In conversation with the founder of Art Blocks, Erick Calderon (Snowfro), and founder of fx(hash), Baptiste Crespy (ciphrd), Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) reflects on the trenchant moment that is November 2023 for on-chain generative art.
About the Author
Peter, an arts writer, is responsible for Le Random’s editorial branch.
Snowfro and Ciphrd on a Symbiotic Relationship
In conversation with the founder of Art Blocks, Erick Calderon (Snowfro), and founder of fx(hash), Baptiste Crespy (ciphrd), Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) reflects on the trenchant moment that is November 2023 for on-chain generative art.
November 2023 marks the three-year anniversary of Art Blocks, the two-year anniversary of fxhash and the verge of fxhash’s 2.0 launch. Sensing an inflection point in the space, I saw an appropriate time to take stock of the on-chain era of generative art, ushered in by these two foundational platforms. I speak to Art Blocks founder Snowfro and the fxhash trio of ciphrd (Founder), Paul Schmidt (COO) and Charlie Middleton (Creative Director) about the state of each platform on their special occasions. We cover the following:
Views on Each Other
Elevating Generative Art
Snowfro on Art Blocks
Peter Bauman: It's your three-year anniversary at Art Blocks. What are you thinking about, both long-term and as we close out 2023?
Snowfro: What's really important is thinking through both the artist and collector experience on a more long-term, meaningful level. We’re trying to define: What's the relationship between Art Blocks and artists? Artists want clarity and I have not been interested in jumping the gun and trying to decide what that relationship is because I feel like everybody tries to put everything into a box, labeling Art Blocks as a gallery or publisher. The reality is that Web3 is actually something very different.
We're ready to take another step forward in defining the relationship and defining what Art Blocks Flagship or Curated is as a platform. Part of that, because this is Web3 and the product doesn't end at the mint, is a hand-in-hand relationship between what it means to be a collector too. Improving the artist experience and improving the collector experience across the Art Blocks ecosystem is a lot of what we're going to spend 2024 doing. As for 2024 on a general level, this space has a few things to look forward to, including a broader acceptance of digital art, as the medium—and generative art alongside it—is elevated via a more digital existence. I’m also hoping to see broader adoption and easier onboarding for consumers into the blockchain-powered digital art ecosystem.
Ciphrd on fx(hash)
Peter Bauman: You've described fxhash's mission as “building the engine that powers the world's desire to create, collect and appreciate generative art.” How does fxhash 2.0 align with this mission?
Ciphrd: If you want to build a tool that's going to fit as many use cases as possible and solve as many problems as possible for artists, you have to ask them: What problems are you facing? What do you want from the tools that we provide? One of the main requests from artists was to release on Ethereum. As some artists grew up on our platform, we've seen more and more of them expanding their horizons on other blockchains and other platforms, which is perfectly fine. We didn't want to be positioned as a tool that opens up any creativity while limiting our artists in terms of reach because, well, some collectors only collect on Tezos or Ethereum. There is a crossover between those collector groups, but essentially, there are also a lot of differences between these blockchains. It's in that regard that we wanted to integrate Ethereum into the platform.
We still have not reached what we’d consider to be the basis of a solid product. That is, having this tool that can serve many purposes yet is intuitive for a variety of users. Ethereum is definitely bringing us closer to this base, stable state. But effectively, there's probably two to three years of work remaining until we build this strong base from which we don't have to iterate daily as much on the product; rather, we can focus on fully fostering the creativity and the sustainability of the ecosystem. 2.0 is really just one step towards getting to what we see fxhash becoming for the general ecosystem.
Peter Bauman: You mentioned this “stable state.” Can you talk more about what that looks like?
Charlie: I think, from a consumer point of view, it’s reducing the complexity of the platform and taking away more and more barriers to entry. This includes onboarding collectors or artists, potentially from a non-Web3 environment. More so, it’s about trying to find those Web3 people who are already aware and showing them this side of the world as well. A lot of what happens next is focused on onboarding the next 100,000 users, 10,000 artists and 1,000 platforms, trying to build on top of what we already have by reducing the barriers to entry.
