Metaphorical Resonances, Ledgers, KNOTS: Emily Segal and Maximal User Harmony

It’s time for literature to expand into the experimental, decentralized landscape

Text Blaine O'Neill
Published 17 Feb 2022

A knot is a knot, regardless of how or where it loops or holds itself together.

American architect and systems theorist Buckminster Fuller argued that each and every human is a “pattern integrity”. By moving a knot along a rope of different fibers, Fuller shows the integrity inherent to the knot itself, traveling across linked ropes not bound to the materiality of the cord itself.

A knot is an entanglement that defies time and gravity.

Tying a knot is also an analog to orbiting an object in three dimensions: to make a knot, you loop a rope or thread around 360 degrees in one direction and 360 degrees in the other direction—like a virtual camera orbiting its subject or a rendering engine calculating light and shadow.

A knot is a formalistic meme that can travel across media and material.

A knot is one of 720 NFTs.


Emily Segal—artist, writer, trend forecaster, and newly minted “knot-worker”—brings collective projects to life, mining meaning in unexpected places. Last year, she crowdfunded $NOVEL token on Mirror in order to write her next novel, “BURN ALPHA”, in lieu of a traditional publishing deal.

Now, Segal and her team (Chris Reppucci and Sarah Scott, with the might of Violet Office, Nemesis Global, Wurmhumus Fabrik, and Deluge Books) have created 720 unique 3D-rendered knots that contain traits, cryptographic metadata, Feng Shui for “maximal user harmony,” and also the first paragraph of text from “BURN ALPHA” hidden in the rendering engine’s environment map.

KNOTS works itself through time: it considers the knot as a precursor to written language and a tool for banking memories and assets, while looking to the present future—a turbulent and looping system of automated commodities. What better way to fund a writing practice than by hawking proto-literary artifacts in the metaverse? Unlike other NFT systems created by artists coming from the art world, like Bjarne Melgaard's "The Lightbulb Man", or Jeffrey Alan Scudder's "Radical Digital Painting", the life of each knot is designed to fuel a growing literary world, with a portion of each knot sale and 100% of secondary sales supporting Deluge Books, “a new mass experimental queer press.”

Along with Segal’s $NOVEL token, the KNOTS project is a provocation to the staunch and slow world of literature and publishing. Instead of waiting for discovery by an agent with the slim chance of a book deal, why not be directly supported by a distributed “knot-work” of invested peers, readers, and writers? Contrary to beliefs that literature is dead and nobody reads anymore, Segal’s and Deluge’s work shows us that literature is very much alive, and Web3’s proliferating circulatory system is flush to sustain it onchain.

Emily Segal. Photography Dana Boulos

Yana Sosnovskaya (ZORA): Can you introduce yourselves and share each other’s role in the project?

Emily Segal: I'm Emily Segal and I initiated this project as a way to bring a lot of interesting collaborators together, explore the beauty of KNOTS, and create something that could reward some of the people who supported the novel crowdfund I did a year ago.

Chris Reppucci: I'm an astrologer, practitioner, and designer that works with physical and non-physical spaces, people's stories and lives, and the things they surround them with. I do a lot of divination and ritual specialization. I'm here to make sure that all of the components of the build are metaphysically coherent and best supported for the consumer, as well as for us on the creation-end.

Sarah Scott: I'm Sarah. My partner Corey and I comprise Wurmhumus Fabrik. We've been doing aesthetic and economic experiments in the Web3 space for five years or so, and this is our collaborative practice. This is our first time doing a literary project, which is really exciting— most of the stuff we've done is more music-focused. It's also our first metaphysically guided project, too.

ES: This is our first interview and our first time talking about the project publicly. There's definitely a lot of slippery vocabulary and slippery concepts. Knots themselves are very complicated and require a lot of tying and untying conceptually, as well as literally. We’ve also tried to wrap a bunch of interesting streams-of-thought into the project. It's definitely not the most bite-sized conceptual thing, but that's why it's fun to do these conversations and try to unpack it.

