To create is to participate. So says the art collective, Marisol Vengas. Formerly anonymous, now firmly public polymath and DAO innovator Max Infeld, Marisol’s emergence as auction-house-selling Curio Cards artist last year seemingly came out of the blue — their art had never sold, and only a few friends and loved ones seemed to care. Pull back the layers, however, and Infeld, the “stage director” behind Marisol, has an NFT art success story years of experiments in the making.
Max Infeld’s road to creating million dollar NFT art history began with cryptocurrency. Unlike most early adopters, though, he found crypto via art. But even art wasn’t initially on the cards for the Chico-based artist, professionally; in the early 2000s, he attended California State University to study computer science, completed most of the classes, and then realized he didn’t want to pursue it, because, he says, he “kind of had a problem with how sterile it was.” Following the prescribed course also seemed “absurd,” after he discovered all the manuals for programming languages were available online. “I really just wanted to build my own graphic software,” he says, in an interview with “Vintage NFT” collector, Zero G. “But they were like (...), ‘On your fifth year of college you might be able to do that.’ (And) I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is ridiculous.’”
Instead, Infeld chose to do an art degree. Classes were immediately more engaging and interactive. He liked the “biome” of people being “hyper social,” especially when they’d show each other techniques, and says, “The coolest people I met were artists.”
Toward the end of his degree, Infeld learned about a “sixth, or seventh category of art”: “social engagement (or social practice) in art.” In contrast to traditional forms like sculpture, he describes it as having a “multidirectional communication layer,” which is more prominent, and makes it more suited to “having co-creation with another person.”
He continues: “So, most art, as we know it, is like: You have a painting, or a drawing. You put it on the wall and someone sees it. And the information communicates (in) one direction. So, I was really interested in this interactive-style art, because I’d done other community activities, like a scavenger hunt, (...) kind of like these performative-based interactions — but I didn’t know they could be perceived as art.”
Infeld soon got permission from his professors to focus on this experimental approach, rather than printmaking, the original subject matter of his degree. The new style, he found, made more sense for its flexibility.
“I realized with that type of art,” he says, “that I could come up with ideas first, and then pick tools. (In art) there’s this ‘absurdity’ of having to pick your tools first, and then figuring out how you’re gonna use them. With that,(...) I could get on the computer, and write a program (or) make software (if I wanted to).”
Infeld’s joy for this flexible medium led him to begin making “social engagement projects.” They made him no money, though, so he picked up some consulting work along the way. But his art seemed to clash with his professional life; instead of attracting eyeballs, companies raised eyebrows when learning about his craft. So, he was forced to separate these two worlds, through the use of pseudonyms.
“When they first found out I was an artist, they were like, ‘This guy’s crazy,’ or like, ‘Are you sure you’re not spreading yourself too thin?” he says. “So that encouraged names and aliases.”
But Infeld persisted, eventually fine-tuning the “stage producer or director” role that now enables his social engagement experiments. He refers to it as “facilitating an interaction,” and it’s integral to his Marisol Vengas Series; the culmination of multilayered, performance art co-creation, ranging from something as simple as “we’re gonna hang out and draw together” to meeting up at a “parking lot to make signs for the public to hold up.”
In the midst of mastering engagement art and his “art practice” (he’s hesitant to call it a “career”), Infeld’s most avant-garde experiment was a currency called “Viral Monetary Units” (VMUs). This actual economy quantified gift-giving through hyperinflation; but it was also a distributed artwork, “where people are making performances in other locations.” Sixty thousand serialized physical notes in three denominations — 100, 200 and 300, representing coffee, beer, and a meal (or food) — were printed out, dispersed and tracked in a ledger. If someone’s note was accepted, in say, a coffee shop, the merchant could send the note to Infeld’s “bank” and he’d return three times the value in VMUs. The experiment crossed borders, but, importantly, got him shows. These introduced him to other artists who had made “money art.” Then, he joined an email list about different community currencies, one of which was Bitcoin.
Despite his own engagement with similar ideas, Infeld initially wrote Bitcoin off. “I found out about Bitcoin before the command line wallet,” he says, referring to the first primitive wallet which was a console script that could be used in Windows’ Command Prompt. “And I knew about the Double Spend problem. (And I was) like, no one solved that. This has to be a joke. That’s where I was coming from. I had kind of made this parody joke; it’s a serious project, discussing the economy. So, when I saw the (Bitcoin) whitepaper, I was like, ‘This is funny, ha ha. This is unsolvable.” Despite obvious early security issues, Infeld and friends would “exchange Bitcoin in very large quantities” with each other for fun, adding they “nerded out on it.”
