Visualizing the Blockchain - Discovering Cryptocurrency through Art & Play

in art •  4 days ago

Blockchain is the powerful, yet invisible puppeteer behind cryptocurrency. Digital tokens zip across the globe every second of every day. Due to the nature of this online ecosystem there is no jangling of loose change in pockets. No leather wallets. There are no brick and mortar banks either. Visual cues are hard to come by!

Visualizing “the blockchain” is an interesting challenge to take on. From the perspective of a designer, you could imagine this network of nodes as an artful composition. As tokens are minted and traded from point A to B the composition becomes richer and more complex. The more people who take part in minting and trading the more nuances are entered into the whole equation. Now I know what you’re thinking… we’ll get to CryptoKitties soon, but first, here are a few different examples of composition-making from past to present.

The Art of Mapmaking


After a while, all of the aforementioned A’s to B’s begin to develop a kind of cryptocurrency-map. You can trace each transaction back a generation and discover a progression of growth.

Like blockchain protocols, creating a map is a game of checks and balances. An accidental art through the interpretation of information. Systems evolve playfully as they begin lives of their own. Rules take on new meaning as they assume a unique and visual logic. To put this conversation into some artsy context, let’s take a look at some examples of gamified compositions!

Balance of Rule & Play


Cartography is the practice of map-making. Jerry Gretzinger began his first map back in 1963. He has since become an accidental artist and curiously experimental cartographer. Beginning with a single sheet of paper, his map grew exponentially, spreading from surface to surface and neighborhood to neighborhood. Despite the artistic appearance of Gretzinger’s world, his map-making process has a very structured set of rules. Each move is curated by a somewhat ‘Holy’ deck of cards relabeled with physical attributes and design characteristics. By choosing different cards to 'play’ the world - in turn - morphs, contracts and expands. Gretzinger becomes the translator, a witness as the world unfolds in front of him.

Here is a mesmerizing video documenting Jerry Gretzinger’s lifelong artistic experiment. The mini-documentary is called Mapping the Void, directed by Gregory Whitmore. (Image below sourced via MASSMOCA.)

The Void… A “Hardfork?”


A critical feature of Jerry’s world is 'the void’. The void card allows for a dramatic change in landscape, one that no other card provides. Blank white paper invades cities and countrysides, wiping the land clean as it moves along like a clorox wipe. While the first moves of this void are seemingly antiseptic and destructive, the blank paper subsequently provides for greater freedom and new growth. From this tabula rasa emerges a new city.

This void card could also be looked at as a kind of hardforking. (The act of creating a new blockchain generation.) This change in the network is an important part of expansion (both good and bad). Just as the void yields new opportunity for growth - in theory - so do hardforks within the blockchain.

Art of the Id


Prior to @sndbox, our team blogged under @hitheryon - a collective of experimental artists - we adopted a similar strategy to Gretzinger - where the void became a valuable component to each grid-based composition. The four of us Hither Yonians drew exclusively on the same sheet of paper, canvas, mural, even digital model. With four hands acting at once we desperately needed to come up with rules that would help create compositions, not chaotic blobs of pen and ink.

Id (noun) the part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest.

For our experimental “Id Drawing” series - we used square grids religiously. Each Id drawing began as a blank sheet of paper with perfectly clean pencil grids of various sizes. Acting with the mindsets of architects approaching an empty plot of land, we filled in an equal area of blank space (between 1 and 64 squares, depending on the size of paper.) Once complete we rotated positions. The process was repeated 6 times around, as we developed an overall composition playing off of other's unique styles and ideas.

As the paper space was filled in and passed along, an interplay of new thoughts and concepts become realized. The hyper grid-structure provided borders between an individual’s idea and the next participant, but it also provides the ability to connect and expand on a pre-existing theme. With this framework, you have the ability to mediate or ignore, expand or contract, allowing the drawing to become a dynamic commentary imbued with pen and ink.

@erb holding up the finished piece. “Id Scale IV” is a 70cm x 70cm hand drawing made with pen and ink.

Blockchain Wayfinding…


@steempixels is a beautiful example of blockchain visualization. Through Steem, @boxxa and @adept created “the world's first blockchain powered decentralized collaborative pixel canvas.” With Steem, you can buy a pixel and color it whatever you like. Cumulatively, your computer screen becomes a massive crowdsourced work of art.

The Internet’s Purrrfect Storm...


