Unsigned Algorithms: An Invitation To Ask Better Questions
“The colors live a remarkable life of their own after they have been applied to the canvas.”–Edvard Munch
There was a riveting Twitter Space yesterday, October 16, 2021, organized by the human behind the Twitter handle @IbisNft. The conversation was on the well regarded but yet to be entirely elucidated subject of the vastly successful unsigned_algorithms project, the artwork of which is commonly referred to as an “unsig”.
Sense making in the wake of remarkable success
It’s early days yet and CNFT collectors and creators are still trying to find their bearings in the face of staggering, largely unrealized gains and burgeoning creative opportunities arising from their unsig holdings. There is a vibrant unsig derivative art scene, with perhaps a dozen active artists, some of whom I wrote about here. Many were in attendance in the Twitter Space and one notable and much loved artist, known to the community as artaphakt, was also invited to speak.
In other words, the Twitter Space brought together what IRL journalists might refer to as the movers and shakers of the still nascent and surprisingly snug, if not downright incestuous unsig space, seemingly occupied by no more than a couple thousand CNFT wallets! Granted there are a few whales in that group, which partially explains the concentration of unsigs across a relatively small group of people. With 31,119 minted unsigs, the number of unsig holders will continue to grow organically over time, thanks in part to the relatively abundant albeit pricey inventory on the secondary market (at the time of writing this piece, the unsig floor is just shy of $ADA 1K).
To me, this Twitter gathering felt like a virtual hangout with a bunch of metaverse homies. I’ve had exchanges with most, if not all of the folks who were present at this particular talk and while the subject was not especially novel, it certainly contained a number of primary color saturated gems!
The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”–Sol LeWitt
The compelling beauty of a carefully articulated idea
At this point, I’ve consumed most of the readily accessible media on the subject of unsigs and certainly everything I’ve been able to find about and/or including unsig creator Alexander Watanabe, who describes the unsigned_algorithms project as a complete color study, the purpose of which was to answer a number of questions, if not all the questions and conjectures he had listed prior to setting out on this thoughtful, intentional conceptual artistic endeavor. He likens his artistic process to an architectural project, where there are problems to be solved and conundrums to be sat with. Like others, no doubt, I intuit that the beauty I perceive in the ubiquitous unsig colorscapes has very much to do with the beauty and the rigor of the mental thought forms which led to their manifestation.
I myself am a self-avowed color junkie with a proclivity for cerebral pursuits. I attended a Jesuit boarding school before collecting a number of perfectly useless university degrees, so it’s not entirely surprising that unsigs somehow showed up on my radar. Like many, I immediately fell in love with the unsigned_algorithms project, which I discovered relatively late. It sometimes feels like I’ve been reverse engineering its epistemological premises ever since. In a similar way perhaps, others have been deconstructing unsigs by playing with their underlying properties in the form of colors, lines and curvatures. To love usigned_algorithms might be synonymous with trying to capture their ineffable essence.
“Rarity has no place in Art.”–Alexander Watanabe
Many of the things I find appealing about Alexander’s Weltanschauung have to do with his unapologetic “take no prisoners” approach: he is able to candidly acknowledge how his project has been life changing while remaining entirely true to himself and the very spirit in which he went about designing unsigned_algorithms.
One of the salient points for me yesterday was the fact that Alexander disclosed that he maintained that he was at best agnostic and harbored no particular desire as relates to deciding on the notion of alleged rarity in the unsig universe. He explained how in many CNFT projects, rarity was prescriptive in that it was engineered, whereas in the context of unsigned_algorithms rarity was inherently descriptive, in the sense that each holder might experience a specific algorithmic presentation in a certain way and how that may or may not resonate with a larger group. It’s the mark of someone who has given a lot of thought to the meaning and the workings of the aesthetic experience to be able to re-interpret the old adage “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” for us in such a compelling way. Like all fundamental truths, this idea is anchored in simplicity and touches on the universal.