“So, that’s how I got exposed to Bitcoin,” he adds. “And I definitely didn’t take it as seriously as I should. But I didn’t really take anything seriously back then.”
But Bitcoin did resonate with him because of its permissionless ubiquity. “I’ve always felt there’s a lot of friction in extracting value out of a system. And crypto is a path to being able to extract value almost immediately and instantly. And, working with communities, (I was) thinking about how can we reward people for participating in these projects, (and) actually meet some needs, without relying on a system that we don’t have control over.”
Being early in crypto certainly opened Infeld up to its potential to represent art. He recalls thinking about it, “as soon as Bitcoin came out,” and having discussions with a good friend about it “over ten years ago.” He even saw the early Namecoin art, recognizing what the chain could become, but then being dissuaded by how long adoption would take. Counterparty, too, entered his radar, with its Bitcoin-based Rare Pepes. Despite it seeming to be “flawed,” he says: “Counterparty definitely was my introduction to, ‘Oh yeah, we can actually have tokens that represent art, and this is a thing.”
While Counterparty framed Infeld to be NFT-aware, he didn’t have the tools or technical know-how to take things further. “I remember kind of playing with those ideas on Bitcoin, too,” he says. “But those were half-baked ideas.”
Fortunately, Travis Uhrig, Thomas Hunt and Rhett Creighton — two San Francisco Bitcoin meetup group organizers and one Ethereum Solidity developer — could find a way to bring an NFT art project to life, so that Infeld’s first NFT project did materialize. That project was the first art NFTs on Ethereum, a curated collection called Curio Cards. And it was Hunt, also known as MadBitcoins, a popular YouTube Bitcoin vlogger represented on Cards 20 and 21 in the collection, who opened the door to collaboration for the artist.
“The way I got involved with Curio Cards,” Infeld recalls, “I’ve known Tom — MadBitcoins — for a very long time; over twenty years. And so, he calls me up, and he’s like, ‘Do you still have any art?’ I’m like, ‘Of course I have art’ (laughs). I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ He’s like, ‘Oh we’ve got this project we’re gonna mint’— I mean, there was no such word as NFTs — ’but we’re gonna make tokens that represent the art.’ And he explained it to me, and it made perfect sense. I mean, I definitely, y’know, was aware of Counterparty and other projects that could have done that. But I also was like, ‘No one cares about collectibles’. No one cares at all (about) my random social engagement project.”
He continues: “Within a few days I provided five aliases, and a couple friends’ pieces in a spreadsheet. (...) I submitted some art to (Curio Cards) in the form of images from the Marisol Vengas series. The reason I submitted it is that it was the most aligned series I had done with something that was decentralized.”
The art he submitted to Curio Cards was from Marisol Vengas Series 6, made in 2016.
The process used to create the Marisol Vengas Curio Cards was ahead of its time, too. Prior to 2021, only a handful of generative NFT art projects existed — and in 2021, they saw an explosion in popularity and demand. Infeld’s engagement art was different, but it was also “generative,” and not in the sense that it was generated on-chain, like NFT project Autoglyphs, but rather, because it was made by an autonomous system (and made use of an algorithm). Infeld thus developed an original, collaborative, hand-curated approach; specifically, a process for making a “generative physical art collection.” And his Curio Cards, 27, 28 and 29 (Blue, Pink and Yellow) are the NFTs of real, physical artwork made via this method.
To embark on this process, Infeld followed an unorthodox artistic path. He chose to do the opposite of what he learned in school, opting for high-volume printer-produced art on foamcore, instead of the cotton, acid-free, preservable “high-end paper” native to traditional fine-art printmaking. It was subversion by design, but also, necessity. “In traditional printing, when you print something by hand, it’s like (a) very expensive and time-consuming process,” he says. “So, I’m like, I’m gonna do a higher frequency, and I’m gonna do way more, and make it more accessible. An art print is not very accessible. You can do a small run. It takes a long time to do it by hand. It’s something that someone’s gonna keep forever, and they’ll put over their fireplace. And I love that process — don’t get me wrong. I truly love it. But I also wanted to explore what it is to do completely the opposite direction.”
For Infeld, this direction meant making something “very generic” rather than super authentic. It meant not making it about himself, but rather seeing how many others he could get to join in. This was his “algorithm based on community engagement.” And that process generated the alias, Marisol Vengas.
