What happens when an algorithm studies science fiction, cryptography and 1984? Robert Alice explains

Robert Alice traces the ‘pre-history’ of NFTs in a new work to celebrate Taschen’s On NFTs, the largest art historical study on the subject to date

Across spliced colour blocks, hazy smoke trails and fragmented glyphs, Robert Alice’s SOURCE [On NFTs] reflects on chaos and fragility of history today. Just as language constitutes the building blocks of computer code, SOURCE [On NFTs] is built upon a selection of 30 historical texts that form some of the unique cultural source points from which non-fungible tokens originated. Executed in vivid hues, each of the 400 distinct digital paintings that make up the generative text art algorithm is crafted from the collision and mutation of these texts using generative machine learning.

On 12 March Christie’s will present SOURCE [On NFTs] on Christie’s 3.0. The drop dovetails with the release of Alice’s new book, On NFTs, the first major art historical study of the subject, published by Taschen on 22 February. It’s not the first appearance at Christie’s for Alice, whose physical and digital artwork for Block 21 (42.36433° N, -71.26189° E) in 2020 became the first NFT to be sold at a major auction house.

The London-based contemporary artist has been a pioneer in the crypto art space since 2018. He has exhibited internationally at the Kunstverein Hamburg, Francisco Carolinum Linz and recently was subject to one of the first NFT solo shows at European institution with BABEL at the Monnaie de Paris. As trained art historian, Alice also co-produced the first academic conference on NFTs at the University of Oxford in 2022.

robert alice

Robert Alice. Sample Outputs, SOURCE [On NFTs], 2024.© Robert Alice, All Rights Reserved. Edition of 400 unique works. Offered in Source [On NFTs], Robert Alice on 12 March 2024 at Christie's 3.0

‘When you are a student of art history, you realize that when the art establishment says, ‘What is that?’ that’s actually the place to be,’ Alice says of digital art.

Though often credited as one the artists who catalysed the growth of the NFT space, Alice transcends the confines of the genre, creating both objects and digital art. ‘A lot of the work I’ve done is building bridges between physical and the digital and traditional art world’ they shared.

SOURCE [On NFTs] exemplifies this multidimensional approach. The fusion of texts, which form the foundation of the compositions, are sampled from works of science fiction, digital art manifestos, cryptography whitepapers and even seventh-century Chinese philosophical texts. Titles include George Orwell’s 1984, Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin Whitepaper and Laozi’s Tao-te Ching.

robert alice

Robert Alice working on a digital output from SOURCE [On NFTs]. Artwork: © Robert Alice

To produce SOURCE [On NFTs], Alice employed a Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithm, which uses machine learning approaches to recognize and manipulate human language. Each output is determined by four variables: texts, textures, masks, and colours. ‘It starts with a collision of two different texts,’ Alice says. In juxtaposing texts from disparate disciplines and time periods, new patterns emerge. ‘History is speculatively being remade — terms from cryptographic manuals are colliding with adjectives from science fiction texts — offering new chains of departure for the viewer.’

According to Sebastian Sanchez, Manager of Digital Art Sales at Christie’s, these layered patterns echo the works of contemporary painters. ‘You can see Mark Bradford in here. You can see Gerhard Richter in here. The work is influenced by colour field aesthetics. You can see how Alice has remixed that history to celebrate RGB colour,’ he says.

SOURCE [On NFTs] not only highlights Alice’s technical interests and distinct visual style; it also underscores the rigor of their research. ‘NFTs draw as much from science fiction, the history of politics, and crypto-anarchism as they do from the history of computer art,’ says Alice. ‘SOURCE takes all these seminal texts and splices them together in a freely associative, kind of concrete poetic way.’ For Sanchez, this element was particularly compelling. ‘Seeing the depth of the source materials and the real education behind this speaks to the increasing nuance with which artists are approaching digital art,’ he says.

On NFTs. Edited by Robert Alice. Publisher: Taschen, 22 February 2024

Robert Alice examining a physical copy of On NFTs. Artwork: © Robert Alice

Complementing SOURCE [On NFTs], the book On NFTs, edited by Alice, profiles over 100 digital artists from 32 countries. The undertaking reflects Taschen’s longstanding tradition of publishing art books that provoke thought and support artists. ‘Taschen is a democratic publisher and NFTs are, at their heart, a democratic art form,’ says Marlene Taschen, managing director of Taschen. ‘We want to broaden the scope of who gets access to learning about NFTs.’

By representing digital works in a print format, the book introduces a novel way of digesting NFTs. ‘You get to slow down, sit down with a book in a physical space and meditate on these works in a very different environment than your Twitter feed or OpenSea,’ Alice says.

One chapter shows the step-by-step, on-screen creation of some of the most widely recognized NFTs. ‘It’s almost like being in an artist’s studio… It feels like a true physical translation of the digital experience,’ Taschen notes. With On NFTs, these works will reach a wider public and a new generation of art lovers.

‘Alice’s latest artwork, coinciding with the launch of this seminal publication, is a huge moment for the entire NFT community,’ concludes Sanchez. Combining centuries of wisdom with the latest in machine learning, SOURCE [On NFTs] offers a look at where algorithmic art came from — and where it’s headed.

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