Marfa now home to not 1, but 2, digital art galleries: Art Blocks and Glitch

The Godbold building transformed into a musical venue during Art Blocks open house weekend this month. Audio reactive Chromie Squiggle NFTs danced along with the crowd to a DJ set by Jamie XX. Marfa is now home to two digital art-centric gallery spaces, Art Blocks, which opened last year, and Glitch. Photo by Sarah Vasquez, Courtesy of Art Blocks.

MARFA — This month, the small town of Marfa welcomed its second digital art gallery, Glitch, which joins existing gallery Art Blocks in establishing physical spaces in remote Far West Texas that represent an online, globalized world of art made possible by blockchains and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). 

In mid-November, Glitch, a self-described “analog gallery for digital art,” located on East El Paso Street, celebrated its opening with a community night, live podcast recordings, exhibitions and more. The event coincided with Art Blocks’ second annual open house where over 500 attendees from around the world gathered to connect over their interests in generative art, NFTs and the ever-evolving intersection of art and technology.

With these annual assemblies, Art Blocks and Glitch are bringing a new type of arts and culture tourist to Marfa — those familiar with, and enthusiastic about, the concept of web3: decentralized internet designed to facilitate digital ownership enabled by blockchains — distributed ledgers that can act as public databases — cryptocurrency and NFTs. 

Art Blocks’ platform focuses specifically on generative art that is stored on the Ethereum blockchain and powered by the cryptocurrency Ether. At its height in August 2021, Art Blocks earned $587 million, but in 2022 sales have fallen, ranging from $33.5 million in January to $7.6 million in September, according to a summary of sales on Crypto Slam, an NFT data aggregate.  

Art Blocks was founded in 2020 by Erick Calderon and opened its Marfa gallery around a year ago in the fall of 2021 to public skepticism from local artists, who questioned the artistic merit of the digital artworks and whether it was really just all about money during a town hall meeting. 

There is already something of a barrier of entry to a newcomer considering the contents of these spaces — NFT art is not yet as intuitively understood as, say, painting or sculpture. The underlying concepts may prove confusing for laymen. And at the time of Glitch’s opening and Art Blocks’ second open house, the cryptocurrency market was making headlines for its volatile, some have argued “speculative,” market, which is currently going through its latest crash due to FTX, one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges, declaring bankruptcy and owing creditors nearly $3 billion. 

Financial aspects aside, some ideas born out of the digital art and collectables movement could have staying power, per proponents. Derek Edward Schloss, one of the founders of Glitch, said their gallery hopes to amend the disconnect surrounding NFTs and the web3 space by bringing elements of education and storytelling to both Marfa locals and online communities alike and to expand on current ideas. 

“An NFT is essentially just a wrapper that wraps around any digital object or any digital information to prove its provenance and scarcity. We believe that that wrapper can be used for generative art, but it will also be used for all types of digital objects in the future,” said Schloss. 

Courtesy Glitch Gallery.

Schloss and his business partner Steve McKeon, two of Glitch’s founders along with Michelle McKeon and Maddy Page, also co-own collab + currency, a crypto-focused venture fund established in 2018 that has invested in over 100 projects in the web3 space, including Art Blocks. Schloss, who is based in Los Angeles, said the fact that Art Blocks has a presence in Marfa, considering its reputation in the web3 space, is pretty remarkable. 

“Art Blocks is a world class project. It is one of the very few projects that has resonated very deeply with the entire web3 space. It is one of the biggest projects in the world and it happens to be in Marfa’s backyard,” said Schloss. 

A couple of times a week Art Blocks releases new projects by its selected artists, NFTs in editions of 400 or 1,000, for example. Collectors purchase the ability to “mint,” or run code developed by an artist, and the automated system generates multiple iterations that make up the series of artworks. 

“There’s a wide world of crypto, within that there’s a wide world of NFTs, within that there’s a wide world of NFT art, and within that there’s our world of NFT generative art, which is, I think, actually quite niche,” explains Emily Edelman, an artist who has released work on Art Blocks and attended this year’s open house.

Schloss and McKeon attended Art Blocks’ first open house in October 2021 and immediately began seeking real estate in order to establish their own digital art gallery in Marfa. Like many before them, the founders of Glitch and Art Blocks desired to have a physical location in Marfa, in part, because of the legacy of Donald Judd. Art Blocks founder Calderon has previously cited Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum as an inspiration for his generative art. 

