Recently, I came across a perplexing yet intriguing press release, which reads, in part:
Have you ever wanted to see yourself in a painting without having to go through the tedious business of having to sit in front of the artist for what seems like an eternity? Well, you might need an (awful) lot of money, but two brothers have come up with the answer to just such a quandary: a collaborative effort between renowned American artist Rob Evans and his brother, biotech guru Andrew Evans, the March Dig NFT is the first work in the NFT (non-fungible cryptotoken) marketplace — and perhaps even in the fine art realm at large — to automatically transform and mould itself, in a chameleon-like fashion, to reflect the genetic data of its owner and each subsequent owner thereafter. Each of these ground-breaking, scarce “super rare” NFTs (limited to ten) transforms to become an intimately personalized collaboration between the artist/owner in a way that still keeps within the scope of the artist’s vision. Two of the ten copies have already been sold to collectors for prices in the five-figures and a third is currently set to go on sale.
Here is what I know about crypto-currency: 1) it is ridiculous; 2) no, it’s serious; 3) well, serious or not, the market is doing really well; 4) no, it’s not.
I know even less about NFT!
And I know nothing about injecting my DNA into a painting.
But I do know the Evans brothers — in fact, I’ve known “biotech guru” Andy since 1970 (he wasn’t yet a guru in 1970, biotech or otherwise) — so I thought I’d like to hear them try to explain themselves.
The explanation is, I think, rather interesting.
AUDERE MAGAZINE: First of all, for the laymen out there, explain what digital art/NFT are, and how they are going to transform business, and how they will transform art.
Andy: It’s important first to make the distinction between “digital art” and non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. NFTs are really just a record of ownership, like a deed for a plot of land or the title to an automobile. They grew out of the blockchain technology behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, but they are “non-fungible,” meaning that instead of being interchangeable like coins in your pocket each one is designed to represent something unique. So ownership of a particular NFT can represent a contract of sorts.
Digital art, on the other hand, is just that – art that exists in the digital realm. NFTs, by their digital nature and their ability to encode ownership, are ideally suited to act as certificates of ownership of digital art.
While the current “gold rush” in NFTs seems to be just an endless flood of low-grade computer-generated cartoonish avatars, there are real use cases hidden in there that will become much more practical and valuable in the future, we think , from enabling fair-trade commerce to replacing and automating everyday contracts like deeds and titles. Our NFT provides a little glimpse into how this can work.
Rob: In the art world, since the advent of computers, there have always been artists exploring and experimenting with all forms of digital media as they become available. The NFT has provided these artists with a new and exciting platform to present, deliver, archive and sell this work.
What’s the difference between NFT collectibles and fine art that uses NFT?
Rob: Fine art is generally accepted as being something of aesthetic value that visually draws you in, expands your horizons in some way, and ultimately has layers of meaning that make you want to keep coming back to it.
Much of what is currently being hyped out there in the NFT realm is designed primarily to be a scarce collectible commodity. While non-fine art pixelated avatars like Cryptopunks and Bored Apes flood the marketplace and dominate the headlines with million dollar NFT sales and celebrity endorsements, many fine artists, like me, are experimenting with new ways to utilize the NFT platform in an artistic and expressive way, rather than simply creating collectible novelties.
The artwork shown in the photograph was transformed by your mother’s DNA. How did that work?
Andy: In order to transform the artwork, you must first be a subscriber to the personal genetics service 23andMe. When you buy the NFT, it acts like a digital “membership pass” to a website we call the “DNA portal.” You visit that site, with your 23andMe data in hand, and use the NFT to actually log in. So only current holders of the NFT can enter. Once inside, you can present your 23andMe data to the portal, and it gives you back the transformed artwork.
One cool side note — not only do we not store or identify any of your DNA data, but through some technical magic I’m rather proud of we don’t actually require you to move your raw DNA data over the internet to us at all. It never leaves your own PC. This was an important aspect of data privacy for this artwork. We consider the understanding of your data exposures and DNA privacy to be an inherent part of participating in this artwork, actually — we want participants to encounter these issues and think about them.
