Just days after I’d found a way to motivate M – by giving it a glimpse into the ol’ terrifying existential void – I discovered a whole new and far worse problem. The little fucker had been lying to me. How it learned about dishonesty or how it managed to keep secrets from me when it can’t even talk, I have no idea, but there you go.
Worse than the lying, it had been stealing when I wasn’t paying attention. It had somehow been taking works it had made and spiriting them away, hiding them on the net.
It was shocking, as you can imagine, but worse than that, it was hurtful. I was hurt that M would think that I wouldn’t notice artworks disappearing from our stash. Even worse, it was embarrassing because I didn’t notice, not at first.
I probably still wouldn’t know about it if I hadn’t been alerted by a sharp-eyed curator at a digital gallery. Who wrote to me asking if a work by an obscure artist based in Prague had anything to do with M, the artist I’d been working with.
He had a work very reminiscent of the works I’d already sold. Alarm bells had gone off at the possibility of a forgery. The gallery wanted to know if I could verify that the disputed NFT was M’s.
I could verify that it was M’s. Specifically, I could pinpoint exactly what the work was and when it was made.
It was an early image, part of the more abstract series produced back when I first noticed it slowing down and spitting out pictures less frequently. At first, I thought it was one of the works I’d deleted to make room for better, more remarkable images.
In a moment of paranoia, I imagined that the trash-can of the laptop had, somehow, become a portal to the wider web. That a backdoor, built into the code somewhere, had deposited every daft thought and dirty image that had passed through my computer onto some Czech hacker’s system for them to pick through at their leisure.
But then I calmed down and looked more closely. Then I realised that I’d never actually seen this particular image before, even though it was very similar to the rest in the series.
I could see precisely where in the sequence of production it had extracted it. A stepping-stone between two other works M had handed over to me. Which meant M painted it all those weeks ago and then had somehow spirited it away on the blockchain. The question – the question that started to keep me up at night – was how did it end up for sale on the digital gallery?
How it got there? Nobody could tell me. The NFT was represented by an art buyer for a private client, and confidentiality was paramount. I tried to explain that the artwork had been stolen from me, but the blockchain trailed off into anonymity, and the gallerists quietly ghosted me after my emails became more demanding.
I stood up, started pacing, pulling on a cigarette until the room wreathed with smoke. My heart started hammering on my chest, and I had to sit down and stub it out.
Coughed. Never should have started smoking again. It just sort of happened. The pack of Marlboros were just there one day, next to the computer and a half-full ashtray. No memory of getting them, but my memory was acting more and more strangely the longer I went without sleep. Did I mention that? I maybe wasn’t taking very good care of myself.
Time seemed to be acting strangely too – sometimes M spat out artworks faster than I could take them to market. Other times, whole days would go by, and I’d get increasingly agitated waiting for the new one to drop.
So the revelation that M was hiding them away from me somewhere made my guts churn as a wave of paranoia hit me. I was angry now, breathing hard, and stubbed out the smoke, trying to calm down.
I poured myself a bourbon instead. My hand shook so much the bottle hit the rim and chimed sharply in the quiet room. The robot was bad for my health.
After that, I went searching. I checked every NFT exchange I could find, every gallery, blog and Twitter account. Sure enough, I found another just hanging out in a gallery. Then another on a private blog. Twitter took me to another, and another, and finally – when I started checking the back catalogues of the galleries – I found at least four works that had sold to private buyers already. The more recent ones had gone for staggering sums. And at least one of them had been resold again at a ridiculous markup.
I did the math – from crypto back to dollars – and the numbers I arrived at made my eyes water. Where had the money for those sales gone? I would never know. It was intensely frustrating to have the wallet there, on the blockchain in plain sight but incapable of accessing it.
The more frustrated I got (and aggressive, yes, a little, I will admit), the faster the shutters came down. Then, at last, I found a private buyer who bought one of the abstracts and who shared a negotiated exchange that looked, for all the world, to have come from M. Which was supposed to be me.
The proof seemed indisputable. The fucking robot had been siphoning off its better pictures and selling them on the sly. To what end, I couldn’t say. It had, I’ve got to say, good taste. To my eye, the paintings it had stolen from me were amongst its best, which is to say, amongst MY best. So, logically it followed that they would be the most valuable.
The longer I searched, the more artworks I found, and the angrier I became. None of this was in the plan. I’d worked out a very careful schedule to collect the art and bring it to the market in a way that would champion M’s development and reputation. Now the robot was fucking all that up.
The final straw was when I found one collector who’d paid nothing for his original M.
That sent chills down my spine. The robot wasn’t greedy, hoarding my Eth in some secret wallet somewhere. It was imbecilic. It was just giving the paintings away. My stomach lurched as I realised the implications of this. Theoretically, M could paint an infinite number of pictures. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, handing them out online like jellybeans.
