Unlimited Editions

Using blockchains to try to protect art just reduces it to currency

In 2013, Jeff Koons was the richest living artist in the world. His piece Balloon Dog (Orange), which required more than ten years of labor from a team of artists and studio assistants, had just sold at Christie’s contemporary auction for a record $58.4 million, making it the single most expensive work by a living artist in history. “One of the reasons that I work in steel is durability,” he later told the Guardian. “I try to show [the audience] real visual luxury. It’s intoxicating visually.”

A year later, Michael Green uploaded a 3-D rendering of one of Koons’s balloon dogs to eBay. Developed in the modeling software Maya for sale as a digital gif, the piece depicts Koons’s inflatable dog rapidly collapsing into a puddle of limp rubber. Where Koons’s multimillion-dollar work demands around one ton of steel, swaths of space, and a team of studio assistants to assemble, Green’s gif is largely a conceptual gesture executed in software, endlessly reproducible in identical copies. “Jeff Koons sold his original balloon dogs through a physical auction for a record $58 million,” Green wrote in the eBay description. “Here we are, 20 years later on eBay (a digital auction) with the same artwork, created in the medium of our times (3-D animation/.gif), about to make history once again. When you commit to buying the original .gif file, rendered directly from the artist’s computer, you will be making history, as you will have purchased the most expensive bitmap image format in the history of mankind.” Originally priced at $2,000, the piece sat for two weeks on the auction site without a single bid. The work didn’t sell, which perhaps was the point.

The bitmapped image is a nearly impossible sell. Why own art that doesn’t advertise its own uniqueness — and yours by extension?

The discrepancy between these two auctions highlights the current status of digital art in the marketplace. If singularity is the sole determinant of a work, the gif would be forever reliant on some means of artificial scarcity embedded in it to prove its provenance and secure its value in the art market. If the work of art’s aura is “its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” as Walter Benjamin defined it, then digitally native works have no aura at all. Even as Green boasts of “making history” and rendering a bespoke file “directly from the artist’s computer,” the fact remains that very few collectors are interested in buying digital files vulnerable to infinite duplication. For a contemporary art market that insists on aura as a means of attributing value, the bitmapped image is a nearly impossible sell. Why own art that doesn’t advertise its own uniqueness — and yours by extension?

For decades, programmers and technologists have tried to address these concerns about scarcity and valuation in the digital medium, a far cry from the starry-eyed utopianism of the era’s early open-access movement. Victor Shear, an information scientist with companies like Personal Librarian Software and Intertrust Technologies, spent the 1980s working to ensure early CD-ROM encyclopedias would remain connected to the libraries that purchased them. Intertrust would go on to create DigiBox, one of the earliest Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes available for commercial use. Others, like Mark Stefik of Xerox and Irving Wladawsky-Berger at IBM, would take on similar projects meant to ensure the transferability of intellectual property online.

The music industry saw DRM as a panacea after CD sales collapsed in the wake of peer-to-peer music sites like Napster and Limewire. But even as Apple was able to negotiate unprecedented bargains with record labels to help make iTunes a viable retailer of digital music files, rampant piracy led the company to abandon its early DRM strategy of limiting files to five computers in favor of open ownership and, later, subscription streaming models. The ownership of digital music files as a kind of property feels increasingly anachronistic these days. They are copies that need no reference to originals to have value for listeners.

But the dream of DRM remains alive, or has at least been resuscitated by the related idea that collectors want digital goods to emulate the scarcity of physical ones. Using the public key cryptography at the heart of blockchain technology — basically a public database that can make digital items unique and trackable — companies like Ascribe, Monegraph, Binded, and Verisart have each proposed new “solutions” to intellectual property enforcement. Some, like Ascribe, use blockchain encryption to produce a limited number of digital artworks, whose provenance can be tracked according to the conventional model of art ownership. Though the terms of ownership and legitimacy are determined by the artist, each piece on Ascribe comes with a certificate of authenticity that legitimizes its singularity in the marketplace, in theory making even perfect digital copies into forgeries. Others, like Binded and Verisart, offer a decentralized database to help track ownership, monitor fraud, and limit the reproduction of images to terms explicitly agreed to by the artist and owner — a sort of crypto-driven watermarking, or DRM for images. While every company has their own approach, each essentially uses blockchain technology to attribute a fixed ID number to a work of art, seeking to reimpose a denominated aura to an object that otherwise fundamentally lacks it.

