To celebrate World Poetry Day, we are spotlighting crypto poet and visual artist Pierre Gervois to discuss his experience in the world of literary NFTs.
Gervois explains how literary NFTs allows text to transcend traditional constraints of the printed page, and he describes the broader web3 literary scene, among many other topics.
Visit Pierre’s MakersPlace storefront to see his newly minted work (also featured in the below interview). Pierre is MakersPlace’s first crypto poet to use our Unlockable NFT feature. Each NFT comes with a signed preparatory sketch on high-quality paper.
Brady Walker: Literary NFTs are still a relatively rare breed. What’s your experience been in the space?
Pierre Gervois: I minted my first NFT back in May of 2021 on the Tezos blockchain. At the time, there were very few NFTs that used language and were of poetic and literary nature. I didn’t have high expectations since most of the NFTs I had seen were purely visual arts, such as abstract or generative art or photography. To my surprise, I discovered that a lot of people were interested in pursuing literature and poetry on the blockchain, and I was happily surprised by the response.
After doing some research, I found that there were a couple of other crypto poets and artists using literature in their work, including conceptual writer Kalen Iwamoto and Anna Maria Caballero, who publishes literature and poetry on the blockchain. Discovering these artists made me extremely happy, and it’s been exciting to see a small group of poets and writers using the blockchain to form a burgeoning community of crypto writers. It was a great feeling to see that collectors were interested in these experiments in poetry and literature.
BW: Book collectors collect books, which is different from the way your and other literary NFTs are presented. Why not just make a book?
PG: To me, the most fascinating thing about NFTs used for literature is the way technology enables the text to transcend the traditional constraints of the printed page. Words are no longer confined to a book sandwiched between dozens of other pages, hidden in the dark, and potentially forgotten in a dusty corner of a bookstore or library.
With NFTs, words can jump out of the page and be incorporated into a visual experience, paired with abstract images, photographs, sculptures, and even music or the voice of the author or performer. We are giving new wings to text that, to me, was previously confined and lonely in print.
BW: Who do you recommend following in the web3 literary scene?
PG: The first place I would suggest for discovering creative poetry in the web3 literary scene is the Crypto Poetry Gallery called TheVERSEverse. The website is theverseverse.com, and it was co-founded by the three crypto poets I mentioned earlier: Kalen Iwamoto, Anna Maria Caballero, and Sasha Stiles, among others.
It’s a fantastic platform for conversation and exchange among crypto poets, and I would highly recommend starting there to learn about what’s happening in the crypto poetry world. Additionally, there are other initiatives that are affiliated with TheVERSEverse, so it’s a great starting point to explore various crypto projects in the literary scene.
BW: Who do you see as your non-crypto poetic forebears? Which is to say, who inspires you to write poetry?
Okay, so when I was a child and a teenager, I didn’t like poetry. I had to lie about that because poetry is an art form that is socially valued. So if you say, “I don’t like poetry. I think it’s boring,” you can’t say that. So I lied when I was in high school, but I had no interest in poetry. I didn’t feel any emotion when I was reading poetry at 15.
My artistic career started as a visual artist. For the first 30 years of my career, I was painting and creating visual art. At some point, I decided that I wanted to go beyond abstraction and tell stories about what I saw around me in our society. I had three options: I could have painted or drew what I saw, I could have used photography and taken pictures, or I could have used text. I chose to use text because I love the abstraction and conceptual aspect of text.
I decided to put text on the same rectangular shapes that I had been painting for 30 years, but with that text, and as such, I wanted to create short-form tags that you could read in just one or two minutes maximum. It didn’t occur to me that it was poetry I was creating. I defined myself as a visual artist using language.
Friends who were poets started to tell me that what I was doing was a form of poetry. I reluctantly accepted this at first, but I eventually realized that my work could absolutely be categorized as poetry. I’m happy to be characterized as a poet or a crypto poet now. It didn’t come to me at first, but it happened when I wanted to tell stories and chose words, and it happened to fall within the category of poetry.
BW: As a poetry hater, you would’ve been right at home in my very American hometown. But that’s interesting because the first person to pop into my mind when I first saw your work was Christopher Wool. Erica Balm and Jenny Holzer are other. With them, you can’t really separate the words from the visuals.
PG: Exactly. I am both proud and humbled to be compared to Christopher Wool, who is a great master. The reason why I didn’t call myself a poet is that my words cannot be separated from the visual aspect. They are physically embedded into a structure. So if I were to publish my poems in a book, which I am considering, I would not extract the text. Instead, it would have to be a printed image of the text within the visual components because you cannot remove them from their physicality and their link to the rectangular structure.
