Above: photo by Markus Spiske

Code as canvas: how Olta and Transient Labs are ushering in a new genre of coding as art

Harmon Leon interviews the minds behind Olta and Transient Labs to discuss code, metadata, and the future of interactive NFTs.

Nov 17, 2022 Art + Tech / Tech / Uncategorized

2 weeks ago

Why can’t the coders, people creating the code, be the artists? This is the question posed by Terence Reilly, who alongside his creative partner, George Baldwin, are the team behind Olta, a platform whose mission is to support dynamic NFT artworks.

In another part of the world, Ben Strauss and Marco Peyfuss have been setting the stage for the next step in the evolution of NFTs with their company Transient Labs.  

We’re talking dynamic art; we’re talking interactive art; we’re talking art that changes throughout the day or provides a functionality specific to an individual–all driven by code and data as the artistic entry point.

 “It’s the birth of a new genre, or at least the growth of a new genre that didn’t really have a place before,” said Strauss, who is also an accomplished landscape photographer. “It actually serves a purpose beyond just being pretty art.” 

Olta’s website

A New Way of Art Making

Olta is based in Bristol – the arty U.K. home of Banksy, Massive Attack, and Wallace and Gromit. Reilly, in fact, was an animator at Aardman Studios. Baldwin, who was doing generative artwork for live events, met Reilly during an artist residency.

Olta’s goal is to open up how generative and interactive art is made with blockchain technology, and to give their audience a role in determining the look of a given artwork. To that end, Olta’s latest project, Editions, which launched in July, is built so that a piece of art can change with each purchase, making it truly interactive on all ends. In Editions, creators are given the power to dynamically represent blockchain events in their NFTs thanks to The Graph protocol. Moreover, versioning is built in so artists can add features to artworks over time, and collectors can jump back and forth between different versions.

Editions also brings the element of collecting with a purpose. Since it’s interactive, each edition of the artwork can be unique and tell a story within the series, allowing collectors to choose the version they want.

In the brave new interactive world, the coder is now the artist.  And data is now art. We’re also seeing a shift from smart contract-driven interaction (whereby the art interacts with a data point) to collector/viewer-driven interactions, leading us to an end result that brings more power to both the artist and the collector. 

image caption

Creative Coding Takes Infinite Shapes and Forms 

Strauss and Peyfuss came up with their first super high-level concept in May, 2021, while working at an aerospace engineering company. After tossing around some ideas, they settled on the 24 Series. 

The concept: “Taking Ben’s landscape photography and having it evolve throughout the day,” Peyfuss explained. “It lives with you throughout the day, night, sunrise, sunset.” Instead of a fixed landscape print for your wall, the artwork changes over time by tracking your day-to-night 24-hour cycle

Here’s where the coder as the artist comes in: “It’s based on user location. You’re polling the city that the viewers are viewing the piece in, by looking at the IP,” Strauss said. “And from that you can calculate sunset, sunrise times, lunar phases, et cetera…”  

Users can mess with the VPN of a location to manipulate the artwork – such as having the VPN set to Tokyo while in NYC – and seeing the piece based on that time zone.

The 24 Series separates the artwork from a standard digital art .jpeg or .mp4 video, which the team refers to as ‘“passive metadata,”’ i.e. metadata that doesn’t do anything but be itself regardless of external input or external forces.

The 24 Series was also the genesis for the idea of new experiences with art based in coding.

“The whole concept is an artwork that lives with you, so it’s actually now a window, instead of just an art piece,” says Strauss. “The idea was taking a step back in photography.”

Since photography is all about freezing a moment in time, Transient Labs’ idea was to unfreeze time, to give the viewer a taste of the core experience of the photographer.

The whole concept is an artwork that lives with you, so it’s actually now a window, instead of just an art piece. The idea was taking a step back in photography.

— Ben Strauss, cofounder of Transient Labs

An interactive NFT, “Lightograph I: In Bloom” by @cowart, made in conjunction with Transient Labs. Click here to interact with the work.

