Case Simmons is Up in the Clouds
The classically trained artist speaks on the arbitrary gamble of price-making and pushing programmatic limits
Yana Sosnovskaya (ZORA): Please introduce yourself.
Case Simmons: My name's Case. I'm an artist. I'm 38, but I've been making digital collages and digital art for 20 years. I studied painting, but I couldn't afford space, so I bought a laptop and started making art pretty early on. This was the early 2000s, I started getting excited about what could be done just with computers, so I started pushing it—experimenting with not only videos and performative things, but really found an affinity towards collaging.
YS: Let’s start from your latest project, Clouds on Chains. Is it derivative from your earlier project, Clouds? How did you formulate that original project and what was your process? Was it created solely digitally or did you also hand-draw anything?
CS: The Cloud series came about because I was making all this work that was incredibly laborious, and it’d take six months because of the technology at the time. The series was called The Temples. They were highly intricate horror vacui, Boschian-like digital collages. Clouds came about as a reprieve from that. They were quick and it satisfied an almost abstract expressionist way of painting for me. I'd be working on one piece for six months, and then I wanted to do more experimental, mostly non-objective abstract collages. The Cloud itself, as a photograph or as a thing, is this vaporous, hard-to-delineate thing, and so by cutting it out with the polygon lasso tool, there was this defining moment of giving shape to this form. I'd always been experimenting with that and it became a through line in my career of making these Cloud collages.
YS: Regarding the process, were they hand-constructed?
CS: They were digitally made, but every single piece was cut out, arranged, and then printed. That's very different from Clouds on Chains.
YS: Because Clouds on Chains is a generative project, correct?
CS: I would call it programmatic. Essentially what it is doing is I wrote an algorithm that’s very controlled, but it works through thousands of images of Clouds and Chains. It's basically working through these image sets, choosing a weighted randomness, and then piecing together these compositions based on a lot of tweaking.
YS: What were your challenges once you transferred from your first practice into the practice with Clouds on Chains, when you have pre-programmed tools?
CS: Honestly, it's so fun. I'm not really seeing any of it as challenges right now—sure there are technological hurdles that I have to dig through and figure out, but I'm trying to work through it. One challenge when coming up with a series like the Clouds on Chains pieces is finding that balance before the series gets deluded. It got to this number around 400 and then things started getting too repetitive for me. One of the most beautiful things about this space that I'm finding out is the ability to make these larger projects unique. Previously, if I were showing in a gallery, you're limited to the physical space in what you can produce. Sure you could make 400 very small pieces, but right now I'm super excited about how I can say ‘Hey, I can make a project that's a thousand pieces’.
YS: You have experience working with major cultural institutions like the Guggenheim Museum and Jumex in Mexico City. How different is the work in your NFT drop, as opposed to your work with cultural institutions?
CS: To be clear, those institutions bought my work. A lot of these big institutions have allocated budgets every year to just purchase new work. I wouldn't say I worked with them, but I have shown all over in countless galleries. From a creative and production standpoint, it's not a whole lot different.
It's been a weird few years for all of us and the last couple things that I've done in this space, the outpouring and support has been—I mean, I'm kind of swelling up. It's real and it's fuel. The traditional fine art system, there's so many great things about it, but there's a lot of fucked up things, too. To be a young artist, with success in the fine art space, it doesn't necessarily last and there's ups and downs. You'll make a bunch of money one year, and then you won't make any money for two years. In this space, right now at least, people are solutions-oriented, they want to figure shit out and they want to support.
YS: Within traditional fine art systems, there's this huge role that galleries and curators play with the art market economics and how it's shaped. How can Web3 change that dynamic? And if so, what does an ideal situation look like?
CS: It is changing it, first of all. Art Basel tweeted today that NFTs are here to stay. Pace Gallery built a platform recently, and that's more than to just say that the traditional spaces are seeing what's happening and want to be a part. As for what I see for the future, I’m honestly putting it all into my practice. I'm not yet at a place where I can sketch that out in a clear way, but what I can say is it gets back to what I was saying previously: that the energy and camaraderie are so important to the space.
YS: Do you not think NFT marketplaces, platforms, and also some whale dynamics, are similar to the traditional fine art world—where there's some gatekeeping?
CS: Absolutely, and I'm not one of these ideologues that thinks it's white and black—there are commonalities that exist in both. To your point, sure. But the beautiful thing is organizations like Zora who understand this. Some of these servers that I take place in, it's like people are trying to figure this shit out, and for the first time in a long time you don't need whales, you don't need these gallerists, you don't need to be in some influencer’s collection buying PFP after PFP. It's liberating and inspiring. It might take time, but who cares? If we're all having fun and making great work and pushing Web3 forward, let's do it.
YS: When you launched Clouds on Chains, there was a huge response from the community for the project. Do you believe that the acknowledgement by cultural institutions helped you, or did it not really matter?
CS: I think it helped, sure, but I've also spent my whole life doing this. I didn't try to throw that in anyone's face. To the first part of that question: it's all community—that's it. Having met people like Nic Hamilton and so many others through these channels, that's what an artist needs. They need to participate. Oftentimes artists just want to make work, but the completion to making that work is being vulnerable and exhibiting that work; part of it is also talking about that work, talking to other people, and learning about their work. I met [Anthony] Kolber and [Matt] Lenz—both at Zora—and their peer, Tommy Tkatchenko, on a server. They ended up building Clouds on Chains with me, and they'll be lifelong friends, and they're in f*****g Melbourne!
