HomeNFTsGuide to On-Chain Conceptual Art

Guide to On-Chain Conceptual Art

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Conceptual art was birthed by an eccentric Frenchman and a urinal, and the genre has been the object of scorn, delight, befuddlement, and contention ever since. 

Before we explore conceptual art on blockchain — the focus of this guide — we must first define conceptual art more broadly. 

Marcel Duchamp’s radical submission of Fountain as art in 1917 paved the way for a new vision of art — a “literary” type of art, in Duchamp’s words. 

In artist Joseph Kosuth’s 1969 essay “Art After Philosophy,” Kosuth argues that art’s essence lies not in its form or material, but in its ability to embody and project ideas. In Kosuth’s view, art served two purposes: idea and decoration. Because of this “decorative” purpose, the philosophy of aesthetics was attached at the hip with art, an attachment that — progressing into the 20th century, especially following Duchamp — had become superfluous. The study of aesthetics vis-a-vis art obscured art’s primary purpose as a vehicle for ideas. 

Kosuth draws a comparison between art and architecture. One judges architecture by its function first and its beauty second. A beautiful residential building that underperforms as a functioning residential building is a bad residential building. So too, an aesthetically pleasing artwork that fails to provoke thought or convey a concept is a failed artwork. Through this lens, conceptual art, like effective architecture, must succeed first through its conceptual integrity and only secondarily through its aesthetic appeal.

Whether we agree with Kosuth’s views or not, it well illustrates what conceptual artists are after. 

In line with Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner defined his artwork through language-based statements, suggesting that the construction of the piece could exist in the mind of the observer without ever being physically made.



Similarly, Sol LeWitt’s artworks were actually guidelines for drawings that could be executed by others, emphasizing the idea that the creative thought process itself, as outlined in a set of instructions, can be the artwork.



But not all conceptual artists hold the same concepts about conceptual art. 

Where some, like LeWitt, believe in the primacy of the idea, others make conceptual art to create an immediate experience or visceral engagement with the viewer, something not effectively achieved by an intellectualized approach via documentation. The latter camp would comprise performance artists like Marina Abramović and installation artists like Olafur Eliasson or Carsten Höller.

There are no easy definitions in an artistic tradition that uses ambiguity and evocation like oil and acrylic.

On-chain conceptual art has its own factions, which we’ll come to outline broadly in this article. 

One such disagreement is the nature of blockchain’s involvement in the work itself. Must on-chain conceptual art provoke ideas with the tools of web3 or can on-chain conceptual art merely use blockchain as an inviolable record and means of monetization (like any other on-chain artwork)?

As ever, this is not intended to be a comprehensive view but merely a sampling of some of the most relevant and outstanding work to date. 

If this kind of thing is your cup of brew, check out our Guide to Experiential Art in Web3.


Robert Alice

Robert Alice, a pseudonymous artist known for blending conceptual art with blockchain technology, created the  first truly ambitious crypto-focused conceptual art project with Portraits of a Mind. This series, started in 2019, engages directly with the original Bitcoin source code, viewing the blockchain as both a modern artifact and a profound cultural narrative.

Portraits of a Mind consists of 40 artworks, each containing a fragment of the Bitcoin code penned by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto. This ambitious project not only delves into the technical aspects of blockchain but also explores themes of identity, anonymity, and the transmission of knowledge. Alice presents these themes through the unique lens of open-source code, suggesting that the code itself serves as a digital portrait—simultaneously infinite and elusive.


Close-up image of BLOCK 9 from Portraits of a Mind by Robert Alice

The exhibition of these pieces has been as unconventional as their subject matter. Notably, part of the series was displayed in Sealand, a micronation known for its historical ties to data havens and cypherpunk movements, reflecting the project’s themes of decentralization and autonomy.

In addition to Portraits of a Mind, Alice’s subsequent series, The Blueprints, displayed at the Monnaie de Paris, pushes these discussions further. It juxtaposes archival materials from the mint’s collection with elements inspired by blockchain technology, drawing parallels between past and present financial systems and philosophies.

Through meticulous paintings and digital elements, Alice’s work provides a critical reflection on the cultural and historical implications of blockchain technology. It invites viewers to consider the broader significance of cryptocurrencies beyond their economic utility, positioning them within a larger historical context of human communication, value exchange, and artistic expression. Alice’s exploration extends the dialogue around blockchain into realms typically reserved for traditional forms of cultural heritage, suggesting that this digital technology holds a significant place not only in economic history but in the evolution of societal values and artistic endeavors.


