By Oliver Scialdone, Associate Editor
In 2004, Nathan Copeland became paralyzed from the chest down following a car accident. In 2015, inspired partially by the robots and cyborgs he loved in video games and anime, Copeland agreed to have four micro-electro arrays implanted in his brain – two in the motor cortex and two in the sensory cortex – as part of a brain computer interface study at the University of Pittsburgh. Brain computer interface, or BCI, refers to a computer system that translates brain signals into commands and then relays those commands to a device. In Copeland’s case, this meant he could now control a robotic arm and once again feel some sensation.
Copeland recalled that 2016 or 2017 is when he and the research team began to experiment with using his BCI system to control a cursor on a computer. These experiments included playing video games like “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” and “Final Fantasy XIV,” but they also included drawing. “That was just like the pretty obvious way to, kind of judge control,” he said. “I had a clear goal in mind, so it was good for them to be able to evaluate if it was working in the way I was intending to.” Most of his early pieces are comprised of lines, squiggles, and geometric shapes, but over the course of several months, after practice and repetition, he developed more and more control over the cursor and his artwork became more ambitious. In March of 2020, when the University of Pittsburgh facilities closed with the arrival of COVID, he took home a less powerful but portable version of the system used at the lab. In March of 2021, he uploaded a video to YouTube titled, “Using BCI to Draw a Cat!” Then, Copeland minted “BCI Cat – 01 – The Calico” on OpenSea. It sold for 2.5 ETH.
NFTs gave him a degree of autonomy over his art that the traditional market could never allow. “I mean, obviously there was a draw of the huge, like, explosion of it and everyone’s making money and all that, but it’s really the fact that I can do it all by myself. Like, I can make the art and I can, just, I can post it and manage the auctions.” Even then, it took about eight months between minting “The Calico” and selling it. The offer came after he showed the piece during a presentation, demonstrating what he could do with BCI.
Copeland, who describes himself as someone who didn’t draw before his accident, has since minted six NFTs. He works primarily in the program Tux Paint–comparable to Microsoft Paint and Kid Pix–because its controls are the most compatible with the way he is able to move a cursor using his BCI system. The artwork itself has a nostalgic quality about it, reminiscent of a childhood spent in the Y2K era and earlier. And while plenty of art inspired by vintage technology exists, Copeland’s work is entirely unique, as its aesthetic is a product of the technology necessary to create it rather than an intentional callback. This feels fitting—Paint and similar programs were staples of early creative software tools, a glimmer of what the future would bring. Similarly, BCI, the technology used to make the art, and blockchain, the technology used to distribute it, are both still in their infancies. Copeland acknowledges that, “I like jumping on the cutting-edge stuff when I can.”
BCI has actually seen some utilization as a creative medium in the last decades, though unlike Copeland’s work, many of these pieces are interactive installations, performance pieces, or pieces that incorporate recordings of brain data. Fewer artists are using implants to paint, and even fewer are minting NFTs. He does think that, as BCI systems become commercially available, we’ll see more BCI art. The main goal of BCI is to improve accessibility, and, “if you loved to play games or draw before you had some catastrophic change in your life that let you not be able to, of course that’s what you’re gonna do as soon as you can have that kind of ability.” He states that as of right now, the technology does have limits, but told SuperRare that, “if one of those limited uses is something you loved doing, then that can make the hugest difference in your life. I’m sure as soon as people that need or just want this kind of stuff, like, it’s going to be used for all kinds of stuff like that.”
Now, Copeland is excited to continue minting NFTs, with plans for more additions to his “BCI Cat” series and a new series called “BC Eyes,” which features eyes painted with strong textural detail, demonstrating how far his mastery of the BCI system has come. When the lab at the University of Pittsburgh reopened, he stopped creating art, just for a while, as participation in the study occupies much of his time. But he said that recently, he’s felt inspiration returning. He wants to make a living from his art, and although he considers himself fortunate to live with family, he also shared that, because the accident took place just after he turned eighteen and before he was able to find a long-term job, he doesn’t qualify for disability payments. “I was like, maybe I can buy a house one day. I get to draw my silly little drawings and someone else might find value in it.” While he sees that NFTs have the potential to change his life, he’s also in it because he wants to be.
I’m hoping I can just keep doing this for as long as I can. Even if NFTs never blew up and I never knew about them, I would still, like, I’d just be making dumb drawings just because.Nathan Copeland