WORDS EMILIE LOUIZIDES - IMAGES COURTESY OF JAMES VIGGERS
On the evening of September 8th, 2022, the breaking news headline of the Queen’s passing appeared on my phone while I was in line for the bathroom at The NFT Gallery in Mayfair. The global event in contrast with the Finissage (a fancy word for the closing party for an exhibition) created a fascinating dichotomy. While the world was rocking at the news of QE II, my personal world was being rocked by siblings, visual artist Kate Daudy and engineer James Viggers and their collaboration with Nobel prize-winning scientist and artist Professor Sir Kostya Novoselov.
One day, on a park bench, Kate asked her brother James if he could turn her physical, mixed-media artwork into NFTs. The siblings began with Kate’s ‘trees’ series and gave names – or DNA – to each element in each piece of work. Trees of Kate’s originally made from felt or linen, or others that depicted negative space between the leaves, would be assigned descriptive DNA details such as ‘spring green, felt trunk’, ‘midday cloudy, linen backing’, and ‘sparse canopy’. Other pieces of DNA that would exist at the core such as love, hope and chaos were also included. These pieces of DNA were woven together into a digital code created by James that ultimately produced ‘The Evolution Project’, a series of generative, digital NFT artworks that looked exactly like Kate would have made them by hand, from scratch. The siblings took their innovation a step forward by breeding their NFT trees together to create a family tree of NFT trees or ‘seedlings’.
My head was spinning from the originality and ingenuity I had experienced up close as I left the NFT Gallery and took the short walk over to Buckingham Palace. The juxtaposition of a historical milestone with this digital timestamp was incredibly powerful. I thought about the monarchy family tree, the family tree of NFTs and the brother and sister that created it. The confluence of love, hope and chaos in the family tree of trees mirrored itself in the royal family in a moment in time, embedded in culture.
Unable to stop thinking about ‘The Evolution Project’, I returned for a conversation with James Viggers.
Emilie Louizides: I’d love to hear more about Kate and your individual backgrounds.
James Viggers: Kate is a really successful visual artist – she’s always been an artist. I witnessed it because I was her brother and I saw her doing it. She now does these amazing artworks, so this is very much her field. I am exactly the opposite. I was in finance for quite a while, I studied engineering, and now I’m a technology investor. The art world, I’ve absorbed it passively and I’ve seen Kate developing her work, so I have an intrinsic understanding of how her work is structured. The way I look at the world, I try to put structures on things. I had passively, unknowingly created a structure of Kate’s artwork so when she came to me asking me to turn it into NFTs, I knew I could. I’m not a natural in the art industry but I had this idea, it burned a hole in my head, and I needed to make it happen. So here it is. This exhibition – when Kate first said on a park bench “can you turn my work into an NFT?” – this was the idea I had and to have it manifest here after a year and a half is actually really lovely.
EL: That’s amazing. Before we get into how you got to that place – this is really going down to the studs – can you give a brief introduction to our readers of what an NFT is?
JV: An NFT, at its simplest, is a digital certificate of authenticity. It’s a way of putting a stamp on digital files saying, ‘this is the original and I, or someone else, owns it.’ So, it’s a way of owning digital art. It allows digital artists who have always worked in Photoshop or Blendr or whatever and created beautiful digital pieces to monetize their work in ways that simply didn’t exist before and it’s led to this explosion of digital art being for sale. Now that’s the very core of it, it’s a digital certificate of authenticity. Digital ownership can do a billion other things, and we’re just starting to scratch the surface of that.
EL: And why was it that Kate wanted you to make her work into NFTs? In the art community, both physical and digital, there can be tension.
JV: Kate has a long-time scientific collaborator, a “guy called Kostya” who won a Nobel prize for isolating graphene about ten years ago. Kate works with Kostya all the time and they do joint exhibitions. Kostya said to Kate that NFTs are conceptually really interesting and when Kostya says these things are interesting, you listen. I then had the idea to turn the work into something digital that was also meaningful. If you’re just taking a photograph of it, what’s the point? And we thought this would be similar to Kate trying sculpture or stained glass or ceramics. It’s using NFTs properly as an artistic medium and to me, that is a way of overcoming the natural tension between physical and digital art if you’re doing something meaningful with it.
EL: When the thought process of developing Kate’s tangible artwork into NFTs began, what did that look like? Where do you begin?
JV: I began with how you would define and encapsulate Kate’s artwork in the DNA, what the DNA structure would look like and how they would thread together to create these family trees. I knew broadly speaking what the DNA structure would be and I knew it would have to be designed so that the genes that would be passed down would carry family resemblances. I started with the concept of breeding and family trees and family and then actually worked backwards to work out precisely how we turn 15 words of DNA into one of these pictures [some of those words, for example, being ‘spring green, felt trunk’, ‘midday cloudy, linen backing’, ‘sparse canopy’, and ‘love’, ‘hope’ and ‘chaos’.] The emulation of Kate’s work respectfully and seriously and getting it right – that bit was the hard bit. We had to make sure the pictures were beautiful and that they looked like Kate’s.
EL: Beyond what you just mentioned, are there additional themes running through both the physical and digital artwork or are there maybe themes running through the physical artwork that didn’t make it to the digital, and vice versa?