Urs Fischer

Swiss-born artist Urs Fischer has long been celebrated for his eclectic and often provocative approach to contemporary art. From sculptures and installations to paintings and photography, Fischer’s work invites viewers to reconsider their perceptions of art and reality. With his CHAOS series, Fischer continues this exploration but shifts into digital, on-chain art.

Launched in 2021-22, the CHAOS collection encompasses 1,000 digital sculptures, each meticulously crafted by Fischer to pair disparate everyday objects in striking juxtapositions. These objects, transformed into 3D digital models, float freely in virtual space, their scale and paths independent of one another, creating new narratives and visual interactions as they converge. This setup allows each paired object to maintain a distinct identity while simultaneously contributing to a unified narrative, reflecting Fischer’s fascination with how objects can interact in unexpected ways.


CHAOS #491 Jump by Urs Fischer

One of the most notable pieces in the series, CHAOS #501, serves as the culmination of Fischer’s project. This work gathers all 1,000 objects in a single digital space, where they exist in a state of constant free-floating interaction. This piece, like the rest of the series, is embedded with data and rendering instructions, ensuring that each sculpture can continue to evoke stories and interpretations indefinitely through evolving technology.

Fischer’s CHAOS series was first exhibited at the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles and later at Gagosian, New York; the work was sold through MakersPlace. Unlike Robert Alice and later artists to be mentioned in this article, Fischer used blockchain technology to extend his practice but not to define it. 


Pak

Unlike Urs Fischer, the enigmatic artist known as Pak uses the tools of blockchain as one would paint, ink, and charcoal. Originating as the creator of Archillect, the then-largest AI curator of the human aesthetic, Pak’s transition into the NFT space was seamless. Pak’s concept-heavy minimalism investigates themes of value, community, and game theory.

Pak’s approach is fundamentally iterative, where each creation serves as a stepping stone for the next, continually engaging and re-engaging audiences in an ever-evolving dialogue. This iterative process transcends traditional performance art by using smart contracts to perpetuate performances on the blockchain, thus allowing them to remain both permanent and dynamically evolving. 

In the art piece 404, Pak explores the poignant themes of absence and loss. Created for the Alotta Money Tribute & Charity Auction, 404 is a metaphor for the emotional void left by those we have lost, a theme that resonates deeply in our increasingly digital interactions. The piece is unique in that it intentionally lacks metadata, presenting a stark “Not Found” or “404” error when queried, symbolizing the absence of those who are no longer with us.


Nothing’s broken. This is the visual representation of 404 by Pak

This absence is not just a lack of physical presence but a profound commentary on our digital existence where even in the void, there is a presence — a token that exists on the blockchain but without the traditional digital identifiers like title, image, or description. This design choice forces a confrontation with the void, making the absence tangibly felt in the digital space where “not found” becomes a powerful statement rather than a mere digital error.

The technical setup of 404 reinforces its conceptual underpinnings. The NFT does not provide typical metadata but exists as token #404 on the blockchain, ensuring that it is recognized and rendered as such across platforms. This approach not only questions the psychological impact of digital and physical presence but also challenges the norms of how art is displayed and interacted with online.


Sarah Meyohas

Sarah Meyohas, a New York-based artist of French and Turkish descent, brings a uniquely comprehensive background to the intersection of art and finance. With degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School, and an MFA from Yale University, Meyohas is well-prepared to navigate the complex terrains of cryptocurrency and art. Her pioneering project, Bitchcoin, launched in 2015, stands at the forefront of integrating blockchain technology with art.

Bitchcoin was introduced as an artist-made cryptocurrency, minted on Meyohas’s own proof-of-work blockchain. This innovative approach allowed the tokens to be exchanged perpetually for pieces of her artwork, effectively proposing public fractional ownership of her artistic career. This concept pushes the boundaries of Andy Warhol’s idea of art as business into the realm of financialization, highlighting the blockchain’s potential as an artistic medium while maintaining a tangible link to the physical world.

The initial iteration of Bitchcoin was directly pegged to Meyohas’s Speculations series, where each coin was backed by units of her photographs. This early version of Bitchcoin functioned as a proto-NFT. In 2017, the project evolved with the creation of Cloud of Petals at the historic Bell Labs. Here, Meyohas employed 16 male workers to pluck 100,000 rose petals, each petal standing in for a unit of the digital currency. This process was meticulously documented, reinforcing the proof-of-work concept by linking it directly to physical labor and artistic creation.


From Sarah Meyohas’ Bitchcoin

In 2021, Meyohas transitioned Bitchcoin to the Ethereum blockchain, minting 3,291 Bitchcoins on an ERC-1155 contract. Each token was now backed by a unique pressed rose petal from the Cloud of Petals exhibition, further deepening the connection between the digital and the physical. 

