HomeNFTsImpossible Designs, Modular Metaverses, and Public Goods — Interview with untitled, xyz

Impossible Designs, Modular Metaverses, and Public Goods — Interview with untitled, xyz


Kirk Finkel, also known as untitled, xyz, is an artist and architect who transitioned from IRL architecture to the metaverse. Beginning his career in traditional architecture, Finkel grew frustrated with the slow and opaque processes in urban design. This led him to explore blockchain technology, resulting in projects like SteemTown and BlockTown, which emphasize community engagement and modular design. He also created Steem Park in Brooklyn, a public art installation funded by cryptocurrency.

In this interview, Finkel discusses his transition from conventional architecture to digital design, the potential of the metaverse for creativity, and the importance of community-driven projects. He talks about the challenges and opportunities of working in a virtual environment, the role of avatars and identity in virtual spaces, and the current state of the metaverse. 

Join us as we learn from a forward-thinking artist who is expanding the possibilities of how we interact with our built environment.

Visit the MakersPlace profile of untitled, xyz

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Brady Walker: Hello, and welcome back to the Makers Place interview series. Today we have with us Kirk Finkel, also known as Untitled XYZ. Kurt, welcome. It’s great to meet you.

untitled, xyz: Yeah. Great to meet you, Brady. Thank you for having me on.

BW: You started with a career in traditional architecture and then transitioned at a certain point to this nascent realm of digital architecture. Why did you make that transition?

U,X: Yeah, I think that was, right. I was in the traditional or IRL architecture world for a while. For me, the way that architecture is practiced and some of the ways the discipline handles itself felt very blackbox. At the time, I was doing a lot of urban design projects, working in amazing urban planning offices. Honestly, it’s wonderful offices that I’ve worked for, but far too often, you’re beholden to stakeholders who aren’t necessarily the neighborhoods you’re working with directly. 

So a lot of these architectural projects very quickly get away from the actual users of the buildings themselves and become more beholden to the politics, the finance, and different things that ultimately take shape within it. At the time, I was really curious. We had a roundtable series, and I was looking at new technologies that might help break open that black box a bit. That’s when I stumbled into blockchain technology, thinking of it as a town hall governance structure where you could have different modes of stakeholder ship. 

That was the beginning of the rabbit hole for me as to why I thought architecture could change. I thought I could do something good for it and help evolve the profession to make it more open and accessible.

BW: Interesting. It sounds like you were thinking that you could turn a neighborhood into a den. How were those efforts received?

U,X: Varying. I did a project for a little while trying just that, looking into the logistics of actually building neighborhood currencies and figuring out different ways of getting people involved in social impact projects and things like that. I did a project in 2017 called Steam Park with a close friend, Michael Lee, from architecture school. We thought we should treat cryptocurrencies as a crowdfunding mechanism and get people to help fundraise for park furniture and signage, just to pilot a few different ideas. 

The reception was great for that. People were thrilled. We did Herbert Von King Park in Brooklyn, where we raised about $20,000 to install some benches and signage. The reception from the park was fantastic, the community loved it. But when they found out it was cryptocurrency, they were a little irked. They just weren’t quite sure how to handle that. 

I think the public generally, especially at that time, had no understanding of what this stuff was. But to see it manifest in park furniture made it a lot more real and helped people understand that there is something here that could be valuable to them.

2140 by untitled, xyz

BW: Are you now fully devoted to digital architecture, or is there an IRL aspect to what you do?

U,X: I’ve been fully digital for a while now. I’d love to eventually go back to a hybrid of both. That’s important to my practice. A big goal of mine is to balance between the two and take lessons learned from iterating in a virtual setting to make an impact in a physical setting. I think that’s critical in how we look at the metaverse and what these things can do. 

There’s an incredible wealth of knowledge sharing that can happen virtually from people all over the world that you can’t necessarily have in a local setting. The trick is gathering that wealth of knowledge and skill set and pulling it into the real fabric of neighborhoods to make positive change. I would like that to happen more.

