Operator on Human Unreadable

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) explores an emerging conceptual shift in on-chain generative art, signaled by the postmodern generative choreography of Operator’s Human Unreadable. Monk then speaks to the duo about the historical influences of the 2023 Lumen Prize-winning project.
About the Author
Operator, Human Unreadable #198 (detail), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and owned by Le Random

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) explores an emerging conceptual shift in on-chain generative art, signaled by the postmodern generative choreography of Operator’s
Human Unreadable. Monk then speaks to the duo about the historical influences of the 2023 Lumen Prize-winning project.

Conceptual art emerged in the mid 1960s, altering and ultimately enriching our understanding of the art object. Conceptualism represented a paradigmatic shift away from traditional notions of beauty and the materiality of art "objects" toward an emphasis on ideas and actions that often engaged contemporary issues. The movement recognized that, as Apollinaire said and Benjamin Buchloh reminds, "This monster called beauty is not eternal." Artists of the period grappled with the conflict between emphasizing visual aesthetics and prioritizing conceptual ideas. Similarly today, we see some of the most exciting projects in on-chain generative art navigating this same tension, led by Human Unreadable by Operator, the two-time Lumen Prize-winning, experiential artist duo of Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti. Operator and others are bringing concept-forward projects to the blockchain, expanding the possibilities within this space.

As Conceptualism liberated the ‘60s art world from the canvas. Operator’s Human Unreadable liberates the on-chain generative art world from the screen.

Operator achieves this liberation with a postmodern, mixed-media project, including elements of the conceptual, environmental, graphic, new media, participative and performance. This approach, combined with the project's to-be-discussed historical references, sees the collection challenge existing patterns within on-chain generative art that fetishize the art "object" reminiscent of a pre-Conceptualism traditional art world. Human Unreadable disrupts these patterns while reminding the generative art community of its ties to some of modern art's most trenchant conceptual and performance artists. Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Lucinda Childs incorporated technology and generativity into their performances in computer art's infancy. Operator is resurrecting these techniques, reimagining their relevance in 2023.

Human Unreadable understands that as our corner of the art world matures and becomes less distinguishable from the traditional art world, both artists and collectors may place less importance on visual outputs and process alone. High concept, self-referential work, in the vein of Maya Man, Lauren Lee McCarthy and Rhea Myers, examines the medium of the Internet and blockchain while utilizing it. This self-awareness has precedence in painting and sculpture, reminding of Gerhard Richter or Bruce Nauman’s performative operation-as-commentary.

Perhaps this is the point of art world critics like Jerry Saltz and his November 2023 criticism of Refik Anadol: A focus on visuals and process can produce impressive results, possibly even beauty, but is it enough? Without the heft of concept, projects may not not hold much weight in the eyes of professional critics, trained to look beyond the surface.

Saltz's and other mainstream art world criticism of our space often gets reflexively deflected away as a defense mechanism. A more critical investigation into the levied claims may be in order though. How much has this new digital transfer/ownership mechanism truly challenged our preconceived notions of what art is and can be? How much has it raised awareness of the issues our society faces? How knowledgeable is it of the rich history that preceded it? Operator, Man, McCarthy and Myers explore these questions in their work. Human Unreadable in particular moves beyond code stored on a blockchain, while self-consciously commenting and engaging with the medium, reaching deep into the history of twentieth-century art to ask pertinent questions about today.

Human Unreadable consists of three acts:

  1. Visual element: Revealed on Art Blocks Curated
  2. Notational element: Holders of a Human Unreadable artwork are able to uncover the unique choreographic score (secondary token) which shows the movement sequence that created their piece.
  3. Performative element: A live performance created with sequences from #2-#101 of the collection. Host institution to be announced.

I spoke with the duo about how history informed each of the three elements of the project.

Visual Element


Dada, itself a direct antecedent of Conceptual art, plays a prominent role in the story of Human Unreadable with its embrace of chance as well as its aesthetics. Dada artist Man Ray had interest in releasing plastic art and photography from strict representation through experiments with photograms, which he termed “rayographs.” These were pictures made by placing objects onto photographic paper that Ray exposed to light. Arranged randomly with an otherworldly appearance resembling X-rays, rayographs reveal a hidden world beneath the surface just as Human Unreadable obscures the human body on the blockchain. 

