The following interview with Mike Winkelmann, alias Beeple, was conducted on April 9th, 2021, to further my research and understanding of contemporary culture, especially in terms of how subject-formation occurs today in the emergent digital episteme, versus how it did during both the modern and postmodern ages until the early 21st century.
The motivation for engaging in this conversation was to understand why I had never heard of Winkelmann until the March 11th Christies’ sale of an NFT of his Every Days. The first 5000 days for the equivalent in Ethereum of $69m, and to understand the thinking of one of the world’s leading figures in computer and motion design graphics, whose artwork made outside of the frame of his “work” he defines as “digital art” – that is, art made sitting down at a computer and distributed through digital platforms only.
I do not know if what he does is Art or not. However, I do not know what Art is, anyway, beyond the contextual definition of Art as anything we – the independent or institutional curators, artists, museum directors, art critics, gallerists – define under this rubric. The “we” is being accused of having been gatekeepers for too long. I publish this interview in the spirit of gate-opening, however disruptive it may seem, and even though politically it may seem counter-productive and even reactionary, in so far as it focuses on the culture being produced today by a hetero-normative young white male subject from the United States.
At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, technology ceased to be prosthetic and has taken on an autonomous agency through the birth of the smart phone technology as a prototype for the Internet of Things. From a philosophical standpoint, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning have brought into question whether it is necessary for human intelligence, agency, and even our freedom to continue to exist. It seems to me that although we are before a form of emergent collective intelligence, it is also a form of hard labour by a person intent on measuring himself against technology, a bit of a reverse Prometheus figure. And this is interesting.
The interview was researched by Stella Bottai and edited by Giulia Colletti.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: I know you’re a very busy man now, so I won’t take much of your time, but I have twenty-three questions.
Mike Winkelmann: That’s OK. That’s awesome. I feel like I should have come with some questions. I probably have way more than twenty-three questions. Maybe on a part two, I’ll come up with my twenty-three questions.
C.C.B.: Yes. Or you can have one question for every question of mine. There are a lot of questions, because it’s almost like you’re someone from another planet who just arrived on a spaceship.
M.W.: That’s actually one of the most interesting things about this. Because nobody in the fine-art world knows about me, but millions of people in the broader digital art world do. It’s actually the fact that millions of people know about me that makes me one of the most followed, and most known contemporary artists. There are many artists in your world that the average person won’t have heard of, who are super, super big. But they don’t have a very big following in the broader sense of “likes.”
C.C.B.: Well, that’s somewhere around question number 18! I did actually want to ask you about that: how we attribute value to numbers and what that means. From a philosophical perspective, it’s not a given that if ten million people know something, it’s somehow deeper knowledge than if only a few know. I mean, quantum physics is known by very few people, and how many of us know the most important quantum physicist—Anton Zeilinger [Ried im Innkreis, 1945]? Without him, there is no quantum computing. But that’s way down the line of these questions. I want to get to know you a little bit—as much as you wish me to get to know you—precisely because I was startled by the fact that I didn’t know who you were. But I must confess that one of my digital communications consultants in Turin mentioned a few names of artists about a year ago and one of the people he mentioned was you.
M.W.: In what context was he mentioning me?
C.C.B.: Well, I was having a meeting with the Polytechnic here, and I was about to apply for some funds to be able to offer young artists to work on AI in their work. Because we don’t have any computing capacity at the Museum, obviously. I wanted to give some tools to artists who may want to use them. I said to this consultant, “You’ve got to give me some information here. What is going on?” And when he mentioned your name, I remember I was surprised by it because Winkelmann is the name of the philosopher who defined art.
M.W.: Yes. I saw that in The New Yorker. I didn’t know that before.
C.C.B.: There wasn’t anything called “art” until Winckelmann.
M.W.: That’s very interesting. What year was that?
C.C.B.: Mid-seventeen hundreds.
M.W.: Mid-seventeen hundreds? What?
M.W.: What did they call art before then?
C.C.B.: They called them sculptures. They called them “craft.” The first artist who signed an artwork with his own name was Leonardo.
C.C.B.: Yes, up until then, Giotto [Colle di Vespignano, 1267 – Firenze, 1337] and all the rest of them didn’t sign their works. In some civilizations, artists were called “image makers.” The ancient Greeks referred to what we call art with the term téchne. It’s funny because the Greek work téchne is the root of “technology.” It wasn’t given the authority that we’ve given to art since the seventeen hundreds.
M.W.: When you say “authority,” what do you mean by that?
C.C.B.: Well… I had twenty-three questions here!
M.W.: OK, sorry! I told you I had way more questions than you!
C.C.B.: It’s funny because you said in some article that you’d be happy to get a crash course on the last hundred years. And I said, “I’m happy to give him the crash course,” if you’d like!
M.W.: I would love that. I find it very, very interesting now. It’s such a different world, with different rules, and different norms, and different important people. Some questions I thought were solved in art history are not exactly solved. Let’s say that. When people approached me and they were like, “Well, this isn’t art,” I thought, “Really? You’re going to say this isn’t art? You can say you don’t like it, but are you really saying it’s not art at all?”