But he also created his own software algorithm: a script to download a “sh**load” of building images (many thousands, in fact). That was the first creative step. Then, he asked a friend to choose the ones he liked, saying he was looking for “a good composition” they could “work with.” Choices were made, and then the images “batched,” and printed out on differently colored sheets of paper. The feedback cycle continued, as he asked someone else to say which ones were appealing or not, using “some other art” as a measure. But, basically, he wanted something with a lot of “spots to color in.” The artworks that didn’t “suck” were taken to a coffee shop, where Infeld asked friends to do the coloring. This was the Marisol Vengas process, with the size being the only variable that changed. With Series 6, there were about 300 “small” pieces on “super cheap card stock paper” from Walmart (a ream of the paper cost him about $5 at the time).
The same auto-download script was simultaneously applied to images of branches, and Infeld had a friend filter out those that had “too much plant material covering the frame.” Another atypical material choice was then made: “printable acetate,” which he was intent on using as an “alternative to resin,” because of a “crazy deal” he’d found “over twelve years” earlier.
This unusual material choice was one of several elements Infeld incorporated into coordinating the art to come together. He explains how it unfolded: “So, I printed all those (branches) out — like four up on a sheet of paper — cut those all up, after we had those other ones (the buildings) colored in. Then
I had someone paperclip them together who’s “really good at compositions”. I’m like, ‘You’re the composition guy; go through, find two things that line up, paperclip ‘em together. The next day was: Spray-adhesive them all together, mount them to this foamcore. And then, as soon as they dry, someone else is there cropping them and cutting off the edges, so they’re all squaring up. So, they’re all like different sizes, for the same size (...). So, that’s another editing factor.”
The final step in piecing together the now sought-after Cards — 29 has received a private offer of over a million dollars, according to Infeld — was using air duct tape to seal the edges, so the “sh**ty materials” didn’t fall apart. The total cost per piece was about a quarter dollar to manufacture, “maybe less,” he estimates. His digital NFTs have sold on marketplaces for values in the tens of thousands of dollars; Card 29 has sold for 150 ETH, which was over three hundred thousand dollars at the time.
In the years before Curio Cards were rediscovered, Infeld, like everyone else who took part, pretty much forgot about it. It was the same feeling he had about his physical art. “I kinda gave up on it,” he says, “and was like, I’m just gonna make it, and enjoy it, and people are gonna have these experiences.”
That is, until he started getting text messages from people in broken English asking about the Cards — which he thought was a new kind of “scam” — and “weird congratulations” from total strangers.
Dozens of people also added him on Facebook. And then he got a message from “NFT Archaeologist” Adam McBride, via the Marisol Vengas page (which only had ten likes at the time and received messages and poetry from “creepers” thinking Marisol was a woman). McBride, who has developed a solid friendship with Infeld since, wanted to know if Curio Cards was his project, as well as invite him to appear on his podcast. Infeld then reached out to the Curio Cards founders, which allowed him to talk to Uhrig properly, for the first time. To Infeld’s surprise, Uhrig explained someone had started a Discord, where a community of cardholders and fans was already gathering.
Impressed, Infeld immediately joined the Discord server. But, to his surprise, the community didn’t welcome him, instead thinking he was an imposter. “I remember jumping into the Discord, and being like, ‘Hey guys, I’m here,” Infeld says. “I’m Marisol. I made 27, 28, 29.’ They’re like, ‘No you didn’t — Marisol’s already here. Who are you?’ (...) They were literally like, ‘No, you’re a fake. We’ve given Cards to them.’”
Infeld asked them to talk to the founders, and, after the community verified he was legitimate, they kicked out the other Maxes and Marisols. “That was bizarre,” Infeld recalls. “(I then realized) this was a lot bigger than I thought it was.”
So, finally Infeld was in the right place at the right time. Except for one problem: he had never got any Cards.
“I didn’t own a single one of these pieces,” he says, in conversation with podcaster Jake Gallen recently “I didn’t get any of those. I could’ve bought them out of the smart contract, but I literally did not, because I’m like, ‘Well, why would I spend a dollar on my own artwork. Like, I have the original artwork. (...) It just didn’t make any sense to me to spend any money on these. I think I kind of assumed I was gonna’ get some in the future, and luckily I did. I’m so glad I did.”
But it wasn’t just because he bought some of his own Cards, that he got some. In fact, people in the Discord were offering them to him, but he declined, because he’s never been a “fan of getting handouts.” Instead, it was because of his own sudden uncertainty about remaining in the community without owning any of his own NFTs.
