Deafbeef: For The Love Of Tinkering
February 7th, 2023

Upon his arrival in 2021, Canadian generative artist Deafbeef made waves in web3 with his groundbreaking generative audiovisual works. His genesis collection, Synth Poems exploded on the scene in March 2021 attracting a passionate audience and fervent collector-base who have followed his work closely since. Using only a text editor, a C compiler and the Ethereum blockchain to generate and store sound and video, Deafbeef’s audiovisual work pushes boundaries both conceptually and in practice as he develops his ongoing collection by following his instincts and exploring his curiosities.


What would eventually catapult him into the spotlight of the generative art world, started as an earnest personal endeavor. While effectively homeschooling his two young children at the start of the pandemic alongside his wife, Deafbeef sought creative refuge to regain a sense of agency. “You lose agency over time, and that's something that's always been important to me. I felt like I needed an outlet to express myself, and have time for myself. My little rebellion was stealing a few hours in the dead of night, after the kids were asleep and everything was taken care of, to do something weird and creative.”

With a background in electric engineering, sound recording, and music, the resurgence of modular synthesizers piqued his interest as he searched for creative stimulation. Hoping to forego the financial investment necessary to acquire vintage gear while working under the constraint of avoiding excessive noise, Deafbeef sought an alternative method of exploration. “With modular synthesizers you're exploring sound with fundamental units–you're deep into it. So I thought, ‘I can do the same thing–going deep into it–digitally.’ Why don't I try to synthesize sound with a very general tool–a computer–without using any other third-party software?”

Using an old laptop running Linux, an emacs text editor, and a C compiler, Deafbeef set out to rebuild a digital synthesizer “from scratch.” He embarked on the experiment as an exercise in reverse engineering at the fundamental level, writing code to synthesize sound and eventually video, utilizing only the most basic digital tools. “I like reinventing the wheel,” says Deafbeef. “I have other hobbies that are in the same spirit, there's a satisfaction that you get even if you end up with something relatively simple. It’s unique to you because you didn't use anything that was prepackaged. Even if it doesn't end up being noteworthy, it was worth it for you. Having the experience and learning as you go is the reward in itself.”

Cultivating an interest in generative systems since the age of nine, Deafbeef cites playing the video game NetHack as his first introduction to programming and procedural generation. Captivated by the game’s ability to randomly generate new levels each round, Deafbeef spent his youth writing games with generative elements and later went on to study computer systems and work as a programmer writing code for apps. Due to this extensive prerequisite knowledge, Deafbeef’s generative audiovisual experiment developed rapidly. He began sharing his early work on Instagram under the moniker 0xDEAFBEEF–a reference to the popular hexspeak notation 0xDEADBEEF–where he stumbled on the Artblocks Discord. Inspired by what he found, Deafbeef “fell down the rabbit hole,” learned Solidity, and wrote his own smart contract with custom features in only a matter of weeks. Focused on maximum permanence–using C code to ensure his NFTs would exist as long as the Ethereum blockchain stays intact–his work caught the community’s attention and made a major splash. When he minted his genesis collection Synth Poems–a 128 piece collection of generative audiovisual works–he accompanied the audio with an oscilloscope visualization reminiscent of early computer graphics. The collection sold out immediately and his newly created Discord channel was flooded with new members. “Immediately, I was having conversations with an audience about my work, and they were genuinely interested in generative music and generative art. This was a first for me,” says Deafbeef. “People were going through the collection and listening to different Synth Poems talking about what distinguishes some from others, noticing different things, and which ones they like the best. I was just like, ‘Wow, there's more to this than just speculation. There are people genuinely interested in this stuff.’” Shocked by the response and newfound demand, Deafbeef’s Synth Poems’ floor prices soared on secondary. “At first, I was pretty skeptical, ‘Why all of a sudden are people seemingly going bonkers spending thousands of dollars on this?’ But I warmed up to it a bit, because I saw firsthand that there could be more to it than that.”

