laCollection’s Head Curator interviews Brooklyn-based generative artist Steve Pikelny.
Steve Pikelny is a Brooklyn-based artist, engineer, and entrepreneur. He is the CEO, CTO, CFO, and COO of FastCashMoneyPlus.biz, owns one of the largest Jesus pamphlet collections in North America, and enjoys making generative art in his free time.
Marlène Corbun (Head Curator for laCollection): Why did you decide to become a digital artist after starting a career in finance?
Steve Pikelny: I’ve always had creative aspirations. I originally went to college to study film, but ended up becoming fascinated by the financial crisis and chose to study economics instead. But even though I really enjoyed learning about the philosophical implications of money functioning in society, it left me without the sort of creative outlet that film gave me. Then I entered the working world as a mutual fund analyst, which didn’t quite scratch that itch. I really wanted to spend my time building things, so I started teaching myself to code. Once I started playing around with front end web development I immediately began using it as the creative outlet that had been missing from my life. I started by building abstract audio-visual websites, and then moved onto building more elaborate interactive fictional universes.
MC: Can you tell us more about generative art and how you are blending engineering and creativity to make your works?
SP: I think what’s really interesting about making generative art is that it shares a lot of similarities with rules-based conceptual art. As the artist, my main concern is defining the structure of a project while leaving the actual implementation up to chance. And that often results in a fairly unique experience where the collection has a cohesive visual identity, but each piece has its own set off attributes that give it a unique meaning in relation to the other pieces. From an engineering perspective this is also an interesting challenge because it means you have to tame the randomness in such a way that you always get something that fits with your vision. Overall, this was the perfect technique to explore the arbitrariness of value in my project Fake Internet Money. With FIM I was able to define a common rosette pattern that drew an obvious visual connection between all the bills in the collection. But at the same time, each bill has its own denomination, layout, serial number, etc. Some even have “misprints”. And despite being generated by the same algorithm, each piece can plausibly have a radically different value on the secondary market based on its features. So when one piece sells on the secondary market at a higher price than a very similar looking piece, it leads to some interesting questions. Why did that happen? Was it because it had a larger number printed on it? Did it happen to have a star next to the serial number? Was there an interesting misprint? Did its subtle differences happen to conform to the taste of that individual collector? Ultimately I don’t think it’s clear why any of these things necessarily matter when assigning a quantitative value to the artwork. This is all to say that for FIM, the collection as a whole is the artwork, and it really only works if there are a lot of FIM bills to compare against each other. So using generative techniques is a good way to create 1000 of something in a consistent way while also ensuring that each one is interesting.
MC: Why have you chosen the blockchain as a medium? What are its advantages for artists?
SP: I think there are a few interesting facets of using blockchains as an artistic medium. The most obvious one is that it gives artists a really effective way to finance their work, should they choose to monetize it. But beyond that, it gives artists a totally new set of tools to explore value, participatory dynamics, and identity. Of course, these were all things that artists could explore before blockchains. With money art in particular, there’s a long history of visual and conceptual artists using finance as a medium. But smart contracts give artists a way to encode the rules of the piece within the artwork itself, without having to rely on a third party or institution to enforce those rules. Not only does that give you great archivability, but the guarantees you get from the contract creates a much different experience for the collector. For example, I did a project recently called The 10 ETH Giveaway, where you could redeem an NFT for 10 ETH. Then I auctioned the token off with no reserve price, which meant that someone could have feasible bought 10 ETH for less than 10 ETH. And the crux of this project is that I locked 10 ETH up on the original smart contract. There was nothing I could do to retrieve that money. Once I started the auction it was totally out of my hands. I don’t think there’s a way you could recreate that experience with the same level of finality without using a blockchain.