Sarah Meyohas’s Bitchcoin project not only predates the Ethereum blockchain but also introduces critical discussions about the roles of artist and collector, the nature of art as an asset, and the potential of blockchain technology as a medium for artistic expression. 


Operator

Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, the artist duo known as Operator, consistently explore and challenge the intersections of privacy, identity, and technology through their unique blend of technology, performance, and choreography. Catherine, with her background in choreography and performance art, and Ti, a human-computer interaction technologist and immersive artist, combine their diverse skills to create large-scale works that critically engage with digital culture and its impacts on society.

Human Unreadable, the duo’s 2023 Lumen Prize-winning project, exemplifies their “site-specific” approach, in this case through generative art. Human Unreadable merges generative art with performance, creating a multi-layered experience that involves visual, notational, and performative elements. This work not only continues their exploration of privacy themes seen in their previous projects but also delves deeper into the narrative capacities of blockchain technology.

The project consists of three distinct acts:

Visual Element: Each piece in Human Unreadable begins as a visual output generated from choreographic data. This visual element is influenced by historical art movements such as Dada, which embraced randomness and collage, and by artists like Man Ray, whose rayographs challenged traditional representations in art.


From Operator’s Human Unreadable

Notational Element: Each artwork includes a unique choreographic score accessible to the holders of the NFT. This score details the movement sequence that generated the visual piece, rooted in the traditions of computational choreography and influenced by pioneers like Analívia Cordeiro.

Performative Element: The culmination of the project is a live performance that interprets the choreographic scores from the first 101 pieces of the collection. This act brings the digital into the physical realm, showcasing how on-chain data can translate back into human expression and movement.

Human Unreadable illustrates a profound understanding of the history and potential of digital art, making Operator not just creators but also thoughtful commentators on the evolution of art and technology.


Rhea Myers

UK-born, Canada-based artist Rhea Myers is an artist, hacker, writer, and on-chain art pioneer who has been instrumental in developing conceptual artworks that leverage tokens, transactions, and contracts as their primary mediums.

Myers’s early work, notably the Ethereum Art Market created in 2014, utilized the first smart contracts for artist’s resale rights, paving the way for what would eventually evolve into the NFT movement. Her art practice is characterized by a deep engagement with blockchain as both a medium and a subject, reflecting on the societal impacts of technology and finance. Her work not only engages with the theoretical aspects of blockchain but also operationalizes these concepts through art, making abstract notions tangible and interactive.

Is Art is one of Myers’s seminal works that encapsulates her innovative approach to blockchain art. Launched between 2014 and 2015, this project uses an Ethereum smart contract to engage directly with the most common question related to conceptual work: “Is this art?” 


From Rhea Myers’ Is Art

The project allows participants to interact with the contract by sending a transaction to toggle its state between “is art” and “is not art.” This deceptively playful interaction belies a serious inquiry into the nature of artistic validation and the role of consensus in the designation of artistic value.

Is Art challenges viewers to consider where and how art’s claim to such a status is made and determined. It uses the immutability and transparency of the blockchain to pose questions about authenticity, permanence, and the fluctuating dynamics of art and technology. The simple act of toggling the contract’s state becomes a statement secured by Ethereum’s blockchain, reflecting the complex interplay of technology, art, and community engagement.

In Is Art, Rhea Myers offers a profound exploration of the intersections between art history and contemporary technology. By transforming the blockchain into both a canvas and a critique of modern art practices, Myers not only reflects on the past but also proposes new directions for the future of art.


Sarah Friend

With a background in both the arts and technical development, Canadian artist Sarah Friend uniquely positions her projects at the intersection of advanced digital art and software engineering. Her work often employs advanced cryptography and cooperative economic models to explore and critique the existing dynamics of decentralized networks and the cultural implications of blockchain technology.

Among her notable projects, Lifeforms (2021) stands out as a pioneering exploration of blockchain technology’s application to ecological and social themes. This project leverages blockchain to simulate lifelike properties such as fragility, contingency, novelty, inheritance, and ephemerality, integrating these into the mechanics of NFTs to create digital entities that mimic the life processes of natural organisms.

Lifeforms introduces a unique concept within the NFT space by imbuing digital tokens with characteristics typically associated with living organisms. Each Lifeform must be transferred — or “cared for” — within a 90-day period; otherwise, it undergoes an automated immolation process, effectively dying. This mechanism challenges the impulse to speculatively hold (or hodl) assets while emphasizing the potential for on-chain art to foster a culture of generosity and cooperation.


