How Artist Alex Seton Is Bringing Marble Experiences To The Metaverse

Alex Seton’s artistic practice incorporates sculpture, photography, video, and installation to examine problematic ideas and concepts and give them form. Always carefully considered, Seton’s artworks playfully sit at the junction of an idea, forcing a choice in the viewer as a litmus test of their own disposition.

I was extremely fortunate to meet Alex at the beginning of 2021, and have come to admire his work, his ethos, and his willingness to embrace new technologies and ideas.

I wanted to highlight his first NFT series, Standing Manikin; a fine-art series that offers marble sculpture NFTs that are ownable and viewable as AR experiences; this Q&A is an insight into how fully-formed artistic practices can be augmented by the NFT ecosystem.

Note: as always, artist spotlights are not paid endorsements; simply my attempt to curate an approach to NFTs that emphasises the beauty of the work

Can you describe the genesis of the Standing Manikin series?

I first carved the Standing Manikin Target from marble in 2007 after the Sydney APEC summit, where Australian Special Forces snipers were present at a peaceful protest. The Standing Manikin Target is actually a replication of a ballistics gel target dummy, developed for the ASF using human biological data. Following the protests, evidence revealed that around 200 uniformed officers removed their badges so they could not be identified for complaints of assault. There was a disturbing parallel between the namelessness of the aggressors and the anonymous targets they use.

Coincidentally, I had a studio next door to the armorer who would prepare these dummies with internal electronic sensors. I was struck by the elegant curves of the manikin and thought it looked like a Modernist sculpture like it had been carved by Brancusi himself. So I carved it in traditional memorial marble and positioned it kicked over, exposing the unusual swell on the neck of the heart-lung ‘kill zone’. Next, I carved it standing up, sentinel-like, exaggerating the humanoid form and anonymous charismatic presence. Now, the work seems more relevant than ever, in an age where our personal data is being used to interpret us at every moment.

It felt fitting for audiences being introduced to my process that my first NFT is this sculpture, generated from data that’s been aestheticized by hand IRL, scanned, and then imported back into the digital space in the form of AR.

What are some examples of the series that you feel the strongest attachment to, as the originator?

Well, certainly the original sculpture that I hand-carved in 2007 from memorial white Italian marble holds a special place for me. That cold monumental stone, complete with its history of memorial and status of Empire, only served to reinforce a sense of the might of the State. It’s the surface of this original carving that’s been scanned to produce the AR sculptures series here.

Having said that, the digital version when upscaled in Western Australian Pilbara Red marble color (from the traditional land of the Yidinji) has a meatiness and fleshiness that’s particularly carnal and bodily, and I didn’t expect that.

How do you view the relationship between tech and art?

I think there has always been an unbreakable link between tech and art. Our biggest advances in art — the ones that have helped to change the way we perceive ourselves — have been driven by technological innovation. Whether it’s artists searching for the latest brightest pigment or most affordable tools, artists have always been looking for new mediums that resonate with the times.

Art tends to follow means as well. I started out working in marble because it was on hand growing up next to a quarry. The very latest tech has always been initially expensive and out of reach for most artists, but in recent years that wave has crested, and the proliferation of devices with serious computational power has put some amazing tools of expression in the hands of so many. It’s a great time to be an artist, though I’m sure we’ll start taking it all for granted soon enough and be hungry for something new…

How does this reflect your own interpretation of tokenized art production and its merits as a form of expression?

With my own work, I’ve only just begun and Augmented Reality artworks still seem to contend for accurate representation in many of the bigger NFT marketplaces, often mistaken for VR, or digital objects intended for the metaverse rather than to be experienced IRL via our personal devices. I’ve always valued the object that exists in multiple states at the same time, and AR is allowing me to make just that. Practically and creatively, I can realize so many more of my ideas than I could ever IRL.

Like all new tech, you can see a gold rush mentality, for both the new way of selling art and the kind of art being generated for those new markets. It’s so interesting to watch in recent times the leaps from the proliferation of what are effectively sci-fi and Day-Glo trading cards to the release of serious conceptual pieces in iterative and generative art, and you can see artists are just starting to come to grips with the unique properties and possibilities of tokenized art.

What do you hope people get out of it?

With the Standing Manikin Target, I hope for a number of things. On one level, I hope people find the message, ‘This is how the police state sees you — as a bunch of datapoints’. You might start with an entirely aesthetic appreciation of the form, but hopefully, the experience becomes jarring when you discover its more sinister purpose. Then there’s the AR experience itself, where you know the work isn’t in front of you — that you are looking at it through your device — but the carefully rendered materiality of it makes you question that for a split second. That’s where delight and discovery happen. Perhaps I can make you distrust yourself and your device, if only for a hot second.

How do you view the disparity between digital and physical value?

I think tokenized art is allowing for a real reckoning of the two. I think the world is catching up to the true value of artists’ IP — and that can only be a very good thing for artists. It’s putting the emphasis back on the idea and allowing artists to distribute their work more widely at the same time and directly benefit. The work I make IRL benefits me normally just once. I love the idea that the digital value will surpass the value of the physical object, and I say that fully aware of how much I value the tangible IRL experience. It means we value fluidity and ideas, not necessarily their presence or scarcity. In environmental terms, the less we need to produce in physical reality the better.

How important is the ability for artists to use technology for storytelling and community?

So important! To reach out and talk to audiences that would never have seen your work otherwise, and evolve and grow with that community is an empowering thing. It also enables so many different forms to choose from, to tell your story in the most authentic way possible.

What is your perception of where Web3 assets are heading?

I have very few problems with it, I suspect before too long all art produced physically and digitally will be indexed or tracked as an NFT. For old-world art collectors who stash their works in tax-free ports, their artworks may as well be token already.

Tokenised art marketplaces, while circumventing snooty cultural gatekeepers of old, are often simply replacing them with a new brand of snooty cultural gatekeepers. Artists simply have more gatekeepers to move between, and they haven’t become corporatized spaces… yet. We haven’t changed very much in that regard, but once we learn to identify our own tulip mania, I do think that we can start to address the possibilities of our crypto future.

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Joan Westenberg

Joan Westenberg

Chaotic good. Award winning creative director & writer, ft. in Wired, Inc, SF Chronicle, TNW. Founder thisisstudioself.com