“Portals” by Sutu and Aloner One, 2022.

WTF ARE DYNAMIC NFTS?

John Benton argues that media on the blockchain includes more than static, unchanging files by exploring different types of dynamic NFTs and how to make them.

Jan 24, 2023 Art + Tech

2 weeks ago

Yes, NFTs have provided potential new pathways for the authentication, monetization, and archivability of digital art, but what’s become apparent in the past few years is that art registered on the blockchain includes more than static, unchanging objects like JPEGs or MP4s.

“Fl♡♡ded” by Violet Forest, 2022. 

Dynamic NFTs

For the purpose of this article, I’m defining Dynamic NFTs as works of art that react to data input or output. These reactions may include touch, gaze, wallet interaction, or even live feeds of web data. The key aspect here is that dynamic systems engage us in a circuit of communication, a visceral feedback loop. The interactive qualities of dynamic NFTs, because we are physical beings, makes even two-dimensional objects spatial.

Although the concept of variable artwork interacting with external stimuli is not novel, when coupled with NFTs, the possibilities grow exponentially. This marks a larger shift in culture, not dissimilar to moving images over a century ago. As creators, the ways in which we can now articulate meaning with spatial and responsive systems are staggering, not to mention the new methods of distribution available with Web3.

At present, we can think of dynamic NFTs in three very general ways:

Dynamic : spatial and responsive systems that react to input

Most NFT marketplaces allow users to upload 3D models. These are usually displayed in an HTML canvas with minimal javascript controls for rotating and zooming. But if the artist is controlling the code, they can make their work do almost anything and respond to the viewer’s (conscious or unconscious) input. This creates a circuit and makes work feel alive.

The House of Bluebeard” by Karim Maaloul uses both a directorial POV and free camera movement to tell variations on stories.

Generative Art

To over simplify, I’ll define generative art as work generated from a predefined construct, such as art generated from code. Generative Art has many permutations, including work generated at the time of mint. Whereas dynamic works are continuously generated in response to third-party input. More and more, these areas are merging.

Zach Lieberman‘s generative work here show him navigating around around on of his pieces.

Smart Contracts

Working with the smart contracts behind NFTs opens up a new set of artistic possibilities we are just beginning to grasp. Controlling contracts can allow you to specify how you want the work to exist over time, or change based on events. 

The codeGirl contract allows us to update mini chapters of a story as visuals evolve and text changes.

As you can tell, even in this overly simplistic breakdown, all three of these areas overlap.

Indeed, this entire space itself is dynamic.

Tools to create Dynamic NFTs

How are people making these at present?

Building Dynamic Systems

The most common ways to create spatial and responsive systems is with javascript rendered in an HTML document. This can either be all code or code in conjunction with other files (often 3D objects exported as .glTF, or .usdz). These files exist on the decentralized Web, are culled together by the contract, and rendered in real-time through a browser/webGPU.

By and large, the first platform that gave us this option was Hic et Nunc (originally hicetnunc.xyz on the Tezos blockchain) early in 2021. I point to artists like Karim Maaloul & Aloner One, whose works show a combination of classic artistic talent and technical mastery. The code gives us the feeling of freely moving around these spaces, while the beauty of these handcrafted 3D worlds gives us agency to explore them. There are many ways to create these kinds of javascript applications (Three.js / Babylon.js / Playcanvas / Polygon.js among them). More and more are coming out by the day as classic coding environments start to resemble game engines where creators apply realtime behaviors to artistic assets. In fact, Unity3D allows you to export to WebGL and Needle-Tools (bete) allows you to export three.js from Unity. An example is Aloner One’s collaboration with Sutu. While sites like Async Art give access to interactive blueprints, artists don’t need to code to make dynamic work.

Portals,” 2022. Karim Maaloul and Aloner One collaborate to show different perspectives or portals on each other’s work.

This brings me to:

Creating Generative Art

While generative art can exist in other NFT marketplaces, there are some dedicated platforms like ArtBlocks (built on Ethereum) & fx(hash) (built on Tezos) which make it a primary focus. Specific ways of building generative work usually depend on the platform you are minting on: The art in ArtBlocks is purely on-chain, inside the contract. The beauty of this alone is brilliant, but an artist has to be a coder or be collaborating with one. With fx(hash) you can generate works that embed files within an html canvas. Often the dynamic part of these works happens at the time of minting, when parameters are randomly generated. More and more artists are creating generative systems that are also responsive to user input.

Newyellow’s interactive work allows users to start a physics simulation. “Overstacked #253,” 2022.

This is where I first saw Newyellow’s work, made with 3D assets and javascript libraries. It’s both interactive (i.e. tap to spawn) and generative. The artist thinks of this as “Living Art.” The term “Dynamic NFT,” he believes, may be misleading as it opens the door to objects outside of fine art, like POAPs (proof of attendance protocols) and things we can do with contracts. Some of the best digital artists are working in this arena: Zach Lieberman’s practice is thrilling to watch; his daily sketches (created in Xcode w openFrameworks ) feel like paintings, and his dynamic AR work is almost cinematic. Leander Herzog creates amazing work with .svg, shaders & webGL; they are responsive to mouse taps with different kinds of audio visual inputs that always feel like they are on the verge of making sense. His range is incredible. He’s also begun to write his own contracts.