Data and Obstacles

Browsers aren’t the friends of interactive NFTs owing to how content plays out differently across various platforms and marketplaces unless the code has been fashioned to take into account a range of different quirks. “It’s quite complex putting all these things together,” George Baldwin, the lead developer for the Olta team, told me. Touching on anxieties that gnaw at coders everywhere, he added, “if the code has to be perfect, forever, the first time you deploy it – it’s an awful development experience because it builds anxiety, you never feel like it’s done. Olta feels their artwork should be a moveable feast and with their Editions project, it should be built upon its own shoulders.

Reflecting on how the company incorporates versioning into smart contracts, Baldwin explained, “an artist can make an artwork, sell it or just publish it, and then they can improve it over time. If needed, they can fix bugs. We store their history of updates on-chain. So, it’s always available and easy to reuse. And we hash the content of the artworks as well, so we can verify.”

“This is the exciting part for us, and this is the direction where most of this [kind of NFT] art is going,” Reilly added. Holding to their idea of the coder-as-artist, the team strives to make it easier for programmers to access blockchain data. “We have incorporated the graph protocol,” Reilly noted, “meaning the creative coders/ teams can read data from the blockchain to dynamically change their coded art.”

Using this model, artists can dream up ideas such as having the artwork change every time it’s bought, or mutate depending on what’s in the owner’s wallet, or what’s currently happening on the blockchain. The way Olta sees this working is when an artist mints an NFT, there will be rules set up on how the metadata can change. “We want this tool to enable us to do these types of things without having to build a smart contract to do them,” Baldwin said.

“Optical Verlet” by xvvi-jojo on Olta. Follow the link here to play with the interactive art yourself.

The artwork can also change facially, which provides more creative capability for the collector. “We’ve got a list of controls and those controls could enable the collector to change the size of something or do certain things with the artwork,” Reilly explained. Still, the collector can’t rush in and change everything; the artist sets the rules. 

“We expect to see the tech and art being sold uniquely, together–in a variety of ways,” Reilly said. “The goal of that feature is that the artists can set interactive parameters that then an art collector can actually manipulate then maintain what they changed.”

“It’s kind of a reaction to the lottery way of collecting artworks at the moment,” explained Baldwin, “where you mint something and then you don’t know what you’re going to get out of it, and instead of collecting for the esthetics of the artwork you collect for finding the rarest property.” This methodology allows the collector to play around with the artwork before they mint to suit their taste.

“The code that is the NFT is the same,” said Baldwin. “And then you display it in the browser, and the code would run in the browser, so part of that code would be to look up certain bits of data or what’s happened (certain events) on the blockchain.

 And then the rest of the code after that can react to whatever comes back from that look up,” he said. “The artworks are kind of instructions that output an image or a 3D interactive thing or music or whatever. And then part of the input is all these other external things it pulls in.”

Shatter Time

“Shattered Opportunities” by Tim Maxwell, engineered with the Transient Labs Shatter Contract

Transient Labs is also unlocking more capabilities of smart contract ownership. An example of this what they call Shatter Mechanic, which is a standard ERC721 smart contract, but with an extra utility built in for the owner. On the surface, it looks like a normal 1/1 art piece, except in reality, artists and collectors are given the option to hold onto the 1/1 or shatter it.

As Peyfuss said, the act of shattering an NFT “burns the 1/1, and it then mints a number of editions to the collector’s wallet and they can use it however they see fit. They can either sell it for liquidity or they could use it as a membership token.”

When the artist makes the initial smart contract, they have a choice to choose the maximum number of editions that their piece could be shattered into in the future. “So, you can keep your supply at a maximum that you’re comfortable with and you can also do the minimum number,” Strauss concurred, which is important when an artist considers what the floor price might be for a piece of a given work.

The concept furthers ideas of ownership and gamification because there’s the potential for somebody to come along, collect all the pieces, and fuse them back together. Fusing burns all the editions and then mints a new 1/1. And you can only shatter and fuse the artwork once.