“I had some really nice welcomes,” Infeld tells Zero G. "And people were like, ‘Oh dude, I’m so happy you’re here! This is great.’ And then people started saying (...), ‘Dude, look at the tokens pumping — I’m getting rich.’ And I was like, ‘Oh man, I wish I had some.’ And I remember going home that night and thinking, ‘This is so cool. This is gonna’ go places — I think this is gonna be a big deal. ‘Cause I didn’t even know these were called NFTs. I’m like, ‘These are NFTs? We made the first NFTs? This is crazy, if this is true. And then I woke up at three in the morning, and I was excited, but I think, pissed off that I didn’t have any of these things.”
Infeld was motivated to finally get some Cards. So, that day, he minted a few thousand NFTs on the WAX blockchain. The mints were images from his previous Marisol Vengas series, mostly Series 1 and Series 6, including the counterparts to 27–29.
“And, I went in the group, and I said, ‘Look, I’m kind of on the fence about staying in this community,” he says. “I’m not like a stakeholder in any regard. And I want to be. Like, I don’t know why I should be here. If you think I should be here, trade me for these new ones I minted.” The response was warm and enthusiastic; people were happy to trade. And even those that simply wanted to give Infeld Cards, he insisted they trade him for the new mints; even if they didn’t want “other-chain” NFTs.
Since then, Infeld, known on Discord as Maximus, is happily an ever-present member of the community. He regularly checks into the Discord server, and supports the Cards by showing them at art shows and NFT events. He says he’ll definitely continue to support the project, as long as he has “good health.”
As an art school graduate, Infeld was blown away by the success of Curio Cards. Especially when he heard a full set would be auctioned at renowned auction house, Christie’s — Sotheby's was next, in the same month. “I finally made it” was his first thought, he says. Selling at an auction house was a dream he’d entertained, but never seriously. He remembers smoking “tons and tons of cannabis” while joking with friends in college about it, saying “they had made so much work, that, eventually, they (would) be at Christie’s — after they were dead.”
“So, to be able to experience that as a living artist is like, holy shit,” he continues. “And then to be at Sotheby’s in the same month — that’s almost unheard of, for one artist to be at both.”
Despite becoming a history-defining NFT artist, Infeld is still surprised by the metamorphic rush of success 2021 brought.
“It feels weird,” he says, when asked about it. “I still haven’t fully processed it. I work every day, into the late night. It’s an evolving process.”
He continues: “It’s pretty bizarre to go up to a conference and have people be like, ‘I know who you are. I can’t believe I get to meet you in person’ (laughs).”
He also enjoys being able to give advice to aspiring artists, and teaching about crypto and NFTs, jokingly adding, “People listen a little more now.”
Infeld’s success in the art world has coincided with a more rewarding full-time crypto engagement, too. He’s been consulting as a product manager to Alien Worlds, a mobile blockchain game, which is regularly the most-used decentralized app (dapp) on popular dapp store, DappRadar. In this new role, Infeld draws on his personal well of DAO knowledge and experience, because the game arose out of the “need to teach people about DAOs.” DAOs, or Decentralized Autonomous Organisations, are new ways to create and structure groups, utilizing tools and concepts from the cryptocurrency space. These are becoming increasingly important and prevalent tools as more teams work remotely, many never seeing each other in person.
Infeld developed experience and expertise with DAOs early, thanks to his history with community building, and engagement in the crypto sphere. Five years ago, he helped launch DAOs with different communities, primarily on EOS, another blockchain he’s passionate about. In 2017, he even pitched Walmart on DAOs, but they didn’t buy in. With Alien Worlds, though, he gets to mix his proficiency in community engagement with problem-solving creativity, to explore pertinent digital issues; things like creating accountability, bringing people into collaborative and governance processes, rewarding individuals for performing multiple roles, and quantifying reputation on-chain.
“I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be working on,” he says. “(...) Figuring out the future of DAOs, and how those will be integrated into society — it’s like a dream design job. It’s truly changing society. (...) I’ll feel so lucky to be able to focus on that.”
Even if Infeld got incredibly lucky, continued experimentation, whether in art, crypto, or governance, really paid off. It was never about how little art he had sold. Rather, his eye for the future, and the helping hands of those around him, made material his dreams. Just like all the people at the coffee shop, who filled in the pieces; the people who co-created Marisol Vengas — engaging physical art, now in the wallets of a worldwide community.
Follow Zero G on Twitter to find out when the full interview with Max premieres.