In the evolving landscape of contemporary art, few artists capture the essence of change and permanence as powerfully as Ryan Koopmans and Alice Wexell. Their artwork bridges the gap between the natural world and urban decay. They delve into the heart of abandoned places and transform them into digital masterpieces that question the boundaries between reality and digital artificiality. Together they explore the concept of legacy and preservation in the digital age by inscribing their work into the immutable ledger of Bitcoin. Their latest work, ‘The Origin’, is a demonstration of their innovative approach to digital art. It combines photography, digital manipulation and Bitcoin ordinal technology to create a dynamic on-chain artwork that reflects the passage of time in the ruins of an Italian building. As pioneers in this field, Koopmans and Wexell challenge us to rethink the value and permanence of art in the digital age and invite us to question our concepts of time, memory and heritage.
Steven Reiss: Many people will know you from your series ‘The Wild Within’, which you do together with Alice Wexell. Perhaps you could briefly explain how you came up with the idea of creating works of art with and through abandoned architecture.
Ryan Koopmans: The Wild Within is a series of digital artworks that bring new life into abandoned buildings from a bygone era. After 15 years of working as a documentary photographer, I felt the urge to create work that involved more of an imaginative intervention rather than purely as a ‘real world witness’.
After photographing a series of abandoned buildings in the country of Georgia, we realized that there was more conceptual work that could be done to enhance the images and truly emphasize the feelings and mood we experienced while exploring these crumbling ruins.
The result was a project that my wife Alice Wexell and I began, The Wild Within, whereby real-world physical spaces, in countries that have undergone dramatic transitions such as Georgia, Lebanon, Armenia, Italy and Poland, are photographed and then transformed into conceptual works of art.
Upon returning, we digitally introduce vegetation and modify the structure and lighting with the intention of reviving the empty spaces, essentially bringing life back into the rooms.
The results are a surreal collision between the past and future, natural and manmade, physical and digital, and the real and imaginary.
Furthermore, many of the buildings depicted in The Wild Within have been demolished in recent years or continue to deteriorate, emphasizing the theme of time passing in the cycle of growth and decay.
We chose to inscribe the artwork [Ryan refers to ‘The Origin’, SR] on a satoshi mined on March 24, 2021, a tribute to the day that the first artwork from ‘The Wild Within’ was minted on Ethereum.
SR: What is the fascination and how do you go about it? When is a scene the right one and how do you process the image?
RK: We have long been inspired to travel to remote locations and discover places that have not yet been extensively photographed.
Especially fascinating to us are buildings that were abandoned and left to deteriorate without intervention. They act as time capsules, especially rooms that have been sealed off from outside visitors for decades.
It takes a long time to research, discover, and photograph these buildings, and then to create an artwork. Thus we are very selective with what we actually release into the world. Sometimes when we are shooting a particular room, we get a feeling in our core that this will be an image that belongs in the project.
By exploring and then carefully composing images that are then turned into artworks, our interests related to architecture, nature, creative expression and the human condition are all activated.
The structures that we like to base pieces on are inherently rare as many are deteriorating or have already disappeared since we first discovered them.
Whether due to fires, demolition, looting or the natural elements, in many cases the buildings cease to exist in the form they once were as our world rapidly modernizes.
Importantly, the artwork immortalizes and preserves not only itself but also its subject matter on the blockchain, functioning as an act of artistic, interpretive architectural preservation.
SR: Why did you choose this particular location for ‘The Origin’?
RK: It was important to us to enter the world of inscriptions on Bitcoin with a concept that not only embraced the technology’s potential but also stayed true to the inherent themes of our work.
Given that the theme of time is a recurring element, we collaborated with the Inscribing Atlantis team to create a dynamic time-based artwork. This piece seamlessly transitions between day and night modes, synchronized with the Bitcoin clock.
In order to achieve this, using an interior with expansive windows connecting to the external surroundings was crucial. Situated in the forest just outside a small town in Northern Italy, this particular architectural space occupies the top floor of a tower. Accessing it posed a challenge, requiring climbing into a window and carefully navigating along precarious hanging wooden floors.
The distinctive patterns on the walls and circular forms within the space made it an ideal setting for the construction of this artwork, since it felt like a nucleus or an encapsulated hub for a grand idea.
SR: In your announcement of ‘The Origin’, you intriguingly describe both abandoned buildings and digital artifacts inscribed on Bitcoin as anthropological markings. Could you elaborate on how this concept influences your work, particularly in terms of contributing to the broader discourse on digital heritage and cultural preservation? Furthermore, how do you reconcile the juxtaposition between the physical decay of buildings and the enduring nature of Bitcoin in your artistic process?