C.C.B.: Well, I’m not sure. I actually wanted to have a conversation with you because I want to figure out if it is or not, and if it can be. I was going to do this as a last question, but I’m going to do it right away because I think it will make you feel much better …
M.W.: That’s fine. So here’s another thing: I’m not easily offended. So just say whatever you want.
C.C.B.: Now, the last question I was going to ask you was about Andy Warhol [Pittsburgh, 1928 – New York, 1987]. I have a feeling that you might be an Andy Warhol of today. In other words, Andy Warhol had no idea what art was. He came from a Czechoslovakian family of immigrants and he went to a very normal school in Pittsburgh. And his parents had no connection with art. And he studied graphic design and got a job in a graphic design company. Most notably, he was drawing shoes for magazines. And then he went to New York and got a job in an advertising company as a graphic designer—again for shoes and other things. And somehow—but I don’t know how—there must have been a moment where he crossed over. We’re talking, you know, 1960, more or less. And a lot of people were saying “That’s not art,” because the artists who were famous at the time were the Abstract Expressionists, expressing their inner selves, like Jackson Pollock’s [Cody, 1912 – Long Island, 1956] dripping. So, this guy who came from Pittsburgh and was absolutely from another planet somehow changed the whole world. What he did was bring those techniques from graphic design into the high art world. The silk screen had never been used in art. Usually you make silkscreens match up, but he made them not match up. So, the fact that the Marilyn Monroe or whatever, was kind of blurry, suddenly meant it was no longer graphic design. But it wasn’t a painting. It was some weird thing. And then came the Campbell’s Soup Cans and then came the Factory and then came a revolution in art. He also came from a Catholic background, which is kind of interesting in a very Protestant country, the US. I also look at the US in a very distant way—even though I was born in the US. I say that to you because I think it might explain why I don’t have any prejudice about digital or popular art.
M.W.: I don’t think it is. Honestly, you reached out to talk to me. I actually think you’re just different.
C.C.B.: I’m going to ask the first question, OK? It’s about your personal life, about your early childhood, and why you moved to Charleston, because it’s very cold up in Missouri, and it is very hot down in South Carolina.
M.W.: My brother worked out in Boeing in Charleston. A few years ago, I was already doing freelance work from home. It was kind of like, “OK, we could live anywhere. Why don’t we come down to Charleston? It’s cheap! We can live out in the suburbs or whatever, and the weather is way nicer!” I’d rather be really hot than really cold. You go swimming in Missouri, and it’s really cold—you die—you literally just freeze to death. I really like it down here. It’s a much better fit for us.
C.C.B.: And so, it wasn’t like you met someone from there and married her?
M.W.: Oh no, no, no. I’ve been married for 11 years, and I have a five-year-old and a seven-year-old kid. My brother’s got kids too. I’m thirty-nine.
C.C.B.: So, in a way, you’re an example of this homeworking that now the whole world has experienced.
M.W.: Yes. I’m very much in the home and this is where I like to be. You know, just sitting at the computer.
C.C.B.: And now the whole planet is experiencing what’s normal for you.
M.W.: Yeah. I mean to be honest, even before COVID, I’d go days without leaving the house. It would be like “Oh shit. I haven’t gone anywhere since Sunday!” And it was just like that, because I work so much. But I would also go and travel quite a bit, all over the world, to talk at a design conference or whatever. I don’t know anybody in Charleston. I don’t really have any friends in the city besides my brother. I don’t know anybody around here. I don’t really have that much of an interest in making friends. But the design conferences were a nice break.
C.C.B.: Do you miss your relationships in the professional world without the conferences, having to do them online and so forth?
M.W.: To me, honestly, the conferences were mostly about talking to people. When I would go to conferences, I almost never go to anybody else’s talks. I go to talk to people one on one. I want to meet people and just have more social time, because I can watch their talk on YouTube afterwards. I’m there to be in person and see people in person. This Zoom conversation is nice, but it would be much nicer if we were sitting in the same room. And I don’t think you can recreate that.
C.C.B.: Well, I very much look forward to welcoming you when you come to Europe.
M.W.: I love Italy. I’ve never been toTurin, so that would be amazing.
C.C.B.: Fantastic. The second question—I’m just jumping from one subject to the other —I ’d like to know in what way the aesthetic of sci-fi movies influences you— because I see that in your work. In your interviews, you talk about daily events, things that you see on CNN and so on, but the aesthetics aren’t from that at all. What are the fictional worlds and the visual references that you employ and that inspire your style?
M.W.: Yeah, I would say it comes from the movies. I’m very influenced by what other digital artists are doing too, because it’s so easy to be shared. When I say “digital art,” I’m defining it as art made roughly over the last 20 years, created almost solely on a computer, with a few different software programs like Photoshop, 3D software, some video elements, this or that. But it’s mostly done on a computer and it’s distributed on the internet. That’s how I’m defining digital art for the purposes of this conversation. I think because digital art is shared a lot, it does evolve, and it happens very fast. I’m definitely influenced by that stuff. I’m also doing my own thing a little bit more. Tons and tons of people have started doing Every Days, because of my Everyday, to the point where it got kind of like, “Oh, you’re doing Everyday? Not cool!”
C.C.B.: I’m going to talk about Every Days and that question of time, and of ritual, and periodic repetition a little bit later. What I was just wondering is if the influences come from this meme culture, where people are making collages and going back and forth? Are there any particular digital artists who have influenced you? And I still want to know if the cinema influences you.
