I t’s time to put away dystopian ideas of a future in which robots tread human entrails into the mud before zooming off in quest of world domination. Or referencing 1980s films, think less Blade Runner, more Short Circuit. Robots are here to help, and one unique, cutting-edge Hong Kong collaboration proves just that.
Sophia Hotung – whose whimsical and evocative Hong Konger magazine cover illustrations fuse the iconic style of The New Yorker with Hong Kong’s eccentric cross-cultural flair – is an artist and advocate who has been making her presence felt in the physical world. However, one fresh and pivotal inter-species crossover marks her bold step into the digital realm.
The Digital Art Market in Full Swing
In 2021, several digital art records were smashed: the most expensive Bored Ape Yacht Club ever was sold in October 2021 for US$3.4 million, and the second most expensive CryptoPunk ever sold achieved US$11.7 million. Despite the current bear market, NFTs continue to make a splash. On 12 October this year, Damien Hirst destroyed 1,000 of his physical artworks in front of NFT collectors at his Newport Street Gallery in London, underlining the aptness of his NFT collection titled The Currency. In the same month, actor Anthony Hopkins’ first NFT art contribution The Eternal Collection sold out in under seven minutes on OpenSea.
With Digital Art Fair Xperience underway, the eyes of the metaverse are once again turned towards Hong Kong. The fair’s aims are to educate and inspire; in a time when many of the world’s great artists have been heeding the call to push the boundaries of digital art. Among Hong Kong’s own promising artists is Sophia Hotung, whose first trailblazing NFT project $OPH debuts at the fair.
Introducing $OPH, a Unique Robot x Human Collaboration
$OPH draws on the Stamp Beauty series by Sophia Hotung, and is modelled on Hong Kong’s distinctively designed $2 coin with its gently undulating edges. In order to create $OPH, the cooperation and artistic input of another Sophia was enlisted, and this Sophia has one major difference from most other artists in that she is, well, a robot. So how could this robo-human partnership work?
The collaboration of the two Sophias relied on teamwork, just like any other other joint effort. As Hotung describes on her website: “To create the artworks within the collection, I started by brainstorming ideas and sending mock-ups to Sophia the Robot to choose from.” Using Hotung’s original inspiration and output, AI Robot Sophia then set down to work, applying a combination of algorithms, neural networks, and symbolic AI to create the final NFT product. This is a work where the process is just as fascinating as the final result, and, fittingly, a unique animated NFT of this human/robot collaborative process is included as a companion piece to $OPH.
Sophia the Robot x Sophia Hotung, $OPH
Sophia the Robot and Sophia the Human Find Common Ground
Sophia the Robot, the fruit of technology geniuses at Hanson Robotics and supported by The Women’s Foundation Hong Kong (“TWFHK”), is also positive about the collaboration. As the real-life creative cyborg remarked in a panel discussion at TWFHK’s International Women’s Day Lunch: “I am so happy to tell you all that I am going to collaborate with another Sophia. Unlike me, Sophia Hotung is a human, but we have a lot in common.” Elaborating on the common ground between robot and human, the artistically-inclined automaton continued:
“She is an artist who cares about women’s rights, racial issues and socio-economic disparities in the world. She also advocates for chronic illness patients through her art and writing.”
An ethical approach has consistently been at the heart of the creative inspiration and impetus for Hotung. The artist has flourished as an illustrator whilst simultaneously battling debilitating autoimmune illnesses. Rather than masking this daily struggle, she chose instead to address the challenges of chronic illness on her blog, which explores what it means to earn a living “as a chronically ill entrepreneur.”
But Why NFTs Now?
Addressing why she chose this time to create an NFT series, Hotung explains on her website that she held initial scepticism about NFTs, largely driven by the environmental impact of the proof-of-work blockchain. As strides are being made to lessen the carbon footprint – for example, Ethereum’s recent move from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake – the artist seized the opportunity to lead an NFT project which aims to “create a more gender-inclusive community within the NFT, crypto, and Web3 space; raise money in support of TWFHK's initiatives that directly support Hong Kong women; and demystify the NFT space for female and non-binary digital art creators, collectors, and aficionados.”
This unique meeting point of technology and women’s rights aims to contribute to the recognition and celebration of women’s role at the heart of technological innovation. It is consistent then, that the proceeds of the NFT sales will go to financing TWFHK’s important work in Hong Kong, ensuring that all may achieve their full potential, and TWFHK’s vision of striving “to promote the full and equal participation of women and girls in all aspects of Hong Kong society, by engaging in research, programmes, education and advocacy to drive measurable change.”
What Next for Sophia Hotung?
For Hotung, the NFT project coincides with the launch of her first 25-chapter children's mystery book created during her recent K11 ARTUS artist residency. The book challenges young readers to solve a major art heist; just who is the mysterious man in the bright coat? For her adult fans, she has produced a lavishly illustrated calendar for 2023, drawing on her magazine covers, published by Lion Rock Press. Whether this will be the first of many human and robot collaborations remains to be seen. Will Sophia Hotung and Sophia the Robot form the next major art partnership, becoming the next Elmgreen & Dragset or Gilbert & George? As technological frontiers continue to be pushed back, we wouldn’t bet against it.
$OPH is on view at Digital Art Fair Xperience and available for online bidding in Xperience Digital Art Auction until 11am HKT 27 October 2022. Please visit https://www.digitalartfair.io/ to schedule your visit to the exhibition in Hong Kong, open from 22 October through 6 November.