“This new mechanic gives a lot more power to the artist but also to the collector,” Peyfuss stated. “So, it’s very empowering to both.” This extra utility also allows someone to buy a 1/1 piece–and then down the road they could decide to break it into an edition–to make it easier to sell in the secondary market. Thus, it opens up both liquidity and a widened collector base.

An additional unique aspect is the artist could set a delay period in the contract. They could sell a piece, and it would be locked as a 1/1, for, say, a year, before collectors could have the option to break it apart. “There are some pretty cool ideas where a famous artist, let’s take XCOPY for example, uses the shattered contract, makes a 1/1 on it–but puts the delay function in there until after he’s long gone and dead,” Peyfuss said. “It would be such a huge moment in the news. This new function becomes dormant after 50 years where you can now break this famous piece into editions, and all of a sudden new collectors can get their hands on it.”

Unlike Olta’s Editions, the collector in this instance does not have power over how the piece looks; all they can do is shatter it into a series of unique 1/1s. But what excites Strauss and Peyfuss most is people who come to them with such inventive ideas as: “I have this piece that’s built-in layers, like a collage, what can I do with it?” And then problem-solving the code needed to execute the idea.

Artworks from Jeremy Cowart’s “Block Queens” series on OpenSea

A good example of that isBlock Queens,” where users can explore every single layer that artist Jeremy Cowart used to create each piece by flying through the layers in 3D space. Cowart painstakingly created 777 unique layers from his artwork, and then with artistic coding in JavaScript, he generated 999 combinations of his 777 layers. The overall outcome as Strauss stated: “We like to really focus on creating dynamism that’s not going to detract from the artwork, but actually expose underlying elements of the artwork that you might not see in a typical static artwork case.”

The team recently helped develop an innovative interactive project where a model sits in a specialized photo booth surrounded by eight lights in a 360-degree pattern that fire off in sync with the shutter speed of the camera. “You can interact with the art piece and essentially drag the light around the model,” stated Strauss. Users can then do interpretative blending with the artwork as it provides the sensation of controlling the light. “It’s pretty unique,” Strauss shared. “And has big implications for the fashion industry and being able to see how light plays off of different fabrics in a dynamic way.”

The Transient Labs team envisions interactive artwork that could give the user an entirely new experience. Imagine, for instance, a work that rewards an active lifestyle by communicating with a smartwatch and reacting to a person’s step count or heart rate. “There are all kinds of amazing directions you could go with it,” Strauss said. “Maybe you have an artwork, but it evolves as weather changes throughout the day. Or something that relates to an external database. Maybe something about carbon levels or global warming or human population.”

Open Source, New NFT Genres and Collaborating Possibilities

“The artwork itself could be open source, said Reilly, who points to the hybrid structure model of Zora (the NFT marketplace that provides a creator toolkit). “People could spin it.” For creative coders of the Olta community: “We encourage them to build tools that could help artists but also (they) could earn a commission as well.”

original image by Harmon Leon

For Olta, code is a viable medium for creative expression whose artistic resources have barely been tapped. “Because all the artists are coders, and the code is the medium,” Reilly said. “There’s a lot more scope in the tools and features that can be developed.” Baldwin envisions a hive-mind DAO structure to how interactive artwork is created, which people could build off of. “We just want to put it out there, see how it evolves, and then maybe move into that,” said Baldwin. “But at the moment it’s just building blocks, as a way of doing things.”

Transient Labs has plans to devise a way for people to build/deploy the contracts for themselves. It’s all part of their open-source ethos. “We build on open-source code, so we definitely put a lot of our stuff out on the open-source code,” said Strauss. “If we use any kind of open-source libraries or anything, we call out the original creators.” Strauss sees open-source code as building blocks, like Legos, for others to build their really awesome designs. “They can take what we did and use it to go in a direction that they want to go in. That helps other developers build upon what we’re doing,”

Transient Labs has already seen this happen. People have used their script to create their own NFT books, similar to the project they did with author Neil Strauss; his entire book was put into the NFT. This allowed users to read the whole book like an e-book in their wallet, while also being the token itself.