M.W.: I would say some films. I would say the biggest thing was definitely Star Wars. The biggest influence on me and most people in this space is that view of technology and that aesthetic of technology. It’s very definitely influential in my work. In terms of individual artists, I’m honestly influenced by so many different artists. If I point at one or two, it’s going to be misleading.
C.C.B.: What about Christopher Nolan and Inception, 2010, or the recent Tenet, 2020?
M.W.: I haven’t even seen it yet. I like those movies, but I wouldn’t say they’re very influential.
C.C.B.: OK, so it’s more, Mad Max?
M.W.: I like that, but I wouldn’t say it’s that.
C.C.B.: OK, so Star Wars.
M.W.: But I wouldn’t even honestly say it’s the movies that much. I think I’m more influenced by other work that I see and consume. I’ll take a little tiny idea, like “Oh, I never thought about making a shape like that.” It could be something very, very small. It’s not really movies or TV shows or anything like that. It’s looking at other people’s works. Sometimes it’s video games. Have you ever heard of a site called Art Station?
C.C.B.: Yes, I actually have.
M.W.: Art Station has a ton of people who are very good at their craft. That’s a place where I find a lot of inspiration.
C.C.B.: What about “high art film” or films that haven’t been liked by masses of people but are very important in the history of cinema? Things like Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Have you seen it?
M.W.: Like the 80s version of the thing? I don’t remember it that much—that everybody was dead, or everybody was something … Was there was a weird twist? I don’t remember it.
C.C.B.: It was made in 1972 and it’s sort of the Russian counterpart to 2001: A Space Odyssey. They were both made during the Cold War. Another very influential movie is from 1962 by a man called Chris Marker and it’s called La Jetée. It’s the story of the future. And it was redone in Twelve Monkeys. It was a story of the dystopic future. A scientist has to go back to the past to fix it, to then move forward and fix the present. So, all of those movies come out of La Jetée. I’ll send it to you. Who knows, I might put a virus in your sources! I’ll send you a link to that.
M.W.: That’s probably a digitized version on YouTube.
C.C.B.: Of course. I think there is. And what about Lars von Trier?
M.W.: Is he the one that did Dogme 95?
C.C.B.: Yes. Exactly. Dogme 95.
M.W.: Ah I love that! That was very influential when I was starting out because of the rule system. I really, really like that rule system. I really like the idea of just: it is what it is. There are rules like you can’t put a light in a room, it’s got to be natural lighting. I really like it because it takes the control out of your hands. To me, that’s very interesting and it fits with the way that I look at things. It’s entirely subjective— just making that choice to let it be whatever the fuck it is. That was definitely a big part of the very early stuff today before the Every Days. I actually started making art in 1999, so about eight years before the Every Days. I made a bunch of short films. So that early stuff was very much influenced by Von Trier and his movies.
C.C.B.: That’s interesting: giving yourself rules as a way of bringing in anything. There was a French novelist George Perec. But did you see Lars von Trier’s Melancholia from ten years ago, with the satellite crushing into the Earth.
C.C.B.: Yes, slowly.
M.W.: I think I did. Are they having a wedding or something like that?
C.C.B.: Yes. That’s one of my favorite movies, by the way.
M.W.: Did Von Trier do that one that was like a play, and there was a drawing on the ground with all these rooms?
C.C.B.: Yes, Dogville.
M.W.: Dogville! Oh my God. That’s one of my absolute favorites.
C.C.B.: There you go. I mean that’s like the best cinema on the planet. That’s what you call “high film.” There are a hundred films we could talk about, but at least we’ve found that common ground of a great, great, great filmmaker. So, I’m going to ask you something that has to do with why you use bad words.
M.W.: Cursing, swearing?
C.C.B.: Cursing, swearing. Yes. You do it in all the articles. You haven’t done it yet in this conversation. But I wanted to ask whether it might have something to do with “imposter syndrome,” when you underestimate yourself? Generally, when they’re exploring a new community or a new world where they don’t feel comfortable, the most talented people or the most creative people have moments where there’s this feeling that no matter what they’re doing, they’re not quite supposed to be there.
C.C.B.: They had good luck, you know? Did you ever feel it? I mean, I‘ve felt that many times throughout my life.
M.W.: I think everybody feels it to some degree. I would say I feel that sometimes. I mean, I do and I don’t. It’s complicated. There are a lot of people who obviously really like my work, but I sometimes think that their standards are too low. It’s like “Uhm, it’s not that good.” I think it depends on the moment.
C.C.B.: Right. It’s something that often very talented and brilliant people have, especially during adolescence, when they’re young.
C.C.B.: It has to do with performer activity and so forth. I’m wondering if the swearwords are, you know, in a Freudian sense, kind of something that can break that somehow.
M.W.: I think honestly it’s just that’s how I talk. I feel like it’s gotten to a point where my vocabulary’s is going down and down, and it’s just like I’m replacing more words with swear words. It’s like my ability to express myself…
M.W.: …has gotten worse and worse.
C.C.B.: How interesting. You mean like floating signifiers. They become floating signifiers.
