“Constraints Lead to Creativity”: an interview with DEAFBEEF

There were many ways we considered writing about DEAFBEEF and the decision of Fingerprints DAO to acquire the most meaningful collection of his work put together so far.

Eventually, we noticed that nothing could be better than letting him speak in his own words.

In this interview, we will explore:

  • His motivation to make art
  • How did he get into crypto and NFTs
  • Why the name DEAFBEEF
  • Experimentalism vs. conceptualism in his art
  • How to think about scarcity and secondary market
  • DEAFBEEF’s plans going forward

The motivation

I’ve always been intensely motivated by exploring and discovering. Whether it be learning to play an instrument, taking up a craft, mathematics, science, music. These are activities that in one respect, I put in the same category — there is the possibility that you may discover something new, even if it is only new to you.

That (re)discovery and the process of arriving at it is very rewarding. It’s a driving intrinsic motivation. Artworks are one of the byproducts of that continuous process.

I think many generative artists have similar feelings: that the process is fun. Until recently, there’s been no real financial incentive. What has been named “generative art” has often been something that programmers, scientists, engineers do on the side, purely for enjoyment.

This spirit of playful curiousity I think is common if you look back scientists/engineers, the best of whom are intensely creative. Claude Shannon made playful machines. At Bell Labs in the 60s, Max Mathews developed the musical programming language MUSIC on the side, while he was supposed to do speech synthesis research. And then made a computer sing ‘Daisy Bell’, which in turn influenced the character of HAL in the Stanley Kubrick film.

There are countless examples in computer graphics research. The list goes on. I don’t know yet how this fits in with art history. My point is that the rewarding nature of discovery drives both art and science.

Crypto and NFTs

In 2013, I set up a mining rig for Litecoin. Soon after, my kids were born and I abandoned many hobbies/interests due to extreme time constraints. I ignored crypto for 8 years. I didn’t even know that Ethereum was programmable until Feb 2021. If I had known sooner, perhaps I would have taken a greater interest.

When the pandemic hit, work and childcare responsibilities left me with no agency of the type I crave as described in question (0). I absolutely need ‘play’ time, it’s what’s informed the entire arc of my life, career(or lack) thereof. So left with very little agency, my little rebellion was to steal a few hours in the evening after kids were sleeping to work on something that is ‘my own’.

For various reasons, I chose a quest to make music using very limited tools. To ‘reinvent the wheel’ by writing audio synthesis code from first principles. I did this alone over the course of 6 months, eventually sharing some of the results on Instagram in the modular synth community. In Dec 2020, a viewer recommend that I look into NFTs thinking that it would be well received in the crypto community. I looked into it briefly but dismissed the idea.

In Jan/Feb I started to see some of the generative visual artists on Instagram involved with NFTs. I looked more closely and found Art Blocks and Eulerbeats. I believed I had something unique to contribute. I learned solidity in the space of 2–3 weeks and started releasing Series in early March.

I was very skeptical at first, and expected to leave the space when everything went ‘bust’. However, I changed my mind after meeting many interesting creative people and learning more about the real long-term opportunities of crypto.

The name DEAFBEEF

DEAFBEEF is an example of ‘hexspeak’, words that can be made up of the symbols used in the hexadecimal(base 16) numbering system (16 symbols 0–9,A-F). This is probably familiar to crypto users as transaction hashes and accounts are also represented in base 16.

However, I did not choose the name in reference to crypto. It predates my discovery of crypto/NFTs.

Hexidecimal representation of numbers are common in low-level programming languages like C, when you are working very close to the machine level. Historically, certain hexspeak was used in programmer/hacker culture for practical reasons.

Programmers of a certain generation will know ‘DEADBEEF’ (note, with a D, as opposed to DEAFBEEF). Areas of program memory that were not to be written to were initialized with the value ‘0xdeadbeef’. That way, when viewing a hex memory dump while debugging, you could easily see any area marked ‘deadbeef’, a warning to yourself not to write to that area, otherwise you are ‘dead meat’ and risk crashing your program.

So DEAFBEEF relates to that. DEAF, associations with sound/audio, and also my penchant for the humorous or absurd (Frank Zappa influence). And also the simple practical reason that ‘deadbeef’ is already an overloaded term, many projects/artists have already used that alias, and the domain name was taken. DEAFBEEF was a clean slate.

Experimentalism vs. conceptualism

[editor’s note: this concept has been explored by author David Galenson]

As described, I’m much more motivated by experimentation. I believe the minimal process I’ve chosen can be seen as conceptual, but there is also practical reasons for it: it’s a process that is natural to me given past skills/experiences.

Aesthetics are much more important to me than concept. For it to be motivating to work on, any conceptual piece still must have a strong aesthetic component. Granted, with audiovisual, there is risk of being dismissed as a “screensaver”.

For works to be more meaningful than a passing curiousity, there needs to be some richer layers of associations. But for me those associations do not need to be overly philosophical, abstract or performative. Historical/cultural references through visual aesthetic or musical style.

Scarcity and Secondary Market

To be honest, it’s been difficult to balance the expectations of collectors, community members, and artistic goals. I’ve seen valid and invalid criticisms on all sides.

I am a realist and accept it as a necessity of operating in the ecosystem. I treat it as an extra constraint and try to find creative ways to work within this economic framework. I’ve had conversations with people that believe any economic considerations influencing artists are insidious, and that real art should have ‘no boundaries’. I disagree. I believe all artists work within constraints whether they admit it or not.

There is finite time and resources. Any artistic endeavour that requires the cooperation of other people (architecture, film, music/dance performance) will invariably lead to considerations outside of the lone artist’s “pure” vision. I also believe that constraints lead to creativity. Engineers know this well. My primary goal is simply to be allowed the time and resources to continue to creatively explore.

What’s next?

My plans are to continue to explore and selectively release interesting things that I find along the way. I have many ideas, but not enough time to realize them, especially in the short term. In my country we are still in lockdown and under the time burden of childcare (schools are closed). I would wish for a slower pace to properly explore, as it was prior to the rush of crypto. Some areas on my list:

  • Longer form musical compositions. (all stored on-chain.)
  • Interactions with physical components (tangible items). For example, we are planning to make an album of the curated audio, and release it on analog media such as vinyl or magnetic tape. As a commentary on the duality of information representation, and how to truly record something permanently (embed it in culture).
  • Generative models influenced by physical processes(subject of my past research). Mathematical descriptions of fluid motion. As a commentary on the connections between mathematics, geometry and art.
  • Procedurally generated architecture and geometry for metaverse worlds. A big opportunity IMHO.
  • Read much more deeply to understand the historical overlap between art, mathematics and science, to better contextualize my work moving forward.