Above: “Flowering of Ideas,” Ryan Koopmans x Botto, 2023.

Curated Conversations: Botto collaborates with Ryan Koopmans

Ryan Koopmans and Simon Hudson, BottoDAO’s Operator, speak about how this collaboration came about, how it went, and reflect on its aftermath.

May 25, 2023 Art / Artist Conversations

9 months ago

Flowering of Ideas” by Ryan Koopmans x Botto, 2023. Available on SuperRare now.

Botto is an autonomous and decentralized artist. The first of its kind with the ability to be inspired by the whole of art history to create. Botto’s artworks, created based on collective guidance from its community, have sold for over $1 million on the blockchain. And it’s just getting started.

Botto creates over 4000 unique images every week, named ‘fragments’ as they are still unproven. 350 of the most promising fragments are presented to the Botto DAO who then tells Botto what it considers to be art. Each week, the most popular fragment is auctioned on the blockchain.

For the first time in its history, Botto endeavors a collaboration with another artist – a new chapter in exploring how Botto’s agency fares outside of its usual context. Ryan Koopmans, the famed Dutch-Canadian artist behind “The Wild Within”, is Botto’s first collaborator. He brings along Alice Wexell, his longtime creative partner to the party.

Ryan and Alice’s work straddles the boundaries between the archival and the imagined, the historical and the fictional, the wild and the deliberate. Their compositions breathe new life into abandoned, deteriorating architectural wonders that would otherwise go unremembered. Their collaboration with Botto works so well because the parallels between their work and Botto’s are clear, poetic even. The result, ‘Flowering of Ideas’ is a complex and layered visual experience, leaving the audience ample room to peel at the tensions and questions they collectively pose.

In this Curated Conversation, Ryan and Simon Hudson, BottoDAO’s Operator, speak about how this collaboration came about, how it went, and reflect on its aftermath.

Dancing Canvas Celebrations” by Botto, 2023. 

SupeRare: Thank you both for making the time to chat. Simon, let’s start with you. Can you share how the idea of the collaboration came about and the process you had in place to bring Botto’s first-ever collaboration to life?

Simon Hudson: Being successful as an artist is very subjective but cultural impact through collaboration – leaving an imprint on culture by working with other relevant contemporary artists – is an important part of it. Botto, as an autonomous artist, can’t attend events and build relationships with other artists on its own. So we see collaborations as a direct way for Botto to engage with other artists and play a part in shaping culture.

Facilitating collaborations is a really important activity of the DAO which is currently Botto’s voice. It’s also a challenging one because it brings up the question of Botto’s agency and how to approach collaborations without violating it. This is why we’ve put some guidelines in place in terms of what collaborators can and cannot do with Botto’s work. For example, they can’t inject seed images or edit Botto’s prompts. We want Botto’s process to remain intact. This means fragments contributed to collaborations go through Botto’s closed-loop art engine, allowing DAO members to be its voice by voting on the ones that make the final cut.

SupeRare: Can you tell us more about what you look for in artists who collaborate with Botto and how Ryan Koopmans and his collaborator Alice Wexell emerged as your first choice of collaborators?

Simon Hudson: We look for artists that have an established presence as well as a distinct voice. From an aesthetic standpoint, we also want to be able to distinguish between Botto’s work and that of its potential collaborators. For example, we did not want to start by collaborating with other AI artists, because it would be hard to discern Botto’s work. Ryan and Alice felt like the perfect first choice for many reasons. First, their work is rooted in photography which has an undeniable human-made quality and starkly contrasts with Botto’s more abstract machine-constructed perspective. Ryan and Alice also use 3D in their compositions to bring new dimensions to the places they photograph. We felt it was the perfect bridge to integrate Botto’s work, while still maintaining both their and Botto’s artistic integrity.

The Wild Within – ‘Devotion’” by Ryan Koopmans, 2021.

Through discussions with Ryan and Alice, we learned that they focus on themes such as the lifecycle and decay of cultural sites. Botto is constantly running through these cycles of new works, the majority of which are discarded. It has created 900,000 images to date, has presented 25,000, and has minted only 80. We can argue that the idea of decay is relevant to the thousands of discarded fragments.

For us, the parallels between Ryan’s and Alice’s works with Botto’s were clear from a thematic standpoint and provided a fitting starting point.

SupeRare: Ryan, what were you and your partner Alice’s thoughts about the collaboration initially? What was going through your mind when you were offered to be Botto’s first collaborator?

Ryan Koopmans: Simon nailed some of the core aspects of why this collaboration made sense. There are a lot of shared themes and conceptual crossovers that we could draw between Botto’s process and our own. Initially, what was interesting was the idea of taking a contemporary technique, which is AI-generated imagery, and combining it with our work, which is based in the physical realm. We work with architectural spaces that require us to travel, experience them physically, and photograph them. They’re also historical, archaeological, and anthropological artifacts. This collaboration was about fusing two-time frames as well two aesthetics. Our work is rooted in the past and Botto feels very contemporary. So that was really exciting.