“Gerhard” by Richard Nadler and Leander Herzog, 2022.

Writing Smart Contracts

Ethereum contracts are written in Solidity; Tezos contracts are written in Michelson; Solana contracts are written in Rust. If we don’t have the time to learn these languages, there are templates and services which allow creators to open up more of a contract’s potentia.l. Manifold is free and enables a variety of abilities from designing your own ASCII art to specifying where and how your work is hosted on the decentralized web. Thirdweb is another free service opening up to Polygon, Solana, Flow and others. There are also subscription services like NiftyKit which give you even more features, options and customer support. And more and more services, like Monegraph, are recognizing the potential of working with artists to define this new space. This is a different kind of dynamism than the spatial, responsive work that I’ve been highlighting, but taken together, they imbue work with a sense of biophilia.

Entrophy: 147” by 0xDEAFBEEF, 2021. 

For instance, although it’s written in C, a famous example of this is DEAFBEEF’s Entropy series, which “degrades” itself each time the work transfers to a new owner: a deceptively simple but extremely elegant idea, since the digital mirrors the analogue. Writing the smart contract gives the ability to control how the work exists and changes over time (i.e. how the work “lives” after you mint). Like Beeple’s “Human One,” the work can be updated as long as the program is running. Ian Cheng’s upcoming collaboration with Outland, 3Face, reads your digital wallet, infers your personality, and adapts to you over time. The code can update the piece, you can update the contract, or you can update the content the contract points to.

Human One” by Beeple, 2021.

While I haven’t heard about similar services for Tezos, after Hic et Nunc went dark, other Tezos platforms like Teia, Objkt, Versum, and Fx(hash) rose up, and each has its own abilities that tap into the contract (collaborations, wallet splits, social functions, etc).

What platforms can you mint/sell dynamic NFTs on?

Marketplaces back the work up for you (on IPFS or Arweave, or even a centralized server) when you mint, but as such, they have file size limitations and little knowledge of whether your work is in fact stored (for example, is it pinned for permanence?).

Minting Dynamic Systems (webGl /javascript /html)

Unless you write your own contracts, minting this type of work can only be done on the Tezos marketplaces I’ve mentioned, as you can upload .zip files containing javascript applications and associated files. Violet Forest, a developer working with Hic et Nunc in 2021, was consistently pushing the boundaries of what she could do with the platform. Whether working with XR, game engines, three.js, photogrammetry, or AI, her playful creativity across technologies evokes a sense of wonder for the medium itself.

Self Portrait” by Carla Gannis, 2021.

Carla Gannis and Martina Menegon are each both create amazing dynamic AR works using 3D scans & photogrammetry in performative ways; this arena has so much potential, and both push this space forward artistically and conceptually. Other than navigating around 3D or AR objects, most Ethereum NFT platforms have very limited dynamic abilities. This is true for both minting and displaying dynamic work. However, this is changing, principally with smart contract tools.

Minting generative works

At the moment, this is best done with ArtBlocks and Fx(hash). Each has specific methods to create and mint. However, as we begin to see more appreciation for generative art, we see new ways of working with it and new platforms dedicated to the medium.

Minting your own smart contract

Minting with each contract service I’ve mentioned is different. But when you create a new contract (with Manifold for example) each of the works you mint on that contract will display in that contract’s collection on OpenSea, Rarible, Zora and many others marketplaces. Even Foundation has just opened up to Manifold contracts. You also have some control as to how and where your work is stored, but these still don’t always display correctly (based on web protocols/ browsers and mobile devices). We are in early stages, and it’s best to reach out directly to the marketplaces via Discord or GgitHhub.

Likewise I’m also seeing a trend with creators (such as KNNY or JOY who take charge of their own contracts going one step further and creating personal marketplaces. Often this is because, while more artists are creating interactive NFTs, many marketplaces don’t display dynamic work correctly, depending on their own web protocols and permissions. Likewise, some browsers and mobile devices have their own limitations. I like to think this is temporary, because I foresee an adoption of open standards and a willingness by marketplaces to both embrace and display this work properly.

Working in these seemingly incongruous, unexplored or undefined areas often yields the most important results:

Here I must note Regina Harsanyi’s recent On Screen Presence with Feral File; an amazing curation of dynamic performances by Golan Levin, 0xDEAFBEEF, Every Icon, Wiena Lin, and Molly Soda (pictured below). They adroitly push us to question the ways we think about the tangible vs. the digital, the live vs. the virtual, static work vs. dynamic experience.

Likewise, other great artists and thinkers in this space (Sasha Stiles, Nathaniel Stern, Culturehacker, Mario Klingemann, VerticalCrypto Art & Botto) are working with AI and questioning ideas of augmentation and authorship in their practice.

It’s important to mention because, in the very near future, AI and ML models may be running alongside our art as real-time docents or co-authors, both in our process of creation and the display of work.

Net art / interactive installations and “video games as art” are at least three decades old, so although not new, blockchain, spatial (XR) displays, and Web3 distribution have turbo-charged the arts. Remember, Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope and Edison’s Kinetoscope were around before the Lumiere brothers projected moving images and codified “Cinema;” maybe blockchain was the crucial next step for dynamic artwork.

This dynamism will be a defining characteristic of art and NFTs, whatever we end up calling it.

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John Benton

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