“We became enamored with the town and the physical space and the rich density of history, starting with Donald [Judd] and extending outward,” said Schloss. 

Schloss said in addition to acting as an educational resource for the local community, Glitch, similar to Art Blocks, is seeking to broaden “the base of folks on the internet who could tie back to this rich history of minimalism and Donald Judd and the work in Marfa.” 

Over Glitch’s opening and Art Blocks open house weekend, the Chinati Foundation saw a 33% increase in visitorship on its tours and 75% increase in outdoor viewing, according to visitor services personnel, who reported they also saw a significant uptick in requests for private tours. The Judd Foundation reported its regularly scheduled guided visits were mostly at capacity. 

Photo by Sarah Vasquez, Courtesy of Art Blocks.

John Ehrke, an Alpine resident with a background in commercial photography and docent at the Chinati Foundation since 2017, met some Art Blocks open weekend attendees and was motivated to attend Art Blocks’ perceive() community-curated exhibition opening and panel conversations to learn more.

“It’s always interesting to me how new technology basically expands the opportunity for creatives to create,” said Ehrke. “I’m open to seeing what it’s about.” 

“I think it’s interesting that they did come to Marfa because there are lots of artists here, but there’s not a lot of tech,” he added. “You would almost think initially, something like their organization would be in cities like Silicon Valley or Austin or maybe more financial areas like New York or London.” 

Ehrke said he’s intrigued to see how the field of NFT art will develop, including the aesthetic qualities of the artwork, but the fact that people are backing it monetarily means it will likely continue to grow. In a way, the concept reminds him of his role giving tours at the foundation: some people love it, others do not. 

“Not everybody’s going to embrace it. I think some are and some aren’t,” said Ehrke. “I think this is such a fledgling way of doing art. I think over time, it will be interesting to see where it goes, how far it’s taken.” 

Based on the amount of money being made by some, Ehrke said, in theory, those dollars could trickle down to the local community and have major impacts. He said because Art Blocks and Glitch have adopted Marfa as a staging ground, he’d like to see them get involved with providing classes and equipment to Marfa public schools. 

“[I hope] they include the community, and they look at bringing along some of the students that would probably be really interested in utilizing the technology,” said Ehrke. 

Part of Glitch’s goals are to share with locals and visitors how the blockchain and web3 spaces can empower artists, they said. Schloss said that was a major topic of discussion with the 40 locals he estimates visited the gallery during their launch. He said with the technological advances of web3, it is Glitch Gallery’s belief that physical objects and spaces over time will make their way onto blockchains.

“The art and the work and the creativity that Marfa is most known for sits very much in contrast to the work in the work that’s been created in web3 and in digital spaces. I would say, that has historically been true. I don’t know if that’s going to continue to be true. A lot of conversation we had with the local community was on ways that they could start thinking about this technology and leveraging this technology,” said Schloss.

Glitch’s opening weekend programming included an exhibition of NFTs titled, Computer Cowgirls, by Dallas-based artist Molly Dixon, who is donating 100% of sales to organizations increasing abortion access, a live recording of the “100 Proof” podcast with Calderon, who discussed his signature Chromie Squiggle NFT, and an announcement from contemporary artist Tom Sachs. Sachs addressed a crowded room full of gallery-goers to announce he would be partnering with the company MONA, a 3D world-building platform and web3 social network, to create immersive environments through the lens of his rocket factory NFT project

Moving forward, Schloss said, Glitch aims to be a space for all digital objects as opposed to just generative art (Art Blocks’ bailiwick). Forthcoming exhibitions are being discussed, as are regular open hours, but it is likely Glitch will remain quiet into 2023 as organizers map out their next moves, he said. Glitch may also explore one-off events —  their space is outfitted with a commercial kitchen — or artist residencies, Schloss said. 

“We’re just trying to respond to all the feedback that we got,” said Schloss. 

At Art Blocks’ events that weekend, rainbow Chromie Squiggles by artist Snowfro, aka Calderon, generative NFTs which have essentially become the symbol for their brand, were on display via large screens during a DJ set by Jaime XX at the Marfa Spirit Co., reacting to the beat of the music, and took shape as a piece of textile art hanging in the backyard of Art Blocks during panels. 

