This past week, we announced Social Contracts, an exploration of NFTs as networked objects via an open-edition artwork series that doubles as an intelligence tool to map out interests within the NFT community. Social Contracts is a project by Burak Arikan, a renowned Turkish artist and entrepreneur based in New York City. You can read more information about the project in our announcement post.
Social Contracts was launched in collaboration with JPG.EXE, JPG's studio and lab environment where we collaborate with artists to create a diverse set of projects.
A person who has been a constant source of inspiration is Simon de la Rouviere, a pioneer and visionary of the Ethereum and NFT space, and a prophet of sorts :) Simon's vision has been instrumental as a guiding light when approaching the building of JPG. Inviting his opinion on Social Contracts felt like the right thing to do, so Trent, Will, and María Paula facilitated a conversation between Burak and Simon to celebrate the creativity within NFTs.
Simon: I like to just say I'm a creator. I make art, I make music, I write and design things, I code things. In the Ethereum space, I've been around since the early days. I helped design the ERC-20 standard. I wrote a lot of things too. And these days, I am primarily trying to make more art. I do a lot of on-chain art NFT things, learning more about the SVG format with every project I make. I’ve also been writing science fiction, publishing a novel, and writing science fiction short stories, editing, producing, and making the art for them. What I do is mostly an intersection between a project that's an art studio, a publishing house, and a tech startup—all three together, trying to figure out how to make and build stuff. I used to be more at the protocol level, infrastructure level. But now that the technology has been built, I'm enjoying just using it to make cool things happen.
Burak: I'm excited for this day, first of all. A lot of work is finally being revealed in this conversation. I'm an artist, you know, working on software data networks for quite a while now, more than 15 years. I’ve done a lot of work in this world about virtual currencies, not cryptocurrency, but virtual currencies and market mechanisms and plays, and so on. On the other hand, I also write things. I'm interested in the infrastructure level architecture designs, for instance, multi-chain decentralized systems, from a technical perspective. Also, I'm an activist and participant in political activism, especially and particularly in Turkey, where I'm from. I’ve also founded and been running a platform, GraphCommons.com, an online platform for mapping networks. It's open, and there is a paid service part of it to make it sustainable.
María Paula: As you well said, Simon, once technology has been built, we can enjoy it. We can analyze it. We can examine it. We can explore it. And we can also understand the consequences. And this project, "Social Contracts," explores a little bit of that, the consequences of a transparent world.
Burak: Social Contracts is a series of living artworks that trace the data collectors' collections and their shared connections with each other, which are other collectors/owners of NFTs. By leveraging this "collection graph," Social Contracts makes predictions: projections about the future acquisitions of people, utilizing a link prediction algorithm. We're releasing it as an open, timed edition on April 19th at 1 pm EST. Each piece is not only an NFT, but a WebGL graph that's interacting and evolving. Each Social Contracts piece evolves and adapts through every transfer of ownership. The data is grabbed from the blockchain and put into the network diagrams, then becoming interactive pieces. You can actually click on those nodes or relationships, the edges, and see the details inside them. You can zoom in, zoom out, you know, look at different parts of the works. It's quite playful and it’s also an exploration tool. Like my previous artworks, Social Contracts combines function, utility, and aesthetic exploration. Social Contract explores the patterns that exist in the NFT collection landscape. NFTs and blockchains in general, but NFTs in particular, are generating social graphs. In the NFT space, you don't need social media to be the social graph producer. We're all part of it, of this distributed, decentralized social graph already out there. We integrate ENS names to identify people that have an ENS name, for instance, but also track contract names and addresses, while "performatively forecasting" your next NFT acquisitions.
Since every Social Contracts is a WebGL-based rendering, if you have a very large collection, it still can be rendered in this space. We've been testing how Social Contracts works with really large accounts, and it's really beautiful and interesting to see how these accounts create incredible constellations of interest. And as the work changes hands, what will happen is basically the new collector's data will be merged into the graph, and everything you do leaves your traces in the work as the first owner of it or as the inventor of it. So, both the artwork and its provenance are created at once, and as one fluid and evolving thing. The provenance itself is also recorded on the ERC-721 contract. It's a little extension of the standard, keeping track and working as a storage unit. We have this already, as you know, in the Ethereum logs. So we can regenerate or reproduce the entire graph, as a separate off-chain activity, and view it on the Social Contracts interface, which will be revealed upon mint. I think this project will introduce new economic and also aesthetic feedback loops into our NFT engagement in general.
Simon: I've been hoping that more projects would surface the context of where, or like the digital context that entities store naturally. There are a few projects that take that information and put it into the NFT. Like Receipt by 0xhaiku, where the transfers themselves form part of the artwork. As Burak correctly said, there is a social graph that exists here. Yet most NFTs either exist just as an aesthetic image, or they only exist in a marketplace context. One of the reasons why projects like Receipt or Social Contracts are so incredibly valuable is because they are signed cultural objects. And the signatures are stored in a blockchain over time. These projects are extremely valuable in terms of keeping a record and showcasing it. I'm super excited that there are more projects showcasing and sort of putting front and center the social relationships, history, and provenance of the NFTs. It's important that this becomes more and more prominent, and it starts with actually making art about it.
María Paula: Interesting that you point out Receipt. On the JPG Discord, we've been actually trying to build the longest, and I think we have the longest so far - and we’re looking for more people that are willing to contribute to growing it. Simon, the idea of having transparent transactions was something that we all wanted. But some agents have turned the transparency into a business, as it can be used for surveillance, which is completely opposite to the wider set of Web3 technologies. How has the Ethereum community, in your opinion, approached possible consequences of this complete transparency of transactions?
