Mars Maiers and Novel Auction Mechanics
Allan Yu and Jacob Bijani's NFT project is a testament to binding design and art concordantly
The blockchain, ostensibly, functions on a transparent model; yet, Mars Maiers toys with this standard in subtle ways. Allan Yu and Jacob Bijani (a multi-hyphenate designer, and creative technologist/product engineer, respectively) can confidently say that their NFT project, played out as a year-long process, is the first blind—or sealed-bid—auction on the L1 Ethereum blockchain.
At its core, Mars Maiers (a pseudonym Yu forged) is a Bayesian game: when bidding commences, bidders won’t know who has bidded, or for how much; the result is a social trust experiment, swapping any sense of competitive ante-upping and inviting the bidder instead to consider what the work should be worth. The piece itself—one-of-one and handmade—isn’t revealed until the auction settles at midnight, adding another layer of trust and faith in the creative process, in which Yu has masterfully combined design and artistic gestures.
The beauty in Mars Maiers lies in its holistic deliberate-ness; not only are Yu’s daily images rife with topographies, colors, depth, and nods to glitch culture, but Bijani’s smart contract, too, exists like encoded poetry. Having begun Jan. 1, 2022, the project is nearing the end of its first quarter—and Yu and Bijani are gliding through splendidly.
Liam Casey (ZORA): Zora’s spoken with a number of artists who've straddled both traditional art contexts and decentralized Web3 contexts. Was the transition into Web3 seamless? What moved the needle for you?
Allan Yu: For this project, there wasn’t that much of a transition. The most trouble I had was at the beginning of last year when I was trying to figure out what NFTs were, it all felt very scammy. I bought my first NFT and I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I get it.’ Then I started to dive into this deep hole of NFT art and the community around it. Once I understood that, it wasn't difficult for me to pivot and to think about how it exists within this NFT world. In Web3, all the images are really ‘squared’, so I was really playing within that medium. Then I wanted to do some drawing stuff because it was anti-generative art in some ways, but that felt very unnatural. I was like, ‘You know what? I'm going to go back to the medium I feel most comfortable with,’ which is that poster-shape thing. It became less about painting and drawing, and more about printmaking and image making, which is what I was always really excited about.
LC: So much of design is working within specific parameters and making the most out of what you've got. Lots of folks whose background is in a gallery context are thrown a curveball with NFTs because they’re used to spatial variety, used to larger canvases or other means, and now they’re restricted to a certain size. Jacob, you were a keystone at Tumblr and also running your own creative technology studio. What was your introduction into Web3 and how did you come into contact with Allan?
JB: Allan and I have known each other from when I used to work at Tumblr, so we're good friends. We’d noodle on stuff together over the years, so it was natural to work on a project together. I bought Ethereum way back on Coinbase and people always talked about smart contracts and how the code was money—I never really understood what that meant. NFTs were the first complete example of this idea that the transactions have meaning and result in something.
Mars Maiers wasn't the first contract that I wrote, but it was the first one that I launched and finished. I took a stab at a couple simple ideas on Rinkeby and then got my bearings. We had the idea for the auction and were like, ‘Okay, how do we actually do that?’
LC: Allan, you deployed the Mars Maiers pseudonym back in 2015 out of a desire for anonymity from what you felt were some professional shortcomings. How did the name come into being? Secondly, has the project fulfilled and achieved what you intended back then? Or has the thesis of the project shifted in some capacity?
AY: Back then, the project was very much based on topography and graphic design with a capital ‘G’ and a capital ‘D’; the way letters look together next to each other mattered to me, and the alliteration sounded good. Honestly, if no one resonated with any of the Mars Maiers work, I would've just never said anything and been like, ‘I don't know who that person is,’ but because it did well and people liked that work, I was like, ‘Yeah, it's me.’
If you look at the old work, it was a lot of copying, because it was very much about learning from my peers and contemporaries, learning the process of good composition and good graphic design. None of that work was very good in my opinion, but I just did it as a practice for three years, every day. After three years, I finished, because I felt like I knew what I was doing. With the confidence from that project, I didn't think I needed to copy anymore.
Part of the reason I revived the project was because I was thinking through NFT projects and I wanted to put my hat in the ring. A lot of my friends were like, ‘You should just make your old stuff,’ and I was like, ‘No, I'm never going to make my own stuff, that chapter's closed.’ I feel icky minting stuff I've done before for this new work. I was trying to figure out: ‘Should I make another Mars Maiers? What can I play within arenas I already know about?’ Nouns was very much an inspirational project that I saw overlap with what we were doing. From there I was like, ‘Let me bring back this practice; let's do it for one more year, and this time when I do it, I'm not looking at anything.’
LC: Proponents, or practitioners, of digital design or digital art are often at odds with each other. Do you see a distinction between them? Do you tackle your pieces more from a design perspective or is it something more intimate?
AY: There's a big distinction between NFT art, especially that generative world, and what I'm doing. I find generative art to be really interesting because what your input is, which is just binary, and where your output is, are so drastically different that I find there's romance there. How do you express yourself in code, which is super cold, to these warm, organic shapes and colors? That distance means a lot to me, but I don't know how to do it because I'm an idiot! But I know how to weed through colors and compositions, or how to use Photoshop in a more gestural way. Mars Maiers work looked very printmaking and painterly, and my homage towards NFT art is that glitchiness that I tried to add in, but I do it by hand. It's very organic.
LC: We haven't really seen auction mechanics like the ones we're seeing with Mars Maiers now. Was your objective to rethink what an auction can be and actively introduce new market types in response to what's currently available? Or was this more a byproduct of the project and the way it matured?
