To many, the thriving NFT scene is still a mystery. While it’s true that part of the space still falls into PFP and meme territory, once you dive in a little deeper, you start to realise that the real engine behind the digital art and NFT world isn’t about that at all. There’s an entire ecosystem of burgeoning creativity and new forms of digital art that’s just beginning to form, unleashed by web3.
It’s when we hear about the journeys of artists like Hieroglyphica, that we can begin to understand the true power and potential behind art in the web3 space – the autonomy it can afford to creators, the openness to new ideas and forms, the collaborative nature of creation.
Former academic director, now generative artist Hieroglyphica is behind the Absorbed collection, created in partnership with design collective Parameta and British audio innovator KEF. We had a chance to speak to him after the Absorbed launch, which saw its entire public allocation taken up in less than three minutes.
Read on to discover his journey from hobbyist to fast-growing generative artist, takeaways from starting a creative career in the web3 world, creative process and more.
As we’re nearing the end of the year, how has 2022 been for you so far?
2022 has been a truly incredible year for me. Back in January, I had only the vaguest notion of what web3 was – maybe some odd experiment mixing cryptocurrency with virtual reality in order to reinvent the internet. I hadn’t heard of Tezos at all, and had no idea generative art was in the midst of its greatest period of transformation and creativity in 50 years. I was gearing up to work with a new batch of seasonal students for a busy winter semester, and looking forward to snorkelling some new reefs in the Florida Keys during a family vacation we had planned there in March.
Fast forward to October, and I find myself in the extraordinary situation of seeing not just one, but two of my pieces on the weekly top sales chart for fx(hash), the most vibrant generative art marketplace on the Tezos blockchain. Famous artists have collected my work, and, strangest of all, I’ve started introducing myself as a generative artist instead of an academic director.
We know you don’t have a typical art background – tell us about how you first started creating. How did you take the plunge from academic director to generative artist?
I’ve always been interested in creative writing (I have an MFA in the subject), but it was only after meeting my wife, a classically trained illustrator and toy designer, that I became interested in the visual arts.
She helped me appreciate that all art really has the same goal: to show people something new about themselves, the world around them, the human condition. The form might be different, but the goal is the same. So I started thinking about how I might extend my creative output to the visual realm, and soon discovered generative art (which was a very tiny niche back in 2005). The form fascinated me with its ability to connect abstract mathematics with the real world.
I’ve dabbled in generative art as a hobby ever since, but it was only this year that being a full-time generative artist, and making a living at it, seemed even remotely realistic. In part, that’s because digital art was for a long time dismissed by the art world as easily reproducible, cheap and unimportant. It is only in the past several years that blockchain has addressed these concerns and that the art world has begun to change its attitude. The incredible explosion of creativity we are now witnessing in the digital arts is a direct result.
I haven’t fully taken the plunge from academic director to generative artist yet, but I’m very nearly there. And in truth, it hasn’t been a plunge at all, but more of a natural and organic transition as my opportunities as an artist – the kinds of projects and collaborations I’ve been invited to do – have expanded.
Poems in the Public Domain, #108 (2022) — A stylistically different collaboration with hieroglyphica's friend and poet Ana María Caballero.
How did you find your unique style? What was that journey like?
This is an interesting question, because I’m not sure that I have a unique style – or even a singular style. I have a very roving mind and am easily interested in a wide range of subjects and projects.
For example, I released two pieces this week, both collaborations: one uses generative animation to explore the tension between order and randomness, and the other is a new form of poetic anthology that celebrates the role of the reader. Visually, the two pieces look nothing like each other, but I’m very proud of both of them.
In general, I’d say that I let the goals of a particular piece guide my stylistic choices. My most vibrant output seems to come when I follow an idea as far as I can, developing necessary tools and techniques along the way. When I’m working on a piece and see results emerging that surprise me, that in some way challenge or complicate what I thought I wanted to achieve with the project – that’s when I know I’m on to something.
