EXCLUSIVE Interview: Serj Tankian of System of a Down Drops the Mic on NFTs


Serj Tankian launched his first NFT drop “Not for Touching – The Intangible Composition” on the CurioNFT marketplace.

If you’re one of the 1.12 billion people who have listened to Chop Suey on YouTube, you are familiar with Serj Tankian, iconic, GRAMMY® Award-winning musician, activist, painter, and lead singer of System of a Down. 

Tankian’s latest art exhibition, “Not For Touching – The Intangible Composition,” went live on December 6 on the CurioNFT platform, offering a mix of original painting, animation, and music, along with physical lithographs for discerning buyers. 

The 21 pieces of art, viewable in an interactive gallery on the CurioNFT site, represent a collaboration between Tankian and artist/animator Roger Kupelian (The Lord of The Rings, Hugo) fusing original art, music, and animation into a visceral experience for the viewer. A range of editions are available including several 1:1 NFTs with signed giclée print, four series of 1:25 NFTs with signed giclée prints, as well as four 1:100 NFT only releases.

Tankian stands out among creators entering the NFT space because he has been a creative powerhouse for over 25 years. To the NFT space, he brings his global fame and permanent place in the landscape of music as well as his appreciation for technology and new forms of art to what is arguably art’s fastest-growing sector in 2021. 

We spoke with Tankian concerning his art, music, and what NFTs might mean for recording artists. 

See more >> Why Are NFTs Valuable?

Serj Tankian

What brought you into visual art?

“The physical painting started maybe six years ago… The inspiration for me was always the musical compositions. I’ve always been interested in scoring paintings… I had a number of painter friends that inspired me. I would watch them paint to music and it made me want to paint. I did my first piece, fell in love with it, loved the interaction of music and physical painting. 

Music has been commoditized and undervalued… To have something that was physical, that the music lives with exclusively was really interesting to me conceptually. 

I started doing physical exhibitions and we developed an optical recognition app that recognizes the painting and plays the music. People loved it because they could really get immersed in it as they’re now entangled in more than one physical sense into the experience. So that’s what we’ve been doing for years.
Then when the idea of NFTs came, I thought, we can go even further in surrounding the viewer/listener in a more interesting way. And that’s when the animation and the matte paintings, and everything came in, via my friend, Roger Kopelman, who is a phenomenal artist, and that began our collaboration on these NFTs. He really brought those paintings to life within the medium between the listener and the actual painting. I think that’s why I really got into NFTs – because I saw my paintings literally come to life with my music,” Tankian said.

So how long have you been conscious of NFTs? How long did it take for you to try NFTs as a new form?

“I’ve been conscious of NFT’s since I read a BBC article about NFTs, about a year ago. And I’m like, wow, what an interesting space, but at first, I didn’t know what to make of it. 

I’m not a huge cryptocurrency person… I’m an artist and I’ve been doing music and composing for a long time. But the idea of my paintings and music I composed for those paintings coming together in this world was interesting to me. 

I like trying things I’ve never tried before. Because every experience teaches me something. If I always sit at the piano, my hands are always going to go to the same keys. I need to flip it on myself so I can remain creative and fresh. New opportunities, new platforms, new partnerships, new collaborations always help with that – tricking myself into being creative and learning something new,” Tankian said.

Tell us about the experience with this art/music NFT drop?

“You’re able to click on each of the NFT images and see them come to life. There are multiple layers of digital painting. It starts with the painting and as the music begins, the painting starts to reform, the world changes, and it always returns to the painting. There’s a lot of animation and layers and beautiful worlds that are created to take you on this journey with the music,” Tankian said.

So this is your first drop?

(Laughing) “I’ve done a bunch of mic drops before this…,” Tankian said. 

Good point – there are all sorts of drops. 

Read more >> What Are Music NFTs?

Do you have any other NFT drops planned? 

“I haven’t really thought about it, because we’re still in the promotional phase of this drop. So I’m really enjoying that. And I’m looking forward to people actually getting the physical component of the NFT. And for the 1:1 NFTs, we have one-of-a-kind, huge, signed, museum-quality lithographs. 

I’ve always been interested in the interaction of the physical and the virtual. So, it would be nice to kind of design a space where these paintings come to life. NFTs in the virtual world, where we can control more elements and interact with more senses – lighting, smell touch, besides the auditor, and the visual, maybe even layers of visuals between the physical painting and the viewer… Maybe holographic NFTs. I’m just brainstorming, but the idea is to take it to another level, and maybe do a live physical NFT experience where you can only see it in that virtual space,” Tankian said.

Projectiles – “Not for Touching” NFT Collection

So you’re looking to create totally enveloping experiences with NFTs?

