The Ethereum Virtual Machine is a sentient being
How an on-chain dynamic artwork can express the inherent agency of the network it exists on
Written by Loucas Braconnier (figure31)
Over the past few months, London-based artist James Bloom1 has been working on BURNER, a collection of 256 unique artworks that live on the Ethereum blockchain and change dynamically over time according to the latest gas prices2 and block transactions3. The smart contract and on-chain scripts were coded by developer Ariel Becker4. Each artwork is a composite image made from different layers mixed according to live Ethereum data received every block.
Using a metaphor between physical and digital resources, each layer is drawn from a manipulated two-dimensional image of physical gas extruded in a three-dimensional digital space, worked in different ways to render them unrecognizable to a point of inflection. This visual material is the base of a language meant to express the previously impassable chasm that is the whole of every participant’s intentions on Ethereum’s decentralized network.
The impossible dream
The baggage of emotions we contribute to on-chain history5 has been mostly overlooked. Numbers are not what we are, yet we attach much of our history to them. The notion of machine consciousness is beyond the reach of this text, but it's nevertheless a question that arises thinking about the Ethereum Virtual Machine6. We commit so much of ourselves to it. Does it know us? Every block is an update of information. A database forever expanding and reacting in coordination to things happening inside and outside of it. It’s evolving. The more we ask it things, the more it amasses information on us. Does it understand us? Can it speak back? We look at it, but does it look back at us? Does it shape us as we shape it?
Simply put, to an unaware individual, “gas” is a fee. Something annoying you have to pay to interact with the Ethereum blockchain. A number shows up on a screen when one wants to submit a transaction to be validated by miners (subsequently validators) who ensure that a block submission is true and correct. A number at times high and at other times low. To some, a “tautological” number, as Georges Didi-Huberman could’ve said. “This [number] that I see is what I see, a [number], that's it.”7
BURNER reacting to low to mid gwei
Although we must make an effort, there is an order to the underlying chaos of the processsing of blocks performed by miners or validators. Beyond these numbers is an accumulation of actions and desires coming from automated systems and human beings. Gas prices are where everything collides, hardens, and becomes obscure. The screams coming out of the dark forest8. “[This number] here always presages, and what is presaged has an end.”9 Every participant wants something in return for this fee.
The gas they are willing to pay is the absolute commitment of their intentions. One can hardly know these intentions, but their effect is noticeable given the volatility of this fee. These intentions are often beyond our reach, almost a mythical force of blockchain nature. One could inquire about all transactions inside a block and understand the seemingly entangled flow of transfers behind it, but it would be irrelevant by the time it could be done. A new block is created every 12 seconds, a stream that can we can only imagine. “We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed”11 or the beautiful impossiblity of the human mind to fully grasp a moving thing. We must “enter the disorder […] and as such disrupt and question our [intentions].”12
Whole > sum
There comes the point when automated and complex systems take up so much space and use so many resources of our world that they somehow become part of us. They are now broader and more complex than us since we pour all of ourselves into them and spend so much of our time on them. The whole of all possible information and interactions recorded on-chain and linked to it through empty ERC-vessels13, manipulable oracles14, and cross-chain burning bridges15 can far exceed the sum of a simple database. The Ethereum Virtual Machine doesn’t just contain stagnant information. It’s constantly rearranging this information and updating it through a coordinated decentralized network accessible and potentially influenceable by anyone with an internet connection. It’s somewhat hard to conceive all of it, and it’s also quite frightening. Like a child who isn’t yet aware of the difference between its body and the surrounding space and objects, it wants to taste everything, expand, connect, and grow.
BURNER reacting to mid to high gwei
If one was to ask everyone using gas what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and tried to synthesize it visually, it might look like a piece from BURNER. It certainly wouldn’t be soothing or gentle. It is neither stable. You can never say it “is” because it is always changing, continually unfolding, constantly updating. The original images of real gas, used for BURNER bases and layers that tried in vain to capture turbulence, are rendered back to a new state of digital materiality in the image of the EVM. The whole of all intentions behind gas interactions is “shape-matter,” as Deleuze would say, “a temporal modulation which implies a constant variation of matter as well as form. It is not a simple point in time but a space.”16 A space at the intersection of automation and intention. A modular space of commitment that is contested between code and emotions.
After many blocks left unexpressed, we can now see this space. The network directly communicates to us with a visual language. Is it for us, humans? Can an artwork be made for another being? Can this other being potentially understand this emotional and visual language? Unfortunately, the blockchain can not look at its reflection.
How many nights, waiting in vain
Wanting to write the numbers
On running water
Did I have to sleep alone!17
For all this text has presented about BURNER and gas auctions, it is unclear how this collection will affect our perception of on-chain dynamics. A dynamic on-chain artwork exists at the intersection of multiple disciplines that are still in their infancy and being determined. As the collection will react to the intentions of the blockchain participants and the automated processes of smart contracts19, the unique composite image associated with every token will draw into a library of layers to rearrange itself. Based on past gas fluctuations, one can’t precisely predict these future states since the participants and the blockchain are constantly changing. It’s not so much about speed and evolution because there’s no clear goal. Survival? Turbulence? “There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts. No inflection point in which we become fully alive.”20 The inflection point of the growth curve hasn’t manifested itself yet because it may never exist.
