Appreciating Art for Non-Artists 🎨

A love letter to our world's artistic beauty, with creative & expressive humans.

In September I spent a whole weekend floating through every little nanny and crook of Mexico City, eagerly taking in its rich culture, flavourful cuisine, and authentic chatter livening up the streets. The most striking thing to me was the mixture of art and architecture that branded the city with a particular aesthetic. The contours of winding neighbourhoods created a web of welcoming sights & sounds, laced with symmetric cobblestone bricks in one corner and unpaved freeform roads in another. The antique history blended with a modern-day gloss. The freeform vines hugged and wrapped around sprawling buildings in a sea of city greenery — a true urban jungle.

After some reflection, I realized we don’t pay nearly enough attention to the artistry surrounding us on a regular basis. Periodically visiting museums and pop-up exhibits satisfies some of that deficiency, but implies you can only find these elements in specialized showrooms or glorified galleries. Then there’s the consequence of how being groomed in a traditional business bubble stifles our sense of creative wonder. We get bogged down in the megacity ivory towers and forget to enjoy the scenery. We neglect the sensations swirling around us. A reminder that presence is so crucial.

While in Mexico, I picked up a book of a non-profit art project birthed in Brussels, called Rectangle. It was a true spur-of-the-moment decision. I originally thought, “I don’t really have any formal qualifications to conduct an art critique”, but knew I wanted to better understand how to interpret art as a self-proclaimed non-artist. I know there’s probably a camp that is completely averse to overthinking art, arguing the whole point is to subjectively just “feel it”. But my counterpoint is that making meaning and collecting inspiration is only possible if we intentionally apply art as a magnifying glass to search for nuggets of truth — both about us and about the world.

As I think about how to build a better world as a new technologist, core principles hold weight: Intentional design matters. Understanding the human condition matters. Excavating for more beauty, more elegance, and more tenderness matters! While this piece is anchored by first exploring the art style of Rectangle’s project, I also want to extend these timeless observations to the technology-enabled world we live in. So I propose practicing “artistic audits” as a way to seek truth through all art forms. With this desire, I pose several follow-up questions: What are the merits of transience vs. permanence in artistic contexts? To what extent is art embedded into the DNA of modern technology stacks? Is today’s digital art wave through NFTs just part of the boom-bust culture cycle, or is a massive paradigm shift in the air? Let’s find out.

I. Physical Art: Interacting With Intention 🧩

Rectangle aimed to challenge processes of image-making: how can everyday objects be applied creatively? The main artistic medium is unconventional: configuring creativity into custom out-of-home billboards. Every two months, the group would blow up a different image showcasing ideas from the invited artist and unveiling their solo exhibition in the studio space below the board. The consortium refers to these creator-led environments as “off-spaces”, contributing to a sense of silent activism:

“We have developed a particular interest in advertising and its apparatus. Our purpose is to challenge both its visual language and its proliferation in public and private space.”

I think the intersection between art and outdoor advertising is fascinating because the form function expands beyond visual appeal and takes on a psychological angle. Your senses get attacked several times: once by the imagery, twice by the instigation to act. Notably, the call to action is typically making some kind of purchase, but the most successful out-of-home campaigns are those that allow some kind of feeling to linger. We normally overlook the artistic value of billboards, as we associate them with large-scale corporate campaigns looking solely to harvest customer eyeballs and share-of-mind. Historically, the use case of billboards supported that narrative, productizing the viewing experience and reflecting the rent-seeking ideals of mass globalization. Artistically, billboards offer an intimate double-sided invitation: an invitation for artists to play with open canvas, an invitation for citizens to pause, consider, interact.

The most interesting part of Rectangle is its focus on accessibility. I empathize with the premise that you don’t have to go to a fancy art gallery to appreciate the creativity of localized creativity in your own backyard. The ability to decide the destiny of a space empowers emerging artists to challenge norms. The rotation of exhibitions adds impermanence and imbues the project with ephemeral beauty. In other words, billboards play the role of fleeting artistic ghosts. They are as much a container as a canvas, a conduit to support the emotional exorcisms that happen in two parallel experiences: the artist’s creative process & the visitor’s interpretive process.