BW: It’s interesting. Listening to you talk about the differences between IRL architecture and metaverse or digital architecture calls to mind how filmmakers are thinking about things like Blender, AI, Unity, and the opportunities to get away from producers to create something that looks functionally big-budget. They can express their own personal visions without needing a bunch of money and therefore needing to recoup that money. That seems like an advantage shared with digital architecture. I’m curious to know what you have found to be the creative opportunities for architects in the metaverse?

U,X: No, there are definitely a lot of parallels, especially in industries where there’s a choke point in the creative process and the logistics of connecting with the right audience. I always draw it back to the very beginning of why I was interested, which is like a town hall. It’s a global town hall. The metaverse is a small town; there aren’t that many people in there right now, but they’re passionate and care a lot about what’s being built. They want to be engaged in the governance of what takes shape. That’s always been a fascinating use case of gathering people together.

In architecture, you have something called a charrette. At the start of an urban design or architecture project, you gather all the stakeholders around a single table. Everyone draws on top of one another on different sheets of paper and comes up with an idea. That’s where the metaverse is right now. Everyone is coming together; it’s a bit messy, or very messy. But people are starting to iterate on ideas, and they can do that quickly in the metaverse. You can prototype things, walk around them virtually, do them in VR, or as avatars on a computer. There are so many ways to experience things and prototype rapidly. That’s incredibly valuable for any designer, artist, or architect to participate in. 

The metaverse is a really incredible sandbox to build in and get real-time, immediate responses from people. With physical architecture, it’s too expensive. You can’t prototype a full-scale building in your backyard or on a site. This is a way to get close to that and iterate on it in a productive way.

Monument of Errors by untitled, xyz

BW: Yeah, and there’s a lot of design elements that you can get away with in the metaverse that you can’t in a world governed by physics and weather. A lot of your buildings seem to not have an exterior; they seem to be all interior in a way. It’s also interesting to think about physics in the metaverse and how buildings could have a very skinny, tiny base and a very large expansive top floor. Just as an idea off the top of my head, which I find really interesting. You mentioned the metaverse and how it’s still a fairly small community of builders. What is the state of the metaverse right now?

U,X: Well, as a comment on what you were saying, I think the physics thing is fascinating because you can create things that can’t exist in the real world. Because of that, a lot of my work draws from real-world elements like columns, staircases, things you don’t necessarily need in a virtual setting, but they serve a different purpose. They don’t serve as structural elements; they serve as reminders, indicators to help guide and orient you in your virtual journey. They give you a sense of scale, a sense of direction, even if that direction is upside down. I like to play with those things, drawing from the physical and tapping into the virtual, but misusing them in a way that helps us understand them differently.

BW: It’s almost like the way you use columns, and they’re kind of curvy and curly. It’s like a false skeuomorphism, where it’s just a visual clue as to what this thing might be, but it’s not really what it looks like.

U,X: Exactly, yeah. We’re really imparting our own footprint in this virtual realm for the first time. There is no established visual language yet. In the beginning of something like Decentraland, people would come to me and say, “I’d like you to rebuild my mansion in the metaverse,” and I would say no, that is the most boring application I’ve ever heard. A lot of people are just trying to figure out and, you know, that’s not to knock anyone’s attempt to build anything in the metaverse. I think it’s worth us challenging what we know and iterating on it to build something different.

To your point about the state of the metaverse, I think right now is a really exciting time. It’s incredibly chaotic, and the NFT scene is too. But we’re very much on the edge of entering a new virtual realm because the technology is catching up. Builders are getting more interested day by day. That’s incredibly exciting for any architect or artist right now. We’re at the middle of all these technologies colliding. As hard as it is to get our voices out there, there’s never been a better time to be at that intersection of all these different things merging together. It’s a mess, but it’s exciting. That’s part of why my art looks the way it does.

Loading New Architecture by untitled, xyz

BW: What are the other opportunities in the metaverse outside of architecture?

