interview – Text by Anika Meier – 16.01.2024
FAR: PAINTING WITH MACHINES
ORDINALS AND ART
FAR (Francisco Alarcon) is an artist and engineer exploring the intersection of visual arts and technology. His research delves into the material history of computer-generated graphics, examining digital imaging from historical and conceptual perspectives. He investigates computer simulations and visualizations, focusing on their impact on our understanding of the physical world through film, video games, and virtual worlds. FAR's work has been exhibited at prestigious venues such as the Harvard Art Museums, Ars Electronica, Schinkel Pavillon in Berlin, A+D Museum in Los Angeles, SCI-Arc Gallery, and the Druker Design Gallery at Harvard University, among others.
FAR and I met a few years ago on Twitter. We quickly started speaking about the role of art and artists in the NFT space. Back then, he has been working on a sophisticated AR project. Today, FAR is an integral part of the Ordinals community because he is always ahead of the curve when it comes to exploring new technologies and how artists can use them in a proper way. In our conversation, we've discussed his studies at Harvard, how he got into blockchain, NFTs, and Ordinals, and how he turned from being an engineer into both an engineer and an artist, working on numerous projects such as Taproot Wizards, Quantum Cats, and his art.
Anika Meier: At Harvard University, you are pursuing a Ph.D. in Visual Studies and Critical Media Practice. You are also the co-founder of the Harvard Blockchain Group. What did you learn at university that helped you become an artist and keeps making you a better artist?
FAR: Before engaging in art education, I was trained as an engineer and then an architect. As I was concluding my architecture education, I had already begun my art practice, spurred by an interest in computer graphics.
For a few years, I maintained a studio art practice without formal art education, and some of the pieces in SCRAPE are from that period. However, feeling the need for context to evolve, I decided to pursue higher education in Visual Studies. That's when I enrolled in a Master's and PhD in Visual Studies at Harvard. There, I divided my time studying with artists such as Stephen Prina and Krzysztof Wodiczko, film studies writer Giuliana Bruno, and art historians like Benjamin Buchloh. I also spent considerable time at MIT studying under Caroline Jones and artists like Renee Green, Tobias Putrih, and Gediminas Urbonas.
I found myself in a stimulating environment between MIT and Harvard's film school, working closely with Stephen Prina, who was my primary mentor. These years were instrumental in developing an interdisciplinary practice and using art as a catalyst for the thought process.
When I started my studies at Harvard, I was already very involved in crypto. In an attempt to find like-minded people, I created a small group at the Design School: the Harvard Blockchain Group. We held weekly meetings to share insights about crypto. This was around 2017.
Other schools had their own blockchain groups, and I once organized a cross-meeting with them. That's when I met Dennis Pourteaux, a well-known Bitcoiner who was pursuing an MBA at Harvard. In fact, Dennis was the person who introduced me to ordinals earlier last year.
AM: What does it mean for you to use art as a catalyst for the thought process?
FAR: When I study a visual subject, I get involved with the actual tools used to fabricate it. By operating with visual and haptic language, we bring up questions rather than answers, and this is when art becomes a catalyst for the thought process.
AM: What is your Ph.D. about?
FAR: My PhD, which is in progress, focuses on the material history of computer graphics. I'm interested in the materiality of digital images.
Digital images have materiality. I'm interested in the physical components behind them and the way we interact with them. This goes from how they are created on a computer, using GPUs, to how they come to life through the pixels of the screens and how we touch them, either via the touchscreens or scroll through them via peripherals like the mouse or the keyboard.
AM: Who were your most influential teachers at Harvard?
FAR: I have had many influential professors at Harvard, but Stephen Prina stands out as the most influential among them. Prina is one of the smartest people I know and an exceptional artist. Before meeting him, I had barely been exposed to conceptualism, and working with him opened up a new way of seeing the world and practicing art.
One day, during a studio visit with Stephen Prina, I showed him very large carved paintings that used the same techniques as the works in SCRAPE. These paintings displayed marks from the CNC machine, unveiling many layers of paint. Additionally, the studio floor was covered with tiny pieces of debris from the carving process. Hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts also bore layers of paint and imprinted tool marks.
Stephen picked up one of these fragments and asked if it was a painting like the larger ones. He was right—what I sought on these large canvases was all documented in the tiny fragments. This became a pivotal moment in the project, leading me to focus on the debris rather than the large canvases, which I discarded.
