“Awareness is the currency of reality” – Jimmy Edgar on provocative art, NFTs, and why attention is all you need

Clovis McEvoy
January 10, 2023
“The present is the best time to be an artist” — Jimmy Edgar

Jimmy Edgar has always been a provocateur. With over twenty years at the forefront of experimental music, he doesn't think music NFTs are worth getting excited about. He speaks to Clovis McEvoy about his creative practice, why everything was really all about visual art, and how AI has allowed him to subvert his own aesthetics.

“It's about making a heaven for liquid, a playground, a space for it to be itself — and then asking, ‘how would liquid want to be portrayed?’” Jimmy Edgar is telling me about his new album and I am trying to keep up. This is a man who sold a photo of a glass box for $17,000, after all. The Detroit native has been pushing sonic boundaries in the experimental electronic music scene since 1999, bringing cerebral concepts and a punk aesthetic to dance floors around the world. His latest album, LIQUIDS HEAVEN, is no exception.

Marking his 13th solo release, the album’s bubbling synths and brooding beats are inspired by an examination of liquid. “Does liquid want to be contained?” Jimmy ponders. “Does it want to flow? Does it want to be free? It’s about considering this phase of matter as a sentient being.” It is this kind of idiosyncratic thinking that has made Jimmy such a unique creative voice, and not only within music. In recent years, his creative practice has begun to focus also upon visual art: digital, AI-assisted, and fully generative, as well as physical sculpture.

His most recent visual collection, PLASTICS, is an associative rumination on synthetic materials. Using deconstructed and retouched product photos, Jimmy designed a generative system that would present him with a selection of quasi-related objects. The resulting collage of imagery is part mood board, part rorschach test: the relationships perceived by the viewer says as much about the artists’ intention as it does about our own unconscious associations and biases.

Jimmy Edgar's PLASTICS collection, created using a generative system.

“I think stock photos are very challenging for people to understand as art,” he says. “I'm very interested in conceptual art, provocative art, and the idea of appropriation. I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could make stock photos artistic.”

For those who have followed Jimmy’s career closely, the artist’s shift to visual mediums surely comes as no surprise. Even in early childhood he was already using art as a way to communicate, and to provoke. “I didn't really speak until I was about six years old,” he says. “So drawing was my go-to form of expression, and the things that I drew were often challenging and shocking.”

Jimmy recounts a formative experience where, when asked to produce a drawing for a school art show, he created almost one hundred individual artworks. Rather than selecting only one piece, his art teacher decided to display the entire collection across the school. “She came to me and said, ‘I wholeheartedly believe in you as an artist and in your potential’,” he recalls. “She gave me a little gift of some black ink. That really left a huge impression on me.”

“Everything I have ever done, I consider to be visual.”

Jimmy Edgar

Had he been raised in a different environment, it is possible that Jimmy would have opted for a career in fine arts from the get-go. Growing up in turn-of-the-millennium Detroit, music was always going to take precedence, at least initially. “Music is very important to people there,” Jimmy says.

Jimmy Edgar considers himself as a primarily visual artist. “I call my music ‘sculptures of air pressure’, because that’s what it feels like to me. I don't even really like to think of it as music.”

By fifteen he was playing underground raves, and signed to London-based Warp Records when he turned eighteen, joining a roster of ground-breaking electronic artists including Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Brian Eno. A long and successful music career followed, but through it all Jimmy maintains that his work has always come from a distinctly visual place. “Everything I have ever done, I consider to be visual,” he says. “I call my music ‘sculptures of air pressure’, because that’s what it feels like to me. I don't even really like to think of it as music.”

Fascinated by the concept of synaesthesia, Jimmy says that materials, colours, and shapes are the primary driving force behind his sound-based work. “My practice definitely feels holistic,” he says. “But first and foremost, I'm a visual artist.”

Jimmy’s exploration of visual mediums dovetailed perfectly with the rise of web3 and an exploding market for art NFTs. “I was making a lot of digital art, which I considered to be my best work and not something that I wanted to just release on social media. Meanwhile, I was hearing about blockchain technology from my good friend, Hayden Dunham, who is an amazing artist. Then, at the end of 2020, Warp Records and all these other pioneering digital platforms began moving into web3. I didn’t take much convincing and I was experimenting before long.”

“Awareness is the fundamental currency of our reality.”

Jimmy Edgar

Those experiments have produced well over thirty NFT releases since his first drop, DROOL OF VENUS, in March 2021, and Jimmy has subsequently built an avid community of collectors united by an appreciation for his contrarian provocation. In no piece of his is that more emphatic than in OXYGEN, which he describes as a “physical structure that uses only air as the material, enclosed in glass.” Exhibited last August at Los Angeles' Vellum Gallery, the piece ultimately sold for 13eth, just over $25,000 at the time.