M.W.: They just become shorthand. And it’s like, before it was shorthand for this and now it’s shorthand for this. And it’s like I’m barely saying any words now. Everything’s just “fuck, fuck, fuck.” I mean, like it’s not even expressive. It doesn’t even make sense.
C.C.B.: I understand. So, it’s a way of bypassing words.
M.W.: I guess I’m searching for the word. I don’t even know.
C.C.B.: But that’s interesting in our times because there’s a breakdown of verbal language in general with this overuse of words on the internet. I mean, people say that there are more and more images, but there’s all these words!
M.W.: Quite a lot of words!
C.C.B.: So, I read in your interviews that you sometimes speak about my world as “the traditional art world.” I find that weird.
M.W.: Well, what would you call it?
M.W.: The “art world”? Just the art world?
C.C.B.: Yes, well, I don’t usually use these words anyway—“art world”—because to me, the art world is almost a derogatory term. It means parties and all these rich collectors with their special staff. You know, Basel Art Fair is the art world. And that’s one of the worst things for me.
M.W.: You don’t like Art Basel?
C.C.B.: Oh, I hate Art Basel!
M.W.: That’s very interesting! Wait, why do you hate it?
C.C.B.: OK, well, don’t tell anybody in the art world., That will damage me.
M.W.: Wait, wait, wait! One question: do you go to it all the time?
C.C.B.: Of course.
M.W.: Every year?
C.C.B.: Of course.
M.W.: That’s very interesting. But you hate it.
C.C.B.: Of course.
M.W.: OK, why do you go then?
C.C.B.: It is like going to the dentist or something. It can be pleasurable to take the car and go shopping to the shopping mall, but it’s not exactly like going to see a Lars von Trier movie or going to an artist’s studio
M.W.: Why do you hate it, though?
C.C.B.: Because it’s not the way that art should be experienced and seen. Every artist makes works in a certain way, and they somehow know who their audience is and how it should be experienced. I’m very well known for finding really weird spaces for people to do things in, but it doesn’t have to be a physical space. It can be a virtual space. It can be a series of letters being sent back and forth. The idea that you can take any artwork and put it in a four-by-four-meter stand … I see these paintings, they’re crying. It’s kind of like that movie What Women Want, but it’s What Paintings Want or What Sculptures Want. And the artwork would like to be experienced in a certain way. Why would we be looking at a Beeple on a really bad broken screen where you can’t see the colors? So it’s just wrong. It’s almost as if they transformed the artworks into NFTs, even though they’re analog NFTs. When you take a fresco by Giotto out of the chapel and tear it off the wall and put it in some place, it’s just not Giotto anymore.
M.W.: Gotcha. That’s interesting. So, for full disclosure, I’d never been to Art Basel. I’ve been down to Miami during it, but I’ve never been to Basel. But I can see what you’re saying. If it just feels like it’s the worst place for viewing artwork, that would be kind of depressing.
C.C.B.: So I wouldn’t call it the art world. I mean, when I say the “art world,” I mean that world: commerce and parties and power relations going on. In fact, I think most of the digital art world people think that the art world is that. But, there’s something else going on in the art world, which is separate from my world. Maurizio Cattelan puts up his banana with the scotch tape, which you quoted in your Beeple thing, in Miami Basel, because he’s commenting on the idiotic. You know, I mean, they’re dumb! But that’s not the great Cattelan. By the way, we have the largest collection of Cattelan in our Museum—like the horse [Novecento, 1997] hanging with the long legs. It’s a sort of a monument or an elegy to the 20th century, to the catastrophe, the heroic…
M.W.: I’m not sure I’ve seen that.
C.C.B.: Oh, you should google the Cattelan horse and you’ll come up with a picture of our Museum with the horse. It’s sort of an elegy to the 20th century. In the early 20th century avant-garde artists like Rodchenko created the so-called “mobile” during the Russian Revolution period. They said that sculpture should move. The hanging sculpture then passed into the United States with Alexander Calder and his mobiles. But basically, Cattelan was saying, that’s the end of the mobile.
M.W.: That’s crazy.
C.C.B.: Yeah, yeah, so but anyway, so I answered sort of your question about the art world. But the last thing I would think is that I’m traditional.
M.W.: So now I see. When I say “traditional art world,” I’m saying everything but digital art.
M.W.: That’s what I mean: the museums and the more academic things and the sort of serious stuff, as well as the bullshit commercial stuff. I just use it to mean everything but “this thing that’s sort of new.”
C.C.B.: Right. But in that traditional art world, there are some artists who do things that are only digital. For example, we did an exhibition of an artist called Ed Atkins. He doesn’t upload his stuff onto digital platforms, but it’s all done on his laptop. He’ll want his works to be shown as big videos on walls, inside spaces, but we’re talking about CGI and computer graphics. We’re talking about what a person is, if a person is just a skin that you can buy and move around.
M.W.: But see, if you come back to my definition of digital art, that wouldn’t be digital art, because it isn’t primarily distributed through the internet for people to view. It’s not putting it on the platforms. It’s meant for museums. It’s digital, but it’s meant for, again, “the traditional art world”. That’s where it’s being viewed versus something that’s more, I guess, “populist,” where it’s just sort of like “I drew this thing and I put it out to everybody without context.” It’s just I look at it differently, you know what I mean? Even though it might be some of the same tools.
