The tombs of Ancient Egypt concealed treasure, equipped to aid their deceased into the afterlife—the world to come. Us modern pharaohs embalm the past online, on discs and harddrives, recognizing the limitations of our tangible world. What is Web3 if not our digital next life? Blockchain our immaterial beyond.
Graphic designer David Rudnick’s Tomb Series project looks to the next life of digital art, the world to come, for artistic ownership, creation, and community. Tomb Series is a universe unto itself, shrouded in lore and intrigue. At its core, the project consists of 177 Tombs: artworks depicting MiniDiscs individually drawn by Rudnick on a 2012 Macbook Pro using Photoshop and Illustrator CS3. These MiniDiscs serve as storage devices that separate into eight collections of “Houses,” which operate under different contracts respectively dictating the owners’ usage. Each Tomb lives onchain as an NFT and in the Tomb Index—a 240-page hardcover book.
The sophistication of the Tomb Series may be daunting to the average minter. Fortunately Rudnick has partnered with Zora to create Recovery, a fundamentally new concept for NFT projects. The project aims to recover the treasure contained inside these Tombs and make it public. Each Tomb contains its own “unique assemblage of onchain media,” created and minted by the Tomb Series community. Holders of the original Tomb NFT and the creators of the Recovered media share ownership of whatever treasure the Tomb contains as well as the ability to choose said treasure. Each Tomb becomes the seed of a new creative platform, a potential record label, publishing house, blog, or anything its creators can imagine. While the Recovery mechanic will begin life as a component of the Tomb Series project, the ultimate goal is that it fuels a broader wave of participatory cultural production. To this end, team members from Zora Engineering and Tomb Series are banding together as RECOVERY DAO to work on incorporating Recovery into the Zora SDK.
Whether digital or physical, our futures are uncertain; but if Rudnick has any say, our futures will be collaborative.
Liam Casey (ZORA): The Tomb Series project spans multiple media. There’s the onchain component, the 240-page hardcover book, and also the screen print editions. I’m curious about the intentions behind that. More generally, how much does intentionality sprout in your work?
David Rudnick: I think it's fair to say intentionality and agency are important concepts for me. You see a lot of projects onchain that are serial. They have big bodies of work, but the way that they arrive at seriality is through utilizing generative or random components, often deployed at mint. I have nothing intrinsically against that structure, but I was more interested in how the different components of a project might interact and generate meaning for a viewer if those components were elements of a wider, interdependent system. I wanted to create a body of work where the components added up to something that created additional value, additional interest, and additional meaning, rather than just a set of assets that all essentially sit within one continuous pool.
We published the body of work in a physical publication, the Tomb Index, prior to revealing anything online. We did that to draw in a different kind of community, but also to draw attention to how images accrue meaning and value in these different contexts, and how the value placed in a digital work can be translated into other mediums. There’s often an assumption that Web3 opposes traditional modes of cultural distribution. With this project, I hope it’s apparent that Web3 is adding value to a traditional publishing model. It’s creating an interesting new use case for a book, which becomes a physical index of an onchain project.
LC: You’ve created various designs previously in your career that harness these images from hard format data storage. What continues to draw you towards them?
DR: My interest in language and my interest in image cannot be separated from the signifier, the container through which language, data, and image are conveyed. It’s funny that I was initially drawn to type design as the space where I felt that I was able to build a practice for myself, because type is itself a data storage medium—perhaps the lowest latency data storage medium there is. I think it’s why I’m interested in works onchain and the chain itself. All of these things are ultimately forms of language. Storage media and the ideas of permanence, finitude, and things being able to outlive the fragile or fated form that they were placed into is something at the heart of my practice.
LC: Did you ever start drawing a Tomb and decide it just wasn’t the right direction?
DR: Definitely. It was really important that every single Tomb had a coherent idea behind it and it wasn’t just me knocking them out to make numbers. The closer I got to the end of the project, the harder it was to draw new Tombs. I didn’t want to detract from the ones I’d already drawn by adding outrageously novel components. It felt disrespectful to the idea of them as a community. All the Tombs ultimately coexist with one another. They form a multitude that has different values, different tribes, and different languages, but they’re not in direct opposition to each other.
There’s one that I held off drawing until the very end—I think it was the third to last Tomb I finished. It might be my favorite, but it was so hard to do. That Tomb is Wing of a Blue Roller, my homage to the Albrecht Dürer drawing of the same name. I saw that drawing when I was an undergraduate in Rome and it blew me away. The care and the time that Dürer had taken and his love of exploring the color relationships on that wing. It’s this brilliant, vivid, iridescent object. It was clear to me that Dürer was looking at that wing in real life and that it was the most beautiful, extraordinary thing he’d seen. He was trying to do justice to its components.
The MiniDisc was to me what that bird was in Dürer’s life: this physical object that could access states of light and states of color otherwise unavailable in everyday life. It was truly a sublime and banal object. Drawing the surfaces of these MiniDiscs, I never wanted it to become a formal exercise, where they’ve just got to look cool. I always wanted it to be a dialogue with the actual object that had inspired me that I could never do justice to. I can’t make something as brilliant as a MiniDisc in real life, but I can try. And Wing of a Blue Roller was the Tomb that was a homage to the drawing that was, in many ways, my rationalization for why I started drawing MiniDiscs in the first place.
