Walking into the Future: Interview with Beeple
By Elaine W. Ng
Following the record-breaking sale of his NFT Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2021) in March 2021, Beeple has continued his artistic adventures beyond the physical realm. On the occasion of the premiere of his latest work Human One (2021) at Hong Kong’s M+ Museum, which imagines the first digital human born in the metaverse walking through a colorful landscape, ArtAsiaPacific editor Elaine W. Ng spoke with Mike Winkelmann aka Beeple to discuss the possible manifestation of a future metaverse, the differences between the digital and traditional art world, as well as new ways of presenting art to the world.
Human One is being promoted as the first human born inside the metaverse. As far as I understand, the metaverse does not truly exist yet. Why did you decide to present the “first human” born into this future reality as a stereotypical image of an astronaut on a never-ending journey?
I feel like people are taking that a little too literally. It’s more like an illustration of what it would be like when the metaverse exists and the first person is born in the metaverse, which I believe is a bit in the future. It is very distant because this is imagining a person whose entire consciousness is built on their life living in a computer.
How far away do you think that is?
Fifty or a hundred years. It’s certainly not anytime soon that people are going to be born into computers, and we’re going to consider them people. But I wanted to show what that might feel like to people looking from the outside—a person exploring these virtual worlds. I wanted to make them look like, not an astronaut per se, but an explorer, somebody who continues to explore and push forward. It is an analogy for all humans because everybody is exploring and we’re always pushing forward.
You became the poster child for NFT art, which most people—especially within the traditional art world—think of as digital images, perhaps of certain value, stored in a digital wallet.
Yes, for better or worse I was the poster child for NFT art. Better last year, worse this year.
However, Human One functions in a hybrid way. Some digital purists might argue that your piece functions more like a traditional art object: a sculpture with screens unfolding the digital image. I’ve also heard that more NFT collectors are moving toward collecting or investing in physical, tangible art. Is this a response to this growing tendency?
I started combining physical art with NFTs in December 2020, so almost two years ago, after the release of my first NFT collection in October 2020. Again, nobody knew what NFTs were at that point and everybody’s response was: why would I pay for a JPEG? That was actually a legitimate question, if I’m being honest. I decided if I pair it with this physical thing, then we don’t need to go into that issue. “What do I get for my money?” You get this physical thing that has digital artwork on it, and it’s a way to enjoy this digital artwork. This is a way to experience and live with this artwork. If this artwork only exists as a file on your phone that you’ll look at every once in a while, it’s just another file. It could be an email for all, you know.
Yes, and I have 100,000 emails on my phone.
Then there’re a billion more if you want to look at it anytime. To me, this is the least engaging way to experience digital art. It’s very hard to build a strong emotional connection to the work, if that’s the only way you experience it. We are obviously still real people living in the real world. It’s a passive experience: if you want to look at it, you need to explicitly choose to pull it up on your phone. That’s a very different relationship to it when it’s living in your house and it’s just there. When you walk past it in the hall, you’re not choosing whether or not to look at it. The art is part of your environment, affecting your everyday experience.
On a conscious, subconscious, unconscious level.
Yes, I think so. Having digital art as a part of people’s lives in that way is really important. People need to recognize that this is just like any other medium with intent, craft, and nuance. I’ve had some of the Everydays made into paintings and prints. To me, it is about getting back to the ideas that you’re trying to say, and not getting so hung up on all crypto, because I don’t care about any of that. What are the ideas that you’re trying to put forward? That is what I’m most interested in.
And what about the images in the background of Human One? I understand the images are in the so called metaverse that you imagine, as an interpretation what you might see in there. The presentation of Human One at Castello di Rivoli this year, for example, was radically different to what is currently shown in Hong Kong. How do you decide what to show in that background? Do you notify the collector about that the changes of the virtual environment, or is this also a part of the unique experience of this digital artwork?