Ciphrd: One of our key guidelines will be to start making the tool less and less present in, let's say, the presentations artists make of their work. We’re adding a white-labeled solution that allows you to release on your own website or on your own platform without us having too much of a presence. I can understand that for artists putting their life’s work on the platform, they want to have a set of tools that allows them to broadcast their work in a manner that's more suited for it, especially if they spent years building it. We want to provide tools that you can use in many ways, not only the ways that the platform intends.
Peter Bauman: Is that similar to Art Blocks Engine, this white-labeled service?
Charlie: There will be similarities but I think what we offer is a suite of tools for any user that isn't just white-labeled minting capabilities. The entire flow will be white-labeled, from collecting, to presenting, to purchasing redeemables, to writing about your works, to creating interactive experiences through params. We see fxhash as more of the hub, the culmination of all of these different efforts by other people using the tools that we create.
The fx(hash) team looks back
Peter Bauman: What are you most proud of over the last two years?
Ciphrd: Oh, that's a tough one. Personally, I’ve had very little time to take a step back and reflect on what has happened. I've been most proud when, in the craziness of an event, someone comes and says, “Hey, I just wanted to say thank you for what you've done. It has impacted my life as a creative.” Those are the moments where I'm reminded of the purpose of what was initialized with the tool and it's probably the moment where I'm most proud of what has happened.
Paul: For me, it’s that we built a pipeline for artists to start their generative art career and then to even prosper and go beyond. If you look at the artists that joined in 2021 and 2022, many of them had their first release and honed their skill set on fxhash. Then they also grew even further and even bigger. Of course, talking to the people at events is always super cool because they actually see that in some way, what you're doing has an impact and that's very nice and motivating.
Charlie: I also think it’s the feedback you receive from a very personal place, from artists and collectors, where their own missions are being completed through our tools; it means that our mission is in turn being completed. It’s very fulfilling for artists to say, “This has sustained my part-time job,” or “I can now become a full-time artist.”
Snowfro reflects on the evolution of Art Blocks
Peter Bauman: Looking back at these last three years, how has Art Blocks evolved?
Snowfro: Art Blocks started as a hobby. It was just this passion project based on my love of generative art. I was also a huge fan of blockchain technology, recognizing its benefits. I was experiencing this ephemeral, generative output cadence, watching my idols release work on Instagram as a post every single day. I realized that you could memorialize these or contain them more on chain. Today we've released hundreds of projects from hundreds of artists, have a team of 40 people focused on elevating the medium of generative art and have managed to change a lot of people's lives. We’ve also inspired a lot of other generative art platforms along the way. The reality is that Art Blocks has evolved into something much bigger than I ever expected. We learn something every single day about ourselves, about the ecosystem and about the artists; we'll continue to evolve.
Everything has changed in the last year with collecting, based on volumes, but also sentiment. Yet we've managed to retain a certain level of collectorship. I've been through many cycles and usually things just go away or go down 95% or 98%. We've definitely validated a love for this medium.
3. Views on Each Other
Snowfro reveals his views on fx(hash)
Peter Bauman: How do you see fxhash, generally, and then, specifically, their entrance into Ethereum?
Snowfro: I am personally incredibly grateful for the existence of fxhash and see them as entirely a value-add to the generative art ecosystem. I welcome them into the Ethereum ecosystem, wishing them all the success in the world. I recently had the opportunity to meet with ciphrd and left the conversation feeling incredibly aligned in general. This is a very complicated and dirty ecosystem. I've seen nothing but them operating with integrity and being truly devoted to artists. I don't know what more we can ask from a competitor than that. As the competitive landscape intensifies, there's just a lot of new entrants coming in, and they all have different things that they're like. “Oh, we do this better,” or “We do that better.” I don't feel like fxhash came into this saying, “This is why we're better.” They just came in and said, “This is what we're doing.” I appreciate that. I want to work alongside and collaborate more with people who are genuinely passionate about the medium.
I want to make sure that the people that are most successful in this ecosystem are the ones that have operated with nothing but integrity. I think that everybody in the ecosystem benefits from that. I'm just really excited about their entrance into Ethereum and I wish them the best. I'm excited to see what happens.
Peter Bauman: You mentioned the integrity fxhash operates with but they also pride themselves on being open and accessible to everyone. How do you view this debate on openness versus curation?