How has the experience of creating NFTs and art for the web3 world been for you? What motivated you to start?
Creating art for web3 has been incredibly positive and fulfilling. I learned about the space by chance, from the mother of one of my 9-year-old son’s friends at school: Ana María Caballero, a talented poet, web3 innovator, and now collaborator with me on several projects. I didn’t have high expectations when I released my first NFT in February, but I was impressed by the warm welcome I received from the community.
In the 10 months since, I’ve been nothing but amazed and delighted by the general spirit of trust and appreciation, by the sense of possibility, and by the thoughtful openness to new voices and new ideas within web3. My work is very much a product of – and testament to – this incredible ecosystem.
hieroglyphica (aka Jason Sholl) at Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2017.
As a web3 creator, what do you see as the biggest benefits for artists and musicians thinking about entering the space?
One obvious benefit is the ability for artists to retain control over the licensing of their work and how they are paid for it.
In web3, it is standard practice to build royalties into a token’s smart contract – so that, for example, whenever one of my pieces is sold by one collector to another, 7.5% of the sale price is deposited into my wallet and another 7.5% is deposited into my collaborator’s wallet, without either of us having to lift a finger, indefinitely into the future.
An even bigger benefit, in my view, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore entirely novel artistic forms. Generative animation, generative narrative, generative music, hybrid-media forms that connect the digital world to the real world, countless new forms involving AI and virtual reality: these are the art forms of the future, and right now every single one of them is a wide-open field in web3 just waiting to be pioneered.
Does sound or music play any part or role in your creative process? How?
I love music, and I almost always listen to music while I create. The way individual tracks are layered and synchronised in electronic music, in particular, seems to have a lot in common with generative art, and so I often turn to this genre for inspiration.
I’ve also started several sketches that involve sound as an active aesthetic component and plan to continue exploring these ideas.
The Space Age (2005) — One of hieroglyphica’s earliest works, this piece was never released.
Tell us about your collaboration with KEF and Parameta for their genesis NFT collection, Absorbed. How was the concept conceived, and what was your creative process like?
It has been an extraordinary journey. For a full account, please see my companion article on fx(text). If you have a Tezos wallet, feel free to collect a copy as well – it’s available as a free mint.
Is there anything you want people to take away from the Absorbed collection? What do you want people to take away from your work as a whole?
If there’s a message to Absorbed, it’s that the line between signal and noise is far blurrier than it seems. It’s that perfect order is boring and so is perfect randomness: what’s beautiful are the many messy and imperfect states in between.
As humans, we hunger for meaning, imagining that we see patterns where there are none, even while missing highly significant patterns that are right in front of our faces. I hope that this collection – and my work in general – inspires viewers to loosen their grip on this need for meaning – to know that it’s okay just to go along for the ride and be surprised by the beauty of the unfamiliar.
How do you see the NFT landscape evolving to better support emerging creatives?
I think mentors play a crucial role in supporting emerging artists in this space. Right now, web3 is very fragmented, similar to how the internet was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It’s hard to find your community without someone there to point you in the right direction. Mentors can make a huge impact in this regard, and I see lots of efforts underway to help connect emerging artists with the platforms, projects and people that will support their work. The web3 non-profit Creators First Foundation is a great example of this.
What’ve you got planned next? Anything we should look out for?
I am almost always working on multiple projects. Some find their way to completion, and others – the ones that aren’t quite gelling – I’ll lay aside and come back to. Most immediately, however, I’m working on a 3D piece: a collection of generative animated sculptures. It’s too soon to say, but they may even incorporate sound.
Cover Credit: Flow, #0 (2022) — The Flow collection was Hieroglyphica’s first NFT release and the starting point for his work on Absorbed.
All Images: Hieroglyphica
Writer | Soyoung Park
Soyoung is a perpetual third culture kid currently in Hong Kong as Sound of Life’s Lead Editor. When not at her day job, she lives to explore and daydream about the underwater world.