Alexander also evoked the forthcoming developments to the project and explained, with an analogy taken from game theory, how he hoped to create a situation where collectors would make personal aesthetic choices rather than try to game the system by attempting to create rarity themselves. Not only has the unsig creator asked himself an elaborate series of defining questions at the inception of his project, he is continuing to challenge collectors to ask themselves questions regarding their own aesthetic experience and how that translates within an interconnected body of work such as unsigned_algorithms.
Market forces are inevitably at play and the very technodelic nature of the CNFT world is such that there will always be some hype around pieces such as single prop, no line unsigs, or the algorithmically ultra rare black and white unsigs… Nonetheless it seems that personal taste, which is not up for discussion, also wins, at least some of the time.
After promising myself that I would never indulge in purchasing unsigs on the secondary market (and promptly and repeatedly breaking said promise), I’ve observed how often two remarkably similar pieces can be priced very differently. Of course perception of market value is never the only factor in determining a listing price, sometimes a seller simply needs liquidity for instance and that will naturally trigger a lower price listing. I will add that I’ve also acquired certain pieces at lower price points, not because I was systematically shopping for floor prices, but rather because certain seemingly less sought after asymmetries and/or more unusual color combinations trigger eyegasms in my visual cortex! Luckily, humans like different things and the happiest collector is perhaps the girl with the most eclectic taste who knows what she likes and why, yet will frequently also allow herself to depart from any overly established self-imposed blueprint!
“People in new environments always produce the new perceptual modality without any difficulty or awareness of change. It is later that the psychic and social realignments baffle societies.”–Marshall McLuhan
The witness vs./the doer
Alexander has the necessary critical distance to see this seminal body of work as a whole, not unlike a symphony conductor. He explained that in his project, the algorithm itself was moving the brush and while he certainly tweaked said algorithm, he was never the actual painter. Much like the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, who relies on scores of assistants to execute his installations and performances, Alexander did not “execute” the unsigs. In this sense, Alexander is Herbert von Karajan, rather than Seiji Ozawa, or Francis Ford Coppola, rather than Marlon Brando, or say, P. Diddy rather than Notorious Big… Choose your analogy, hopefully I’ve made my point.
Regardless of these stratospheric analogies, unsigs really aren’t your Mama’s generative art project… Alexander has a rather elaborate explanation involving the reptilian brain for why folks resonate so deeply with unsigs. I’ve also had this conversation with other collectors and fans and I have my own, perhaps less elaborate but more seductive theory. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter. Why do you love Georgia O’Keeffe or Mark Rothko? Do you fancy you might love them even more than me? And who cares, really? We can sit around and discuss what happens at the bleeding edge of blue and green — as I am wont to do… Or we can simply surrender to the mystery that transcends even the artist’s belief system.
“I want my NFT.” — Anonymous (spotted by the Author on a t-shirt worn by a San Francisco hipster)
Power and speed of the digital medium
Another insight Alexander shared was that the very nature of the digital medium was to spread and that he felt that his job had been, and continues to be, to allow it to do just that. When pressed to state whether there were some “unfortunate” unsig derivative projects out there, he politely conceded something to the effect of “umm, yes”… That said he also underscored that there was wisdom in not clutching his work tightly and reiterated that he offered neither endorsement nor dismissal of any derivative project out there. He further explained that this stance was consistent with the very notion of ownership, which is of course one of the cornerstones of the NFT/CNFT paradigm.
What moved me the most perhaps was how Alexander confessed to being an introvert and explained how this particular characteristic had been instrumental for the purposes of delivering his project. I resonate with being an introvert and I’ve also written about the possibilities offered to introverts in the new digital landscape of smart contracts we are exploring and co-creating as a community.
Alexander added that he had come in contact with more “interesting “ humans since the inception of his project than probably during the entirety of his life heretofore. This is both powerful and heartwarming and once again, not unfamiliar.
There were too many other thought provoking threads to relay here. I left the Twitter Space with enhanced clarity on the subjects of authenticity, scarcity and ownership, all of which I had already been pondering deeply. It really felt like a Master Class of sorts, only it was free, in the way that authentic, experience based knowledge and deep wisdom often are.