'on-chain purity' in generative art
March 12th, 2022

In Part 1 of our series on On-Chain Generative Art & Photography we explored the need for blockchain as an alternative to the traditional art market status quo.

Part 2 of the series we will dive a little deeper to what we describe as On-Chain Purity which describes the differences in sophistication to generative art projects and adds another dimension of value between different projects.

  1. Levels of On-Chain Generative Art
  2. Definitions
  3. Level 3
  4. Level 2
  5. Level 1
  6. Level 0
  7. Conclusion

— levels of on-chain generative art

Generative Art is where an artist intentionally uses a computer algorithm to introduce controlled randomness as part of the creation process. It is a balance between complete chaos and perfect order by adjusting the random inputs to produce a more multi-dimensional piece of work. This process is refined by tweaking the algorithm, creating a collaboration between the artist and the algorithm where randomness is a fundamental aspect of the eventual artwork by embracing experimentation and happy accidents.

Excellence in Generative Art comes from creating an algorithm that produces a wide variety of high quality outputs with different rarities at mint that are aesthetically pleasing and individually unique, without any human curation.

‘On-Chain’ Generative Art means something different to many people and what we propose to do here is define a framework which we describe “On-Chain Purity” to measure:

  • how permanent, transparent and replicable the art is using the contracts on the blockchain in 500 years time, and
  • how much power a developer has to change the metadata once it is minted on the blockchain.

In this context artwork relying on fewer dependences to be reproduced is ‘more pure’ and more dependencies being ‘less pure’.

— definitions

For simplicity, it’s important to firstly define what elements belong in a smart contract that creates a generative art piece:

  • contract — this is the rules or instructions written by the artists for the computer to follow to create the art
  • unique identifier — this is the unique genetic code generated at mint (using either pseudorandom inputs from the blockchain such as block hash and number, or something with verifiable randomness such as ChainLink VRF) to create your specific piece of art
  • metadata — the unique characteristics of your art
  • ‘draw’ function — the actual tool or canvas that is being used to create the art
  • images/art — the final piece of art or the ‘output’

— level 3

The ultimate expression of on-chain purity is where all the data inc. images/art, contract, unique identifier, metadata and the ‘draw’ function is stored all on the blockchain (preferably a highly decentralised and well established blockchain like Ethereum). This means that there is absolutely no dependencies other than the Ethereum blockchain to create and view the artwork any time in the future. Level 3 on-chain artworks are all minted fully on-chain and the developers do not have the ability to change the outputs at all at any time during and post-mint.

The original project that pioneered this type of art is the Autoglyph collection from Larva Labs which was created in April, 2019. Not only is it one of our favourite collections but it occupies an unrivalled space in the on-chain generative art space. Since then there have been a few projects that have launched which could be described as pure on-chain art like Brotchain from our friends at Divergence and Shackled from the Spectra team.

The limitations of this art is that it is prohibitively expensive to store large amounts of data on the blockchain which is why it is typically limited to ASCII art or basic 2D renders.

— level 2

The next level down in on-chain purity has only 1 dependency and has been pioneered by the Art Blocks platform started by Snowfro. At Level 2, when a piece is minted on-chain the developer has no control over the final output and the contract and unique identifiers of each individual piece are all stored on the blockchain. The artwork is then generated live on your browser using an API such as p5.js, Processing or JS Canvas to render interactive 2D and 3D graphics.

In 500 years Level 2 artworks can be reproduced using the on-chain data alone as long as the API is exactly the same as what it is today. This single dependency is what separates this type of art from Level 3, however it is a relatively stable dependency given that a single developer doesn’t have the power to change the API’s on their own which is what elevates it above Level 1 on-chain art.

The creation of Level 2 on-chain generated art opened up a whole new canvas of possibilities for artists and now you could express so much more as can be seen from the sheer variety of outputs. A few examples of Level 2 collections are like Ringers from Dmitri Cherniak, Fidenza from Tyler Hobbs or Fragments of an Infinite Field by Monica Rizzolli.

Fidenza #612 — Tyler Hobbs
Fidenza #612 — Tyler Hobbs

— level 1

For Level 1 on-chain generated art, the contracts and unique identifiers are all present and minted live on the blockchain and there is no control or curation available to the artist at public mint. However instead of live drawing the artwork using an API, Level 1 projects use the algorithm in the contracts to combine different image layers together to create the final outputs.

At Level 1 we are still talking about on-chain generative art because the critical aspects of an ‘on-chain’ project are still present — those being the unique identifier and the contract itself are hosted on the blockchain. However there is a new dependency that is at Level 1 which is the use of decentralised storage means that you can start to unlock other multimedia files which add more fidelity to the artworks, like sound, photography and video.

Because the images are stored ‘off-chain’ (typically due to large file size of the image layers) the developer technically has the power to change the pointer to the image files for the collection. If you had a project which did a ‘reveal’ this is exactly that process where the developers are changing the pointing address of the contracts from the ‘pre-reveal’ metadata to the ‘post-reveal’ metadata.

Therefore at Level 1 has 2 dependencies (Javascript + decentralised storage) and the nature of the dependency is different. So in 500 years time, with Level 1 projects all the contract data and unique identifiers will be present on-chain but because of this type of off-chain dependency what could potentially happen is the final images are no longer stored on decentralised storage and cannot be viewed.

The best examples are PFP projects like MetaHeroes by Pixel Vault, or generative photography project REFLECTIONS by Dream Lab.


— level 0

At Level 0, we are no longer talking about on-chain art and instead we are talking about art that curated manually off-chain and the images and metadata are all hosted off-chain.

Level 0 is where all photography projects and most PFP projects find themselves, whether you’re a part of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, CloneX, Doodle or other animal 😉 collection. These generative projects combine image layers as well using a generative script, however the big difference here is that it is all done ‘off-chain’. The reason being that this allows the team to pour over every single image and curate them manually to find the 10K or 20K final images that they are happy to upload to decentralised storage to make part of their collection.

The contract is published on-chain so the minting process can be shown to be random, so it’s not possible for the team to front-run the other minters by knowing which token ids are rarer (and more valuable) than others.

However at Level 0 all the metadata for the collection is hosted off-chain and it is not possible to reconstruct the final images because there is no unique identifier for each token and the layers are not stored online. This means there are 2 or more dependencies in order to create and store the art work and collectors are relying on the team to host the files into perpetuity and potentially renounce ownership of the contracts.

— conclusion

As partners in projects like the REFLECTIONS collection by Dream Lab we felt it important to help provide an explainer what on-chain generative art is.

We introduced a framework made up of 3 levels which help frame some of the important pieces of work, pioneering platforms and important artists and collections that have pushed blockchain art forward.

In Part 3 we will dive deeper in to the REFLECTIONS project by Dream Lab and why it is historically significant as a project that is pushing the NFT photography industry further pioneering a new genre of generative photography.

Appendix I – Exploring the Framework

In Part 1 we go back to the basics and explain some of the major challenges that Traditional Art suffers from and how blockchain offers a strong foundational solution to those problems.

In Part 3 we explore how the REFLECTIONS Collection is bringing innovation to NFT photography by bringing more elements further on-chain through generative art. We share some of the process of On-Chain Generative Photography, the ecosystem around Dream Lab and it’s historical significance as the first on-chain generative photography project on the Ethereum blockchain.

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