Few digital artists can lay claim to a better 2023 than Jack Butcher.
Kicking off January with his now-famous $8 Checks open edition, Butcher improbably built the year’s most successful new web3-native movement in the depths of a bear market. With an ever-growing ecosystem that now includes the gamified and collaborative Opepen Edition and the recently launched Trademark and Signature projects with Red Bull Racing and Art on Internet, Butcher has shown no signs of slowing down as 2024 approaches.
For Trademark and Signature, the longtime designer and founder of Visualize Value embraced a new creative canvas that can be quite daunting to the uninitiated: generative art. As part of the latter’s launch, Butcher offered up Signature #0 for auction at Christie’s (closing at 9.69 ETH) and exhibited the piece at Now Media’s very own Gateway Miami earlier this month.
We caught up with Butcher amid the Gateway Miami mayhem to dive deeper into his generative art forays, his thoughts on the current market, and his plans to continue growing his empire.
Matt Medved: What did you exhibit at Gateway Miami and what is the significance?
Jack Butcher: The piece displayed and auctioned was the token zero from the Signature series. It’s technically the first token I deployed through Art Blocks Engine. It was such a fun process working on this collaboration with Red Bull and Art on Internet. I’ve been a motorsports fan my whole life. So this piece represents many things that are very special to me, but also a lot of technical leaps in my journey to get to this point in time. Auctioning it with a historic brand like Christie’s is incredible. To go from this world where you don’t even know you’re producing art for years… It’s a surreal achievement, to be honest.
Thank you for building what you’ve built. It can’t have been easy in the face of the general perception of this stuff being so volatile. It’s incredible. Last year, you did it huge with Gateway, shut down the block, and had the bank and everything. What you guys have done is definitely pushing that perception of maturity and sophistication and giving the work the stage that it deserves in the real world. I’m very grateful to be a part of it.
What’s the origin story of the Signature project?
So this idea is inspired by the thing it’s referencing in the real world, which is this moment of celebration, and the kind of controlled randomness, which, in my mind, is what generative art is. It’s like your attempt to control randomness and entropy, so you set up all of these parameters. You decide as an artist what the edges of this thing can be and how far the outputs will vary. Then you throw randomness at it, and it produces these outputs that feel like a family, but you have only given the constraints to this. You don’t know what’s going to come out.
So that references the subject matter, which is this moment of celebration in an otherwise incredibly precise pursuit. In the end, it’s punctuated with this randomness, and I also wanted to reference the specificity of the data. There’s a toggle when you’re viewing the artwork to turn on this data layer, and it will visualize every rotation in each cell and give a total to the entire circumference of every mark made. It’s down in the bottom right of every piece. Again, a commentary on the idea of these things being somewhat identical to the untrained eye. They’re all unique visually, but I wanted to go this level deeper than just the traits and get another layer of granularity. So, each one has this unique count of how much light is being erased to create the piece. Because the canvas is white, every mark produces those symbols across the grid… That led me to appreciate the pioneers of generative art and the level of thinking required to set those parameters at the beginning and just let the machine run with it and the outputs.
There are also some big thematic similarities, and where I started in my career in design, you have to build systems that accommodate all these different types of behaviors or edge cases or objectives. Generative art takes that same idea and constrains it in a way that changes how you think about what you’re doing. I’m hooked on this process of designing the system versus designing the individual image that comes out of the system now. Working on this feels like punctuation at the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. I had many potential things in my head for years, but I didn’t have the technical ability to execute them. I leaned heavily on some AI tutelage for this to get me to a position where I could produce something this complex. All this knowledge was locked behind my ability to construct the lines of code.
You’ve been leaning into generative art on your latest projects. What will the significance of generative art in web3 and digital art history be when we look back?
One thing I think is interesting about it is generative art as a concept; I think it creates these networks where people can represent themselves uniquely but be part of this bigger thing. And it’s the same idea informing even the PFP community. You have a fractional stake in this network, and generative AI takes that idea and allows you to produce artifacts that may appeal differently or have a different type of resonance than the anthropomorphic character.
The giants in the generative art world, or the collections that have reached these incredible degrees of significance… use Squiggles as an example. This incredibly simple idea has an incredibly recognizable output. And there’s an incredible degree of uniqueness within that and the nuance you can appreciate at a very high level as 10,000 unique signatures. And then there are people writing 5000-word essays about the math of the perfect spectrum. And it just produces this network effect, this degree of nuance that allows communities to form around it, and the aesthetic of it can be the magnet, the idea behind it can be the magnet, the collective, the part it plays in a bigger system can be the thing that attracts people to it.
The interesting thing about digital art in general, having started with Visualize Value, is that it does not necessarily have the same components. Still, it does have this very specific set of restraints. It’s not generative art in a way that there’s an algorithm powering it, but it is generative art in the sense that decisions have been made that are adhered to for long periods over multiple thousands of outputs.
So I’ve always appreciated this idea of picking the constraint, feeding the randomness into the constraint, and getting this new output that is additive or accretive to the network versus switching lanes every week or month. I guess I didn’t fully appreciate the similarities between those two things until I started playing with this idea of what a generative algorithm is. I had an appreciation for it, having looked at what the pioneers in this space have accomplished, but reverse engineering that from scratch yourself. The degree of appreciation has just increased from what was already an incredibly impressive thing to a huge amount of admiration for everybody, and people have been doing this for 40 or 50 years.