The most interesting thing about Human One—even more than its physicality—is that it is an infinite work that I’m going to continue to change for the rest of my life. So that, to me, is inherently different from everything else in this museum, which is a concrete statement frozen in time. This to me is like an ongoing conversation with the audience, myself, and the world in general. This speaks more to the true potential of digital art because it can change over time. The first instance of Human One, when it was sold last year, had a bunch of different environments: a desert, a mountain area, and there were art historical references from melting clocks to [Alberto] Giacometti statues. For the version at Castello di Rivoli, some ghost-like people are running through this dystopian, war-torn scene with Ukrainian flags flying in it. Obviously, it was about the Ukraine war, which had not even started when the piece was sold. So this piece would later express something that the collector couldn’t have possibly known. It opens up a different type of relationship with the collector. Ryan [Zurrer], the owner of the work, knew that I might say something at some point that he wouldn’t agree with. But that excited him because this was something he couldn’t have control over. There is a level of trust with him that I’m going to update this artwork in a way that continues to challenge people, with beauty and new meaning.
What will be in the Hong Kong display?
The artwork will be a colorful landscape that the person is walking through. It’s very vibrant, and for this arrival in Asia, it will explore its rich and colorful culture. Later, that fades away into this darker area with spheres, which wasn’t intentional because [at the time,] I hadn’t seen the [Yayoi] Kusama show yet, but it fits super well with this exhibition.
Are they all black and white spheres?
They are all black spheres that explode almost like fireworks. I wanted to signify how Chinese people invented fireworks. It’s really wanting to have a commentary on exploring this new land and being in this new culture in a much more abstract way.
After Hong Kong, where is the next stop for this Human One?
I’m not 100 percent sure, but I could not have asked for a better collector than Ryan. He’s been an amazing steward of this work and he wants to do everything he can to help people understand and appreciate the work. It could have easily been bought by somebody who decided to put it in a freeport storage or their house, and nobody sees it again. And I would be updating Human One for that one collector. Although that can never really happen, because there’s an NFT to it as well so when it updates, everybody can see it on the blockchain regardless of where the piece is. If you look at it right now, you’d see the Ukraine content because it hasn’t been updated for Hong Kong yet. This will change in the next couple of hours when we unveil the work, with the new content.
Deviating from Human One, what do you personally think of the traditional art world’s experiments with NFTs, especially by artists whose works are not digitally native? Or the auction houses and commercial galleries’ attempt of exhibiting and selling art in places like Decentraland?
I think the current iteration of the metaverse needs a more compelling experience for it to be widely adopted. It’s commonly known that nobody goes into Decentraland. It exists almost as a purely speculative thing at this point. If you have this land and nobody ever goes there, why does it have any value? I think it’s going to take time for them to create more engaging experiences that make people want to spend time in them. Even there, I have reservations about how widely this will be accepted, especially when I think about my parents. It’s very hard for me to picture them ever caring about an experience like that.
A lot of the talk about the metaverse as it exists right now is just marketing jargon to jump on this trend that nobody knows what this even means. When I think about the metaverse, I have a slightly different definition. It will be something that everybody participates in, more like an evolution of the internet itself, not so much a video game with NFTs. It will come, but I think that will be longer than we expect. I expect the first iteration of what we all come to know and agree as the metaverse will be more like AR, where suddenly we’re all seeing the same virtual things that don’t exist. In that case, there will be both shared and personal experiences that are virtual. In my opinion, what we will ultimately come to know as the first real iteration of the metaverse will be virtual reality.
Can you tell us about your plans to build a digital art community? How accessible is this? Here, I’m talking about the technologies related to the development and evolution of the metaverse, such as gaming technology and AI. How accessible are these tools to artists and institutions at this moment? How do you see yourself playing a role to help artists develop their practices beyond physical spaces?
I don’t know. I certainly feel like I’m obviously part of the digital art community, but it’s moving in a lot of different directions. I try to help and guide younger artists. But it’s much bigger than just me, obviously. It is very exciting because the explosion of NFTs showed just how many types of people are active in this space with all of their ideas and the possibility to interact with people who are using this technology in so many different ways. Some apply to me, and some don’t. Everybody gets to do something like I do, people can copy or modify it. For me, it’s a super exciting time to create with this huge influx of new people and ideas.
But what about the space that you are building?
I have a 4,645-square-meter studio in Charleston, South Carolina, in the United States, which has a number of different functions. One, it’s where we build my work. Secondly, it is a whitewall gallery space, where I can make something and show it right away in a museum setting, without waiting for anyone’s approval. To have a physical space where I can immediately show my work is very important, because that’s what I’m used to. After making something, I put it on immediately and distribute it to the entire world.
