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On Compressionism

Feb 28 Written By diid

Sometime in the late 90’s, virtual reality pioneer and digital graffiti artist James Powderly was plugging away at an interactive video project that he gave the name “compressionism.” While that project would never come to life, the name was given to his friend Nathaniel Stern who applied it to his scanner powered and human centric digital art project, albeit in a tongue in cheek fashion.

Untitled #2 by Keith Haring (April 16th, 1987)

While that was the first known use of the term as it relates to digital art, the story behind compression is largely the story behind digital art as a whole. Artists like Keith Haring and Andy Warhol took to Amiga computers as a way to add creative constraints. Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) gave way for ANSI and ASCII based artworks to be traded and released in “packs.” Tracing software introduced to the public by Adobe allowed for scalable images to be scanned in and adapted for a number of purposes, giving us the birth of digital clipart. The use of digital color reduction known as “dithering” drove the pixel-centric operating systems of the original Macintosh and legendary Windows 95, and the widespread adoption of the jpeg file format provided for much of the look of the world wide web for decades to come.

Bill Atkinson, creator of the Atkinson dithering algorithm used on the original Macintosh

Over time, internet speeds got much faster and computers followed that same trajectory. Nowadays, if a website has a full-size uncompressed image, you might not even notice the difference. Social media sites have become so good at resizing, cropping, and squishing images that only an attentive gaze could reveal their secrets.

fuck yea guy, as inscribed on Namecoin in 2012

The advent of the blockchain provided a new and interesting way to look at compression. Blockchain data is largely uncompressed, as it has to be able to be mathematically verified from start to finish. Building on top of that same idea, Bitcoin fork Namecoin provided a whopping 520 bytes of verifiable data storage for a given token. To put that in perspective, that’s over 5000 times smaller than a standard floppy disk.

That didn’t stop creative builders from utilizing every bit however, and the first ever image NFT came to life: a highly compressed version of the classic rage comic character known simply as Fuck Yea. Much like the BBS systems decades before it, this encoded image was predated by ASCII art predecessors, but a binary & raster image being stored on-chain was a new evolution and picture of what’s to come.

a printed Autoglyph by Larva Labs

As blockchains evolved and NFTs came more onto the horizon, exchangeable tokens like the now infamous Cryptopunks served as a baseline for what could be done with art on chain. Autoglyphs, Ethereum’s first on-chain generative art collection, set the standard within the then-new ERC-721 token standard, the exact token standard that set the basis for modern NFTs. Famously, Autoglyphs is so restrained in how it is generated and displayed that it doesn’t actually output an image, but rather a series of instructions on how to create the image.

As long-form generative art started to take fold with the advent of Art Blocks, a new format of on-chainness came to the forefront. Storing the code to create the artwork on-chain, but leaving the rendered image off-chain, gave a lot more flexibility into what was possible. As such, we saw iteration on both sides of the compression spectrum.

the entirety of Skulptuur’s code, from Piter Pasma

On one end was a traditional approach: generating art with as little code as possible. Piter Pasma was at the forefront of this style, and with his Art Blocks curated release Skulptuur was able to craft complex 3 dimensional sculptures using an offensively small 6370 bytes of code. Pasma had previously and has since released even smaller projects, pushing the limits of what can be done with a few bytes.

an output from Jan Robert Leegte’s “JPEG”

On the other hand, Jan Robert Leegte took a more literal approach to the art of compression. Leegte’s Art Blocks curated release abused the jpeg file format to showcase the compression artifacts themselves as art in the series simply titled “JPEG”. The driving factor behind images on the web on full display.

R G C R B T by Spogelsesmaskinen

Fast forward to today, and new technology is providing for a new way to view small file sizes and compression. Previously, Ethereum’s storage allowed for a measly 25 kilobytes of a pixelated imagery to be stored fully within the blockchain. With this restriction and the intensive steps to put an artwork within the blockchain’s state, on-chain art was generally restricted to the technically adept.

Utilizing a workaround in the storage of on-chain data, and tacking on a simple user interface, the Efficax extension changed that. Now, not only could artists mint artwork fully on-chain up to 120 kilobytes, the price to do so was as much as 80% cheaper. Despite still being a costly endeavor, artists like XCOPY, Spøgelsesmaskinen, and Ol1y made their way to being fully on-chain with the help of Efficax. Once again, technology has driven art forward.

This evolution, alongside an increase in cheap tools for creating low file-size art, has produced a new wave of artists looking to store their art in more permanent means. File storage methods are expensive, and often unreliable, and in the end social media and exchange websites are cranking up the compression as much as possible regardless. The challenge has become particularly appealing to some, changing art styles entirely to attempt to make the most of each kilobyte.

you’re ok it’s ok by diid

Depending how you see it, the compressionists could have started with Stern & Powderly, with the BBS systems & ASCII art, with Fuck Yea & Art Blocks, or even with artisans building ships in bottles. The truth of the matter is this: as increasing gas costs make writing digital art to the blockchain more difficult, I strongly believe we will see a new wave of relentless artists swimming upstream. The story is simple: as platforms crumble and distributed storage systems get overrun, compressionism will still stand, forever intertwined with the medium in which it was created.

I don’t feel the need to define the movement, but as someone who is now a self-proclaimed compressionist, I think this: compressionism is simply an eras long battle between humans and technology. It’s something that can uniquely define how we view the bounds of computer art, and I think that’s special.


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