PRINT September 2022


Hack the Planet

Pak, Cloud Monument Dark (detail), 2020, NFT, digital image.

From December 2–4 of last year, an NFT fetched the world record for a public sale of an artwork by a living artist. In forty-eight hours on the platform NiftyGateway, 28,983 collectors spent $91,806,519 to purchase a total of 312,686 units, which were then combined in a single collection called “Merge.” In July, Artforum contributing editor Hans Ulrich Obrist spoke over email with Pak, the anonymous creator behind “Merge” and a leading force in digital art and NFTs.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: You have pioneered design “at the nexus of beauty and technology,” as you put it, for two decades. What were the earliest works? 

PAK: Identifying when a project begins or ends is difficult for me, like defining the self. The projects in this never-ending flow seem to become a “thing” only when we give them a title, much like words, which enable us to reach the meanings in language only when they exist.

From this vantage point, ladder should be the first of my named digital creations: It was a simple item I created with code, a series of ascending lines arranged in a row, and it had the appearance of a ladder. I had to title this foolish experiment because, back in the 1980s, it seemed remarkable to be able to instruct a computer to perform these actions.

HUO: You do not define your work as art but say that if people read your creations as art, then good for them. I am interested in knowing more about your self-definition as a designer.

P: Oh, no, I don’t consider myself to be solely a designer. I don’t believe I have a title yet; who knows, maybe we will all discover what I am together. I prefer being called a designer over an artist, since everything I produce has a purpose.

HUO: What do you mean when you say, “Design is hack”?

P: A design is the simplest, most elegant solution to a problem. An identifiable problem lives in a system. Design therefore corrects a flaw in an existing system. Imagine it as a bridge designed to prevent traffic congestion. I find this way of thinking to be very “hacker-like,” which is to say that designers “hack” systems by offering attractive shortcuts and attempting to hide the flaws as much as possible. Design is therefore a hack.

HUO: You said from the beginning you felt the primary barrier of the crypto scene was reach. How do you expand the ecosystem?

P: By being inclusive!

HUO: You launched Cloud Monument Dark in February 2020 on the marketplace SuperRare. How did you come to NFTs, or how did NFTs come to you?

P: NFTs caught my attention in 2020 when I saw them in a random social media post in my feed. The first piece I tokenized appeared in the hours that followed: Cloud Monument Dark.

The NFT space seemed to be more or less a market for digital images; therefore, the focus was entirely on the image, or the “file,” and nothing else. To test what might happen, I tokenized Cloud Monument Dark, an earlier piece of mine with the same name (and file), on the Ethereum blockchain. What happened next? Here we are.

HUO: In 2020, you created an NFT drop called “X” on the platform Nifty Gateway. In doing so, you invented the “open-edition mechanism.” Can you talk about how it happened? Was the idea from the beginning to facilitate and trigger large communities around a single collection?

P: I encountered the dilemma of balancing scarcity and abundance from the creator’s perspective. You can see that a lot of my collections point a finger at this topic by creating new mechanisms that will remain forever in the NFT space.

It was an intriguing challenge for me. A creator is only valuable when they create; on the other side, I’ve started learning about the art world, the world that claims scarcity means a lot.

Dealing with this problem was exciting because this was a design issue that needed to be resolved, showing itself in many different forms every time I decided to release a new collection:

“How many editions should I produce?”
“What if it’s too cheap or expensive?”
“What if I incorrectly define my own value?”
“What if it sells out in three seconds? Does this mean there weren’t enough?”
“What if it never sells out? Does this mean there were too many?”

So I had the following idea: Rather than setting a cap on the number of editions, I chose to set a time limit instead, leaving the edition count open for twenty-four hours so that collectors could acquire as many copies as they wanted.

This was a turning point in the NFT space: For the first time, an elegant method was invented that allowed the work’s target audience to balance scarcity and abundance dynamically.

I referred to this mechanism as “infinite editions” because the edition count was uncertain. Then it was given the cultural name “open editions,” which is still used today.

Pak, The Touch, 2020, NFT, digital image. From the collection “X,” 2020.

HUO: Robert Rauschenberg once told me that he thinks time is underestimated. He felt his works were clocks. You also work with time, as we’ve seen with open editions of yours such as “X” and “Merge” [2020–21]. 