Snowfro: This is something that’s been ongoing even before fxhash existed. Art Blocks actually started as an open platform just under the assumption that nobody would actually want to release anything on the platform. I don't actually see it as a debate. I see it as serving completely different stakeholders, both on the artist side and the collector side. I'm personally terrified about the immutability of blockchain technology. That's also why I love blockchain—the immutability of it. It's a blessing and a curse. I just don't have the same bravery personally, especially when Art Blocks was small. Now that Art Blocks is bigger, it's like, props to fxhash for being brave in that way. Art Blocks will gradually get more open and accessible over time but we are likely never going to be totally wide open like fxhash. We're fortunate to work with Prohibition, for example, as a wonderful Engine partner that is focused on openness and inclusivity. Anything branded Art Blocks is going to be focused on curation, attention to detail, and having people involved in just about everything that we do.
That's just a different model that we're proud of and continue to lean into, especially with the Art Blocks Flagship, while continuing to work towards a broader generative art ecosystem using our technology over time. I think it's wonderful that they both exist. I think fxhash is likely—I don't know if they are—but is likely to go towards a more curated model over time. Art Blocks is going to expand into a more open model. I think that's beautiful and I'm excited about the opportunity for artists at all of those stages along the way. I think fxhash and Art Blocks can very much live symbiotically within this ecosystem, especially after my call with ciphrd and feeling a pretty solid alignment between what we want, which generally is just what is best for artists and best for collectors.
The fx(hash) team on Art Blocks
Peter Bauman: How do you see Art Blocks? What's your relationship like with the platform and Snowfro?
Ciphrd: I had a discussion with Erick very recently. It was a long-due discussion. We only saw each other very briefly in real life at physical events but never had time to discuss. It was the first time, just two weeks ago, that we discussed the current state of things and the future. It's something I've said to him and he was on the same wavelength: I think fxhash and Art Blocks are a very nice symbiotic ecosystem. On one end, you have the open platform that allows anyone to get in touch with collectors, to have some light put on their work and the ability to reach mass audiences without any barriers. On the other end, you have an initiative that's targeting the high-end approach, facilitating the positive perception of generative art in institutions, which is something super difficult on our end. When we introduce our project to museums, they can look at our export page and find everything and anything. We think that’s super great but for institutions, it might make them a bit reluctant to get into the ecosystem. The approach of Art Blocks and their model of curation has enabled partnerships that we could never have on our end.
We've also seen many artists getting discovered through fxhash in 2021 and releasing in 2022 on Art Blocks. It’s likely their success on fxhash helped them also release on Art Blocks. I think it makes for a pretty sustainable ecosystem. I'm also happy that Art Blocks is one of these platforms building with integrity. Erick is a genuine person and what he's been doing for the ecosystem with integrity over these years has been nothing but healthy. It's reassuring to know that, yes, we are, of course, competing a little bit in some aspects but also that our integrity is well placed. That’s been rewarding for both of us. Fxhash would probably not be here if it were not for Art Blocks. That alone is a pretty big statement so we certainly recognize them. When it comes to integrity, there's been the rise of a lot of other generative platforms over the last year. Not every platform is operating with integrity. Sometimes it's a bit hard to keep from doing easy but shady practices to get artists on board. I'm very grateful for Art Blocks not falling into these practices and continuing to build with integrity.
Peter Bauman: You said you see two different roles for the platforms. But how do you contend with the sentiment that fxhash is for experimentation and Art Blocks is for more finished work?
Charlie: It’s a misconception that fxhash’s openness is only for experimental projects. “Experimental” has a connotation that assumes they aren't as polished as Art Blocks or other platforms. I think that’s been proven false time and time again with very high-quality releases brought to life on fxhash. I can understand that the experimental label comes from having more experimental projects overall due to our openness. In that sense, I’m happy with the label. I think over time you’ll see more people using the platform for prestige drops as well as the fringes of generative art to push the boundaries.
Ciphrd: I think you've touched on an important point about pushing the boundaries of generative art. What's difficult for Art Blocks, I believe, is that when you release a project there, it's going to be very hard to incorporate experimentation or boundary-pushing elements because of the risk involved for many artists. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I believe many creative decisions have been made towards building projects that are more appealing to collectors because, again, it is a life-changing opportunity. Adding experimental elements to the work could potentially damage this once-in-a-lifetime shot.
