Daniel Friedman: Drawing Decentralized Beauty From Biology

Most NFT artists don’t have a Ph.D. in Biology from Stanford University. But this one does.

That’s right: Daniel Friedman is a statistical anomaly. He’s an outlier; an entomologist studying ant colonies, an expert on decentralization and crypto, and a flourishing artist whose pen-based drawings for Curio Cards have been picked up by wealthy collectors, including those who bought full sets during auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in October 2021.

But how did the Bay Area-native get here? If Friedman’s evolution might seem unexpected and complex — it’s because it is. Like a blockchain, or an individual’s career, a number of random things fell into place for him to be where he is today. Certainly, he was in the right digital place at the right time. But his success was also built upon a natural predisposition toward being fidgety — paired with the right creative tools.

Picking up the pen

From an early age, Friedman says, he “always kind of liked to draw”, and “enjoyed keeping his hands busy.” During classes, while at school, he started making pen drawings in the margins of his notebooks. This progressed into creating “enriched notes,” as he describes it, with “interesting illumination” of the content he was learning (while definitely paying attention). Looking at his drawings, he remembers thinking, “These are kind of interesting and fun — could I do them without the notes? I could just have a parallel piece of paper and carry that class to class. And then be working on that drawing in class surreptitiously.”

It soon became a habit. Pen and paper ever-present, Friedman started drawing during other down time or “listening activities, like conversations.” He says he drew on trains, and with friends, or while meeting with people in social situations — all opportunities that “opened up a lot of drawing time.”

In high school, Friedman started making full page pen drawings, and in 2009, he uploaded some onto his Flickr account (he still uses it as of 2022, though he plans to migrate his art to a self-hosted website). Uploaded according to the date they were made, Friedman’s earliest drawings emphasize “symmetry and repetition,” he says, and are all fully black-and-white pieces. They’re created “in the realm of abstraction,” with “no words at all.”

Only several years later, did Friedman introduce red to contrast black, and, later still, occasional colors and specific text and symbols. He calls using text and symbols in his art “fontplay.” Pieces of the fontplay genre are “any kind of one-person or multi-person drawing, where there’s some kind of recognizable text”; symbols are in a “gray zone.” Adding any kind of linguistics, he says, “introduces a different interpretive frame,” in contrast to purely abstract art; it’s another layer to understand, an enhancement of the complexity; just like the layers of Friedman’s multidimensional learning.

Embodied Hand (The 4.5-fold Path) by Daniel Friedman. Uploaded July 4, 2017. 
Embodied Hand (The 4.5-fold Path) by Daniel Friedman. Uploaded July 4, 2017. 

Alongside crypto

While developing his drawing, Friedman’s interests led him to crypto. This happened while he was in graduate school at Stanford University (studying toward a Ph.D. in Biology, working on ant behavioral genetics with Professor Deborah Gordon). He had become aware of the technology’s rise in finance circles. At the same time, he was participating in on-campus discussions around “crypto and law, identity, governance (and) decision-making.” While he can’t remember exactly what entered him from the “fiat side into the financial side,” he recalls being interested in how that kind of decentralized money system “or even just ‘calculator’” was being deployed out in the open. Blockchain was also making headlines while he was learning and thinking about other decentralized systems, such as computer networks and ant colonies. So, he was primed to explore crypto and blockchain at its dawn. He says he had also been aware of other similar cryptographic systems before, such as those used in code, or in certain scientific systems. As Friedman immersed himself in crypto, he also struck up new friendships, and enjoyed the memes that made comedic sense of the markets’ “ups and downs.”

It was this continued openness toward and growing familiarity with crypto that made him curious about Curio Cards. The project launched May 9, 2017, during peak ICO crypto hype. Friedman was regularly submitting his art to shows for consideration. He describes that part of his life as a “the blur of 2017 crypto memes, and art, and just submitting things.” This turned into a “numbers game”: filling out forms, drawing, throwing things out and hoping to get a response.

Mostly, it failed. Until he found the right form.

A form for success

Daniel Friedman was the second artist after Robek World to submit his art to Curio Cards for consideration.

