By STEPHEN WOZNIAK June, 2023
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
“They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.”
― T.S. Eliot, The Rock
Utopia. Does it really even exist? We’ve ruminated on and debated about idyllic life since the times of Plato’s Republic. Wordy tomes and lengthy poems have been written about it, motion pictures have visualized utopian game plans, gains and failures, and dense thoughts have crossed many minds about what our personal perfect world might ultimately become. But why the urgency – or even the slow-burn latency – to identify such a construct? Are we that unhappy? The human condition – brutal and bright – rears its unpleasant head at every point along the way in our day, but seems particularly acute now, as we constantly ingest the sound and sight bites that inundate our airwaves about it. So, how do we materialize such a land and life of the fresh and free? We don’t and we never have. Instead, we virtualize it. We get a gallant team of earnest young creatives, pair them up with seasoned masterminds of our day, then churn their discoveries and data points through Artificial Intelligence – and make art! At least that’s my jocular CliffsNotes interpretation of the seriously minded endeavors that award-winning aesthetic collective Keiken have done with digital art platform leaders Daata when developing the new virtual world of Wisdoms for Neknel, which debuts on June 13.
As a virtual tech neophyte, I must ask how it works exactly. I know that it’s a generative art project, but what does it look like and what does it render? Set in a fictive place called Neknel, cared for by a kindly AI called Beletnom, the game or “art experience,” rather, explores the relationships of knowledge, wisdom, society and, of course, economics. My understanding is that it’s a playground with consequences. We can enjoy the ride, but we have to steer to stay on course. And if we’re good, there’s a bit of virtual pay dirt, which enables us to navigate onwards. Then, there’s the florid, pretty NFT art created, attained and traded, too, in the process, but we’ll get to that in the interview shortly.
The trio that makes up Keiken understand that Wisdoms for Neknel is a surrogate world they’ve created. They see it as, “self-governed and self-generative, fueled by plant, animal and human wisdom. A speculative, protopian world where wisdom is a currency.” Maybe it’s not the utopia I touched on earlier but these investigations and the users who use them may very well learn from the activity within such nominally immersive worlds to inform their personal, political and moneywise decisions out there in the streets of fire and desire.
From a few thousand miles away, I sat virtually with both the Daata team and Keiken to get a better handle on their endeavors, so you can hear it directly. I love their answers, but something makes me think that the Beletnom AI chimed in heavily.
Stephen Wozniak: What fundamentally and philosophically motivated you to develop this NFT project?
In 2021, we developed a project called Wisdoms For Love 3.0, which started off as an online decision-making game. Different voices would ask the player philosophical questions, and the player’s answers to these questions determined the path of the game and there was a “mycelial map,” which visualized the player’s progress.
As you progress through the game, you experience these cinematic cutscenes and collect Wisdom Tokens – which are essentially a precursor to Wisdom Vessels – that you carry in the game, each of which embodied a piece of wisdom.
One Wisdom Token, for example, titled Centre Point, is a set of knives, which are kind of stuck into the ground. The wisdom of Centre Point is the idea that everyone has their own unique position, that no one else will ever else share them, and that tethers them to the earth at that point.
There were about eighty different tokens that you could collect in the game and at the end you could download them and there was a kind of pseudo-contract that came with them. This artwork was off the Blockchain, but later when we exhibited it as a physical installation, we added locational tokens that exhibition visitors could collect.
I guess this was when we started exploring what currency is. What if wisdom could be a currency? How do we collect wisdom? What if the blockchain could hold other forms of value? Not just financial, but could it also hold “wisdom?”
We started having conversations about this with Daata quite early on and we were very motivated to work out how to explore this notion of wisdom as a currency and how to actually put it onto the Blockchain. And that’s how the project started.
Finance is the main tool of how we navigate the world; it’s the tool that is given primary importance for our survival in the game of the Earth. Yet there are so many other forms of exchange and we wanted to look at how to create more varied and nuanced ways of thinking about currency or exchange – and that’s what we’re exploring through this project.
Stephen Wozniak: How did you and the chosen Beletnom AI arrive at the colorful, floral, abstract designs that make up the NFTs rendered?
Keiken and Daata: In our wider practice, we imagine, speculate and build futures. We build simulations. We work in a gaming engine. We're very multimedia focused and we research and experiment with a lot of different symbols, so we had an existing design, which influenced the geometry and the color palette.
We further developed that design with a creative coding duo called obso1337, who went on to do the generative coding of the Wisdom Vessels.
