A Home for Generative Art

This article first appeared in Art Blocks’ Exhibition #0: Genesis catalog.

During the fall of 2016, Erick Calderon and Peter Molick were sitting at a bar in Houston, Texas catching up over some cold beers. During their conversation, Erick shared his goal with Peter that he wanted to own a whole Bitcoin before the New Year — a lofty goal for a new father without much time outside running a business. At the time, Bitcoin was valued at just a few hundred dollars but was already slowly making its way into the zeitgeist. But Erick was serious. And on New Year’s Eve in 2016, as the clock inched closer to midnight, Erick bought his first whole Bitcoin.

At the time, Coinbase was the default platform for cryptocurrency, and the only other coin available was Ethereum. Although Erick considered himself to be a techie, he wasn’t familiar with Ethereum and never heard of smart contracts. It wasn’t long before Erick found himself spending nights learning code on his own. Then, in early 2017, he made his first smart contract for a friend’s newborn. The code was simple. He purchased 10 Ether, worth roughly $100 at the time, and locked it in a smart contract that is to be unlocked on the newborn’s 18th birthday — right down to the second.

This experiment was enough to prove what was possible. Erick became obsessed with the immutable and non-fungible nature of Ethereum. A few months later during the summer of 2017, Erick read a post on Reddit about CryptoPunks. These were pre-ERC721 non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that were free to claim for those motivated enough to setup a fully synced Mist wallet and interact directly with the contract on Etherscan.

CryptoPunks are 10,000 unique pre-generated 24×24 pixel digital portraits. The collection’s rarity was on the developer’s website where the rarest CryptoPunks, Aliens and Apes, had been claimed. So, Erick decided to find and claim the rarest of the remaining CryptoPunks, and as a result ended up with 34 Zombie Punks. While he was claiming them, Erick was struck with the idea for Art Blocks.

CryptoPunk #1478

Literally, the moment I was claiming my CryptoPunks was when I came up with the idea of Art Blocks. Because I was sitting there thinking, ‘Why do I get the privilege of claiming all these Zombies?’ The blockchain has enough information and tools for me to click claim and just be presented with a CryptoPunk.

Erick enlisted the brainpower of a few close friends and his brother, and they would meet every few weeks to flesh out the idea. As his brother Daniel put it, “Erick would come up with idea after idea after idea.” Daniel even coded a proof-of-concept project, Genesis, that would eventually be released on Art Blocks. Erick’s enthusiasm was contagious, but the flurry of ideas, while often leaving others excited, also left them with slight confusion about what it all meant. One of the initial ideas for Art Blocks was to build public interactive art installations around Houston. Another idea was to have each artist run their own master node that collectors could then interact with and generate an output on-demand.

Erick was looking for a way to create and share interactive art that personalized experiences. But, at the heart of it, these ideas were searching for a way to express themselves in a manner that connected with a broader audience. However, the process of finding the proper avenue for personalized experiences was slow. At one point, Daniel created generative fruit faces, which Erick turned into stickers and handed out at a sandcastle competition on the Texas coast. “Here! Take a generative sticker!” Unfortunately, his excitement was again met with confusion.

Generative Fruit by Daniel Calderon

But with each dead end, Erick managed to make inroads. One year, he sent an early version of Chromie Squiggle to his professional network. The Squiggles were printed on paper and laid in acrylic with instructions for creating a wallet and claiming the Squiggle on the blockchain. Out of the two thousand Squiggles sent, only 14 individuals took him up on the offer.

The slow burn continued like this for years while ideas were tested, refined, and retested. Things moved along, but life was busy for Erick, too busy. This all changed with the onset of the Covid-19 global pandemic in the early months of 2020. Without a work commute, Erick suddenly had an extra three hours every day. So, he decided to start re-learning code from scratch with the new free time — picking up JavaScript, Node, React, and brushing up on Solidity. In 2018, he couldn’t do everything himself, so he enlisted professional Solidity developers to create the original Art Blocks smart contract. At that time, Erick had sold some CryptoPunk Zombies to help fund the development for much less than they would come to be worth. And while this help lay the foundation, it still wasn’t there quite yet. So, after spending his free time developing his Solidity acumen in 2020, Erick rewrote the smart contract to fit Art Blocks’ unique use-case.

Erick also continued to develop his novel Chromie Squiggle into a proper project worthy of uploading to the Ethereum blockchain. This was his way of testing the limits of generative art. He wanted to create a functionally infinite project. As he emphasized, one should be able to endlessly generate Squiggles and never run into a copy. As he put it,

Chromie Squiggle was the first project. It was a proof of concept. The thought behind Chromie Squiggle is, ‘What could I create that I could guarantee they were different no matter how many there were?’ Adding point data and color variance was a way to do that.