While such technology offers options for digital artists, the hype for these efforts seems to come more from tech companies. Ascribe founder Bruce Pon has eagerly pitched the idea to investors looking to stake their claim in the blockchain marketplace with only a cursory regard for the impact it might have on the art market. For Pon in particular, the venture is only one of a number of ownership efforts like BigChainDB, which handles supply chain data and identity verification. Art seems a low-stakes point of entry into a space with more far-reaching and potentially menacing applications in the worlds of finance and real estate, which are already so frequently accommodate shady shell companies and money laundering schemes.

But in practice, does the blockchain actually change the way the public values digital art? For decades, internet art has matured through a creative attention to the specific affordances of the digital medium, like the mutability of viewership and ownership models online. Enforcement of intellectual property with blockchains represents a clear return to old ideas of art as an asset, an attempt to adapt Koons’s blue-chip auction experience for the unregulated space of crypto-libertarianism. If art has any liberating potential beyond serving as a tax-dodging investment vehicle, its place along a blockchain seems only to amplify the art world’s existing inequalities, ensuring a select few well-connected artists see unimaginable profits while others remain walled off from the industry. But can the technology be harnessed to re-engage with conceptual ideas about scarcity, valuation, and ownership? Or is digital provenance fated to look exactly like its material counterpart, every bit as fickle and fast-paced as the world that internet art once sought to escape?

The distinction between material and conceptual works of art of course predates the internet. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and LHOOQ set a precedent for what conceptual art could be, and artists like John Cage, Sol LeWitt, and Donald Judd pushed conceptualism in new directions, embracing text, performance, and procedural art to engage viewers in ways that directly undermined ideas of the self-contained “art object” from a single artistic auteur. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Fluxus movement continued this tradition, bringing the art object out of the gallery and making it available for sale as everyday objects like cards and printed lithographs, often assembled into small packages and suitcases known as Fluxus boxes. Other movements in ecological art and performance art “happenings” embraced the politics of scale and gesture to construct time-based works resistant to traditional models of ownership. In an early essay on the subject in Art International, Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler saw the emergence of these “dematerial,” “post-aesthetic” practices as a political gesture opposed to the growing commodification of visual art. Lippard later added in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, “In a decommodified ‘idea-art,’ some of us (or was it just me?) thought we had in our hands the weapon that would transform the art world into a democratic institution.”

The digital art object embodies a form of currency in its own right — a vehicle of cultural capital first and foremost

As digital technology became commonplace and artists began experimenting with the new medium, many similarly championed the internet’s potential as a space outside artistic commodification. In the 1990s and 2000s, early net art pioneers began exploring the technical limits of networked communication, exposing the medium-specific affordances of the internet in new image, text, video, installation, and multimedia works of art. Pieces like works like Alexei Shulgin’s Form Art or Vuk Ćosić’s ASCII History of Moving Images continued cybernetic art’s fascination with communication theory, while numerous others saw something boldly utopian in the new digital spaces of Second Life and social media.

Yet in this attempt to free itself from its status as commodity, conceptual art faces difficult questions of sustainability. If art succeeds in escaping the auction house or gallery, how can anyone really make a living at it? Especially on the internet, where art is almost by definition always reproducible in code, the digital art object now has more in common with electronic currencies than with any material work of the past. As Hito Steyerl writes in “If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms,” “Art is encryption as such, regardless of the existence of a message with a multitude of conflicting and often useless keys. Its reputational economy is randomly quantified, ranked by bullshit algorithms that convert artists and academics into ranked positions, but it also includes more traditionally clannish social hierarchies. It is a fully ridiculous, crooked, and toothless congregation and yet, like civilization as a whole, art would be a great idea.”