Jimmy Edgar's OXYGEN, a physical sculpture with a certificate of authenticity listed on Foundation.

However, whilst he sees plenty of exciting innovation in cryptoart, he is less enthusiastic about how musicians have been using the space to date. “I'm super critical because I've been embedded in the music industry for so long,” he says, almost apologetically. “I feel like blockchain has been overlaid on music as an opportunistic kind of thing — it doesn't feel exciting.”

Asked if he sees a path forwards for web3 music, his reply is somewhat confounding: “There could be new kinds of creative economies; in-browser workstations to mint new music; onchain royalties; the ability to create generative music. Blockchain technology is so ripe for generative music, but at the moment, I have no interest.”

Talking to Jimmy, one is struck both by the boldness of his ideas and their fluidity. Perhaps his freewheeling discourse is another form of provocation: a method of communication he has honed since his early childhood drawings, and one that is now a core aspect of his art-making. “It's easy to stick out as an artist if you're brave and understand provocation,” he says. “Awareness is the fundamental currency of our reality; wherever your awareness and attention go, that energy creates value. I'm very interested in provoking, and I think that art is an amazing vehicle for change.”

Simultaneously, Jimmy makes it clear that, in his view, attention must be intelligently directed. He draws an example from the recent Just Stop Oil movement, which, in temporarily defacing high-profile artworks, became highly controversial. “The vandalising of work has been an utter failure,” he says of the “stunts”. “I gather that they wanted to direct the conversation back to the environment, but I think that instead, the defaced artworks have gone up in value, and that the museums now have a new importance.”

Some might look at the confluence of societal and financial constraints that modern artists face and see a perilous tightrope. To stand out amongst an ever-expanding ocean of artistic content would seem a challenging prospect for many. But Jimmy sees our current digital age as one of democratised tools, near-limitless access to audiences, and astounding creative possibilities. “The present is the best time to be an artist,” he says. “There's never been an easier time to learn a new skill, there's never been an easier time to showcase your work to the entire world. It's an opportunity to be your best.”

Given what he sees as the advantages of the modern world, he is not shy about calling out lacklustre uses of its opportunities. “There's so much bad, low-effort work out there,” he laments, “and so many artists who do not understand the difference between being an artisan and being an artist. The artist is the person with the ideas, the person with the bravery to challenge people and show them a different perspective. There's a lot of artisans who think they're artists, but really, they have this totally expendable talent.”

Jimmy's first NFT drop, DROOL OF VENUS.

Jimmy says that working with artisans has become increasingly central to his own artistic practice as he moved further into conceptual art. “I want to have the idea and let talented people make it, because I've already proven myself as a talented and skilled person. For instance, I'm working on a solo sculpture exhibition right now and I'm having all the pieces fabricated by an extremely skilled person who works with metal, epoxy, and acrylic. I would never want to do those things on my own, so it's really a great joy for me to collaborate with someone and have them create my ideas.

He's also become increasingly interested in how generative code and AI can be used to initiate those ideas or offer alternate perspectives. “Some of these projects were developed from a generative software I made, an idea generator called PROMPTZ. It would give me the title of a work that fitted my aesthetic, it would give some objects, and say what the artwork was about. I would just keep refreshing this software and keep adding variables to it, and it would give me ideas for my work.”

“The present is the best time to be an artist.”

Jimmy Edgar

The latest project to stem from his PROMPTZ software takes the form of a deconstructed medical supply room. Planned for release in 2023 through the Chain/saw NFT marketplace, the collection is based upon hundreds of medical devices, instruments, and disposable items which Jimmy collected, photographed, and further developed through conversations with Chat GPT3, the AI text generator that has set the tech-world buzzing.

Jimmy asked the AI how he could bring more fun to the project. In reply, the algorithm suggested adding bright colours, gamifying the auction so that more people could interact with it, and adding a Bugs Bunny mascot, because the cartoon character is known for his catchphrase, ‘what’s up Doc?’.

“Some of its ideas are incredible. I'm so impressed with this technology,” he says. From splicing together analogue tape reels as a teenager, to now using AI to generate, augment, or subvert his creative ideas, Jimmy is an artist who remains effortlessly cutting edge at every turn of his career.

“There's never been an easier time to showcase your work to the entire world.”

Jimmy Edgar

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Clovis McEvoy
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Clovis is a New Zealand born writer, journalist, and educator working at the meeting point between music and technological innovation. He is also an active composer and sound artist, and his virtual reality and live-electronic works have been shown in over fifteen countries around the world.