Inspired by the honest enthusiasm of his growing audience and the online generative art and music communities, Deafbeef became prolific and inventive. He followed up Synth Poems with subsequent generative audiovisual collections Angular, Transmission, Entropy, Glitchbox, and Advection. With Entropy he experimented with phases of degradation, while Glitchbox offered collectors an interactive experience by altering the output of the work by way of tweakable parameters that can be played like an instrument. “People can tune the knobs afterwards and submit parameters,” says Deafbeef. “I selected a bunch of those from community members, owners and collectors for the record as well.” Experimenting with the concept of a decentralized record, Deafbeef chose Glitchbox samplings from the community, as well as samples of music from the first five series for a limited edition physical vinyl he later released in February 2022.

Taking a brief departure from audio works, he presented a satirical generative texts project called Firsts–a playful and honest commentary on web3’s obsession with “firsts”–and raised over 1.4 million dollars for non-profits with its sale. He then leaned into more sardonic undertones with his next series, Degenerative–an audiovisual generative play on slot machines. “It's a social commentary on the gambling nature of NFTs and the hype around generative art,” says Deafbeef, noting the project’s reflection on themes in generative art and cryptoeconomic systems related to “controlled random processes, distribution of value, real and artificial scarceness, competition, gamification, merit, risk and precarity.” In a more celebratory spirit–his more recent audiovisual series Caves *pays tribute to pioneering computer artist, Herbert W. Franke by “commemorating his love of exploration in diverse fields including speleology(cave exploration), mathematics, computer art and science fiction.”

Three years into the project, Deafbeef remains humble and steadfast in his initial pursuit and process: his work follows the natural flow of his interests and adapts to fit his needs and restraints. As the demand for his time and attention is once again challenged–now with the constant incoming communication across Discord, email, text, Twitter, Instagram that comes with success in the field–Deafbeef again looks to his art for refuge.

Started as an ongoing project in September 2022, Payphone plays with the idea of having one single line of communication–a landline telephone. Using a smart contract to make the telephone ring, callers can pay a small fee (akin to a quarter) to call in and leave a message. They can choose to make their message a prompt, as if prompting AI, but instead they prompt Deafbeef with a creative request. Choosing prompts when he’s able, Deafbeef films himself carrying out selected prompts and mints the video offering it to the caller for a fair price, which is justified by a line itemed receipts of materials and labor.

Constantly finding new pathways to access fresh inspiration, Deafbeef continues to captivate his audience by the diversity of his creations. Craving the tactile nature of working with his hands, he recently incorporated metal work into his generative art practice by making literal grails as part of his artwork for Proof’s recent “Grails” series. Having previously worked as a Blacksmith before the Deafbeef project took flight, he seamlessly adds this layer of craftsmanship to his eclectic toolkit. For him, the satisfaction comes from taking a hands-on approach to everything he makes. “I don't want to be designing at a high level, I want to be deep in there. I like to touch the hot metal, or open up the hood of the car, or put the circuits together.”

Playing with the chaos and control of generative systems, Deafbeef’s ideas always seem to be both highly intricate and refreshingly straight-forward. The conceptual nature of his work adds layers of meaning, while the art and music manages to speak for itself. “I think I've come to accept, and admit, that ‘Artist’ is an okay label for me–although I wouldn't have thought that previously. I'm probably most comfortable with ‘Tinkerer’. I look at the activities that I've done in my life, and what motivated them–it's because I like to tinker. I like to go and explore something, lift up the hood, see how it works, experiment with it because it's intrinsically rewarding, regardless if anybody's watching or regardless of whatever the output is. There's no end result–the end result is doing.”

Fielding requests to participate in various exhibitions and collaborative projects, Deafbeef says he has no shortage of new works in progress. “I have a lot of different things in different states of completion,” he says. But regardless of external pressure or demand, Deafbeef stays true to his North Star when creating. His love for tinkering has enabled him to patiently cultivate the outstanding myriad of skills he’s harnessed to make his art. “What I like the most is the feeling of losing yourself in something. Being in the zone doing something where time passes quickly and you don't even notice, because you're so immersed in it. That's really what I go for.”


Article by Wallace Morgan for “High Frequency,” NOISE’s weekly newsletter. Subscribe for more.

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