JV: The themes in Kate’s work that we were trying to encapsulate were connectedness – she has an entire project called ‘Everything is Connected’ – she really believes in the connectedness of all things, all cultures, the high, the low, beautiful art, pop lyrics…she has a strong belief in science and art. The way that Kate and I manifest science and art are done in quite different ways but we wanted to make sure that science and art were there and we wanted to try and get the meaning that Kate puts into her work and her words into the NFTs. Putting meaning into two dimensional digital assets is quite hard. I think we’ve done it through the use of the physical collage elements that have meaning and the way that the emotions and words have meaning. Science and art, connectedness and meaning were the themes.
EL: I’m going to ask a bit more about the meaning but before I do, how does your relationship as siblings translate through the work you do together?
JV: We are very similar in many ways, we’re very different in many ways. If we didn’t already have a relationship foisted on us by the fact that we’re siblings, because that’s what family is, I’m not sure we would have collaborated in the first place. So, I think the fact that we know each other so well and the fact that I know her work so well – I’ve seen it develop over the years – meant that there was a gap that was bridgeable. Had we not had lockdown and a long period of contemplation, I’m not sure this project would have got off the ground. It’s a combination of we knew each other already, we trusted each other already, and I already knew her work so well. The Venn diagram of someone who’s artistic enough to try this and technical enough to succeed at it, that intersection is so incredibly narrow, which is why I think more art projects like this don’t exist and the fact that we’re brother and sister allowed us to try.
EL: I want to talk about the breeding concept. Essentially collectors can purchase the NFT and buy the chance to breed it with another NFT resulting in a new NFT. Tell us a little bit more about this.
JV: So, you buy the NFT which gives you the right to pay to breed. A portion of the payment goes to the owners of the other NFT, some of it goes to the gallery, some of it comes to us. Whoever pays the dowry or the stud fee or whatever you want to call it, owns the seedling and is then free to do with it what they want. So, for the two of them, the righthand parent pays and owns the seedling. The lefthand parent passes down the colour, the signature, which you can look at as a family name if you like. Whether it’s matriarchal or patriarchal, it can be done either way, but the signature then gets passed down and it fades over the generations.
EL: Questions of incest within this breeding structure have come up. So, I’d like to learn a bit more about this aspect. Could incest between NFTs result in a digital glitch of sorts?
JV: The genetic structure is neutral. Nothing stops any tree from breeding with any other tree, it’s just a basic code. People very quickly jump to twins, incest, genetic modification, remarriage, breeding with your grandparents. They ask, can they breed like coral? Does it have to be sexual? Can they be asexual? Can they spawn? The answer is yes, it’s a piece of code, the project can do anything we like. We have put it out in a family structure, and we hope people do what they will with it. I’d be fascinated to see if people don’t breed siblings because they think it’s icky or whether they do breed siblings because they’re trying to make a point. So, it can be used to do anything.
EL: So, there’s no risk of poor health or defects?
JV: There isn’t. We designed a utopian genetic structure and there aren’t defects anywhere. Now there is the possibility in the future of the extinction gene. What does the extinction gene do? Well, if you breed too much of it together, perhaps all the leaves fall off and the trees stop breeding.
EL: And then you just end up with a twig as an NFT?
EL: Which a collector might not be thrilled about.
JV: Or they might be! Because they might be incredibly rare and unusual.
EL: Getting back to the meaning, why does this work matter to you and Kate and why will it matter to others?
JV: The project has been a wonderful opportunity to work with my sister in a way that our worlds wouldn’t have normally intersected and that’s had meaning to us as a family. For me, this idea, why I’m so excited about the project itself, is that it properly makes use of NFTs in a way that I see 99% of the market not taking advantage of. It’s a legitimate fusion of science and art, which I firmly believe – that science and art should not be as separated as they are. By designing this thing, you can spend as long talking about negative space as you can talking about the genetic structure. So that mix is there which is important to me. I think there is a convergence between crypto art and fine art – the fact we’re in The NFT Gallery and looking at these physically in person – and that convergence is happening and will continue to happen but needs to be driven forward. This project being properly crypto, properly generative, and yet also having a proper fine art pedigree, I think it helps bridge those two worlds which again, I think they are artificially separated perhaps and should be more as one. There are very few projects in my mind that do that.
EL: Do you have an idea of where this collection will go? Or are you open minded to what it may bring?
JV: I’m open minded as to what direction it goes in. Kate has this wonderful analogy: we’ve built this amazing water mill and now we need water to flow through it. We’ve created the structure and the idea is out there, it only becomes real if people use it and enjoy it and play with it. So, the hope is that collectors do breed these together and drive the collection. If the collectors decide that love is the most beautiful thing in the world and the collection becomes swarmed by love, that’s super cool. I want people to enjoy it. As a relatively new artist I’ve never had people derive so much joy from things I’ve created as people purchase these, which has been really touching.
EL: And then finally, what is your favourite F Word, perhaps relating to all of this?
JV: Am I allowed to say Fibonacci?
EL: Yes! Would you like to give a definition as well?
JV: He was a mathematician. The Fibonacci series, you take 1+1 to make two and then 1+2 to make three and then 2+3 to make five and 3+5 to make eight. That series progresses. If you continue that progression, the ratio between the numbers approximates to the golden ratio which is the classical proportions of Greek temples and amazing historical art. The golden ratio then fits in between the 16 to 9 ratio of the TokenFrames we’re using and the A4 ratio we’re using for the artworks themselves, which is the ratio where if you take one, turn it on its side then add another one, it ends up the same proportion. So, Fibonacci is an F word, it’s art, it’s science, it’s that perfect mix.