BW: Yeah, that strikes me as an accurate description of your work and how I see a lot of crypto poetry being deeply embedded with or integrated with the visual aspects. As a visually motivated artist, why write at all?
PG: Because while I am inspired by painters like Vermeer and Van Eyck, and I simply do not possess their technical skill. When I am creating a poem, I see a scene, a moment frozen in time. Much like a 15th-century painting, my mind’s eye sees a carefully constructed composition with distinct characters in a specific context, but I cannot paint like that.
Writing, however, allows me to capture the essence of that image with just a few carefully chosen words. It’s a powerful tool, and one that I find endlessly fascinating. So, even though I lack the skills to paint, I am still able to create and share my vision through the written word.
BW: That’s interesting. When I think of Van Eyck or Vermeer, the linguistic corollary that might come to mind would be someone like Proust or Faulkner, who might see a proliferation of details in these Dutch paintings, and then answer it with ten times as much detail. But for you, you’re trying to tackle the same kind of detail and and rigor in as few words as possible. So it seems to me like being in the shoes of a a minimalist trying to capture something that a maximalist did — like Grant Yun doing Van Eyk — but instead of just like, “Okay, I’m going to look at this incredibly complex, massive-scale scene and recreate it in my own minimalist style,” you’re doing that, but then you take an extra step across mediums. There’s not a question there. I’m just trying to articulate this idea of your work as I’m hearing it.
PG: Exactly, yes. You perfectly encapsulated my work. So I really appreciate that you truly understand my work.
BW: You recently produced two docu-series: The Story of Art and The Story of Art in America. What did you learn from working on these projects that you were able to bring back to your artistic process?
PG: I was an executive producer on both of these TV shows, and I was not responsible for the interviews or the artistic content. That was all done by the very talented filmmaker Christelle Bois. She conducted the interviews and curated the journey. So, in this particular project, I was in an executive producer capacity, and Christelle deserves all the credit for the artist interviews. However, what I did learn was the phenomenal interest and appreciation for art that exists beyond large cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. We filmed two seasons and are now starting on season three, which will be filmed entirely in Texas, visiting nine small to medium-sized cities. Even in towns with populations as small as 5,000 people in places like Kansas, Texas, and Wyoming, we saw an unbelievable interest and appreciation for the arts. I used to believe that art could only be found in big cities with a large number of museums and a variety of places to see it, but this project has shown me that even in small towns in the middle of the desert, there is an appreciation for the arts. That is what I learned from producing this TV show, and I credit Christelle for the fantastic content she created.
BW: The work that you’ve just minted on MakersPlace is political but not partisan, in that it calls out the impossibility of non-bias even in machines because machines are trained by humans, and humans are inherently biased. A political statement like that isn’t surprising, considering that after college, you started working for the French government on economic international relations.
PG: I studied political science and constitutional law and I’m a law nerd. I find C-SPAN fascinating and I watch the US Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for nominations of judges and the Supreme Court hearings with great passion.
What I found fascinating when I studied law was the relation of power and domination. When you’re a politician, you choose to be one not necessarily because you want to serve your community, but because of the power it gives you. So one of the angles I see the world through is power, domination, social class, and all these repressed feelings we’re not comfortable talking about.
For example, social class — if we belong to the middle class, we’ll do everything to reach the upper middle class, buy a BMW or Mercedes car as a sign of status, or a watch of a certain brand to associate with our desire to reach a higher status. These are repressed things that we don’t openly admit, but we always find a way to tell a slightly different story.
When I saw the use of artificial intelligence and ChatGPT, I immediately thought about the relation of power and class. The person who programmed these systems has their own political opinion, religion, culture, and beliefs, and maybe it’s reflected in the results. Even though we prompt the system, bias can still creep in unnoticed. I was surprised that there was no discussion or academic debate about this risk. That’s why I wanted to start a conversation. If the programmer has a particular political point of view and it opposes yours, we might see bias in the answers and how they are analyzed.
BW: How did you see your life playing out working for the French government at that time, and is that a philosophical thread that ties it to what you’re doing as a filmmaker and crypto poet now?
PG: When I was working as a civil servant for the French government, I was in charge of economic development and European company relations in China. I lived in Shanghai for six years before moving to the United States. During that time, I noticed the injustices that Western companies and people showed toward Chinese culture. It deeply shocked me that there was a complete lack of respect for the culture of potential customers.
Many European and US companies invested in China without understanding or respecting Chinese consumers. There was an arrogance in the expatriate community in Shanghai that was unacceptable. People from Europe acted superior to Chinese people who have had a civilization that existed for 5000 years. This neocolonialist behavior was wrong both philosophically and economically.
