How Deafbeef’s digital art plays with the limits of the blockchain

Clovis McEvoy
June 20, 2022
DEAFBEEF sold 300 signed copies of his music on vinyl, for the event of “a catastrophic demise of the Ethereum network”.

Known for his generative audiovisual art, produced with nothing but a C compiler and stored entirely onchain, DEAFBEEF is nothing if not innovative. He spoke to Clovis McEvoy about the democratising potential of technology, the value of self-made tools, and his unlikely journey to the world of web3.

DEAFBEEF has no interest in shortcuts. Using the self-imposed criteria of a blank slate and only the most basic tools, the Canadian-born artist has built a creative practice where much can be made from little, where the process outweighs the product, and where knowledge is acquired and applied in tandem.

“Some people think I'm a masochist for doing this”, he says with a shrug. Certainly, the challenge of creating art with nothing but self-written code might give some the chills, but few can argue with the results. His ‘back to fundamentals’ approach has produced a series of acclaimed audiovisual works that reveal the artistic potential of the blockchain.

Finding creative fodder from minimal input is a skill developed during his early upbringing in rural Ontario. “We lived several miles away from the nearest village,” he says. “And this was back in a time where you were free from the constant bombardment of information – so, my default state was being bored and I had to search out things to maintain my interest. Music was one of those.”

Passion for music, and the struggle to reconcile this with the more technical side of his intellect, is a recurring theme throughout DEAFBEEF's early years. He considered studying music but eventually opted for engineering – though he reversed course after becoming immersed in the music of Frank Zappa.

“Making one’s own tools is more tedious, but ultimately allows a greater chance for unique expression.”

— DEAFBEEF

Resolving to build a recording studio, he moved to Toronto aged 22, rented a warehouse space that doubled as his apartment, and scraped together enough audio equipment to get started. With a strong independent rock scene in the city at the time, he ultimately recorded hundreds of bands live on the warehouse floor. “It was a wonderful time of creativity and discovery,” he recalls.

The tough economics of running a recording studio eventually pushed him to move on and retrain in electrical engineering, but even then, DEAFBEEF says he retained the “romantic notion” of following in the footsteps of pioneering recording engineers, who often designed, built, or at least maintained, their own audio equipment.

“I wanted to discover this arcane knowledge,” he says. “To ultimately use it for some type of creative pursuit, whether that would be designing synthesisers or whatever.”

DEAFBEEF continued to take detours over the coming years. He published academic research on computer animation graphics, wrote commercial software, and worked as a blacksmith before eventually arriving at generative art during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Series 5 - Advection, by DEAFBEEF.

The impetus for the DEAFBEEF project came first from a feeling of constraint. With young children to care for during lockdown, he says the extreme lack of free time eventually pushed him to mount what he describes as a “small rebellion” against his lack of agency. Utilising what little time was left at the end of the day, he set himself a challenge: using a minimal toolset, he would learn sound synthesis. “It was another exploratory journey to embark on,” he explains. “For me, it’s just fun to learn. There was no destination in mind.”

Using nothing more than a cheap laptop, a text editor, and a C compiler, he began creating his own toolset for sound creation. As with much of the artists’ thinking, this approach balanced aesthetic and practical concerns: on one hand, he wanted to use software that would remain consistent over long periods of time without recourse to updates; on the other, he wanted to avoid pre-made tools that might force him into a particular way of working.

“I want to maintain an intimate relationship with the underlying medium,” he says. “Every tool leaves a kind of imprint. Making one's own tools is more tedious, it's a bit riskier, but ultimately allows a greater chance for some kind of unique expression.”

The outputs of DEAFBEEF are best described as works of generative visual music. Equal aesthetic weight is given to both the audible and visible aspects of the work, and there is usually an underlying mechanism in his code that directly links the sound and animation. Rather than plan each individual element of the work, as a traditional composer or painter might, DEAFBEEF's approach is to set the initial conditions of a system and then seed it with a random element. Through an iterative process of trial and error, a system emerges that generates moments of striking beauty that even its creator couldn’t fully anticipate.

“Experimentation is what's rewarding about it,” he explains. “You might have a vague goal – but somewhere along the way you'll find something interesting, you'll take that path, and you'll end up somewhere completely different.”

DEAFBEEF's interest in generative systems dates back to his youth, when he’d spend hours immersed in ‘rogue-like’ computer games. These ASCII-based dungeon crawlers, with their procedurally generated levels, not only ignited his interest in systems design but also influenced the distinctive grey-scale style that has become synonymous with DEAFBEEF.

