A new addition to the Top 200 Collectors list this year, Ryan Zurrer is one of the most prolific collectors of digital art, owning major works by Mike Winkelmann, Refik Anadol, Agnieszka Kurant, Sarah Meyohas, and other major digital artists. He is the founder and director of Dialectic and Vine Ventures, venture capital firms invested in alternative assets and the psychedelic community, respectively. The Swiss entrepreneur was also director of the Web3 Foundation, an organization that funds research and development of decentralized web software protocols, from 2017 to 2019.
Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple, is a digital artist based in Charleston, South Carolina. His work Everydays: The First 5000 Days, an NFT collage of 5,000 images from his daily series posted to social media, sold for $69.3 million at Christie’s in March 2021. It is widely credited as the high point in that year’s NFT craze. Zurrer purchased Beeple’s first physical artwork, HUMAN ONE, a seven-foot-tall kinetic sculpture based on video works, for $29 million in 2021. It has since traveled to the Castello di Rivoli in Italy and the M+ Museum in Hong Kong, and is on view now at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas until January 2024. Earlier this year, he opened Beeple Studios, a 50,000-square-foot space dedicated to exhibiting digital art.
Refik Anadol is a Turkish American new media artist who uses primarily data and machine learning algorithms to produce site-specific immersive installations and live audiovisual performances. After fulfilling public art commissions at venues like the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and as Google’s first artist-in-residence, in 2016, he has become known for creating installations that visualize environmental research data documenting climate change around coral reefs, glaciers, and rainforests. Late last year, his work Unsupervised – Machine Hallucinations – MoMA (2022) went on view at the Museum of Modern Art, using the museum’s visual archive to produce a machine-learning model that interprets and reimagines the history of modern art.
Earlier this fall, Zurrer, through his 1OF1 Collection and the RFC Art Collection, led by Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile and Desiree Casoni, made a gift of Anadol’s Unsupervised – Machine Hallucinations – MoMA to MoMA, where it is on view through October 29.
Zurrer sat down with ARTnews for a two-part interview—first with Winkelmann, and then with Anadol—to discuss the present and future of digital art, the continuing promise of NFTs, and the meaning of creativity in the age of AI.
ARTnews: When did you become aware of digital art and NFTs?
Ryan Zurrer: Conceptually, NFTs were something we were discussing as a possibility in the early days of the Ethereum ecosystem, around 2014. Vitalik Buterin [cofounder of Ethereum] put out a glossary of different novel concepts that could be enabled by Ethereum that was really exciting. But it hit home for me that we were seeing the emergence of something important when I realized that digital artists, for the first time, were able to have digital scarcity with their work. That conveys collectability and, from that collectability, digital artists were finding financial and artistic freedom. We started seeing glimpses of that in 2020.
With Mike’s early sales on Nifty Gateway [an early NFT auction platform], you could see that he was finding financial and artistic freedom after a long career as a digital artist. It was really inspiring.
ARTnews: Was that idea of financial and artistic freedom what drew you to blockchain and NFTs?
Mike Winkelmann: I knew almost nothing about blockchain or NFTs even up until about four months before the big sale at Christie’s. I learned a lot quickly, but as soon as it clicked, I realized that this was not necessarily a new moment. This was a moment that other mediums had gone through in the past where they were once considered not art and then, suddenly, they were considered art. I realized that digital scarcity—the ability to collect digital art in a more meaningful way—was the thing holding it back from being accepted or respected. Digital art existed before that, but it just didn’t resonate. Once the medium had scarcity, it clicked, and I went all in.
ARTnews: You’ve been making commercial work for a long time. But, since the Everydays sale, have you started to conceptualize your work in relation to the capital-A art world?
Winkelmann: It definitely affected my practice quite a bit. Before NFTs, I would never have made physical art, for one. That was just not part of my thought process. Since then, I’ve made a bunch of physical art and I see the art more in the full context of capital-A art now. Before, that whole world was just not part of my thinking. The worlds were so separate, and I was so in this digital art world where art had a very different overall meaning. Digital art was about ideas, and you made those ideas, and then you put those ideas out there. Nobody owned the ideas. You just put them out there because, how could you own [an image on the internet]? What are you talking about, owning a file?
ARTnews: Ryan, you watched the evolution of digital art as a collector. What have you seen change? Are there new technologies that are affecting how artists produce work or how you collect?
Zurrer: One of the innovations that I’m most excited about is dynamic art that evolves over time. HUMAN ONE is the defining example of that. That changes the relationship between a collector and an artist. Now, you are embarking on this journey together over a long time. You don’t know where it goes. As a collector, you have to hold yourself back and allow the artist to have the freedom to make it their vision and take it in the direction they want. You just support and try to be helpful where you can, but always remembering that it is not about you. I think there will be dynamic art projects where collectors impose their ego on it and take it in a completely different direction, but the best ones will be where it is, fundamentally, the vision of the artist and watching that unfold. HUMAN ONE continues to get objectively better. The version that is currently up at Crystal Bridges is visually better than the original one that was at Christie’s. It is more striking. It has more elements to it. It even has more puzzles within it.