 “That’s been really cool,” said Strauss. “Especially when they credit back to those who did it before them – like we do in our code.” And, since it’s on the blockchain, you can’t mask it from the public; the information’s all out there.

“Chaos Theory” by sim on Olta. Follow the link here to play with the interactive artwork yourself.

Without the framework of NFTs, this type of interactive art would chiefly be experienced by people through galleries. “It’s not consumed online in the same way that videos and images are,” said Baldwin, who finds the NFT space has opened up new possibilities for interactive art. One thing that both Transient Labs and Olta find is that NFTs make code-based artwork more sellable. “The artworks that creative coders were making was kind of hard to sell anyway. They would make this code and put that out for free,” he added. “It’s making it more playful and using the medium of the internet and the web as stuff to make art with, like databases and events that happen on the blockchain. There’s all sorts of stuff that’s unexplored with it and it’s really exciting.”

Reilly concurred: “A lot of the veteran art collectors might think, ‘Well, generative art, that’s all we can achieve with coders as artists.’ We feel it’s just scratching the surface. There are new genres you could invent. Or there are genres that exist that can be improved.”

Gamechanger For Interactive Projects

“Participation, that is an art form in itself,” Reilly said. “You can have the artists create the artwork, you can have interactive controls, there’s audiences [who] come along and change it. And then that persistent change of the artwork evolves based on a community; it’s not just director-led anymore.”

Reilly expresses that participation changes the artwork each time, based on who’s doing it, when it’s done, and where the participation takes place.

“That’s where the fun begins,” he said. “You could have something as simple as just a button. But what happens when you click that button? What choice you made when you clicked it will determine what happens next.”

A lot of the veteran art collectors might think, ‘Well, generative art, that’s all we can achieve with coders as artists.’ We feel it’s just scratching the surface. There are new genres you could invent. Or there are genres that exist that can be improved.

— Terence Reilly, cofounder of Olta

“Hold On” from the “Hidden Stories” series by Michelle Viljoen, using the story contract from Transient Labs

“It’s creating middle space between art and games,” said Baldwin. What he means is, it allows artists to build interactive pieces that have gaming features and just present it as an art piece in itself. 

“That would be kind of perceived as a game that doesn’t do anything,” he said. “Whereas you can look at an image and you don’t expect it to do something; you kind of appreciate it from an art perspective. That’s a middle ground there that’s kind of interesting.”

The Editions concept is reminiscent of the interactive artwork that was created during Olta’s Hack Day. “There was one that was kind of like a light show,” Baldwin recalled. “And every time an artwork’s minted there’s an extra light added. And when an artwork’s burned there’s a dark light added. So, these patterns are generated. It kind of depends on the other NFTs in that collection, of how they’re displayed. You get these weird complex interactions happening, which can be quite beautiful.”

The key thing for Reilly is user experience, not only in the website but in the artwork. “Creative coders are used to making products that has got that in its center, like the thing about how someone would interact with this website or with this installation,” he said. “That’s the exciting part, just trying to hone in on that as a valuable thing.”

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Harmon Leon

Harmon Leon is the the author of eight books—the latest is: 'Tribespotting: Undercover (Cult)ure Stories.' Harmon's stories have appeared in VICE, Esquire, The Nation, National Geographic, Salon, Ozy, Huffington Post, NPR’s 'This American Life' and Wired. He's produced video content for Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Timeline, Out, FX, Daily Mail, Yahoo Sports, National Lampoon and VH1. Harmon has appeared on This American Life, The Howard Stern Show, Last Call With Carson Daly, Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, MSNBC, Spike TV, VH1, FX, as well as the BBC—and he's performed comedy around the world, including the Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, Vancouver and Montreal Comedy Festivals. Follow Harmon on Twitter @harmonleon.

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