Big picture, I think it's very important for artists to have the ability to experiment, maybe make a little bit of money out of those experiments and, through these experiments, push boundaries.
I can think of at least ten fxhash projects that were not shipped with the intent of making big bucks from the artist. The only intent was, “Hey, I found this trick to use the blockchain in such a way. Just look at it. I don't care about what it's going to mean for my personal artistic career or anything. But here it is. Do what you want with it.” Once in a while, we have a project that completely shifts what people think about the practice.
One of the big ones in that regard is Piter Pasma’s Universal Rayhatcher. It would have been difficult to see this project on a highly curated platform. Typically, you want an ecosystem where you have many artists that can participate and tooling that allows these experiments to emerge.
4. Elevating Generative Art
Ciphrd on elevating and growing the space
Peter Bauman: What can your users—collectors, artists, and readers of this article—do to help elevate generative art?
Ciphrd: I'm going to use the example of Didi. He's a big collector on the platform and a big advocate of generative art. He always said, “Guys, I love the space. I want to support it financially.” I think it's not only the duty of artists and platforms to elevate the space. If we believe in it, it's also our duty as collectors if we want to see the space moving forward. We also have the ability to impact newcomers to the space. Didi did a very nice show with Kate Vass in Paris that was fully physical with no digital screens of any kind. This example demonstrates how we can advocate on a large scale. On a smaller, individual scale, we also have the ability as advocates of the generative art space to make slight changes around us. It can be talking to friends or speaking to them about why we find this fascinating. If we are passionate, it's likely that others share the same passion.
Peter Bauman: You talk about advocating to family and friends. Is that how you see onboarding the next 100,000 users and 10,000 artists, like you previously mentioned? Can you walk me through your overall strategy there?
Ciphrd: It's a pretty substantial question because many in the space are questioning whether we have maxed out the potential of generative art within the collector space or whether there is still growth possible. I still think that, although generative art has received some attention in the last two years, we are still very far from getting worldwide recognition. We’ve yet to see acceptance that generative art is something native to blockchain and that can be interacted with in a very organic manner. In France, we have digital festivals, which are the best places to see the state of the digital art ecosystem. But it's still separate. It's still mostly people who know about it who attend. At this time where human-machine interactions have become so essential to our being, generative art makes sense as an art practice you can connect with rather easily.
I think there's going to be a lot of work to make the barriers to this ecosystem as thin as possible. Right now, creating a wallet and everything else is really a pain for newcomers. That's why we have not ventured recently into showcasing the tool to wider audiences. When we did it at Art Basel, it was not quite a success for us because there was still a bit of friction. Newcomers could get some NFTs but then they had no way to interact and no proper education because it's still too complex. I think in that regard, Verse is doing a good job at abstracting this complexity away from collectors and has the potential, with the current UX they provide, to start onboarding more users. There will also be efforts on our end to improve the UX of our tooling. Only then will we start looking into how we can attract more users. That comes from education, it comes from showcasing crazy generative art shows in physical life, using parameters, and using interactivity. It’s stuff that can really get the audience hooked in a way that's unique to them.
The second point that I want to add is that generative art is already pretty complex to get in touch with. It can be done but there are many layers that we have to unpack. There are other ways to get generativity understood in the eyes of customers, though, and we like tangible examples. You can explain it terms of generative fashion or generative physical objects that are more tangible to them.
Some of our efforts in the upcoming years are also going to fork our initiatives. First, in the artistic space but also trying to provide a set of tools in the consumer goods area.
I think we can build some very interesting experiences for customers by merging a more consumerist approach with generative art. I can see an fxhash experience where users design their own clothes with parameters, for instance. I think that slowly, more people will get in touch with it.
Snowfro on the relevance of the traditional art world
Snowfro: To be brutally honest, Art Blocks was born out of my flight from the traditional art world. Part of the joy of being in the blockchain space was being able to see a vision of the future where there was more freedom for artists to put their stuff out there. I was against galleries in general because they would always make me intimidated. Every time I walked into a gallery, I was like, “I don't belong here and I can't afford your art and I don't want to waste your time.” Of course, as I've learned more about the traditional art world, I have very much seen the value of the gallery. As there's more noise in the Web3 space, there will need to be some intermediary tastemaker to help people dig through the noise.
