The Beeple Phenomenon. Part 1

Mike Winkelmann, or Beeple, is an American graphic designer working in the field of digital art. As of December 7, 2021, he is the third most expensive contemporary artist.

Digital art was formed in line with other non-material practices of the 1960s — first of all, the paradigm of conceptualism, which was looking for a way to abandon the subject from the standpoint of criticism of consumerism and consumption culture. However, the context of the emergence of this trend certainly does not include only  the latter. A huge variety of practices, united now under the name of digital, or media art, comprehend the possibilities of interaction of rapidly developing technologies with social, cultural space and consciousness of an individual, prepared by the collage principle of the avant-garde and Duchamp’s ready-made, the ideas of Fluxus about the convergence of art and life, active participation of the viewer in the art of new forms — performance and happening.

         Such an essential feature of media art as interactivity is understood much broader than working with an interface with the emergence of the Web 2.0 era. Social networks offer a new type of digital art positioning, which not only changes the relationship between the artist and the viewer, the piece of artand its consumer, but also directly influences the content side of digital art. It is getting more conjunctural and open as never before, and the process of its creation is more dynamic than ever before, because publications on social networks initially presuppose a momentary reaction to the flow of information. It is appropriate to consider Beeple's work within the framework of this discourse.

M. Winkelmann works in the field of 3D graphics. His tool is Cinema 4D computer program, the "exhibition area" includes Instagram and Twitter. His thrilling project Everydays, which Winkelmann has been working on for 14 years, is the main content for his audience, but, certainly, not the only one. At the same time, Beeple produces short films and music videos. Everydays appeared in the form of educational project of some kind. The strictly set deadline of one day encouraged the artist to regularly improve his skills, and also did not allow to abandon the appearance of work, even if it seemed imperfect to the author. Winkelmann claims that he has never prepared a work in advance and did not miss even a day, including his wedding and the birth of his children. Thus, we are dealing with a consistent visualization of the apprenticeship process, which in itself removes most of the questions about the technical aspects, if not of the work as a whole, but of the components related to the early period.

At its core, Winkelmann's work today is a direct, instant response to images and events, a purely personal, ironic, and visionary interpretation of the social and political situation. Publishing work on social media implies feedback — a similar here-and-now reaction. In this case, the profoundness of the content fades into the background, giving way to the result of the interaction of the viewer with the image, which draws the attention of the consumers of visual content deep into themselves, to their perceptions for comment not only on the presented work, but also on the agenda that created it.

The viewer's creative implication in changing the reality of a work, most often understood as the interactivity of digital art, is not very characteristic of Winkelmann's works. Usually the process of interaction is limited with the consciousness of the viewer, in which contexts are interweaving in a complicated way. But there are also exceptions: the joint creation of one of the works of the Everydays project during the NAB Show 2019 or the work of Crossroads (2020), the appearance of which depended on the result of the presidential election. Finally, another fundamentally important point is Beeple's passionate campaigning in support of the free-for-all character and potential variability of his digital art: a significant part of his work is open to downloading, modifying, and creating a new, unique version, i.e., a new commentary.

Mike Winkelmann was born in 1981 and raised in North Fond du Lac, a small town of 5,000 inhabitants, one hour drive from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He entered Purdue University for a degree in computer science, intending to become a programmer, but when a student, he was already interested in animation. Having graduated (2003), Winkelmann briefly worked as a web designer, but he spent more and more time experimenting in graphic design. Winkelmann embarked on creative adventures under the pseudonym of Beeple, referring to an interactive plush toy from the 1980s reacting to light with a luminous nose and a specific sound (by the way, Winkelmann collects them). Most of Beeple's early works were short films with background music, which he called "instrumental videos." Now they are stored on Winkelmann's website in the "Archive" tab, and the self-critical author advises the viewer to refrain from watching them.

 Beeple had taken the path which later led him to international recognition on May 1, 2007. It was then that he created the first work from the Everydays project. The early images from the series were amateur sketches on paper, a kind of personal diary or album filled mainly with self-portraits and images of closest persons, pictures of humorous and erotic content, sarcastically reworked images from the visual field of the media. At first, Beeple uploaded works only to his personal site, the audience of which consisted of at most a couple of regular viewers.