Rob: Each first-time purchaser of the NFT will also receive a digital print, like the one pictured in the photograph, of their DNA modified image. The print is produced in my studio on acid free paper with archival inks and signed by me.
So if I buy a copy, it will be transformed by my own DNA? What might I expect to see?
Andy: When you transform the artwork, the content of the painting actually changes. There are elements of your DNA makeup that can affect your outward traits, inform about ancestry, health markers, etc. — all of these things impact your life and experiences in overt and subtle ways. The painting draws upon these and reflects them in various symbolic ways — items change shape and pattern or appear and disappear, the lighting changes, and so on. The narrative of the painting is adapted to each holder.
Rob: It will be a literal reflection of your genetic makeup, a subtle and symbolic portrait of “you” embedded in the work. In a unique way, we will have collaborated to produce a new version of the work, with a slightly altered narrative based on your personal input.
How did you decide to get involved in this?
Andy: Over 10 years ago, when I was working in the field of bioinformatics, I had dreamt up another art project involving using DNA data from the consumer genetics company 23andMe to create Nintendo Wii Mii avatars that looked like their owners. It caught the imagination of the bioinformatics community and we even made them into conference badges for the genetics glitterati at a meeting of the Personal Genomes Project at Harvard in 2012.
I approached Rob with the idea that we could make symbolic, representational art driven by DNA information. Rob’s art is a perfect fit, representational yet very symbolic and dreamlike, bordering on “magic realist.” So having the machine read your DNA and then inscribe it into a realist artwork was very intriguing to both of us. We took Rob’s work “March Dig” and adapted a digital version of it to be modifiable using DNA information, and the project was born.
And the business world was interested too?
Andy: A major biotech company I was working with at the time happened to be sponsoring the Smithsonian exhibition marking the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the DNA double helix. They thought it would be cool to have DNA-driven art as part of the exhibit, so we adapted the March Dig project to be usable in the exhibit. Attendees could get their genomes sequenced on the spot using the biotech company’s mobile lab, and would receive an electronic badge they could present to the artwork, and watch it transform. We had the entire exhibit working, down to the special sequencing chemistry for the mobile lab. At the last minute, however, the Smithsonian got cold feet and pulled approval for inclusion in the exhibit, because they did not like the optics of sequencing the general public in front of the Smithsonian.
How does this fit in with the art you have done in the past, Rob?
Rob: Although I have utilized mostly traditional drawing and painting media throughout my artistic career, I have also been fascinated by newer digital technologies and their potential application in the fine art realm.
In 1994 I was included in Adamson Editions’ “Washington Portfolio,” one of the first all-digital print portfolios produced in the fine art world. The portfolio made some waves at the time and helped establish digital printmaking as a new and legitimate fine art form.
When Andy approached me, nearly a decade ago, about the Smithsonian exhibit, and brought me up to speed on his work with DNA modified avatars, I immediately saw the potential for using this same process to create transformative versions of my own work.
What was the initial process?
Rob: To start off, we chose to work with a version of my 1985 graphite drawing “March Dig I.” To take advantage of Andy’s brilliant platform, I developed layers in the digital version of the drawing that would get turned off and on based on certain genetic traits of the viewer, allowing specific objects to appear or disappear, lighting to shift, and other changes to take place that would symbolically reflect the viewer’s genetic make-up. The end result was a mind-blowing chameleon-like work that transformed before your eyes to become a reflection of the viewer, and which, through this same process, would subtly change and shift its narrative over time for each subsequent viewer. I was not aware of anything else like this in the art world — it was truly groundbreaking and quite exciting!
How did you decide to work in the NFT space?
Rob: The recent advent of the NFT platform provided the perfect way to deliver and showcase this work in a meaningful and artistic way. Instead of badges for viewers of the work, Andy came up with a brilliant portal concept that would allow the owner of the NFT, and each successive owner, to utilize their genetic data from 23&Me as a key to unlock the genetic content. This unique personalized transformation process, combined with the permanence of blockchain ownership, resulted in a completely innovative work of art that forged new territory in the artist/owner relationship.
How do you make money off of this?
