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Notes From the Ether : A Snapshot into the Shifting Boundaries Between Art and Technology

Buzzwords like Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), and blockchain technology are all the rage these days. In art, these technologies are often a point of contention, with many others questioning the validity of artificially generated artworks and concerned about their implications on what it means to be an artist. Notes from the Ether, curated by ArtScience Museum’s Deborah Lim and independent curator Clara Peh, comes at an opportune moment, unveiling a narrative that reflects very real and existential concerns surrounding our relationship with technology and what it means to be creative in the technological age.

The curators considered the average person’s limited understanding of these emerging technologies, choosing to narrow their focus on certain topics rather than approaching the subject with a broad stroke. Noting the fast-paced evolution of technology, Lim and Peh approached this exhibition with what they’ve termed ‘rapid response curating’. Cutting short the time for planning and exhibiting this show from their usual two to three years to just six months,  As Lim explains, “If we had waited two to three years to address these rapidly-evolving emerging technologies of NFTs and AI, some of the subjects might become obsolete and we would not be reflecting the most current considerations and ongoing discourse. We might even present a retrospective or historical survey by then.” 

The result is an exhibition that is a snapshot of the current technological landscape, offering a material experience often overlooked in discussions about digitally created art.

Generative Art still retains a human touch

With the rise of AI tools such as Dall-E (an application that generates images from text-based prompts), it’s understandable that many believe that AI-generated images are the same as Generative art. Where AI-generated images – with little human involvement – are autonomously generated by an AI algorithm, Generative art involves a creative process where artists employ–  often self-made– algorithms to assist in producing artwork, typically in an experimental process to shape the eventual outcome.

The inclusion of the Autoglyph (2019) and Protoglyph (2019;2022) series by Larva Labs (the brainchild of John Watkinson and Matt Hall) does a good job at establishing what makes generative art art. Autoglyph, widely regarded as the first generative art series created and stored on the blockchain – an immutable ledger that records transactions – utilises a special algorithm ( a special set of instructions for the computer) created by the artist duo. The result was 512 unique visual outputs. Each piece was subsequently minted – created – as an NFT (NFTs can serve as the base medium for some artworks but are typically used as proof of ownership).

To the right of the Autoglyph and Protoglyph series, we can find short snippets of the algorithm’s code – one of the many ways the exhibition helps materialise the often-abstract and elusive processes behind digital artwork. Finding this piece early in the exhibition helped set a crucial tone — not to be conflated with the run-of-the-mill images generated from AI software like DALL-E, these works were still very much the result of practice & experimentation, just like any other artwork we’re accustomed to.

Selected pieces from the Autoglyph (the first 3 from the left) and Protoglyph (right). The generative art pieces are processed and stored on the blockchain.

“There’s sort of this misconception that, because it’s done with a computer, anyone can do it, or it should be very easy. But based on different artists’ eyes, someone’s taste, and the message they’re trying to put out, it’s not so different from creating a painting or another body of work. There’s still the artist in this main seat of deciding what the main aesthetics look like, what is the style, what is the message we’re trying to communicate”, shared Peh.

NFTs: Much more than a jpeg file

Admittedly, when I think of NFTs, my mind often drifts to the infamous BoredApe series. While opinions on its aesthetic value vary, it has undeniably become a symbol for what many critics disdain about NFTs — an ostensibly overpriced digital image file. NFTs, in practice, are a digital certificate of ownership for unique items or digital content. In other words, the NFT is essentially a ‘stamp’ that proves ownership of the typically digital item.

Acquiring physical art has been the norm; the only ‘option’ for centuries. Purchasing something as intangible as a digital file is difficult to grasp –– after all, why buy art we can’t hold or easily display in our homes? Additionally, with a market rife with ‘pump-and-dump’ schemes (where fraudsters manipulate the market to inflate the demand and prices of NFTs), naysayers are sceptical of an NFT’s value. Often, rampant rug-pull scams within the NFT sphere result in the affected NFTs losing all value, leaving the different pieces untouched in a buyer’s digital wallet, forgotten.

Sarah Friend’s playful and endearing Lifeforms (2021) engages with this topic, actively encouraging people to reconsider the dynamics of NFT-trading buyers holding their assets, hoping for a substantial price increase over time.  A Lifeform, an ‘NFT-based entity’ that resembles a digital pet akin to a modern-day Tamagotchi, defies this pattern as it can’t be held for too long. To nurture the Lifeform, it must be traded – at no cost – within 90 days of acquisition or face permanent deletion — making its purchasers take conscious care to ensure its longevity. Anecdotally, Peh was one of the purchasers; her Lifeform was transferred between several friends before it was unfortunately forgotten by its last owner, resulting in its permanent deletion. 

