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Exclusive: Robert Alice Work Acquired by Pompidou in Advance of Christie’s Auction


9 March 2024

It’s been a big week for pioneering crypto artist Robert Alice, who has made two notable announcements.

On Friday, Mar. 8, he revealed that BLOCK 10 (52.5243° N, -0.4362° E), a work from his “Portraits of a Mind” collection, has been acquired into the collection of the Centre Pompidou.

This physical work, one of forty that make up “Portraits of a Mind,” is one part of the groundbreaking artwork that, in its totality, is exhibited across the globe and contains all the code that was used to launch Bitcoin.

Block 21 of “Portraits of a Mind” sold at Christie’s for $131,000 in October 2020—several months before Beeple’s Everydays sale. Notably, the lot included a hardware wallet containing the keys to an NFT of Block 21, making it the first NFT sale at an auction house.

In concert with Centre Pompidou’s acquisition of Block 10, Christie’s will host a digital art sale on Mar. 12, offering Alice’s new 400-piece SOURCE [On NFTs] collection—the auction house’s first generative art collection.

In celebration of the recent release of Taschen’s landmark “On NFTs” book, edited by Alice, SOURCE “not only highlights Alice’s technical interests and distinct visual style; it also underscores the rigor of their research,” Christie’s wrote in its article about the collection.

On Friday, Mar. 8, “On NFTs” will launch officially in the US. Christie’s will host a preview cocktail evening and panel discussion about the book and on SOURCE—which will drop as a blind mint and Dutch auction on Christie’s website on Mar. 12.

The first ten minters/bidders in the SOURCE auction will also receive edition numbers 1-10 of “On NFTs.”

Suffice it to say that the art on all three of these things—“Portraits of a Mind,” “On NFTs,” and “SOURCE”—is interconnected and intensely lovely. The endnotes of the limited edition books have pieces from “SOURCE,” and the books have covers partially wrought out of aluminum.

Alice goes into fascinating detail about his work and highly technical process in this article for Christie’s.

nft now caught up with Alice for an exclusive interview to learn more in advance of the mint day.

nft now: “Portraits of a Mind” is overlooked in the history of the mainstreaming of NFTs. 6 months before the Beeple sale, it really was the pioneering work that helped validate NFTs on the global stage. What was your recollection of how it was received at the time and its place in NFT art history?

Robert Alice: The excitement at the time was crazy; you have to remember the NFT space was already in gear at the time of the Beeple auction. Momentum had been building for some time.

For the auction of “Portraits of a Mind,” there was literally nothing in terms of NFT on the global, institutional stage.

So, I see it as this key crossover project. Part physical, part digital, it has a foot in both the traditional art world and the NFT space, and through the exhibition and auction at Christie’s, helped build a bridge, validating and institutionalizing NFTs in the process. It was a crucial stepping stone to build the basis for the Beeple sale, which mainstreamed NFTs.

It’s a great litmus test; only the real NFT heads know about it. Now of course, it’s fun to celebrate it with a wider (and larger) NFT community—to see it acquired into the Pompidou’s collection is a great validation of its art historical importance.

How did the work’s entry into the Pompidou’s collection come about?

I made a big exhibition at a museum in Paris called the Monnaie de Paris last year. It was one of the first NFT solo shows at a museum in Europe, France has been very progressive with New Media art and now NFTs. It was curated by LaCollection.

The curators of the Pompidou, Marcella Lista, and Philippe Betinelli, saw it, and we had a great connection around “Portraits of a Mind,” which was installed in the “Courtyard of Honour,” looking directly over the Seine to the Louvre. Jean-Sébastien Beaucamps, the CEO, and Marlene Corbun, the curator at LaCollection, were instrumental in making it happen, and I have my deepest thanks. Their program and what they are doing with institutions is amazing.

There are a number of other institutional announcements to come from that show, and “Portraits of a Mind” is just the first.

It’s exciting to see you come full circle back to Christie’s, where it all began. With the Pompidou acquisition and the publication of your book with TASCHEN, do you think this shows that the NFT space is maturing?

It’s an exciting time. I am focused on these deep projects that have a multi-year commitment to them. Portraits of a Mind took over three years to create, TASCHEN’s “On NFTs” and now Christie’s “SOURCE [On NFTs]” both took around the same commitment.

It’s quite a different model of making and releasing work to the rest of the NFT space, but it’s funny how it’s converged into this particular moment—it’s exciting. It definitely feels like these projects—particularly TASCHEN’s “On NFTs”—are key moments in terms of solidifying the art historical structure around the NFT movement beyond just the blockchain itself.

Books are important ways to reach out to new audiences, to educate, to reflect on our shared history in a more structured and more considered way.

“It definitely feels like these projects—particularly TASCHEN’s ‘On NFTs’—are key moments in terms of solidifying the art historical structure around the NFT movement beyond just the blockchain itself.”

NFTs have had a wild ride in the world of public perception. Both “On NFTs” and “SOURCE [On NFTs]” really focus in on our deep history, culture, and the importance of context. How do the two projects, the book, and the gen art project, connect? Did one inspire the other?

“SOURCE” was born in the book. Creatively, they are inseparable. For two years, I would spend my mornings writing and bringing together “On NFTs” and the afternoons and evenings reflecting on the creation of the book by making “SOURCE.” It is the project that came out of the book, reflecting on the nature of history today the chaos and fragility of it.

We live in a world where, on one side, AI hallucinates and, on the other, blockchains immutably record, and politicians operate in a post-truth age. Using NLP and machine learning, the project aims to distill the pre-history of NFTs into large generative color fields.

It’s an attempt at moving beyond the over-aestheticization of generative art. The project has conceptual meat to it beyond its compositional structure. Go dig in.

You could have just written this for an academic press and left it there, but instead, you have this deeply NFT-native drop mechanic, with the Christie’s mint and the art collection linked to the endpapers of the book, making it a collectible digital-physical bundle. Why did you do it this way?

Exactly, so the US launch of TASCHEN’s On NFTs at Christie’s is structured where collectors can collect a work from SOURCE and above a certain bid price will also get a copy of On NFTs, binding the projects together.

TASCHEN commissioned SOURCE to be the endpapers of the project, meaning SOURCE is the first and last NFT that you will encounter when you open the book.

A lot of my work is about this bridge between the physical and the digital, and SOURCE is fundamentally part of the book. It is the art project that came out of the book.

“We live in a world where, on one side, AI hallucinates and, on the other, blockchains immutably record, and politicians operate in a post-truth age.”

The Christie’s auction is a blind mint and Dutch auction, which is quite different from, say, auctioning a collection of jewelry in their traditional style. What do you think this says about the influence of Web 3.0 on these institutional auction houses?

I think it fits with this much broader feeling of disruption, all the way from the Pompidou collecting NFTs and crypto art deeply to TASCHEN publishing major art historical studies on the space.

It’s a privilege to play my own small part in helping make that happen. Now we see Christie’s starting to bring over mechanics developed in the NFT space rather than the other way round.

What’s the most interesting and/or surprising thing you learned about NFT history in your research on the book?

NFTs are like digital graffiti on the blockchain. When you really inspect them, NFTs are just text. An image does not exist on the blockchain without text. Whether it is a code-based on-chain work or a hyperlink to a decentralized file server, text is the current and currency that creates and secures NFTs.

One has to look no further than Autoglyphs (2019) to understand that when stripped to their bones, NFTs are just text. Like code, NFTs are written, not drawn. It was this insight that guided the conceptual core of SOURCE.

Each work in the algorithm is entirely made out of text, down to the very pigment, they are a celebration of digital graffiti.