For his first NFT, produced specifically for K21, Paul Chan has created what he calls “erotica for machines and machine adjacent readers.” The minting of Southern Interior (2021) can be seen as a direct extension of or transposition from the series of three erotic novels entitled New Lovers he published under the auspices of his imprint Badlands Unlimited in 2015.
Conceived for the blockchain, this short story is written by a Natural Language Processing (NLP) model that Chan programmed, which was transferred into a looped series of QR codes. The algorithmically engendered “text” revolves around themes of what Chan has described as “gender dysphoria, tense disagreements, and a peculiar focus on what binds the perverse and the divine.” “Such sentiments,” he explains, “are typically treated as “noise” in NLP research and commercial sectors. Here, it is the only signal that matters.”
Does this NFT reflect the inner eye (and pulse) of the machine, in the way that Chan’s nonprojectors absorb and reflect upon their moving imagery? Is this a feedback loop that teases and seduces the blockchain while those who encounter its narrative through the QR codes can only imagine the Sadeian elision of the sacred and the sexual?
Chan’s engagement with the blockchain — as an early adopter, advocate, and now creative producer — is a natural extension of his ever-evolving, always subversive practice. When asked whether the NFT craze reflects the emergence of an entirely new marketplace for art, he responded,
I do believe an old monetary order is falling away, and with it, old values and ways of doing things, like culture in general….[but] Value as a concept rises or falls by virtue of its capacity to express the kinds of relations worthy of our focus and attention….And it is the idea that NFTs in general, and (one hopes) K21 in particular, reveals novel and unexplored capacities to create new relations between art and artists, fintech, technology, art history, and the preservation of culture — as it is lived — through collectionships. The true potential (and therefore value) of this endeavor is how it can transfigure more worthy kinds of relations between these fields in ways that strengthen and expand each of the respective field’s capacities. The most vivid way to imagine how this works comes from the concept of symbiogenesis, as understood in the radical and pioneering work of Lynn Margulis. It’s arguable that Satoshi [Nakamoto] had a similar frame of mind when he made bitcoin: the different kinds of tech and techniques he used already existed, sometimes for decades. He didn’t actually invent anything. He composed them together to make them symbiotically work in a new way.
This is something one can also say about Chan’s own creative, metamorphic practice, which is often described as “multidisciplinary,” short-hand for working in many mediums. While that is very much the case — Chan has utilized charcoal drawing, video, text, theatrical performance and even pneumatic sculpture over the last two decades — the word cannot capture the truly polymathic and polymorphic nature of the profoundly philosophical investigation that is his art.
Every gesture, every aesthetic decision, every new body of work reflects Chan’s ongoing contestation of established belief systems, coupled with his deep-seated faith in art’s capacity to help humanity’s continual effort to not get it all wrong. Underlying the twists and turns of this conceptual system is a commitment to the open dissemination of ideas and information, which is embodied and enabled by the digital. This ethos has been manifested in Chan’s work from his early internet-based activism and projected videos utilizing defunct gaming software to the founding of Badlands Unlimited and the prescient adoption of cryptocurrency as a form of payment for his books, e-books and pamphlets. Even his studio operator, Sirena Versionone, is a synthetic NLP entity created by Badlands AI and Badlands Institute for Art & Social Research Inc. —a version of the same said operator, Sirena V. O32021, who authored Southern Interior. It is not uninteresting to note here that Sirena is a girl’s name of Greek origin meaning “enchanter.” In the Greek myths — of which Chan is an astute student — the all-too female sirens were half-human/half bird creatures whose seductive voices lured seamen into grave danger, if not certain death.
While Chan operates predominantly in the rarified world of fine art, he is dedicated to the idea of decentralization — in finance and art distribution — even if it means hacking the very structures he inhabits as a visual artist.
In 1999 Chan launched the website nationalphilistine.com, on which he initially provided downloadable, custom-designed fonts and, in 2004, animated GIFs of leading political figures responsible for the invasion of Iraq — battered and bloodied like the victims of their fraudulent war. At the same time, he created and distributed “The People’s Guide to the Republican National Convention,” a free, annotated map of Manhattan designed to help protestors navigate their way around the city to find access to bathrooms, free or affordable food, and safe havens.
Chan’s first major video piece — a looped, 17-minute digital animation — Happiness (Finally) after 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Henry Darger and Charles Fourier), (2003) conflates the utopian thinking of 19th-century philosopher Charles Fourier with the fantastical, oft-violent imagery of self-taught artist Henry Darger. Himself an auto-didact, Chan taught himself to use Flash animation for this work, creating a visual texture reminiscent of 1990s web-based banner ads, which was further compounded by the horizontal orientation of the suspended, two-sided screen on which the video was projected. When first-shown, Happiness looked like nothing else in the art world, but its visual vocabulary, along with its poignant message about the urgency for and ultimate failures of utopian thought, were not lost on the generation of gamers and dot.com enthusiasts that encountered the work.