At SCRAPE, we have a looping video featuring a 3D object spinning. This object is, in fact, one of the tiny pieces I rescued from the floor of my studio. I then 3D-scanned it using a super-precision scanner at Harvard University, typically used for biological applications. Subsequently, the file was uploaded into 3D software, where it was scaled up to the size shown in the gallery.
This type of thinking was instilled in me thanks to my continuous interactions with Prina.
AM: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
FAR: Since my early years, I have been engaged in painting and drawing. Influenced by my parents, who believed that an artistic career wasn't viable, I chose to study engineering. Growing up in a small village in southern Spain with a population of just 1,000, where my parents didn't have the opportunity for formal education, the concept of a professional artist seemed out of reach. Moreover, in the context of post-Franco Spain, becoming an engineer was seen as a pathway to a prosperous life.
However, I am grateful for my technical education, as it has profoundly influenced my creative approach. My interest in understanding how digital images are created led me to explore algorithms, coding, and the basics of computer graphics. Additionally, I have been concentrating on blockchain technology in recent years.
AM: You’ve mentioned that you have maintained a studio art practice without formal art education, and some of the pieces in SCRAPE are from that period. How did you approach art-making and working on your first artwork?
FAR: Before pursuing formal art education, I trained as an engineer and architect. Most of the pieces in the show were created in the period between finishing architecture school and starting art school. My approach was predominantly influenced by design principles, a common foundation for much of what is known as computer art, including generative art.
My interest was particularly focused on materiality and the process of creation, but I consistently encountered limitations in expanding into the realm of thought processes and engaging with contemporary artists. Looking back at the work I produced during that time, I recognize a distinct sense of rigor and methodology, likely inherited from my engineering background. Simultaneously, I was becoming aware of my limited understanding of artistic techniques, leading me to approach my work more from a mechanical standpoint.
AM: Has your approach changed after finishing your studies at Harvard?
FAR: My interests remain the same, but my approach and the processes of making art have evolved. Now, I focus less on the virtuosity of crafting and more on the possibilities that arise from using tools for image creation. I have also begun to embrace an interdisciplinary practice, acknowledging and accepting the significant impact of my previous education in engineering and design. This acceptance has enabled me to seamlessly switch roles, alternating between the perspectives of an artist and an engineer.
AM: When we discussed your early work, you mentioned that you were interested in the concept of surface remediation. What fascinates you about surfaces in relation to painting?
FAR: This is an excellent question. My interest in surfaces marks the point where my practice began to shift from architecture to art. When I completed my Civil Engineering degree in Madrid, I began a Masters in Architecture at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles, currently the most avant-garde architecture school. There, I concentrated on highly experimental architectural operations, which reached their limits in theoretical discourse. It was then that I discovered the art discourse to be more fitting for these concepts. I vividly remember when professors at SCI-Arc were telling me that I wasn't an architect but an artist. "What are you doing here?" was a common question I received.
I moved from spatial thinking to two-dimensional painting, which incorporates operations inherent to architectural practice. This shift was from a focus on the representation of spaces to the actual materiality of surfaces, such as concrete, wood, etc. These elements find parallels in computer graphics and digital images, ranging from their construction in 3D to their final visualization on screens. Similarly, painting follows this pattern. Or at least, that's what interests me in paintings: the composition of the subject and how it's constructed using perspectives, layering, and the materiality of the paint itself.
AM: To create various surfaces and combine materials, you’ve worked with tools and machines. Can you tell us more about your process?
FAR: There are various types of pieces in the show that combine painting and machines. Some are artifacts built on wood panels, to which layers of paint and resin are manually added. Then, using CNC (computer Numerical Control), these layers are removed following a pre-programmed path. This creates an intriguing interplay between the less controlled manual gestures and the precision of the machine.
Additionally, there is a series of pieces titled "WoodOnWood." These are plywood panels carved by a CNC, following the wood's grain. The depth of the carving is slight enough to reveal the underlying layer, creating a contrast between the grains of each layer and unveiling the manufacturing process of plywood. This process, while appearing natural, actually reveals a manufactured quality, resulting in a pattern reminiscent of the Moiré pattern. It's a digital effect achieved without digital means. These pieces blend an interest in juxtaposing manual labor with machine labor, while also highlighting the materiality of the artifacts and the technical processes involved in their creation. They are made using industrial tools, the same ones used in manufacturing our built environment.