To support my own interpretive process, I crafted a quick three-step framework to analyze four of my favourite works in the Rectangle catalogue. Since our main goal is to open up the conversations about art as non-artists, a systematic structure works!

1. Here Comes Your Neighbourhood (2013) - Peter Scott

  • Investigation: Four regular individuals are playing with and photographing each other and the surrounding High Line in Manhattan. They’re all standing elevated on a pipe, each capturing different moments of being and living.

  • Interpretation: I perceive this piece as a literal “living billboard”, offering the visitor & viewer the chance to experience themselves as both seeing and being seen. Urban research and observation is an underrated channel for thought.

  • Introspection: I like this one because it shows simple interactions with outdoor environments is one the easiest ways to connect with a space. It makes me appreciate the value of taking breaks and the value of noticing the obscure.

2. Redemption (2012) - Jérémie Boyard

  • Investigation: A mixed media installation that makes use of lighting, shadow, and objects to build a vertical structure. Below, a ring of large jugs filled with bright yellow fluid forms the base, tethering the wire branches to a bulky base.

  • Interpretation: I admit this one is more abstract, but the multiple sources of light are worth discussing. The yellow jugs remind me of gasoline, proverbially speaking to energy sources that power our latticework of ideas and inspiration.

  • Introspection: The exhibit’s triple layers “light” up my soul here: the top, shone by the external environment; the bottom, supercharged by our internal tanks; and the middle, the culmination of both worlds that spark my brightest ideas.

3. Canoë (2012) - Philippe Durand

  • Investigation: A monochrome landscape with a curtain of greenery is the focal point, flanked by a tall red banner and a shorter stand, illustrating one premise: “it’s time for MIKO ice cream!” The river flows gently; a tender, idyllic break.

  • Interpretation: I think even the most picturesque public places in the world are subject to rapid modernization. I like the contrast: aggressive advertising by travel agencies transforms serene spaces into a performative playground.

  • Introspection: Durand’s subtle creative choice helps me consider what it really means to “unplug” from the world, away from sweet stimulants and impulses as simple as ice cream. I value the ability to go into a forest and just sit and see.

4. Family Affairs (2013) - Melanie Bonajo

  • Investigation: A geometric structure is formed with an eccentric arrangement of props, including common household items, colourful crafts, distinct shapes. In the corner, an isolated and exposed woman faces away from these objects.

  • Interpretation: Through clever physical design, Bonajo illustrates concepts of the domestic situation and the literal clutter in our lives fed by object-driven pleasure. The alienation is palpable, as the woman is reduced to mere object.

  • Introspection: This speaks to me at multiple levels, as a series of cautionary tales: to not lose myself in the deluge of commoditization & commercialization, to embrace the non-linearity and non-symmetry of life, to respect raw solitude.

There is one common thread that ties all four chosen exhibits together: a conscious choice of physical materials and symbols that pave the way for deeper dialogues. Conducting a three-step artistic audit — investigation > interpretation > introspection — is cathartic, an exercise of both the heart and mind to organize net new emotions.

Tom Viaene speaks to the ethos of Rectangle, paving the way for a potential epilogue:

“It was not only by way of externalizing, and making more visible, the codes of contemporary art, that it played into changing institutional mores: through their opening up of spaces for dialogue and participation, the billboards were also there to counteract the aloofness of a lot of visual art contexts.”

II. Digital Art: Embedding New Meaning 🪄

The beauty of the Rectangle project is derived from its impermanence — one day the artwork is there, and the next day it could be gone. This transient nature leads to inherent novelty and beauty through its built-in scarcity. As viewers, we can extend the exhibit’s life cycle by snapping a picture with our phones to capture the aesthetic, writing to bottle up our thoughts, and chatting with friends to recount the memories. However, this impermanence places a limiting constraint on the long-term growth and motivation of the artist. Just having a static billboard in one setting restricts their ability to gain recognition, relevance, and remuneration. The pain of “starving artists” is positively correlated with the public accessibility of their work and their air time.