Simon: My initial assessment would be that I don't think much has changed because you still have on one side people that really enjoy the transparency and the public nature of the system. I am one of those people. I think a lot of the value comes from the fact that you have open records and your choice of how you interact with it. You just have to keep in mind this will be an open record that will be immutable for quite some time. Another example of this where open records have been useful is like people have started doing retroactive funding rounds like with Optimism. Airdrops only work because there's this open record. People can go back and look at some history and reward past behavior. I think probably what's changed more so is that the people that have used it as a transparent record have become more careful. Mostly because I think early on, people treated Ethereum as more of a playground until it became a reality that this thing is actually going to succeed and it's not going to disappear.
Trent: One of the things that I think has been interesting about the emergence of NFTs in general is just how anonymity and pseudonymity on chain have really changed. I remember back in the pure DeFi days, you would be interacting with different people on the chain, but they didn't really seem like people. They were all just addresses. Everyone was just a 0x address and very few had an identity. So the transactions didn't feel like social interactions. And then with the advent of NFTs, all of a sudden, and ENS in particular, the chain just came alive as a social space in a certain way where you see exactly who it is you're interacting with. And it's like a legitimate username or an NFT of a profile picture that you can connect to someone on Twitter. I just remember that moment in the early days of NFTs, the fascination that came with the realization that the chain had become a social space in a totally new way.
Simon: There's something else that I feel is important, especially in the art world, transparency has always helped "speak truth to power." For instance, Hans Haacke had this sort of process where as part of the artwork, he made public some of the stuff that's happening in the art world. And I think Burak has also done these kind of amazing network art pieces that showcase relationships of power.
Burak: I had a chance to meet Hans Haacke in person, in New York. He's an inspiration. I am also influenced by artists and works from 60s such as Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book" and their stunts like throwing fake dollar bills to NYSE floor. Artists that left the gallery and the museum environments and started doing work on the streets, in the stock market, for instance. My work draws inspiration from when activism and art-making merge and blend into each other. And today we have an environment like that. Right now, we are releasing a work. There's no art gallery, no museum, nothing, right? We're just talking about this together. It's kind of releasing to the network, on the network. It feels like making work in the public space.
Trent: Social Contracts operates also as a tech product. You get to go explore your social graph and connections. What feels like the value in this analysis being art, as opposed to just being, kind of, analysis? And how does that play into some of the themes with social contracts?
Burak: I've been doing this kind of work in the past as well. There's this one piece I made in 2007, 2008, right when Facebook opened its API and all these games and stuff kicked off. And right when also the iPhone started, I made a work called Metamarkets. It was a stock market for social media profiles. Metamarkets is an artwork too, but also it's a platform and a tool. Your social media profile was your IPO. And people buy from your shares and they sell it, all in a virtual currency. The idea there was to really question the value of our user labor in those platforms. One can't just ask these questions to the corporations. They will never say how much your worth is for them, as a user. I wanted to investigate that through a separate platform outside of that system. In order to make something like this, you have to build a ritual, an online tool that people can use, a collective thing, and an artwork. I'm inspired by the artists in the 60s that started building systems instead of just images or, one-off media. And so I combined art theory with engineering and found myself in this place where I'm thinking in systems, trying to expose different vulnerabilities or interesting features of them, and trying to implement them myself as a separate thing. That's why the results of my exploration into artworks end up being technical, they're tool-like, they're interfaces.
Trent: It's a really interesting kind of medium for art, it's reappropriating language, and like visual language, and interface language towards asking questions more than answering questions. And making this into art always creates this conceptual shift, or your view of it all of a sudden shifts a little bit. I think data as a medium, and networks as a medium is such a really interesting and timely thing to be exploring.
Burak: The data pulled by Social Contracts will be substantial for some accounts, especially when they start merging with other accounts. Typical tools for examining this data may not be enough. For that reason, having a tool that allows users to zoom in, zoom out, search, and navigate through various parts of the data is essential, enabling them to focus on different aspects as needed. For anyone interested in reading more about this, there's an excellent article by Alexander Galloway called "Are Some Things Unrepresentable?".
William: When considering something like Burak's Social Contracts and your own artistic endeavors, Simon, what role do you think artists and creative thinkers play in shaping the discourse around blockchain or digital art and the future of art? How do you see the artist's role in this fascinating intersection of data, technology, art, etc.?
Simon: The role of art in general is to say, "look at this with a different lens." Although all this data is there, and you can play around, scan, and create your own graphs, art places that on a pedestal and says: witness me. Witness me as something different, as something that tries to convey a message. It's not Dune analytics. It's not Nansen. It's to say, look at me as a thing, as what I'm trying to say.
Burak: I believe artists who work with blockchain as a medium, taking it and experimenting with its logic and rules, breaking and misusing them, play a critical role in reflecting and examining technologies. This has been true for any technology. Consider Nam June Paik, who envisioned television as the foundation for a global world. Now we have the opportunity to play with blockchain technology in a similar way, but this time we also have financial advantages as artists. If you can tap into interested parties and sustain your work, it's a very different experience than in the past. I think it's very powerful.
Social Contracts is minting on April 19th, 2023, at 1pm ET. The mint will run for 120 hours.
Drop format: Open edition, available for 120 hours – All NFTs are unique, generated for the minting account. Each NFT is updated periodically and evolves with each transfer of ownership.
Price: 0.05 ETH / max 10 per wallet