Generative art is proving Web3’s creative anchor in the traditional art world. Last month, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) made headlines by acquiring Refik Anadol’s “Unsupervised — Machine Hallucinations” (2022) alongside an edition from last year’s “3FACE” project by Ian Cheng. These two mark the first-ever artificial intelligence (AI) and nonfungible token (NFT) additions to MoMA’s collection, already home to relics such as Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
The landmark acquisitions also supplement MoMA’s longtime legacy of pioneering exhibitions at the intersection of technology and art, from its 1968 show “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age” through this year’s “Signals: How Video Transformed the World.”
MoMA’s announcement arrived in tandem with an outline of the institution’s digital art programming for the fall and winter seasons ahead, including the debut of video artist Leslie Thornton’s latest work, “HANDMADE” (2023), and an online exhibition with Feral File opening early next year. Weeks before, MoMA had announced its on-chain Postcard project, too.
“These new initiatives underscore MoMA’s longstanding commitment to support artists who experiment with emerging technologies to expand their visual vocabularies and creative exploration, increase the impact of their work and help us understand and navigate transformative change in the world,” the Museum’s release around their acquisitions states.
“I’m very proud to be included,” Cheng told Cointelegraph. “MoMA had previously acquired my ‘Emissaries’ trilogy of simulations in 2017. Their openness and enthusiasm for acquiring dynamic digital art is rare for an institution.”
It’s the screensaver heard around the world. Whether you’re enamored or suspicious of this one-time Google artist-in-residence’s prolific and mesmerizing machine-learning abstractions, the odds are you’ve seen them. Anadol designed this one in particular with help from Nvidia. It feeds 138,151 pieces of visual metadata from MoMA’s collection to an algorithm that produces an AI imagination of art history through Anadol’s signature undulations.
Since its release in November 2022, “Unsupervised” has been reviewed by critics at Vulture, Artforum and more. The time it took to write those reviews says more than anything about the work’s import. Jerry Saltz’s half-baked hot takes don’t detract from the mental energy his writing requires. Haters alone haven’t made Anadol famous — he has scores of devoted fans if not collectors. MoMA opted to extend the work’s 24-foot tall display several times. It just came down on Oct. 29, but visitors who minted their proof-of-attendance protocol, or POAP, from the posted QR code still have a piece of the spectacle.
Noted NFT collector and founder of the club 1 OF 1 Ryan Zurrer made the work’s acquisition possible, along with the “RFC Collection,” led by Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile and Desiree Casoni.
“I tip my hat to the folks at MoMA for understanding the cultural zeitgeist of the moment,” Zurrer told ARTnews. “Unsupervised went up two weeks before ChatGPT went public. AI is the defining topic of the moment, and MoMA captured that. I’m excited to donate this work to MoMA. But I need to acknowledge that this isn’t just a donation from me and [collector] Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile, but from Refik. He is bringing the servers and screens and the other components. The NFT is one part of this conceptual artwork that belongs to MoMA now.”
While the Museum couldn’t clarify whether Anadol outright donated the hardware that enabled “Unsupervised” to go on view, we can assume that’s the case. Their release said Thornton’s “HANDMADE” will go on view in the same Gund Lobby where they displayed “Unsupervised” on a screen the very same size, “designed by and realized with thanks to Refik Anadol Studio.”
Meanwhile, Cheng evades branding. A lifelong exploration of psychology through cutting-edge technologies defines his practice more than any single aesthetic. In fact, there are 4,096 unique editions of “3FACE” in existence, and not one of them was designed explicitly by Cheng’s hand. Works in the generative project depict adaptive, ongoing visual portraits of their owners, crafted using data gleaned from their wallets at any given moment. MoMA calls it his “most ambitious experimental artwork to date to explore blockchain technologies and the decentralization of data,” which expands upon “the artist’s interest in the capacity of humans to relate to change.”
In his efforts to represent and shape the ephemeral mind, Cheng told Right Click Save last year he believes “art can play a role in upgrading the unconscious response we have to complexity.” “3FACE” honors the depths of every person — and, because it’s dynamic, their ability to change.
The NFT platform Outland Art donated its “3FACE” to MoMA’s collection. “Jason Li and Chris Lew advised a lot and helped flesh out the team to turn the idea into a reality,” Cheng told Cointelegraph. “I would not have made ‘3FACE’ without Outland.”
The work’s public entry on MoMA’s website doesn’t list what number out of the whole series it is or what wallet it belongs to. MoMA didn’t respond to Cointelegraph’s request for comment, but based on the way “3FACE” works and the fact that MoMA just started collecting on-chain artworks, this might be the “3FACE” interpretation of a wide open wallet populated only by Anadol’s “Unsupervised.”
Another chapter in art history
Carrying the torch from former contentious and pioneering art forms like photography, generative art has forced this generation of artists to reassess what exactly makes art valuable.
“The endgame of generative AI tooling is a new immediacy between thought and visual articulation,” Cheng mused about what’s next for AI art. “We’re used to the immediacy between thought and written or verbal expression. A writer, with no intermediary help, can construct a novel. Imagine if you, with no intermediary help, could construct a movie. As with writing fiction, the filmmaker is capped only by their own imagination, their taste, the quality of their questions, their courage to pursue gray truths, and their understanding of human behavior.”
Technology will continually evolve, but it’s the evolution of artists’ abilities in using it that divides what’s merely eye-catching from what’s impactful. Not that those two are mutually exclusive — even though MoMA’s Anadol acquisition is akin to the institution buying itself a Louis Vuitton bag, what society calls luxury is history on its own.
Anadol and Cheng both work predominantly with data while making AI art. The emergent properties of their processes have implications. “Unsupervised” begs the question: What is art history? — a fraught topic traditional art historians argue over without even breaching painting alone. By virtue of its premise, “3FACE” asks those who engage with it how they’d quantify a gnarled human psyche. It’s one of the few projects that uses the ledger as anything more than a manner of transacting.
Museums such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Centre Pompidou started collecting NFTs back in the boom days. MoMA’s decision to lend credence to such works now marks a new watershed moment.
“We pinch our nose at ‘AI art’ right now because the first experiments look like experiments, but zoom out 10 years from now,” Cheng said. “The ease of producing visually refined expression will unlock a lot of artistic agency from a greater plurality of people, and this is a good thing.”