For more than fifteen years, Mike Winkelmann (better known as Beeple) has been producing at least one artwork a day. Every. Single. Day.
Initially aiming to design video games, Winkelmann studied computer science in college, but he found that he was drawn to making moving image works. The practice of making a modern video game is a complicated affair, akin to the production of a Hollywood film, in that many different disciplines collaboratively work together to produce a final product. Mirroring this industrial system on a very small scale but on his own terms, Winkelmann formed the experimental new media collective donebestdone with his childhood friends Jason Nanna and Kyle Vande Slunt around the mid-2000s. Although the project was short-lived, the frantic possibilities of digital technology informed the group’s work:
‘The speed and pervasiveness of technology informs our practice, providing tools to accelerate and distribute our process. . . . We acknowledge the dynamic between us and our tools . . .’
As a nod to the kind of art he was making at the time, Winkelmann adopted the moniker Beeple, the name of a 1980s toy whose nose would light up in response to light and sound stimuli. Beeple was increasingly interested in his own professional development as an artist around this period. Inspired by British illustrator Tom Judd’s Everyday drawing project from 2006, Beeple effectively set himself an auto-didactic curricula rather like the training one would undergo in the past in a more traditional art practice. Here, the journeyman was informed not by one stylistic master, in one medium, but by a pastiche of traits and methods from many masters—often unsung or anonymous—who provide tutorials via such websites as Envato and lynda.com (now LinkedIn Learning).
In 2007, Beeple began a still-unbroken streak of creating a new work daily and posting it online to receive critiques and serve as inspiration to others. In 2021, he collaged the first five thousand of these images and sold the omnibus as a non-fungible token (NFT). The rest is history. The intense, long-term focus required to produce the series has some precedents in art. For example, Peter Dreher painted the same empty water glass for decades, resulting in more than 5,000 individual subtle paintings that comprise his series Tag um Tag guter Tag. (Beeple has already surpassed this figure.) On Kawara, whose work is part of the M+ Collection, is another artist who recorded the slow progress of time with daily artwork production.
Instead of using traditional media like Dreher and Kawara, Beeple employs an array of digital tools to collage either his own creations or tweaked community-generated stock 3D elements available from stock model sites like Turbosquid. For a given day’s work, Beeple combines ‘prefabricated’ models and renders them with Cinema 4D. He then further processes them using Photoshop, adding a heavy dose of his own imagination along the way. This type of workflow is common in the commercial sectors of the design industry and it is astonishing to witness the rapidity with which Beeple navigates different interfaces to produce finished works in a matter of minutes. Like other members of the digital art design community, he is open about the process and there are many videos showing how he creates.
Traditional slow painting using materials like oil and acrylic is characterised by a kind of hesitant enquiry that unfolds at a measured pace as the artist deliberately applies flecks of paint that then take time to dry. Beeple’s practice sits somewhere between this temporality and that of contemporary AI image generators. One popular machine learning system, Dall·E 2, outputs blended images derived from users’ text prompts. Sitting in a kind of authored-authorless limbo, AI imagery is seemingly conjured out of thin air, bringing creative thoughts closer to the speeds of electricity.
An artist living both before and during the age of social media, Beeple has granted public access to pretty much his entire uncensored development, warts and all. The body of work he has made available for scrutiny begins with drawings and paintings rendered using traditional media and extends to the digital images he produced today—indeed, the day you are reading this—using a variety of industry-standard computer-based tools. This honest, often disarmingly self-deprecating output charts his growth from a visual artist in his twenties, who created often lewd, crude, and rude imagery evocative of some street culture styles from the 2000s, to his later political satire and biting cultural commentary.
Running parallel to Beeple’s art practice was his increasingly successful commercial work. Beeple has consistently employed his creative digital skills to produce music videos and graphics for music and fashion clients. In 2020, he noticed excited chatter from the digital art communities online about NFTs. He learnt the basics of how to produce and sell NFTs from other digital artists. This led to a cumulative moment in 2021 when the major auction house Christie’s sold Everydays: The First 5000 Days, a collection of his entire practice up to that point, for 69.3 million United States dollars. Many people first saw Beeple’s name in the news headlines garnered by this event, which amplified the buzz around NFTs and their relationship to the changing fortunes of the then-booming cryptocurrency market.
Ready, ‘HUMAN ONE’
HUMAN ONE (2021), installed in the museum’s Focus Gallery, is Beeple’s first sculptural work. It is a four-channel video sculpture that focuses on the journey of a mysterious figure, informally named the ‘traveller’. This figure tirelessly treks forward through a virtual landscape capable of evolving from a dystopian war zone to a benevolent jungle and everything in between. This seemingly endless digital world is confined within a physical box constructed from four LED panels. The structure is a virtual version of the time-travelling portal known as the TARDIS in the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, which contains a space much larger than the surrounding confines of the box.
The incorporation of contemporary cutting-edge technology within a sculptural piece is not new; it can be seen as far back as in works by Nam June Paik, the ‘grandfather of video art’, including TV Bed (1972/1991) and TV Chair (1973). More recently, net art pioneers YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES installed CRUCIFIED TVS—NOT A PRAYER IN HEAVEN (2021), a cruciform sculpture comprising five flat-screen monitors, in Focus Gallery. These works suggest that even as digital graphics open astonishing new possibilities, our dematerialisation is not complete.
