Organic Growth: Crystal Reef is a large-scale art project co-created by Michael Joo and Danil Krivoruchko and produced with the help of Snark.art. It uses NFT and blockchain technology, as well as the identity and decisions of its community of collectors, to shape the work itself.
This is part 2 of a 3-part series of interviews with the OG:Crystals’ co-creators. The first part was a conversation with prominent artist Michael Joo. This is an interview with a multidisciplinary art director and digital artist Danil Krivoruchko. He told us about the unique technologies used in the project, the differences between conventional art and NFT art, and how it all started with a digital butt dressed in latex.
— I’d like to start with a question regarding your move away from the sphere of design into art. What inspired the shift? Do you feel and/or think differently now that you’re working as an artist?
I don’t believe in the division of art and design. These two fields are intertwined. Say you come upon a beautifully designed cover page for the New Yorker. Should one call it art or design? Should we treat the iPhone as an art piece or a design? It’s so intricate and well-crafted that its design transcends its utility. I personally look at really good design pieces as art.
I’d say the main difference between art and design can be narrowed down to whether one has a client or not. I’ve always worked on commercial projects to support myself and my family, but I’ve also delved into my own projects. Now that I’m getting older, time is short, and I’d like to spend it on something I enjoy. So yeah, the switch came naturally. But I’ve always been making art in a sense, it’s not like I became an artist overnight.
— What ideas did Michael present to you when Snark.art invited you to collaborate with him? How did your vision change in the process?
Michael is fascinated with crystals, corals, natural processes of evolution and decay. I’m in love with data, its visualization, and how it can be turned into something tangible and beautiful, which probably made Snark.art realize they needed to connect us. We met for coffee and talked for two hours.
I remember the precise moment in our conversation when Michael mentioned polyps, the microorganisms that form coral reefs. He told me about calcite, a mineral that forms the coral exoskeleton. It turns out this mineral can be found almost everywhere in the ground, which means it can have both organic and non-organic origins. This was a light bulb moment for me, as I was struggling to synthesize all this information into a coherent concept. We were working on a digital collection that was going to be created via organic and non-organic methods, just like calcite is. This analogy made it click, and it became easier to develop our ideas from there. The Crystals were going to be sold at first in their original form, but with each subsequent sale, they would grow and change. In this way, each community member would grow the Crystals which form the reef’s exoskeleton, just like polyps help form coral reefs.
We came up with the initial concept in three days, but it took around three more months to make a comprehensible and detailed plan and refine the generative algorithms needed, as we were treading uncharted territory when it came to some of the technological things we were doing, things no one has ever tried before.
— Could you give an example?
Generative art projects that collect data and create something out of it have existed before, but there’s been very few attempts to make NFTs change with every transaction made, as far as I’m aware.
— What does that mean?
Let me give you a quick 101 on NFT collectibles. They are a digital alternative to, say, baseball or Pokémon trading cards. So they’re a huge set of similar-looking things, some of them being rarer and more expensive than others. Let’s say you have a set of ten thousand pictures, all of which share certain traits. Every picture has some of these traits, in different combinations, so each is unique. These digital pictures are generated via an algorithm and presented before sales start.
Generative NFT projects take things a step further. They take data from the buyer’s digital presence and use it to create the art piece. ArtBlocks, for instance, uses data from buyers’ wallets (strings of numbers that identify the user) with which their algorithms create unique art pieces based on each individual buyer’s data.
We took it even further. Instead of using just one data parameter, we use around 10. This means that we use the buyers’ transaction history data, data on NFTs purchased and/or collected, the growth/decline of their balance, activity statistics, etc. All this data is publicly available and legal to use. Using it does not compromise the safety of the buyer, thanks to the way blockchain technology works. All this data is then used to generate a completely unique Crystal that is created essentially BY the datasets of the buyer's digital identity. I believe we are the first ones doing a generative project in the space on such a large scale. But data collection is just the first step for us.
— What is the next step?
We deal with 3D-rendered generative stuff, which is quite challenging and requires a lot of computing power. Each Crystal takes around five minutes to render, so rendering ten thousand would take thirty days if done on a single high-end workstation. No one wants to wait a month to get their NFT. But we have some amazing technical partners, Comino and Lacrimas Render Farm, that are providing us with twenty high-end machines working simultaneously to reduce the rendering time from thirty days to three. It’s a monumental technical challenge, and I don’t think anyone has ever tried to pull it off on this grand scale.
We have a dedicated person who helps us create a custom pipeline, i.e. does lots of coding to bridge the gap between the render farm and blockchain so that the data can seamlessly flow back and forth. All that being said, this step is still not the last.
The third step is the coolest, in my opinion. Not only does this thing create a beautiful and unique Crystal, but the Crystal then continues to evolve and grow on its own, as more and more data from new buyers pours into it. We had to limit each Crystal to seven iterations (purchases) because past that point it stops looking good, because it becomes visually messy and complicated.
What’s exciting is that the mechanics of this thing involve a lot of game theory. It’s all a big social experiment, in a way.
— How come?