I think what I'm most excited about is a happy medium between the absolute radical transparency of the blockchain space and the mentorship, guidance and filtering that galleries can provide. My experience is that the galleries are open to it but things get really hairy when you start trying to break down their lack of transparency. That's a decades-old gallery model and it's going to take some time. On the crypto side, it's going to take some time for the community to accommodate the idea that there needs to be an intermediary after the free for all in 2021 and 2022. There's going to be a place in the middle. What’s that going to be? Is it going to be a mentorship-support, marketing arm that embraces the radical transparency that comes with crypto? What I'm here for and what I'm excited about is this happy medium balance between transparency and mentorship. And that's kind of where Art Blocks is headed. And that's why I'm so reticent about Art Blocks being put into a box. Are you a gallery? Are you a publisher? I don't know what we are. We're figuring it out as we go but it's somewhere in the middle with less restraint than a typical gallery model.
While I have very much come to appreciate many aspects of the traditional art world and see tremendous value in the galley model, Web3 empowers artists in a very different way. Giving into the old way of doing things feels like a missed opportunity. I am grateful for the way the traditional institution has embraced Art Blocks and on-chain generative art in general and has made many friends and connections in that world.
But we are paving our own path here, one that the traditional art world is welcome to dip their toes into and has time and time again. I’m not eager to have this special thing we built turn into the things that I was originally running away from in the first place.
Snowfro: I feel like there was a time when our little corner of the Internet was so excited about the recognition from the traditional art world that we were imposing ourselves onto it. It turned into this self righteous feeling that we “deserved” to be here and in dialogue after only a very short period of time. It was similar to what I was fighting against: the crypto-flipping degens who felt they “deserved” something as a collector from a platform or project. I almost felt like that person when I interacted with the traditional art world. I woke up one day and I was like, “Wait a minute, this isn't right.” Why are we pushing ourselves into Art Basel? They don't care. And when they do care, they're going to come and talk to us about it. But right now, they don't care. It just felt like an imposition and I found it discouraging. I found myself regretting that.
It doesn't hurt to engage with the traditional world but I've also learned that, my whole life, my best path has been to be myself. I've definitely gone through various paths in my life where I try to be somebody that I wasn't. I think that's just pretty human. Every single time, I find myself thriving by being myself. I would say the same for Art Blocks. I would say the same for generative art, the medium. It came from a very niche group of people that just gave a s——t about what they were doing as a passion project. If you go back to 2020, I was just being my nerdy little self. Somehow, we've created 40 or 50,000 collectors of generative art who probably would never have talked about art in their entire lives, much less participated in gallery exhibitions.
If we can be ourselves as a platform, if the competitive landscape of generative art can just be your f——g self, it is very likely that the people in the art world that are not entrenched in the status quo for financial reasons but actually give a s——t about art and are excited about art the same way we're excited about art will eventually show interest.
They're going to look over and be like, “Hey, man, that's pretty fun and I want to engage with that.” It may not happen overnight, but it won't feel rushed and it'll feel more gradual. I love that and I'm excited about that. I regret a little bit how aggressively we were going after the traditional art world. I'm very grateful for the conversations we're having in the traditional art world. It's the most validating thing ever for people to reach out and want to talk about the art. I think there's a lot of opportunity there.
Peter Bauman: What advice would you give to readers, Art Blocks users, collectors, and artists to join you in your mission of elevating generative art?
Snowfro: If you take what I just said about myself and about Art Blocks and then translate that into advice for generative art collectors and artists—even people that aren't on Art Blocks—it’s this: be yourself.
It's intoxicating. It's infectious when you're really passionately excited about something and you go down that rabbit hole and talk to your friend about it. That person has been rolling their eyes for two or three years but all of a sudden, there aren’t million-dollar sales happening every day and it becomes more accessible. Now we have things like heart+craft for $20 and you can have that onboarding and conversation without the FOMO at the dinner table. I think there's a really great opportunity for collectors to join in this mission of elevating generative art when people go down the rabbit hole and they're just freaking excited and passionate about what they're talking about. That just comes down to being ourselves.