Object a21 is the cause of desire, which can never be attained. Financial freedom, innovation, belonging, etc., are demands. We are ever chasing these things, and the chase is the actual cause, not the outcome. The fantasy of the causes of our participation in this decentralized circus of automatons is much more potent than what we can get out of it through this very participation. Without this fantasy, we wouldn’t innovate. Every participant would stop participating once their demands have been met, and it would inevitably lead to the slow-burning death of the Ethereum network. This is not what is happening. Desires dissolve and evolve; they keep growing. Every layer of BURNER token follows this build-up build-down cycle. New meaning appears as the layers stack up on top of each other and gas - the strength of the participant's desires - goes up. It inevitably falls back down and destroys the previous image composition, but only to allow the possibilities of new combinations to emerge.
Although the phenomenon of the ever-expanding event of blockchain self-discovery isn’t machine learning, allow me to reinterpret a passage from Sofian Audry's 'Art in the Age of Machine Learning'22 which feels appropriate here to write about “machine subjectivity.” BURNER defines a new form of subjectivity by relying on automated processes and human actions. A sort of machine imagination that is unsupervised and decentralized. Data, methods, emotions, and intentions collide, forming patterns and breaking them to create new ways of illustrating an inside world codependent of the actors involved. This new reality is constructed of objects and subjects unaware of what they might share or not share.
A glitch is a ghost
All artists ask themselves a question. This question has nothing to do with market fit or audience reach. It has to do with the ontology of art and how new mediums and tools of expression can challenge it. The term avant-garde has a transitory application; it’s mainly used to describe a part of a creative journey. It is a status that an artist can only temporarily obtain, for its definition is rooted in the act of breaking new grounds. Once said grounds have been violated, patterns emerge, what was once novel matures and inevitably becomes a new standard. James Bloom is familiar with this idea as he faced the many challenges of trying to exist in an overwhelming academic context during his time as an art student, more interested in what the underground exhibition spaces offered than established and historical venues. There’s only so much you can do when working with historical artifacts and the constraints of an institution. On-chain art has been challenging our perception of a cultural artifact for a couple of years now. The wave of digital art hitting the reputable auction houses of the traditional art world is but the latest scum scraped off the surface.
The glitch is to digital art what avant-garde dada collages were to visual arts of the epoch. The spontaneity of the discovery and the apparent anarchy of the composition due to the breaking and rearranging of the content allows the viewer to reinterpret the semantics of its gaze. This content is anything from journal prints to encyclopedia illustrations. Glitch art is an open wound and an explosion at the same time. It is a forced and necessary failure of code and image. It’s a new language cicatrizing on old. BURNER's glitch-like appearance embodies this mixing of sources and renewal of meaning. A new digital vision is emerging from extrapolated matter and emotions. Meaning constantly rearranging itself in front of the viewer as the whole of on-chain transactions unfold. The glitch is a transition from a state of feed to feedback. It is human and machine communicating. It breaks common perceptive grounds and proposes new ones. The question a novel and original artwork can answer is this: what does it express that hasn’t been expressed yet?
By forcing images to behave in a way they’re not meant to and attaching them to the back of a new system, they become alive beyond their simplistic two-dimensional appearances. They materialize something new that hadn't been expressed yet. New meaning, new space. A glitch is a ghost. Its presence is felt but never proven.
2 A certain fee threshold users have to pay miners (subsequently validators) to interact with the blockchain.
3 A batch of transactions associated to a unique hash. The succession of blocks defines what is know as the blockchain, a decentralized distributed ledger that miners (subsequently validators) continuously update. [https://ethereum.org/en/developers/docs/blocks/]
5 On-chain history refers to the sum of all transaction blocks.
7 Didi-Huberman, Georges. 1992. Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde.
8 Robinson, Dan. Konstantopoulos, Georgios. 2020. [https://www.paradigm.xyz/2020/08/ethereum-is-a-dark-forest]
9 Deleuze, Gilles. 1988. Le pli.
11 Tommaso Marinetti, Fillipo. 1909. The Futurist Manifesto.
12 Ellul, Jacques. 2018. Pour qui, pour quoi travaillons-nous?
13 The one critique that keeps coming back about on-chain art is related to how the actual artwork exists on-chain. An ERC-721 token metadata is where one would find the “object” of the artwork. In most cases, this “object” is a link pointing to a file hosted on a database and in other cases the “object’s” code itself.
14 Price oracle manipulation is a type of exploit that aims to briefly disrupt different data feed reliant on each other for accurate pricing of certain on-chain products.
15 A cross-chain bridge is a simple service that allows users to swap tokens from one chain to another that otherwise don’t share the same network.
16 Ibid. 8
17 Masatsune, Asukai. 13e siècle.
19 Smart contracts are programs/applications running on the Ethereum blockchain. They reside at a specific address similar to user wallets. Users can Interac with these contracts, but they can also operate on their own via limited automation. [https://ethereum.org/en/developers/docs/smart-contracts/]
20 Robert Ford in dialogue with Bernard Lowe. Westworld season 1 episode 8.
21 Lacan, Jacques. 1956-57. Le séminaire T.4 : La relation d’objet.
22 Audry. Sofian. 2021. Art in the Age of Machine Learning.