C.C.B.: OK, but you said before, digital art is made only with digital tools.
M.W.: Mostly with digital tools.
C.C.B.: But now you’re qualifying it: you’re saying and that its vehicles must also be digital.
M.W.: It’s distributed to a bunch of people through popular mechanisms and platforms.
C.C.B.: OK, well that brings you close to Andy Warhol again. But let me ask you then, why in the world would you like, as you’ve stated in certain interviews, your work to be shown at MoMA or in the so-called traditional art world?
M.W.: Well, because I’m already on the other thing, so why not have both of them?
C.C.B.: Oh, so it’s expanding!
M.W.: Yeah. It’s interesting to me. Obviously, all digital artists would like to be in MoMA if they’re being honest. Come on! What are we talking about? That’s like a huge honor! I guess it’s really just another fucking trophy, to be honest, and I’m not sure beyond that. I think it’s shorthand for that. This is important that you’re in a museum; this is good—whatever the hell that means. I think the reason why I’d want to be in something like that is just because nobody’s knocking down the door to let me in. So that’s another reason why I want to get in.
C.C.B.: It’s interesting. If you look at the history of American contemporary art—for example, Bruce Nauman—he was invited to European museums before he was accepted in the American art world. That also happened to Conceptual art. It happened to Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth, who were basically saying that the concept of the artwork is the artwork. That wasn’t accepted in the American art world. It had to be recognized first in Europe. I don’t know why, but it’s happened several times.
M.W.: I think it’s probably because people in Europe are a bit more open minded. And I think people in the United States are closed minded.
C.C.B.: Well, it’s possible. But it might just be that people like something from very far away.
M.W.: That could be. Yeah. It could be that. It’s sort of like it has some sort of exotic feeling.
C.C.B.: I’m going to go on to some questions now that are a little bit about this financial issue. In other words: do you make your drawings and images and videos for yourself? I think you distinguish “my art” from “my work,” in the sense if you’re working for Justin Bieber or something, that’s your work, whereas if you just do it with no direct utility, then it’s your art. Do you think the artwork is in those images and videos per se, or is it also in the financial distribution of it?
M.W.: I don’t think the artwork is in the financial distribution.
C.C.B.: Just a minute, I didn’t really mean only financial in the sense of Ethereum. I meant “financial” almost in the numerological sense. In other words, the structure or system within which it gets a million and eight or whatever followers, hundreds of thousands of followers. I use “financial” in general, whether it’s around dollars or people or followers or comments. Is the artwork in that structural relationship with those numbers, or is it in the images themselves and the videos, or in both?
M.W.: That’s a very good question. I try not to pay attention to that stuff. I think it’s a bit of a distraction, to be quite honest: how many likes something has or how much it’s sold for. That to me has nothing to do with the artwork. The artwork is whatever the fuck I get. And from there, somebody buys it. Or they don’t buy it. I made all this stuff for over a decade with no thought of anybody buying it. I made it because I wanted to make it and it was just like, I want to make this stuff. I’m trying to make something that I’ve never seen before. And so that’s it. And the other stuff is very much a distraction from making the work.
C.C.B.: But you did say, a minute ago, that the fact that it’s distributed and out there was somehow important.
M.W.: Well, that’s more just how I define it. It’s a piece of it. And I guess it’s something I think about. It’s going to be distributed that way. But I don’t think monetarily about what happens or how many likes it gets or things like that. It’s just that’s how it’s distributed. And when it’s distributed it’s done. Then it becomes its own thing on the internet and it takes a life of its own, which I think is another interesting aspect. A lot of this stuff, I’m giving away for free and allowing people to sort of remix and do what they want with it. It’s almost like born from there. And then it just kind of changes forms. After that, it doesn’t even really feel like it’s mine. If I release a bunch of clips, and somebody takes them, when I see them displayed somewhere else, it doesn’t feel like my work, even though I made that exact video. If I didn’t put it there, if somebody else found it on the internet, then they took it and they put it there, it feels way more like their thing than my thing.
C.C.B.: Even if it’s not changed?
M.W.: Even if it’s not changed. It’s like “Oh, there’s my thing,” but it doesn’t really feel like my thing. It feels like the thing itself. The video did its own thing and it found its way there.
C.C.B.: You mean like a child?
M.W.: Kind of, yes. I very much believe you post something on the internet, and it belongs to the internet. It’s just going to do it because there’s no policing it. There’s no, “Take my thing off the Internet.”
C.C.B.: So you don’t believe in copyright laws?
M.W.: I don’t like copyright laws that much, because I come from things being open source. I have a computer science degree and I think that that idea of open source and just making something and giving it away and leting people build on that is a very interesting idea applied to art. So, yeah, I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answers with copyright laws, but I don’t like them.
C.C.B.: What I don’t get now is this whole NFTs question. Because the NFT is the opposite. That’s copyrighting something in a way.
M.W.: But they just have a token.
C.C.B.: But what is a token then?
M.W.: So, the token is just a proof of ownership and it points to a thing. They don’t own the copyright for sure.
C.C.B.: Well, then what can they do with that ownership?
M.W.: It’s like a painting. In my understanding, when you buy a painting, you don’t buy the copyright. You’re buying a painting. And so, you can display the painting and you say, “I own the painting,” but you don’t own the copyright. At least that’s my understanding.