One day, in 2017, he randomly came across a Google form advertising the project as an “online art show.” Although he’s searched extensively through his own internet history, he still isn’t entirely sure how he found the form. Just like he had been doing all year, he submitted his art. He says it felt no different than pitching to an “art magazine,” and that the outcome didn’t really matter at the time. His submission included “a few drawings that looked interesting or coherent, in the required vertical card format.”

Although he was accepted, there wasn’t really any follow-up from the Curio Cards team. Friedman had only had email communication with the founders, and never got to meet them via voice or in person. “As far as I knew, the project (had) just kind of like evaporated,” he says, “And it was during the ERC20, ICO, ETH, Cambrian explosion, meme-apalooza (of 2017).

This kind of fading into the abyss was fairly typical of an art project, Friedman says, despite the rapid coming-and-goings of crypto projects that year. “Submitting art, and not receiving (...) any response,” he says, “and not even having it displayed, or posted on someone’s website—it’s [not] very rare to not have any coherent follow-up. It totally slipped under my radar for several years.”

As he moved toward becoming a scientist by completing his Ph.D., Friedman remained active in the crypto and art scenes. He recalls first finding out about NFTs between 2018 and 2019, when he was “starting to see different kinds of art being offered.” Even then he “didn’t really connect the dots with Curio,” he says, “because that had been in 2017.” It was only later, during the project’s rediscovery, that Friedman learned Curio Cards were an NFT project — and the first on Ethereum. In fact, he was caught up in real-time by Adam McBride on a live podcast episode.

“During the rediscovery,” Friedman explains, “in 2021, people started emailing me if I had Curio Cards. And then I got connected pretty rapidly with Adam McBride, who semi-live debriefed me, and gave me the narrative information management update, (...) the story details of Curio, which was funny. And yeah, it was just a really surprising onboarding. But then [I] got added a role in the Discord [server] and then, like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember those drawings — I see them on curio.cards. (...) And then everything that’s happened with the community and with all the curio-verse and historical NFTs, and everything else developing since then — this has just been one thread in that.”

Friedman’s Curio Cards, 24, 25 and 26 — *Complexity, Passion *and Education — include the rarest Card in the collection (26), of which only 111 exist. Each of the entomologist’s Cards has sold for over a hundred thousand dollars, sometimes multiples of that, depending on the price of Ethereum at the time.

He is grateful for the recognition and success, and says “it’s hopefully about (...) trying to improve where we all are together.” He feels “honored and lucky and blessed to hopefully be in a position that’s positive with drawing, when (...) so many artists are not.” With “Curio being one of the earliest on a few different fronts, but hopefully on an artistic and community front,” he hopes the lesson can be about how NFTs can help support artists, “in a broader sense than just career artists,” or the few who are making a “ton of fiat.” That’s not something he’s seen occur yet; namely, “digital tools (being) used for supporting artists in a more diffused way.”

Friedman’s desire to look forward also comes from a sense of the Cards being completed. It’s because “the drawings are on-chain.” In that way, they’ve fulfilled their purpose; they’ve reached their final form.

Art permanence

The idea of completion seems ingrained in Friedman’s views on his art. He’s aware of the finality of the finished piece, and having to accept it for what it turns out to be. He likens the immutability of pen-based drawing both to conversation, and to the blockchain — in the same way it’s recorded digitally, on say, “the zoom-chain” (meaning on a Zoom call), it can be revisited, but never changed; “once the mark is made on the paper, more can be added, but it can’t be erased (...),” Friedman explains. “Attention can [still] be drawn [to something] by adding something else, or thickening something else, or making a different mark. And so, you can send transactions later, but you can’t undo the transactions that have happened, and you can’t undo what was actually said.”

Friedman extends this line of thinking to the field of science, which has occupied most of his time since 2011. Just like his pen-drawing process, and transactions on the blockchain, the past results and analysis of science cannot be altered, only built upon. “The past experiments are like the immutable record,” he says, “and what people analyze and say about it, becomes hopefully the [new] immutable record; the content of the paper can’t be changed retroactively, but increasingly, we can ‘version things,’ which helps people be clear about which version of something they were referencing, and then, as it might develop, it can still be traced and caught up with the most modern version of something, kind of like a software repository.” This “network” of areas (science, pen-based drawing, conversation and blockchain) encompasses things that are fixed in the past, and updated as we move forward (until, perhaps, some point of completion — just like Cards 24, 25 and 26).