The company has expanded in the past year, adding new employees and projects onto their platform, which now lists over 200 artists. Their curatorial board works closely with artists to plan releases, which can sell out in a matter of minutes. Art Blocks now also licenses their “engine” to other creative companies and runs both Plottables, a place for artists working with plotters to connect, and Bright Moments, an “NFT art collective” hosting in-person minting experiences all over the world. 

No regular open hours are listed for the Art Blocks gallery in Marfa, though this year they have initiated a First Friday program to spark public visitation to local arts spaces. 

Endless Monologue: Who am I. Edition AP, 2021. Generative plotter painting, watermedia on paper. Exhibited through Feral File. By artist Licia He.

Licia He, an assistant professor with Texas A&M’s School of Performance, Visualization and Fine Arts and Art Blocks artist, who traveled to Marfa from College Station for Art Blocks’ second annual open house weekend, said the event allowed her to meet people she’d never met in person for the first time. 

“I’ve interacted with some of those artists online for several years already. But it’s my first time actually meeting them in person, so for me it’s a pretty magical experience to get to know them and finally put a face with their profile pictures,” said He.

He came into the field of generative art with a background in computer science and printmaking. Her latest collection on Art Blocks, titled Running Moon, an edition of 500, was released over the summer and sold out in less than five minutes, she said. The series, derived from a Python algorithm, was inspired by watercolor and stained glass and contains 36 different color combinations with each NFT minted dominated by six main colors. 

The project initially began as a drawing and took He about a year to develop. “Nothing comes with a snap, it takes a while,” she said.  

Of the most memorable of the series for He was iteration #0, which is always the first to be minted and belongs to the artist on Art Blocks’ platforms. He said she supports the idea that every time her work is bought and sold she gets a kick back — she has already received royalties from her Art Blocks’ NFTs. Art Blocks takes an initial 10% of profits on primary sales and 2.5% royalties, with the artist receiving 5% royalties. 

He said while generative art can trace its roots back to the ‘60s and ‘70s, back then artists were unable to make a living on their work, but NFTs and the web3 space have given her the opportunity to pursue the craft more seriously and become a collector herself. 

“I never imagined that one day someone would be willing to display my work or purchase my work or have this giant amazing Marfa gallery of all those generative artists. So from that perspective, I really, really appreciate what is happening,” said He. 

He also works with a plotter, feeding code into the machine, which then puts pen to paper, or in He’s case, watercolor brush to paint, in real life, realizing the image. 

Artist Emily Edelman, who has a background in experiential events and graphic design, said He’s work with plotters signifies many generative artists’ interests in traditional and digital art mediums and how they can work together. 

“One of the things I think people are really interested in and are doing is blending what we do with on-chain generative art with tactile arts and discovering what the relationship is there and inventing new relationships,” said Edelman. 

Edelman has been working as a full time generative artist for six months and has a new collection, Agar, coming onto Art Blocks soon. She said learning to code and getting involved with the generative arts scene helped her develop new ways of thinking and exercised her impulse as an artist to think conceptually. 

“Generative art, in general, is really amazing to me. As an artist, you’re not saying exactly what’s gonna happen in each composition. You’re not like literally putting pencil to point on paper, but you’re creating rules, and those rules — those rules are the art,” said Edelman. 

Three works from an Art Blocks NFT release titled, Asemica, by Emily Edelman, Andrew Badr and Dima Ofman. From left, Asemica #338, #540 and #309 from the collections of FutureAce6, 6529museum, and roarrrr.eth, respectively. Collectors permission was obtained to reproduce these images, courtesy Emily Edelman.

Edelman’s first Art Blocks project, Asemica, was a collaborative effort inspired by typography, and “asemic handwriting,” or mark making with tools that mimics the cadence of handwriting. The NFTs, which were released on Art Blocks in an edition of 980, resulted in considerable visual variability. “We created this very systematized algorithm that takes 100 different shapes and allows them to flip upside down, up and down, left and right, and connect along these different points,” said Edelman. 

Edelman said bringing new people into the fold is a common discussion among generative artists, and they are used to sharing the ins and outs of the web3 space with friends and family who may not be as deep into it as they are. She said she’s found a welcoming community in the web3 space and hopes in time people who have a hard time considering NFTs art will learn to appreciate them. 

“My hope would be that if not in this moment, in this day, that eventually, people appreciate that it’s art,” said Edelman. “At the end of the day, it’s art.”