Crypto artist Mitchell F Chan’s first crypto project Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility represents the intangibility of the world around us. After years of creating pieces that use the least amount of material possible, NFTs were a natural progression for him. The episode goes into Mitchell’s philosophy about life, the world, and the systems and structures that surround us.
However let’s be clear, these NFTs are basically of nothing. We previously covered this project in depth but it would have been incomplete without speaking to Mitchell. In this episode we dive into what inevitably became the third NFT project ever created.
Who is Mitchell F Chan?
- Background: Before becoming an artist, Mitchell studied architecture. Technology has been a big part of his life. He studied Arts and Technology at the Art Institute of Chicago. He taught art in code at OCAD University in Toronto. Mitchell became involved with NFTs while he was looking for new art material. He had been a professional artist for almost 12 years and much of the work he’d created was “immaterial”.
- Vapor sculpture: Mitchell’s goal as an artist was to use the least amount of material possible. His most successful project before NFTs was a sculpture made from water vapor. He wanted to create the most intangible artwork he could. After he created the cloud sculpture, he considered what he could create with even less material substance. He wanted to represent a world defined by invisible structures and systems which have a big impact on our lives. This includes financial systems.
- Meaning behind his work: His work has been gradually becoming less physical. Minimalist artists often have a drive to make art on their own terms. Kaspar Malevich’s black square piece is a good example as a way of saying that a painting doesn’t have to represent something. Mitchell wants to show that art does represent things. His cloud sculpture was his way of representing the condition of online discourse between people where two movements happen and collide. The system structure on the digital space is set up to be positional and confrontational.
- Artists who were what you’d called minimalists, their drive towards minimalism was an attempt to make art that was just art on its own terms.” (Timestamp: 5:35)
- “It’s something that definitely has value because there’s an agreed upon belief. And, that belief is recorded and enshrined in code which is intangible.” (Timestamp: 9:03)
- “Blockchain is FO-RE-VER!” (Timestamp: 23:19)
- “Contemporary art loves it when an artwork refers to the conditions of its own making.” (Timestamp: 27:10)
Mitchell’s first NFT project
- His first NFT: Chan believes the best way to represent something invisible through art is to show it as almost invisible. He wanted to make art about immateriality and also use it as a medium. He wondered how to make art about a financial system and when he discovered Ethereum he realized he could do something creative about programmable money.
- Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility: This is Mitchell’s first crypto art piece. He admits he had little knowledge of other crypto artists in the industry before that. The idea brought up philosophical questions like What does this all mean? Is any of this real? He went into Crypto to try to make art. He also used art history as a way to understand what crypto art is.
- What if? The project explains was blotching and cryptocurrencies are about. What would happen if we made art on the blockchain? The likely answer is that it would not be physical but still real.
Inspired by Artist Yves Klein
- Yves Klein inspired: His 2017 crypto art project references Yves Klein who was an important 20th-century artist. His “Zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility” was the inspiration behind it. In 1958, the minimalist painter became famous for his blue monochrome paintings. His exhibition in Paris featured an empty gallery which he claimed was “imbued with the sensibility of the color blue”.
- Klein’s career: Klein’s work was revolutionary. He made art that was more spiritual and less material. He created value with this approach. The French artist wanted to communicate a feeling and idea through sheer force of will. Mitchell says Klein was considering how people experience art. Ownership of art changes our perception of it and our relationship to it.
- Klein created first NFT: He created invisible artworks and sold them. He also showed that there are different levels of ownership. When a person purchased a piece in exchange for gold ingots, they would receive a receipt that said which piece of “space” they were getting. This is the same concept as a non-fungible token.
- Intangibility and sensibility: Klein believed there is a difference between legally owning something and spiritually and metaphysically owning it. Having the receipt proves you legally own the piece. To redeem the immaterial value of the artwork, he would have his buyers meet him at the river Seine and perform a ritual. Afterward, Klein would throw half the gold into the river and have them burn the token. The sensibility of the art would then become part of the buyer’s experience through that ritual.
A model for selling art on blockchain
- Blockchain art: Klein’s work is a model for selling art on blockchain technology. This is what NFTs are. Mitchell used one art to understand the other in his own work.
- Material representation: In 2017, Mitchell made the connection between blockchain art and Klein’s 1958 version of the NFT. He learned to code the programming language Solidity and used Klein’s model for transacting his token. He had envisioned releasing the NFTs in sets or series. Mitchell translated the instructions for his pieces into Solidity code. The process was mostly accidental, but the result of his project was a non-fungible token.
- Key steps: The crypto artist wanted to legitimize his work. In some ways, it is a critique of Klein’s work. He wrote an essay called The Blue Papers to explain his ideas and make predictions about the future. He also lectured on his essay and project. To represent sensations, he used color settings. He reflected and meditated on his choice as part of the process. To give a display experience he created a webpage that he hosted on Swarm. The landing page is a white webpage with nothing on it.
- The art was somewhat performative early on. The only real display value is the ability to show you own the token. It was about using art to explain art to people and using blockchain to explain blockchain art.
The layers of NFT art
- Success of the project: Chan presented his project at Inter-Access, a successful Toronto art gallery. He released the first series of tokens there and later lectured about it at Kent State University. It took three and a half years for the first series to sell. With the latest series, he created a wrapper that collectors can use to display the NFTs on Opensea.
- Immaterial and reproducible: Mitchell considers his project a pure NFT. It represents the immateriality of the token and the reproducibility of the image it points to. He doesn’t intend to stop there and believes there is more he can do with the technology.
- Meta art: A painting about painting is a common art trope in the industry and Mitchell’s work is an NFT about what an NFT is. It’s a way to understand the medium.
- The NFT space today: He is excited because he’s found many people eager to engage with these ideas in the crypto space. People are interested in Yves Klein, not just his crypto art. Artists are finding new ways to get paid for their work. The criticism about the crypto space such as the low-quality NFTs and cash grab projects is valid. Even so, it’s still early in the history of crypto art and NFTs.
Connect with Mitchell
- The digital zones project is available on chan.gallery. Series five was released Tuesday May 18th, 2021.
- What’s next? Learning about the impact of what’s happening now in the crypto art space is important for Mitchell going forward. The market is seeing more fractionalization of assets. Artists need to engage with how their work is being commoditized. Klein knew that his artistry could not be separated from the commoditization of it.