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I remember the first time I laid my hands on the keyboard. It was the most gratifying experience that my 8-year-old self had ever come across. The whirring of the hard drives, the repeated beeps of approval from the motherboard, the clunky power button of the monitor.
It was an experience that I yearned for as I could only watch from a far as my older sibling grazed by the computer over the afternoon, sometimes for hours. Any attempt I made to place my finger near the desktop was met with a quick handed swat from big brother, signalling "Piss off, this is my turf."
Finally, it was my turn to execute my juvenile wrath.
The first clicks of the old ball-mouse and I was on the start button. A few more clicks and I've landed on Microsoft Paint. Curious, I fidgeted with the aerosol spray icon wondering what it would do. Soon I was taken into a journey of lining up my masterpiece of squares, triangles and circles. It was the also the time I knew deep down I would finally be able to what had been forbidden to me all this while: Make some internet boobies.
Fast forward to today, my editor tells me "Neil, I want you to check out this NFT/AI exhibit."
"What is it about?" I quipped.
"I don't know the details, but its some sort of internet history generative art exhibit with Web3 elements in there"
You mean that I get to go to an exhibit on internet art history? (On the off chance, there could be some more funny internet boobies on display here.)
Sign my ass up.
The next day, I set course to the Art Science Museum to the exhibit. I quickly paid the $6 entry fee and demanded reception to give me the fastest directions to the show. Ticket in hand, I walked right into and exhibit ready to take in the new sights that the exhibit had offered.
Throughout my adventures as a journalist, nothing could have prepared me for what Notes from the Ether was. The exhibition as marketed, was the "adoption of the latest technologies, harnessing their potential to challenge the status quo and stretch the limits of creative expression."
As per the show notes, Notes from the Ether "brings together 20 artists who are navigating these new dimensions. From vibrant images generated in code, to self-portraits created in collaboration with the machine, this exhibition explores how artistic practices reflect the shifting conditions of the present signaling a future where art, culture and technology are seamlessly united."
Given that we at Blockhead are all for the mediums of generative AI and blockchain unlocking new mediums of art creation, I was all for it. But this is where I have to report to you, dear reader, that unfortunately, there were no internet boobies in sight.
Now i'm in the business of calling a spade a spade, and I'm here to tell you that being as nice as I can, the experience sucked. The exhibit was basically a dimly lit interior of printed scatter plots (Yes, its starting to sound like a teenager's room) lined up together with projector screens, clunky interactive computer consoles paired with gimmicky retro music that sounded like radio waves from Sheldon Cooper's theremin concert nonsense (Why, exhibition organisers, WHY?).
Each display was also accompanied with a A3 sized posters that had chunks of code right next to it, signifying its humble beginnings to the audience. My guess here is that the audience is meant to appreciate the significance of humble code turning into generative art (To be fair, it did the first three times. After that it was an ongoing assault on the senses).
There were also other interactive gimmicks where you could muck about a retroactive computer panel, load up some modern software and blast your own generative art onto a projector screen. However you'd have to wait two whole minutes before it appears on the screen.
All these activities sound cool, but it was also during these two minutes of mental solitude here that I was able to take a good look that the exhibit was starting to look a lot like internet dumpster diving. I could not help but wonder if I was sitting through an art show-and-tell presented from the kids that sat at the back of the class.
But art is art, and art is emotional, and emotions are what makes us human. Now I love art museums. I would spend dawn till dusk walking inside the Lourve admiring brush strokes on oil paintings and the fine details of sculptures on Roman clay. I'd weep knowing that perfection is obtained through the countless mistakes and decisions of repetition and that the medium in its final end was art.
I was ready to be moved.
But keep on walking and as you progress through generative art's boring history of being humble code turning into coloured lines of pixels, you're repeatedly bombarded with an onslaught of the same story that eventually leads to the exhibits true purpose. That the point of all these smoke and mirrors were to serve its higher purpose – Web3 awareness and adoption.
The whole point of the exhibition was to onboard new people through novel interactions like uploading their photos through the exhibit's resident "chaos model" to spit out something cool. Only to realise that if you want to save it, you need to connect your email to install a wallet and to mint it on the blockchain where it lives forever and continues to live as dust in your wallet.
The novelty is not lost here, but in my humble honesty, Notes from the Ether felt like it tried too hard and that it missed the mark. Its potential could've been so much more than just a boring onboarding; it could've been cool, nostalgic and most of all entertaining. My mind could not help but wonder, where was the culture? Where were the memes? Where were the PEPEs, Umadbro and Trollface.jpg? Where was the culture?
But the joke here is on me, because I paid $6 to enter an experience that I could've easily replicated with a few searches on generative art videos on YouTube and a bottle of Coke for $2. I'd still have change and some time to spare to find a way to take a short position against this exhibit.
Notes from the Ether was a lot like internet dumpster diving. Once in a while you find something cool in the sea of trash. But after you get it, you realise that the truth of it all, is that it lives in the place where it belongs, and in this case, it lives in the internet's recycle bin, à la poubelle.
If you still want to experience Notes from the Ether for yourself, you have till Sunday 24 September to do so (the show runs at Art Science Museum, Marina Bay Sands, from 10 am to 7 pm, with the last entry at 6 pm).