Artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s Transcendent New NFT Project Invites You to Connect With an ‘Oracle That Lives on the Blockchain’
“The art world today,” in Cai Guo-Qiang’s estimation, “seems rather conservative.”
In between the intercultural conflict on the world stage, and the advancement of technology on the creative front, the art and cultural fields, in the artist’s view, have not properly reflected the chaos of the contemporary condition. And particularly not “at a time when the world is strongly questioning the authenticity of time, actively pioneering in the virtual space, and infinitely expanding our vision in the cosmos.”
For Cai, confronting these issues requires calling on powers and realms beyond our grasp—what he terms “the unseen world.”
“The more confusion we face, the more we need to leverage guidance from the unseen world,” he told Artnet News. “Such power transcends individuals, localities, and different cultures. At this moment, it is particularly important to continue the dialogue with the unseen world with a humble and inquiring mindset.”
Later this month, Cai will unveil one such bridge to the unknown with his fifth NFT project, EET, or Exchange with Extraterrestrials, realized in partnership with Web3 collective Kanon. The artist bills it as “an oracle that lives on the blockchain,” the chat platform welcomes all manner of questions from users the same way a real-life fortune-teller might, and spits out answers in two distinct forms of tokens.
An EET Fortune. Photo courtesy of Kanon.
One of them, called Gua, is a diagram randomly generated by EET based on physical inputs by users who are asked to tap a button on a screen as they wait for the oracle’s answers. The other is dubbed the EET Fortune, which serves as a “reading” containing a title and six verses. There are 64 base formats of EET Fortunes, which can be elaborated into 4,096 combinations, with random generation ensuring that no two readings are alike.
According to Cai, an EET Fortune is primarily intended to provide “a symbolic cue or guidance.” But if it proves particularly opaque, an A.I. assistant that’s been trained on the textual content of EET Fortunes is at hand to help users interpret its meaning.
Both Gua and EET Fortunes will also be minted and encoded as animated GIFs, making EET the first NFT project to generate and on-chain the image format. The mint price is 0.065ETH (about $119), though collectors who already own the artist’s NFTs will have access to free mints.
An EET Fortune. Photo courtesy of Kanon.
The entire process involved in EET takes cues and mirrors the divination culture that Cai grew up with in his native Quanzhou, in southeastern China. He referred to the Chinese fortune-telling practice of kau chim, wherein a seeker at a temple shakes a tube of bamboo sticks, each inscribed with a numeral, until one randomly falls out. The number on that stick will then be matched with a written fortune, which can be further clarified by a monk or a priest.
EET, as Cai put it, “restores the behavioral and psychological process of kau chim in temples, only this time, it all happens on the blockchain and the virtual world.”
This is hardly Cai’s first attempt to reach the unseen world. However impenetrable, the unknown is threaded throughout his practice—from his series “Projects for Extraterrestrials” (1989–), comprising some 30 works, including his famed gunpowder paintings, that illustrate his fixation with the cosmos; to Sky Ladder (2015), his long-gestated sculpture to “connect the Earth to the universe.”
Cai Guo-Qiang, Crop Circles (2012). Photo: Wyatt Conlon, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Of late, the new technological frontier represents as much an unseen world for Cai. Whether he’s rendering his firework spectacles in V.R. or most recently, training an A.I. program on his body of work, the artist has sought to put his art in dialogue with technology. “The future,” he said, “is heading toward the integration of the virtual and the physical.”
“It’s all just starting, and I am not in a rush to jump to a conclusion or pose a value judgment, because everyone is exploring,” he said about the new technologies. “But, at least, as the old Chinese saying goes, ‘lose at sunrise but gain at sunset.’ Experience and exploration online will bring about changes to my art in the physical world.”
Cai Guo-Qiang, Sky Ladder (2015). Photo: Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.
NFTs and the blockchain have been especially fascinating for Cai. As the Kanon team reflected in a statement: “As we developed EET, the questions Cai would pose to us and the direction he provided made us realize that he understood the potential depth of the medium much better than even we did.”
Since 2021, Cai has embarked on a steady run of blockchain projects—beginning with Transient Eternity, commissioned by Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum—that have grown in ambition, leaning increasingly into the unique qualities and utility of NFTs.
Take Your Daytime Fireworks (2022), created in collaboration with NFT platform TRLab. The project offered 7,000 firework packet tokens that collectors could “set off” at a day and time of their choosing to reveal one of 90 artworks, which varied according to real-world environmental conditions. While doing so, collectors got to experience Cai’s process, from the planning involved to the anxiety and anticipation that he feels before setting off his own firework displays. It made for what the artist called a “live experience.”
Daytime Firework reveal: Day 51 Firework style: Mini Fan
Remember to turn on the audio for each reveal 🔊 On rainy days, the humidity will dampen the sound of the explosion 🤫 pic.twitter.com/5l0fWBEvWl
This interactive and participatory aspect also powers EET, right down to the creative process that birthed it. The project, Cai recalled, was hashed out in Zoom meetings between his studio and the Kanon team, working across time zones and geographic divides. It presented to the artist an entirely new way of working, he said, “realizing projects through online communication with a group of friends I have never met.”
“What’s interesting is that we are creating an interactive work that bridges the virtual and the physical worlds while our communication channel and creative methods, which defy the physical boundaries and geographic distance between us, are in themselves part of the work,” he continued. “This is a new artistic methodology brought about by new social forms.”
But even as Cai has embraced the shifts wrought by technology on art, he continues to weigh these expanded possibilities. Will NFTs ever come into their own as art forms? Might his faith in new technologies be “too ambitious”—or “too minuscule”?
Asked how he sees his blockchain works enlarging his practice, he wondered if such digital advancements, “including the so-called ‘metaverse,’” could ever “solve the problem of art? Same with the problem of creativity.”
But, as if pulling back, he added: “Creativity is not replacing oil paint with NFTs.”