U,X: I think there’s a really flourishing character design and avatar design community. It’s becoming huge, understanding what our identity means in a virtual setting. What do we want to be?

Facebook and others have made the mistake of trying to reproduce our likenesses in the metaverse, while other groups like the incredibly talented designers at Polygonal Mind and Vype are building virtual personas. They’re creating banana avatars or different creatures with no real-world comparison. I would much prefer to be a banana than someone who looks like myself in a virtual setting. It’s silly but a serious discussion of what we want to be virtually, what can we be, and how might that better reflect our identities than what we can have on the outside.

To me, there’s a huge economy that’s going to burst through explorations of identity, avatars, digital goods, and things we populate our world with. And then, of course, architecture. What do we want to surround ourselves with? If I don’t have to be in a white box cube in Brooklyn, where can I be? That’s the exciting question for me.

BW: When you draw drawbacks, designing in the metaverse, there are a lot of drawbacks.

U,X: There’s certainly a technology and cost barrier. It’s getting lower, but it’s still a challenge. One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made so far is replicating the real estate industry in the metaverse and treating land as if it were scarce. It replicates the exact same problems we have in the real world. People will treat it the same way, trade it the same way, and ultimately manipulate it the same way. 

You’ll have virtual gentrification, people claiming land around different landmarks, rivers, water, and parks, treating it like they would in New York. It might bring value in some cases, but it can be so much more open, accessible, richer, and more valuable if we create different rules for people to occupy a virtual setting. Within those rules, allow them to design whatever they choose, regardless of how much they can afford. It shouldn’t matter. That’s the hope we’re getting closer to. But the first iteration of the metaverse has been a lot of land grabbing, trading, and flipping. The result hasn’t been great. People have empty plots of land they trade in, and that’s no fun. That’s not a metaverse anyone wants.

Nowhere Stairs by untitled, xyz

BW: Yeah, I remember thinking during the bull run in 2020-2021 when plots of land in Decentraland were going for outlandish amounts of money. I thought to myself, well, there’s always more. It’s just digital. Why? You’re not close to anything, just like a website’s not closer to any other website than anything else. It seemed ridiculous. Do you think the metaverse is going… If you had to place odds, will it be this kind of open situation where it’s egalitarian in a way, like the same way that you might spend more for a specific URL, but that URL is not going to buy you a better website? It’s also not going to buy you closer proximity to another website or a better neighborhood. How do you see it playing out?

U,X: That’s a really good question. It’s certainly ridiculous, looking at some of the land pricing. If I can’t afford my apartment currently, do I really not want to be able to afford a virtual apartment? That’s crazy. We should not be doing that to ourselves. It’s interesting. I think it’s an opportunity to explore different models.

I’ve kind of been of the mindset that there’s going to be two dimensions, if you will. There’s going to be a more corporatized metaverse setting, heavily curated, regimented, very retail with stores and banks and virtual goods being sold. It’s going to have a Park Avenue, Times Square vibe. Then there’s the other side, which will be a lot more grassroots, peer-to-peer owned, much more free and open to build according to different rules. It’s kind of like yin and yang; you almost need both to battle one another a little bit. We’ve seen that play out in almost every science fiction movie or other examples. I think that’s where it’s headed.

Gaming companies and more institutional companies are already planting their flags in the metaverse, saying they want to take part in this e-commerce world. But that’s not where there’s a lot of engagement and growth. There’s this plastic level up here, but there’s really interesting work being done below it. So I think there’ll be both.

BW: Yeah, sounds like it’ll be like Brooklyn, where the artists move in and then the next-level gentrifiers come in with their Apple Store and Whole Foods. It also makes me think of a lot of people bemoaning the death of the weird internet, the fact that you can’t find the weird internet. All you get is what Google deems useful based on SEO practices, which you have to have the cash to hire somebody or the time to rank. So anything that is weird or odd just doesn’t have a place in the conversation.

