After buying a CryptoPunk, ClownVamp didn’t get the satisfaction that he expected. He’s since used the proceeds to collect thousands of AI artworks, whilst his own work has been collected by the likes of Claire Silver, Zancan, and the Tezos Foundation. He explains why AI art is in a boom era, how to collect it, and which AI artists to pay attention to.
“It started with an obsession.” That “it” could mean a lot of different things. For CV, also known as ClownVamp, “it” could be his journey into web3, his vast digital art collection, or even his own work as an artist and a curator. His boundless passion for the space is clear, and his dedication to collecting thousands of pieces from emerging artists all around the world shows no sign of slowing. But collecting, creating, and curating all began with an obsession over one CryptoPunk he could not get out of his mind, with vampire hair and a clown nose — one that became his namesake.
“I need to own this thing,” he tells Signal on the Culture3 podcast. “It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever seen. And then I eventually bought it and then I spent all this money on it and I did not find the sort of existential satisfaction that I thought I would have. So I sold it and used that money to start building my Tezos art collection.” He kept the name, and his collection started to grow.
Though CV first bought crypto in 2013, his journey into NFTs only started with NBA Top Shot in December 2020. Having spent the intervening six years away from a space he derided as a Ponzi scheme, he returned as a “PFP trader, investor, flipper, whatever.”
But then, he burnt out. Though the experience had been a great ride, he again found himself wanting more in 2022. Wanting to build something that made sense. “So I decided I was going to start a new wallet just focused on collecting art. I did that, and bought the clown vampire for it, and that was the whole genesis.”
It did not take long for CV to realise that was not enough. After coveting the 24x24 pixel profile for so long, actually owning it felt unsatisfying. He sold it a month later and, since last spring, has been rotating the proceeds into fine art and AI art. Having now collected thousands of pieces, mainly on Tezos, but also Ethereum, it is this massive collection that has given him some “existential satisfaction”.
“AI has been this massive cultural phenomenon.”
There is a distinct dichotomy in CV. On the one hand, he is a person who always seems to be wanting more — who found that the clown with vampire hair that he had coveted or his early ride as an investor and trader left him not quite satisfied. On the other hand, he exhibits a visceral, enduring passion for collecting, and for AI art in general. He is someone who has found some existential satisfaction. And that satisfaction is linked, perhaps, to his love for discovering and uplifting emerging artists.
After seeing that “so much of the fun” with NFTs, including PFPs, came from finding a piece early on and “being part of the journey”, he took the same mindset into collecting AI art. “That really instilled in me my collecting strategy on emerging artists. I don’t really collect anything that’s expensive,” he explains. “I basically view myself as: I want to take a lot of risks, I want to collect stuff from people who are stimulating, but I’m also okay if I get priced out of artists and they grow past my ability.”
For him, collecting is about the breadth. Firstly, he likes that he can positively impact people; the more artists you collect from, the more people you inspire to keep going, and the more artists you raise the profile of. Secondly, he believes that collecting widely means that you will end up having multiple valuable pieces. “30 years from now I can look back and be like, ‘Oh, I was able to build a really meaningful collection of AI art.’” Even if just five percent of his collection is valuable, emotionally or financially, having so many pieces will make for an important collection, even many decades in the future.
That confidence comes from CV’s belief that AI art has only just begun its development into a major category. “I think of it as sort of two large categories. So I call it first wave AI art and second wave AI art.” The first wave — of which ClownVamp cites Gene Kogan and early QuasiMondo as leading examples — stems from generative adversarial networks, one of the most common tools used in the AI art world.
Comprising two neural networks, one is trained on a sample of art, from which it tries to create its own piece; the other tries to identify whether the created piece is part of the training sample or not. The first neural network becomes better and better at fooling the second, while the second becomes increasingly better at detecting fakes. “The result,” ClownVamp explains, “is that often you have to do a lot of finessing to get images that are coherent and you’re painting with a broad brush. They have this aesthetic that people call looking kind of GAN-y.”
If wave one art has “historic value and providence,” the second wave brings something completely different to the space. “The second wave is the wave that I’m focused on as a collector and also the wave I’m participating in as an artist, which is really the advent of these diffusion models. So that’s DALL-E 2, that’s Midjourney, that’s Stable Diffusion. And with these models you have a) way more aesthetic power and b) a lot more control over the result.”
He uses the word ‘participating’ in a literal way. Not only is he an artist and collector, but in this evolving wave the participants are also shaping the narrative.
“That has been this massive cultural phenomenon that is constantly written about because it’s so accessible, it’s so powerful, it’s clearly changing everything. As a collector, I’m focused on that second wave both because I’m a participant in it.”
Artists and collections come thick and fast, from Deep Black, which he describes as a first wave AI collection, to creators like Ilya Shiplkin and Richard Nadler. His reverence for the creators — and for the work — is clear.
“Everyone in the world now has a superpower.”
“Wave two, to me, the part that’s interesting is this massive unlock that everyone in the world now has a superpower.” It’s the accessibility, the freedom, and the affordability that spurs him on — the fact that anyone with an internet connection can join this wave and create something incredible.
If CV is participating in the second wave of AI art, he’s not only doing it as a collector. For him, the collector and the creator hat are “interrelated”. “When I see a piece of AI art, I know what goes into it. I can understand if it’s something that is intellectually interesting or challenging, whether that’s conceptually or technically. And so I think they’re really symbiotic.”
“I can look back and be like, ‘Oh, I was able to build a really meaningful collection of AI art.’”
His art is focused on exploring timelines and alternate histories. “I really like this idea that we’re living in this one version of the universe; that this is a result of billions of people’s tiny decisions. And any of those decisions changing could have had massive impacts.” From his first project, The Truth, one of the all-time most successful collections on Tezos, to his more recent ‘choose your own adventure’ project, Detective Jack, he is exploring the nature of narrative and timelines — and the ‘choose your own adventure’ has been so popular that it is now in its second season.
Themes of narrative and truth are particularly interesting, given CV’s other upcoming projects, namely, the Deep Fake exhibition coming to Los Angeles in March. Put on by MAIF, a global collective of 75 AI-artists, and curated by ClownVamp, who is a member, it will feature both established and emerging artists from the AI field. Although CV says he has moved past the point of sitting collectors down for coffees and holding “interventions” about why they need to pay attention to AI art, this show looks at constructed realities, perspective, and — in doing so — faces criticisms of AI art head-on.
“We’re living through the biggest revolution in visual media since the camera.”
“I think so much of the discussion around AI art and artificial intelligence is really funny, because we talk about it and we apply this label of ‘artificial’, apply this label of ‘fake’, but so many things in life are fake. Everything from the idea of a luxury brand is just a basic figment of our imagination that we’ve been conditioned to value. I think about plastic surgery and all the ways our media images are fake; it’s funny that we are really trying to label this one particular visual medium as ‘fake’ when so much of life is fake and socially constructed.”
The event will take place on March 3rd, and, with CV’s passion driving it, it is sure to be quite a show. It is one next step in the constantly unfurling story of AI art — one that CV is just going to keep enjoying every single step of.
“We’re living through the biggest revolution in visual media since the camera — and we are talking about it as it’s happening. That is really exciting and cool, and so I’m just happy to live in this moment.”
Léa is an American writer, editor, broadcaster, and presenter based in London. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The Guardian, The Huffington Post, WhatWeSeee, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, Teen Vogue, and The Daily Dot. She is working on her first book.
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