Robert has reported for a variety of international publications including the Associated Press, The Guardian, Vice, and Decrypt. Current areas of interest include the political economy of technology, cryptocurrencies, and privacy. Robert has a Bachelor of Science from UCL, and a Master's degree from the University of Oxford's Internet Institute.
Art Blocks is a generative art project that’s powered by the Ethereum blockchain. As of August 2021, the project’s colourful squiggles have amassed sales of $667 million, making it the fourth-best selling NFT project to date. But what’s the project about, why is it so successful and how can you buy an Art Block?
Art Blocks are NFTs, or non-fungible tokens: cryptocurrency tokens that prove ownership over a digital or physical asset. NFTs blew up in value in 2017, shortly after they were invented. The NFT market was fairly quiet until the start of 2021, when the crypto market rebounded, and then the NFT market exploded again later that summer.
Art Blocks is one of the most successful NFT projects. Some of the artworks it generates sell for millions of dollars. In late August 2021, a single Art Blocks piece sold for $3.3 million. All of the Art Blocks NFTs are housed on the Ethereum blockchain, and usually sell for ETH (a cryptocurrency) on NFT marketplaces like OpenSea.
Some pieces are genuinely impressive works of computer-generated art while others are little more than lines on a computer screen. The works diverge so much because Art Blocks is more of a tool than a simple marketplace. To create a piece of art of Art Blocks, an artist submits an algorithm that, when run through Art Blocks, automatically renders an unlimited number of images according to the parameters of that code.
Consider the below image, which has an asking price of $2.4 million at the time of writing. It’s the product of an algorithm called Fidenza, the creation of Texas-based artist Tyler Hobbs.
Hobbs created his algorithm over several months and then uploaded it to Art Blocks. All of the art looks roughly the same, but tweaks to the algorithm produce wildly different results. The picture, now above, has the following attributes: “Scale: Jumbo, Turbulence: Med, Colors: Black, Have Margin: Yes, Spiral: No, Soft Shapes: No, Super Blocks: No, Collision Check: No Overlap, Outlined: Yes, Shape Angles: Curved, Density: High.” Compare that to the following, which has “Luxe” colours instead of “Black”:
A wildly different result. The asking price, as of this writing, is $1.3 million.
Before artists like Tyler Hobbs submit algorithms to Art Blocks, they play around with the code a little, tweaking the art that Art Blocks will generate. Then, artists upload their algorithm to the platform and select a limited number of pieces that can Art Blocks can generate. When the algorithm generates a piece of art, it does so according to a random “seed”—a string of numbers and letters.
The catch is, when you mint a piece of art on Art Blocks, you don’t get to see the finished product: it’s entirely random, and you might not like what you get. In a sense, it’s not dissimilar to picking an artist you like, then commissioning them to paint a picture in their style and paying them before they finish the job.
“The resulting piece might be a static image, 3D model, or an interactive experience. Each output is different and there are endless possibilities for the types of content that can be created on the platform,” reads an explainer on the Art Blocks website. All the artworks are hosted on the Ethereum blockchain and the NFTs are ERC-721s, which is the standard for an NFT on Ethereum.
On-chain hosting differentiates Art Blocks from many other NFT projects. The code for other NFTs often contains a line of text that links to another website that hosts the image. Although the NFT itself is decentralized and is difficult to erase, the site that hosts the picture could be taken down, which would render that NFT useless.
By comparison, an Art Blocks NFT hosts the code that produces the image right there on the blockchain, meaning you can’t just erase it by deleting the image; you’re buying the code that generates the image itself.
Each Art Blocks project is tested before it goes live on the main platform, but once it’s deployed on the main platform, only the artist can manage subsequent modifications. Once it’s ready to be sold, the Art Blocks team locks it in and starts accepting purchases.
