Curating Software with Casey Reas

The artist and Feral File cofounder on chain agnosticism and hybrid institutions.

Text Zine
Published 28 Feb 2023

What marks Feral File out from other curated NFT marketplaces is its refusal to conform to a standardized formula. While others scurry after canned slogans and cookie-cutter strategies to stand out in an increasingly crowded space, Feral File has stuck firmly to an ethos of customization and deep collaboration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rest seems to have all fallen into place.

At the center of this bold rebellion is cofounder Casey Reas, who describes Feral File as something more akin to an art book publisher than a market-based platform. Reas’ involvement with Feral File is prefaced and precipitated by his own extensive career as a artist, programmer, educator, and serial advocate of software-based art. Reas is the author of numerous books covering both the practical intricacies and situated history of making art with computers, and he teaches students to do just that as a professor at UCLA’s Design Media Arts department. His own procedural software artworks are held by Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and his streak for building creative infrastructure can perhaps be traced back to his role as the cocreator of Processing, an open-source programming language tailored to the visual arts that Reas put out while still a PhD student at MIT in 2001.

Reas' longstanding frustrations with the difficulty of presenting software within a fitting curatorial frame culminated with him launching Feral File alongside cofounder Sean Moss Pultz in 2021. The inaugural exhibition Social Codes, curated by Reas, set the tone for what was to follow by gathering together ten artists whose work uses code as a medium for community. Since then, the scope of the platform has broadened along with the borders of its curatorial community, with the platform working across chains and spearheading institutional collaborations with MoMa and Buffalo AKG Art Museum. Most recently, it released Shanghai-based game-engine cosmonaut Lu Yang’s first NFTs in a collaborative exhibition with Vellum LA.

Feral File remains rooted in code, but less as a didactic curatorial focus than a set of axioms for how a new creative institution can—like Reas’ trademark procedural artworks—evolve on its own terms. Adaption, agnosticism, iteration, and experimentation are the order of the day. The “Feral” in “Feral File” suggests a kind of institutional escape narrative, but perhaps it also suggests something like what the anthropologist Anna Tsing means by the term: that which assumes a trajectory beyond human control.

Reas spoke to former ZINE editor Liam Casey about code as a creative medium, new models of collecting, and building hybrid institutions.

Liam Casey: You’ve had an accomplished career as a digital artist and researcher long before concepts like “internet art” catapulted into the canon. You cofounded Feral File in 2021—a year which many folks have credited as the moment they finally went down the proverbial rabbit hole. Were the discussions around the idea to develop the project a long time in the making? Or was it a product of that time?

Casey Reas: We were experimenting together—and by “we” I mean Sean Moss Pultz and Bitmark, which is a Taiwanese blockchain company—as early as 2016 and 2017. We launched our first experiment in 2019 and Feral File was a direct extension of that. The timing with what happened with NFTs and cryptocurrency was coincidental because we’d been working on this stuff for a very long time.

  • Casey Reas
Casey Reas

LC: I’m very curious about governance and structure with regards to the way you guys commission and curate. How are people chosen to curate shows and what does that process look like?

CR: At the beginning, it was a very small project. A few people internally at Bitmark were working on it with me, and we built it in a minimal way. A lot of the commissions were coming from my own social network; friends I’d been working with for a long time, curators I’d worked with and really admired. Then we started an open call for curators. We’ve done two full open calls now, and the majority of the shows over the last two years have been through that process. That is the origin of the shows: we try to get the word out and ask curators to send a very minimal first application with their artists.

The most important thing about Feral File is the way that the artists create editions to their work and then trade those editions with each other. It’s in the tradition of working in a print shop, making silk screens, and then trading with one another like a2p. a2p, or artist-to-peer, was all about artists making editions and then swapping with each other. They predate Feral File by a couple of years. With Feral File, all of the artists receive a full collection of the work in the show. The collectors can have access to getting the work too.

LC: There’s this element of collective buy-in and community. At the nuts and bolts of it, in NFT marketplaces, there’s talk of community and whatnot, but when it actually gets down to certain pieces, they just mimic the regular art world and gallery mechanics. You have broken off from that in that everyone can share in the creative output and wealth of people’s work.

CR: That’s been really important for us. The shows that have been the most impactful for me have been the ones where the artists have created a real connection with each other. When they’ve made the work in dialogue with each other. They have collaborated and promoted the shows of one another.

LC: Have artists who have a more independent streak created a lot of different conversations about artists’ output and creative practices, with regards to the community and whatnot?

CR: The most important thing is always the quality of the shows. The shows that we ended up with in 2022 were so exciting. Aria Harvey’s show, Peter Burr’s Show, and Tina Rivers Ryan’s Peer to Peer show. I was thrilled to get those out in the world. The sales for each were really different from one another. We need sales because we need to stay open. We need to be able to pay all of our engineers. Like a traditional gallery, you have some artists that have a really strong market and you have other artists that have a less strong market. It’s about presenting the work as the primary focus.

LC: Absolutely. The curator Domenico Quaranta wrote a fairly bleak treatise on crypto for Spike Art. He also curated this exhibition with you guys, For Your Eyes Only. A lot of other marketplaces tout a similar theory of collective buy-in. What gives Feral File the marketplace edge as opposed to others? How do you see yourselves at Feral File on a different track than other NFT marketplaces?