C.C.B.: No, no, wait, wait, wait. We must unpack that for a second.
M.W.: Maybe I’m wrong there.
C.C.B.: The copyright is for the image of the painting—so you can see the photograph of the painting. The copyright belongs to the artist or the estate for 70 years after their death. And it can also be partially owned by the person who took the photograph. But that’s the photograph of the painting. The actual painting is the property of the person who did it.
M.W.: What if the person who owns it took another photograph of it?
C.C.B.: The copyright holder of the image is always the artist.
M.W.: It to me seems somewhat similar. Look at the painting itself as like the token. You can’t take and build new things off that.
C.C.B.: No, I don’t think you can make that analogy, because it’s the opposite. The photograph of the painting isn’t the painting. Whereas you say the NFT isn’t the artwork.
M.W.: I don’t think it is the artwork.
C.C.B.: Exactly. So, the NFT isn’t the artwork, and the photograph of the painting isn’t the painting. It’s kind of the opposite of what you’re saying.
M.W.: Yeah. I see what you’re saying. The painting is the artwork. But the NFT isn’t the artwork. Yeah. It’s not quite the same.
C.C.B.: No, it’s not.
M.W.: Honestly that element of it really needs some work and some clarification, because the legal terms are different wherever you buy it. If you buy it on SuperRare, or you buy it on Nifty Gateway, or you buy it on whatever, they all have different terms. There’s no uniform answer. They’re similar, but they’re not the same. People don’t know that, and it really needs some more work, industry wise, to be quite honest, and educationally, too, because most people think they own the copyright, or at least a lot of people think “I own the document.” Well, you don’t.
C.C.B.: No, of course. But still, your vision, which is very much about putting things out into the world, doesn’t really seem to match up with the ideology behind NFTs.
M.W.: I think it does, because with NFTs I’m still going to give this work away for free. When somebody buys a piece of work like that, I look at it as sort of like, “OK, we’re entering into a relationship where we both want to see what’s best for this work.” It’s like licensing it. It’s “OK, let’s split that. Let’s make this image as popular as possible. That’s what’s going to be best for you monetarily as the collector. That’s what’s going to be best for me is the artist.” And so I look at it as sort of like, “OK, if you buy something of mine, then we’re sort of in this together, in a relationship. Do you want to do this thing?” If you’re just like, “I don’t want to copyright it for anything,” I’d be like, “OK, that’s fine.”
C.C.B.: But for example, Mr. Vignesh Sunderasan—MetaKoven, he still owns the Every Days. He didn’t sell it, right?
C.C.B.: But he could sell it.
C.C.B.: Yeah. And then you don’t have a relationship with whoever it is.
M.W.: I would have a relationship with the new person. I’d be like, “OK, well, now you own this thing, what do you want to do with it?” And the same goes for displaying it, too. “How do you want to display it? What do you do? Do you want me to make you something for it, a certain way of playing it?” I look at the NFTs almost as a subscription to that piece of artwork. It’s like, “OK, you hold this subscription. We’re in a relationship now. What can I do to add value to that piece of artwork, within reason?”
C.C.B.: But if you wanted to show the Every Days at MoMA, let’s say, or in a castle on top of a hill on the way to France, you wouldn’t need to ask the owner of the NFT?
M.W.: I wouldn’t need to, but to me it’s sort of like “Ok well, he paid a bunch of money for it,” so, I could be like, “Go fuck yourself, I’m going to show it,” but I wouldn’t do that. Unless this guy was like “No, I don’t want to show it,” it’s OK.
C.C.B.: So, you mean that you have an ethical commitment?
M.W.: Honestly, the collectors took their hard-earned money and supported me as an artist. They didn’t have to do that. And so I look at it as like, “Ok, we’re on the same team here. You invested in my artwork. You’re interested in me. And so I want to make sure you’re happy.” It’s like we’re on the same team and our interests are aligned.
C.C.B.: OK, I’ve got it now. But your first NFTs were in October of last year. So this is very new to you still.
M.W.: Very new. The idea of collectors, this is still something I’m processing and thinking about.
C.C.B.: Of course. You said in an article that you changed whatever part of the money you received in Ethereum into dollars. Did you do that?
C.C.B.: So, you’re not a particularly… how do you say … you’re not…
M.W.: A crypto dude?
M.W.: I don’t give a shit about crypto. I’ve got, like, no crypto. I don’t give a shit about bitcoin. I own almost no bitcoin. I don’t give a crap, and I’m actually quite conservative about investing. And so Ethereum was going crazy, but I was like, “Forget it and get the hell out of it. This is freaking just gambling.” I had very, very little Ethereum before learning about NFTs. And to be honest, NFTs have, in my opinion, nothing to do with crypto. NFTs prove ownership, period. The block chain piece of it is the technology to prove ownership. That’s it. You buy it with crypto because that just happens to be the easiest way to buy it right now, because it uses the same technology. But in the future, I’m almost positive that NFTs will have nothing to do with crypto.
C.C.B.: So basically, you can use the block chain technology with dollars?
M.W.: Yes. It has nothing to do with Ethereum and nothing to do with Bitcoin. And I think it will move further and further away from that.