We wanted the Vessels to feel fruitful and to illustrate the abundance of wisdom. We also wanted to reflect the cyclical nature of the Earth so we integrated this mandala-esque shape, which also has an ephemerality and spiritual undertone and is unique to each Vessel.
Stephen Wozniak: How does the $WISDOM cryptocurrency utilized to participate in Neknel compare with others in both closed and open, convertible currency circulation systems? How do users initially buy in to participate?
Keiken: Users can initially buy in to participate by purchasing a Wisdom Vessel, which will generate $WISDOM.
The total supply of $WISDOM is intentionally limited to 11,110,000 tokens. These tokens are generated by the Wisdom Vessels gradually over a span of twelve months. During this timeframe, each Vessel will accumulate ten thousand $WISDOM. This controlled emission ensures a gradual and sustainable distribution of $WISDOM. When the Wisdom Vessels are first launched, there will be 0 $WISDOM, but as the Vessels start generating and the holders start harvesting, a Wisdom economy will ultimately form.
$WISDOM is not pre-mined, nor is there any founder allocation. The harvesting process is exclusively reserved for holders of Wisdom Vessel NFTs.
Stephen Wozniak: How did you identify the bright and right minds to interview and engage in what ultimately fueled the Wisdom Seeds that create the Neknel world?
Keiken: These conversations were intended to plant the seeds for wisdom to grow and propagate within the AI.
From the beginning, we felt strongly that the wisdom should not just come from us (Keiken); we really believe in dialectic thinking. So we identified a long list of different thinkers who have inspired us and influenced our practice. We wanted to have a broad range of people from different specialisms and interests, so they could bring different perspectives. We would love to interview everyone on the list, but we had to narrow it down! For now, at least. Wisdom comes from everywhere, from everyone. Everyone has wisdom. So I think we could push this artwork even further, I mean, this is definitely a work in progress!
We had personal connections with some of the Wisdom Seeds already, and we wanted to continue our conversations with them. For example, Yasaman Sheri, she had been to our studio before and we really wanted to get to know her more and generate wisdom together. There were so many different threads that we could really connect over, such as the wisdom of food and holistic and accessible design.
Stephen Wozniak: Is there a fundamental lesson or big picture to be seen of user engagement in gaming and art? How might engaging in a virtual "protopian" world change lives in the practical world around us?
Keiken and Daata: These kinds of artistic gaming projects allow for test driving; they allow us to imagine and trial something new. And we learn from experience.
So, it's really important that we have these different explorations, and especially within tech, gaming, art and such, because if you just follow what's going on in the mainstream you're not going to see diverse perspectives. For example, the gaming world is amazing, but it's a very heavily male-dominated industry.
As the tools for making games become technologically better, easier and more accessible, artists, or indie game developers, or anyone can have the agency or the autonomy to make their own worlds and experiences. And we need to experience these things to understand if there's another way we can do things: we need to role play them out to check for potential. Otherwise, we’ll continue in the same reality or things could grow in a strange direction.
Everyone already has wisdom within them. There’s so much wisdom that can solve so many different problems, but we don't have the space to articulate or integrate that wisdom into the world. Virtual protopias can give that space to articulate, and for communities to explore these ideas and have agency to change systems and offer new alternatives rather than just critiques.
A lot of art, gaming and fiction comments on what was happening at the time at which it was created by imagining dystopian futures. From time to time, with hindsight, we come to see some of these creations as prescient, but within virtual protopias you can play out these speculative situations, trial new gameplays, subvert systems and extract wisdom. WM
To learn more about Keiken, go to: https://keiken.cloud/
To learn more about Daata, go to: www.daata.art
To visit the dedicated Wisdom for Neknel website, go to: https://www.neknel.world/
Stephen Wozniak is a visual artist, writer, and actor based in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited in the Bradbury Art Museum, Cameron Art Museum, Leo Castelli Gallery, and Lincoln Center. He has performed principal roles on Star Trek: Enterprise, NCIS: Los Angeles, and the double Emmy Award-nominated Time Machine: Beyond the Da Vinci Code. He co-hosted the performing arts series Center Stage on KXLU radio in Los Angeles and guest hosts Art World: The Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art podcast in New York City. He earned a B.F.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art and attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. To learn more, go to: www.stephenwozniakart.com and www.stephenwozniak.com. Follow Stephen on Instagram at @stephenwozniakart and @thestephenwozniak.view all articles from this author