CR: That’s a really good question. We see ourselves more as a publisher than a platform or a marketplace. The way that we invite artists to come aboard and release work through us is different. We have longer time scales. Our shows are often nine months to a year in the making. The curator and the artists have more time to consider everything. We also have a very good engineering team able to make adaptations and customizations unique for each show.

LC: Lots of Web3 companies or proselytizers have harbored a downright hostile position towards institutions, but you guys partnered with MoMA. Were there any surprising discoveries or epiphanies while working in that kind of dichotomy? Would you have any messages for other NFT marketplaces after your experience working in that capacity? Perhaps to shatter any preconceptions that die-hard Web3 people might have?

CR: That one really just comes from my own background of working within that world for 20 years. Working with MoMA, working with Michelle Kuo, working with Paola Antonelli—they’re just extraordinary curators and extraordinary thinkers about art. So I want to work with them. I want to talk with them and collaborate with them. With Tina Rivers Ryan, we talked all the time for nine months while we were preparing the show. It was a really fruitful collaboration. I believe in hybrids and in synthesis. That’s what my whole career has been about. Feral File is completely independent and autonomous. At the same time, we’re largely about experimentation. So we thought, let’s try that with MoMA, let’s see what happens, let’s see how it feels. I always want to try new things.

LC: I loved Pau Waelder’s conversations with Willa Koerner in the Close-Ups piece, “Code Is All Around Us.” There’s obviously a big discussion about beauty and code—you’ve even described code in relation to a piece of music. How can the relationships between curative practices and code be extended? Can code inform curation? Is there any way a gallery could harness code and algorithms to curate a show autonomously?

CR: The approach that we’ve taken with Feral File has been about human relationships, idiosyncrasies, and building shows through ideas that I believe are ambiguous and fuzzy enough that they can’t really be quantitative at this point. But that said, a lot of the artwork has very intentionally been code. The primary reason I set out to build Feral File was decades of frustration over people not focusing on software. There had been lots of initiatives to show video work, lots of initiatives to show image-based work, but nothing really for presenting software with code.

Everything was conceptualized for Feral File and built before the other code-based platforms. A lot of the crypto platforms where you can show video, animated gifs, and images had never been able to show codes. Code is completely essential to Feral File’s origins. Unlike some other platforms like fxhash or Art Blocks, which are entirely code-based, Feral File wants to stretch—not be tied into one specific medium. We basically want the curators to have the flexibility to curate all different kinds of media forms from text files to video to code.

LC: You had initially worked with Bitmark and Tezos’ people on the Tezos blockchain and then you introduced Ethereum post-merge.

CR: We started on the Bitmark chain because it wasn’t tied to a cryptocurrency. With Feral File, we believed deeply in blockchains, always have, dating back a decade, give or take, to when we launched. Everything was more traditional payments. Instead of having our own blockchain, we needed to be more distributed, to be really agnostic with that technology. Tezos was the first choice. Ethereum post-merge was the second choice. Early on, the collectors felt that we needed to start accepting cryptocurrency. So we built that in.

We built a bridge between Bitmark to Ethereum as a result of what we needed to do. Basically, we want the artists who want to mint on Tezos to be able to do that. We want the artists who want to mint on Ethereum to be able to do that. We want to be artist-focused in how we make technology decisions. Early 2020 was the most difficult time in this community of digital art. People who’d known each other for decades all of a sudden were enemies, fighting publicly with each other over the environmental issues around different chains. The reason people went to Tezos was out of environmental concerns. I went to Tezos for the same reason. Now that the merge has happened, we feel like our community is the place to be right now.

LC: Do you think that there’s a correlation between certain work and certain blockchains? Do you find that, say, Tezos artists are more inclined to do certain kinds of projects or exhibit a certain style as opposed to Ethereum artists? Or is it, as you said, relatively agnostic?

CR: Access has always been our priority. If we really want this to be truly global and open to people, we can’t have those fees. That’s what’s important about Tezos and continues to be a driving factor for artists working with Tezos and a part of the culture there. Another thing about the world of Tezos is the completely uncurated spaces. Anybody can mint anything at any time for a very low cost. Some of the founding Ethereum spaces are more restrictive. Zora always felt great in this regard—like a really good approach to the space.

LC: To close out, which fields in the decentralized landscape, or in general, do you feel Feral File has still yet to explore? What can we expect this year moving forward?

CR: In hindsight, when Feral File launched, it was very not decentralized. We had our blockchain that we were maintaining and we were holding custody over the NFTs. We didn’t have integration with crypto wallets. In 2022, we pushed our own infrastructure and technology to be more decentralized, more Web3. That’s what we’re continuing to do. This year is the first time we are following through with those values completely across the board with Feral File. We’re only a couple weeks away now from actually migrating everything from the Bitmark chain to Tezos and Ethereum. It’s going to be a massive process. We contacted all the artists asking which chain they want their work to migrate to.

Folks, once again, after this technical transition, will be able to focus on supporting artists. We have a wide range for every show or nearly every show. We’ve been building new modular features. Now when a curator comes to us and an artist comes to us, we are able to customize everything that they need. For example, now we can have one-of-one, highest bid auctions in a show, we can have an open edition, we can have fixed editions with a fixed price. It’s very flexible for artists and curators to frame and present the work in terms of editions, but also in terms of how they want to make that available to collectors.

Share article
Link copied!