Cryptomea is a project that both creates new work and embeds it in a new digital market. Now that technology is mature enough, a previously impossible vision can be realised.
Update: Cryptomea has received development support through Arts Tasmania.
Inspired by the illustrations of the eminent 19th-century German biologist Ernst Haeckel, Cryptomea is at heart a conversation between the natural and virtual world.
Haeckel’s work on diatoms and radiolaria reveal the algorithmic beauty of nature. Tiny alga, with geometrically-precise glass-like cell walls built of silica, diatoms are a fundamental pillar of the global food chain, supporting ecosystems worldwide. They make life on Earth possible: they are responsible for almost half the primary production in the world’s oceans, contributing significantly to the oxygenation of the atmosphere and the removal of carbon dioxide. They are a key food source for krill, fish and whales. Large deposits of fossilised diatoms are used in a range of abrasive and absorbent products (e.g. toothpaste, kitty litter), in water filtration, and as a stabilising component of dynamite – a rich metaphoric landscape.
Virtual Macquarie Island
The setting for the artwork is a Virtual Reality simulation of the Tasmanian territory of Macquarie Island, located halfway between Hobart and Antarctica: a key territory for understanding climate change and human-impacts upon biodiversity. It features a wide variety of unique marine and lacustrine diatoms in existing water bodies and 14,000-year-old exposed sediments. As a recuperating ecosystem it presents a powerful metaphor for the problematic relationship between human industry and the natural world.
In Cryptomea, the island is algorithmically sub-divided into regions, each secreting a uniquely generated 3D Cryptom (Crypto-Diatom) algorithmic ‘diatomaceous lifeform’. This will limit the population of Cryptomea to several thousand entities. They will be within visible scale, ranging from ~1cm – 1m. Each Cryptom will be a unique ‘species’ that is ‘native’ only to that region, attended by a unique soundscape, accessible through XR and as tangible 3D-printable sculptures.
Cryptomea features a procedurally generated ambient soundscape, designed and programmed by Tasmanian composer Tony Bonney. Work-in-progress samples are below.
CryptoArt + NFTs
Cryptomea extrapolates the traditional algorithmic repertoire to consider artistic, design and implementation strategies for the development of an environmental “CryptoArt” practice. We will algorithmically create this limited supply of unique digitally-mediated collectible artworks, as ‘non-fungible tokens’ or NFTs, using blockchain technology.
NFTs can confer verifiable uniqueness, collectibility and ownership to a digital artwork. They have rarity, royalty mechanisms and are trade-able.
Each Cryptom will grow from blockchain ‘smart contract’ algorithms especially developed for this work. The NFT and the artwork will be genetically inseparable, tied to a blockchain database. Each will be proveably unique. This qualifies the NFTs created as ‘true’ blockchain CryptoArt, rather than simply as tokenized associations to transaction records.
Audiences will be able to roam across the VR simulation of the island as explorers, performing several roles as they traverse the landscape in search of unique Cryptom objet d’art. They will be simultaneously an art connoisseur, a cryptozoologist, a gamer and a collector.
Audiences will be presented with a profound moral question that strikes at the heart of the NFT economy: the significant CO2 impact and environmental cost of producing the NFT.
What if the very thing so valued is actually destroying the world we live in – what is its value then?
The real species on Macquarie Island clearly have a stake in this. Do they have rights? What is their value?
By situating the creation and discovery of Cryptomea within a recuperating ecosystem, we draw these questions into sharp critical counterpoint.
Unlike conventional NFTs, Cryptomea provides a point of differentiation: instead of ‘minting’ NFTs upon the CO2-intensive Ethereum Proof-of-Work (PoW) blockchain, we examine alternative local low-energy approaches using a proxy test system: NFTs can be created for negligible impact. This is especially pertinent given that Tasmania predominantly generates its electricity through hydroelectric power. This raises questions as to whether main blockchain CryptoArt economics and smart contracts can be exploited to not only offset their manufacturing and operational carbon footprint, but whether there are creation and co-investment strategies that can lead to net-negative carbon values, effectively leading to a form of carbon sequestration. We would like to be able to unpack that question, which is more complex than it appears. It may be that the only solution is complete moral rejection of the entire concept of CryptoArt. Whether this is a functional position is a question in itself.
Locally, our project will expose a potential Tasmanian CryptoArt strategy to mitigate the environmental and ethical problematics associated with the current rise of NFT’s in the world’s arts economies.
The work will create a novel artistic ‘space’ part-way between the creation and discovery of unique digital artworks, printable 3D sculptures, ‘gamified’ art connoisseurship and the CryptoArt market. It will explore strategies for marketing and exhibiting uniquely-owned digital artworks, and an attractive experiential narrative that addresses contemporary issues of climate change and biodiversity.
The project will expand new literacy around and accessibility to CryptoArt and facilitate critical awareness about positive and negative impacts of creative blockchain activities upon art, climate change and biodiversity.
We will release the results of our pilot research and creation in this domain in a publicly available manner, that will be accessible and understandable to artists, galleries and technologists as they converge in this fascinating new territory.
We will reveal outcomes of our work in relevant contexts throughout late 2021, for public engagement in 2022.
Peter Morse, Creative Director, Graphics Programmer. Peter is an Australian media artist, film-maker, photographer, and computer researcher. He has maintained a digital art practice since the 1980’s, with studios in Perth (WA), Melbourne (VIC) and Berlin (Germany). Since 2008, he has been based in Tasmania. He has PhDs in Semiotics and Art History (Murdoch), and in Data Visualization for Computational Geophysics (UTas).
Tony Bonney, Project Management (Inkhorn Projects, Tasmania), Sound Design. Tony has had over 30 years’ experience in the management and curation of cultural facilities and programs. With a background in film, Tony is an accomplished composer and performer of unique sound scores for film and theatre.
David Hook. Programmer. Born in Hobart, Tasmania, David is an active developer and co-founder of the Bouncy Castle cryptography project, now in its 21st year. He has an extensive background in computer graphics and visualisation. He has a BSc. and M. App Sci in Computer Science and a B.A (Philosophy) from the University of Melbourne, and a Graduate Diploma in Economics, from the Graduate School of Business and Economics, UoM. He is a full member of the ACM and IEEE.