Man Ray, Rayograph (The Kiss), 1922

Operator, Human Unreadable #341, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Ania Catherine: Rayographs feel like objects were poured out of a purse and then photographed. They have these accidental compositions consisting of objects, shapes, lines, string or body parts. Rayographs were definitely something that we liked because they don’t look like a person; they look like the hand has become an object along with these other aspects that were in the final images. They influenced our thinking about how this project would come together compositionally with all the visual ingredients we chose to include in Human Unreadable: glass, the human body, light and X-ray. 

The duo's aesthetic was also motivated by the photo collage experiments of Dada artists such as Hannah Höch, Max Ernst and Jean Arp.

Dejha Ti: Dada has this technique of collage, especially photo collage, that is foundational to the Human Unreadable look. Collage was central to our process but we didn't work with actual photos; we worked only with code. The visuals of Human Unreadable may appear really rastered; they look like photos. There are body parts and there are materials that just look organic. In actuality, though, they are one-hundred percent code based and resolution agnostic. It’s all made with math, every single thing that you're seeing.

Hannah Höch, The Strong Guys, 1919

Operator, Human Unreadable #19, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Experimental Photography

Barbara Kasten’s abstract photography and experiments with photograms also inspired the pair.

Dejha Ti: We drew from the work of Barbara Kasten in terms of the visual feeling we wanted the pieces to evoke, trying to figure out where the light needs to be placed in order to shine on the glass in a way that creates the refraction quality that we wanted. Our process involved exploring what Kasten was doing in physical space, looking at the relationship between light, material and space.  and getting the aesthetic results with code out of those arrangements.

We joke about our first experiments creating coded glass; within the first few weeks it looked terrible. We often show these early attempts in presentations about the project because, from an artist-process standpoint, I love when I see other artists' crappy work.

It's good to know where good work comes from; it comes from that experimental work.

But then we got quite skilled at making the most perfect glass. We thought, “Okay now let's make it shitty on purpose. Let's deteriorate it on purpose and add some poetry back in.” That's when we really thought about Kasten’s material work with fingerprints, smudges and imperfections.

Barbara Kasten, CONSTRUCT II A, 1980. Courtesy of the artist

Operator, Human Unreadable #213, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Body art photographer Jürgen Klauke, best known for work deconstructing the human form, impacted the direction of the project as well.

Ania Catherine: X-ray is a quality and visual motif that we used even in our first piece, Privacy Key 00, but the way that Klauke created the illusion of looking through the human body, for example with his self portrait, Toter Fotograf, was really inspirational for us. We thought, “How do you make it look like you're looking through a person?” His work has the feeling that there's a person there but you're also looking beyond the human form which thematically fits really well.

This thematic congruence refers to the duo’s ongoing Privacy Collection, exploring the human body, privacy and transparency in a Web3 context. Human Unreadable, the fifth project in the series, serves as the long form generative art realization of Operator’s vision.

Ania Catherine: Ray’s rayographs, Kasten’s glass and Klauke’s X-rays are all motifs in the Privacy Collection with their use of transparent materials. They are all objects that enable seeing through the surface to a hidden layer.

Dejha Ti: We used our own X-ray technique actually, which we accomplished with what we call an X-ray shader that we built. The shader takes all the individual ingredients: the body parts, the motion path and the several layers of glass that have been manipulated by the motion data. Then it “X-rays” them all together. When it spits it out on the other end, it looks nothing like the raw material that it came from.

Jürgen Klauke, Toter Fotograf, 1988/1993. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Elisabeth & Klaus Thoman

Operator, Human Unreadable #92, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Women Computer Art Pioneers

The move in the 1970s by artists such as Lillian Schwartz away from the rigid modernist grids of the ‘60s towards more organic forms informed the duo’s visual work.

