Two patrons of the Seattle NFT Museum sit on a bench, viewing the artwork on display.
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Artists meet the machine at the Seattle NFT Museum

  • Julie Emory

A new exhibit at Seattle’s controversial new art space brought technologists, NFT enthusiasts and artists together from around the nation.

Just a few blocks away from The Gum Wall, the quirky, hyperlocal attraction covered in posters, stickers and the work of local artists, you’ll find something closer to its opposite: the Seattle NFT Museum. The small gallery quite literally sits at the center of the city’s ever-burgeoning tech industry and the vibrant art scene in downtown Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood.

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are stored and displayed digitally, but the Seattle NFT Museum aims to breathe life into the emergent art medium by giving them tangible form. Founded in 2021, the Seattle NFT Museum hosted the opening of its new exhibit, “Artist and the Machine,” on Saturday, June 4 to bring the artists face-to-face with guests from inside and outside the tech industry.

Although NFTs continue to face stark opposition, some artists and technologists see the platform as a way to express themselves — regardless of whether they had any prior experience producing art. Protestors have gathered outside the museum petitioning emerging technology for their “ecological negligence,” and someone, unrelated to the protest, threw a brick through the museum’s front window. The message, “destroy that which destroys the earth,” stands at odds with the museum’s Climate Pledge, which sets a goal of net zero emissions by 2040.

Despite this, the atmosphere was relaxed (thanks in part to the specialty cocktails served, such as the NFTtini, in tandem with a full alcoholic drink menu). Artists who lived across the country talked like old friends, and influencers recorded their time exploring the space. The juxtaposition between technology and art, however, was elucidated by a guest who discussed how he preferred physical paintings as opposed to the digitized, rugged artwork scrappily created by an algorithm.

The museum blends the traditional elements of a gallery — such as physical art adorning the white walls with placards describing the artist, the piece and a QR code linking to the OpenSea marketplace page — and screens that change in a preset pattern determined by the generative AI. Guests are welcomed by a comprehensive history of NFTs and Web 3.0 on the walls leading to the main exhibit space.

Overall, the museum seemed a lot like other traditional art galleries. The biggest difference, perhaps, was that the gift shop sat directly at the entrance rather than at the end of the museum — reflective, perhaps, of the higher cash flows into the tech sector compared to traditional artistic mediums. The large digital paintings were spaced apart by several feet, encouraging guests to only focus on one piece of art at a time.

To welcome guests at the exhibit opening, Jennifer Wong, co-founder of the Seattle NFT Museum, gave a short speech introducing the concept behind the museum. She is seeking to “build a unique community in Seattle,” she said, by highlighting the interactive, generated art by computer scientists and artists alike.

In a short talk that followed the opening speech by co-founders Wong and Peter Hamliton, the artists took turns describing the processes behind their art. They discussed the technology they wielded in lieu of charcoal, acrylics or other traditional artistic mediums and how they worked in concert, rather than against, the machine. The exhibit museum highlighted the complex relationship between humans and AI by connecting often-abstract art with the rule-based processes that underpin the technology.

It’s beautiful, but there’s nothing that you can grasp in the physical world.

“A museum is designed to slow us down, to give us time to take it in and think about the aesthetics that we’re experiencing and what it means to us,” Hamilton said in his opening address. At this museum, however, visitors are encouraged to interact with the art that adorns its walls.

Aaron Penne, who was recognized as one of the top 55 artists in 2022 by Web3.Hashnode, presented “Within/Without” on a large screen. Guests were prompted to scan a QR code and input a name of their choosing to prompt Penne’s algorithm to create a randomized work of art.

After the user inputs a name, the screen changes in a diamond-like pattern with a myriad of colors rippling across the screen, alternating the image slowly until another user generates a new piece of art. The number of unique color combinations and patterns in Penne’s code mean that it will take more than 9 million frames for the same image to repeat.

The displays were captivating as shapes completely generated by artificial intelligence flitted across the screen. During the three-hour opening exhibit, there was almost always someone interacting with the piece.

Penne’s other works, such as the “Apparitions” series, are generated completely from code and can be recreated on the blockchain. As director of engineering at Art Blocks, a startup based in Marfa, Texas, Penne continues to pursue his initial interest in art and poetry despite his formal education in electrical engineering.

Penne’s rugged Python-sculpted landscapes stood in stark contrast to the smooth surfaces created in JavaScript by yungwknd. Yungwknd produces works that look like soft shapes designed to replicate landscapes reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest — complete with mountains and the outline of hikers — that directly contrast the technology that created them.

“It’s beautiful, but there’s nothing that you can grasp in the physical world,” yungwknd said.

Unlike the other artists, yungwknd displayed the JavaScript code he used to produce each piece, along with comments identifying different aspects of his work beside the pictures.

“You can see how deliberate the artists were in creating these artworks,” Joana Kawahara-Lino, curator-in-residence, said.

Licia He, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University, had programmed a robot to paint in watercolor on paper. The finished works look like unique watercolor patterns that bled through the outlined space, and each one’s title is determined by He’s algorithm.

“Hopefully what I’m exposing is how clever [AI generated art] is,” Phil Bosua, CEO of Know Labs, said. “I just type words into an interface and then these images pop out. There’s a bit more to it, but not a lot to be honest.”

From the museum’s first permanent piece, which featured a virtual Seattle landscape to Eponym’s art generated from text-to-image AI, the appeal of the multibillion dollar NFT was on full display at the “Artist and the Machine” exhibit. Instead of replacing the humanities, it suggested, NFTs enable technologists to be part of this culture and use the machine as an extension of themselves.

The exhibit is currently on display at Seattle NFT Museum, which is open 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, Thursday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday through Sunday 12 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at 2125 1st Avenue.