We must extend our search to the digital realm to understand how permanence is the main path forward to preserve more beauty. In recent history, the art scene has seen a complete revival, a digitally-enabled creative Renaissance of sorts. The web now acts as a force multiplier for artists: they are empowered to grow audiences & communities through high-impact, financially-viable projects. Let’s welcome a special guest: NFTs.

NFT Effect: Generative, Interpretive, Speculative Art ⚡️

Artistic expressions in the technology of today come in several forms. One especially attractive trend is the rise of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Modern artists immortalize their digital creations on the blockchain, allowing tribes of collectors, curators, and communities to congregate. NFTs also pave the way for new modes of ownership. The thing with crypto-skeptics is that they will always give the argument that digital art is nothing but overinflated JPEGs, GIFs, and media collectibles with no true value or meaning. But what they’re missing is a crucial point about artistic endeavours that we’ve unpacked so far: new forms of art can help us imagine new futures and inspire new possibilities for progress, and open up more access points to intrinsic beauty.

Interestingly, if we play back the billboard advertising analogy, there are crossovers with NFT projects: the latter scales awareness through symbols and status. NFTs represent a new digital billboard, compartmentalized into a personal and portable format. Importantly, the scarcity component is also retained: “non-fungibility” means the unique art is not interchangeable. And unlike the contained concept of the Rectangle project, there are almost boundless permutations when it comes to NFTs.

To see these creative combinations in action, let’s examine a curation of NFT projects I’ve invested in, with three distinct lenses and twists: music, gaming, and ecology.

Generative Art & Music: Tunes

Music. Tunes is a NFT project geared towards musical artists, giving owners the right to a randomly-generated song title. Audio, cover art, artist name, and functionalities are intentionally omitted for others to interpret and create. Some of my favourite titles include: “Half-Baked Enlightenment”, “Toucan-Toed Juice”, “Bed Bath & Beyonce”, “Molecule Men” — holders can find both meme value and musical value with Tunes.

Generative art is a burgeoning field that is based on the concept of “creative coding”. The artist initializes their first set of design components, then runs their machine learning algorithm to multiply the artwork automatically. Tunes hits two beats of this: first with the original song titles, and the second with custom cover art that can only be minted by the Tune holder. I think these types of synthetic media represent a key turning point for the art of the future, introducing randomness and abstraction to the creative process. We can appreciate the fact that the first forms of generative art have a rich history dating back to the 1960s, and the rise of neural nets and blockchains only serves to amplify this medium. This is largely positive: we can configure new methods for art & engineering to coexist, pushing the boundaries of our imaginations.

Interpretive Art & Games: Loot

Gaming. Loot is one of the most fascinating case studies in NFT art. The premise of the original launch was providing Loot Bags, which were simply text files with 8 phrases overlaid on a black background, with each phrase representing gear akin to those found in Dungeon & Dragons or World of Warcraft. The drop was so popular that it spawned the addition of More Loot (mLoot) to incentivize more participation.

Interpretive art is not an official term, yet is a useful one to help frame why Loot is so compelling. One of the quintessential terms you hear a lot in web3 is composability, the drag-and-drop building block quality of open-source software. You might already see the artistic appeal of this: the owner of the Loot NFT has complete freedom of what they do with it, similar to Tunes. At the simplest level, you decorate your own custom avatar as seen above. But if this concept is taken to the extreme, then we can appreciate the immense world-building potential. Unlike conventional top-down exhibits that are dictated by just the creators, Loot follows an inverted bottom-up approach. While yes, the idea originated with a single source, the artist makes a conscious choice of outsourcing further developments and iterations on top of their artistic scaffolding. In Loot’s case, this includes everything from new play-to-earn games, item rarity trackers, community guilds, developer tools, and more.