JB: Allan and I approached it very much like a creative constraint pursuit. The creative challenge is: How much can we make private while still having the auction be fully autonomous? One of the big constraints we wanted to have in the setup was that, if you were the winner, you wouldn’t have to do anything to claim your winnings. All those constraints, those rules that we set for ourselves, are how we ended up with the format that we have now. There's certain things you just can't hide in a transaction: Who's doing it?; How much money are they attaching to it?; What methods are they calling? It really took form in obfuscating stuff rather than hiding it, mechanisms where people hide their intention in the data a little bit to make it more of a game.
LC: It's interesting because so much of the Web3/NFT space is about that acute transparency and the public ledger aspect. Now you’re obfuscating things a bit. It feels in conflict with the entire movement. Was that intentional?
AY: It was a very direct intent when we first started out. It was just like, ‘What if I did Mars Maiers again every day, but what if we had these twists to it?’ What's the difference between just selling and listing your stuff minted out on Zora every day, right? The project needed to be novel in a certain way where it wasn't just the art that was interesting, but also the mechanic of which art was acquired.
During that constrained process we were like, ‘Let's do a blind auction. No one's done a blind auction yet!’ Little did we know, the reason why no one's done a blind auction yet is because it's so oxymoronic to the blockchain. How do you even advise it? We just sat together and took the time to go through that system: What are the elements on Etherscan transactions that are logged?; What are our levers to do this? Thinking through that, we got to where we are today because of Jacob’s genius.
JB: The other aspect is that all the art hasn't actually been created yet. Allan was creating it throughout the year, so that was another way we arrived at the blind and silent auction: the bids are silent and the art is blind, you're not seeing what you're bidding or who's bidding. We couldn't list all 365 of them, unless we waited a year for Allan to make all the pieces.
LC: What led you to incorporate Bayesian probability?
AY: So the things that were intentional were the blind auction part, the fact that they were made every day, but you couldn’t see it. The Bayesian gaming part of it was a byproduct. The bidding mechanics are interesting because we don't set the price, but you also don't know what the price is going to be, so you're playing this game with other bidders to see how high you are willing to go: What’s the market price of this thing?
LC: There are a ton of bits you can extrapolate from this whole auction process. There’s the classic scenario where folks might bid publicly to flaunt their wealth and dare someone to surpass that. With the blind auction, it almost feels like you’re unintentionally poking fun at that mentality.
JB: We really had no idea, and we still have no idea how it’ll all play out or what kind of patterns it's going to take. It might be a little too soon to make a prediction, but there's a bit of an ebb and a flow to the pricing.
AY: The secondary market is technically open, but no one's really using it because the primary market hasn't ended yet. Usually you only go to the secondary market when the things are minted out, but our project won't be over until the year’s over. So we actually render the secondary market useless and just give everybody an opportunity to buy straight from the primary market. The way we set it up is, I believe, one of the first mechanics where you can literally just buy this art for 0.01 ETH, which is the minimum requirement we have for you. So you are truly pricing your own art.
LC: One aspect of the Mars Maiers project is to introduce a collaborator who co-authors a piece at the end of each month. For a project that's very focused on a solo practice of a piece a day, what was the impetus to have another person?
AY: We didn't think about that aspect of the project at all when we first did it, it was just going to be me. But then when we first launched, one, the support from the community felt really nice. They were like, ‘Oh my God.’ And then two, I saw Case Simmons’ work. I was like, ‘Man, Case Simmons’ work looks very much like what I'm trying to do, but cooler and more generative.’ I don't see many NFT collaborations happening these days, so I was like, ‘What if we did something like a music feature?’ If you think of it that way, you can give exposure to someone else, to let someone use our platform to see how that feels, and then also to just give back to other artists. We'll be working with some other ones that are maybe not too big. I'm trying to get to work with artists that have never been into NFTs in the first place, so this is a very low-weight entry point to have a piece be sold as an NFT.
LC: What are both of your metrics of success at the end of the year when all this plays out?
JB: There's a lot of ways we can analyze success there: I think one of the most low-level ones that Allan and I look at is if there is at least one bid every day—that's our baseline metric that we hopefully at least hit, where all 365 of them end up being owned by someone, though I do think there are days that have no winner; and then another one is, rather than daily active users where people are returning to your site every day, it's repeat bidders.
AY: For me, I'm just trying to make it through the year. I just hope I don't run out of ideas. It's hard to make one every day. With the old Mars project, I was doing it for myself, so like, ‘Oh, I'll make a squiggle on a black canvas and I'm calling it a day because I'm a little hungover.’ This time it's like, ‘No, I have to make it good or what I earnestly think is good where people won’t be upset.’ There's a lot more pressure on it being good, where it's something that I can deliver and not feel guilty about if I robbed someone or made a piece that was kind of bullshitty. There are obviously good and bad days, so I'm trying to make sure that the difference between the good and bad days are very little and it's just one streamline of similar aesthetic styles.
My lesson here from working on this project really is that we got to be better communicators. I didn't know how much of an NFT thing is marketing. As we were developing this project, yes, the art is one part of it, but the concept that Jacob and I thought of is really conceptually interesting. The fact that we're f*****g with economic natures and how people bid is artistic in some ways; the contract that Jacob wrote for us I would even consider an art piece itself. People can end up copying, using, and forking that contract to make their own bidding mechanics, or leverage the blind bidding mechanics for themselves in whatever way. It's not only about the art that I'm making, but rather this entire project as a cohesive art system.