U,X: We have a concentration problem. Things are coming together, especially with AI models. We’ll see some of that more so, and then there’ll be the wild west lying underneath that’s more interesting and creative. I lived in Berlin for a year, and it reminds me of how I used to compare CryptoVoxels to Berlin in the 90s. It’s this place with raw-looking warehouses and weird stuff going on inside that you can’t even explain. Door to door, artists are doing funky things, different performances happening. CryptoVoxels still has a lot of that vibe. Every metaverse, or rather every virtual world, has its own flavor. That’s a good thing. Hopefully, there are a lot of flavors to choose from.

AI Museum Room by untitled, xyz

BW: We talked about how you can be unbridled as a designer in the metaverse. I’m curious to know if you have any rules or constraints that you place on yourself to stay grounded and able to make stuff without being stuck on the fact that you can get away with anything.

U,X: I think it’s a good question. I try to stick by something I’ve been writing about, though I haven’t published any of it yet. There’s a term called spolia in archaeology, where spolia is the remixing of different architectural objects into new buildings. In ancient Rome to medieval Rome to modern Rome, you’ll see ancient marble columns being used in strange walls, placed in different places, or a frieze relocated. That’s how I’ve decided to practice in the metaverse—using objects we know from the real world, but mixing them together in a modular way that scrambles and changes their meaning, yet still gives reference to things we know.

We talked about this a little bit earlier, but having references to different things we remember and can point to gives us orientation. That helps me in my artwork and architecture. We’re in this transition stage, exiting the physical world and entering more into a virtual world. We’re at that boundary right now. Most of us are 50% of the way there because we’re at least half the day online. That’s 50% of the way there as far as I’m concerned. We just need a different interface, and then it might be 75-90%. Not that we need that interface, which is terrifying, but that’s another thing. We’re right at that boundary, and that’s fascinating for any artist. For me especially, I love exploring that boundary and trying to figure out what it means.

Synonymous Archways by untitled, xyz

BW: There’s a meme about Andy Warhol and how he would have been the first and most fervent adopter of AI in text image generators. Who are the architects who would have been the quickest adopters of the metaverse?

U,X: I would say, the first architects… I think there are some architects I’ve had the very good fortune of working with, like Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, from my hometown of Philadelphia. I got to work with Denise, who is still alive, fortunately, and Bob passed away not too long ago. They are postmodernist architects who love symbology and pop culture, embedding that into their buildings. Their architecture from the 70s and 80s is loaded with references. This is the kind of environment where you create something that can be imbued with so many different references, pop culture discussions, critiques on different things like the financial system or Pikachu. Denise had incredible Edward Hopper paintings in their house, but then a Pikachu right next to it and a Tamagotchi. They loved this Chaos Energy and always put it into their architecture.

The metaverse is perfect for that. It’s a place where you can’t help but look at all these different things happening. Most of my buildings might look Roman in some way, but then there’s a banana avatar running around it, and that’s perfect. That’s kind of the state of things. Someone like Denise Scott Brown would really love it.

BW: Has your design thinking changed over the past four years?

U,X: It’s changed a lot. It’s been heavily impacted by the people I’ve met and the conversations I’ve had, most of which are with people I interact with daily but have zero idea what they look like. There’s a Metaverse Makers Club, or M3. They’re a mix of hackers, artists, designers, and coders who experiment with different metaverse projects and builds. Clubs that form organically like these are interesting because everyone is attracted to them for specific reasons and finds people with an incredible amount of knowledge to share.

For me, the Museum of Crypto Art has been transformative in how I look at architecture and the virtual realm as a whole. The very first time Colborne and Shivani from MOCA took me into Somnium Space was transformative. These are full-scale buildings in a neighborhood of different artists who have built incredible virtual spaces to showcase their art or present different ideas. That made it real for me and transformed my seriousness in this scene. It allowed me to double down on virtual architecture as an important part of not just the future of architecture but also a critical part of how we ultimately build physically as well. That’s been huge.