The exhibition supplements its presentation with a diagram that maps the life cycles of the original 50 Lifeforms. Currently, only 13 of them remain. There’s a subtle pang of melancholy in seeing so few Lifeforms left – perhaps a lingering effect of my attachment to my long-lost Tamagotchis. The irony in being able to form emotional bonds with digital entities while scoffing at the validity of owning pricey digital art is not lost on me. What sets apart our emotional connection to these virtual pets? Perhaps the overarching permanence, or lack thereof, distinguishes the two — introducing any sense of loss to anything one owns, even digital, is bound to stir an emotional reaction, after all.

Lifeforms’ display in the exhibition. On the left is a map that displays the life cycles of its 50 pieces, to the right is a screen displaying the longest-living Lifeforms. Next to it is a QR code that allows visitors to scan and interact with a Lifeform using AR and a mobile phone camera.

When Machines Enforce the Rules

Many NFTs and blockchain technology proponents often tout the benefits of ‘smart contracts’ in digital transactions. As explained in this primer, NFTs are minted or created through smart contracts that assign ownership and reassign it when transferred or resold. At a basic level, smart contracts are a tool to implement a sale agreement. However, much more can be coded into these ‘smart contracts’, as seen in the Smart Burn Contract (2021) series by artist Jonas Lund. While the concept of ‘burning’ an NFT in a buyer’s possession is not new (NFTs are often burned to artificially manage their value), the obligations to fulfil for a Smart Burn Contract are rather absurd. For example, Smart Burn Contract #1 stipulates that its owner must donate at least 5% of their yearly profits to a charitable cause, and Smart Burn Contract #4 requires the buyer to do one act of kindness once a week for a year. Lund also holds his buyers accountable by requiring them to provide documentary proof of completion of the various tasks at set intervals. 

The main benefit of fulfilling the work’s obligations? Aside from the bragging rights of fulfilling Smart Burn Contract’s obligations, none. Lund’s work also comments on the ethical considerations of these kinds of contracts —  just as Lund can easily instruct someone to be kind, a person with more nefarious intentions could well instruct the opposite. 

Selected pieces from the Smart Burn Contract series.

Navigating the Boundaries of Art and Technology in an Ever-Evolving Era

I initially expected Notes From the Ether to resemble the interactive exhibits one might encounter at the Science Centre Singapore, and in its educational respects, it did. The exhibition featured numerous interactive displays that offered an enjoyable hands-on experience, delving into abstract concepts while providing visitors with a tangible understanding of the ideas explored. Small touches, including snippets of an artist’s algorithm code, visually conveyed the substantial effort behind seemingly “automatically made” artworks. The entrance of the exhibition even featured a short glossary of terms to help get visitors up to speed. 

It’s worth noting that digital art often poses significant challenges; how it’s displayed in a digital space can significantly alter how the work is perceived. Striking a balance between a highly conceptual presentation and layman accessibility – where the general public’s understanding of such technologies is still evolving – is no easy feat. Notes From the Ether was a step in the right direction in that regard. However, an exhibition about emerging technologies that prioritises a highly conceptual presentation, as opposed to an educational one, may still be far off.

Honestly, I didn’t anticipate leaving the exhibition feeling so existential; what truly set it apart was its ability to balance its educational aspects with profound questions about the place of these technologies in our lives. As Lim astutely points out, “I think there’s also an anxiety that comes about every time a new technology emerges. [At the] advent of photography, artists were afraid that realism would no longer hold at that time, but there is still a value in that. And so I think we’re at this point where judgments are being made, or decisions are taking place, but there is …no conclusive result”.

Beyond the new technology itself, what truly instils fear is the pace at which things are evolving. We have entered an era where nothing remains static — change is constant, and the unfamiliar becomes the norm. This phenomenon isn’t limited to art; it reverberates throughout the broader world. Much like our grandparents struggling to adapt to smartphones, will we, too, find ourselves challenged to keep pace with technology’s rapid evolution?

As we navigate this era of perpetual transformation, Notes From the Ether is a thought-provoking testament to our ability to adapt, question, and embrace the ever-evolving future.


Notes From the Ether runs at the ArtScience Museum till 24 September. More details can be found here.

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