Thought Leadership Series featuring NFT Artist Mitchell F. Chan: Part 1

In August 2017, three months before the launch of CryptoKitties and only a few months after CryptoPunks, conceptual artist Mitchell F. Chan released a limited-edition digital art project on the Ethereum blockchain called ‘Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibilities.‘

The collection was inspired by the famous French artist Yves Klein’s project of the same name, who once held an exhibition in Paris in 1958 where he sold the documentation of ownership of empty space known as the ‘Immaterial Zone.’

Klein only allowed the Immaterial Zones to be purchased in gold, the most material of currencies. After the sale, the holder of the receipt, if they wished, could meet Klein by side of the Seine river where the artist performed an elaborate ritual in the presence of an acclaimed art dealer or critic, two witnesses, and an art museum director. The holder would burn his NFT (sound familiar degens?) — at which point Klein would toss half his gold into the river.

Back in 2017, well before the NFT Boom, Chan paid homage to Klein by releasing 101 receipt-like NFTs linked to blank digital spaces. For years, the project flew under the radar. But when NFTs took off in 2020 and 2021, people started taking notice.

Now Digital Zones is considered to be a pioneering NFT project, and it has secured Chan (and arguably Klein) a place in NFT history — no small feat. To put the icing on the cake, individual NFTs from the collection have sold for millions of dollars and have been displayed in museums around the world.

Last week, I was lucky enough to sit down with Mitchell and chat about art, NFTs, and the launch of his most recent project, ‘The Boys of Summer.’ Among other things, I discovered that Chan is a creator who’s not afraid of playing with big ideas and asking big questions. In fact, as a professional conceptual artist, that’s been his job for many years, long before he entered the NFT space.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and concision.

Nate Kostar: For people who aren’t familiar with your work, can you tell me a little bit about your career as an artist and how you arrived at Digital Zones?

Mitchell F. Chan: It’s been a long career working a lot with technology as both a subject and a medium. As a contemporary artist and a media artist, you think about technology because technology shapes the world around us, and you want to make work about the world around us. That is the goal of an artist, certainly for me.

If you’re a media artist the way I have been for 15 years — I studied in the Art and Technology Studies Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — then technology is often not just your subject, but also your medium. Because if you are making art about something, it makes sense to let that something be your tool as well.

You end up with these really nice homologies between what you’re trying to say and how you’re trying to say it. You end up reinforcing your concepts. In 2017, that technology that is shaping the world is blockchain technology. I’m interested in thinking about what it means about society that this is happening.

I’m also very interested because with Ethereum, this technology can be a medium as well. I see Solidity, I see there’s a programming language here, which means an artist can do something. When it comes time to think about what it says about the society we’re in, I, of course, I look to art history to guide me, to help me understand the world.

I came up with a way to think about all blockchain and all cryptocurrencies as an analogy or an extension of a conceptual art project. So I created a token and a long essay explaining why I’m doing this. The token is called Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Densibilities, and the essay is called ‘The Blue Paper.’ I released this [project] actually in an art gallery in 2017. It’s in some ways a very simple project. It is a non-fungible token, which I created before there was an ERC 721.

I’m creating it basically to prove a point about the fact that immaterial assets have existed in the conceptual art world for a really long time, and there is a framework for understanding them. I talk about all this in the paper. Anyway, I created this in 2017, and there weren’t really, at that point, a lot of art people who were ready to hear that story.

But in 2020 and 2021, there were a lot of crypto people who were ready to hear that story about art. Things happened the way they happened. I think people discovered, besides the actual messaging and concept behind the work, it’s one of the earliest very intentional, deliberate conceptual art projects that you could buy on the Ethereum blockchain that was actually there as a token that was tokenized. They became quite valuable, and I became in the center of a lot of conversations about what blockchain could mean for art, conceptually and market wise.

Digital Zones. August 30, 2017

Nate Kostar: One of the things I like about your project is how you found this artist, Yves Klein, who did something that is very similar to an NFT project in 1958. And you used that as a springboard, as an historical reference for your project. How did you discover Klein and how did it influence the work?

Mitchell F. Chan: Well, Yves Klein is a major figure in modern art. But the project that I reference is not the work that he was most famous for. He’s most famous for his monochromatic paintings of just blue. But he’d also created this piece where he was selling invisible artworks via certificates for an amount of gold. That’s the piece that I reference very explicitly in that 2017 project. Like I said, when I’m trying to understand cryptocurrency, when I’m trying to understand blockchain, I am looking to art history to find those analogies. That was the perfect analogy that I could find.

Today, one of my thesis, a thing that I really believe in, was that Yves Klein’s project in 1958 is in every way except using a blockchain, the first NFT. It is the first example of an artist saying, ‘Okay, the certificate — the receipt that you get for this — is not the artwork. The artwork exists somewhere else, somewhere intangible where you can’t find it and hold it, but that’s okay.’

The receipt is the thing that will transact for value, and it can be linked to anything. This is exactly the model for what an NFT is… The only difference is that Yves Klein’s receipts were on paper. But the conceptual link between the receipt and the artwork — that’s the model for me.