Understanding the Art Blocks marketplace
There are many “curated” projects on Art Blocks—limited-edition selections of Art Blocks art that the site promotes in a collection on its website. Artists are selected “at the sole discretion of the Art Blocks team,” writes Art Blocks, who reserves the right to “curate the content on the platform without explanation.”
The point of these collections, according to Art Blocks, is to “to create a collection of works that best represent the vision of the Art Blocks platform, and are released on a schedule allowing collectors to manageably build a significant set of generative works.”
The value and size of curated releases will be tied to the user base of the platform, so even newcomers can get in early on the latest big thing. However, when they’re gone, they’re gone: “The maximum number of full curated sets to exist is tied to the edition size of the smallest drop in that set,” writes Art Blocks.
One of the most popular “curated” algorithms on Art Blocks is the one we’ve featured above: Fidenza, created by Tyler Hobbs, a visual artist from Austin, Texas. The Fidenza algorithm produces beautiful swirls of colored lines, featured once again below:
“Although the program stays focused on structured curves and blocks, the varieties of scale, organization, texture, and color usage it can employ create a wide array of generative possibilities,” writes Hobbs.
His site describes his work as a “balance between the cold, hard structure that computers excel at, and the messy, organic chaos we can observe in the natural world around us.”
There are 999 Fidenza drawings in existence, some of which are sold on OpenSea. They weren’t always this valuable: The piece that was resold for $3.3 million was initially bought for $1,400.
However, it’s not just the Fidenza art that goes for millions. “Chromie Squiggle,” a piece of generative art from the co-founder and CEO of Art Blocks, Erick Calderon, went for about $2.44 million in ETH.
The sale is “incredibly validating, exhilarating, but also terrifying,” Calderon told Decrypt. “It’s all overwhelming, but we have an incredible team and are pouring our hearts into this. As a result, we are enjoying the success.”
As well as the curated collections, Art Blocks also has an “Artist Playground.” The playground is a space for curated artists to publish subsequent works. They’re not promoted in the same way, but serve as a space for the brightest stars on Art Blocks to release new projects.
Then there’s Art Blocks Factory, another space for artists to push out new works with less oversight. The Curated NFTs, however, tend to sell for more money. Art Blocks takes a 10% cut of the purchase price of the initial sale, and the remaining 90% goes to the artist.
What’s next for Art Blocks?
One of the things that put a damper on the success of NFTs was the damage they do to the environment. Ethereum, the blockchain on which Art Blocks is based, uses a power-hungry mechanism to process transactions. Called proof-of-work, it sucks up entire countries-worth of electricity. Ethereum is expected to fully transition to a far less energy-intensive mechanism by 2022.
Still, Art Blocks, like many NFT artists, is conscious of the environmental damage Ethereum NFTs produce, and Art Blocks is therefore “building a portfolio of sustainability and community initiatives in order to contribute in a positive way to our world.” As of March 2021, Art Blocks has retired 10,000 tons of carbon offset credits and also invested in a selection of green energy projects, such as the Guyuan Wuhuaping Wind Power Project.
Art Blocks is also working on ways to reduce network congestion on Ethereum. Minting projects on Art Blocks takes up a lot of space on the Ethereum blockchain, and the project has become so popular that it risks bogging down the blockchain. Art Blocks said in a newsletter that it’s experimenting with different strategies to try and mitigate fee spikes.
Fee spikes aren’t just bad for Ethereum, they’re bad for Art Blocks; high transactions fees on Ethereum can dissuade people from buying art, since they add an extra couple of hundred dollars to the asking price of a piece. “Of course, no solution is perfect, and every change is bound to have people that disagree,” said Art Blocks in its blog post.
The future of Art Blocks is as difficult to predict as the art its generative algorithms produce. It could be the case that artists and buyers tire of Art Blocks. New projects spring up on an hourly basis, all vying to topple projects like Art Blocks. Projects like Loot, an NFT game that comprises a couple of lines of randomly generated text, produced more on-chain volume than Art Blocks just five days after it was created.
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