When NFTs first took off, it was Beeple’s digital art, CryptoPunks and Bored Ape Yacht Club PFPs that dominated the headlines and top sales — but one individual bucked the trend in a unique way, garnering attention with generative audiovisual art using just a C compiler.
That individual was 0xDEAFBEEF, an artist and engineer based in Toronto, Canada who’s spent over 20 years experimenting with art, technology, music, generative art, computer animation, blacksmithing and sound recording.
Using low-level computer code and a minimal toolset to craft raw information into audiovisual artworks has proven more popular than you might expect. A collection of six of 0xDEAFBEEF’s sold for $6.8 million in August 2021, and two weeks ago, “Series 1: Angular – Token 134” fetched $241,300 at Sotheby’s. It was auctioned during part 1 of “Grails,” a collection of highly desirable NFTs originally owned by the now-insolvent 3AC (Three Arrows Capital).
Trained on classic piano as a kid and somewhat of a mad scientist when it came to audio equipment, discovering a programmable blockchain in Ethereum was a revelation.
“I’d describe myself as a tinkerer, jumping around between many fields, overlapping art and technology. It just happened that the project that I commenced before I knew anything about NFTs, doing audiovisual work with code, happened to align with things that were happening within Ethereum,” 0xDEAFBEEF says.
“It was great timing. When I look back, had I missed that window in 2021 by three to six months, things might have looked much different.”
But like so many successful NFT artists that have emerged in the explosion of the new digital art era, “not planned” is a common theme.
In March 2021, his “Synth Poems” were born, inspired by the sound of analog synthesizers. These short generative music pieces are stored fully on-chain.
NFTs that degrade in quality
NFTs have been a playground for experimentation, and 0xDEAFBEEF’s work “Entropy” is unique in that the tokens degrade in quality each time they are traded.
“Entropy is thematically about permanence, and permanence is a theme of on-chain generative art. It’s a theme of crypto in general with things being permanent and immutable,” says 0xDEAFBEEF.
“It was interesting to me. There’s a narrative of on-chain art being more permanent than other NFTs where the files are stored on another server and have the potential to disappear. But I asked myself the question of how immutable it is through ‘Entropy.’”
“Using the ‘Entropy’ artwork to paradoxically critique the idea of permanence by having this digital artwork that changes and degrades every time it changes ownership — I thought it was interesting thematically.”
Since the recent introduction of the Blur marketplace, many NFT collections, particularly PFP projects, have seen the emphasis on aesthetics decline with most sales being anchored to current floor prices. It’s also posed the question of does the number of times an NFT gets passed around between owners matter?
For some collectors, it actually does. While a digital piece of art or collectible doesn’t face the same wear and tear challenges a physical item does, the history of ownership could be a factor, with some collectors putting a premium on those that haven’t been passed around like a hot potato.
“Entropy” was an experiment ahead of its time. “People can have their own interpretation, but I don’t think it was necessarily a means to really discourage people from trading the NFT or transferring the NFT,” he says.
“Is it more valuable if it’s been transferred or not? It’s up to the collectors to decide, but it does add this narrative. It wasn’t really a way to stick it to people that are buying and selling works — that’s obviously part of the culture. Tradability and collectibility is a very interesting dimension of NFTs. It’s really just an artwork that touches on all of those themes and at least asks you to consider it.”
Many NFT collectors believe it’s harder for digital artists that focus on audio to cut through as effectively as visual artists as audio takes longer to consume.
0xDEAFBEEF has been able to cut through this friction with his own distinct monochrome visual style that is a great hook to unlock the audio aspect of the art.
“People see it first before they hear it usually because of the dominance of social media — it’s all visually oriented. The monochrome aesthetic of my work is something that comes through a lot. There’s a bunch of reasons why I work in monochrome. One of them is just being practical because this was originally a sound-based project,” he says.
“I was focused on audio synthesis, and I was focused on motion and animation. Bringing those two things together is already many dimensions, so working with sound and with motion that might introduce color is too much. Monochrome has sort of become part of the style for those reasons.”
Notable sales to date:
DEAFBEEF Full Set (6 items) — Sold for 2,275 ETH ($6.8 million on the date of sale) on Aug. 19, 2021.
(The buyer was later revealed as Brevan Howard founder Alan Howard.)
“Advection” (below) was sold for $307,157 on June 29, 2022.
0xDEAFBEEF cites American musician Frank Zappa as someone who was very influential early on in the way he thinks about music and art.
“It’s about his music but also the spirit and ethos of it — sort of sticking to your guns and doing things for yourself. Another way I think about it is making things that aren’t necessarily for the crowd,” he said.
“If it wasn’t for that encounter, I might have just kept on doing my engineering degree and wound up in a boring job and being regretful about things. It helped me give myself permission to do something more risky.”
“I don’t listen to Frank as much as I used to now. Looking back, he does have some problematic kinds of themes and things. I don’t idolize him or anything, but he was still quite influential on me as a young person.”
Which hot NFT artists should we be paying attention to?
“They have a long-standing art practice, but more recently, I think they’re working with generative choreography. I think that’s really fascinating. They’re coming at it from a very strong technical and conceptual aesthetic.”
Trevor Paglan — Satellites, deep-time, seeing machines, infrastructure
“Trevor is an artist that investigates. He has a recent ‘Art Blocks’ drop that ties in with other projects that he’s doing that are related to security and privacy, which I think are really relevant at this time.”
Paul Pfeiffer — Video artist
“Paul is an amazing video artist. He’s well known and doing his first NFT with Art World. It looks really phenomenal.”
Holly Herndon — Artist working with voice models and artists’ rights
“Holly has been studying at Stanford about artists’ rights for a while. She’s known what was coming for many years now. She’s been working with voice models. It’s fascinating stuff.”
The qualified electrical engineer genius of 0xDEAFBEEF is collected by many notable NFT whale collectors, but it’s other artists in particular who he pointed out make him smile knowing they appreciate his work.
“I’m extremely appreciative of all my collectors and anyone that’s taken an interest in my work. The most meaningful ones that have honestly made me smile have been art-for-art trades with other artists.”
“I also traded ‘Synth Poem’ with Mitchell F Chan, who is a conceptual artist that’s been working with blockchain stuff. He has a project from 2017 that’s really relevant called ‘Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility.’”
“Then there’s Jack Rockland, who has held one of my ‘Synth Poems’ all the way through since March 2021. He works at ArtBlocks and is an artist himself. I’m really proud to have him as a long-time collector.”
Favorite NFTs in your wallet that aren’t your own:
“Stipple Sunsets” by Jack Rockland.
“It was the first NFT that I minted that wasn’t my own; plus, it was the work of a friend, so it makes it really meaningful for me.”
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