eatworks

art Every Icon by John F Simon Jr (2021)

With Every Icon, Simon wrote a program that explores every combination of black and white squares in a 32x32 grid, discovering a near-infinite number of images on its way.  The duration of a journey through the icon space exceeds human imagination.

This release of Every Icon let you participate in the creation process. After minting your NFT, you could choose a starting image by exploring randomly generated combinations of icon fragments, fill patterns, and noise.

Every Icon was the first NFT offering from e∙a∙t∙}works, in collaboration with divergence and Fingerprints DAO.


Artist Statement

"Can a machine produce every possible image?"

According to Every Icon the answer is yes - but the process takes longer than the age of the universe. I wrote Every Icon because I wanted to discover pictures I couldn’t imagine. I thought that computers could be trained to find these novel images. What Every Icon makes abundantly clear is that brute force computation will not solve the problem of deciding which images are beautiful and interesting. That job still belongs to humans.

Every Icon has been exhibited extensively in galleries and museums and was included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. The code exists as Java Applets, Palm Pilot apps, iOS apps, HTML5 scripts, wall mounted ‘art appliances’, and large scale projections. I have sold copies to tech savvy collectors since the 1990s, but for the last 25 years Every Icon has been primarily living on my website because there was no consensus on how to own, display, value, and resell Software Art.

The NFT market is a game changer, impacting provenance, ownership, storage, and exchange. Migrating Every Icon to the blockchain felt like the perfect move. I could archive the code on a public ledger and keep it running for as long as that ledger existed. However, in practice I discovered distinct differences between Browser Art and Blockchain Art, including how works are connected through the public ledger, the visibility of the code, and the distinction in NFTs between how much of the art is contained within the smart contract (on or in-chain) and how much is stored on external servers (off chain).

How did I take these differences into consideration and redesign Every Icon as an NFT? I felt strongly that the software should be written primarily in Solidity, keeping off chain dependencies to a minimum. To get the code right, I was lucky enough to collaborate with Divergence, the team that produced the successful NFT projects brotchain and PO{A}W. Divergence perfected the contract and wisely guided the deployment.

The inexorable march of pixels still crosses the top line of the icon, but now they iterate their combinations against the backdrop of a more populated grid. There is an interactive component where viewers can click through combinations of classic icons, fill patterns, and random noise, mining the new possibility space for the starting icon that they want to mint. A marker of the minting process is embedded in each instance and all the image components are stored entirely on chain.

How does a public ledger change Software Art? Instead of disappearing into museum storage or being tucked inside a private collector’s home, NFTs are constantly reachable through the blockchain. Collections of NFTs are aggregated automatically on sites like OpenSea.io, where they are displayed side by side in a grid formation. This kind of public gallery puts a premium on thematic work and visual variety.

Imagine a gallery exhibiting copies of a single lithograph - every copy identical except for the edition number. Something similarly repetitive would happen if I were to migrate my original version of Every Icon. The result would be an online gallery of blank grids. Starting the original Every Icon as a blank meant each person was searching the same territory of icons. Why not leverage this edition to explore the icon space from many points of view? I decided to find a way to generate a different starting icon for each copy.

How should the new starting icons be chosen? My first instinct was to allow people to draw their own designs, but this didn’t deliver on the promise of using computing power to discover novelty. Next I thought about generating random icons, but this quickly looks as repetitive as a blank grid. In the end, the transparent nature of the blockchain helped me decide.

Communication between browser and smart contract can be intercepted and manipulated. The code of every contract on the blockchain is entirely visible via sites like etherscan.io. One strategy to protect the contract against unwanted manipulations is to create a base set of starting icons and only allow those images stored in the contract to be chosen and combined. My first impression was that this would limit variability but, to my surprise, when I got the code running and was able to play with it, the interactions produced an experience very close to my original idea of a machine revealing coherent images.

I turned my attention to choosing what icons would be included in this base set. This task was easy and fun because I love icons, especially the 32 x 32 black and white icons of the original Macintosh OS, the ones designed by Susan Kare. To me they are design perfection because of their clarity, whimsy, and economy, but I also love how they also demarcate the beginning of the personal computer era. Besides including my variations on the classic icons like the trash can, the folder, and the happy Mac, I also worked with familiar fill patterns from MacPaint.

Looking for interesting ways to combine multiple icons and produce novel results, I returned to the work of electronic art pioneer Woody Vasulka. In his AfterImage cover article from 1978, “A Syntax of Binary Images”, Vasulka gave copious examples of manipulating electronic images using boolean logic. The AND, OR, and XOR functions speak to the bitwise nature of the icons and have the capacity to segment and reverse the images in unanticipated ways. I love this process because basic logical combinations produce icons that are noisy, rich with ambiguity, mixtures of parts, and the kinds of images that spark the imagination.

How do I view Every Icon after this expansion? I keep thinking of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The space of all possible icons is the elephant. The first version of Every Icon is one person starting at one end of the elephant, blind to the vastness of the possibilities. New sets of base icons or different search strategies open new portals for seeing, understanding, and navigating icon space. When will we collectively see all the possibilities? Long after every star is gone.

Iconically Automating Creativity

by Mark Amerika

“If I could write a program that would display all the combinations of 32X32 pixel images, I would have at my disposal a catalog of all the possible desktop icons. I would get to see and choose from all the icons yet to be discovered.” - John F. Simon Jr., from Drawing Your Own Path: 33 Improvisations at the Crossroads of Art and Meditation.

I first came across John F. Simon Jr.’s digital artwork in 1996. At the time, I was one of the few artists and literary writers gaining visibility for my experiments with the World Wide Web as both a compositional and distribution medium and had been invited to start a new column for the German cyberculture magazine Telepolis. My goal for the column was to find new forms of art that were native to the Internet, not mere representations or documentations of physical exhibitions in galleries and museums.