Dejha Ti: Another touchstone that was really impactful for us was to think about moving away from modernism, moving away from the design school of Paul Rand and towards something that is a bit more sensual and messy. Doing that actually required so much more work from a mathematical, coding standpoint. 

We don’t rely on the novelty of technology. We always say, “Tech doesn't age well but concepts do.” With that in mind, the most high-tech Operator work is also the work where the technology is least visible. High tech doesn't equal visible tech. When I think of Lillian Schwartz, Rebecca Allen or Joan Truckenbrod, I think about what the final artwork looks like and how organic it is. The assumption is that it’s a low-tech work but, in fact, it's quite the opposite. The additional time it takes to make something that looks messy and human might not be visible in our work either.

Lillian F. Schwartz, Head, 1968. Copyright © 1968. All rights reserved. Courtesy of the artist

Operator, Human Unreadable #96, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

The duo sees this focus on organic qualities as continuing the tradition of these early women pioneers of computer art. 

Ania Catherine: We are continuing the work that they were doing because they were also noticing that what people put on a pedestal was mostly symmetrical, rational and disembodied computer art. It didn’t have vulnerability or the human touch visible inside it. It was super clean. I think we have a repeat of that same situation in the current on-chain generative art space, where you see the same kind of clean, more mechanical work doing well. Projects that look messy or are categorized as more feminine are not as highly valued. For this reason, we see Human Unreadable as a continuation, conceptually and technically of these past movements. But it’s also a continuation of the energy of inserting new values and aesthetics into what people assume art made with technology looks or feels like. We're continuing that push today in our current climate and want to challenge what people expect to see when they hear "digital art" or "generative art."

Rebecca Allen, E-Motion, 1975. Courtesy of the artist

Operator, Human Unreadable #301, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Notational Element

Analívia Cordeiro

The second element of the three-part project involves uncovering the on-chain choreographed sequences in the form of stick figure-like movement scores. This corresponding choreographic score can be collected from the Operator site.

Ania Catherine: Analívia Cordeiro has this deep knowledge of computing paired with this deep knowledge and appreciation for dance and movement. I think that's the reason why her work is still so significant. It's because she understood both worlds. She served as the major influence for the notation output aspect of this project, which could be a whole separate side project. It's centered around the idea of blockchain dance notation, which involves the translation of the body into code.

Dejha Ti: What you have in that movement score is a lot of information. Not only the information about the sequence that created each visual artwork, but it also includes and directs other elements that determine how that sequence should be performed.

Ania Catherine: This was a complex process. We had to translate movement data, prune it and choose which frames of the movement that we needed to keep in order for the movement to still be expressed. That translation of human expression into data to drive dance notation was a critical step in the transition from the body to code and then the rediscovery of the body later in the final performative element.

Analivia Cordeiro, 0=45 version I (still), 1974. Courtesy of the artist and owned by Le Random

Performative Element


The radical Neo-Dada movement of the 1950s and ‘60s helped spark performance, collaboration and participation in art while also embracing the usage of chance and technology. Neo-Dada served as a bridge connecting the original Dada movement to Conceptualism. Composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and artist Robert Rauschenberg founded the movement at Black Mountain College in 1952.

Ania Catherine: Merce Cunningham, the originator of Chance Dance, was detaching movement from sequence and narrative. He began examining movement for movement's sake. His interests included emergence in choreography. Moves that were never intended or designed to come together would form in a certain order often leading to surprises.

With Human Unreadable, I’ve frequently experienced this same surprise when I see these unexpected sequences come together.

John Cage, Cunningham’s life partner and collaborator, would compose a piece of music and in a separate but parallel process, Cunningham would choreograph. The night of the performance was often the first time that the dancers ever heard the music, so you would have these moments of synchronicity which probably felt extremely magical when this leap happened by chance at a moment Cage had a boom in the score. It was pure chance having these magical occurrences correspond. That idea of chance coming into choreography was not exactly welcomed by everyone. Only later did people realize its impact. Cunningham also acknowledged randomness helped open him up to new possibilities.

Ania Catherine observes the live performance rehearsal (New York). Courtesy of Operator

Another striking historical touchstone is the project’s connection to Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), the hugely influential ‘60s organization founded by engineer Billy Klüver and Neo-Dada artist Robert Rauschenberg after 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering.