Yves Klein (1928-1962)

Nate Kostar: And also, the experience of the artwork as well. He had a gallery opening where he invited people to come and experience the “empty space.”

Mitchel F. Chan: Absolutely. And it was lined up and down the block in Paris. He does this in 1958. It’s just such a perfect analogy in the conceptual art world for what an NFT would become. What I had hoped in 2017, and what I’d hoped again in 2021, and what I’m still waiting for a little bit is, for the crypto art community to recognize that even 60 years ago, we were seeing the potential for art to be so much more.

That is to exist in so many different forms once you have that receipt form taken care of. You have a great receipt, what it should enable is for your art to be anything at all, stuff that we’ve never imagined because it doesn’t have to fit in a crate anymore. It doesn’t have to hang on a wall anymore. I think we’re still learning to take advantage of those affordances. But that was another major thesis that I had in 2017, and continue to have today.

Nate Kostar: Since Digital Zones, you’ve been recognized historically as an important artist in the NFT space. I was wondering, what’s that feel like? Was that something that was intended? And then, also, that level of novelty — do you think it’s something you can repeat as an artist or even try to repeat?

Mitchell F. Chan: So, in terms of the trajectory, since then, what is it like? Well, look, it’s honestly great. When I first was creating crypto art in 2017, like I said, nobody really cared. It didn’t get a lot of attention, and that’s fine. And in a lot of ways, it’s very good because it gives me a lot of time and space to assess my own work, honestly. And it’s so funny, but it was about two years later, around the end of 2019, that I was finally comfortable saying to myself,

‘Do you want to know what? I know that that work didn’t get a lot of traction, but I really do think that is probably my best work, and I would like to make more work like that.’

Mitchell F. Chan

And then immediately as soon as I came to peace with that, that my assessment of the work was going to be different from the art world’s assessment of it, but I was okay with it. Then, of course, all the attention came in. It is nice that piece has now been exhibited around the world. It has been referenced in academic journals and textbooks a lot as this missing link between conceptual art and crypto art. Look, obviously, that’s really nice. Just being a part of that conversation is, I think, what every artist dreams of. I’m extremely, extremely grateful.

Then the question, can you do it again? Here’s the thing. You have to not try. I think for me, the artists who are trying to innovate… No, I mean, everybody should try to innovate, but it has to be an internal drive to just follow your own instinct.

The thing you can never do as an artist is make art to prove how clever you are. If you’re making art to prove how clever you are, if I were making art to try to prove, Oh, now I can reinvent a new thing again, look at how smart I am. It’s probably not going to be very good art.

I’m making art now that just follows the ideas that I think have been naturally developing through my career. And sometimes to express those ideas, I do have to come up with some technological innovation that’s in service to those ideas.

But for me, the technological innovation is not even the big deal. What I’ve been doing lately is video games. And there are, I think, some technologically innovative things that I’ve done and that I am doing in terms of making games tokenized, in terms of how people are interacting with these. But I don’t care. The innovation is just in service of the idea. And the idea comes just from looking at the world around you of what’s already here.

Nate Kostar: And you’re an artist before you’re a technologist?

Mitchell F. Chan: Yeah, exactly. When I made Digital Zones, I wasn’t trying to invent NFTs or anything like that. And I didn’t. Other people did it, but I didn’t know about that. I didn’t know about Kevin McCoy, I didn’t know about Rhea Meyer. I wasn’t trying to invent anything new. This was just the only way to express an idea that I thought was smart.

Nate Kostar: You serve as an art curator on the Web3 platform I’m curious a little bit about what role you feel curation should play in Web3 and NFT world.

Mitchell: So here’s the thing. Cultural value is created through a really complicated system with a lot of moving parts. It is not just that a brilliant artist alone in their studio produces a work, puts it on their front lawn, and the world is changed. That is the seed of something. That seed is necessary for cultural value to accrue honestly, around a kernel of honest brilliance. But it’s a whole system with many moving parts, and there’s a real division of labor that happens in the production of cultural value.

The role of curation has been extremely misunderstood, I think, through this cycle of NFTs. There is this sense that anybody who has an opinion on something is a curator. Anybody who can make a top 10 list on Twitter is a curator. The old curators were ‘gatekeepers in bed.’ This is not true. The best works, at least some of my favorite works, are complicated pieces that are multifaceted and have a lot of different layers. The role of a curator is to present this complicated artwork in a way that people can understand it, either by contextualizing it beside other things, or by unwrapping it and showing the moving parts of people.

They do this so that the artist can remain true to themselves. Once again, there’s a separation of church and state. I can make a complicated idea because I’m confident that there is a division of labor, wherein somebody else will help unpack that complicated idea, and then the viewer can pack it back up in the artwork. That’s really important.

The curation also is about like, look, there’s a lot of noise out there in art, whether we’re talking about NFTs, crypto art, digital art, or just the regular art world. There is a lot of noise. It is a lot of work and very time consuming to sift through it, especially when a lot of disingenuous art can look very similar to a lot of art with genuine, brilliant intentions behind it.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Thought Leadership Series with Mitchell F. Chan, where we discuss his upcoming dynamic NFT collection ‘The Boys of Summer.’