Blockchain and web3 technologies are offering artists new forms of creative expression and a direct route to connect with collectors and new global audiences. Icelandic artist Kristjana S. Williams talks about her first foray into the world of web3 with her debut NFT project ‘Head in the Clouds’, developed in collaboration with VIVE Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kristjana S. Williams in her studio in Chiswick, London
Before we talk about the project ‘Head in the Clouds’, could you tell us about your practice which is very multidisciplinary. What is your creative process like? And what are your influences and inspiration?
I am essentially a collage artist. I like working with my hands as much as I enjoy working digitally. I love going to museums to conduct research and find inspiration and going to markets to collect findings which I can use in my work. I visit antique stores, map houses, markets, and even scroll through the New York Library online to find copyright-free engravings. I use a lot of Victorian engravings in my collages, which was how the world used to be documented pre-photography, together with watercolours and pencils. When you start digging into that world, it’s vast. I don’t just use one style of engraving but mix them all up, which I think is where my strength lies.
Piecing together new variation of her physical collage artwork, Heart of Nature.
You have experimented with digital tools throughout your career. How have you engaged with technology in your practice previously?
Early on in my practice I was very interested in the digital side of producing light and electricity and created my own logic circuit boards for a pirate radio station. I then experimented with kinetic art. My first big exhibition was ‘Interactive Print Journey’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2011. I created an interactive collage that had four different rooms. You could take each room apart using an iPad and could rearrange all the elements. The work was later presented at the London Design Festival, where visitors were able to upload their own creations.
How have you come to experimenting with generative art and NFTs? How do they relate to and extend your artistic practice?
I first knew of their existence when they exploded into the world. It was very interesting to see people creating GIFs and to notice the similarities with my own work. Even though I don’t have an animation studio, I have been working with an animator throughout my practice. And in essence, a lot of the collages I create are naturally animated and three-dimensional. By creating works that other people can experience I am not be alone in my internal world anymore. I like the idea of creating works which people can travel within and which spark new ways of thinking about and experiencing the world. With NFTs, I feel like one of the most important things is to feel the journey in your bones. When I realised what was possible, I realised NFTs open up a completely different department in your brain.
Can you tell us a little about the concept behind ‘Head in the Clouds’ and where the idea came from? What do you want viewers to experience through this NFT project?
The concept behind ‘Head in the Clouds’ came from wanting to animate an engraving of a skeleton which I was working on for another art project. I wanted to create a skeleton that has sensations and emotions. ‘Head in the Clouds’ is about travelling, which is one of my favourite things to do, like so many other people in this world. It is about all the sensations you may have while travelling when your head is in the clouds. There may be tingling sensations, anxiety, excitement. These feelings may occur pre-travelling as well when you are walking on clouds before embarking on an exciting journey. The skeleton is a perfect way of illustrating emotions such as anxiousness, patience or worry.
Can you briefly describe the artworks ‘Heart of Nature’, ‘Contemplating Skeleton’ and ‘Drifting Skeleton’. What do they mean to you?
The heart was an element of the skeleton engraving which I decided to amplify. My private commissions and brand work are always about making sense of all the various details that I use, as well as interpreting moments in history. I first created two collages based on the heart engraving. One was about the joy of cakes and eating, and the other was about music. They developed quite quickly, and people really connected with them. After these two artworks sold out, I decided to create a digital collage ‘Heart of Nature’ purely about the joy of nature, which is where most of my inspiration for my work comes from. ‘Heart of Nature’ is very much at the core of what I love. It has the water, the sea, blooming flowers and fish. I can imagine living things pumping with joy.
Original artwork print, Still Skeleton and Drifting Skeleton.
Each edition is a unique NFT that has been generated at random through a rules-based system that you devised. How did you decide to evoke the element of chance through the wheels? What has the process been like for you?
We really wanted to convey different human emotions and personalities through the skeleton. I wondered, what if you spin two wheels and you end up with a random chance of combining a certain personality with a certain emotion? You would achieve all the possible variations. There is a hint of playfulness. Indeed, we are not always in control of our emotions. There are so many underlying and outgoing factors which affect all our emotions. I feel like the two wheels give a bit of truth about how we are human.
How did you choose the different motifs and backgrounds that make up your digital collages? Does each NFT artwork tell its own story?
For the motifs and the backgrounds, I used details from Victorian engravings, mostly from medical charts. For the backgrounds I wanted to supercharge the emotion that we were to convey. On the skeleton or on the heart itself you find elements such as a watch on a little chain with the time passing by, two little glasses of wine clinking around and a mushroom growing. If you look at the ‘Drifting Skeleton’ you can see these big flowery petals between the shoulder blades. For me, that is a visualisation of anticipation, when you are looking forward to something and you feel an opening and closing sensation. It was really fun because I could illustrate emotions such as anxiety with only a few elements. In the NFT format you can express emotions using colour and motifs such as shooting stars or a fire with an anchor, playing around with different variations.
What are your ambitions for the future? Do you think you will continue to use new technologies in your practice? How do you think of your future art?
I was very excited when VIVE Arts contacted me. You have all these dreams, and you really want to express all the fantastical things in your brain. I think my brain has always been digitally minded. With the new possibilities of the web3 space and the metaverse I now have the chance to take things further, to take that deep dive into my brain and internal universe: being able to fly around floating islands, going into houses and sleeping forests, feeling emotions as you go through different landscapes. My dream is to continue collaborating with VIVE Arts to continue to experiment with NFTs and the web3 space. My dream would be to go further and further until you can open a door and go through the tunnel that leads into the universe that is my brain.
Kristjana S. Williams and Samantha King, Head of Programme at VIVE Arts
For more information on the NFT project, visit 'Head in the Clouds'.
All photography by Rebecca Maynes; courtesy of Kristjana S. Williams Studio.