Computer Art for Computers
Created on the Ethereum Blockchain, These Abstract Images Raised Around $13,500 for Renewable Energy
04.10.2019

John Watkinson and Matt Hall, the engineers/artists/computer scientists behind the project hub Larva Labs, have taken the idea of blockchain-based collectible art to another level. They’ve put the art itself on the blockchain.

Before explaining what in the world that could possibly mean, it’s important to specify how other “cryptocollectibles” work. Watkinson and Hall created CryptoPunks, one-of-a-kind pieces of generative art—meaning Watkinson wrote code for a digital character generator that spit out all 10,000 pixelated punk images rather than designing them individually—tied to ERC-20 tokens on the Ethereum blockchain. Each CryptoPunk comes with its own unique Ethereum smart contract, proving that the holder of each token owns their particular Punk. The contracts include marketplace functions (the ability to buy and sell the Punks) and a hash of the CryptoPunk’s image file. The image files themselves, however, are stored by Larva Labs on a server separate from the Ethereum blockchain.

This is how Watkinson and Hall’s latest project differs. Called Autoglyphs, these abstract images are built into the blockchain where their nonfungible, ERC-721 tokens exist. No other collectible blockchain pieces are quite like this—cryptocollectibles that followed the creation of CryptoPunks, like CryptoKitties and a slew of others, consist of image files stored separately from their one-of-a-kind tokens. With Autoglyphs, the algorithm that generates each one’s appearance is written as just about 60 lines of code in its Ethereum contract (the contacts consist of a total of 624 lines of code—scroll down to line 219 to see where the image generation instructions start).

Autoglyph #107, Watkinson's favorite

TheChain: Image

At the top of the code, Watkinson and Hall included some basic drawing instructions. A “.” means nothing is to be drawn in a particular cell, a “0” means there should be a circle in the cell, and a “+” means that cell gets a cross. Because of their very basic components, Autoglyphs look very simple up close. “You can’t really run that much on the blockchain,” Watkinson tells us. “People have called it the world’s super computer, but we think of it more as the world’s punch card machine.”

From further away, however, or viewed on a very small scale, those collections of lines and circles look like the sorts of patterns you might see while on hallucinogenic drugs.

Autoglyphs, of which there only 512 in total, have a hidden element of rarity built into them. As some CryptoPunks are rarer than others (for instance, only nine CryptoPunks are “aliens” while the vast majority are “humans”), some Autoglyph’s “symbol schemes”—the types of marks they’re made up of, circles or squares or lines—are less common than others. “We didn’t talk about this at all,” says Watkinson. “We just kind of wanted the community to discover it.”

Related: How CryptoPunks’ Creators Charmed the Art World and Paved the Way for Blockchain Art

Watkinson and Hall unveiled Autoglyphs at around 9 a.m. on Monday with an interview they did with Jason Bailey, published on his digital art blog, Artnome. Bailey tweeted out the article, Watkinson and Hall posted about the Autoglyphs in the CryptoPunks Discord channel, and by around 1 p.m. that same day, all 512 had been purchased for the price of 0.2 ETH (then about $35) each. Watkinson and Hall also claimed some for themselves.

Those who claimed Autoglyphs also “created” them. While Watkinson and Hall wrote the code, the act of initially claiming caused the smart contract that generated the images to run. In that sense, the project is almost collaborative. Because the instructions for how the Autoglyphs should look are in their contracts, owners can recreate theirs in other media, like this person, who turned theirs into music:

But generating an Autoglyph isn’t cheap. “A regular transaction fee is about 20,000 gas. This [Autoglyph] is 3.35 million,” says Watkinson. “It takes up almost half of an Ethereum block.”

Because of all the energy it takes to generate an Autoglyph, Watkinson and Hall made it so the 0.2 ETH everyone paid to “create” one would go straight to 350.org, a renewable energy nonprofit.

“They had an Ethereum address listed, so we contacted them and said, does this still work?” says Watkinson. He and Hall sent the nonprofit a test amount of ETH, they received it, and all of a sudden on Monday, 350.org watched as their barely-used wallet filled. “Based on the price of ETH [that day], I think it ended up being $13,500 donated,” Watkinson says.

With CryptoPunks, Watkinson and Hall established themselves as artists (before that, they considered their title something more like “programmers”). They find themselves to be almost fluent in the history of generative art now and knowledgeable about art in general, comparing their work to the early generative artists of the 1960s like Michael Noll and citing Sol LeWitt as an influence. Now, they’ve even mastered the charity art auction, resulting in a five-figure donation for a renewable energy nonprofit in a matter of hours.

A plotter hooked up to the instructions for drawing an Autoglyph. "It's almost like computer art for computers," says Watkinson. (Photo from Larva Labs website)

TheChain: Image

Ultimately, they’ve come to understand where their art fits into technological history. When Watkinson was a kid, for example, he was playing and making computer games on a Commodore 64, with 64 kilobytes of memory. By the time he was an adult, in the early 2000s, technology had progressed—he had a phone to play with, “those little Nokia candy bar phones” limited to 54 kilobytes. Though the tech had evolved, what Watkinson could make using it represented, he says, “sort of this weird return.”

“I always loved those simple games back when I was a kid, and now I kind of have another shot at that,” he says. “This is a new platform that is also currently limited. And it won’t be for long, but it is right now.”