Athenæum by untitled, xyz

BW: I want to dive into a couple of your specific pieces. The first one I want to talk about is 2140. It reminds me of ancient Sumerian cities, like those early agricultural tribes where everybody enters through the roof and it’s all interconnected. What’s going on with 2140?

U,X: I love that. I wanted to tap into a labyrinth aesthetic for this. Definitely a lot of Mesopotamian building typologies, which are very modular and layered, influenced me. 2140 is a project I’m really excited about. It’s for Projections, an exhibition through Galerie Chalot in Paris that coincides with the Olympic Games.

2140 is the final halving of the Bitcoin blockchain, the year when the last Bitcoin is expected to be produced, capping at 21 million Bitcoin. Coincidentally, or through some strange ether, the Olympic Games and the halving cycle are on the same four-year trajectory. The last halving took place not too long ago, and the Olympic Games happen this summer. As part of this Projections exhibition, the curators were looking for architects, artists, and photographers to think about the Olympic Games.

I wanted to explore what the future of the Olympic Games might look like if they begin to merge with the halving due to their coincidental cycle. Would it become a challenge of physical capability through sport, or more of a mental challenge that takes place virtually, with avatars competing to solve equations, riddles, and problems? As part of this project, I’ve built this theoretical labyrinth where the idea is an avatar in the year 2140 will compete to win the halving, what used to be the Olympic Games.

BW: That’s an interesting finding that the halvings coincide.

U,X: Very. It’s surreal. Miners competing for rewards is the same as athletes training to compete. Both are global, both are incredible challenges. There are so many parallels that I think are really fun. I’ve been thinking about this project for a while and developing it. The labyrinth you see is something I’m building in a virtual setting, so you can walk through it in VR and solve your own puzzles as you go.

Re Sequence by untitled, xyz

BW: That’s cool. Makes me think about whether eSports will ever be in the Olympics. It seems like the halfway point.

U,X: Oh, totally. It has to be. It’s already entering schools as part of scholarships. In California, there are eSports scholarships happening. No doubt that’ll be a big part of the games in the future.

BW: Interesting. What about your ARQs?

U,X: ARCs, yes. QR architecture. I love this project. A lot of my work is about modularity and building blocks. For ARCs, I wanted to explore a QR code vernacular. The QR code was the first visual symbol I had of the cryptocurrency movement back in 2016. People were trading currencies through QR codes. I wanted to build a 3D framework off of the QR code to create a different visual language for the metaverse. These are essentially building units you can combine by rotating and stacking them like Lego pieces. ARCs is a 300-piece collection of virtual architecture building blocks that you can mix and match in different ways. They’re designed to be connectable, and people have built some really cool things with them. It’s exciting to see those being put to use.

Of Arches and Alchemy by untitled, xyz

BW: Are they scannable? Is there anything in the QR code?

U,X: No one has found the Easter eggs in those yet, which I’m disappointed by. I guess I haven’t really shared that. But yeah, a lot of my work has Easter eggs in it. Especially with this QR code project, there are things hiding in there that no one has found yet. Hopefully, they do one day, and maybe there’s something on the other side for them. Most of the QR codes embedded in these building units, I wanted to treat like masking patterns, which is how a QR code gets made. There are different foundational patterns that make up the sequence of the binary black and white logic. I used those masks to create screens, windows, and floor tiles in each arc. So it’s more about taking those patterns and building something with them, like a screen, window, or doorway.

BW: Why did you make them Creative Commons?

U,X: All of my 3D architecture work is Creative Commons. All the work I’ve done with the Museum of Crypto Art, everything. I don’t want my work to be restricted. There are people with far better 3D capabilities and creative abilities than mine, and I want these objects to grow and evolve beyond me. CC0 is an underrated license for 3D assets in the metaverse because it gives them a path to grow and change, find new use cases, even new file formats. We’re way too early in all of this to start putting walls around our work. A good urban designer or architect lets people improvise on the work they create. If no one used my public space exactly as I imagined, it would be boring. You want public spaces and architecture to be adaptable.

