Art Market

Women and Nonbinary Artists Are Breaking New Ground through Generative Art NFTs

Josie Thaddeus-Johns
Mar 23, 2022 7:17PM

IX Shells, Resistance Effect, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Lisa Orth, When Dreaming, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

In some quarters of the art world, 2021 was the year of the non-fungible token (NFT), with sales of these crypto-based assets hitting $25 billion, according to market tracker DappRadar. And yet a huge percentage of these NFTs sold were made by men—according to some reports, as much as 77%. “This might lead one to believe there aren’t as many women or nonbinary creators in the space,” said Mieke Marple, an L.A.-based artist and writer who works in the NFT space. “But there are lots [of artists] and they are incredibly talented. They simply haven’t received the same amount of opportunities or recognition.”

To help counter this, Marple and Sinziana Velicescu, who runs the NFT-focused exhibition space Vellum LA, have curated a benefit auction and exhibition of women and nonbinary artists making NFTs. Titled “Artists Who Code,” the sale is live on Artsy through April 5th, and the physical exhibition is on view at Vellum LA from March 24th through April 10th. A portion of proceeds from the sales of the featured NFTs will be donated to the nonprofit Girls Who Code.

Morehshin Allahyari, Moon-faced [Fragment], 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Mia Forrest, Queensland Firewheel, in motion, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.


For this show, the curators chose to focus on generative art—a genre that “spans various techniques and styles—ranging from AI and processing, to interactive and time-based artwork,” said Velicescu.

At times, artists use generative art techniques to critique the biases of the computer-based systems used to create them. Morehshin Allahyari’s “Moon-faced” series (2021–22), for example, presents a flowing video patchwork portrait derived from archives of paintings from the Qajar Dynasty (roughly 1786–1925). Inspired by the adjective “moon-faced,” which was used to denote beauty in both men and women in ancient Persian literature, the works are generated by carefully chosen text prompts to avoid the gendered stereotypes used by AI systems. “The machine program learns to paint new genderless portraits, in the effort to undo and repair a history of Westernization that ended the course of nonbinary gender representation in the Persian visual culture,” explained Allayahari.

Sofia Crespo, {biosemiotics_6745}, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Emily Xie, Morphology 7204, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

Often, these AI-generated video works create otherworldly imagery that is hard to place. In Sofia Crespo’s series “Neural Zoo” (2018–20), for example, the artist uses neural networks to recombine photographs of nature—jellyfish, blood vessels, and mushrooms all seem to feature—into artificial images that appear familiarly organic, and yet are like nothing we’ve seen before. “The resulting videos all exhibit visual qualities and patterns that have been extracted by the neural network, often that somehow indeterminately both resembles, yet clearly isn’t the subject,” Crespo said. These techniques allow her “to generate visions of different lifeforms that could have been, and in doing so, to question the boundary between nature and technology,” she said.

For collectors, interest in generative art is a relatively recent development, explained crypto art advisor Fanny Laboukay. “It’s really a niche within a niche,” she said. “But in 2021, generative art really had a blossoming moment, where it really touched people from a distribution perspective.” Often, buyers of generative NFT works are coming from the crypto sphere, she explained: a tech-savvy, younger crowd who may not be well-versed in the history of fine art, but have a good understanding of technical concepts. “As soon as you talk about how these works are done, it’s all about generative adversarial networks (GANs) and training the machine,” she said, noting that crypto natives, who are predominantly male, are more comfortable with this genre of terminology and mechanisms.

Barbara Rehbehn, Lace / The Cloth Series, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Anna Lucia, Does the line go up?, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Despite this gender imbalance, generative artworks have a particular relevance for women artists, explained Marple, because the origins go all the way back to ancient basketry and weaving. These craft techniques have traditionally been designated as “women’s work,” and perceived as inferior approaches to art. “The Jacquard loom was one of the earliest programmable machines,” Marple said, “and artists like Anni Albers, partner to Josef Albers, made stunning generative textiles using a loom. However, because Anni Albers made textiles as opposed to paintings, and was a woman, her work has not been lauded as much as her husband’s.”

In “Artists Who Code,” these references are particularly evident in the work of Anna Lucia, who uses code to create interwoven, colorful lines, like pixelated tapestries. Meanwhile, Barbara Rehbehn, who began her art practice as a printmaker working with fabric, uses a “cellular automaton” to emulate textile art techniques like embroidery, pairing them with archival photographs to create a digital process–embellished image. “I grew up with textile craft being considered of little value by early ’90s feminism,” said Rehbehn. “Being able to have [it] represented in the generative element of my digital work feels like everything is finally starting to come full circle.”

Lauren Lee McCarthy, Not Over Til Its Over, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Mieke Marple, Medusa #545, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

In NFT works, blockchain technology can create new formats for generative artwork, explained Velicescu. “In some cases, code can be embedded in the smart contract to allow for interactivity or an ever-evolving artwork that is tied to the blockchain,” she said. “In other cases, NFTs can be minted using a live minting process that allows for editions of artwork to be generated and sold with randomized attributes.”

For instance, some artists use the blockchain to initiate interactive performances, like Lauren Lee McCarthy, whose tokenized works create oddly contemporary, intimate moments between the collector and artist. For example, in Not Over Til Its Over (2022), McCarthy will text the collector of the work the phrase “its not over” [sic] every day until the randomly generated date at which a computer determines that the performance is, in fact, over. Other performances by McCarthy involve her texting “Good night” to a single person every day, or turning up at their house to enact a six-feet-distant, masked monologue via smartphone screen.

Maya Man, 𝓡𝓮𝓪𝓭 𝓲𝓽 𝓪𝓷𝓭 𝓦𝓮𝓮𝓹, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Maya Man’s web-based work Read It And Weep (2022), named after a 2006 Disney Channel movie, is another performance, this one executed by code and experienced in the browser. Randomly presenting a set of phrases taken from Man’s own diary entries (“Also, I got breathalyzed!” reveals one), as well as online memes, the code presents a fragmented experience that draws on private, intimate moments, as well as the very public ways women in particular enact their identity online. Man sees her practice as distinct from the majority of software art, which is “pretty male,” she said. “A lot of my work is about girlhood and femininity and identity. Obviously that relates to my personal experience.”

Ultimately, artists in this space are trying to represent their own way of seeing the world, no matter who they are: “It’s important to me to bring in work to the generative space that is meaningful to me personally,” said Man.

Josie Thaddeus-Johns
Josie Thaddeus-Johns is an Editor at Artsy.