Winkelmann: This is a new paradigm that is only available through digital art. A painting is a statement frozen in time. It will never change. When you buy a painting, you know that 2 or 6 or 20 years from now, it won’t say something different. It is a physical object frozen in time. The ability to have dynamic art that is an ongoing conversation is truly novel to digital art. Collecting pieces like that takes a lot of courage. I have been so thankful to have this opportunity to experiment with this new medium in this way.
ARTnews: When you are making an artwork like HUMAN ONE, do you have a long-term vision in mind?
Winkelmann: I have vague ideas of where it’s going in the immediate term and the next three to five years, but beyond that, to be quite honest, no. That is exciting and keeps me engaged because I can react to things as they happen. The first update to HUMAN ONE reflected on the war in Ukraine. When the piece sold originally, that wasn’t even happening, so it couldn’t possibly have been part of the piece.
ARTnews: Old guard critics seem to struggle to view digital art with the aesthetic value they see in more established mediums like painting or sculpture. Mike, when you were making HUMAN ONE and S.2122, were you thinking about how to push that conversation forward, or even how these works might be displayed in museums?
Winkelmann: At the end of the day, I am trying to make something that nobody has seen before. It is very hard to do that in a deep way. I could just draw something you’ve never seen before, but maybe the ideas in it aren’t completely new. I’m always striving to make something that is a new paradigm, that points to a new way that art could function or look in the future. That’s where you see the disconnect with the old guard. They look at this new aesthetic and are like, what is this? But, to me, that’s progress. If art is immediately accepted, it hasn’t pushed anything forward. You have to get people out of their comfort zone, and there has to be pushback.
ARTnews: Your work has a strong fluency with the internet. As someone who is very online, your images make sense to me in that context and as an expression of that new medium. Do you see yourself as working through that new visual language?
Winkelmann: One-hundred percent. What people don’t realize is, a lot of my aesthetic choices are made specifically for [the internet]. People often criticize that my artwork is sometimes too on the nose or obvious. That is by design. I am very aware that the work is primarily viewed on social media. I have about two seconds to make an impression. It needs to punch, and it needs to pop right away to cut through the noise of the internet. That’s why the pieces are more viral than a lot of “normal” artwork not made for this medium. You can’t make work where people need to look at it for a long time and read some MFA thesis about why it’s important. People don’t take the time to do that—the work that I’m making is very much a reflection of the way you need to make images and messages that actually reach people in 2023.
ARTnews: Ryan, do you see a role for a collector like yourself in this aesthetic debate around digital art being seen with the same importance as other mediums?
Zurrer: I certainly feel a deep sense of mission to help these leading digital artists tell their story and take their rightful place in the art canon. I take a lot of inspiration from my good friend [Swiss art collector] Uli Sigg, who rewrote our canon to include a generation of Chinese artists, or [Top 200 collector] Pamela Joyner, who rewrote our canon to include a generation of African diaspora artists. There is a category of very clearly talented artists, both in craft and concepts, who don’t yet have their rightful recognition as worldly artists. I make that observation about digital artists. We orient a lot of our efforts to help tell that story and to communicate to museums that these are important generational artists who merit exhibition, critical thought, and academic rigor.
ARTnews: It seems like part of the shift in recognition for digital art has been tied to the work being seen in the physical world. Mike, do you view it as important to bring digital art into the real world?
Winkelmann: That is very, very important because I think there are still many people who haven’t quite understood yet that this is a new medium that can be used for artistic expression and, just like any other medium, it has the same qualities of craft, message, and intent. Finding ways to help it click for people is important. Prior to NFTs, I did a lot of commercial work in concert visuals. Seeing people interact with digital art in real life was basically my job. I have always known that, when properly displayed, this work can be very impactful. Physical works like HUMAN ONE or Refik Anadol’s Unsupervised – Machine Hallucinations are very powerful and are often the moment where people realize they can have that emotional connection to this art. I think it’s hard when the work is viewed on a phone. It’s a small screen and it’s a foreign environment for most people to view art. Of course, for kids and younger people, it’s natural.
Zurrer: Getting display right is something that the whole [digital art] space is working through. One of the lessons we’ve learned with digital art is that scale can catalyze awe in the onlooker. We also see that in the inspirational experiential space that Mike has built [at Beeple Studios]. Mike, once again being the standard-bearer, has taken the space on his back and is innovating the display and consumption of digital art, so that people can be surrounded by it and immersed in it spatially. These experiments in how we display digital art so that it creates awe are genuinely important. I’ve been saying for a couple years that Beeple Studios feels like this weird combination of Bell Labs and Andy Warhol’s Factory, in their respective primes. It feels like an important hotbed of invention and creation in digital art.
One of the defining characteristics of the 21st century has been the digitization of the world. Virtual reality, augmented reality, social media and online marketplaces are a few mainstream examples...