Friedman has been sending out prints of the original drawings via his channel in the Curio Cards Discord.

Dissecting Friedman’s Cards

In as much as Friedman was an artist who became a scientist, his art-making process espouses characteristics of the scientific method, such as being structured, rigorous and disciplined. His art is also informed by his fascination for crypto — specifically, decentralized systems. This is reflected in the description of his Curio Cards: “inspired by brains, ant colonies, and other complex systems.”

Friedman wonders about “how to design high reliability decentralized organizations, keeping in mind all the different types of decentralization” (like those outlined by Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin). “There’s so many amazing connections to explore with different kinds of decentralized systems,” he adds. This interest comes from wanting to “find ways to talk about how to work with the function of systems as they are, whether they’re brains, computer programs or ant colonies.” Grappling with decentralized systems conceptually has helped him to recognize he sees potentially centralized notion[s] as simpler. At the same time, however, he acknowledges “what would really be simpler” would be systems that just use “simple rules,” like those “that give rise to a ledger with integrity,” or “to a drawing.”

Simply generative

This idea of a ‘simple rules approach’ is central to Friedman’s art-making process. He explains how, specifically in the context of Cards 24–26:

“Just start from making one of a certain pattern. Like in the case of 24: starting from the center, and just sort of drawing out and padding it with the little vertical dashes. After making the first ten, it’s just a question of time on the page. 25 [is] similar: drawing one shape in the center — one curve and filling it in — and then just picking one pattern; repeating the triangle shape. And then, 26: making multiple passes without (...) a final design in mind — just the grid. And then just completing different passes, one different modification at a time. So, that’s a ‘generative’ approach to art, and I learnt along the way, especially from ‘generative’ drawing with other people, but also learning from generative practices that were in different domains.”

Repeating patterns are at the heart of each Daniel Friedman Curio Card. Cards 24 and 26 both feature tetrahedral motifs. “So, like in 24,” Friedman explains, “the solid triangle and the dash line in the corner where the number is — is a common representation of a tetrahedron, a four-pointed system, with the fourth point coming off, or doing something else off the page. And in 26, there’s a lot of similar designs, with a tetrahedral, or the four-sided base pyramid, the half of an octahedron. That sort of geometric repetition is one way to make drawings. And I’ve seen people who totally don’t consider themselves artists, alone and in groups, make some of the most amazing, amazing art [this way].”

His appreciation for the craft is accompanied by a “respect (for) all kinds of art,” and “how different people bring different parts of their situation [into it] and find the way to make art work for them.”

He also enjoys the generative approach in groups, and to be able to “draw together and mix generative formats.” Together in 2018 with his now-wife, Friedman wrote a paper called “Partner Pen Play In Parallel (PPPiP)”. Now, a “high fraction” of his drawing is done “together with other people,” he says. “It’s a convenient way to chill, and (...) people are able to mix their ‘generativity’, like in a conversation, (...) or in music. There can be rotation and switching of the pens, and shared attention and shared co-creation, and a space for having conversation recorded through as much or as little as you want on the page.”

"Alphabet" — The “graphical abstract” for the paper by Friedman and Alexandra Mikhailova. It features the 26 letters of the English alphabet in a counter-clockwise loop. Made with red, blue and black pens on white paper. 
"Alphabet" — The “graphical abstract” for the paper by Friedman and Alexandra Mikhailova. It features the 26 letters of the English alphabet in a counter-clockwise loop. Made with red, blue and black pens on white paper. 

When there’s any amount of language on the page, it induces a different mode of interpretation, Friedman says. In fact, he doesn’t even think too much about the titles of the drawings he makes. He finds the work is more about the drawing, although the title is sometimes an opportunity for a pun.

For his abstract Curio Cards, he sometimes thinks about trying to “hold the space” without the word, effectively without any title. The process for picking the titles is just to “pick a simple, evocative term that could be a standard dictionary word, for someone who wanted to relate an idea to their own experience. Like Complexity, Passion and Education. He also considers them deep areas to explore, and reflect on personally, as well as part of work, service and learning. In that sense, “they’re positive, deep, but hopefully accessible words.”

