"A healthy NFT relies on a healthy community of real people"

"A healthy NFT relies on a healthy community of real people"
Organic Growth: Crystal Reef is a large-scale art project co-created by Michael Joo and Danil Krivoruchko. It uses NFT and blockchain technology, as well as the identity and decisions of its community of collectors, to shape the work itself.

Michael Joo is an internationally recognized contemporary artist based in Brooklyn, NY. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Guggenheim Museum, Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA), Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), and the Moderna Museet (Stockholm). He has also shown his work at galleries, museums and international events including the Venice Biennale, Kukje Gallery (Seoul), and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Danil Krivoruchko (aka Myshli) is a multidisciplinary art director and digital artist whose clients include Apple, Nike, Intel, Boeing, etc. His work has won a variety of festival awards. The first NFT collection created by Danil “One Thousand Ksoids” is currently held by many prominent NFT collector names.

Their collaboation Organic Growth: Crystal Reef is a collection of 10301 NFT crystal “seeds” that will flourish and transform every time they are sold. The transformation pattern of each OG:Crystal depends on the characteristics of its owner’s cryptowallet and the Crystal’s transactional history: the Crystal thus becomes a visual record of combined digital and organic processes. AR versions and 3D-printed physical models of OG:Crystals will be created. When 75% of the OG:Crystal Reef is created, Crystal owners will become part of a “decentralized autonomous organization” (DAO) that will own and control the future destiny of the piece. Finally, a new collective artwork will be created: the Crystal REEF, aggregating all the OG:Crystals in the collection into a single physical sculpture that will be publicly exhibited around the world.

The piece is produced with the help of Snark.art — one of the innovators in the digital art space.

OG:CR Test Crystal from sample crypto wallet data.

In a series of interviews with the OG:Crystals creators we’ll study closely how NFT art is created and discuss the opportunities for art in blockchain.

Our first speaker Michael Joo told us about his new work and his ideas for the future potential of NFTs for artists and the art community.

— How did this project begin for you?

I’ve been growing crystals and have been fascinated with geology and fossils since I was young. My parents were science people in plant genetics and cattle breeding. Funnily enough, we lived in the same housing rental complex as Carl Sagan, a famous astronomer and science communicator, who’s wife I used to bother for cookies. So my environment was pretty rich and I had access to a wealth of knowledge.

Rutilated quartz specimen (L), “No Ideas But in Things”, 2017 (R)

Even though it’s my first major digital work, OG:Crystal Reef is a continuation of my previous work. A lot of it involves growing things and creating sculpture that is beyond the static form. In the past I’ve worked closely with nature — I let salt crystallize on my body; animals licked the salt off me and took it into their bloodstream. Later on I grew watercress and algae on sculptures with self-watering systems. The sculptures would grow, then die and regrow in art galleries. I cultivated crystals for three years on a sculpture, carrying it from studio to studio as they grew. I’ve always studied and visualized the idea that nothing is fixed and things are always in motion.

Study for “Crystal Cairns” (2015-?) — paper model maquettes 1–3

— But in this case you grow data and do not deal with real nature.

I’ve been interested in digital work for a long time. I’ve had some digital animation in my video works, and I use three-dimensional scanning and 3D printing as tools a lot. But aside from my first NFT released with Verisart, I’d never come up with a digital-specific project that was meaningful to me.

So when I met the folks from Snark Art, blockchain was something new to me, and they started educating me on it. I was intrigued by the possibilities. I invited them to my studio to look around, and showed them some works using fossils, silver nitrate painting, marble and “Herkimer diamonds” [a unique kind of quartz crystal from upstate New York].

I wanted to work on something that would not remain fixed or predictable, but instead resembled organic growth and would also reflect larger systems and the role of individuals in a bigger picture. Generative art is complementary to this — the natural variables that affect a system are out of our control, but our choices and actions impact them.

Robotic milling process, Digital Atelier, Hamilton, NJ (L), “Herkimer Heart” (2013), installation view Houston, Texas (R)

When we began discussing things, the Snark Art team were really responsive to my ideas and to the fact that the project could require some tricky programming.

I needed to work with a digital expert who could help me realize my ideas, but also become an artistic collaborator. Later on Snark Art introduced me to Danil who is an accomplished digital artist who had already been working on generative art projects — his visualizations of data and information streams are unbelievably beautiful.

— It is not usual for you to create art pieces in collaboration with other artists. How did you feel doing it this time?

While I have done collaborative work in the past, this particular case is different for me since both the ideas and how to implement them are being done collaboratively, between Danil, the Snark Art team, and myself. We’ve been working together all through Covid, starting with a series of meetings in Brooklyn cafés and online, gradually moving to my studio. Everything clicked, my ideas and Danil’s, stemming from his knowledgeable technical standpoint and artistic vision, and backed with information and support from the team. We were coming at it from different places, but our thinking was complementary. We started questioning what NFTs are at their core in art. As artists like Eve Sussman have shown, the idea of how to actively involve the NFT community in the future of the piece can be really exciting. Sometimes we would get so worked up and go so far with our own take on this that Danil would stop and say, “Well, first we have to think of how we can technically do that.’’ Most of the things we discussed we then found a way to make happen.

