Interview with Sarah Friend, artist and software engineer, on the metaphysical, economic and social underpinnings of one of her latest projects that challenges just about everything you think you know about NFTs.
Aude Launay: Lifeforms, one of your latest projects, is a series of “NFT-based entities” that have the characteristic to need to be taken care of, in the sense that they can die if they are not passed along within a certain time frame.
Firstly, I would like to know what metaphysical conception of being underpins your idea to “give life” to these digital objects. Does this mean that, like Bruno Latour, you do not draw any ontological distinction between natural and artificial substances? I also see what I interpret as a continuist vision in the fact that the Lifeforms are bound to evolve…
Sarah Friend: There is a lot to unpack here! Firstly, I would say that the Lifeforms status as “living things” has more to do with fiction, magic, or play, than with science. Are the Lifeforms alive the way you yourself are? Probably not. Are they alive the way a chatbot is alive, or the way a computer virus is alive, or perhaps alive the way a rock or river can be? Maybe.
I am indeed inclined to reject a binary between natural and artificial. How much artifice is needed to move a thing out of the category of natural? A beaver makes a dam from fallen branches, is the dam natural? Humans build computers from metals and minerals, are the computers artificial? At which step exactly did it shift? When examined closely, the division starts to look arbitrary, everything in the world was made from and by nature. And certainly the tendency to put nature “over there” (where humans are not) not only ignores evidence of many ways and moments humans have had beneficial effects on ecosystems, but also does a kind of injury to the imagination. I am not a human exceptionalist. Nature either contains everything or it doesn’t exist.
There are analogies to be made to the software industry, where care and ongoing maintenance are required by all software projects, in a way that is often invisible or unknown to those outside the industry. This is also true of blockchains: the protocol requires the daily “work” of miners, validators, etc. The environment of blockchain mining is often seen as hypercompetitive, and in many ways that is accurate, but it is still also an ongoing act of maintenance. Are blockchains themselves alive? Maybe. Ralph Merkle, creator of the eponymous (and integral to blockchain protocols) Merkle tree (perhaps itself also ambiguously referencing life) has written, “Bitcoin is the first example of a new form of life. It lives and breathes on the internet. It lives because it can pay people to keep it alive… Anyone who wants to create their own new digital life form can do so.”1 More recently, Oleg Abramov, Kirstin L. Bebell and Stephen J. Mojzsis published a speculative paper2 about how blockchains conform to some definitions of “alive” and could theoretically form a base layer for the emergence of artificial general intelligence. We do not have to know the answer to the questions. “Fuck around and find out” is a part of evolution.
Aude Launay: Secondly, the collection of Lifeforms is uncapped and, above all, embodies in the NFT space, unfortunately infamous for its all-out speculation, the promises of a different kind of exchange, akin to a gift economy. Can you elaborate on your economic views and on the status of the Lifeforms with regards to the NFT platforms and market?
Sarah Friend: When dealing with blockchains as an art medium, I have always seen the purchase itself and the market dynamics as an integral part of the work. Blockchains are literally made up of transactions, and are specifically designed to provide the security guarantees needed to have a monetary system without a central authority. When dealing with NFT platforms, there are certain assumptions about what artworks are, and what the financial interactions around artworks are like, but for me as an artist, this is a useful site of imagination and more interesting to problematize than replicate. Lifeforms uses mechanisms that are deliberately incompatible or illegible to most NFT marketplaces as a mode of inquiry: what lives outside?
Aude Launay: This different kind of exchange that you induce with the rules attached to this collection is also a straightforward way to demonstrate the value of coordination. Crypto is about creating the most efficient coordination mechanisms between humans and the fascinating underlying ethical question is the incentivization of this coordination. Here, the incentive—that the Lifeform stays alive—does not benefit the participants in the game. Do you count on their moral sense for the Lifeforms to survive?
Sarah Friend: I think the question is really about what counts as a “benefit”. The language of blockchain mechanism design has convinced us all that incentives must be financial or at least quantifiable, but I do not think that is the case. There are all kinds of reasons someone might keep a Lifeform alive—the ephemeral interactions with others; in order to see it evolve; just because it is cute. In practice, each day I probably do more things based on these “soft” incentives than on concrete ones. And that is what the world is: a mesh of tiny, sometimes intangible, debts of care.
Lifeforms is a system which mechanisms do not assume they know what you will do, and I think that is more rare than it sounds. It gives you a world, you write the story. You can resell a Lifeform instead of giving it away, that will keep it alive too, but no one has yet.
Aude Launay: In a recent interview, you said: “I think of software as sort of a sculptural medium that I make work with”2. I myself see Lifeforms—as well as several of your other works—as a sort of social sculpture, do you agree with this interpretation?
Sarah Friend: Absolutely.
Aude Launay: To conclude, I would like to address your ethereal aesthetic choice to incarnate those bits of code that, in my opinion, echoes painting as well by way of the monochrome…
Sarah Friend: Well, I did study painting and do have a particular affection for monochromes, so I feel called out! For me, with projects, the aesthetics are usually derived from the mechanisms or ideas, not the other way around. I wanted the Lifeforms to be soft-looking, and to move in a slow smooth way, like an indrawn breath. There are a lot of cartoon animals in the NFT world, and while I understand the appeal of these to some extent, I did not want to recreate them. When the Lifeforms are installed physically, they go on phones, the closest device we have to a “digital pet”: you keep it in your pocket and are always taking it out and stroking it. And of course they are made of silicone, a material that is often connected to the body, both sexually and medically.
For a long time, I felt uncomfortable about my work not having a recognizable style across projects. But I think a lot about the Gerhard Richter quote: “I like everything that has no style: dictionaries, photographs, nature, myself and my paintings (because style is violence and I am not violent)”4 and perhaps about the whole heavy history of the aestheticization of politics, or a more recent sense of gas-pedal-down regurgitation of all aesthetics into marketing content. Who does not want to get off the treadmill? When I wrote about monochrome paintings, all those years ago in undergrad, what I was actually interested in was the ability of the form, itself so empty, to float across political contexts and historical eras. Now I think that maybe it is ok to not have a style, and to myself float too.
2 Oleg Abramov, Kirstin L. Bebell, Stephen J. Mojzsis, “Emergent Bioanalogous Properties of Blockchain‐based Distributed Systems”, Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, August 7, 2021, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11084-021-09608-1