Indeed, HUMAN ONE draws attention to the border between reality and virtuality through two structural devices, one is the rotating mechanical box that allows us only glimpses into the metaverse. The other is the synchronicity of time. Time as a technological tool is so subtle as to almost recede into the background, but the synced subtle colour filter applied to the piece linking the time of day between physical and virtual becomes the umbilical cord connecting the two realms—the virtual and the real. The magic that holds the piece together is the application of the technique of projection mapping, commonly seen as high-power light projected to the side of buildings with perspective correction so as to cause the video played on them to look as if they fit correctly. In HUMAN ONE, the physical aluminium pillars on the outside of the sculpture become replaced as a 3D render inside the virtual realm, creating a trompe l’oeil effect akin to the phenomenological conundrum of staring at a drawing of a transparent-sided box. As a result, the box feels present both inside and out.
The traveller at the centre of the work is a walking helmeted figure—a futuristic archetype made popular in science fiction films and the character select screens of first-person shooter (FPS) videogames. One can think of the Master Chief of Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) or Doomguy from Doom (1993) or even Murphy/Robocop from director Paul Verhoeven’s film Robocop (1987). However, unlike these characters who are capable of immense violence, the traveller in HUMAN ONE appears at peace with his surroundings. In fact, the peaceful looking intentions and flimsy silver suit feel more akin to the explorative qualities of shows like Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise in the 1960s. The Cold War space race captured the imaginations of the world and HUMAN ONE revives that feeling for an era when companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin lead the charge into orbit for the Star Wars generation.
The traveller’s smoothly consistent gait is explored in Harun Farocki’s
Parallel I–IV (2012–14) series in M+’s collection. In this moving image essay, Farocki breaks down the components of video games to reveal the often humorously inconsistent relationship between the player’s avatar and the virtual environment, the kinds of glitchy inconsistencies that remind you that this is not real life no matter how high resolution the display, the glitch in the matrix. For example, when an avatar’s foot goes through the ground or the environmental dust or dirt that never appears on the character. In Beeple’s work, this pristine traveller remains the constant—a kind of blank slate on which viewers can project their own ideas or perhaps their own self-images. The true protagonist of the work may be the ever-changing backgrounds, which Beeple will forever have the ability to update with new expressions of his creative ideas.
In Beeple’s digital landscapes, self-referential images from his Everydays series blend with allusions to other works of film and art. The traveller in HUMAN ONE has wandered amongst long-limbed willowy individuals reminiscent of the robot guardians of Studio Ghibli’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), encountered the melted clocks of Dali’s surrealistic fantasies, and walked through sublime landscapes that evoke Caspar David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer (1823–24).
Friedrich’s iconic Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (ca.1817), with its depiction of a lone figure positioned in the centre of the image with his back turned to us, also offers a point of reference for the helmeted protagonist of HUMAN ONE. The motif of Rückenfigur, or ‘turned figure’, has escaped the confines of Romantic art history and is now a common meme as well as a trope present in many science fiction film posters from the early 2010s such as 2012 (2009), Battle: Los Angeles (2011), Battleship (2012), and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), usually depicting a lone saviour facing a terrifying unstoppable force.
Beeple employs similar avatars in many of his own Everydays imagery. However, unlike these static works, the ‘camera’ in HUMAN ONE roves around the character, promising to show us the face of this turned figure within a turning box. Yet, the only signs of humanity are in the character’s glove-free hands. Is this the lonely hero of the metaverse, an airless world devoid of human contact? Or, perhaps, the figure represents the psychology of a creative living in his dreams, a pioneer, a maverick, a futuristic kind of flaneur. The British novelist and journalist Will Self once remarked, ‘If you’re serious about being a writer, solitary confinement is part of the job.’ Blank and detached as an individual, the traveller is at home in a world of hallucinogenic visuals, perhaps a digital analogue to the psychoactive triggers that have fuelled countless celebrated creative figures in history.
The next stage of the internet
For Beeple, it is clear what the metaverse is. He simply calls it ‘the next stage of the internet’. We cannot know for sure what living in the metaverse will be like, but HUMAN ONE offers one glimpse into the future. The central character wanders through a series of stored memories, it is as if they were ultra-high resolution file fragments algorithmically blended and served to us from a computer, indistinguishable from reality. This idea of the ego wallowing in the continuous flux of daily imagery is in many ways indicative of his Everydays practice of the past few years. For Beeple, the references to popular culture, and the surreal turbulence of the Trump era begin to coalesce into the wider kaleidoscope of opinions woven together by socially networked cultures. This vast repository of information becomes his material in effect and he contributes, in turn, back into this community, offering his particular visual take in his inimitable style to millions of social media followers. His imagery is then in turn used by other outlets to illustrate the news, creating a feedback loop in which pop will eat itself.
Embedded in Beeple’s work are ‘Easter eggs’, a term used often in gaming and coding for subtle references and in-jokes that form part of the culture for those in the know. These visual echoes in effect become repositories of our shared cultural heritage, living in our memories, or stored in the backpack of the traveller. These memes and references shine brightly for a time and then die like so many supernovae in the depths of the universe, virtual or otherwise.
Beeple: HUMAN ONE is now on display in Focus Gallery until 30 Apr 2023.
Greater Milwaukee Foundation, The Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Mary L. Nohl Fund Fellowships for Individual Artists 2006. Exhibition catalogue, Peck School of the Arts, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2007, https://www.lyndensculpturegarden.org/sites/default/files/pdf/Nohl2006_Catalogue%20copy.pdf
Metrowebukmetro. 2009. ‘Will Self: “solitary confinement is part of the job”’ Metro.co.uk (Associated Newspapers), May 11, 2009. https://metro.co.uk/2009/05/11/will-self-solitary-confinement-is-part-of-the-job-101595/