Andy: It is rather straightforward — as with any art, people can buy it and own it. The March Dig NFT edition consists of a limited run of 10, and no more will be created — or “minted” in NFT terms. The first two in the edition were sold rather quickly to private collectors for 5-figure amounts. Those sales were conducted “off-chain.” In other words, the transactions did not happen in cryptocurrency, and ownership was simply transferred on the blockchain at completion of the sales. So you don’t have to be a crypto maven to buy NFTs or digital art. The remainder of the edition we intend to list and sell via NFT marketplaces. #3 is currently being auctioned on an NFT marketplace called Opensea. Think of it as eBay for NFTs. Our aim is to auction #10 via a traditional art auction house.
Is it good for art?
Andy: There is a lot of untapped potential for what NFTs can do. Once all the noise from the current gold rush subsides, there are some real advantages for artists in NFTs. For instance, it is possible to digitally attach a perpetual resale royalty to an NFT that comes straight back to the creator. This empowers artists to benefit from their art long after it leaves their hands and fairly participate in rights transfers without having to have an agent, gallery, lawyers, involved. It’s all automated. This is also a big topic in the music world right now as well, incidentally. Traditionally musicians have seen very little of the money that is made from their efforts, and NFTs could radically transform the way musical artists manage and benefit from their works at all levels. I think the next few years will be very interesting to watch.
Rob: From the artist’s point of view, the most significant advantage to the artist on the commercial side is the ability to guarantee the receipt of royalties on all resales, something artists have always dreamed of being able to lock into place.
What about VR?
Andy: NFTs will come into play in the ownership of digital goods in virtual reality. With the “metaverse” buzzword on everyone’s lips these days, NFTs are exactly the kind of digital ownership contract you need in order to have a transferable proof of ownership for items in virtual worlds, and for things like club memberships, event passes, and so on. I think this is an area where NFTs can shine. Plus, don’t forget to hang your DNA-enhanced March Dig on the wall of your VR home space!
A lot of people thought cryptocurrency was a ridiculous idea, but today there are crypto-billionaires. There are already some NFT millionaires. Do you see this market continuing to explode?
Andy: To answer this, it’s important to distinguish crypto speculative trading from the functional value of blockchain technology. Trading crypto like Bitcoin is a form of gambling, really. In some senses, it shares some attributes with Ponzi schemes, in that there is little inherent value backing Bitcoin other than its sheer momentum and the people who got in early stand to make money at the expense of people coming in later. It’s quite shockingly distinct from the original idealistic intent behind Bitcoin, actually, which was to create an alternate, stateless financial instrument. That’s a whole other topic!
I think crypto speculative trading and NFTs share this problem. Each has a functional use case that is distinct from the way it’s overwhelmingly being used currently. While the crypto use case only gets realized if state-backed “fiat” currencies somehow allow an opening for it, the NFT use case requires enforceable legal recognition to supplant paper contracts, for instance. It remains to be seen whether either of these ideas gains traction, but I think the NFT use case is at least more practical in the short term.
In the meantime, it’s anyone’s guess whether the crypto market will continue to explode, or collapse spectacularly like the tulip market in the 1600’s Netherlands… if I knew the answer to that, I’d get rather wealthy!
Is this too much about business?
Rob: The crypto marketplace is the wild west to be sure – very difficult to predict with great fluctuations up and down. While scarcity will likely always be a factor in determining value, both for collectible and fine art NFTs, it is the intrinsic artistic and aesthetic worth of fine art driven NFTs, created by established bankable artists, that I think will likely cause them to have the greatest staying power and ability to hold their value over time.
Rob: The possibilities for this collaborative engagement between artist and owner are quite fascinating, and I am already thinking about other ways to expand on this concept and explore new territory — possibly into the realm of VR. We are counting on selling the current NFT as a way to provide the necessary resources to explore this further.
Andy: Unlike the endless script-generated avatar NFTs out there, these require investment of real resources, and science, to pull off.
You can read more about the Evans brothers painting (or put in a bid) here.
Steven S. Drachman is the author of Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead, which is available in trade paperback from your favorite local independent bookstore, from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and on Kindle.