An interesting fact about my body of work is that I created it while travelling extensively. Over the past ten years, I have moved through numerous cities and continents, including the West Coast and East Coast of the US and Southern Europe. My pieces utilize manufacturing machinery, specifically CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines. In each city, I endeavored to find a vendor, or in the case of Harvard University, a lab that would allow me to use these machines in an unorthodox manner. This task, seemingly straightforward, was complicated due to safety rule violations. Each piece, in fact, incorporates many aspects that are tied to labor conditions in the workplace. In my studio in southern Spain, I own a custom-made CNC machine specifically for my pieces. Consequently, the pieces fabricated at Harvard differ from those in Spain and so on, due to the use of different machines, materials, and so on.
AM: When it comes to the theoretical background, who are the artists that influenced your practice back then?
FAR: I am influenced by many sources. Theoretically, I draw inspiration from new media theorists such as Friedrich Kittler, Giuliana Bruno, and Bernhard Siegert. In the realm of art, my influences are diverse: as previously mentioned, I have closely examined the work of Stephen Prina, as well as painters like Peter Halley and Anoka Faruqee. In the digital domain, I refer to early pioneers like Nam June Paik and contemporary artists such as Jacolby Satterwhite. I am also quite interested in artists who engage with architecture, such as Krzysztof Wodiczko, and kinetic artists like Jesús Rafael Soto.
AM: Have your influences changed since you became more active in the digital realm?
FAR: I don’t think so. When it comes to the digital realm, I try to examine popular visual culture, including memes and networked images. There are also many internet-native artists that are quite interesting. For instance, I was always fascinated by the work of Rafaël Rozendaal, Cory Arcangel, and LaTurbo Avedon.
AM: You work with generative systems these days. What are the questions that drive you to work on a new project?
FAR: Usually, what drives me the most is a new challenge offered by a cultural clash originated by some technological adoption. Crypto, artificial intelligence, and computer graphics are examples of technologies that serve as catalysts to explore within my practice. I have been touching on all of them simultaneously in the past years, especially after COVID, where my physical production has diminished. These three technologies and how they penetrate in an immersive way in our virtual realm is something that has been at the core of my artistic practice in the past years.
AM: With your academic background, are there challenges for you working in such a highly commercial environment? On top of such a high speed.
FAR: Being an artist is always challenging. For the last ten years, I have been a full-time artist, and despite not having a fully commercial practice, I have managed to maintain my practice through research grants and fellowships. I have had a very prolific art practice in recent years, but usually my projects are ongoing and take a long time to complete. In recent years, since my work began to be collected, especially among digital art collectors, I have been adjusting my practice. I am trying to accommodate the fact that artifacts created during long-term projects are being acquired by collectors.
It has been challenging, but I have been embracing this new environment. I believe I am at a great point, combining my rhythm with the fast-paced environment.
AM: What needs to be improved in the NFT space for artists?
FAR: The NFT space is indeed unusual. I think I can see this merging of technology and art evolving in different ways, which could lead to improvements in the space.
The first scenario, and the most obvious one, is where Web3 becomes ubiquitous. In the future, it's the underlying technology in our daily lives that nobody questions, similar to how you don’t think about the technology keeping the beer cold when you open the fridge. Then, there's no distinct 'NFT space,' just transactions between creators and users or collectors in various forms. The technology would serve as a platform for this, ideally being as seamless as possible to allow opportunities for creators, not just artists, to thrive in a more distributed economy rather than one concentrated on a small percentage of creators.
The second scenario, which isn't incompatible with the first, is the existence of a niche space of creators and collectors centered around crypto. In this case, the work and mechanics are all about a particular cultural movement. I believe, after the first wave of NFTs, this is what remains—just a small community. Here, what could be improved is the positioning of the creator or artist in a more respectable role. They should be seen less as issuers of altcoins (sometimes 'shitcoins') with images and more as cultural creators adding value. It's easy to talk about this, but hard in practice in a space that is hyper-financialized. Perhaps promoting more cultural discussion rather than a short-term gold rush mentality would vastly improve the space.
AM: As much as you are interested in materiality and surfaces, you are interested in new technologies and tools. You’ve mentioned that you have learnt about Bitcoin during your time at Harvard. When was the right time for you to become active on Bitcoin?
FAR: I actually learned about it long before. When I entered Harvard, I was already involved in the space to some extent. Back then, there was art on the blockchain and some other niche forms of crypto creators, such as those in the Counterparty movement. I was involved in different communities, but it was in 2021, after the rise of NFTs, that I became active as a creator in the space under the name FAR.
In a way, I miss the days before NFTs because creative contributors were involved in ways that didn't involve directly selling tokenized works. This is why, a year ago, I started working with Udi Wertheimer and Eric Wall on Taproot Wizards, aiming to bring a creative impulse to development on Bitcoin.