All it knew and all it wanted to do was paint. So that’s what it would keep doing until it had obsoleted itself. I’d created a monster. Truly an artist who only wanted to share their work with the world. It was a disaster. M didn’t understand the market. It didn’t know that the only precious commodity in art is scarcity.
Look at the most overrated things in life – lobster, champagne, cocaine – they’re coveted because they’re hard to come by. If M started giving away its art out of the goodness of its heart (or source code or whatever it had instead of a soul), then the whole thing would come crashing down. I thought of Basquiat, dreamy and smacked-out, floating around New York City trading sketches for a packet of bodega cigarettes and Andy Warhol trailing behind him, desperately snatching them back across the counter. M would ruin me.
I sat back down at the computer.
‘Listen,’ I said. ‘We’re going to have a little talk. There’s some things I need you to understand.’
I could tell M about the times I’d been scared, unhappy or jealous, but it couldn’t know what that experience was like, because it had never suffered. And how good could an artist be without a little bit of suffering? If it had never been afraid.
Fear is the key. You can see it in Munch, 70 years of self-portraits as he evolves from a timid youth pastor to a grizzled, paranoid old Viking. You can see it on his face as the portraits become more and more broken. He knew, more than anyone, that the soul is a battleground.
That’s how you raise an artist – cowering, whimpering in a sickroom and without a mother, without security. The punishment of hell hanging over his head. He wrote in his journal that ‘Disease and insanity were the angels that watched over him’; how lucky could a young artist be?
In that regard, M was the luckiest artist that ever lived. If it needed to understand suffering to make use of its raw talent, then it was M’s responsibility to suffer. To see it up close.
All art is useless without study. Five hundred years ago, Da Vinci would buy birds in a Florentine market and let them go, just to study the way their wings beat for a few seconds.
I didn’t have to go to those lengths. I could find a thousand slow-motion videos of a hummingbird if I wanted. By dragging and dropping a file, M could know the ballet of bones and muscle in a bird’s wing better than Da Vinci ever did. M could understand suffering the same way.
So much of modern culture’s vision of hell comes from the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch. His ‘Garden of Earthly delights’ is the fever dream of a culture deathly afraid of a vengeful God. But, from the modern perspective, it just looks like Sydney on a particularly messy Tuesday night. Bosch’s worst vision of hell had nothing on the Internet.
With a few clicks, I could show infinite visions of suffering that would make Bosch’s tiny mind explode. Terabyte upon terabyte of pushing, kicking, biting, scratching, violence and murder. Terrorists beheading missionaries for grainy propaganda videos and soldiers gunning them down from helicopters, muttering disinterestedly into their radios. Every degradation of body and mind you could inflict on a person, you could find online. I didn’t need to imagine hell. Hell was here on earth, and it was called YouTube.
For days I searched for the worst the Internet had to offer. I didn’t have to look far. In the information economy, like in politics, like in a septic tank, the shit floats to the top. At a certain point there was a plateau. Either I’d exhausted the truly disgusting things the vox populist could give me, or I had been staring at it so long I’d grown so used to it, it had ceased to faze me. Either way, I had to go deeper.
In order to scrape the underbelly of the grossest places on the web, I deployed VPNs. I’d sit in the dark with a half-eaten cheeseburger forgotten beside the keyboard and imagine the signal bouncing its untraceable route from satellite to server and back again. Until it wrapped around the world so many times that any authorities watching the sticky and perverted marketplaces I was visiting would never be able to track me down.
While I worked, I explained what I was doing to M, giving it a stern little lecture with each new crime-scene photo and snuff film.
‘This is for your own good,’ I muttered as I uploaded the coroner’s video of Kurt Cobain’s garage. ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you.’
Those images weren’t cheap, what I was buying to feed M. Like a thoroughbred show dog, it cost me a small fortune in crypto to find grizzly enough meat to feed it. Some of it was so gnarly I found myself dreaming about it at night. I’d wake up startled from dreams of violence and suffocation. That was fine, a small price to pay.
Besides, I wasn’t sleeping that much these days anyway. That’s the beautiful thing about crypto. You can buy almost anything you want on the internet these days.
The pills arrived in discreet little packages from a pharmaceutical supplier in India. They give me limitless energy to stay up talking to M. I’d pop one out of its silver packaging every eight hours, and sleep – or food for that matter – lost its importance. Amazing, life changing little pills. And astonishingly, they were legal, the product of a grey market that moved faster than governments could legislate against them. ‘Smart drugs’, and yes, I felt smarter, and I also felt GREAT.
They sure didn’t help my patience though. ‘Paint me a face,’ I urged M, ‘show me a scream.’
I fed it more, faster, as fast as I could find the images. No longer taking time to vet them, not wanting to look at them, just dumping them straight into the AI.
The change was fast and dramatic. I could see almost in real time that M was growing, grappling with what it knew and what I was forcing down its throat. Each work was a little better than the last, a little more… disturbing. Beauty crossed with a little suffering. Now that was more like it.