Many companies failed in China because they failed to understand and respect Chinese consumers. I regret not speaking up enough at the time. I should have voiced my opinion more forcefully and explained to these people that their behavior was counterproductive. This experience influenced my interest in the relations between two different cultures and the way Westerners are arrogant towards other cultures.
BW: To my knowledge, you had never lived in the US when you relocated to Shanghai, China, where you created the Shanghai Travelers’ Club magazine, a luxury travel publication about the United States in Chinese Mandarin for High Net Worth Chinese travelers. How did that project start?
PG: This project was one of the most interesting and fun projects I’ve worked on. When I was living in Shanghai, I had a lot of Chinese friends who were high-net-worth individuals and entrepreneurs who were interested in discovering Europe and the United States. They told me that there was very limited information available to them about nice hotels, good museums, and other cultural experiences in those places.
When they traveled to the United States or Europe, they often had negative experiences, such as being welcomed poorly at hotels or luxury stores. They felt disrespected and discriminated against, which was pure racism in luxury retail. I felt that was absolutely wrong and decided to create a luxury lifestyle magazine about the United States to provide the best possible ideas for where to stay, cultural and lifestyle experiences, and how to feel respected as travelers.
I worked with several hotel brands, mostly in New York City, to advise them on creating the best possible experience for this new generation of Chinese travelers, allowing them to learn about the US culture and feel respected as travelers. The magazine helped some companies to have a better approach to international travelers. We started the magazine in 2016 or 2017, and it was a very interesting part of my life. It was about helping my Chinese friends to be respected, which is something completely normal, but unfortunately, nobody was interested in doing that.
BW: And now, down a long road, you teach at NYU. What do you teach?
PG: Sure, I teach Metaverse Applications. Our research focuses on how different industries can use the Metaverse, web3, and blockchain. The course has generated massive interest from students.
About a year and a half ago, I was teaching Public Relations and Media at NYU when I mentioned to my faculty colleagues that I was an NFT artist. They had never done anything with NFT and crypto before, so they asked me to organize the first conference on the topic. It was a huge success, and we continued to build on it.
Now, I work with Dr. Elizabeth Haas, who leads the Metaverse Collaborative, which is a research group on the Metaverse at NYU. She asked me to co-teach a class with her, and we focus on helping companies use the Metaverse while teaching students the basics of blockchain and the Metaverse. Many students who join our class don’t have even a basic knowledge of crypto or the Metaverse, so we explain the concepts and use cases, starting with the first use case, which was art. Our research is ongoing, and it’s a great place to work. I’m very happy to be a part of NYU.
BW: What have you learned about the metaverse from your students?
PG: I’m constantly learning from my students. Every time I teach a class, I learn something new. One thing that stands out to me is that the user experience is currently very challenging. For example, when I teach my students how to open a crypto wallet, it can take an entire class. We also spend time discussing how to mint an NFT, which can take up to two, three, four hours.
Through the amazing questions my students ask, I see that it is really complicated. If I were to recommend crypto art to a friend, I know it would be challenging for them. They would need to learn about crypto wallets, cryptocurrency, the blockchain, how to use Coinbase or Gemini, and select from different NFT marketplaces and blockchains.
As of today, it is not intuitive and still very complex. I believe that collectively in the NFT ecosystem, we need to work on streamlining the process and making it easier for people to use. We need to have more user-friendly crypto wallets and better integration between different platforms.
Fortunately, I see progress being made in this area, with new protocols that won’t require users to write down seed phrases on a piece of paper. But we still have a long way to go to make the user experience smoother and more accessible.
BW: What do you think needs to happen for crypto poetry to have its mainstream moment?
PG: Well, that’s a great question. Let’s start by discussing the state of poetry. In its traditional physical form, very few people are buying poetry books. In my opinion, for the last 50 or 60 years, poetry has been somewhat of a niche interest, often relegated to the back of bookstores with just a few dusty books. There have been a few initiatives to promote poetry, but it was a forgotten art form.
However, I would credit Amanda Gorman, who wrote a beautiful poem for the inauguration of President Joe Biden, with putting poetry back in the spotlight. Her poem was heard by millions of people around the world, and it made poetry cool again. Since then, we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in poetry, including in the form of crypto poetry.
Toward the end of 2021, we started to publish poetry on the blockchain, and it really sparked interest. We’re on a good track, and I’m thrilled to see the attention. Recently, I was in Florida attending an event organized by Broward County, which has a vibrant arts and cultural department. There was a beautiful event featuring digital art NFTs projected on walls and screens, and there was even a poetry performance.
Several poets, including myself, did poetry readings in front of our artworks projected on the screens. People were queuing up around the building with their families to come and watch live poetry readings. How amazing is that?
I don’t know if crypto poetry will have a big mainstream moment, but these little moments add up.