Yonat Vaks: «Crypto Is Challenging the Legacy System»

Yonat Vaks is an eclectic artist, born in Israel, who is exploring the world of crypto art with different proposals and techniques. Her extreme sensitivity and multiple journeys led her to reflect the depths of human consciousness on her works. In this interview, we talk with her about life, art, blockchain and the clash of different cultures.

When you were a girl, you moved from Israel to the US. What are your memories from the Kibbutz and your childhood afterwards?

At the time we were living in the Kibbutz it was still functioning as a collective, socialist community. We were there until I was five years old so I only have a few sporadic memories from then. The general memory is of a very communal life style. There was the food hall where everyone from the kibbutz ate and gathered, the laundry building, communal pool and playgrounds and of course the children’s house where all the children spent most of their day and slept. I think today, this way of living is often judged, and it wasn’t without its faults but it’s a perfect example of how ideas and ideologies can’t be disconnected from their time or context.

Moving to the US was a great experience. I spent all of primary school there before we moved back to Israel. I remember traveling a lot and seeing many parts of the US. It was the first encounter with a different culture, language and people at a pretty young age so it influenced my way of seeing the world a lot.

What is your background before becoming an artist?

Art has always been a part of my life. I've always loved making things and painting. It just took me a while to decide to throw away the professional "safety nets" and actually became a full time professional artist. 

After leaving the military I was at a professional fork, trying to decide what to study. I was working at a boarding school with kids that weren't living with their parents for different reasons and had time in the mornings. There were two colleges to choose from, one had art courses and the other was for Alternative therapies. Art was already a part of my life and I love learning new things so I decided to go into a world I knew nothing about. It ended up being a ten year journey of self-discovery and learning about our mind, body and different states of consciousness. It opened my eyes to a lot of things and taught me so much about people. I went on to study Psychology and Biology to try to understand these things from a more scientific perspective. During these years I worked with underprivileged kids in foster care and in a halfway house for psychiatric patients.

How did your studies in Psychology influence your art?

My studies in Psychology and mind-body therapies taught me a lot about the human psyche. How and why our beliefs about the world and ourselves are shaped and what a huge influence they have on the way we live and on the choices we make. These topics are the focus of my art. What makes us human? What stories do we tell ourselves as individuals and as groups? What do we all have in common? Do we really have agency and to what extent?

In an indirect way, my Psychology studies are actually what pushed me to become a professional artist. The reason I went to study Psychology and Biology was to ultimately go into research of the mind-body connection which I found fascinating. After going to University for a few years, I was pretty disappointed by the Academia and felt it was very closed minded and more about being published than actually researching things. That's when I decided to go after what I really wanted all my life – so I packed my things and left Israel to live in Europe and become a professional artist.

As a child, you dreamed of becoming an anthropologist, but you still feel a great interest for different people and the diverse cultures. What do you find most inspiring in them?

I'm curious about why people do what they do, as individuals and as groups.  I think that one of the most interesting things about the human race is the development of culture – art, music, stories, traditions, religion. I think it’s a fascinating phenomenon that human beings invented a group survival mechanism in the form of culture and beliefs and the extent they become a part of how we recognize ourselves. Stories and beliefs are meant to make us feel strong feelings so that we identify and defend them, so it's really interesting why certain traditions developed in certain parts of the world and throughout history. 

Your paintings are plagued with deep looks, full of meaning, in faces populated by wrinkles. What do you intend to express? What are their most profound teachings?

I think the pace of life today and the effects technology has had on us (especially mobile phones) is making us lose important human traits. We go about our lives, sometimes hardly noticing those around us, we communicate much less (or do it through a screen) and this has major effects on us. These paintings are meant to make you stop and look, see the people in front of you and the story they have to tell.

How did you know about cryptocurrencies and what advantages do you find in them in comparison to fiat money?

