Alex Shell • Artist Spotlight

When Alex Shell created his mining rig, he had no intention of becoming an artist. Born in St. Petersburg, “the cultural capital of Russia”, home to the likes of Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky, he had always appreciated physical artwork, but only began making crypto-art when searching for alternatives to Ethereum mining.

Now, with over 200 editions published on KnownOrigin, Shell is delighted that the platform has given him the opportunity to share his digital artworks with the world: “I built my own mining rig, which consists of six NVIDIA GTX 1060 cards, and I started creating crypto-art, occasionally. I had never thought about it previously. I had no intention to move in that direction. I put a few of my artworks up for sale and somebody bought them!

“I wish huge success to KnownOrigin because it has given me another taste of life, outside my boring day job. I’d never thought about somebody giving me money for the exercises I did with my mining rig. It was very fun and it encouraged me a lot.”

Alex creates his digital images by using neural style transfer. Working with convolutional neural networks (CNN), these are artificial neural networks based on the human image recognition system. Developed by Yann LeCun in the 1980’s, CNNs were originally used within the banking sector to scan hand-written digits. However, in 2012, Alex Krizhevsky expanded on LeCun’s work by having his CNN analyse millions of labelled images from the ImageNet database, in order to create AlexNet.

The multi-layered CNNs used within crypto-art are trained by being exposed to and analysing a large number of artworks, allowing them to see the nuances within each technique. Using image style transfer, the CNN then combines the input image with a defined artistic style.

This technique allows Alex Shell to transfer colours, style, and other parameters from one image and combine them with another, generating a unique artwork. One of his favourite pieces, titled “I’m The Queen, But Who You Are?”, was created using this method (among several other techniques used in this artwork), displaying a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in a highly-pixelated and distorted style.

After learning more about CNNs, Shell began to write programming scripts, defining his own artistic techniques, which generate 1,000 unique images within a few hours, in order to create his latest artworks.

“It begins with the fully random production of circles, lines, rectangles and triangles that are generated by my scripts”, he explains.

“Out of the 1,000 images that are created, a few of them just look meaningful. They are graphical images that are quite simple in form, but they still express something about human life. It’s all done by PC. There’s no manual interaction involved, it’s fully code-based artwork.”

Alex sees no distinction between physical art and crypto-art, and he is convinced that the two will begin to merge in the near future: “In the 15th century, the only method that artists had was to paint something. Now, we have computers and we paint on computers. There is no difference in terms of artistry, it is only a matter of tools.”

Shell has already seen some of his work displayed by local Moscow art gallery, Here at Taganka, as part of a virtual exhibition held during lockdown. Virtual galleries have become more prominent as coronavirus continues to impact daily life, giving all artists an alternative platform. Despite galleries’ inability to host physical exhibitions, the rise of virtual galleries is helping to expose new people to the joys of crypto-art.

Russia has been one of the leading countries in helping to bring digital art into the physical world. In 2017, the Museum of Contemporary History of Russia hosted the world’s first crypto-art exhibition; a year later, Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery launched a blockchain app that digitised its entire collection.

Alongside his ambition to become more recognised within crypto-art, Alex Shell dreams of being able to showcase his digital images in other innovative ways.

“I have been thinking of ways to convert my digital images into physical artworks that could be put on walls. I don’t just want them printed on an average printer; I want them to be drawn. >

“I’m currently exploring the internet for robot arms that could draw something like 1metre x 1metre artworks. If not, I will build one myself. My aim is to recreate my digital artworks into physical artworks and hope art galleries will use them in physical exhibitions.”

We would like to thank Alex Shell for giving up their time to collaborate on this with us. Article by @mattjamesmorris.