YS: What are your thoughts about the quality of art in the NFT space in the current moment? You're coming from fine art and not a lot of successful artists in Web3 have that type of experience.
CS: A lot of my peers in the fine art world are like, ‘Yo, I just see these f*****g monkeys’. I ground myself in knowing that it's young, and frankly, every day I see some new s*** that I'm excited about. There's a lot of work that I don't care for, but I made a decision not that long ago, that I'm more interested in constructive criticism and supporting people, because I think that the definition of art that I know it as, that the traditional fine art world knows it as, can be expanded. I also think that the ‘NFT space’ or whatever we're in can be expanded. It's better to put your energy towards expanding and making things better all around, supporting people that you see need a hand, or want to talk about art, or want to talk about trading shit coins.
When I first learned about the Mutant Garden Seeder I was like, ‘What the f***’; some of Rhea Myers’ work, it’s incredible conceptual art; Ezra’s Solvency, I mean there’s very thoughtful and incredible work in the space—we're not really seeing it because the noise is directed at some $10 million monkey, but that isn't to say it isn't there.
YS: Have you bought any PFP projects yourself?
CS: No. I bought one of the finiliar by Ed Fornieles. And that's not necessarily a PFP, but I feel like there's certain commonalities between it—at least how I imagine where it's going.
YS: There ought to be more artists from the traditional fine arts space who have enough of a vision and skillset to be transferred into Web3. There’s still a lot of skepticism. Once that skepticism starts to dissolve, we’d definitely see even more amazing artists coming through.
CS: I want to say it'll happen. I was talking to a few people about this recently. Like I was saying earlier, you have to participate, you have to be f*****g online a lot, and many of my peers who are making sculptures, paintings, or installations are not really in that space yet. That isn't to say they aren't interested, that they don't see value, or that they don't admire certain artists who are doing interesting things in the space—I think it's a collapsing, or a merging, of their own individual practices that needs to take place.
I have another artist friend whose gallery was trying to sell her NFT. It was a 24-minute sound collage, and the gallery priced it at 3 ETH. It's a challenging, weird piece that maybe the community isn't—maybe this is presumptuous—ready for. But that pricing also doesn't make sense—that's coming from a gallery mentality. All that's to say: I think that people will come, but I think it's going to be where practices start to merge. And so much about me coming into this space was me opening up my own practice to the little I know about engineering—that was an evolution of my own practice.
YS: You touched base on a really interesting topic: Pricing. Right now, the hype isn't even peaking, it's coming down in a bear market. But people are coming into the space and saying, ‘This is a unique artwork; I’ll charge 10, even 50 ETH’. They’re only reading about very specific, unique cases occurring. Obviously their work is precious, but they don't understand the dynamics of the market or what it actually takes for an artist to come into the space, build their presence, and spend just as much time being around the community as on their artwork. Not a lot of artists like yourself choose to create their own Discord channels and be actively involved there.
CS: Two things: What a blessing it is to have a server—I mean it also can be a nightmare, but the ability to have direct access to collectors who are more like peers, that's a change; regarding pricing, it's a different market; the ability to make art and to price it “low” price is liberating, for me at least. If you're putting out 100 pieces rather than one, and granted, I'm working programmatically right now, you don't have to sell a piece to pay rent for three months; you can sell 100 pieces, and sell them to people a little more like you.
YS: It’s totally understandable what you say about fine art collectors and people having completely different lifestyles and out-of-touch realities. It’s great that you have the chance to be around your peers. From a technological standpoint, what's the most exciting thing for you in Web3? Are you planning any future projects?
CS: With every project, I try to step it up a little bit. I did a handful of projects this year, and with Clouds on Chains, I really wanted my own smart contract and my own site with minting. I experimented with Rarity traits on this body, which is a nod to what else is going on in this space. I think from a technological standpoint, at least with this next thing that I'm working on, I’m mostly interested in pushing this digital collage in a more in-depth, programmatic way. I'm being intentionally vague right now, but that's what really interests me. I have peers, like Kolber and Lenz, who I can talk to for hours—if they let me—about the best way to write a smart contract, how to save on gas. Something I’m also interested in, but not directly involved with, is the open protocols that Zora’s working on—people trying to tackle how to exhibit NFTs. That's not necessarily technological, a lot of it's more creative direction and thinking from a curatorial standpoint, but those things start to overlap. I'm paying attention to that and trying to participate however I can, but right now my bandwidth is sucked up by making the best work I can.
YS: An amazing component of your work is that you can actually zoom in indefinitely and keep exploring all the elements. When you released Clouds on Chains, it might’ve been a member of the community who just screen-shotted a very zoomed-in part of the Clouds. You can understand it almost like an indefinite exploration of those parts—that’s what makes it so special.
CS: I appreciate that, and that's one thing that I really want do: Why can't NFTs be f*****g giant pieces? I think we're accustomed to seeing these very low-resolution, small pieces that are graphic and illustrative, but like, let's make huge pieces! I understand there's challenges with that, but that's something I'm interested in.