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Keith Haring: Pixel Pioneer | The Technical Approach

Blockchain technology gives digital art the opportunity to have the same ownership structure, provenance, and permanence that is available for traditional art.    
When an NFT is created or minted via a blockchain contract, an incorruptible and undeniable entry is made into the public ledger at the exact moment and ownership is documented. The public ledger  continues to record every transaction between parties on the secondary market as well, removing any doubt of attribution or record.  

Blockchain solves the permanence issue when an artwork is minted directly on-chain - this means it is stored directly in the Ethereum contract in perpetuity.

Given the historical importance of the Keith Haring digital drawings, the original PICT source files, modern creative assets (PNG/ SVG), metadata (artwork/ project information), and smart contracts will all be placed on-chain. (note: A PICT file is the graphics file format for the original Macintosh computer, .pct is the filename extension for a PICT file.)

The preservation of source material as well as the ability to display the digital files on modern screens was an important factor in developing this project.

First the source material was placed on-chain in its original state as PICT files. Putting the original files on-chain is an important step for preservation, even if viewing the files requires lesser known software tools to view.  Second, the PICT files were converted to PNGs, outputs that remain bitmap images to retain the original pixelated nature of the PICT files. PNG files preserve the pixels and the colors of the PICT images, and are viewable on modern screens today. To ensure the files are viewable at any size and screen configuration, the PNG files are placed inside an SVG file and then minted on-chain.

Haring’s digital images were originally created on an Amiga Computer, but those files are currently lost or destroyed. The files were transferred from an Amiga Computer to a Macintosh Computer. The oldest available and known files for the Haring project are PICT files from a 3.5 inch Macintosh formatted disk.

Mac Disk with PICT files from 1994

If the original Amiga IFF ILBM files are found at any time (before or after the auction), they will be put on-chain alongside the other project assets to complete the full archive.  

The smart contracts for the project will be deployed with the ability to store the modern image file types (PNG/SVG) and the source files (PICT). The contracts can be updated as required, allowing for future additions.

Creative and Archival Approach

The material's history, digital archives and physical archives were researched to gain insights to enhance preservation strategies. A series of tests were done to better understand the potential challenges and to create a blueprint for the final output. Processing, HTML/CSS, and Javascript were used  in constructing these early image iterations.

One essential element to the project is displaying the files at any size at any resolution on any screen. The challenge was that the original PICT files are 320x200 pixels in dimension, tiny when compared to the required dimensions of today's 4K and 8K displays (3840x2160 pixels and higher).

The original dimensions of the works are 320x200 and the aspect ratio is 8:5. Modern displays, whether home televisions, phones, monitors, or browser windows all use an array of different aspect ratios. To address this color matched backgrounds were implemented where the background color extends to any screens border, instead of introducing letterbox black bars. Collectors will still have access to the PICT and PNG files on-chain with the original aspect ratio preserved.

Original Aspect Ratio with Letterbox Bars

Color Matched Backgrounds

One challenge in the process was that, by default, internet browsers use interpolation, which introduces a color gradient between pixels to bitmap images when viewed at a size larger than their native resolution, and the resulting images look blurry.

A PNG is an image file format for pixel-based bitmap images. This has a fixed resolution, and when resized larger than its original size blurry interpolation is introduced by browsers by default, distorting the image. An SVG is a text-based language for coding and displaying images. This supports embedding a PNG inside of it. And as part of displaying a PNG, SVG includes the option to disable the blurry interpolation with CSS properties, which allowed pixels to be displayed with sharp edges on high definition screens.

“Keith Haring Feb 3,1987.pct” Smooth Interpolation vs Pixelated Nearest Neighbor in Browser

The next step was to find other information that might be hiding within the image files and to preserve that data (both visible and non visible) in the most authentic way possible. Three primary tools were used to perform analysis on the files: Adobe Photoshop, Image Magick, and Hex Editor, to look directly at the digital bits in the files.

Hidden color data was discovered - color tables and palettes of colors embedded in the files, that were not visibly present in the image files. These were colors not included in the visible artwork composition but rather discovered within the color tables of the legacy files. To authentically preserve the original aspects of the source material, those colors are included in the final outputs.

Keith Haring Untitled (Feb 3, 1987).pct Color Table as viewed in Adobe Photoshop

Only 13 colors are used in file Keith Haring Untitled (Feb 3, 1987).pct. though the PICT file has a palette of 32 colors stored in its color table. Most likely, these colors were present when Haring made the image, and these additional colors survived any conversion processes that lead to the PICT image used for this project.  

The full range of the digital bits of a file are not always accessible within most applications. To view the full range of digital bits a command-line hex editor was used to access the data directly.

Using a Hex Editor to directly view the Color Table data inside “Keith Haring Feb 3,1987.pct” file

The Haring files were created on an Amiga computer in 1987 and at that time, Cathode-Ray Tube (CRT) monitors were the default display technology. Modern screens typically use light-emitting diodes (LED), and every pixel is clearly defined. An image on a CRT is created using a line-by-line scanning electron beam that generates light when electrons hit a phosphor-coated screen. This scanning electron adds natural blurs and distortions to the files.  

Collectively these efforts preserve and maintain the data’s integrity, while giving collectors and future archivists the option to display these images as they see fit, whether on legacy screens, current screens or future screens.

On-Chain Technical Approach

Three goals that guided the design of the smart contracts technical approach:

  • Preserving an exact replica of the source material
  • Production of a representation of the art files in a viewable format, while remaining as close to the original Haring representation as possible
  • Production of a high fidelity, maximally portable and modern representation of the art files

For each of these goals, a file format and storage approach was defined. Each chosen format will be stored on the Ethereum blockchain using smart contracts written in the Solidity programming language. This approach will ensure that the pieces and their underlying data will be preserved indefinitely.

The exact replica of the source material will be preserved in the PICT file format. This will be done by converting the source files into raw binary data and stored as the Solidity equivalent within the Ethereum smart contract.  

For the second goal, of a near-perfect reproduction of the images in a modern format, the PNG specification was chosen. After conversion of the source material to PNG files, the files would be base64 encoded and stored as text within the Ethereum smart contract.

For the final goal, an SVG file is used. This allows for multiple display options and high resolutions.

While the source material is not vector-based, we will leverage the ability of SVGs to scale bitmaps (Haring’s original work format) across many different display mediums to the benefit of the end observer. Internally, within the Ethereum smart contract, the same PNG base64 encoded strings are leveraged to programmatically construct each SVG.

For purists and collectors who want to see and interactive with the assets and source code an on-chain API was created within the smart contract consisting of three endpoints:

  • Function #1: Output the PICT file as bytes
  • Function #2: Output the base64 encoded PNG file
  • Function #3: Output the SVG file

These functions are public view functions on the contract. They are publicly accessible and callable from any Web3 compliant interface.

Keith believed in the importance of public art and making art accessible to everybody. The Haring digital drawings will be preserved, archived, and publicly available forever in this on-chain project.

Presented by Digital Practice, technical partner for the Keith Haring Foundation and Artestar

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