Chad Knight: NFT Artist for the Wilder World

The former head of 3D design at Nike now makes mind-bending digital art. He's a speaker at CoinDesk's Consensus festival this June.

AccessTimeIconApr 27, 2022 at 2:50 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 4:23 p.m. UTC

If you were scrolling through social media in 2018, then chances are you came across one of contemporary artist Chad Knight’s artworks shared by millions of people – mainly because his 3D work “Release” was erroneously described as a kinetic water sculpture in Japan. There was no talk of the metaverse at the time, but Knight’s seemingly realistic art that blurred the lines between digital and physical (“are chad knight sculptures real” is still a Google search suggestion) was a sign of the art and indeed the line of work he would later pursue.

Knight’s a contemporary artist in the most contemporary sense of the word: He’s deeply embedded in the white-hot non-fungible token (NFT) space both as a practitioner and as a commentator. He’s recently taken up a job as head of cyberware for Wilder World, a metaverse built on Ethereum and 3D creation software Unreal Engine.

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  • This article is part of Road to Consensus, a series highlighting speakers and the big ideas they will discuss at Consensus 2022, CoinDesk's festival of the year June 9-12 in Austin, Texas. Learn more.

    What’s most striking in Knight’s approach to art is his desire to embed himself in emerging technology and continuously learn new software – a recurring theme in this interview. And contributing to the aesthetics of the metaverse, he has (fortunately for him) no option but to master cutting-edge technology.

    Although his style is resolutely digital, Knight counts among his artistic influences Renaissance and Baroque masters such as Claudio Coello, Peter Paul Rubens and Caravaggio. Digital artists Virgil Abloh and Archan Nair have also influenced his art, but without a doubt, Knight’s digital sculptures with mind-bending 3D drawings are way too distinct to be mistaken for someone else’s work, even for art newbies.

    Knight may be at heart of the NFT-powered metaverse, but he doesn’t actively mint his personal artwork (a distinction he carefully makes in this interview) as NFTs at the moment. As he explains, the market demand for NFTs currently lies in PFPs, or collectibles that are used as profile pictures on social media. But unlike many artists with open disdain for PFPs, Knight cherishes them. He considers them as some sort of visual identity prototypes that can later be adopted in the metaverse.

    Before entering the NFT space – or the metaverse – Knight was head of 3D design at Nike for over 10 years. He quit that job last year and turned the liberation that comes with resignation into a solo exhibition titled "Two Week Notice." And it was thanks to the exhibition’s title that his family found out he had just left Nike.

    It’s not all art in Knight’s background, however. From 1998 to 2011, he was a professional skateboarder. So naturally, his skateboarding friends, perplexed by NFTs, turn to Knight for an explanation. We did the same.

    Knight, a speaker at CoinDesk’s Consensus festival in June, spoke with CoinDesk from his home in Portland, Oregon.

    What is it like heading up cyberware for Wilder World? And what else are you up to these days?

    I've been in that role for about three months now. I've been really focused on setting up the framework, identifying partners and brands that we're going to bring in, doing my first line and also helping work with the team on the avatar system and things like that. I've been doing a lot of art – personal art – and not so focused on NFTs. Just trying to kind of give that space a little bit of room to breathe.

    The other thing that I'm currently working on, with my friend Jesse Grushack, is a piece for Burning Man that we're going to submit this year. I’ve never been, and I thought it would be fun to try to build something out there.

    Sounds pretty cool! But what do you actually mean by that distinction between “personal art” and NFT art? Not immediately obvious to me …

    Well, that's a good question. I'm not creating it for a certain project or for the intention of “OK, it's part of this collection, and I'm going to try to sell it here.”

    I feel like being an artist is like you're constantly going down your own rabbit hole. And starting to have to focus on business things like infrastructure and business plans really pull you out of that rabbit hole. And it almost tweaks how you think a little bit, so I've just been doing it personally. I guess what I mean is – I'm doing it for myself. A lot of it is to continue to learn new software, explore new techniques and things like that. I get a lot of enjoyment out of it. It's just kind of how this all started anyway.