Ania Catherine: 9 Evenings was all performances with elements of technology.

The fact that performance has since become detached from technology is actually unusual, considering these iconic historical roots.

Yvonne Rainer had a piece in 9 Evenings called Carriage Discreteness where the dancers were actually being told what to do through walkie talkies in the middle of a live performance. Meanwhile, there was video, audio, lights and music being queued elsewhere. It was a mixture of determined sequences with improvisation and chance. Similarly with Human Unreadable, there are determined sequences, but there's also room for improvisation based on the mood of the choreographer, the physicality of the dancer or the location of the performance. We wanted to maintain the human touch. The final performance will be brought to life with space for human choices at that moment in time. 

Central to the work of E.A.T. was the collaborative element between artists and engineers, a spirit that continues in Operator’s work as well.

Dejha Ti: Operator is a duo but also a practice that engages anywhere from five to twenty additional collaborators to execute a single project due to the level of production required to realize the work. We bring together performance art, creative technology and immersive environments to create experiential work, so there's a lot to cover there. Individually, Ania brings her practice as a performance artist, choreographer and trained dancer. My background is as a human-computer interaction technologist and multimedia and immersive artist. 

We also have the advantage that we're married. So we have an almost unfair edge in that our research and development is 24/7. These connective tissues began to build and we started living as one organism with a shared language. That is now Operator’s signature language. It is an entire approach and philosophy, our way of making art.

That type of communication and that type of collaboration enables us to create work that neither of us would or could create on our own.

E.A.T. was this meaningful collaboration between all parties in a coordinated effort. Similarly, Human Unreadable is a multifaceted project and this production aspect is paramount because you can lose sight very easily of the concept, the soul and the original intent if you're not hands-on. We worked very closely in the making of and are still frequently working with our lead engineer and collaborator for Human Unreadable, Isaac Patka. We are extremely lucky to have found each other because without this relationship being as intimate, exploratory, open and as intense as it is, Human Unreadable would be very different. Just adding an engineer or just adding a dancer to the mix isn't necessarily going to leave you with meaningful artwork.

The multi-disciplinary and revolutionary 1968 exhibition, Cybernetic Serendipity, showcased the various ways that technology and art intersected. One example was Jeanne Beaman’s Random Dances which demonstrated that dance and computers could breathe the same air.

Ania Catherine: Jeanne Beaman and Random Dances (1964-68) was one of the first instances of computational choreography. The performance consisted of set pieces that would instruct the dancer to jump, turn, fall, etc. What inspired us about the piece is what Beaman chose to determine and what she chose to leave up to the dancer or leave up to the choreographer. That work which was eventually in Cybernetic Serendipity was created using an IBM 7070 computer. It is so, so cool.

In our own work, we determine the individual movements themselves, leaving the transitions and positioning up to the setting choreographer or the dancer. We’re exploring the nature of choreography itself, where it begins and ends. Is it designing the movement? Is it the transition from one movement to another? Is it designing where the dance happens in physical space in relation to the other performers? It has been really fun to see how different people working with computational choreography have decided where to hold on to control and where to release control. Do you let that be determined later or let the human decide how to best stitch it together?

Jeanne Beaman, Random Dances, 1968, Performed at Cybernetic Serendipity.

The live performance aspect of the project also has roots in the Neo-Dada movement, Fluxus, with its emphasis on audience participation.

Dejha Ti: I think about creating multimedia works that blur the line between audience and participant and setting up emergent systems and criteria similar to Fluxus and Allan Kaprow’s “happenings.” When I think of multimedia art, I cannot help but think about what it shares with performance art and the notion of the audience as participants.

Meaningful artwork is produced by artists that know the history of what came before them, respond to it and have the artistic vision to push the story forward. The references threaded throughout Human Unreadable all broadened the definition of art in their times. Operator’s concept-forward Human Unreadable broadens the definition of what on-chain art can be today.


Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti are an award-winning experiential artist duo known as Operator.

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.