RK: Architecture serves as anthropological markings on the landscape, albeit temporary ones. Within the structures themselves, one finds markings left by people and the passage of time, whether by inhabitants, vandals, or the forces of nature. The concept of impermanence and the eventual disappearance of these markings inspire the idea to photograph, creatively intervene, and then preserve the visuals on the blockchain.
Exploring these buildings often reveals intriguing artifacts, creating a sense of discovery that evokes the feeling of uncovering forgotten eras.
Inscriptions on ordinals, albeit more permanent, are also digital artifacts scattered throughout the network. Over time it will be interesting to go back and see the evolution of these markings, which range in quality and intention, but reflect a distinct moment in time and cultural context from which they were created.
While creating digital artwork is a form of preserving this experience and idea, inscribing it on a secure and immutable blockchain elevates it to a higher level of permanence.
Our goal is not to create historically accurate representations or documentations of architecture. Instead, we aim to preserve our interpretation of this fleeting subject matter by crafting artwork that depicts the decaying buildings in an imaginatively overgrown state.
Ultimately, our objective is for the artwork to outlive us, and utilizing this technology provides a solid medium to secure the digital legacy of the artwork.
SR: With the intention that your artwork will outlive you, how do you see the role of digital art in the future? Do you believe that digital artworks can achieve the same emotional and cultural significance as physical artworks once the physical impact is completely removed?
RK: Absolutely. Digital artwork is being created in an era where the future display methods are not fully realized yet. We are yet to know what kinds of frictionless screens or immersive perspectives will become integrated into our daily visual landscape.
In the present approaches to showcasing digital art, the appeal of printing it out or presenting it on a wall screen lies in the residual value attributed to the tangible nature of art. However, these methods are far from ideal for showing digital artworks at their highest potential, and directly ‘competes’ with traditional art in the realm of physical display which it shouldn’t have to.
As tools for creating and distributing art become more widely accessible, there will be an unprecedented surge in digital art production. In my opinion, it’s inevitable that certain digital works will attain the same status as some of the world’s most treasured physical assets.
I anticipate a continued transition towards a more digital future, particularly with the rise of younger generations who are already digitally native.
While the preference for collecting either physical or digital works may fluctuate over time, as cultural tastes often do, digital artworks are undoubtedly progressing towards achieving similar, if not greater, cultural significance, even without a physical impact.
SR: For many artists, bitcoin as an art medium is still new. What made you decide to release a work on bitcoin in the first place? And what were the particularities? Were there any difficulties or new opportunities?
RK: Being innovative and embracing new techniques is a core value of The Wild Within project. We love the crossover between traditional and timeless art, whilst integrating innovative technologies, which we’ve done in several instances. We were the inaugural collaborator with the AI artist Botto whereby we created a unique collaborative artwork in partnership with the Botto DAO. Additionally, we’ve created an immersive 3D space for another one of our pieces, allowing viewers to virtually ‘walk into’ a painting that led into an animated overgrown room.
While Ethereum has fewer file size limitations when minting than Bitcoin, the development of recursion has been a game changer for us by enabling the creation of larger artworks through multiple inscriptions.
Each blockchain presents a cost-benefit analysis, with both compromises and advantages in releasing artwork. Ordinals, functioning as digital artifacts, evokes a sense of preserving these deteriorating architectural ruins, and the artwork, on the blockchain.
Reaching new audiences is integral to being an artist, and the Bitcoin art community has been welcoming, supportive and enthusiastic.
Furthermore, having the opportunity to work with such talented developers at Inscribing Atlantis meant that an artwork could be created which was customized and true to our artistic vision.
SR: The name ‘The Origin’ suggests that there is more to come. Can you reveal anything about it yet?
The ability to create a structure of provenance that organizes one’s presence on ordinals is truly exciting. The Ancestor, Parent, and Child structure of provenance is very appealing, as it establishes the foundations for growth into the future. We have left the possibility open to add another 1 of 1 artwork under the Parent in the future, and the structure allows for the potential release of editions under their own category.
What we release next and when is still to be determined, but one thing is certain: now is an opportune time to leave one’s mark on Bitcoin. However, it should be done with respect, an understanding of the culture, and with creative intent and meaning because once your mark is made, there is no going back!
This is a guest post by Steven Reiss interviewing Ryan Koopmans. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.