“That kind of cryptic visual aesthetic is imprinted on my consciousness,” he says. “Not just ASCII, but oscilloscopes, scanline TVs, which come from my experiences with electrical engineering and signal processing.”

Retro-futuristic minimalism is only part of what has garnered him so much attention from collectors. Released in April 2021, Series 3 of the DEAFBEEF project gained widespread attention not only for its visual style, but for its innovative use of blockchain to explore the nature of web3 itself. Titled Entropy, the work degrades each time it is transferred; warbling synth lines becoming progressively noisier and cascading streaks of light fade into dullness. After a number of trades, the work becomes an eerie shadow of itself; a theremin heard from the end of a long hallway, a motion glimpsed through a silkscreen.

Though a relatively simple use of the blockchain, Entropy raises a multitude of possible meanings and interpretations. Consumerism, how we determine value, the nature of digital permanence, artificial scarcity – depending on your viewpoint, Entropy can speak to any one of these issues in a positive or negative light.

“The themes of permanence and ownership are central to blockchain technology,” says DEAFBEEF. “It’s almost a dogma of the [web3] culture but, in some ways, it's an illusion. Nothing is actually permanent, and so Entropy uses the medium itself to critically engage that theme.”

“I don’t come from a traditional art background... and yet, I was able to participate in this space.”

— DEAFBEEF

Series 4 and 5 take the question of permanence even further, rethinking the very nature of a minted NFTs as a ‘finished work’. Instead, the buyers themselves become a ‘random variable’ that may generate unexpected outcomes – once minted the NFT retains a set of performable parameters that allow owners to endlessly tweak and vary the audiovisual output until they find something of aesthetic value. Every change of parameter, every new output is stored on-chain, creating a permanent catalogue of visual music curated by the community itself.

DEAFBEEF's own journey in web3 echoes the themes of exploration and discovery that are thematic of his work. He initially dismissed NFTs and only came to the web3 space after seeing other generative artists start to gain traction on platforms like Art Blocks.

“When I started, my motivation was not to have a career,” he says of his early experiments. “It was like, ‘oh, there's people who are actually interested, there's an audience for this. I'll just see where it goes’.”

Just over a year since the release of Series 0, interest in and appreciation of DEAFBEEF's work has skyrocketed. With this rise to prominence, a strong community has developed around DEAFBEEF – something that required some adjustment on part of the artist. “Before this, I very much valued working alone,” he says. “For the last decade or so, I have been working in my basement writing code, or in my garage making things as a blacksmith. So, it was a big change coming to Twitter and Discord and having constant interactions.”

An excerpt from Series 4 - Glitch: 182, by DEAFBEEF.

Despite such a radical change in how he works, DEAFBEEF says the community interaction that is intrinsic to web3 has been highly rewarding. “I don't subscribe to the notion of the ‘pure author’ that conceives of something and then disseminates it,” he says. “I think of it as one big system, with the artist merely one sub-component of that system. Especially for generative art, a lot of the meaning-making comes from the community – it's like a feedback loop, and web3 is enabling those feedback loops and interactions.”

Asked whether we can expect Series 6 anytime soon, the answer is non-committal but enlightening. “I like to think in terms of albums, I like the extra meaning and context that you get from placing a track in comparison to the ones previous. It exists as an entity, and that's sort of how I envisioned it. I don't know where it's going to go from here, or even if I will add another series to that particular contract. I'm interested exploring how blockchain can interface with physical and social systems. What form that takes I'm not sure.”

Examining the trajectory of DEAFBEEF's web3 career, it’s clear just how democratising blockchain technology can be for musicians and artists, or, to look at it another way, just how unlikely DEAFBEEF’s ascent would have been in traditional art and music scenes.

As he himself puts it: “I don't come from a traditional art background, I don't live in Paris or New York, and I'm not able to travel because of my personal life. And yet, I was able to participate in this space, for big stakes and with a lot of attention. I'm not saying it's perfect, but there are many artists who have also been able to take advantage of these opportunities, and I hope that will persist as we continue to build.”

“The themes of permanence and ownership are central to blockchain technology... but, in some ways, it’s an illusion.”

— DEAFBEEF

Link to the author's page on this site.
Written by
Clovis McEvoy
Click to view our article about art, music, film, and storytelling..
More about
Creativity
Click to view our article about art.
More about
Visual

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.

Suggested

“Machine intelligence is the last invention that humanity will ever need to make” — Nick Bostrom

Stay up to date with Culture3 and receive our best on tech, creativity, and hope
Thank you.
Something went wrong – try again?