ROBNESS was one of the earliest artists to NFTs, but not everyone in the space would call him an artist. The self-proclaimed 'King of Trash Art' is the OG crypto provocateur, and he spoke to Ola Kalejaye about what makes art art, and why blockchain is the natural successor to Occupy Wall Street.
Usually ROBNESS communicates via all caps; it is a part of his brand. He has kindly given us permission to publish his quotes in a traditional case to improve the accessibility experience, such as for those using screen readers.
Performance artist. Boundary-pusher. Provocateur. The OG crypto creator and Trash Art champion, Robness, is part of an exciting lineage of artists. The kind of artists that are quick to embrace new technologies in their crusade against the grain. Artists for whom the claim 'that isn’t real art' is not just an invitation, but a provocation to show exactly why, as a matter of fact, 'that' can indeed be art.
For well over a year now, NFTs have brought digital art into a larger arena than ever before. Crypto art in all its forms, with all its joys and ills, has challenged and expanded our collective understanding of art. Who determines what it is and is not; how do we measure its value to us and its impact on our culture; and what do we owe the artists who create it?
For Robness, railing against barriers is just one expression of an overall belief in the blockchain, specifically how it can serve the growth of a healthy global network of ideas, where people witness “a lot of different things that I think might be interesting for people to try, that might be out of their comfort zone." He adds, "I think that lends to the wider sharing of ideas worldwide.”
Robness’ life has always involved digital art – and art in general – but music was his preferred avenue earlier in life, from around the age of 13 through to his 20s. It was through music that he first gained an appreciation for fine art. Specifically, as the story goes, for the Andy Warhol cover of the 1967 album, The Velvet Underground & Nico.
“I had weird entrances to art appreciation. Even when I would buy compact discs, I was always interested in the whole package deal. I liked the artists that would not just care about the music, they would actually care about the presentation of it, the aesthetic of the art cover, and what was inside it.”
Naturally, this appreciation for art and aesthetics evolved into experimentation with the tools that were popping up during Robness’ youth. “My first introduction to digital art was, luckily, getting my hands on an old Microtek scanner from the 90's. Just being a young kid, trying to make counterfeit magic cards, you know? Using Photoshop 1.0 and being completely in awe of that.”
As with many of his artistic influences, much of Robness’ philosophy invokes a clear anti-establishment streak. Robness notes the Occupy Wall Street Movement as a major milestone in establishing his countercultural sensibilities. The LA native had his own tent amongst the thousands that overwhelmed the Los Angeles City Hall in autumn 2011.
The years after the Occupy movement faded from public consciousness left many searching for a new angle on the revolution. “Occupy Wall Street had a cultural moment and everybody took notice of it, but it fizzled out at the end. It didn't really strike the heart like everybody wanted.” Robness, like many others, saw a better answer in cryptocurrency.
“When I finally came across Bitcoin, I realised that instead of using cardboard signs and going down the street, the real tool of resistance is a financial instrument. That was my big aha moment. Crypto is the protest sign of the 21st century.”
To tell the story of Robness’ NFT journey involves calling on the humble beginnings of today’s crypto art movement. Specifically, the foundational Bitcoin protocol, Counterparty. Though often overlooked, Counterparty effectively allowed users to create tokens on the blockchain, opening the door for the NFT space that we know today. The collection of Rare Pepes that emerged on Counterparty in 2016 is widely believed to be the first set of NFTs ever – a full year before Crypto Kitties or CryptoPunks.
Robness recalls immediately grasping the energy that would ultimately power today's early NFT space when he saw that Rare Pepe. “I was starting to use Counterparty a lot more, and then all of a sudden I see a Rare Pepe asset. And I know meme culture pretty well, so I knew the joke immediately when I saw it. It was like someone put out a beacon call or a Batman signal: someone's trying to preserve memes on the blockchain.”
For those acquainted with today’s attribution-less internet, the ability to preserve and prove both ownership and creator credit of memes in this way, or any other digital asset, was inherently revolutionary. Robness saw the tangible benefits that this feature could bring even in this early experiment.
“Some people were selling their Rare Pepes to put food on the table in Venezuela. There was a lot of weird stuff happening that had us starting to realise that this can actually cause a bit of change in the world.”
Robness was deeply connected with the community of early Counterparty crypto art traders via Twitter and Telegram around that time. The practice of internet connoisseurs from around the globe creating new art markets through trading memes ended up being a prototype not just of one type of NFT market, but NFT culture as a whole.
Eventually, the Rare Pepe collection closed and Robness went back to living his normal life. But only for about a year and a half. Soon enough, the NFT space would progress enough for Robness to re-enter.
“When 'the crypto thing' happened, that was a whole coalescing of different things put together, and I just found a perfect outlet to start releasing material digitally again.”
Robness began minting NFTs on SuperRare and KnownOrigin back in 2019, selling art for 0.15 eth, then worth $18. The prolific artist has experimented with a wide variety of styles since, creating captivating stills and psychedelic moving images influenced by Pop Art, collage, glitch, and more. But the art movement most associated with Robness is the one for which he might be the most infamous advocate: Trash Art.
The Trash Art movement is, in a way, a perfect example of the irreverent, innately anti-institutional humor and speech that colours a significant core of crypto culture. Much like traders joined retail investors in thumbing their noses at traditional finance, Trash Art connoisseurs laugh at traditional conceptions of what does, or does not, qualify as art.
Trash Art creators emphasised “lazy” remixes of existing works or other images taken from brands or other elements of mainstream culture. Robness' first experience of backlash on those NFT marketplaces came out of his use of the app PhotoMosh, a popular tool amongst Trash artists. Certain sectors of the crypto art space argued that pieces created on PhotoMosh were devaluing the standards of art on those platforms. They weren’t real art.
The eventual removal of Robness’ 64 GALLON TOTER, and his entire profile, from SuperRare sparked a major backlash from the Trash Art community, who stepped up for Robness. While he eventually got back onto the platform, he says that Trash Art supporters still regularly send him remixes of the piece to this day.
Robness was ahead of the curve when it came to the potential of NFTs. So when a certain historical sale announced NFTs to the world in early 2021, Robness had long seen the writing on the wall. The Beeple sale triggered a flood of mainstream attention into NFTs, and given that Robness has generated the most attention for art that has gone against the grain, one might expect that he might harbour ill feelings to the space's rapid growth. This is the artist, after all, who made headlines for pioneering Trash Art and burning a CryptoPunk in July 2021.
“This can actually cause a bit of change in the world.”
Instead, Robness chose to lean into all the positives of a larger light shining on the space. “Right after the Beeple sale I knew it was gonna happen. That was a watershed moment, good or bad. I'd say good though, because if you really look at it, every digital artist on the planet woke up and realised that they didn't have to create some vision for somebody else.”
Beyond personal the benefit of being able to share his work as NFTs, Robness has seen friends of his from the all the way back to his early days find success themselves, the likes of which could never have been possible without the technology.
“My buddies like Carlos Marcial and Alotta Money, they're all from different parts of the planet. They just leapfrogged over the whole art world infrastructure. They did not have to go through the front door, they just jumped right to the top of the building. For me, that's the most important part of this tech: there are little lights that happen all over the planet.”
“After the Beeple sale, every digital artist on the planet woke up and realised that they didn't have to create some vision for somebody else.”
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