YS: What is KNOTS about?

ES: KNOTS is an NFT project. We're launching an addition of 720 3D-rendered knots that have different treatments and attributes. A portion of each knot sale will go towards funding projects at Deluge Books, which is the literary imprint that I run with collaborators in New York and LA. We publish trans-experimental and otherwise under-supported literary work. This is an experiment in trying to figure out how to get more resources to people who are doing interesting work and engaging Web3 in a more creative way.

Originally, with crowdfunding $NOVEL, the idea was, and still is, that the people who contributed will have early access to the text itself and an excerpt minted as an NFT. Then there’ll eventually be the first edition NFT book, which is still TBD. I started having a conversation with various collaborators about giving back to the community that wasn't just showing a part of the text. Once this format of NFT artworks with editions and variations on a theme started to develop, it actually just seemed like KNOTS was a perfect fit for that.

YS: Chris and Sarah, how do you both respond to the project and what it represents?

SS: From a very technical perspective, it's an NFT. We do have some random seed generation in determining which knot each person receives. We thought about making it more interactive in how the knots are determined, but decided that we would leave it a bit more to chance and randomness than to user interaction.

CR: How I see the project is similar to how Emily sees it from the literary and historical perspective of what knots are throughout time—how they were a precursor to language. Knots are non-linear representations of complication, but then, as an object, there's a virtual object. We were thinking about how a story has a plot, a setting, and an action, and that these knots are spinning in a 3D environment. I did a lot of divination to figure out which parts to stress metaphysically. At first, we were going to use the number of quantities as a metaphysical sorting system, but then we became more interested in the directionality within the digital space.

Right now, I’m in the Catskills in a building I'm working on, doing a bunch of design and installation to retain near-perfect Feng Shui. I've been thinking and working in this modality for a while. We started to incorporate that in the project—that the knot is in a 3D space. With the coordinates of the design, you can set that as north, east, west, or south, etc. Then you follow the correspondences of qualities that relate to the directionality.

The knot is actually in a perfect Feng Shui environment with corresponding qualities. I kept taking notes, asking, ‘How do I keep it coherent so that it's frictionless metaphysically and has the potential to be medicinal for the person rather than arbitrary design?’ That's something I want to stress further in any project that I do: If you design things arbitrarily, it has the potential to make the person uneasy.

ES: Maximal user harmony is something that we were talking about. Each knot is embedded in this spherical photograph of an environment with perfect Feng Shui. You can't see it because even though each knot has a reflective surface, there's one group of them that are more mirrored on the outside and then some that are reflective in a subtler way. We also embedded “BURN ALPHA”, the first paragraph of the novel-in-progress in that sphere so it's connected to the text-in-progress. You might see bits and pieces of the letters if you really look hard in the most reflective knots. We were thinking about how to layer these different registers of information. And because knots are all about binding or linking things, that was what we were working with conceptually.

Then there was this conversation we were having on a prosaic level: What does it mean to own an NFT?; Could it allow you to have access to things in the future?; Is it simply beautiful and something that you really like?; Is it a financial instrument that's going to appreciate and bring resources into your life? That's what Chris is talking about in terms of design decisions—whether they're intentional or don’t have an effect on you. We talked a little about how it feels in your body to be participating in this very volatile market, or set of markets and spaces. With KNOTS, we were trying to consider all of those questions and then address them technically, prosaically, and energetically.

YS: If you don't know the idea behind the knots and what it means for the roots of communication, then a knot on its own is a really tense object. It's interesting that in your project, it could bring peace and calmness.

ES: Some are very symmetrical and harmonious; some are crazy and intense-looking. That's the literary side, too, how a poem could rhyme and have a very harmonic rhythm that feels mellow or set up with a lot of tension—knots behave similarly to that. As I've gotten to know the different forms that we've been using more intimately through the design process, it's been interesting to see how they all have these different personalities.