There's this opportunity for that to shine through and attract the traditional art world. In the same way that thousands of people in 2020 and 2021 joined the Art Blocks Discord.
They were just intrigued and fascinated and that was before the big bull run of 2021. People were just excited and delighted and captivated by what we were doing. That is the level of conversation that we need to have to engage with the traditional art world.
I can prove that from my conversations in the traditional art world in Houston, where I now have a group of friends that are very deep in it. If I approached them like, “Hey, you should put this in. You need to have an exhibition for Art Blocks and you need to do these things." I think that that conversation would have died very quickly. Instead, we just sit around, having a cup of coffee and talking about art. Some of it is blockchain art and some of it's not blockchain art and realizing that they all kind of interweave together in a really positive way
Snowfro on the long-term sustainability of Art Blocks
Peter Bauman: Museums are raising ticket prices, especially in the US. They're cutting staff at SFMoMA and the DMA because attendance hasn't returned to pre-pandemic levels. It seems like the Web3 art world is experiencing something similar. Can you talk about raising Art Blocks platform fees to 30% and the sustainability of the platform?
Snowfro: There's a lot of layers. I don't have a basement but imagine Erick working on a hobby out of a basement in 2020 before thinking that anybody would give a s——t about this. That's when the 10% was set and it was based on back-of-napkin calculations of what it would cost to host a server if ten Chromie Squiggles were sold a week over the course of years. You have to remember that when I launched Art Blocks, I had been reaching out to artists for two or three years at that point to ask them to release on Art Blocks. The answer was a flat-out "no,” or completely ignoring the question. Other than Jeff Davis and my brother, who had originally helped put together these projects, I still had not gotten a green light from any artist that they would put something on Art Blocks.
It's just a very different situation from a basement-nerd passion project to a 40-person team. I have always put the artist first and value the artist so much. For every artist that we release, maybe 19 artists don't get released but we go through the same process for every one of those artists and give everyone the same chance. That has a cost. Then you have this other side where artists want more, which is understandable. They want more out of us because they deserve more but we can't give more if there's not more to give.
Artists want more breathing room between their projects. I'm excited to give artists more breathing room. They want a more wholesome release experience and they deserve it. You start doing the math and you say, “Okay, we've grown the team to make sure that we always give an opportunity for artists to apply to Art Blocks. We've grown the team to give mentorship,” something I didn't do when it was just me. There's marketing that goes into it, the events that we put into it, the exhibitions that we put into it so it just doesn't add up. Art Blocks have simply matured. What started as a platform fee for only launching generative projects has evolved into a more holistic experience.
I was the last person on the Art Blocks team to sign off on the fee raise. I was totally against it at first, but gosh, after rational thinking from a group of rational people talking it out, I ultimately decided, “This makes perfect sense.” I support it, I stand by it and I'm really excited about what it opens up for Art Blocks.
Ciphrd on fx(hash)’s sustainability
Peter Bauman: With Art Blocks raising their platform fee to 30%, is even raising fxhash’s from 5% to 10% a sustainable amount?
Ciphrd: First of all, this past year has been pretty tough. Many platforms went through crazy growth and then suddenly a bust almost to the bottom on our end. We are right now at 5% on the primary market and 2.5% on the secondary market. On Ethereum, we’ll increase our primary fees to 10%. The thing is that we also have costs for maintaining the team. Right now, while we were sustainable at the beginning, if we look at the current state of things, we are far from being sustainable. If anything, we are going to experiment with setting our fees to 10% and see in a matter of a few months how it translates into sustainability. Based on that, we'll decide what to do next. It's a bit difficult to predict what's going to happen with the Ethereum launch and how the space plays out over the next year. In any case, we are not aiming for an increase higher than 15% because it's not like Art Blocks. We don't provide curatorial services so it doesn't make sense.
Erick Calderon (Snowfro) is an artist and entrepreneur based in Houston. He is the founder of Art Blocks.
Baptiste Crespy (Ciphrd) is a generative artist who is interested in the exploration of autonomous systems from which lifelike behaviors emerge. He is the founder of fx(hash), an open platform to collect and create generative art.