From Sarah Friend’s Lifeforms

By requiring that each Lifeform be passed on within a set timeframe, Friend’s project fosters a sense of responsibility and interconnectedness among participants. It suggests a model of digital ownership that is dynamic and participatory, where the health and “life” of the piece are dependent on community interaction rather than individual possession.


Simon Denny

Simon Denny, an artist renowned for his conceptual installations, intricately explores how ideologies within corporations and governments manifest through digital information. His work critically examines the political and economic underpinnings of technology adoption, particularly blockchain. Denny’s approach often intertwines historical contexts with contemporary technology, as seen in his series of works from Blockchain Future States to Proof of Work and Proof of Stake. These projects have positioned him as a pivotal figure in the dialogue between art, technology, and corporate critique.

In 2022, Denny launched DotCom Séance, a project that delves into the cultural and commercial legacies of the dotcom era, specifically focusing on companies that failed during the dotcom crash. This initiative is not just a revival of past business ideas but a critical reflection on their relevance within today’s web3 context, emphasizing the cyclical nature of business innovations and failures.



Each company in the project is given new life through a series of logos generated by text-to-image AI in collaboration with Cosmographia. These logos serve as visual representations of the companies’ “ghosts,” bridging the gap between web1 and web3 by visually manifesting the historical continuum of internet technology. 

Additionally, artist Guile Twardowski, known for his work on CryptoKitties, designed bespoke logos for each company, drawing from the AI-generated imagery. 

The logos, minted as NFTs, offer more than just artistic representation; they serve as tokens of ownership and participation. Holders of these NFTs can register ENS subdomains related to the resurrected companies and take on roles within these virtual entities, such as CEOs and middle managers. This interactive aspect of DotCom Séance extends the project’s reach beyond conventional art exhibitions, engaging participants in a speculative reimagining of dotcom businesses within the decentralized web.

The installation itself, held at the Now Building in London, features these logos in a dynamic digital display. This presentation not only showcases the artistic elements but also embeds them within the bustling context of London’s commercial hub, thereby juxtaposing the speculative digital with the physical locale of traditional commerce. The project’s immersive nature and the use of public space reflect Denny’s ongoing interest in how art can interrogate and articulate the intersections of technology, culture, and commerce.


Kevin Abosch

Kevin Abosch is a prolific Irish artist who seamlessly blends cryptography, blockchain technology, and art to create works that challenge and redefine traditional concepts of value, identity, and authenticity. Known for his experimental approach with digital technologies, Abosch’s projects often explore the human stories behind encryption, exploring the emotional and sociopolitical landscapes of the 21st century.

Abosch’s diverse body of work includes several groundbreaking projects that reflect his deep engagement with current events and his philosophical inquiries into the nature of digital life. Each project, from Hexadecimal Testimony to PERSISTENCE and collaborations like PRICELESS with Ai Weiwei, showcases Abosch’s ability to infuse digital mediums with profound narrative and critical perspectives.

In Hexadecimal Testimony, which includes works like 1111 (2021) and Status Update (2022), Abosch presents encrypted messages in the form of dynamic digital hieroglyphics. These pieces draw data from various sources, including news and social media, which are then processed through machine learning to uncover patterns. The final artworks are sealed as NFTs, embodying the cryptic yet insightful engagement with sociopolitical issues. Abosch encourages viewers to perceive these works not as puzzles to be solved but as poetic insights into contemporary events, mirroring the obscured yet impactful nature of blockchain transactions.


From Kevin Abosch’s 1111

PERSISTENCE is a poignant art intervention created in response to the shutdown of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy news outlet in Hong Kong. The artwork comprises a USB drive containing over 11,000 articles from the newspaper, coupled with an executable file for booting a blockchain node. This project not only serves as a digital time capsule but also as a testament to the ongoing struggle for press freedom, using blockchain technology as both a medium and a message of resistance against censorship.

Collaborating with renowned artist Ai Weiwei, Abosch developed PRICELESS, a project that uses blockchain to facilitate a global conversation on the value of human life, particularly in the context of refugees and migrants. The project involves ERC-20 tokens, one of which is metaphorically “unavailable,” symbolizing priceless human dignity, while the other is distributable to foster discussion on the societal value ascriptions. This project highlights the potential of blockchain to disrupt traditional systems of value and promote a more humane discourse on global issues.


The list of great artists creating thought-provoking, inspiring conceptual art is considerably longer than the list we’ve presented you with here. We hope that this Guide to On-Chain Conceptual Art has been a helpful primer for those of you looking for intellectually rigorous work presented on blockchain. If you’d like to read about more art and artists in this vein, check out our Guide to Experiential Art in Web3.


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