A closer examination

Since becoming famous, Friedman’s often had conversations about the interpretation of his artwork. Despite this, he never takes a particular interpretation too seriously. The artwork, he says, is also past; the process of forming it was already past when he initially finished it. It was past, he says, when the artwork was uploaded to Flickr. And its final layer of finality was achieved when the artwork became an NFT.

Even so, Friedman does enjoy interpreting his Cards in discussions with present viewers.

Card 24 is titled Complexity. It refers to the scientific area of complexity, which Friedman describes as “patterns across systems, and how simple rules can create complex outcomes.” This is mirrored in the artwork, Friedman says, because, while it does appear complex, it’s made from simple rules: “the tetrahedral theme; trying to make the same thickness of the solid line, except a few in the middle; doing the fourth tetrahedral point with the dots; (...) padding everything in the little islands with the circles; and padding everything else with the squiggle. Noting his process, Friedman says it’s just about “repeating motifs, and making it kind of elusive of a large whole, a part that’s not on the page, which indicates a broader sense of challenge and complexity — [a] complexity on and off the page [which] is part of one’s relation with the stimuli.”

Card 25, Passion, as the name suggests, speaks to passion unfolding. It consists of hatches, or downward pointing triangles, the left “twenty percent” of which is “larger than the rest of the patterning, which is relatively consistent.” This background is entirely different to the centerpiece that’s “unfurling; a sprout and the passion that it seeks for coming out of the ground, which,” Friedman hopes, “is a positive interpretation of that heterogeneity in hatch size.” The inconsistencies in the pattern, Friedman explains, which he often perceives as a “mistake,” also help him re-understand a lesson on self-love when creating: “Anyone who looks closely will see many sort of physicalities of the pen, like a blur, or where it is like a blob, and the challenge of maintaining a consistent shape-size or hand. Because it’s way longer to complete a pattern than potentially even one sitting. So, the [challenge] is how to maintain a regime of attention and action, but also not be too harsh with one’s passion when there’s mistakes in the past.”

For Card 26, Education, Friedman has the following interpretation: “It definitely has a rigidity or like sort of arrangement to it — an orderliness. It’s about repetition and how does education have structure but also have openness, and also seem like it’s going on beyond one unit, like it’s kind of like an infinite field of this fractal shape; kind of like education, because each cell is only going to contact the teachers and the collaborators and the peers around them. But maybe there’s broader propagation of a physical force, or some information.”

As Friedman’s explanation of his art and process suggests, his Curio Cards are the conception of “the younger, more time-dedicated artist [from] back then,” in his college days. He estimates each Card took between 20–30, or 40 hours to make, in different “fixed environments,” like class, cafés and at home.

Daniel Friedman after meeting Curio Cards artist Max Infeld (artist of Cards 27–29) for the first time, April 28, 2022. 
Daniel Friedman after meeting Curio Cards artist Max Infeld (artist of Cards 27–29) for the first time, April 28, 2022. 

Decentralized Science

Now that Friedman is a full-time scientist, he admits he doesn’t have as much time to draw, although he recognizes that’s “an excuse.” But he still looks for “time-bound symbolic-driven drawings, still mostly involving all black and red.” By “time-bound,” he means completing the drawings in a set amount of time, without breaks in between.

Most of the time, Friedman’s days are filled with trying to understand ant colonies — decentralized systems, just like the blockchain technology cryptocurrencies are built upon. And his expertise in science and crypto have converged into a new personal passion, too: Decentralized Science, or DeSci.

Removing the barriers from participation and empowering individuals, DeSci has the promise to enable scientific advancement that’s not tied to traditional funding and power structures. This could become just as disruptive to the advancement of science as cryptocurrency and DeFi have been for the traditional financial space. Decentralization and distribution of massive datasets will provide greater access to those who want to analyze and test their own theories, and challenge or validate existing ones. And this is exactly what the ‘Active Inference Institute’ — which Friedman co-founded — aims to enable.

Friedman’s work as a scientist peers into the most fundamental ways insects behave, communicate and cooperate. As he makes marks in research and other fields, he hopes to help build the ways science and humanity can advance; gradually adding to pieces of the past, forever creating paths forward.

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