YS: The whole Feng Shui aspect is fascinating—how you’re transferring that into the digital space. Sarah, are you thinking about implementing Feng Shui into the coding or engineering part? What does it actually mean for a builder to have that in their work?

SS: It's interesting with the limitations of Web3 right now, because the more complexity we introduce into smart contracts, the higher the gas fees are. By default, we have to be really conservative with every line of code that goes into the smart contract. But I feel that the room for Feng Shui and more experimentation in code looks more in the front-end experience and the experience that the user encounters when they arrive at the website. In this way, Violet Office is an amazing collaborator; what we're building is really balanced, beautiful, and takes a lot of inspiration from Chris and Emily's ideas.

YS: Emily, you touched on the two projects you've worked on in Web3: $NOVEL and “Code of Holes”. What have you learned which would help you improve, or iterate, your next project?

ES: With $NOVEL, one of the major learnings was that people were really excited about getting in touch with and accessing literature through this space, and that the cynical ideas about people not being interested in literature just aren't true. People were excited because writing a novel is a very elaborate project that takes a long time and a lot of effort, and they were seeing NFTs that seem shallow to them. So the idea that an NFT could be associated with something difficult to create and which requires a lot of craft and human attention—I found that very encouraging.

There was an outpour of desire for alternate routes because it's super important for writers to have new relationships with resources. There are various experiments in this vein, like Dirt, which is a newsletter that's also created a DAO—I was working on it more from a journalism angle.

With the Folia project, I made three animated poems that use different ways of generating text, like different AI language models or William Burroughs-style cut-ups that you could create online in order to produce the poetry. I tried to make them look nasty and deep fried. I got help animating them with the team at Folia, which was really useful and I'm super happy with how they came out. That made me start to think about larger editions.

YS: Since your previous projects were limited series or one-of-ones, do you believe that with the release of KNOTS there might be a different demand for your time, participation, and activation within the community? Do you wish to be more engaged or are you open to assuming a more passive role once it’s released?

ES: I definitely plan to be engaged with the community. Part of what we're doing is figuring out different tempos of engagement that make sense. There's a strategic conflict in the Web3 space between the more interesting, labor-intensive, creative projects and then the incredibly fast-paced, information firehoses of the space. Those things don't necessarily mix well together.

And as we bring disciplines like literature into the space, we also have the opportunity to figure out different ways of communicating with a community and trying to get past this binary of ‘We're talking all the time’ or ‘We're never talking or figuring out what would actually be the most interesting thing.’ Of course, there was something funny about having this immersive moment that I was super grateful for with the crowdfunded novel, having lots of people reach out to me, and then needing to totally cut that off to immerse myself in writing. I have to go back into more monastic writing periods to get this novel done, but I'm also interested in these more networked projects. It's a ‘Choose-your-own-adventure’ moment for me.

YS: What are your thoughts, Chris?

CR: It’s pretty interesting, what Emily’s saying, about time scales and literature having its own time; and digital communication with the Web3 communities having a totally different time scale and attention input living on places like Twitter or Discord. It reminded me of what we embedded into the contract: Some selections of operations from ancient literature from the Greek Magical Papyri, which is a central piece of research on Western magical traditions going back to the syncretic period. If you look at these papyri, it looks just like data and is like an ancient smart contract. But in this project, we're broadening what can be contracted into the unseen in multiple ways.

ES: There’ll also be future things that get unlocked through the smart contract and the metadata that are secret for now, but will be fun and exciting once they're deployed in the future. We're intentionally bridging some pretty big time scales. The knots themselves are connected to the Incan Quipu knotting process, where these giant, historical registers were also used for accounting. They had hundreds to thousands of knots in the form of language before written language, and scholars had different perspectives on how they worked.

So there’s a lot of resonance with the blockchain. There’s even a Tezos project called QuipuSwap—we're not the first people to see this overlap. We're just playing around with all these different metaphorical resonances, knots, ledgers, and the way that ancient magical formulas could fit well into a contemporary smart contract.