People have done incredible things with my work, taking it into Fortnite, GTA, different metaverse projects, and AR apps, bringing them into parts of the world I’ll never be able to go to. Why limit your work? That doesn’t make sense to me. I love that ethos.

A Machine For Living by untitled, xyz

BW: Speaking of functional versus non-functional and improvising, your piece “A Machine for Living” doesn’t strike me as exactly livable. What’s going on there?

U,X: Oh, that’s a throwback. “A Machine for Living” references the architect Le Corbusier, who created Villa Savoye. He called it a machine for living, focusing on functional elements that, when assembled, collectively become a perfect building block for a living unit. That was a big part of my architectural education. While Villa Savoye wasn’t modular, it was about different building blocks that, when put together, became a workable unit. My project is not a cozy living space, but it’s an interpretation or misinterpretation of that phrase. It takes units that could compose a building and remixes them to give an indication of a building, a hint of one, but not a fully constructed one. It’s kind of a skeleton of something.

BW: Just going back to talking about the metaverse, what do people get wrong about it?

U,X: It’s so misunderstood. There are two sides to this. There’s the side of people creating metaverse projects who are replicating real estate issues. They’re just replicating what we know. That’s the biggest myth. We’re creating a mirror world of something we already have. They’re doing that in the rules that make up the economies of these worlds, from plots of land to the cost of different things, all the way to people saying, “I have a metaverse plot, I’m going to build a shop or a house on it that looks just like the one I have here.” Why are we doing that? No one wants to put on these goggles and be in a worse resolution version of what they’re already sitting in. It doesn’t make sense.

We can afford to be more creative and experimental with what we do there. We should challenge systems in different ways because it’s valuable to have a playground to do that. We can afford to make mistakes. It shouldn’t cost so much for us to make mistakes. We shouldn’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a plot to make mistakes. We need to be able to make those mistakes so that we can prototype things and make our real world better as a result. That’s my hope. Maybe that’s a naive approach, but that’s what I believe.

BW: What kind of work would you have made if you had been born 100 years earlier?

U,X: I probably would have had a woodshop and built furniture. Woodworking is something I’ve always been in love with and did early on. But now that I live in Brooklyn, I don’t have room for a woodshop. If I was born 100 years earlier, I think I would have found a way to practice through that. It would have certainly found its way into architecture in different ways. There are woodworkers like Wharton Esherick, who was also based outside of my hometown of Philadelphia. His work 100 years ago was creating incredible wooden masterpieces that were a mix of furniture but also bled into architecture. That’s a long answer, but that’s where I’m landing with it.

Garden of Infinite Pathways by untitled, xyz

BW: I like it. So my last question is, what are you reading, watching, or listening to these days?

U,X: I am reading Invisible Cities by Calvino. I always have it open because it’s an incredible book about imaginary architecture. It’s like a metaverse exercise, explaining a world to someone who can’t see it. How do you explain a CryptoVoxels meetup to someone who has never seen anything like that? I think that’s a fun exercise that keeps me on the edge of my seat.

I watched The Three-Body Problem on Netflix. It’s really interesting, a bit more on the sci-fi side, but it has a virtual prototyping component and a balance between the utopia and dystopia of technology. That’s where we are right now, and it’s where my art wants to be, tackling the question of which direction we are going and how we can guide it toward a good direction.

BW: Also, I have one other question: where would you recommend people start to investigate the metaverse and its creative possibilities?

U,X: The best way to get involved in the metaverse and learn more about it is to go to meetups, participate in discussions, or be a fly on the wall as an anonymous avatar.

The WIP Meetup crew does a weekly meeting every Thursday, showcasing incredible projects and bouncing between worlds. It’s like a field trip every week. There’s the M3 Metaverse crew, and they have a wealth of knowledge in their Discord for people to learn about where to get started.

The best thing to do is hop to these meetups. It’s free, you don’t pay anything, you just show up, and that’s the best way to learn more about these technologies. They are confusing and often daunting, but these field trips are fun.

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