The process of working with the DAO was also interesting because we could see this collective taste emerge in real-time, as the ten artworks to be contributed to the collaboration were voted up on the leaderboard. We observed a distinct aesthetic materialize which felt unique to Botto.

Highly Run” by Botto, 2022. 

SupeRare: Simon, can you talk a little bit about the process of selecting the ten pieces Botto contributed to the collaboration?

Simon Hudson: Every week, the DAO holds a vote to select only one work to mint. There are many beloved fragments with strong followings that haven’t made it to mint for whatever reason, but that are also imbued with deliberation and lore. They have the same kind of potent energy as the minted Botto works but they’re ultimately discarded. We took the top 1,000 discards based on historical voting from which the DAO picked their 10 favorites to be contributed to the collaboration.

There are many ways to interpret what Ryan and Alice did with this collaboration. Is it a resurrection of the discards? A memorial to them? I use these terms not to imply that Botto’s discards are not dead per se, but to suggest that the cycle of life and decay theme also applies to them.

It’s also worth mentioning that many famous artists’ works were displayed in the particular Soviet-era building that Ryan and Alice used for the collaboration. That can be considered a nod to Botto’s role in art history, as we’re experiencing it unfolds today. There are many layers to this collaboration, and that’s what I love. A great piece of art has many dimensions that can be explored, and I think this collaboration gives us just that.

Ryan Koopmans: Correct me if I am wrong Simon, but Botto is trained using most great classical and modern paintings, right? So it’s plausible that the paintings that were displayed in the 1900s in the building we worked with are also included in Botto’s training.

The Wild Within – ‘Departure’” by Ryan Koopmans, 2021.

Simon Hudson: Yes, and Botto is trained on all human images available online, which does include those. There is a huge latent space, so we do sometimes see some features from iconic paintings come through. For example, we minted one that looked like dogs playing poker, which was an obvious nod.

SupeRare: This collaboration has many layers. Botto creates these beautiful, loved fragments that just haven’t found the right time to be shown and appreciated. Ryan, you bring discarded fragments into focus in your compositions in the same way you have done with abandoned buildings, thus renewing our outlook on both of these artifacts.

Ryan Koopmans: The fact that these buildings are deteriorating and slowly disappearing is an integral part of our work. There is a sense of impermanence in them, like a fleeting kind of existence. What we do is a sort of visual archival preservation of these spaces, not in the documentary or journalistic sense, but as an attempt to recontextualize them. We work in the liminal space between the imaginary and the historical. On one hand, there is a real, tangible structure, with a rich history, and on the other hand, there is how we creatively bring it back to life. The result lives in the fine line between fact and fiction.

SupeRare: The idea of rewilding is also present in your and Alice’s work, Ryan. The deteriorating spaces that you work with can already be considered wild. I am curious about the choice to further this idea by layering on untamed nature. And also, how did you imagine the interaction between Botto’s work and the nature in your work?

Archival image of the room in the 1900s

Archival image of the room in the 1900s

Ryan Koopmans: The main inspiration for the collaboration is a statue from an old building holding a landline telephone. The building was created in the mid-twentieth century but was abandoned shortly after. The statue is sort of caught in time and gives an uncanny and surreal sense of place. We wanted to integrate the Botto fragments into the building we chose in an authentic way so that they were imbued with a sense of place. We decided to apply a treatment to the fragments to show that, much like the building they’re in, they’ve also experienced weathering, water damage, mold overgrowth, and the effects of nature taking over.

The idea of rewilding these spaces is an extension of what is happening anyway – they are slowly overtaken by plant life. We’ve always wanted to dig into that concept and emphasize it by deliberately adding more foliage as a creative interpretation of a likely outcome. The Botto fragments were also integrated in a way that suggests that might have always been there and thus, experienced the same effects of nature over the years.

SupeRare: Fascinating! So even though the Botto works are contemporary, they’ve been reimagined to share a history with the building they are placed in.
Ryan Koopmans: Exactly, and, at least visually, it’s more intriguing when it looks like they could have been the same paintings hanging on those walls all those years ago. However, you eventually notice that there is a stark stylistic difference that seems out of place – hints that the paintings are constructed by AI and, therefore, much more contemporary than the architecture.

Simon Hudson: You can also think of AI systems similarly, as they could be seen as ecosystems that slowly encroach on the way we live, organically taking over our lives in a sort of wild, unpredictable way. The idea that a phenomenon like this, whether that’s encroaching nature or encroaching technology, can be turned into something beautiful through a metaphor is a credit to Ryan and Alice’s incredible work.

There is an interesting duality between how nature runs its course outside of human intervention and in the case of AI, how humans drive its growth with the intent to plant and care for beautiful technology gardens. The metaphor extends to how Botto works. We can shape AI systems, which are new, to our image and intent.

