchain. No illustration here, generated solely from the same code with a randomness variable injected at the moment they were minted. Each individual piece totally unique but equally representative of the project as a whole.

While increasingly more generative art projects that I see are representational (meaning that they depict, or at least suggest, recognizable IRL forms & objects like plants, writing, or people) the majority of the work that you find is still abstract, depicting patterns, swirls, squiggles and such. Some exist in a sort of halfway area where you can definitely see the the physical thing that is being suggested but the basic elements of code and randomness and disparate shapes are still prominent (I would place one of my favorite projects Plasticity, example above, in that group).

So the tools of the creators that make this kind of amazing work are code, and scripting libraries, and flow fields, and Perlin noise generators and well… while I might be able to kinda-sorta explain those things to a 5 year old I absolutely do not have a solid grasp on the technical practice/processes of generative art. This is me trying to explain it to an adult:

I made a Simpsons website in HTML from scratch in the late 90s and that’s about as far as coding journey went. It did have an image map in it tho…so I was pretty impressed with myself I’ll say.

But I ultimately don’t think it’s that much of a problem. My take is this: While generative art has been around for centuries or longer (see Jacquard Looms, Sol LeWitt, or mosaic tiling) the advent of NFTs now allows digital generative artists, who have been plugging away diligently for decades (see the vibrant r/generative community on reddit) to sell and market their work on a scale not seen before. The new sales/ownership/discovery mechanisms made possible by NFTs combined with this particular form of art expressing something essential about our current hyper-digital, hyper-networked, code-centric existence makes me believe that we are on the verge of a massive mainstreaming of awareness of and appreciation for generative art. To put it more simply: shit’s about to explode from out of plotter-nerd specialist corners of reddit & twitter and into major museums, general awareness, and the pop cultural aesthetic. Get hyped.

And yet, the majority of people who are about to have their minds blown by exposure to this work will be like me, utterly lacking in formal programming knowledge. Does this mean we will miss out on appreciating some important parts of this work? Yes. While the aesthetics and the artistic intent are by far the most important parts of this, there are vast areas of the art that only coders will appreciate whether that’s the efficiency of the code (doing more with less in a clean/innovative way), using non-standard libraries, optimizing the resources needed to render highly complex stuff, etc etc. But ultimately I think that will matter very little for mainstream appreciation. After all:

I don’t need to know anything about any of this:

In order to know that this is amazing:

Laocoön and His Sons

So I the actual creators and coders will have plenty of opportunities to geek out over the tools and process with a far wider audience than they have previously been able to imagine and the rest of us will fully enjoy the colors and the shapes and ascribing whatever meaning comes to us individually to the work that we love.

To illustrate the limitless enjoyment & appreciation that is to be had by total non-coders when it comes to viewing long form generative art I’m going to run through a few select pieces from 2 collections (Mind The Gap & Plasticity) that have appeared on what is, IMO, one of the best generative NFT platforms out there: gm.studio. (Full Disclosure: I am a member of the gmDAO the Decentralized Autonomous Organization responsible for a number of extant and forthcoming initiatives, of which the Studio is the most prominent but these words and opinions expressed here are fully my own and were not commissioned or vetted by the DAO in any way).

Selections from Mind The Gap by MountVitruvius
Selections from Plasticity by P4stoboy

I’m offering up my thoughts and first impressions of these pieces — what came to mind immediately or perhaps after some brief reflection — both to celebrate them, and to highlight the fun in them, but also as a very very early attempt to develop a way to speak about them meaningfully for a general audience. As I said, I expect millions and billions to come to this work over the next decades and they’re going to want to talk about it and I’m going to want to have those conversations myself and well, I might as well start now. And while I’m *fully* aware that professional critics and committed appreciators have have had a well-established dialogue and critical language for abstract art for decades I don’t expect every crypto degen in a Discord alpha channel who likes looking at this stuff to hit up Clement Greenberg. New times. New Art. New Convo. Rinse & repeat. Just like it’s always been.

So without further ado, let’s get into it!

Mind The Gap

My literal first thought when I saw test mints for this project was: “Ziti Fidenza”.

Reductive? Extremely. But I think it’s also a pretty accurate generalization of MV’s brilliant & playful use of tube-shapes & flow fields modulated by my own prior awareness of flow fields almost solely through Tyler Hobb’s Fidenza collection, one of the most prominent projects in the space thus far. I loved the MTG collection immediately and I have enjoyed looking through them and discovering additional nuance ad detail. Here are some first thoughts.

[As a nice lil bonus: I created the image cards below in PowerPoint (because, again, I am NOT technical and I could not be bothered to find a more efficient way to do it). Every time you drop an image into a slide the software takes a crack at generating some alt-text for you. I have included PP’s take on what each piece of abstract art is depicting here for both the lulz and further thought.]

MTG #143
MTG #193

Plasticity

This collection was, to me, far more representational off the bat. These look like sections of candy colored cities, but they only look like that. That is the meaning that most humans will ascribe to these. These are in fact algorithmically organized collections of shapes. The talented human mind of pfstoboy crafted that code, but the machine that rendered it has no idea what a skyscraper (or love or beauty for that matter) actually is. That is one of the mysteries and charms of this art that I love and think of often.

Let’s take a look at some downtown rainbows!

Plasticity #373
Plasticity #346

OK folks, those are my generative art thoughts for today. More to come I’m sure. If you’re into what you’ve seen here I’d def invite you to check out the links I’ve included throughout. I’m not remotely an expert here, just an enthusiast who’s very excited to learn more, let’s do it together. If you like what you’ve read please share this article or reach out on Twitter. See you in the Metaverse…

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Wes Hazard

Wes Hazard

Brooklyn based writer & storyteller. Social Justice / Oddball History / Digital Art / The Metaverse. 3x Jeopardy! champ. Wishing you the best.