C.C.B.: Well, I’m almost finished with this series of questions about the money. But just to understand how it worked, did Christie’s approach you or did MakersPlace approach you? How did that happen?
M.W.: MakersPlace had some contact at Christie’s who kept popping up saying, “Oh, you’ve got to check out this NFT thing.” Finally, Christie’s said, “Ok MakersPlace, we’ll do a sort of auction with you. Let us know who you’d like to do that with.” And because I had a huge sale in December of 3.5 million, I was the most popular person in the space by far. And so they came to me and said, “Ok we’d like you to start to do this.” So MakersPlace was kind of in the middle. At first they were all, “Christie’s doesn’t want to talk to you”—they tried to kind of insert themselves. And then as soon as I started talking to Christie’s, it’s like “Well, it seems they want to talk to you directly.”
C.C.B.: OK, my next question: I noticed something, which is that your website isn’t updated every day. I mean, the last one is January 6th.
M.W.: That’s literally just laziness. It’s just such a pain. And I post so many places every day: Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook.
C.C.B.: That was my next sub-question. Why is it that, for example, the image right now on your Instagram, is this one, but on Tumblr it’s different?
M.W.: So there’s a very specific reason for that. And actually, you might be the first person who’s formally asked me about it. Again, it goes back to the rules. It’s got to be done and posted by midnight. And so the Tumblr version has evolved in the Instagram. If you look at the Tumblr version, it’s usually a shittier version.
C.C.B.: “No Blood on the Bunny.”
M.W.: “No blood on the Bunny”. There you go. So that’s my sort of back up. I don’t want to miss a day. And so I don’t want to push it right till midnight. I usually do these things late at night. And so what I do is I’ll get it to a certain point and then I’ll just post it on Tumblr. Then it’s like, “OK, it’s done for the day. It’s posted. Now I’m going to make it better until midnight.” I’ve been working, more recently, right up until eleven fifty nine. Look at that same picture on Twitter: it was posted at eleven fifty-nine. I literally worked up to eleven fifty-nine to make it better. I had one in case the power went out so I wasn’t going to miss my day, but I had this other one that I really wanted to spend more time on to make it better. And so I think moving forward, what I’m going to do is make a picture very quickly in like two minutes to show people that you can make something in two minutes, but if you take a bit longer you can definitely make something better. There’s no excuse for saying “I don’t have time to create.” Bullshit. Two minutes, you can make something. It’s not going to be great, but it will be something. And I think that’s a big piece that people miss: getting back to creating art for the sake of creating art and not being so much in your fucking head.
C.C.B.: That’s interesting. What comes to my mind again and again is the spiritual exercises in many Catholic practices, like the Benedictine rule.
M.W.: I should know this; I went to Catholic school.
C.C.B.: Exactly. That’s why it just came back to me. Italy is a primarily Catholic country. Of course, there’s been a Jewish minority, a Protestant minority, an Islamic minority since World War Two. So there’s everything, but it’s primarily Catholic. And so we know a lot about this stuff. And when you talk, it reminds me of the Benedictine rule. So at 4:00 a.m., you wake up, at 6:00 a.m., you do this … and every single Benedictine monastery followed this rule: the Ora et Labora. So perhaps there’s something in your background that you might not even remember that attributes value to this kind of order. And because the digital world is such a fluid world, maybe there’d be a sense of falling apart if you didn’t create this order in a way.
M.W.: For me, I don’t know that it’s necessarily the order. I think it’s just a way to of improve and practice, to get better.
C.C.B.: Yeah, but I think the Benedictine rule is close to what you’re describing. These so-called spiritual exercises have to do with improving somehow. But anyway, it just came to me. I have another question, which is about the metaverse—trying to make money and open up digital museums on the metaverse. What do you think of this?
M.W.: I’m way more interested in trying to bring digital things into the physical world. I already feel like we’re in the pocket of the digital world all goddamn day. How can we take this art, digital art and make it physical? I’m way more interested in that.
C.C.B. How do you imagine your work would be displayed in a museum?
M.W.: People seem to think with digital art that you’re just buying nothing. But it’s like, no, you’re buying an artwork that can take any form. It doesn’t have to just take one form. When you buy a painting it has one form. It’s a painting. It’s never going to change. Nothing’s ever going to be different about it. It’s going to slowly decay over hundreds of years. If you have something digital, that’s not going anywhere—it’s in the fucking cloud. It’s in the ether. And it can take a bunch of different forms and it will come into the physical world.
C.C.B.: But I’m asking you how do you imagine it could do this?
M.W.: Well, that’s the next way my work is going to push forward: the different ways to display things. Because screens are very boring. Everybody’s phone looks exactly the same. It’s a black rectangle. There’s a bunch of different ways, but some of my work will be physical. We’re working to make better physical pieces. Again, this is something I started three months ago. so it’s very new, making physical objects with digital art. That’s what I’m interested in.
C.C.B.: Are you thinking of printing digitally?
M.W.: Not necessarily. It’s more like having screens that are sort of in your house. I think they should make the work still feel very digital, native to how it was made. And I’m loving it. You see this, screen? It’s like moving, glitching out right now?
C.C.B.: Oh yes.
