From 3D tools to animation to photography, Bas Uterwijk worked in myriad digital mediums before discovering artificial intelligence. But the Dutch artist, better known as Ganbrood, has been making bizarre, in-depth universes with the technology ever since. He speaks to Nina Knaack about how AI removes the burden of perfectionism and how web3 has changed his life in the most unexpected ways.
Bas Uterwijk has been using art as an outlet for as long as he can remember; the Dutchman drew fervently as a child and loved art history class in school. But, confronted by perfectionism, he found himself getting less and less joy from his creativity. “My ratios got in the way and I constantly felt I was coming up short,” he explains. Instead, Bas found work making adverts for various companies, as well as creating models for natural history museums. By working on commissions, he felt less pressure to come up with something “new and special” himself.
When 3D tools first swept into the world, bringing with them inspiring productions like Toy Story and Jurassic Park, his curiosity sparked. Bas explored 3D graphics, before working as a freelance animator as soon as industry-quality software was available on his personal computer. Then, yearning for a connection to the finer arts that he had left behind, Bas found his way to photography, now telling stories through a single frame, rather than thousands. And with camera in hand, and the machine sharing the burden of perfectionism, he found solace in taking pictures.
That all changed however during the pandemic, when the documentary photography that he had made into a career came screeching to a halt. He suddenly needed to channel his creativity into other mediums, and turned towards artificial intelligence, specifically a type of general adversarial network (GAN) that was becoming increasingly popular amongst the group of artists and technologists with which Bas had associated himself throughout his career.
GANs are one of the most common tools used in the AI art world. Comprising two neural networks, one is trained on a sample of artworks, from which it tries to create its own piece; the other tries to distinguish whether the new piece is part of the body of artworks used in the training process, or not. The first neural network becomes better and better at fooling the second, while the second becomes increasingly better at detecting fakes. As a result, the artistic output eventually becomes good enough for serious artists to work with.
“Web3 has changed my life in unexpected ways.”
With GANs, as with photography, the artist and machine work together. Now creating with this new medium, Bas chose to work under a new moniker: Ganbrood, a word which derives from the idea of art being ‘bred’ or ‘thought of’ by GAN. Using these tools, he began to construct portraits of people who lived before the camera was invented — or who never existed at all.
Generating photographs of Napoleon and Jesus, Ganbrood quickly went viral on Instagram. But more importantly, this brought him into contact with other generative artists who prompted him to make yet another career switch. “I have changed jobs many times in my life,” he smiles. “As soon as I am passionate about something, I just immerse myself.”
As with photography, artificial intelligence gave Ganbrood a sense of creative freedom in virtue of its expansive parameters and randomness. “My art is still partly based on chance, because of the software and its algorithm,” he explains. But this has been no hindrance to the Dutch artist; instead, he enjoys seeing the outcomes of different inputs, and creating hyper-realistic pictures that would have been impossible to capture with a camera. But beyond creating images of others, Ganbrood has found himself able to connect more with himself through his work.
“A portrait of someone else does not say much about me. As an artist, though, I want to try and tell everyone who I am.” Through his semi-abstract art, Ganbrood aims to tap into our associative imaginations. “I see my work as pseudo-figurative, since it lingers between abstraction and figuration. And that is exactly where the mind can wander freely, to make its own stories,” he says.
Meandering in the world of generative art, Ganbrood saw other artists talking about NFTs more and more. “I thought that it could be way to earn a living from my work, but did not like the Ethereum blockchain because of the amount of electricity it needed.” At the time, the world’s second largest blockchain used an energy-intensive ‘proof-of-work’ model to ensure its security.
Of course, Ethereum has since reduced its carbon footprint to less than that of a typical global corporation, but, by that point, Ganbrood had already reached Tezos, which was amongst the first to solve the environmental demands of blockchain technology when it launched in 2018. “I dove right in,” Ganbrood recalls, noting that his first mint was on Hic et Nunc in early 2021.
“Basically everything fell into place for me, creatively and professionally. I found a medium through which I could truly express myself, besides photography, and for which I was not depending on others,” Ganbrood explains. “I simply love to tie shapes, colours, and imaginings together through the algorithms, and try to show how everything around us is always inexplicably connected.”
“I found a medium through which I could truly express myself.”
Looking at the amazingly bizarre work of Ganbrood, one is immediately intrigued. It is simply impossible not to be fascinated by what lies in front of you. “My goal is to let you rethink what you are actually seeing. For me, every piece of art or movie that I vividly remember are the ones where your own imagination is tapped into. Making strange, combined, generated images perfectly lends itself to this beautiful void of fantasy.”
Ganbrood’s inspiration for his artificial intelligence input comes very naturally. In fact, only naturally. “If I am actively looking for inspiration, it will not come. New ideas just overtake me, like an angel whispering something in your ear. Then I am almost possessed and need to work on it immediately,” he says.
“The most important thing for me is that I like making it.”
At the same time, there are certain themes that Ganbrood is continuously excited to explore and which recur throughout his work. “I repeatedly seek to relate classical mythology with modern fiction, and I love to tie European influences from the eighties together with Asian and Japanese art; Jugenstil, Art Nouveau, and nature in general...,” he muses.
It is this unique blend that has made Ganbrood one of the most popular artists on Tezos. “At 54, I’m now finally truly enjoying myself,” he explains. “Web3 has changed my life in unexpected ways and I am filled with gratitude to be here, standing amongst my fellow travellers in this journey.”
Indeed, across all those themes lies one constant: the fact that Ganbrood is, above all, making art for his own sake. “The most important thing for me is that I like making it. I am not working with the opinion of others in mind.” Although not unexpected from an artist who has pursued many different careers, Ganbrood is quick to add a caveat with some advice for artists: “In my view that is never the right way to create from, but I cannot deny that it feels incredibly pleasant.”
Nina is passionate about telling the stories of artists and documenting their artistic processes, so that they can focus on creating. She’s written for a range of cultural magazines in the Netherlands, her homeland, including 3voor12 and the Groninger Museum. Her work as a contemporary art historian has seen her work at Museum Voorlinden, the Van Gogh Museum, and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Today, her main and ever-increasing focus is on the digital art world, and she is fascinated by the endless possibilities of web3 and how crypto artists are pushing the boundaries of creating without gatekeepers.
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