It’s impossible to predict which pieces are going to be valuable and/or rare. We’re giving the community a tool, and I’m very excited to see what comes out of it all. Crystal buyers will probably have different approaches. Some might hold on to their original piece as it might end up turning out to be an especially valuable one, with a high majority of buyers wanting to purchase and evolve it. Others may come up with strategies to create a small circle of people who will keep buying Crystals from each other to evolve them in a more controlled manner. Others might buy two pieces and keep one in its original iteration and evolve the second one as much as possible. Some might sell a piece and then try to buy it back at the end of the cycle, looking for a symmetrical approach, and so on.
— Is there a big community of people interested in the project?
The collection’s Discord server currently has over fifteen thousand members, and that’s pre-launch. There’s a lot of activity in the chats, the volume of messages is so high that it’s impossible to keep up, even though I am trying to keep an eye on it.
— Your Crystal Reef is a blockchain-based project. What’s your take on crypto technology and the crypto community? Are they going to change the world? Do you romanticize them like so many people do?
I’m not a blockchain worshipper, but I’m sure it will bring change. Like any other technology, it has its merits and downsides. It still has to overcome certain barriers when it comes to mass adoption. It does evolve by leaps and bounds compared to other technologies, however, and there’s no lack of brains and financing involved. Think of it as a perfect boiling pot of technology, finance, and, more recently, art.
The conventional art world is slow to change, the rules have been in place for like several hundred years. Because of that, the digital art world is going to evolve all the quicker. Both worlds have plenty to learn from each other, though.
We’re trying to bridge the gap between these two worlds with our project, since Michael and I come from each respective one. We’re trying to bring something with the quality of actual art to the digital world and its communities and show the conventional art world that NFTs aren’t something to be afraid of. After the sales of the Crystals are completed, Michael and I are going to make a copy of each individual Crystal and create a huge art piece with all of them — an actual Crystal reef. This is going to make every person who helped grow the Crystals a co-creator. The Crystal Reef will be a physical art piece and it is going to be exhibited in conventional galleries and museums. None of this would be possible without the digital community.
— Your first NFT collectibles project was 1000 Ksoids. Was it successful?
It was a huge success to me, though my NFT journey started ridiculously. I had this little frivolous project called BDSIM, basically, just a digital image of an undulating ass in latex, fully simulated and rendered. Back then some of my friends had started discussing the NFT market, and I thought, why not give it a try. I created an account on a random platform and submitted this silly animated butt pic in the evening, since posting something on blockchain involves paying a small fee, and it was cheaper in the evening in New York. When I woke up in the morning I saw that it had sold for like 400$, which seemed unbelievable! That’s when it all began, really.
I created the Ksoids project back in 2013. No one was talking about blockchain or generative characters back then, I had just moved to New York, and I was trying to build a portfolio to get noticed. My wife inspired me to create this army of cute characters. I rendered them on an overheating laptop which I had to keep under the bed since that was the coolest part of our apartment. Fast forward to 2021, and a Facebook notification reminds me that I posted this Ksoids project eight years ago. I share the post again and Andy from Snark Art comments: “Hey, this looks nice, we should make it a collectible”. I quickly agreed and went on to remaster the collection.
The success of the Ksoids was overwhelming, I wasn’t used to the amount of attention I began receiving. And then almost the whole collection was gone in like two or three days (the last 100 Ksoids were sold on auctions).
— Do you mind if I ask you how much you made?
Even if I were to prefer to keep that information private, it’s all public access on blockchain. We made around 180 ETH, which is roughly half a million USD. And 20% of the profit from the Ksoids collection sales was donated to the Red Apes Orangutan Outreach. I’m not used to earning this kind of money in such a short amount of time, it all felt surreal. The blockchain world plays by its own rules. Some of my less tech-savvy friends can’t believe the stories I tell them.
— NFTs seem to be more about money compared to conventional art. Do you agree?
I strongly disagree. Both NFTs and conventional art are about both art and money. It’s not like conventional artists are all about beautiful concepts and NFT creators are just greedy money-grabbers. I don’t believe in the “starving artist” myth — a human has to be healthy and happy to dive into creative mode.
All art has a price. In some cases, it’s priceless, because it’s just too expensive to be sold. One can’t buy Da Vinci’s work, you simply can’t put a price tag on it. But the works of many very prominent artists get auctioned off. Even the most idealistic artists have to provide for themselves and their families. The same goes for digital art. It’s not as balanced yet, since the market is young, and not everyone in the NFT communities necessarily has an art education. And exploring art in digital space can be challenging, as it’s not as developed an arena, which leaves room for exploitation. Some pieces made with barely any effort end up being valued very highly. But these cases will become rarer as the digital art space evolves.
Eventually, it will become more civilised and grow to somewhat resemble the conventional art market we know today.
I think the digital art world is going to mature and change the same way every up-and-coming industry does, from suspicion and cynicism, to a boom in popularity, to mass adoption, and eventually to being commonplace. Wi-fi was a thing of wonder twenty years ago, and now even my refrigerator has it. I think that’s what’s in store for blockchain and NFTs. The technology itself is very promising, and I hope it reaches mass adoption.