Process: Sarah Friend and Decentralized Development
Where painting carries over to working with peer-to-peer protocols
By tywen kelly
Process is a new series that builds on the themes of the Gray Area Festival 2020: Radical Simulation, using immersive worldbuilding to reimagine adjacent possible presents. Process asks artists to narrate the chronology of specific works, from inspirations to iterations to incarnations. By telling the story of how new media art is made, Process spotlights the side of it which is soft, ever in flux, and most importantly, made by people.
Sarah Friend has found a way to play with software protocols. Specializing in peer-to-peer (p2p) and blockchain development, she has a deep technical toolset and a spirited knack for intervening in large systems. She works as an engineer at Circles UBI, a project which equalizes wealth distribution on the blockchain, and is founder and curator of the ongoing Ender Gallery, an artist residency taking place inside the game Minecraft. Her works range from browser-based experienced, such as ClickMine, to decentralized protocol art such as Remembering Network, a p2p digital seed vault, to physical installations, and AR experiences.
Sarah will be hosting a three-part workshop at Gray Area called “Your Friendly Guide to NFTs And Blockchain for Artists” starting on April 24. I chatted with Sarah about her work in the world of p2p and blockchain artistic development.
How did you get interested in peer-to-peer technologies?
I’ve been writing software since 2014, and I’ve been writing blockchain related software since 2016. I first started at a place called The Recurse Center, which is kind of like an unschool, retreat, or residency, for software developers. It was there that I took time and took a moment to learn about this new subject, which was blockchain.
Blockchain was a different world back then. None of the things that people talk about now, like NFTs, existed. I was obsessed with the idea of creating digital places, like digital nation states, that were alternative places where we could be citizens, and that could meet the needs our own governments weren’t meeting — maybe.
I felt that these alternative online nations needed to look like actual places. So at Recurse Center, I worked on a library integration with the game engine Unity. In hindsight, it still sounds like a crazy far out project — there was barely any documentation, and it was such an unusual combination of technologies.
Were you always interested in computer science?
I have an art degree. I studied painting, and I learned to program a little bit later. In 2006, when I started at OCAD, it was a really different world: software wasn’t accessible the way it is now. You couldn’t just Google how things work and teach yourself with the ease that you can now. There are all these moments, when I think about, in my life before I decided to teach myself to code and focus on it, where I almost learned to program, but I kind of missed it somehow. There was no computer class in my high school, I didn’t have any family members who understood that that was something that they could encourage, none of my teachers understood what it was. So there are instead these moments where I just missed it: like writing adventure games through an Excel spreadsheet as I kid. When I think about it now, that was programming.
When you start at OCAD, you don’t have a major. You pick your major in your second year. And I don’t want to be a cliche, but I think there is a really gendered dynamic to me turning away from software for a while and focusing on painting.
So you were a painter. Did you learn anything from your painting practice that you think has carried over to your work today?
Okay, this is a joke, but I like to say it. I think that art school is really great, especially painting. Painting has such a chip on its shoulder. You have to justify yourself as a painter. Why am I painting this? Why didn’t I take a photograph of it? You get really good at explaining yourself [laughs].
I think that artistically, there’s a lot of modalities that I learned from the more traditional art world that I applied in the software world. And one of them is definitely undertaken by many artists in the glitch art territory too but I think it’s something that I learned from painting, which is that sometimes a mistake, or the thing that you paint wrong, ends up actually being the most interesting and best part of the work.
And so as an artist who makes software this means I am writing it line by line. I’m engaging with the code as a craft process, which is very similar to how I used to engage with painting: with my hands in it. There’s definitely a category of artists who work with software who are movie directors, and then there are others who have their hands on the camera. And I think that it’s a different type of working to work with your hands on the camera like that. By painting, I learned a really engaging-with-the-medium, almost formalist approach to software.
Is there a time where working with your hands in the code affected the project?
I have a project that I’m going to launch in the next couple of weeks. It’s an NFT project. But it’s a really weird NFT project. And I’m not launching it on an NFT marketplace, I’m actually making my own NFT marketplace, because I’m crazy and I love to work and hate having fun [laughs].* The project has changed a lot while I was making it as a result of the specific library that I was using.