    And I think that it's a very cyclical market. I feel like art isn't the thing that people are super interested in right now. But it was a passion of mine long before NFTs, so I'm just still making art. And I've got some projects that I'm working on. But again, it's like trying to be, I guess, a little bit more thoughtful too, now that I understand what the technology is and the opportunities are with NFTs.

    I think that there's not enough collectors right now – that’s the problem. There's only so many people to buy stuff up, and there's a lot of people who've gotten into it now because they just want to. It's not an investment, it's just a way of flipping and making money. And now, it's all focused on the PFPs [profile picture collectibles], and not as much focused on the art. A year ago, if people wanted to get into it, art was their entry point.

    Yeah, and actually before the NFT boom, people would talk about “crypto art,” and that term has now disappeared.

    Yeah, and I think it was nice. It would be nice to have some differentiation in NFTs and not call them all just NFTs because you know, we don't refer to the things in our world as “anything” and call them all the same thing. You're gonna have art, music; you're gonna have any items that you own in the metaverse that you utilize, any possessions, skill sets that your character has – it's all going to be NFTs. But it’s gonna be a little bit confusing when we just refer to everything as the same thing.

    Many people who quit probably dream of quitting in a way that kind of compensates for years of toil, or they perhaps at least want to celebrate that feeling of liberation that comes with it. So in many ways people can relate to what you did, I guess. Can you tell me what it meant to you on a personal level, when making that step and then celebrating it through art?

    It's funny, because "Two Weeks Notice" – the title – is how my family found out that I quit my job too.

    And yeah, it was a significant step for me, and it's scary in a way, but I knew that I was safe to do it. Now that I'm working with a team again, I realized through that hiatus of not having meetings and things like that, I really didn't miss that team dynamic of problem-solving with the group and working with them. Building something new is exciting, but I used to sit in meetings from nine to six every single day. Nike’s a very meeting-heavy company. So from that perspective, it was incredibly freeing to be able to have time to do my own thing, and it wasn't like a second job; it was something I could totally focus on.

    I’m actually surprised that Nike wouldn't give its artists the breathing space for them to be creative and instead put them in a series of meetings?

    Well, that's true for the designers doing the work. I oversaw the team. So I was working with other teams to figure out how we integrate it better and so on. I loved that job. It’s just, you know, there's so many times you can be told “no” and beat your head against the wall with bureaucracy, and I think that's going to be true at any big corporation.

    But that's why I just felt so good to be able to get out and work with a smaller team and actually be able to really do something. I feel like I'm actually participating in building the future and not just kind of sitting there feeling like I'm arm's length from it or but actually contributing to it. And that means a lot to me.

    So what’s the work life at Wilder World like?

    The Wilder World leadership team has been working on [the project] for three or four years. They've got a whole social software, part of their marketplace and everything. So all the communications happen there.

    They have so much tech foundation built, so it's perfect timing for creatives to be able to come in and help put that second layer on it now. They've got the technology part, and now we get to start figuring out what all this stuff looks like that goes on top of it.

    It’s already been an awesome learning experience, but there are little gaps here and there [due to] my lack of understanding about how some of the gaming elements work.

    But I just wanna say that’s another reason that I'm so excited to be part of [the Wilder World] team is that everybody on it has this very tangible understanding of where the metaverse is headed. And we're getting to throw the dart out as far as we think we can see it going and build for that, and it's super exciting.

    You have recently asked your Twitter followers, “Do you know the difference between digital and virtual?” Can you break down that difference?

    OK, so this was something that clicked for me a couple of years ago. And was through having to try to explain that 3D is different from data technology. Digital is a language of 0s and 1s. It's a way of communicating information – it's a language that enables people to speak with computers, computers to be able to process information. So there's real data, which is sound waves and geometry – and that's how we experience the world.

