design discussion

Grounding Ethereum’s Impact with Ethereal [Interview with ConsenSys’ Sara Subbaraman + Will King]

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A New Spirit of Crypto

Blockchain Week in New York City is months behind us, but some of the outcomes from those several days of crypto madness are framing great opportunity for the future. The Ethereal Summit, born out of Joseph Lubin’s ConsenSys office, was one of the premiere must-attend occasions and has been nurturing a diverse audience with their yearly events on both coasts (NY and SF). More so than the massive turnout and big-name speakers, this year’s Ethereal in New York stood out for one key reason: Design and Programming.

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Today, we’re joined by two members who were instrumental in the execution and design direction of the event – Saraswathi Subbaraman and William King – to bring us insight in the role of Ethereal now and into the future.

The Creative Crypto (CC): Hi Sara and Will, welcome to the magazine! Tell us a bit about yourselves and your experience with ConsenSys.

Hi, I’m Saraswathi, art director and one of the co-creators of Ethereal Summit. I am a digital creative and technoculture enthusiast with a master’s from NYU’s ITP and a background in Technocultural Studies at UC Davis. My research and interests are primarily on decentralized governance, humanist crypto-economics, and the art and blockchain space. I’m also a project lead on Circles, a crypto-UBI project.

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Howdy, my name is William King. I’m an autodidact and jack-of-many-trades, my background is in technology, I was fascinated with the scale of impact of software front-end engineering at a YC-backed education startup to co-founding an analytics startup acquired by a hedge fund. My current focus has been at the intersection of computational media and building communities.

CC: What was your vision initially for the Ethereal Summit and how does it stand out compared to other crypto-centric conferences as a major event in New York?

Ethereal aims to be an interdisciplinary environment where a diverse range of individuals can come to learn, share ideas and co-create. The crypto ecosystem is in dire need of counterweights to hyper-capitalist ICO-focused conferences, and esoteric developer conferences. Blockchain is, for us, a social movement, and Ethereal seeks to integrate the technology’s ethos of inclusion and transparency with that of a broader societal culture.

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  • Ethereal NY’s Main Space

Interactivity is a core tenant of our summit, with the intention of bringing more theoretical discussions down to earth through actionable use cases and tangible experiments. To do this, we are exploring the transforming traditional expo booths into participatory installations. Examples in the past include an audio-visual blockchain explorer powered by Alethio’s datasets, Viant serving sushi which supply chain was tracked by blockchain, and Virtue Poker played live on a professional poker table.

One unique addition that has continued to get positive feedback is the Zen Zone. It’s a safe space that offers yoga and meditation throughout the event to encourage reflection and balance in an otherwise fast-paced event that mirrors the blockchain ecosystem. Ethereal also strives to set a high bar for diversity and inclusiveness, with more than half of the speakers of the event being female. Last but certainly not least, Ethereal aims to support the arts. We feel that art can be a medium for education, critical inquiry and creative expression. It has brought a more thoughtful, human element to this tech-heavy conference. Our last event featured provocative works like a pop-up cyberweapon shop called OpenVault and Scapeshift 2.0 that is revitalizing a park in Brooklyn, which was also covered by @sndbox.

CC: How has the conference changed over the past year?

The most noticeable change has been the scale and pace as which Ethereal is evolving. The first Ethereal, just over a year ago, had around 500 people. A few months later in SF, our attendance doubled, and this May in Queens it doubled again to over 2000 participants. Ethereal is incorporating more artists, musicians and creatives to imagine the future alongside typical blockchain conference attendees. We’re excited about making the dialogue more open to these voices.

Another interesting note has been more elements of co-creations and emergence. Alongside one of our grant recipients Nash Cash Casino this year, there were also at least two other physical token games, one rewarding extraversion and another around voting on creatively spent tokens. There were also several unofficial after-parties as well as a group of ConsenSys employees that crowdfunded the rental of a music studio nearby for jam sessions.

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  • Works by Jessica Angel and Cryptograffiti

CC: What was the specific mission and reception of the Arts Grant and exhibition portion of the Summit?

Art is baked into Ethereal’s DNA. Since the first event Ethereal featured art from the likes of Simon Denny and Rob Myers about the implications blockchain. In the year that passed, the blockchain community expanded along with the challenge to bring new artists and perspectives into the conversation. The Ethereal Art Grant was an effort to open up an opportunity to showcase creativity to artists outside our direct network. Ethereal is also a place for debate and critical rhetoric – this is why our theme touched sensitive topics like hypercapitalism and markets eating the world. This resulted in provocative and polarizing work like HODLism, which reflected on the religious aspects of the blockchain community and BailBloc a voluntary mining scheme against bail as a form of discrimination in the US justice system. For more background on the curators’ creative motivation can be found on our panel, Blockchain as a Artistic Medium.

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  • Pray for Bull Markets at the Satoshi Shrine

It has been reassuring to see a lot of positive reception from the blockchain and overall tech community. Some of our favorite quotes:

“It felt like an experience, like a single executed vision.” – Max Brody of Cent.co

“Attendees included plenty of young men in their 20s and 30s, but also lots of women, and a fair number of people who looked to be retirement age.” – Wired

“The sentiment on day one of the two-day conference [characterized] the inclusive atmosphere” – CoinDesk

CC: As creative professionals yourselves, how do you see developing blockchain tech impacting the future of design practice?

Designers are the intermediaries between heady blocktalk and normies. The onus of educating users about cryptography and self-sovereign data is strongly in their hands. There will need to be creative new user experiences that incorporate the differences of dapps and their quirks like confirmation times and key signatures. We’ve been considering having a design-specific Ethereal event, or integrating more design-specific talks and praxes.

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  • The “Art Decentralized” booth led by Jessica Angel

CC: What’s in store for you in the coming months?

After Ethereal NY, community members from other cities have reached out to express their excitement for our mission and bringing an Ethereal event to their region. We hope to see Ethereal take on a life of its own in this way. On our calendar currently is Ethereal returning to Davos in January, in Austin TX at SXSW in March, and another flagship Ethereal NY event in May.

Ethereal is also looking into the long term and sustainability of blockchain art programming by partnering with other companies leading the charge. From the successful art auctions at Ethereal, there are some big plans for the Foundation for Blockchain Arts alongside RARE Labs and Codex. We are also looking to engage with the rest of the arts ecosystem, taking lots of inspiration from the work of Furtherfield and Rhizome.

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  • Ethereal’s Gallery Space

The first Ethereal Arts Grant proved that blockchain art can have an important place at conferences and the overall ecosystem. This means there will certainly be more efforts to support the arts with grants. We are also looking starting to piece together an embedded art residency program at ConsenSys where we can further amplify artists’ voices. Our hope is to provide space and collaboration in creative research alongside the brightest minds at ConsenSys.


Thank you so much Sara and Will for joining us on the interview! Learn more about the speakers and various creative projects of this past spring’s Ethereal Summit in NY here and be sure to follow ConsenSys for announcements concerning their upcoming Ethereal events!

Event Name: Ethereal Summit
Location: New York
Website: https://etherealsummit.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/EtherealSummit
Cover Image by Zsolt Vidak

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