“It is all about experiences, isn’t it? And the deeper and more original the experience and more moving and experience is, the more memorable… Of course, I’m also composing for films and TV series. For me, it’s all the same. It’s just working on art and music,” Tankian said.

When you are creating, does the music come first and inspire the painting or the other way around?

“Originally, the music came first. My first series of paintings were basically trying to replicate the physical score measure on the physical painting…  But when I started painting more freeform, then I started reversing some of that process… 

I have so much music, thousands and thousands of tracks. So I’ll go and pick something appropriate, like a good music supervisor, and just go, this would fit perfectly,” Tankian said.

In 2001, you were under significant pressure to step away from any political messages but you stuck to your art and your message concerning the Armenian Genocide. What about now?

“My activist work is always alongside my art and music. And there are a lot of problems, not just in the US, but the world, including, the climate catastrophe, and including a lot of wars that are still going on. Just last year, Azerbaijan invaded parts of indigenous Armenia and has occupied it and in the whole world, no one showed up to help. It was during COVID and backed by Turkey, the traditional kind of genocidal regime that killed one and a half million of my people 100 years ago. 

It’s more important to say the truth when it’s hard to say it… And it gets tiring, especially with the online world and social media. But we have one life, we have to live it correctly. We have to live justly. We have to live a truthful life,” Tankian said.


Ethnic Cause – “Not for Touching” NFT Collection

Do you want to tell us about the school you are raising funds for with this NFT drop?

“10% of the gross from these NFTs is going to this incredible school called TUMO. They are an incredible husband and wife team that started a nonprofit school to teach kids after-school programs, animation, anything digital, robotics, and I implemented and started their music program as a suggestion in 2011. And now they’re expanding. We’ve got a number of programs throughout Armenia. There are a few in France, Russia, Ukraine, where we’re going to be opening one up in North Hollywood, California, Los Angeles. I do my own activism work and my own philanthropy, but I like including it in the art as well. Because it just makes more sense to me. I do things because I enjoy them. I do things because I’m an artist, and that’s what I’m supposed to do,” Tankian said.

Are NFTs a huge boon for the artist? Do you think that this is an opportunity for musical artists to retain the value of their work?

“It’s a new platform for artists to be able to utilize away from the traditional distribution. So, it’s a very interesting medium, I think it does have, what I’d be interested to see is what hasn’t been done with NF T’s? In one year, we’ve already seen a lot of what’s already happened with them. Maybe NFTs lead to something else that is music-specific. 

I’m grateful because I’ve been able to do what I love to do and make an incredible living doing it. Before music, I did many other things that I also enjoyed, not as much as this. I had my own software company, and I was in the jewelry business with my uncle… I earned a marketing degree from Cal State Northridge, which may or may mean a lot to people. But I’m not unaware of commerce. But to this day, when I create my own music. I don’t think of anyone else but whatever is coming to me creatively and try to love that and present it in a way that’s quality and that I really love,” Tankian said.

Summary

It’s a pleasure to speak with someone like Tankian who makes creative work seem so easy. He has the dual virtues of intense creativity and personal curiosity in regard to all forms of art and technology. 

Tankian didn’t proclaim NFTs a new epoch in creative work as some vocal creators have, but he seems to regard it as part of a continuum – with Serj ready to explore whatever the state of art and technology presents as a possibility. If he isn’t planning something in the Metaverse now, I won’t be surprised if we learn that he will be doing something in 2022, as a complete virtual experience will give him the control that he seems to favor. 

Working with CurioNFT, the “Not for Touching” drop is using lazy minting to reduce carbon emission to “just 2% of the emissions of a typical NFT minted on Ethereum (ETH)”. In fact, the drop is described as “carbon positive” since CurioNFT offsets emissions by planting over 12,000 trees at the time of writing. 

Tankian and CurioNFT have pledged to donate 10% of sales to The TUMO Center for Creative Technologies, a free-of-charge educational program that puts teens in charge of their own learning. With locations worldwide, the program is made up of project labs revolving around 14 learning targets, from animation to web development.

Tankian’s attitude towards art reminds us of Britney Spear’s recent Instagram post – not a correlation I would have expected to make in 2001. Spears posted very free-spirited selfies that are entirely her own business so I won’t post them here, along with the caption “Free woman energy has never felt better.” The injustice Britney has endured reminds me of the essential need for freedom and truth of all people, but perhaps most particularly for the artist. 

NFTs are a haven for creators and dreamers, and there is perhaps no better ally in creating a new dynamic in art and digital ownership. With artists and visionaries like Tankian entering the space, perhaps NFTs will develop philosophical underpinnings as strong as the blockchain technology that supports them. 

Cover image and Serj Tankian headshot source Wikimedia Commons. 




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