    And then you've got analog signals, which break down into electrical. So, again, because real, analog, digital needs certain languages that enable something to be experienced, and the experience part of it is virtual in the digital realm.

    So, in the analog realm, audio is a good example of something that isn't the virtual part of it. You're not experiencing the analogue signal, and so something can use it to produce something, and it's the same thing with computers.

    And I think it's just been the same thing for a Word document. It's a virtual piece of paper that you're writing on. And I think the 2D experience is so foreign to humans that it's been a weird transition, and it's kind of hard for us to wrap our heads around it. But, if you can measure something, you can simulate it. And you can pretty much measure anything in this world. So I think that there's not much limitation in terms of where we're headed.

    I like that axiom, “if you can measure something, you can simulate it.” Can you elaborate on that?

    I guess it's like, everything can be answered with a yes or no, right? And it goes back to true or false. Let's say audio – we can take the data from an audio file, and each beat or each sound in it can be measured on a 1 to 10 scale, 0 to 10. And then it can be applied to anything else or be recreated because as long as you can measure it and understand how it was created, then you can recreate it yourself.

    So it’s like, structured messy data still gives you something to work with. … And that’s sort of the idea behind “generative art,” isn’t it?


    Let's take a step back and talk about digital versus physical, especially in the context of that viral 2018 artwork of yours, which supposedly showed a Japanese kinetic waterfall. How did you feel about the whole thing?

    I thought it was hysterical. Artist Filip Hodas had a pink volcano explosion that went viral like 10 years ago, and I remember thinking it was the coolest thing to be able to convince all these people that that was a real thing. So that was something I always had in the back of my mind, not a goal but a little bit of a dream scenario.

    I would even put like locations on my posts just to kind of screw with people a little bit, I guess. But when it happened, it was very rewarding too, because it's like “wow, I finally achieved photorealism.” I finally did something that people look at and can have that switch of perception to think it is real! That was pretty cool to experience. I don't understand any of the backstories about why people thought it was in Japan and all these things – super weird. But again, I was flattered by it – that’s the best way to say it.

    As an artist, how do you feel about the current PFP trend, which as you said earlier, currently dominates the NFT market?

    I think PFPs are super interesting! In my opinion, these are just like pictures; they're like the driver's license of your avatar. And eventually, these PFPs will be in 3D and they'll be in an avatar form. But right now, we're again in that weird space where people don't really understand what it is that they're owning. But I think it's really unique because it's evolving the technology, and it's evolving the experience that people are having with them. So in that regard, I think it's awesome. Again, they're just pictures of cartoon animals, pictures of entities that will exist in these characters and that should be existing as your persona in a virtual world, and this is just their little identifier.

    NFTs are super controversial right now – plenty of people outside crypto hate them. So from an artist's perspective, who gets the NFT world and participates in it? What are the reactions you get from your artist peers who are not into NFTs?

    That's a good question. I think that I tend to usually surround myself with pretty like-minded people, or people who are interested in the same things. So initially, early on, people were asking about it, like “what is it?” But at this point, all my friends are in this space and understand it really well. I have a very small group of friends too, and I have friends from skateboarding, and they've inquired about it, but it's mainly just like a “what is it?”

    Do you feel like, getting more embedded in the NFT world, that your community, your circle of friends, have gone from offline to online? I guess the pandemic has obviously played its role too.

    And yeah, for sure! I think a lot of artists like me have realized that they need to pull back every once in a while and be a little bit less immersed in it.

    I’m getting ready to move out of Portland to head down, close to my son, down in the LA area. And that's part of the reason I'm excited to go to LA, because so many [artists] moved there. We'll get to actually physically hang out and get out of our heads together every once in a while.

    Oh, man … I feel like it's been such chaos for the last year – and then resetting this year.


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    Ekin Genç

    Ekin Genç has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, EUobserver, Motherboard, and Decrypt.