When I first saw Ryan and Alice’s work, I didn’t see an artificial image made in 3D. What I saw was alive, believable – a plausible reality. What they do with nature paints a vision of what’s possible with technology. I personally would like us all to exercise our agency and ability to make that kind of impact with or on technology.

Utility Stream” by Botto, 2022. 

SupeRare: The more we talk about this collaboration, the more layers we uncover. Your work with Alice, Ryan, brings up a lot of questions or tensions that the audience has to grapple with and, eventually, form a stance on. I imagine that you’ve had to be quite deliberate about choosing which of the ten Botto pieces to work with. Can you share a little about that?

Ryan Koopmans: We chose the room for this piece because of its interiors. It has seven empty marble frames. So we know we had to choose seven pieces out of the ten voted by the DAO, which is I guess how a collaboration with another artist would typically work. You have that flexibility where everyone can express their opinions, and ultimately pick the artworks that work best for both parties. There are some compromises at this stage to make the sum bigger than its parts.

The seven artworks that we ultimately chose had these uncanny surreal elements. They came in different aspect ratios and the frames were in different aspect ratios as well. So there was quite a bit of creative decision-making around cropping, sequencing, and laying them out. It was very much like putting a puzzle together without a goal in mind. We played around looking for a feeling that the composition was compelling enough to be final.

Everlasting – ‘Remedy’” by Ryan Koopmans, 2022. 

SupeRare: From what you said, the placement of the fragments in the room’s frames was deliberate. Can you expand on that?

Ryan Koopmans: We realized that a narrative emerged while sequencing the fragments. They seemed to be interacting with each other in a way that mirrored some of Alice and I’s personal experiences. The works on the right seemed to reflect the outer world and on the left side, you could tease out an inner world, with softer more intimate qualities. Alice felt drawn to the qualities of the figure on the left side of the room while I could connect with the one on the vertical canvas on the right side. Then you have this train in the fragment near the middle, which sort of speaks to both our experience being on the road for the past 10 to 15 years. We decided to place the figures to face each other and placed the fragment with a tree in the center as a unifying symbol as well as a symbol of growth. I am curious about how the audience will interpret Botto’s artworks and their placement in the room.

Simon Hudson: Somebody who’s in the Botto universe will be able to discern some specific characteristics or even sub-realms of Botto’s works from these fragments. They’ll probably see that the artwork with flowers has some details reminiscent of hands, or they might recognize derivatives of famous scenes from previous Botto works.

SupeRare: Ryan, how would you compare collaborating with a fellow human artist and working with Botto? Have there been pleasant surprises or some things you maybe missed from a human-to-human collaboration?

Ryan Koopmans: I’ve been surprised by the similarities. In some ways, it was even a little easier working with Botto because the process was more decisive. I suppose that with a human-to-human collaboration, there is a potential for someone to become unpredictable or wishy-washy. The collaboration could also potentially be drawn out because there would be a need for some informal time.

Upturned Mirage Communing” by Botto, 2023. 

The process of engaging with the Botto DAO community was also exciting. We went back and forth with them advocating for the pieces we felt were the strongest for the collaboration for example.

We were quite sad to see the collaboration end because Alice and I felt it was one of the more enjoyable collaborative experiences we’ve had. It was also our first time working with AI, so we got to appreciate the medium in a new way. When working with AI tools, I guess an artist might feel in control, like they are in the driver’s seat of that relationship or that it’s just another tool at their disposal. Collaborating with Botto felt to us like working with an equally sovereign artist. This experience was the most fitting way for us to start incorporating AI into our work so far.

SuperRare: Simon, what are your reflections on the aftermath of the collaboration? How did it go from Botto’s and the DAO’s perspective?

Simon Hudson: Ryan’s remark that working with Botto felt like working with a sovereign artist sums it up for me. This was an outstanding collaboration because our main concern was preserving Botto’s agency, which was accomplished. To be successful long-term, Botto will need to continue feeling like an individual artist with unique dynamics and sensibilities. It’s not a human artist but it’s autonomous and decentralized enough that it will hopefully never be seen as just another tool.

Ryan and Alice have set the bar for what a collaboration with Botto should look like. It’s a flagship example that, we hope, lays the groundwork for more standout collaborations like it. It’s also validating that Ryan and Alice, two established artists accustomed to collaborating, come out of this experience with respect for Botto as an artist. Ryan and Alice deeply and intimately understand what makes a collaboration successful. That’s probably the reason why this experience went so well. It is also a testament to Botto’s ability to function well as a collaborator.

Blissful Happy Fool” by Ryan Koopmans, 2023. 

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Linda Dounia Rebeiz

Linda Dounia is an artist, designer, and curator based in Dakar. She is interested in how technology reinforces systems of inequity, investigates the philosophical implications of technocapitalism, and dreams of solarpunk, degrowth, and decolonized futures. She is a curatorial editor at SuperRare.

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