While Erick worked on this phase of the project, Daniel was completing his Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture at the University of Texas and was preparing his final thesis exhibition. Erick asked Daniel if he could polish and deploy the Genesis project he created in 2018 as a proof-of-concept in preparation for the launch of Art Blocks. It’s easy to let life distract you, but Daniel found the time to help Erick.

Lastly, Erick reached out to Jeff Davis. For over two decades, Jeff had been in the art world, running his own print publishing company and working with numerous artists. His journey into generative art began in 2009 when he was using spreadsheets to create system-based abstract works. However, it wasn’t until 2011 that he learned about Processing and taught himself how to code generative art. Jeff’s art would continue to be refined over the years into the distinct style he is known for on today on Art Blocks — one distinguished for its vibrant colors, abstract shapes, and melodic patterns.

Although Jeff’s background was in traditional art, he was introduced to NFTs in 2019 and decided to go all-in on the next evolution of digital art. He started creating NFTs and sharing the work on social media. Erick had been a fan of Jeff’s work and reached out in September 2020 to release a project alongside Chromie Squiggle and Genesis. Just a month later, Jeff’s project Construction Token was ready.

Construction Token #365 — Jeff Davis

The chips were starting to fall into place. The smart contract development had received the most attention and turned out unusually professional, while the front end looked like the final project of an online coding tutorial. It was perfect. The first three projects were ready to be released on the platform, and Erick had assembled a team that each brought something unique to the table. Erick had the vision for Art Blocks and an entrepreneurial drive to build the platform. Daniel brought an academic art background, while Jeff was steeped in both the traditional and digital art worlds.

On Thanksgiving night, Erick messaged Jeff and said Art Blocks was going live the next day. Together — Erick, Daniel, and Jeff — officially released their projects on November 27, 2020. Chromie Squiggle had a project size of 10,000, with the first 9,000 available for anyone to mint. The first 9,000 were sold in a few weeks. Daniel’s Genesis project had 512 pieces. It sold out in just four hours. Jeff’s Construction Token had 500 pieces, and it sold out in just two hours!

Erick didn’t expect Art Blocks to connect the fine art, crypto, and creative coding communities so soon — but in just a few short months, Art Blocks established itself as a blue-chip art house collaborating with some of the most innovative generative art talents across the world. Artists who Erick followed for years on social media and other platforms (and who he personally considered celebrities) started reaching out to him. They understood the power of the platform and wanted to work with Art Blocks.

The velocity of the platform was unexpected. So unexpected that Erick had a few additional scripts written as a backup plan just in case no one was interested in deploying their project on Art Blocks. But in the first week, there were 40 applications. By the end of the fourth week, there were nearly 400 applications. The interest grew so quickly, the application process had to be shut down for a brief time to work through the backlog.

The story of Art Blocks is the result of a lot of hard work and a bit of lucky timing. Just as the NFT craze of 2021 took off, Art Blocks started attracting broad audiences of NFT collectors looking for high-quality projects. Generative art fits uniquely in the crypto and NFT movement. While most NFT projects consist of a token pointing to digital media uploaded to a centralized server that could be taken offline at any point — Art Blocks is completely on-chain apart from a shortlist of widely available library dependencies. That is to say, the script that creates the art is permanently stored on the Ethereum blockchain and does not rely on a server being online. Instead, as long as a computer can access the network, they can access the generative script and transaction hash to reproduce the art in its original state, in any resolution, and establish provenance, all of which are supported on the Ethereum network.

Moreover, since Art Blocks creates a piece of art that can track ownership, artists can also track collectors over time. Traditionally, artists rely on relationships with galleries and collectors. Art on the Ethereum blockchain removes trust from the equation and instead empowers artists to connect with their collectors directly, understand their market value, and automatically earn royalties on every sale of their work. Typically, an artist creates a project and benefits from the primary sale but is left out of any appreciation in the secondary market. But in the world of NFTs, royalties are routed to the artists’ wallets directly.

This crazy history — nestled somewhere between the crypto boom, the historically unappreciated creativity of generative art, and the pot ready to boil over with creative coding talent going unrecognized — is where Art Blocks found its corner of the internet and began to flourish. The platform is a passion project. Our community is filled with brilliant artists, enthusiastic supporters, and loyal collectors. It’s why we thought it was fitting to give generative art a place to thrive. A place to express itself among other nontraditional artists. A proper spotlight on the beautiful art a few lines of code can create. And ultimately, establishing Art Blocks as a home for generative art.

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The Link is a newsletter by ArtBlocks.io. We cover the world of generative art on the Ethereum blockchain and stories at the intersection of technology and art. Follow us for project announcements, artist interviews, and more.

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