Imperfect Lovers, 2024

Imperfect Lovers performs two coded, on-chain Lovers, each giving the other “everything they have,” until there is literally “nothing left to give.” Even then, they continue to attempt trans-actions to and for one another, failing unless and until they are somehow replenished. Money is always and only a metaphor, and the truest of gifts can only be given when there is no-thing left to give. Here, the Blockchain is leveraged to show intimacy and care, time and mortality, imperfection and romance, despite (and not because of) all that glitters and shines.

Once per day, the Imperfect Lovers each allocate a portion of themselves to the other, always losing a bit of their balance in the process. External viewers experience the Lovers through browser-based lenses, in any number of ways. The preferred installation – in a museum or gallery – has us walking between two body-sized and facing LCD screens or projections in a low-light, intimate setting. We see them as simple five-armed clocks, where each “body” is a timepiece subtly changing in size, beating/ticking backward and forward, breathing in and up, out and down, all based on how much is “left in the tank” of each wallet (the minute hands), and what they most recently gave and received (the hour hands), while seconds tick by in real time. These dynamic yet subtle (and fully on-chain) animations can also be viewed or exhibited at home or elsewhere – in individual browsers that are side by side, together in one interface, across facing smartphones, as building-sized projections, or wherever we want their imperfect love felt.

The Imperfect Lovers live as unique Smart Contracts on the Ethereum Blockchain, with an initial sum of money donated by the artist. Once inaugurated, each is promised to gift the other between 25% and 78% of their account – since relationships are never fully equal – up to once per day. And with every transfer, a little more is depleted from their overall balance because of the required “gas” fees. Eventually, neither will be able to afford any transfer; but their promised giving will carry on for as long as the Blockchain exists and functions, every participant-activated success or failure exhausting them further still. Even when “running on empty,” they continue to promise and try: “I would if I could; I will when I can.”

Participants can engage with this ongoing performance in multiple ways. First and foremost, they must trigger the intra-action. Although the Lovers automatically allocate some of themselves (as Eth) to each other, because of Smart Contract constraints, the transfer itself has to be prompted by an external wallet. At or after 12pm CST on any given day, one and only one person can pay gas fees to enact that transfer, and they will receive a unique NFT: a Portrait of the Lovers at that precise moment. If available, they will also be partially reimbursed for what they paid in gas – depending on the Lovers’ balances and current block fees, ~85% of gas paid and up to .01 Eth – consequently depleting the Lovers with every gifting. This decelerating reciprocity of care will carry on until each Lover is left with only 1 wei, or 10-18 Eth, after which point they still attempt to give, but fail.

Participants might also donate to the main “co_operator” contract or either Lover (and thus to both), whose wallet addresses are public, thus filling their cups and/or making them active again. If they donate .125 Eth or more, they also have the option of leaving their name and/or a message on its public “Donor Wall,” which lives permanently on-chain. Any donations will immediately be seen via the Imperfect Lovers data feed API, and become part of the Lovers’ image-based balancing with their next trans-action.

Anyone can also view and/or exhibit the work, proposing traditional or experimental curation for the project IRL. And – since the actual work is the Smart Contract(s) – they can design their own interfaces/bodies for the Lovers, using the simple API / data feeds that I will make publicly available.

The title Imperfect Lovers, and its use of clocks, are a reference to Felix Gonzalez Torres’ (FGT’s) similarly named piece, Untitled (Perfect Lovers). FGT produced his two battery operated clocks, slowly falling out of sync and dying, for his partner, Ross. It was both a romantic gesture and a direct response to the AIDS crisis, the lack of funding and care going to research HIV and support those with it, and the extreme violence against LGBTQ communities that continues to take on many forms to this day. Imperfect Lovers cites the romanticism in FGT’s original, and also continues to question “care” during late stage capitalism, most specifically the post-pandemic mental health crisis. Care takes time, yet we are in a socioeconomic culture that values speed above all else. How might we find and give time and care in this space? Where can love and health, action and balance, thrive now?

Imperfect Lovers is also a redundant proclamation: all lovers are imperfect. And how love itself might be expressed and experienced is also far from flawless. While beneath the surface and unseen (in our contracts and promises, hearts and intentions, and more) might be a constant attempt at giving and gifting, how we articulate and feel loving and being loved is often misunderstood, and changes over time and relationships. For this reason, curators, collectors, I, and others might not only view the Imperfect Lovers contracts via my clockwork, web-based software, but update, make, or commission new and different ways of exploring and experiencing them – new inter-faces – per above.

Alongside its potent explorations of time and gifting, one question Imperfect Lovers asks is: Who funds love? However we use it, the Blockchain was built on capitalist, libertarian principles. Perhaps curators or collectors might provide Eth for a specific exhibition; or romantics – like me – might donate as a symbolic gift, leaving poetry or messages on-chain along with that gifting. But at its core, the artwork’s potency is always explicitly outside its funding. Having Nothing = Given/Giving Everything.

The takeaway NFT is also an FGT reference – to Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA), a finite/forever gift of life and love re-presented as a pile of candy. And the palettes of the Portraits are inspired by the most common colors in On Kawara’s Today series.

With Imperfect Lovers, as in life, the potential gift means more than the reality. It’s easy – or at least easier – to give when we have abundance. But to give beyond our own capacity is an impossible yet beautiful promise: that of forever. Forever can only exist in potential. Forever can only be real, if I promise to give, if I attempt to share, even when I can’t. The impossible promise of forever is, in some ways, the only promise worth making. It’s that combination of promise beyond failure that is precisely what makes love so precious. Once initiated, these Imperfect Lovers will always trans-act, together and apart, successfully or not.

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Imperfect Lovers is funded in part by the Refraction Community Arts Fund (partial minting costs and seed money for the Lovers) and a Dean’s award from Peck School of the Arts, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (which paid for some technical consulting/support from Steve Pikelny). Duane King assisted with the SVG clock design.