KNOTS, 2022 by Emily Segal and Deluge Books

YS: Emily, considering your background engaging with culture and society on a deeper level and applying a critical lens, what do you believe the Web3 community may be delusional or naive about, currently?

ES: Any time that certain people are making a lot of money very quickly, they tend to get delusionally excited about how much that same process is going to help a lot of other people and change the world. That doesn't mean that that process can't help other people or can't change the world for the better, but there does seem to be some correlation between the speed with which certain people make money and their conviction that that thing is going to save the world.

To put it mildly, technology tends to cut both ways—it is morally neutral at best. When people who are critical of the Web3 space are reacting negatively to the delusional optimism, I totally get that; at the same time, I think that overreacting to that is a shame because we're actually in one of these rare periods where technology is more plastic. We have the opportunity to figure out what we want to do with it, and to have a say in making sure that the types of projects and people who should be included, are included. It’s likely that—decentralization aside—there will be power consolidation periods that make it more difficult to initiate experimental or expansive projects. It's important to be brave and open-minded about it and to really take on an experimental attitude. What that means is also assessing what works and what doesn’t.

There's no chance that we'll look back in three years and say, ‘Oh, we shouldn't have published all those fabulous books.’ But we could look back on some of our experiments in this space and say, ‘Oh, that didn't make sense or that didn't actually lead us where we wanted to go.’ That's what happens when you're working with a new, nascent technology.

CR: A lot of people in the Web3 space use the word ‘ecosystem’ metaphorically and are not actually thinking about the wider ecology outside of the digital space. The more people think biologically and use biology as a lens on which to measure what's good design and what design helps everyone flourish, like a digital permaculture, will also vector into regular reality.

SS: I was originally a hardware engineer; personally, I’d love to see more conversations around extractivism and thinking more about humanity and the world at large—biologically and ecosystemically. Could we have the DAOs control computer production instead of these giant mega-corporations? That would be a truly exciting new evolution of Web3. That could maybe even be Web4.

YS: Was there an intent behind the Feb. 18 drop date?

CR: Definitely. We just had a pair of retrogrades, like Mercury and Venus. We were like, ‘No, we can't do it then; we'll have to wait for those to end and then for those planets to get back past where they started retrograde.’ There's a bunch of other problems in the skies.

YS: For those who aren’t as adept in astrology, can you expand on that a bit?

CR: Venus and Jupiter are ‘benefics’; they bring pleasure, joy, optimism, wealth, and luck. Saturn and Mars are the ‘malefics’; Saturn is your sense of boundary, discipline, or endurance, and Mars is your sense of getting it done and being effective. But they also bring challenges: When you're getting stuff done, looping back to literature, that’s the part that brings conflict to the story. So when you have malefics empowered in the sky in a way that lends too much influence to the situation, it's going to be problematic. On Feb. 18, we get the first bit of clarity after a lot of troubling skies. We start to get Jupiter, which is good.

ES: I think it's the day the sun goes into Pisces.

CR: Yes, and Jupiter can support the sun's perspective and we start to have an optimistic focus and believe in things working out.

YS: So if you mint the KNOT tomorrow at the right time, it can almost function as a charm.

CR: Totally.

ES: In astrology, the time window to optimize the positive aspects is called an ‘election’. Chris took me through that process, and we looked at the charts of all the people who were involved to see if there's any interference between where things are in their natal charts and where things are in the skies. We also tried to look at the astrology of the markets. There are a bunch of interesting astrologers specializing in crypto-related stuff. Doing financial astrology is an ancient thing—it’s just taking a more contemporary expression now. Eighteen is also one of the holiest numbers from a Jewish perspective. A lot of Jewish mysticism looks at how every letter in a word correlates with a certain new number, so 18 correlates with the word for ‘life’, and it’s typical in Jewish traditions to gift money in increments of 18. Anything related to 18 is auspicious.

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