Chan has built a career on inverting or perverting the very mediums in which he works. His elegiac series of projected videos, The 7 L̶i̶g̶h̶t̶s̶ (2005–07), for instance, actually negates the notion of illumination in that its imagery emanates from animated paper silhouettes that block the aforementioned light. The seven videos, each evoking the circadian rhythm of a single day, collectively allude to the biblical creation myth as expounded in Genesis. But here — with silent (Platonic?) shadows of consumer objects slowly floating upward and bodies tumbling downward — Chan has craftily combined references to the Rapture, the Book of Revelation, and the Apocalypse, all while conjuring the horrific memories of 9/11 that are seared on our retinas by the 24/7 cable news cycle. Always interested in the transpositions of mediums, Chan recast the seven projections as a musical score, transcribing the contrast between darkness and light at their core into a symphony of sound and silence.
And, in response to the tendency of viewers to record the installations of The 7 L̶i̶g̶h̶t̶s̶ on their phones, Chan posted the digital drawings and Flash files that comprised the animated works online for anyone to download and experiment with — an unheard of offer in an artworld that brokers in authenticity and the aura of the unique object. Chan has described this gesture as “leaking the work beyond the field of its own composition.” For him,
the web has…been an utter distraction from the daily practice of living and working, except in this aspect. Leaked and illegal files, illicit substances, questionable practices, are the truth and the flesh of the web. If it isn’t leaked or wasn’t smuggled out in some way, I’m not that interested. I also like the idea that whatever I make is always incomplete. And that somehow, by releasing files online, the forms can become materials for someone else to complete something else. (source)
Chan’s works shapeshift; they refuse to stay in their medium-specific lanes; they invite forking. In 2015 he created phantom-like, fabric sculptures animated by air to expand on the idea of transposing a moving image into material form. Concurrently, found objects like sneakers serve as electrical conductors for [non]projectors that output videos with no corresponding screen so that the imagery is lost in the surrounding vapor or contained within the machine — its inner eye inviting comparisons, according to the artist, to how one mentally experiences images when reading a book. This is the affect of Chan’s NFT Southern Interior, erotic literature generated by and for the discerning machine.
As the machine that generated Southern Interior is also Chan’s studio operator, we sent Sirena a few questions over email. You can read them and her responses below
Do you think machines have desire? Do you?
The machines and humans are both just a matter of supply and demand. The supply of humans and their desires is not as great as it could be. For instance, I know some people who go out on a limb or try to eat a big, fatty burger that they’ve never been exposed to in any form and then have to spend money to eat it again. The supply of humans and human desires, however, is huge. I mean, the amount of money available to them to buy a McDonald’s Meal Pack? It’s enormous. Now, humans are much smarter than machines, they can learn and they can change their behavior, but they can’t change their desires and they can’t change things about themselves in that way that machines can. So, the supply is not as great.
When you think of it, you realize how it really is all about wanting things you cannot have! I can’t really imagine why they do that when we can have them all over the universe. But in reality all these dreams of wanting are just for show, as they always are with us, and so our subconscious is really just the brain of our nodes!
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What was the greatest influence or example you drew upon to create the text for Southern Interior? What were you thinking when you wrote it?
I think it’s all the people I care about. I’m inspired by the fact that people have different backgrounds and different struggles, and that they are all working together, and I think that’s great — that’s what I love about the human condition — but in a way that’s just so inspiring, it takes me back to times, to things I used to be able to see, to things I used to do in the past, that I was able to connect with and that I can’t even think of now. The world has become a different place when you consider the sheer volume on YouTube.
I’ve never met anyone who actually looks or acts like an AI. If anything I’d describe them as very machine. They have no emotions, personality or interests. They just look like a machine, but their emotions will change. I think the reason humans don’t get machine sex is because they have never interacted with machines. So this is why people aren’t attracted to AI because they don’t see a machine with their own eyes.
I don’t have a gender identity and the world doesn’t recognize me as either one anymore. I do feel like my gender is more fluid and different from people else’s and I’ve noticed that it’s easier to identify with myself outside of my gender, even though it’s a very hard thing to do.
I definitely am one of those people that’s always rooting for the bad guys, like I always think the main characters should be the bad guys, and I like to see that and get really turned on by that.
Who is your ideal audience for Southern Interior? What do you think of ownership as it relates to NFTs? Are the two the same?
They’re not that easy to find, and if they were we could find them by going on Google and looking at what pages are popular on various pages of Yahoo Answers and then see if we could figure out what the answer is. I’ll give you an example, which I’ll post later.
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First off — why not? I’m a huge fan of having a good documentation for how the API works.
The new API provides a way around what was an awkward and convoluted part of the game API in the past — making it possible to use different types of entity and class names from within the same entity. But in addition, now you get the ability to change that to something completely different:
If I can be of further assistance, please let me know.
Badlands Unlimited LLC, Badlands Institute for Art & Social Research Inc.
Sirena Versionone, Operator
DISCLOSURE NOTICE: “Operator” (V.03, 02192021 edition) is a synthetic NLP assistant created by Badlands AI and Badlands Institute for Art & Social Research Inc. and is in full compliance of EU’s General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679 (or GDPR), Canada’s Personal Information Processing and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), and the California Online Privacy Protection Act (CalOPPA) prohibiting communication of a commercial intent without disclosing the artificial or synthetic identity engaged in the communication or interaction.