M.W.: So this sort of takes the everyday picture and slowly fades through different sections. You can see it fade into the other picture here. And it’s meant to sort of a passive thing in your environment, because we’re so used to a digital art that you have to actively look at it. I can’t really think of a way that you’re just passively enjoying digital art in the way you would a painting. You don’t say, “OK, I’m going to look at the painting. I’m not going to look at that painting today.” It’s just part of your environment and it’s slowly affecting you. I think that’s what we can do with digital art. And people will look at it very differently when you do that, when it’s just in your environment.
C.C.B.: That’s a wonderful intuition. So you want to recreate the passivity of our life, like when we’re walking on the top of a mountain, and you’re not like looking at that flower, but it’s there?
M.W.: And I think there’s a bunch of interesting ways of bringing digital artwork into your life like that.
C.C.B.: Do you have to plug that thing in?
M.W.: Yes, it plugs in. Then it lasts maybe two hours. But it’s got no interface. You just take it out of the box. There’s nothing to change; there’s nothing these come with, it’s not signed, but like a sign.
C.C.B.: You could put these small objects in a museum.
M.W.: You could have like a bunch of cases; that’s one way. The other way is making a print up. I made massive canvases of Every Days. And the other way you could do it is with projectors. You can do a lot of interesting things, projecting a massive image of digital art. Or you could set up a bunch of TVs. There are many different ways that you could do it. And each will be different. But that’s the thing. The artwork itself is the same. It’s just it can be displayed in different ways.
C.C.B.: Something occurred to me, which is a reverse perspective on the question of the museum: I mean, one thing is the translation of these into something in the museum. Another way of thinking about it is how a museum might influence how and what you make in your digital art.
M.W.: And that’s the thing. I can very easily work anywhere. That piece wasn’t done at my house. It was done over at my brother’s house last night. And the piece before was done in an airport lounge. Because it’s like “Oh, shit, I’ve got to get it done. We’re doing it here.” So the studio goes wherever the computer goes. I could easily do that.
C.C.B.: I’m just wondering whether your works might be influenced by something that you see in a museum.
M.W.: Usually, when I go to Europe , I go to a museum and I’ll be very much be influenced by the things I saw that day.
C.C.B.: So there’s the two directions. Maybe both should be explored. One direction is like coming into the museum. The other direction is going out into the world.
I was wondering if, when you did Everydays, you were aware of other artworks that have had this format? One was by Roman Opalka, whom I knew personally. He died some years ago, but he was an extraordinary artist. He was a French Polish artist, and he was born in 1931. And in 1965, he decided to commit to the following project, which is that he would paint with a white paint brush, white paint on a black canvas a number: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, one hundred thousand, two hundred thousand … , each time adding another one percent more white paint. And then the next day he continued where he left off at that number, adding one percent more white paint to the black background, so that he was going towards white on white and infinity. And at the end of each day, he took a photograph of himself, always in the same format. It’s a beautiful project.
M.W.: That’s very interesting. So he was doing a series of paintings?
C.C.B.: Yeah, he started in 1965 and he ended in 2011when he died. And if you’re a connoisseur of Opalka you can actually tell when they were done. I can see a certain gray and I say, well that’s a painting from the 1980s or that’s a painting from the 1970s, because as it goes on, it’s harder and harder to read the numbers. He was great. But there are other artists, like, for example, the Chinese American Tehching Hsieh. He was born in Taiwan and he died not so many years ago, but he did this one-year long performance, where he decided that he would tick a clock.
M.W.: Oh, somebody showed me that. He punched a clock. That guy was super cool. I’d would like to read more about jim because all of these things are just super interesting.
C.C.B.: And he was great. And then at a certain point he stopped making art. My last question is about time, the commitment to make a time-based work like this, the duration.
M.W.: I’m thinking about this work on a much bigger timescale. When I say my work is crap, it’s because I’m not just comparing it to the people today, I’m comparing it to all art. And it’s sort of like “OK, well, I mean, do you think that picture behind you is as good as a fucking Rembrandt?” Of course not. Of course not. That’s why I call it crap. And that’s where the practice is—this everyday project. I’m thirty-nine. So this is not remotely done. I’m going to do this until I die. That’s my thought right now. So I’ve got, God willing, many, many years of this project. I honestly didn’t think anybody would give a shit about this project until I hit 20 years. Then I thought people might say “Wait— 20 years? What’s going on here?” I thought people might pay some attention to it then. But, yeah, it’s very much a work in progress and it’s not remotely done. And so I’m definitely looking at things on a very long time scale. Well past my lifetime, too. And so that’s affecting how I think about what I’m selling, how I’m selling, and all of these things. That’s definitely an aspect of the art: looking at it through that lens.
C.C.B.: Wonderful. Well, I’m extremely, extremely happy that we had this time.
M.W.: Yeah, me too. It was super fun and like honestly, like, I would love to continue this next week or whatever. Like it was definitely like great talk and super interesting to see your perspective on this because it’s sort of very different. And honestly, these were like very, very good questions compared to, you know, a lot of the stuff that I’m answering is just all this s*** about NFTs. It’s like “Guys I give f*** about NFTs”. I have these like, “oh my God, OK, I get it. NFTs, NFTs, NFTs”.
C.C.B.: Great, Ciao, Bye bye
M.W.: Thank you. Bye.
C.C.B.: Thank you so much. Bye bye.