And on the blockchain as well?
Even before that, just on social media. That’s how I’ve always operated, digitally, whereas the traditional way of exhibiting art in physical spaces was not something that I was doing. The vast majority of digital artists continue to do this, making stuff and putting it out into the world. People can experience and learn from them.
Having a physical space with that immediacy was something that I really wanted. The other side of that space is a more experiential space, similar to teamLab or Superblue. We will have a bunch of projectors lined on the walls, and there’re columns with screens. My studio space will be able to show other people’s works, too. I will send out a template of those screens, put it on the internet, and ask people to send me back some files. If those files are sweet, I will show these works. I’m not going to go through and vet these people. It’s a more agnostic platform, right? There’s no criteria. It’s image driven. It’s almost like a physical version of Instagram.
Do people have to make an appointment to visit, or is it totally open to the public?
It will not be open to the public at first because I want this space to be an experiment, rather than a program for one show, which lasts for four months, and I’m going to sell tickets for people to see this show. To me, I’m interested in bringing communities together around art in different ways where we can do things a bit quicker, have more content, and show more ideas by different people. I would like to make it more democratic.
Democratic, but chosen by you?
Well, not necessarily chosen by me, but I think there’re a bunch of different ways you could do that. For instance, it can also be chosen by the community, where people vote, or by a machine. It could be random. I want a wide variety of things shown here and make this process much quicker and nimbler than me selecting this a piece of artwork or an artist.
You’re not interested in replicating the museum experience for digital art.
No, I’m interested in trying a different approach. I want to purposely do it in a way different from museums and galleries. When I refer to galleries, I mean on an exhibition basis, because I’m not trying to sell these people’s work.
You once expressed indignation toward museums and “bullshit commercial stuff.” What do you think about the M+ Museum?
I think M+ is amazing. We’ve been so busy, and I just sped through the Kusama show a couple hours ago. My experience has been incredible.
Overall, I probably need to walk back some of the things that I said two years ago regarding the traditional art world, because I didn’t know anything about it at the time. And I still don’t know a ton, but I have developed a better understanding of how the museums operate and why they operate the way they do. It makes more sense to me now, so I wouldn’t put too much stock into those past statements.
In the past, I didn’t understand museums and I felt that they were weirdly pretentious. I think there are museums that are willing to embrace changes and make a very concentrated effort to try and meet people halfway to bring in new audiences; and there are others who don’t care. But if you’re like that, are you really serving the public? You would be speaking to yourself in an echo chamber about things that nobody else cares about. But I don’t get that feeling with M+ or Castello di Rivoli. They both try to educate people.
Has your opinion on the art world and “rich collectors” changed?
Well, that’s the thing: I didn’t have any opinion on rich collectors before the exploding interests in my work, because I didn’t know anybody who was rich at all. The people whom I thought were rich, were just doing okay. I really did not know anybody who was very wealthy. Now I know a couple people. For instance, I just had lunch yesterday with Adrian Cheng.
The digital and traditional art world are separate. Both sides have a bunch of preconceived notions of what the other side is about. I think a lot of what the traditional art world thinks about the digital art world is wrong. And I will absolutely be the first one to say, a lot of what I thought about the traditional world was very wrong and ignorant. There has been very little interest on either side to understand each other. We have two very separate worlds.
Would you say your work embodies a kind of Americanness in its temporality and changeability?
That’s interesting. I think it does have an American tone. Obviously, I’m from America. I’m not sure about the changeability, but I think it has certainly a sort of ADD (attention deficit disorder) quality to it, and it oftentimes has a purposefully immature tone to it, which is certainly a theme running through American politics and government at the moment. The entire discourse in my work, in my opinion, is very immature and superficial, but that is very much an intentional aesthetic that I am exploring with the work. To me, the tone in general has an arrogance and ignorance to it that is emblematic of the US, if I’m being honest. The image we think we are projecting and the image everybody else is receiving about the US are two very different images. I don’t think most Americans recognize that.
Elaine W. Ng is ArtAsiaPacific’s editor and publisher.