AM: Speaking about Taproot Wizards, you’re an integral part of the Ordinals community. You have worked with Sotheby’s on their first Ordinals auction. Why do you believe Ordinals are useful for artists and the ecosystem in general?
FAR: I am passionate about Ordinals for many reasons. Being part of such a genuine community that emerged after Casey Rodarmor created the protocol is truly inspiring.
I consider Ordinals itself to be an artwork. Casey developed Ordinals after he experimented with creating generative art on Ethereum. He then aimed to devise a method to encode images on the Bitcoin blockchain, using Taproot as a conduit. This initiative sparked a movement that is only a year old but has already significantly altered Bitcoin.
What sets Ordinals apart from other chains is that the data is encoded directly on the blockchain, not just as links pointing to files on external servers. This feature enables artists to preserve their works on a secure, distributed network with considerable monetary value. Referring back to the earlier discussion about NFTs, Ordinals emerges as an ideal medium for native crypto works and could also serve as a repository for preserving highly valuable digital works.
AM: Taproot Wizards—that's the name of your Ordinals project. Is it a so-called PFP? Why did you decide, as an artist, to work on a more playful and community-driven approach to releasing digital assets?
FAR: In the summer of 2022, Dennis Pourteaux, an OG Bitcoiner I met at Harvard back in 2017, asked if I would like to work with Udi and Eric on a Bitcoin-related NFT project. Intrigued, I promptly met with Eric and Udi to explore their ideas. Although the Ordinals protocol didn't exist in 2022 and was still in development, we were considering how to use NFTs and PFPs for an educational Bitcoin project. They thought of reviving the historic Reddit Wizard meme from 2013, created by Mavensbot, to rekindle Bitcoin enthusiasm.
As we brainstormed on the technical aspects, Casey Rodarmor launched the Ordinals protocol, offering the ideal platform for our project, Taproot Wizards. Comprising 2121 PFPs, it uses generative operations to merge layers—a common technique in many PFPs during the NFT boom—while incorporating traits from Bitcoin’s history and the original meme.
Whereas Taproot Wizards drew on Bitcoin's history for its lore, our latest PFP project, Quantum Cats, recently released, looks to Bitcoin's future for its narrative. We use Quantum Cats as artifacts to galvanize a community in favor of reviving OP_CAT, a robust Bitcoin protocol feature developed by Satoshi Nakamoto but discontinued in 2010. This revival aims to introduce exciting features and promote further development on Bitcoin's main blockchain.
Quantum Cats is an artistically and technically compelling project. It features 3333 cats that are fully on-chain and uniquely evolve over time. Simultaneously, we intend to leverage the playfulness and network effects of PFPs to advocate for this upgrade and have some fun.
For those interested in learning more about Quantum Cats and OP_CAT, I recommend visiting https://www.quantumcats.xyz/.
AM: And how do you feel as an artist about creating PFPs?
FAR: At Taproot Wizards, we're not just creating PFPs; we're also fostering interest in Bitcoin among users and developers, encouraging them to come and do cool stuff. I appreciate the collaborative aspect and being part of a large community. In a way, this represents a true manifestation of the original idea of crypto, but in a more evolving form.
I also love working on Bitcoin, a truly decentralized space owned by the community. It's the original way of doing things in crypto, as opposed to protocols, where there is an entity that largely controls the decision-making. In Bitcoin, it's driven by the community, and things are possible only by finding consensus among stakeholders.
AM: What are your predictions for the future of NFTs?
FAR: What initially attracted me to NFTs was their chaotic and interdisciplinary nature. There was nothing quite like it back in 2020. I appreciated how unorthodox the space was, not being tied to any gatekeeping like what one might see in the art world, for instance.
In a way, the financial aspect of the space grew very rapidly and became a significant part of it. This growth introduced elements like gatekeeping and centralized narratives. I don’t see these as negative aspects; rather, it's simply how the space has matured. With the explosion in popularity, it seems the NFT space is now in a reflective phase, rethinking some of its principles, which is quite positive.
Generally speaking, I believe NFTs will make a comeback, and the technology will become seamless in the future to the point where we won’t even question or mention its existence.
Now, what we call the space, this ecosystem of creators and collectors, might morph, but it should remain a niche cultural movement tied to technology.
I’m quite excited to see how it evolves, and I’ll continue doing what I know best: taking the circumstances and using artistic operations within them to experiment and pose questions rather than provide answers.
AM: Thank you, dear Far, for your time.