LC: You have expressed doubts at times about NFTs and the possible loss of tangible cultural signifiers. Since embarking on this project, how have your feelings evolved on the subject?
DR: When I talk about my concerns that Web3 might cannibalize existing spaces of visual culture, my intention is not to denigrate Web3 or suggest that it is a virus attacking culture. There are amazing possibilities within Web3, but for those possibilities to become realities they need to be reflected in the projects and structures we’re building. We can’t just talk about how great the space is while it becomes populated with a bunch of low-effort or scammy projects. We need audiences and creators interested in culturally useful, socially interesting onchain projects rather than just the most lucrative financial structure.
People talk about the value of works onchain essentially being a manifestation of community dynamics, but it’s clear that many projects aren’t being built by people who have experience or interest in building culture properties with a shared audience. The community emerges on the back of a financial token, and community members enforce the price by being invested in the project. This creates a pointless and infinite treadmill of activity where, as an owner, you now have to become a shill representative. You have to manifest the cultural presence of the property that you own in order for it to have a cultural presence, and having the right to manifest that culture is often contingent on owning the property. It’s an in-group/out-group model where you have to buy an NFT to access the culture and the culture consists of crowdsourced advertising for others to do the same.
The simplest way for me to put it is you’ve built a centralized culture on top of a decentralized protocol. What Web3 promised, and what hasn’t been built yet, are the mechanics for decentralized projects to support, facilitate, and encourage decentralized culture, and to do so in a non-destructive manner that isn’t anarchic. That’s what we’re hoping Recovery, the new core mechanic of the Tombs Series we’re now launching, can be.
LC: What is Recovery and how does it enable this new kind of decentralized cultural production?
DR: We’ve avoided talking about Recovery up until this point because, by not revealing the mechanic, we’ve also not revealed any kind of opportunity to exploit it or invest in it with the expectation of an easy return. Instead, by launching with the Tombs Index and keeping things fairly obscure, we have a really great organic collection of people who have access to the community layer of the protocol just through being interested in this weird, fringe project.
Each of the 177 Tombs will be provided with a sibling Recovery contract that is functionally identical. So 177 Tombs, 177 Recovery contracts. That contract interfaces with the governance layer of the project, allowing community members to make a Recovery proposal. With the Recovery proposal, you identify a Tomb that has been deployed onchain and propose content that you want to mint as “Recovered content” from that Tomb. Each Tomb essentially becomes a cultural hard drive. We’re all familiar with the idea of a MiniDisc as something which can hold data. Hopefully this makes the concept symbolically intuitive for someone who’s not familiar with the blockchain.
LC: What happens between a Recovery proposal being initiated and the content being minted? How do you balance curation and community to create meaningful output?
DR: Making a proposal triggers an onchain vote where all the holders of the governance token can vote on the material. The Tomb owner is given an outsized vote and so is able to exercise some degree of curatorial agency. You can say, “I’m collecting poetry in my Tomb, so I’m going to say no to anything that isn’t a poem.” Hopefully this is not a discriminatory mechanic either, because if someone says no to you minting on their Tomb, there are 176 others, some of which may have more open owners. The contents of each Tomb can be very anarchic or a curatorial space solely for the Tomb owner’s own work, but either way—and this is why it is structurally advantageous to even utilize the mechanic—you have a single contract that contains a discrete, searchable body of work onchain. More than that, it’s potentially a back end to whatever front end you want. You could run a Tumblr, a record label, or a gallery of the content on a Recovery contract. Years from now, someone might put together an exhibition featuring the Recovered contents of Tomb LXXII.
LC: Beyond serving as a back end for other projects, how do you see users engaging with Recovery in the context of the Tombs as a cultural unit in their own right?
DR: The idea is that because Recovery is a non-destructive, irreversible mechanism—as everything should be onchain—it can enable an ever growing archive of community imagination that is not in any way directed, centralized, or curated by the artistic core of the project itself. The Tombs Series is a deliberately composed, human-scale body of work. Sufficiently large enough that someone is likely to be interested in the Recovery you’re proposing. Sufficiently small enough that you feel like it might be worth exploring to find that person. If there were 10,000 Tombs, this would be a nightmare. It would just be a junk database of unsearchable, unretrievable, unsortable data, devoid of meaning. The structure and scale of the project are dictated by the logic of culture rather than the logic of capital. Hopefully the introduction of Recovery can have second-order effects that compel people to create more NFT collections that prioritize cultural utility over creating this infinite liquidity pool that you’re meant to aggregate culture out of. This is part of why it’s beautiful to open-source the Recovery mechanism with RECOVERY DAO. We want to use the Tombs project as a trojan horse to enable a much larger shift.
I come from subculture spaces where your position within culture is only vouched for by your ability to provide creative support to others, and there needs to be much more of that onchain. There’s a non-finite window of time wherein if people don’t build these tools in the Web3 space, constructive paradigms probably won’t emerge.