Everything changed in 2008 when Beeple plunged into 3D computer animation in Cinema 4D. Everydays has turned into a platform for testing the program capabilities. It was around that time that Winkelmann began creating music videos with visual effects from animated geometric shapes (VJ loops). The artist generously shared with the entire audience the rights to video clips created under the Creative Commons license. The works gained great popularity in the world of electronic music and eventually brought Beeple into show business. By this time he has managed to create visuals for concerts by Justin Bieber, One Direction, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Eminem, Shakira, and others.

Experiments with three-dimensional graphics continued in the form of short animated films. One of these works, Subprime (2009), capturing in an overwhelmingly naive way how "the American real estate market was getting beyond control", first presented the artist's work in the museum as part of the group exhibition 17 DAYS (VOL.5) at the Richmond Center for Visual Arts (Kalamazoo, Michigan) in 2013. The video was shown the whole day on a loop on two giant screens at the entrance to the center. The exhibition then went to The Bret Llewellyn Art Gallery at Alfred State College.

Having strengthened his skills, Winkelmann transferred his endeavors to social networks - Everydays moved to Twitter in 2011, and in 2014 — to Instagram. Mechanized abstractions, the main visual theme of looped videos, gradually developed into man-made landscapes, then becoming an inalienable element of the recognizable Beeple’s dystopia. Its topical component - the dynamics of forces between politics, corporations, and technology, the oppressive force of the ubiquitous images of mass culture, seasoned with anxiety for the growing network publicity, found expression in the plots of video clips that combine hyperrealistic animation and text with background music. Among them are Transparent Machines (2013) - quoting its final titer, "We are transparent machines that generate billions of dollars for giant corporations from our private information", Zero Day (2015) prophesying the cyberwar, and the recent Manifest Destiny (2019), reflecting on the contradictions of the US political and economic system. Those were short films and other video works, generally familiar already to the museum space as a genre, that formed the basis of Beeple's expositions, which sharply increased in number in 2018: the February personal project "CRAP: A Beeple Retrospective" in The Made space at NY Media Center, part of which was shown in April in the framework of the Mitte Media Festival 2018, and finally culminated in the triumphant ascension of a modified version of Transparent Machines to a 19 meter dome during the Sonar360º festival in May.

Around this time, the Beeple well-known to the present audience appeared as well as his "everydays" digital frenzy, composed of visual constants of popular culture, memes, cartoon characters, celebrities and political leaders, immersed in the post-apocalyptic reality of a video game. The situations in which the Beeple's characters find themselves are surreal, and the transformations that their appearance undergoes disarm the viewer with boundless exaggeration and inexhaustible imagination — the most abundant portions of black humor address to Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, Michael Jackson, and Elon Musk. In the best traditions of postmodernism, an abundance of quotes and narratives is soldered as a whole according to the principle of a collage of found artifact images (the author has been using ready-made 3-D models since 2017) and, genetically linking with pop and social art, all this appears finally in the shape of an extremely radical version of traditional caricature of the post-Internet era.

Soon, Winkelmann was contacted by art director of Louis Vuitton Florent Buonomano. Impressed by the works of Beeple discovered on the Internet, he proposed to create a collection with prints from the oeuvres of the artist. Thus works from the Everydays series adorned thirteen items of clothing from the spring-summer 2019 pret-a-porter collection.

In 2019, Beeple once again took part in the Mitte Media Festival. Then the pandemic came. Taking into account the specifics of Winkelmann's art, it did not greatly affect the course of his creative activities, but it hit his income hard. He stopped receiving orders for large concerts, the profit from which accounted for a significant share of his earnings. And Beeple started to think about monetizing his art. Winkelmann got interested in blockchain technology and the crypto art market in the second half of 2020, and in October, the first sale of three Beeple’s NFTs was made through the Nifty Gateway platform with a starting price of US$969 each. One of the works, Crossroad (2020), was sold for US$66,666.66 and, by the way, it was resold at the secondary market for US$6.6 million last February. The second auction sale was held in December, 2020 — twenty works from the Everydays series in the form of NFTs were sold for US$3.5 million in just a couple of days.

The third sale of Beeple's work was announced, unexpectedly for many, early in February, 2021 by Christie's: the digital-only token art Everydays: the First 5000 Days (2021) was being offered through an online auction from February 25 to March 11. The starting price of the future digital art record was only US$100.

         In continuation of the material, we will tell you in detail about the epoch-making sale of Beeple's work at Christie’s and talk about the future of the NFT market as a whole.