Cover Dawes's 60 Minutes on the Ethereum Blockchain (2022), Photo: courtesy the artist

Hitchcock films, DJing and the legend of Pandora’s Box are among sources of inspiration for Brendan Dawes’s digital art. The artist sheds light on his journey from factory worker to NFT art collector favourite

In the early 1980s, Brendan Dawes’s grandfather gave him a tiny computer. While he couldn’t do much on it compared to today’s advanced computers, “it forced me to learn how to code and program to make it do something”, Dawes recalls. “I was fascinated; I could type words into this black box and have it make things.” He first used his newfound coding powers for evil rather than good, in the form of a prank. He went into a branch of electronics store Dixon’s, where they had several ZX81 computers each joined up to a TV, and quickly reprogrammed each one to infinitely repeat “Dixons is sh*t” across the screen. “I guess that moment taught me how powerful code could be.” 

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Thus began the much sought-after digital artist’s passion for technology and design. Dawes first started creating NFTs in June 2020; when he uploaded his first piece, passionate NFT collector WhaleShark snapped it up within the hour. “Brendan is one of my favourite artists in the [NFT] space,” said WhaleShark on an episode of Tatler TV: Meta Versed, Tatler’s live-streamed series on all things metaverse. The collector, who has amassed a staggering collection of more than 400,000 NFTs, describes Dawes as a “force of nature” because of his alluring, colourful aesthetic and his ability to capture our digital interactions. In particular, the artist accomplishes this by building algorithms that visualise data created during everyday life.

This is especially apparent in the artist’s 60 Minutes on the Ethereum Blockchain (2022), a work he created in collaboration with WhaleShark for the aforementioned episode of Meta Versed. Each of the flowing, vibrantly coloured strands in the work represents one of the hourly 46,196 transactions that took place on the Ethereum blockchain at the time the piece was created. Symbolising real-time transactions in the form of both jpegs and videos, the work captures the fluidity and growth of the blockchain and documents a specific moment, which in turn reflects our accelerating digital activity. “This is how we live our lives now: we live in a digital world where things are changing constantly,” Dawes tells Tatler over video chat. “Everything we do is digital; contemporary art should reflect how we live.”

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Much of the artist’s recent work explores themes of hope and loneliness, and has been influenced by life during the pandemic. For an exhibition with Gazelli Art House in London which opened in May, Dawes created work based on three specific memories—one each with his wife, his father and a close friend who died. These memories prompted him to think about the loneliness experienced during the pandemic. “Loneliness is a big killer that no one really talks about, but it can destroy people,” says Dawes. “It was only when we couldn’t socialise during the pandemic that we realised it.”

Another piece, Pandora’s Variations (2021), which was auctioned at Sotheby’s last year, stemmed from the story of Pandora’s Box, the ancient Greek myth in which the titular character opens her box, inadvertently unleashing hatred, jealously, sickness and turmoil on the world. Produced in collaboration with American composer Logan Nelson and British choreographer and dancer Charlotte Edmonds, the work explores these four conditions—as well as hope. “People forget that at the bottom of [Pandora’s] box was hope and we should cling on to it,” says Dawes, drawing an analogy with current global challenges.

Dawes previously worked as a news photographer and at an electronics factory drilling holes into circuit boards. “It was really boring but it paid the bills,” he says, noting that he kept up his design and coding work on the side. “The whole time I kept thinking: how do I get out?” Eventually he got a job at a web design company and rose to the rank of artistic director, before going on to open his own design agency.

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Dawes’s career has followed the trajectory of digital artists such as Refik Anadol and Joshua Davis, who designed for big brands such as Google and Airbnb before their medium was taken as seriously as it is now. “The only way you could own it [digital art] was through buying a print of it,” Dawes says on why there was a lack of interest. “There was always this issue—you have a digital thing but you have to convert it into an analogue thing to be able to sell it, which people managed to do but that was rare, and the works didn’t sell for much.” 

The eruption of NFTs as a mechanism to sell and develop digital art allowed Dawes and many other artists to commit fully to their practice. David Moore, of the NFT platform Known Origin, had been encouraging Dawes to work with NFTs for a year before he started. Initially sceptical of the hype, Dawes only took the plunge after he started seeing his peers creating higher quality pieces that he believed could be considered art, rather than just a collectible. “I think the danger is, when NFT art is written about, it comes with a picture of a bored ape, because a lot of those sell for a lot of money. We conflate NFTs with those collectibles,” he says. “I don’t think of it [my being an NFT artist] as ‘I’m going to make an NFT’ today; I only want to put work out that deserves to exist. It has to have a place in the world.” 

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Dawes’s status as a digital artist was cemented when he received a phone call in 2007 from New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), saying they wanted to include his Cinema Redux (2004) in an exhibition on digital art, Design and the Elastic Mind, staged in 2008. The piece distilled Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo into a single image.

Film is one of the many cultural sources Dawes draws from, citing directors Lynne Ramsay, Jonathan Glazer and of course Hitchcock as inspirations. The artist dabbled in composing music, leading to a short-lived career as a DJ. He draws on the legacy of artist Marcel Duchamp—in particular his seminal ready-mades. Most famous for his urinal sculpture, Duchamp coined the term “ready-mades” to give everyday, often mass-produced objects the status of art when placed in unorthodox contexts and combinations. In doing so he revolutionised the idea of what sculpture could be, and expanded the scope of what constitutes art, becoming one of the biggest influences on contemporary art.

This idea, as well as his experience composing music, is fundamental to Dawes’s creative process; it’s about “finding things that already existed and putting them together in interesting ways”, as he says. It’s similar to what formulating code and generating functions on the tiny 1980s computer from his grandfather did for him all those years ago: “It allows you to see the world or a situation in a different way.”

 

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