I heard about bitcoin in early 2017. The big advantage it has is the decentralized nature of it, that fact that its creator is unknown and that it has the properties of sound money. I think the big advantage of crypto in general is that it's challenging the legacy system. It's yet to be seen how it will play out but the fact that there is a new form of money and technology that is being invented to challenge that is its virtue.

"Portrait of a Crypto Miner" (Yonat Vaks).

Through your works on Bitcoin and despite its few years of existence, you describe the crypto ecosystem as a brave world rich in symbols and myths, stories of incredible fortunes and riches, as well as nightmarish horror stories of total loss that deserve to be painted, in which it really doesn't matter if your El Dorado exists or not, and where its inhabitants appear as miners, merchants, prophets, priests, artisans, hunters, swindlers, conquerors, thieves, pirates, businessmen who participate in a life-changing journey... However, how do you think it really changed your life?

It really got me to look at what was happening in the world in terms of the monetary system and the importance of privacy in this growing surveillance world. It was easier to close my eyes and look away before but learning about Bitcoin made me view the future in a more optimistic way and to start reading and learning about these subjects more.

Could you tell us about what techniques do you use in your art and how is your creative process? 

The main technique I use is oil and acrylic painting. I also love working with textile and embroidery, but haven't used those techniques lately. My creative process changes depending on the series I’m working on. The series I'm working on now is about crypto culture and part of the commentary about it is that there are parts of human nature and characteristics of culture that are always there. I start by deciding on a certain aspect of crypto I want to comment on (a person, meme, idea etc.) and then research the subject, looking for another story in history that has similar aspects. The research is an important part of the process and I try to put as many symbols and different meanings into each work. I then start doing sketches. The first ones are usually on the computer to get a general idea of what I want to portray and how. Then I do the fine tuning and colours by sketching with paper and paint or coloured pencil – depending on how precise I want to get with the sketches. When I have more or less of a clear idea, I start painting the actual painting. This also has its process and changes a lot. Sometimes the actual painting has nothing to do with the final sketch. I guess it's an ongoing conversation with the work, until it lets me know it's done – it's usually the point where adding more will take away more than it will add.

What are your preferred works in the field of crypto art? 

There are really great works in this space and a lot of innovation which is really cool to see. I like cryptograffiti's take and the way he gets the message across through his art. Pascal Boyart is also someone I follow. I think he has great technique and he's really showing how Bitcoin can change parts of the art world – especially concerning street art. Others I follow that have great work and innovating ideas are Lucho Poletti, Trevor Jones, Tom Badley, Sparrow, Vizique, Allota Money, Coldie... There are definitely more and more will join for sure.

What’s the benefit of blockchain platforms for artists? 

I think the biggest benefit is for digital works of art. They are finding a solution to give this form of art the qualities of scarcity and provenance. They are also opening up the conversation about the legacy art world. It's still the beginning and still in an experimental place but the fact that it's challenging old notions and questioning them is where their importance is right know I believe.

In the group of Cryptoartists in Telegram you mentioned that there are still some problems with blockchain that haven’t been solved yet. Can you explain a bit more about this topic?

I was referring to the use of blockchain in the art world. My comment was basically to say that it's still experimental and that's how we should be looking at it for now. Just as blockchains in general can have both positive and negative effects in certain fields (or no use at all in some fields), the same can happen in the art world. It's important to be conscious of this and question things as we go along.

What are your main influences? 

Lately, Hieronymus Bosch has been having a lot of influence on my art. He would create these fascinating worlds in his paintings with so much detail and a brilliant use of colour. I went to the Prado the other day, and standing in front of one of his paintings is just incredible. Mariano Fortuny is also one of my favourite painters. I visited him in the Prado as well and can stand in front of one of his paintings for hours. His use of a paintbrush and colour was absolutely brilliant. Picasso and Dali are an inspiration in the whole meaning of what it is to be an artist. Each of them, in his own way, was a living piece of art. Apart from their creativity, they both put great emphasis on mastering the technique, working hard, learning and putting everything into their art. I think those are extremely important traits to aspire to and that are losing their importance in today's art world. Marina Abramovic is also an inspiration in her dedication and creativity.

