“Bastard Gan Punks V2”, Berk Özdemir’s digital project, is a remix of non-objects floating in cyberspace, thus generating bastardized cryptopunks with unique traits.
Against an ever-changing backdrop of brightly-coloured pixels, a transformation is taking place. One moment, we’re looking at a lo-fi headshot of a man in sunglasses smoking a joint, the next it’s a cartoon ape in a cowboy hat; then, it shifts again, and we’re faced with a green-pigtailed alien in a surgical mask. Each of these images flickers by fast enough that it’s impossible to take in any given face in its entirety. Then again, we’re not supposed to. In Bastard Gan Punks V2 – a project by multidisciplinary artist Berk Özdemir, AKA Princess Camel, AKA Guerrilla Pimp Minion Bastard – each work is a gestalt, more than a sum of its parts. But where have we seen these faces before?
First launched in September 2021, Bastard Gan Punks V2 – which continues the much-smaller V1 collection from spring 2020 – consists of 11,305 NFT collectibles. 847 of these are animated GIFs (dubbed “hype as fuck”) showing the shapeshifting characters described above. A further 10,458 are “calm as fuck”, meaning still PNG images, often featuring glitched-out backgrounds. Each individual artwork is also accompanied by a description written by a machine learning algorithm that scrapes data from thousands of punk and emo song lyrics. “Doomed degeneration / the remains of this life / we crossed the line,” reads one particularly apocalyptic example. “It was an endless game / so dry your tears of regrets / become your temporary space.” As suggested by the name, Bastard Gan Punks V2 is based on technology known as a GAN, or Generative Adversarial Network, which sees algorithms “pitted against” each other to output artificial approximations of human data. In artistic terms, this allows artists to generate images based on visuals lifted from the past. At first, this practice mostly involved mimicking historic artists’ styles, as if raising them from the dead to render scenes from contemporary life. Although the use of GANs has become increasingly original and experimental since then, the appropriative nature of the technology has raised pertinent questions about the ownership and attribution of AI art. It’s also responsible for the familiar aesthetic of Bastard Gan Punks V2, since the collection uses data from a more famous NFT series, CryptoPunks, as it’s kicking-off point. Or, as Özdemir puts it: “[Bastards] carry real deal CryptoPunk DNA in their blood… but they carry many different traits from several Punks, so they don’t know who their actual parents are.” Hence, the Bastard moniker. To properly understand what Özdemir is trying to achieve with Bastard Gan Punks V2, we first need to climb back up the family tree and explore the collection’s CryptoPunk ancestry. First launched in 2017, CryptoPunks are an algorithmically-generated series of 10,000 pixelated avatars that basically revolve around a single set template, with various attributes – or “traits” such as hats, skin colour, and hairstyles – added at random. Some of these traits are rarer than others, and, along with the artificial scarcity created by minting them as NFTs, they define Crypto Punks’ auction prices, which still regularly top $100,000 despite this year’s eye-watering losses in the crypto space. As one of the earliest successful NFT projects, in fact, Punks have been credited with kickstarting 2021’s NFT goldrush, alongside other landmark projects such as Bored Apes and Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days. To create his own collection of digital avatars – or PFP collection – Özdemir initially trained a GAN on the 10,000 original CryptoPunks. This “gave birth” to Bastard Gan Punks V1: the results are smudgy, “deep-fried”, and though they certainly bear traces of their Punk ancestors, many of the rarer CryptoPunk traits were lost in the process. So, for Bastard Gan Punks V2, the artist changed his methods: by hand, he chopped up each trait from the CryptoPunks project, made the gender-specific traits gender neutral (“BGanPunks are queer!” he declares), and wrote a script that would create all possible combinations of those traits.
These laborious technical processes are a far cry from the images that most of us would conjure when we hear words like “artistic practice” or “creative process”: a painter working at an easel in a brightly-lit studio, perhaps, or a photographer shooting models in picturesque locales. Increasingly, however, this is where art is made: in the conceptual space of software and algorithms, the artist bathed in the cold light of a computer monitor. The output is similarly hard to pin down: non-objects floating through cyberspace, their authenticity and ownership dictated only by their association with a non-fungible token – a string of data stored on a blockchain.
Of course, algorithmic art is nothing new, in and of itself. In the 1970s, the late artist and sci-fi writer Herbert W Franke was using generative software to create artworks such as MONDRIAN (1979), a shifting field of coloured shapes that might be seen as an abstract precursor to Özdemir’s work. Around the same time, the American artist Roman Verostko converted his studio into an “electronic scriptorium” filled with algorithm-driven drawing machines known as “pen plotters”. Verostko himself argues that the creative application of algorithms goes back even further, inspiring the geometric patterns of Islamic art and perspective in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. However, new technologies such as GANs are constantly adding fresh layers of complexity, throwing out surprising artworks that often exceed the limits of the human artist’s imagination. Admittedly, the output of the Bastard Gan Punks project hardly requires a stretch of the imagination; since Özdemir’s technology is trained solely on CryptoPunks and their respective attributes, its products belong to the same aesthetic “family”. For that reason, however, the collection raises other interesting questions about appropriation and ownership in digital art. When AI tools are trained on existing artworks, who is allowed to claim ownership of the artworks they create? How will the rules continue to change, as AI becomes increasingly adept at parroting human creativity?
In the case of Bastard Gan Punks, at least, the former question is easy to answer. As outlined in an explanation on the ownership of NFTs from the collection, owners are given legal permission to do what they want with their Bastard and its description text, even in commercial use cases. In fact, Özdemir encourages owners to make their own derivative works and remixes, under one condition: that “they bring their new unique ideas, concepts and aesthetics on top of it”.
After all, Bastard Gan Punks itself “is a remix/spinoff project of Larva Labs’ CryptoPunks,” as Özdemir acknowledges on the project’s website. “This project is made with the idea of ‘everything is a remix’, because it is a fact. Every shit made on earth, any creative work, product, idea, child, culture, scientific theory [sic] etc. carries the mark of things they copied.” Just as CryptoPunks were hailed as the emblems of the NFT rush that shook up the art world at the beginning of the 2020s, perhaps projects like Özdemir’s will be remembered as the vanguard of this new, cyborgian remix culture in years to come.