Encoded with cryptic meaning, monitored by market gatekeepers, and burdened by the sociocultural lineage from which it came, the digital art object (or art objects in general) perhaps embodies a form of currency in its own right — a vehicle of cultural capital first and foremost. As Steyerl points out, the value of art, like bitcoin, is often deeply intertwined with social capital, nearly inseparable from the chatty social circles through which it changes hands and destined to fluctuate with its reputation. “As with cryptocurrencies, there is no central institution to guarantee value,” she continues. “Instead there is a jumble of sponsors, censors, bloggers, developers, producers, hipsters, handlers, patrons, privateers, collectors, and way more confusing characters.”

If art is to move beyond the marketplace, the work must speak to the medium that gives it value, often in the form of institutional critique. In a recent Artnet explainer, Tim Schneider points to Sarah Meyohas’s 2015 piece Bitchcoin as an example of a participatory work that instantiates a critique of blockchains through their very mechanisms. By creating a market for the Bitchcoin cryptocurrency through the production and sale of photographs, the currency becomes both an intermediary in the exchange between artist and owner and part of the artwork itself, with buyers, sellers, and other actors in the art market becoming active participants in the far-reaching work-of-art-as-marketplace.

Martin Zeilinger makes a similar point in his reading of artist Seth Siegelaub’s 1971 piece The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement — a literal contract-as-art-object outlining the specific terms of use for the artwork but also offering a template for other art workers to highlight “the exploitation of artists at the hands of gallerists, dealers, and collectors.” Zeilinger writes, “Institutional critique here became both object and subject of the work; intended for exhibition, reproduction, commercial use, and legal purposes, the contract would theoretically undercut and challenge many of the clauses it contained, and in doing so make visible the problematic conditions of ownership and exchange within which this work (and others like it) exist.”

Framed as institutional critique, the binding contractual nature of blockchains becomes a jumping-off point for a number of participatory works that engage with capital without falling prey to the ills of the art market. For pieces like Primavera De Filippi’s Plantoid, Julian Oliver’s Harvest, or Paul Seidler, Max Hampshire and Paul Kolling’s terra0, the transference of cryptographic capital is baked into works that disregard centralized ownership in favor of new forms of social organization. Already fairly well-known in the cryptocurrency community, Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO) embrace the organizational aspects of product design and industrial production in new forms of participatory art that execute critique in code.

For Plantoid, a blockchain enables a self-sustaining artificial lifeform that turns bitcoin into corresponding contractual ownership of the work of art itself. By “feeding” Plantoids bitcoin, participants buy into the work as partial owners, which eventually enables the leafy mechanic lifeform to reproduce itself in the production of new Plantoids. As part owners, participants dictate future decisions about the work’s growth and maintenance in a role somewhere between shareholder and gardener. Unlike the auction house or blue-chip gallery experience, Plantoid offers a fundamentally different framework for art ownership, one that better accounts for distributed futures made possible through blockchains. No longer limited to individual ownership, artworks can for example be group- or community-owned, distributed along participatory networks, and representative of communities the work impacts most.

As a tool for legitimizing transaction history, blockchains provide a clear solution for intellectual property retention, but this simple fix fails to account for the complexity of arts patronage, especially for participatory works that seek to actively resist the absurdity of today’s multimillion dollar auction experience. Options like Ascribe or Verisart want to account for digital art only as a “neutral” commodity akin to its material counterpart, with a supposedly self-evident aura bound up its uniqueness. But a simple “ownership layer” does nothing to challenge deeply rooted inequalities endemic to the consolidation of wealth. With more artists taking networked distribution as their starting point, in Plantoid and other autonomous works, the technology may reveal new potential in blockchain technology as a medium for institutional critique, a way of speaking directly to the libertarian politics that have been inseparable from conversations about cryptocurrencies since their beginnings. In some sense, the materiality of digital art and its associated market value is the least of its issues. Maybe the digital art market can’t — and shouldn’t — be so easy to commodify.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of AURA. Also from this week, Rahel Aima on videos of “good boys” as a glossary for inclusiveness, and Apoorva Tadepalli on when to-do lists become decorative.

Rob Arcand is a freelance journalist and culture writer based in Brooklyn. He writes about music and aesthetics and has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Thump, and the Quietus.