Navigating through all the debris in the Open Sea of http cyberspace in search of emerging artists who were “giving form” to new works of net-based art that were clearly attuned to many of the 20th century’s most important art movements, I wondered, “Who else is situating their own art practice at the interface of Conceptual Art and creative coding? Are there any other artists who are strategically interfacing with this new medium, the WWW, that is rapidly and radically altering the collective unconscious?”

Within minutes, the first like-minded artist whose work I connected with was Simon. His conceptual code art was already, in 1996, using the Internet protocol to fabricate digital objects imbued with the kind of mindfulness for which his oeuvre has become internationally recognized. While it’s almost a cliché to say Simon was an “early pioneer” of net and/or generative art, it’s perhaps more important to acknowledge the intellectual depth that drives his artistic practice, and the self-reflective and interpersonal relationship he has with art history. I use the word interpersonal intentionally, since the most perspicacious artists I have known over the years, and whose work I admire, self-consciously situate their thinking and creative process in relation to both the contemporary artists of their time and the art historical lineage from which their artwork springs forth.

Of course, for some artists, art history has a way of catching up with them. In 2000, both Simon and I were two of the first net artists ever to be selected for the Whitney Biennial of American Art. In Simon’s case, the work that was selected was Every Icon. At the time of its release in early 1997, a feature article in the New York Times written by Matthew Mirapaul encapsulated its initial reception: “Musing on ‘Every Icon’ as it flickers away in a browser window, one begins to sense that Simon's creation is much more than a cleverly constructed mathematical exercise or a modest electronic meditation on the eternal nature of the creative urge. Indeed, the work is suggestive of the efforts of such well-known students of the square as Josef Albers and Paul Klee. Its closest affinity is to the kinetic colored compositions of Piet Mondrian.”

Having engaged Simon in a multi-decade “High Summit” dialogue focused on art, creativity, code, and writing, I know that the list of artistic, literary, and spiritual figures circulating in his orbit is long and diverse. Nonetheless, it’s the work of artists such as Klee, Mondrian, and especially Sol Lewitt who serve as primary precursors.

As Simon himself writes in his must-read book on the creative process, Drawing Your Own Path: 33 Improvisations at the Crossroads of Art and Meditation.

Sol Lewitt’s art-making systems employed mathematical combinations as a way of selecting and arranging visual elements from a larger collection [. . .] As an ambitious computer artist looking for ways to automate creativity, studying his systems provided me with great ideas for software projects because it seemed like he was writing software to make his work. I wanted to automate his combinations and do something bigger and better using the new digital technology; I wanted to use the power of computers to show all the combinations of a set larger than Lewitt could dream.

Out of this desire to automate creativity, the Every Icon project was born. I refer to it as a project instead of a singular artwork because of the various ways Simon has remixed this particular work of software art into new exhibition and distribution contexts over the last 25 years. As he himself has recently written, Every Icon has been exhibited as “Java Applets, Palm Pilot apps, iOS apps, HTML5 scripts, wall mounted ‘art appliances’, and large scale projections. I sold copies to tech savvy collectors but for the last 25 years Every Icon has been primarily living on my website because there was no consensus on how to own, display, value, and resell Software Art.”

The key word here is living. As a living work of art that transcends whatever platform it appears on, Every Icon now makes its presence felt on the blockchain as a generative art drop with a set number of NFTs that can be minted by collectors. The process is interactive and empowers the collector to “choose from all the icons yet to be discovered.” In all of its earlier instantiations, the Every Icon project provocatively teased us into imagining the artwork’s potential to construct every possible image in a 32X32 grid. Now, Simon is realizing his dream by opening up the software to NFT collectors who can, in collaboration with the artist and the software system, generate unique instances of both symbolic and aesthetic meaning that the original version of the project could only prognosticate.

Every Icon is, in a word, iconic. It operates as a simultaneous and continuous fusion of the creative and technological moment. This particular moment, driven by NFT smart contracts and blockchain provenance, is the latest iteration of an artwork forever generating its own history-in-the-making.

Mark Amerika is an American artist, theorist, novelist and Professor of Distinction in Art and Art History at the University of Colorado at Boulder.


Collaborators

Fingerprints DAO

Fingerprints DAO is a crypto-native organisation dedicated to the collection, curation, and production of artworks that use smart contracts in creative ways. The DAO originally formed around a collection of twenty-six Autoglyphs, the pioneering artwork by Larva Labs which was the first to be generated and stored entirely on the Ethereum blockchain. The Fingerprints collection has grown to be the most significant of its kind, comprising works by Rhea Myers, 0xDEAFBEEF, Mitchell F Chan, Harm van den Dorpel, Sarah Meyohas, 0xmons, and Figure31.

John F. Simon Jr

John F. Simon Jr. is a multimedia artist and Software Art pioneer whose work and installations are found in the permanent collections of The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and The Museum of Modern Art in New York, among others. Images of these artworks and more exhibition information can be found on his website, numeral.com. In 2011, he collaborated with Icelandic singer Björk to write an app for her album, Biophilia. Simon's newest publication, Drawing Your Own Path: 33 Practices at the Crossroads of Art and Meditation was released in November, 2016, by Parallax Press. Simon grew up in central Louisiana and currently lives and works in Sugar Loaf, New York.

divergence

Divergence (@divergenceharri and @divergencearran) are a software and computational art team and real-life couple. They are best known in the NFT world for pushing Solidity art boundaries with their in-chain project Brotchain, as well as the interactive, mathematically-driven Proof of {Art}Work collection. Their combined professional and academic focuses are on computer science, tech products and entrepreneurship, although their backgrounds include forays into medicine, mathematics, strategy consultancy and actuarial science for good measure.