At first, I found this directory listing of all major device screen sizes since the iPhone 3, which I scraped. Then I thought, with all these NFTs with their shiny 3D people and whatever, wouldn’t it be just really comical to list 300 solid black JPEGs which will fit perfectly on your device? And so I was scraping this site, and I thought, I kind of want to learn Rust for no real reason at all. So I decided to make my NFT project in Rust, and it turns out the library for generating and saving images in Rust — which deserves to be shouted out, it’s called Image—makes it so easy to work with images. It has such a nice interface for changing the value of a single pixel.
From there I thought, “This is not hard at all to change a couple pixels here and there.” And I thought about hiding data in individual pixels. It’s not a QR code, but it’s a piece of data that’s hidden in black on black pixels, two shades that are distinguishable from a computer but not to the human. And the data that’s hidden is going to be encrypted in such a way that it can only be read when you have all or two thirds of the images on your computer.
That’s a software story about the way that a tool can change the work. If I had been hiring someone else to write the software, there’s no way the project would come out the same. Now the whole project is about hiding stuff in the images.
Also, going back to your previous question, I also think that in the nondigital traditional art world, there’s a concept of making something that is “site-specific.” And this is something I think about a lot a lot with the way I work with technology now: technologies as platforms or as places that we make site specific interventions into. It’s something I think about a lot in my peer to peer work, and actually all across my practice is one of the biggest themes.
How do you make something site-specific when blockchain is inherently site nonspecific?
Maybe the site in that case is the protocol itself. Right? What does the protocol afford or enable uniquely that other protocols don’t afford and enable? That’s kind of the question that I’m always asking. The blockchain world enables creating digital things that can behave like assets, it enables engaging with finance, directly. I mean, to me, the thing that’s always been interesting about that is asking “Oh, cool, what if I fuck with them?”
Your idea of protocol as site peeks through in your piece ClickMine (2017). Can you talk more about the process of working with the protocol as a medium there?
ClickMine (CLK) is an ERC20 protocol token. It was created in 2017 when we were experiencing a blockchain news hype cycle. ClickMine is a really satirical project. Although it is issuing an actual ERC20 token, it is issuing an ERC20 token that mechanically speaking is designed to be useless in just about every way that it can be. And one of the mechanisms is that you can get it for free. By clicking in the game, you just have it minted to you. But you don’t even just get it minted with every click, you get minted more and more of it the more you click. So everyone ends up with these astronomically high silly balances, pretty quickly. The total supply of CLK and circulation of CLK is some number I don’t even know how to pronounce. And this was extra funny to me at the time.
There’s a huge sense of speculative-imaging in your work. With regards to your art, what do you think a desirable future is for you?
I’ve been talking about it a lot with the crypto world actually lately, because I think it’s important to not build dystopian things. The world is making dystopias faster than I can imagine them. It’s so easy to appropriate the tactics of something that I don’t like or want and then just…. ClickMine is like this. I would not make ClickMine today, because ClickMine exists mostly in the mode of satire. It’s mostly just replicating and accelerating things that are already going on that I may be critical of. And so with the new NFT project, I actually see it as being hopeful. I really hope everyone will share and that together they’ll have the final better thing of the secret being revealed.
And Circles, which I worked on, was also this. Circles is a community currency and is supposed to work like a universal basic income, or at least like a currency that has a more equal wealth distribution. I always thought there’s almost no chance this project will get majorly adopted, but it’s important to make this science fiction gesture of how it could be. We have this ability to invent new monetary systems, the possibility space is huge, and Bitcoin is the one you picked? Like really, everybody?
I don’t have a great answer for that: what should future worlds look like? Actually, no, I do, I totally want to live in Star Trek [laughs].
I do think in the past few years I have been trying to make work that is not only critical, but suggestive of ways to maybe engage with the many things that are very bad and scary, and also show a way through them. Anyone who sits there and stares and tells you that they know, and they have one idea for what the future utopian world should look like, that person is a totalitarian, maybe a fascist. Nobody knows! We need to allow flexibility in this. There’s no answer. We’re gonna get there slowly.
*Editor’s note: Sarah clarified that she will avoid launching on a PoW chain like Ethereum 1.0, to avoid environmental costs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sarah Friend is an artist and software engineer, specializing in blockchain and the p2p web. She is a participant in the Berlin Program for Artists, a co-curator of Ender Gallery, an artist residency taking place inside the game Minecraft, an alumni of the Recurse Center, and an organizer of Our Networks, a conference on all aspects of the distributed web. She has been working in the blockchain industry for over 5 years, from the perspective of both an artist and a software developer at one of the largest blockchain companies in the world. Her most recent project is Circles UBI, an alternative currency that tries to create more equal distributions of wealth.