What’s your relationship with other crypto artists? 

I'm in contact with a few and am in a few artists' Telegram groups but would really like to meet more in person and would love to collaborate on artworks. I will be showing my art in a few conferences this year so I'm looking forward to meeting more artists.

How do you see the future of blockchain?

I think blockchain is a technology that's here to stay. I think that, like the Internet, it will both change the world for the better and it will be used to try to control people. This is why I think the development of decentralized organizations and privacy tech is extremely important. 

Crypto Whaler Basque Harpoons. Mespilus germanica wood, iron, silver, goat leather, bull horn, oil painting.

Your last work is an exact replica of the harpoons used by the Basque whalers. What was your inspiration for it? 

An art series about crypto culture would be incomplete without a piece about WHALES, one of the biggest memes in this space. There are so many analogies between trading and the sea – from whales to market waves, getting #rekt, getting liquidated, coming back to safe shores with your bags full. So like in all my projects I started reading a lot about whales, whale hunting and adventures at sea until I found a story in history that caught my attention. The story of the Basque whalers had it all – it was a story of incredible fortunes and devastating loses, risk, adventure, new frontiers, going after whales in groups and bringing home the ship full of bags to sell before winter hits. 

I wanted this piece to be different, not just a painting, so I read more about this story and about the Basque culture in general. I had the idea of painting on a replica of a Basque whaler harpoon and then I found out about the Makila. It's a traditional Basque walking stick and a cultural symbol of respect. I found it beautiful and the fact it's still made in the long traditional process added so much extra value to it. Since ancient times, walking sticks have been a symbol of strength and power, authority and social prestige. I thought these extra meanings bring an important value to the piece so I decided to make a replica of the Basque whaler harpoons, using a Makila as the base. This brought the story of the whalers and the Basque tradition into the piece along with the added meanings of prestige. The paintings and some of the engravings bring the story of crypto to it.

What crypto projects do you find most interesting and why? 

I think The Good Dollar is really interesting. They are researching and experimenting with the notion of UBI and reducing wealth inequality using an open source cryptocurrency. I think that with the immense amount of jobs that will be lost in the future, UBI is an important solution to consider for the benefit of all of society. This project is exploring real UBI and not National UBI which is what most people actually talk about when they say UBI.

Coin Center is also an important project. They work to educate and influence public policy around blockchain. It's really important that there is an organization that is doing that with the help of research. I hope this eventually spreads to other countries outside the USA as well. 

What has been your experience in Spain? 

It has been a great experience. I can answer this question in so many ways. If I look at it from the cultural view, which is connected to my work, then it has taught me a lot about myself and where I come from. I think that when you go to live in a culture that's completely different than yours then you don't completely get that opportunity to reflect. It's so different than what you know, that you look at it from the outside. On the other hand, when you go to a place that similar to your culture in many ways, you get to look at the things that are different and reflect on the "truths" you were brought up on.

Spain has a lot of things that are similar to Israel. I would call it Mediterranean culture.  The familiarity I felt when coming here made the things that were different really stand out. Israel in general has a very fast moving, entrepreneurial, consumer mind set – very similar to the United States in many ways. Spain is a lot more laid back. Enjoying life and seeing things as they are, are given a lot more importance. These of course are very general things to say about both places and they are only a certain aspect of both cultures but coming from one to the other certainly had its hard moments. It manifests in day to day life. In Israel, for example, if you need a certain service, it will be done fast. Spain has a different time standard and it's hard to get used to in the beginning, but I learned to appreciate how that changed the way I saw life. Someone once told me "Las urgencias, a los hospitales" ("Emergencies are for hospitals"). It seems like a small thing, but it really changes your perception of life and what's important.

Thanks very much for your time and creativity!