Speculative Art & Ecology: Ecodao

Ecology. In collaboration with a new decentralized autonomous organization ecodao, artist Wendi Yan merges aspects of science fiction, synthetic biology, and raw nature to craft Primordial Vision — a visceral and liminal narrative, “seeing before language”. Yan’s brilliance is summed up by her artistic process:

“The way I created Primordial Vision: 02021 was very much like a combination of alchemy and 3D printing. In the software, I layered images, gave them varied heights and roughness, mixed their colors and opacities, stacked them in specific orders, and added weathering or other natural effects. The result is these orbs, floating in a slightly tinted void that even I, the ‘creator’, don’t completely understand”

Speculative art is the best way to describe the almost dreamlike combination that results from unique ways of making — in this case, alchemy and 3D printing are called upon. Extending from the popular genre of speculative fiction, this type of art forces us to ask: how can we use our vivid imaginations productively in order to hold space for other voices and other stories, with care and compassion? These imaginary spaces are crucial. They keep us grounded and afloat together at a time when it’s still easy to feel shaky and uncertain about our future selves. Meanwhile, ecodao aims to be the frontrunner in developing a novel universal basic income (UBI) scheme for artists, as well as the 1st member-owned museum. This bold vision makes me immediately think back to our earlier exploration: what if the community-crowdsourced model were applied to Rectangle? Would such an isolated project benefit from more contributors and artists, each having a vested interest in experimenting with different formats and feelings? My heart says yes: imagine a concerted effort by an artist collective to wrestle back corporate control of billboards across the world, showcasing localized talents of passionate creators. Breathtaking!

III. Practical Applications: Embracing Art as Technologists 🖍

At this point, astute readers might point out the most logical intersection between art and technology: Design. Product design, UX design, UI design… that’s what it means to practically embrace art in tech, right? Well, not quite. If our coverage of NFT art projects has taught us anything, it’s the emergence of new art forms that are critical. The interplay goes way deeper than just a blanket classification, and extends into our final consideration about building artistic systems in a technically-advanced world.

To unpack what artistic systems might mean in practice, we can draw inspiration from the sensational May-Li Khoe, former VP Design at Khan Academy and ex-Design at Apple. She builds the case for an imaginative way of thinking through a process called subverting the status quo. Ways to do this include starting small, building on history, experimenting with format, creating spaces of change, and minding symbolism in life.

“People tend to have a very vivid imagination when they work in design: you actually, literally, have the tools and you're constantly drawing possible futures. When you are iterating, you are literally drawing multiple possible futures. So, if you take a second and think about something that you want to change, and you look around you… this is really an invitation to you to make some friends and start some shit and joyfully subvert the status quo!”

I find the idea of drawing multiple possible futures very appealing. Because that’s really what any artist strives to do, creating alternate versions of reality through their work. Status quo doesn’t exist in an artist’s world. The number of blank canvases accessible to them is the biggest clue: from paper to wood, from crafts to colours, from billboards to NFTs. The skeleton gets filled in with layers of text, texture, code, colour, sounds, styles, swishes. Art then, is a process of experimentation.

Essayist Yuk Hui’s Art and Cosmotechnics (2020) has a powerful quote on experiments:

“Art is the experimental mode of thinking between philosophy and engineering… Scientific thinking wants to improve the capacity of the senses, while philosophical thinking wants to develop other senses. It is in art that both can be united.”

This sentiment takes us full circle and connects all the disparate points raised in this piece, respecting the artistic standards of both physical resiliency and digital non-fungibility. Artistic systems connect all the different modes of feeling and thinking in a truly sensory fashion. Creating systems — spaces — lowers the costs of creativity. An experimental approach means a full commitment to trial-and-error, to thinking out loud, to intentional reflection; perspectives that are easily overlooked when you start commoditizing your work and playing for productivity. This is a love letter as much as it is a wake-up call, especially to techies who feel compelled to take on a new passion project every other week. Let’s make room for honest artistic exploration.

Rectangle taught us that collectively owning shared space is powerful: an invitation to use the exhibited artwork as an instrument to philosophically dissect the problems of how to live and coordinate. NFT projects reinforce the same message, where connection & coordination give rise to unique creative combinations. These phenomena about expanding space and coordinating ideas are poised to reach the masses as we shift to newer altered realities. To create long-lasting beauty, we need to put our brains and hearts together. To create long-lasting lessons for life, we need to embrace our differences and deficiencies as humans. To create good art, we need to meet people where they are.

What kind of aesthetic do you want your possible futures to look like?

Keep imagining and keep creating,