P: Time is a concept that appears frequently in my work. There are many works I’ve done in this context, but one in particular stands out, especially given that it was released at an early stage in the NFT scene, before many realized NFTs were a “medium.” This was 2020: two years ago in AFK years, two decades ago in internet years, two centuries in crypto years.

The description is as follows:

C is a one-hundred-year-long digital timepiece devoted to the fragile human life.

C is a static video, one hundred pixels in height and width, that lasts one hundred years. Technically, watching every second of this film at regular speed would cost you a century. As a result, it is a work that can be comprehended only, not consumed.

I enjoy creating things that cannot be consumed but can only be comprehended.

HUO: In 2021, 2.8 billion people—almost a third of the world’s population—played video games, making a once-niche pastime into the biggest mass phenomenon of our age. Many people spend hours every day in a parallel world and live a multitude of lives. Video games are to the twenty-first century what movies were to the twentieth and novels to the nineteenth. Do you see a connection between NFTs and games?

P: Because I’ve been creating games for so long, most of my collections include a gamification element. I have no doubt that these two industries will merge. It is inevitable.

HUO: You tend to work with very simple forms like cubes or dots of even a single pixel. Does this allow you to be more self-reflexive about the blockchain technology you use? Does it allow you to question the permanence and nonfungibility that are core to how people usually imagine NFTs? 

P: I utilize visual language for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that it helps me communicate my messages more effectively. It’s all about communication.

HUO: I am interested in the possibility of using NFTs to support other projects. For your 2022 project “Censored,” you created NFTs that were auctioned as a fundraiser for the defense of Julian Assange. How did the project begin?

P: I was designing a censorship-related project when Gabriel, Julian’s brother, contacted me. To make the idea loud enough, I needed a big public figure associated with censorship to participate, and it was a natural match.

HUO: As part of “Censored,” your work Clock sold for $52.7 million to a decentralized autonomous organization of roughly ten thousand people. Can you tell me about Clock?

P: “Censored” is divided into two parts: Clock and Open Editions. Open Editions were free to obtain but restricted to one per wallet and required to be customized with a personalized message by their collectors when obtained. Each one had to be unique. After acquiring, collectors discovered that the unique notes had been censored and the NFTs were locked in their wallets. In other words, these “free” NFTs weren’t that free.

As a result, the second phase of the project begins. Clock is linked to Assange’s freedom, since it records the days he has been imprisoned. If Assange is ever released, Clock will reset to zero and all censored NFTs will be uncensored and free to transfer.

Pak, m(5001) #2, 2021, NFT, digital image. From the collection “Merge,” 2020–21.

HUO: Have you been interested in physical exhibitions? There seems to be a great opportunity right now to go beyond the restrictive binary of physical and digital.

P: Of course, having a physical show is wonderful, but I avoid them for one reason: It is very hard to exhibit digital artworks to a physical audience without reducing them.

HUO: I wanted to ask you about the metaverse—the next-generation internet platform existing as an interoperable network of real-time three-dimensional experiences that will enable us to engage with parallel virtual realities. The risk is that big corporate entities will dominate the metaverse and turn it into a homogenizing corporate platform.

P: People have misdefined “metaverse” to advertise their own products. We’re in an era where we as a culture use “metaverse” as a hype word, yet few understand it. The metaverse will not be produced by a single company. Of course, one product might dominate the consumer market, but the metaverse will have standards established by many different groups. I predict a structure similar to that of the internet.

Today, everyone is developing their own Web3-enabled game, selling land that will never be standard and inventing items for a future that will never satisfy anyone. Buying a metaverse token based on “our project’s standard” is like buying a “soon to be standard” battery that no device will accept. Because of this, the majority of metaverse ventures will fail.

VR and AR will be metaverse-consumption tools, just as they have been for games since the mid-2010s. I believe the metaverse is more than just a tech buzzword; it is about culture, information distribution, and, most crucially, asset ownership. The metaverse has arrived, but it is not as advertised. Remember that ownership is not a physical concept.

Oh, hey, by the way, please feel free to visit our metaverse at any time. The metaverse.

HUO: Last question: For Édouard Glissant, opacity has the radical potential for social movements to challenge and subvert systems of domination. How do you see questions of opacity and transparency in relation to blockchain?

P: Most questions are not transparent. 

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a contributing editor of ArtforumPak is a creator.