When looking at the landscape of your different projects like Checks, Opepen, Trademarks, and Signature, how do you think each of these projects fit together?
So before Checks, a series of 1/1s in the VV world focused on these very specific themes or paradigm shifts in digital art. So this is me discovering ERC-721 and Ethereum and digitally native art markets basically, and trying to encapsulate the differences or the things that I was learning throughout that.
So there’s a hundred tokens or so that explore those ideas. And then Checks coming at the beginning of … there was some DNA of Checks in an early Visualize Value piece called “NFTs explained,” which was a comparison between a digital image and a token that verifies the ownership and provenance of a digital image.
I think Checks just exploded that idea to a different level and invited this degree of participation that changed VV as a canvas, as a group of participants that allowed everything else to occur. So, Checks becoming this kind of community-owned thing opened my mind to many different forks to take from that point forward. Opepen came after its development after about six months of seeing Checks out in the world. Checks invite thinking more deeply about the internet, ownership, authorship, and notability. The momentum of Checks just unlocked all of these other ideas. These last two projects share ideas with both of those in this commentary on the ephemeral nature of IP.
The R symbol represents an entity that you have formed. In my mind, it’s this commentary on what people get wrong about or don’t understand about NFTs. These concepts already exist globally, and we have a huge consensus on them. A company owns this name or idea or made this thing. There is this intangible equity and ownership in things we have as people always arrived at some device to capture that. The check mark was one of those. The registered trademark symbol was one of those. Specifically, all of the things that trademarks enable, collaboration, competition, and the idea of storing this intangible equity in something is what advances civilization to some degree.
The other major theme or objective is to create things that can be time capsules. Art and the process of making art is this attempt to capture a moment in time. So in five or ten years, hopefully well into the future, a hundred years, the pieces of art that endure are reflective of what society was obsessed with and interested in, disturbed by at the time. In terms of a vision, the objective is to continue making things that reference those themes.
If Checks and Opepen had launched in 2021, you’d be raking in millions in royalties, but that dynamic doesn’t exist in the same way now. Given the current market realities, how do you think about sustainable monetization?
Great question. I think there are different tiers of consumers of your work. I think it’s about finding the sweet spots in those, where your work fits, and how you should adapt to publishing work over time. I think the Opepen model is something that, in most people’s eyes, is completely unsustainable. There’s very little monetization happening, and years of work need to go into that to complete it. But the ability to generate attention for another 180 moments in time produces all of these opportunities to do smaller, perhaps more interesting things, all of these collaborations that happen over time.
I also think that this stuff is shifting to more of a consumption model. People pay for an experience to enjoy versus thinking of every interaction as a bet on something that increases in value. As this matures, there’s always going to be that component, but there’s also the normalization of digital consumption, which ends up with people wanting to spend a small amount to support the production of the type of work they want to see more of. Another thing that we’re trying to accomplish with Opepen is creators have a cold start problem. They have an aesthetic or a body of work that doesn’t have a network surrounding it. But if you can tap into this derivative, tap into the power of a network that already has a lot of eyes on it, the net outcome of that is more eyes on your original work and the work that’s connected to that.
There’s obviously a lot of excitement in the space right now, and the feeling like 2024 could be a big year. What are your thoughts on where we’re at and what next year could look like?
The networks that have emerged around the projects we’ve been putting out this year, like the level of interactivity and interest, are just something I’ve never experienced before. For ten years, I’ve been working on internet native stuff. So, in my mind, the only signal I’ve been focused on is the amount of engagement in the things I’ve been producing. Your macro movements and stories get more people interested in this world. But to me, the real signal is whether people engage in this when those signals are not present. When it’s not Bitcoin or Ethereum on CNBC every day, like the craziest thing is happening, or NFTs are on the front page of every magazine, newspaper, or whatever else, that creates this interest from a completely different objective or perspective.
It’s like the price action of these things creates a flywheel, a FOMO that brings people in who are attracted to it for those reasons versus the things that have been built and the connections that have been formed. Not necessarily entirely outside of that. Because you cannot separate those two things, that wasn’t a byproduct of people who were entirely disinterested in this until they saw that story. In my mind, the success in the absence of that story is what kind of preempts all of those things happening in the future.
Strangely enough, I have so much more conviction in this entire ecosystem today, six months ago or nine months ago, than in 2021, when this stuff was raging, unsustainable, and ridiculous. It almost flips your conviction to the point where nobody will take this seriously if, you know, the things you look at in isolation are so bizarre to the average.
There’s a fundamental paradigm shift around how people organize, use the internet, build communities, and find ways, and this has always been the focus of Visualize Value. Find ways to match up your talents with the world in a way that is not constrained by where you live, where you were born, who you like, or who you know; in the quote-unquote, the real world has always been the theme on the thing that I’ve explored with VV.
If you’re a great artist, designer, writer, singer, or whatever else, the internet is this huge unlock for finding the people who care about your work and who you want to collaborate with. And building those things on a network that is inherently baked in ownership is just a better way of doing things. It takes the world a long time to catch up with that idea because we’ve been conditioned to think about it for 10, 15, or 20 years.