— ​​Why do you place such importance on the community taking part in the project and managing it?

Even though the OG Crystal community is in no way as complex as the structure of a reef, it does have something in common. A reef is made up of the crystalized exoskeletons of tiny coral polyps, so its architecture is a crystalized sculptural reflection of all of the relevant activity that has happened so far, and sensitive to its environmental conditions. The structure of the OG:Crystal Reef also reflects its owners’ activity and external forces that we can’t control — or even predict at this point.

OG:CR Test Crystal from sample crypto wallet data.

Another important aspect of this piece is the idea of access — the question of accessibility in relation to scarcity and how to re-examine value in relation to that. Art is usually owned by a single entity. Even if it’s in a museum collection, an artwork is often kept from public view because of space limitations. If it’s not shown or shared, it’s difficult to have access to it, and when it is shown, can have an invisible and hard-to-penetrate wall of value and “importance” around it.

— And you enjoy challenging this notion in a way?

It’s definitely meant to propose an alternative and maybe more granular way to think about it. The idea of value is very important to me, the question of how we value things and what value is on a basic level. In our project, in order to generate value, the collector has to relinquish ownership. The collectible becomes more valuable on sale, and the community, in order to grow a more visually complex and arguably more beautiful final piece of work need to share the wealth to maximize the total number of crystals that reach their final form.

At the heart of it, we’re interested in the relationship each owner has with their personally imprinted version of the crystal. Do they keep it as it is to protect their ownership and court that type of rarity? Or do they give it up to allow it to develop, thereby kind of letting it go to set it free, becoming closer to it by helping fulfill one of its many potential outcomes. I enjoy the game theory involved as much as the social experiment embodied in the project.

— You’ve got 10301 crystals in the project that will grow for two months or in a span of 7 sales and will then be locked. Is there an idea behind these numbers or are they inconsequential?

10301 is a prime number, as is 7. Since a prime number is a number that can only be divided by itself and 1 without remainders, it’s difficult to divide, like our community. That was Danil’s construct, and I like it. Also, the fact that 10301 without a comma is a palindromic number means that it’s reversible, so plays with time and linearity.

— Is the prospect of a real offline exhibition important for you? The fact that it will gain physical form?

It’s more important that it is there as a horizon. The Crystal reef will grow from seeds. When they enter adolescence they’ll become a digital artwork in an augmented reality. Further on in their life cycle the community will get ownership of this work and control its fate. Then it goes on to be realized in the real physical world. This could be its mature state, but not its end. So this project will have many lives. The important thing is this process.

“Crystal Mold” (2014), “HERKIMER Painting (Manheim)” (2010), and “Slanty” (1991) — installation view, Joo Studio 2015.

Process is a big part of my work: material process, evolving and changing, shifting the outcome. At a point of watching the paint dry or waiting for silver to oxidize, it’s out of my control. I can only come in to stop it. Now this piece is riskier, because I don’t know whether we can stop it at any point. It’s out of our control, but the idea of letting it go can be equated with natural forces, or background forces that we set up in this case — human tendencies and decision making that change the outcome of this artwork, just as there is waxing and waning in things organic.

— There’s a lot of hype surrounding NFT art nowadays. Some questionable pieces are being sold for huge amounts of money in a craze. What do you think will be left when the hype dies down and how do you think will this affect the world of modern art?

I think there’s potential for NFTs to begin to open up in the hands of the right artists. It will be interesting to see if NFTs can in some ways become a gateway to understanding and further educating the art world on the possibilities of digital art and media.

The art world as we know it is mostly oblivious to cryptocurrency and blockchain. I don’t think many people who want to buy an NFT even know how to do it. It’s difficult for an art world audience to look at NFTs from the outside, because they are about active participation. They really depend on communities in some ways, which is another thing that attracts me to them at this stage. A healthy NFT relies on a healthy community of real people, and these communities are themselves similar to a living organism.

I think of this entire digital universe as the most fabulous material possible. It’s like wood that can morph and become soft, harden, or become any color, accept paint from inside out, and some of these characteristics come from the people behind it, from human action on a grand scale. There’s hopeful potential for unlocking the promise of NFTs in an artist’s hands. I don’t know how the art world is going to manage, but if challenging, responsible, and medium sensitive art projects come into the NFT sphere, anything is possible.

— The project is launched and the process is programmed. Are you still actively working on something in regards to the project

This project is about sustained engagement and I’m interested in the idea of extending its life and impact as the piece continues being made even after it’s been sold and done. We are aware of the environmental effect of blockchain projects like ours and we’re trying to mitigate it. I have been speaking to marine researchers and oceanographers about coral reef restoration and conservation research since prior to the project and at the moment we are considering how best to make an impact.

Misha Libman (of Snark Art), Michael, Danil and AR crystal friend. Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Sept. 2021.