Over the weekend, we discovered CryptoKitties. (A big thanks to @prufarchy for the introduction!) CryptoKitties is a great example of visualizing identity and process on the blockchain. These collectible critters carry unique traits drawn from their digital ETH address and lineage. In the words of our friend Pruf…

“They're furry, they're colorful, they're... purely digital. Oh, and they can breed unique offspring, all via smart contract on the Ethereum Network.” (Original post.)

Compositionally, this is a beautiful project that helps people visualize the progression and propagation of a blockchain network. Each kitty is unique but also carries visual traits drawn from parents and grandparents.

Pages from CryptoKitties_WhitePapurr_V2.png

Through fun and artful projects like these, people will begin to learn more about cryptocurrency and blockchain DNA. But they’re also more than just fun collectibles! As we’ve also learned, large-scale gamified projects can challenge the integrity of a blockchain’s composition. Ethereum has been absolutely overwhelmed by transactions since the beginning of CryptoKitties nearly one week ago. The inability of ETH to handle the workload of an online game has kickstarted a huge conversation surrounding blockchain scalability.

Gamified composition can teach us all a lot about what works and what fails. Playful (and accessible) exercises in visualizing blockchains will help us learn more about the cryptocurrency ecosystem. So explore, challenge, test, collect and play on!


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What an incredible result. This article was invaluable to a crypto newbie like myself for a practical application to compare my theoretical knowledge. The CryptoKitties project was one that piqued my interest but it wasn't until your clarification that allowed me to understand that it is important to understand not only the relationship of the block to the chain but the blocks to other blocks. Thanks!

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That's great to hear @thisismework! Glad we could wrap some context around the Kitty craze. There's a lot we can learn from precedents like these. In the coming years we'll no doubt have some fascinating new visualizations to tap into :)

Very cool! Looking forward to seeing what new things artists come up with involving blockchain technology!

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Artists & Devs unite!

Interesting that one cryptocurrency community always prides itself on being faster or lighter than the next (such as ETH over BTC) ... and then the Cryptokitties came about and slowed down ETH. Now LTC is fast, but most likely it will too "may" also slow down with lots of transaction into future. Yea, its all about creative innovation.

this is a great art one..thanks for sharing..✌✌

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Hey @nnajmull, thanks!

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thanks my dear..

Blockchain art, nice! Room for Tangle and fractals too

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Yes! Always love fractal art. Blockchain is a nice new canvas for it :)

i saw this art .....thanks for sharing

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Thank you!

So much magnifique feeling here. After the enthusiasm of cryptocurrincy calms down, the light of ''the blockchain'' will be seen properly. Could not finish the comment if i say the finishing work of @erb is realy artistique.

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Well said @octobre, cryptocurrency is in large part a kind of "billboard" for blockchain. It will take time to see it properly, but it will no doubt come into focus soon :)

@erb is a pro, take a look at his latest post!

this is a lot of fun....and answers my wonderings about cryptokitties!

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Hah, we still have LOT's of wonderings... :D

Nice post. 👍 thank you.

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Many thanks for reading and supporting!

Compositionally, this is a beautiful project that helps people visualize the progression and propagation of a blockchain network.

💯 I totally agree. A lot of people are angered by the blockage of transactions on the Ethereum network. They should however, be enthusastic that newcomers to crypto will have a much easier way to visualize the blockchain and its value and why it should replace our current financial system... Thanks for this post, it was both creative and informing! I especially liked the map documentary!

Awesome article! And very good explanation of blockchain!

Wow amazing that guy Jerry and his lifeart project. Thank you so much :)

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He has a fascinating story and a beautiful life-long project that has evolved so elegantly over time.

I am an artist and very new here, and this post intrigues me as something to try, as well as helps me learn more about blockchain. I still am just barely able to grasp all this. Each time I read more I feel like layers of an onion are peeling off ... or maybe also that I am building totally new cognitive connections to wrap my mind around it all. So much new terminology and logic. I am bookmarking this because I want to keep returning to it , and maybe one day try this process.. I am a visual learner, and I have a group of artist friends who like to do collaborative drawings. This looks so fun to try and the resulting drawing looks amazing !

thanks! this is inspiring me to make some blockchain art...

your logo is sweet!

my efforts at art
are each little more
than a humbling fart
drawn with shaky fingers
on the touchpad part...

so this calls for someone else
to portray with more elegance
the distributed copies of identical ops
executed and controlled at once
for their complementary relevance

I'm not sure who writes this post, but I'm bookmarking it and saving it in my Pocket app for other's to discover this well written blog. I could only dream of writing such a fluid blog on oftentimes very difficult to grasp subjects. Well not everyone has that gift, I suppose. ✌️

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Wow thanks for the kind words @coquiunlimited, glad our writing resonated with you :)