Collecting in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Casey REAS

In the art market, almost everything sold is an object such as a drawing, a painting, a sculpture, an installation, or a photograph, but there are some exceptions. These deviations may include a contract, a set of instructions, a digital video file, or a software file. These are all examples of art as information rather than material. For example, a purely digital photograph is different from a printed photograph or negative. A digital photo stores an image as a sequence of colors defined as numbers that can be exhibited on a screen or projected. In contrast, a printed photograph is continuous tones of gray or color values that are embedded in the structure of a unique piece of paper.

While more and more digital media works are created by artists, the art market has been hesitant to collect works that are not tangible and tactile. In contrast, other kinds of collecting not related to the art market have shifted toward digital, information archives. The most iconic shift from material to digital collecting has happened with music. Traditional art collecting and traditional music collecting have little in common. Art artifacts are typically one-of-a-kind or in limited editions in quantities much smaller than pressings of a vinyl record or compact disc. However, contemporary music collecting and the future of collecting contemporary art might eventually be more similar than different — this is the speculation of this text.

Collecting Files

The shift in collecting music was the transition where the information version of the media was in more demand than the material form — when the desire for the MP3 files of an album or track eclipsed desire for the vinyl or compact disc. The widespread catalyst for this change was a piece of software called Napster and how this software engaged people with peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing. This was enabled by the internet and through a cultural shift in ideas about sharing media.

When Napster was released in 1999, it started a new way of collecting, sharing, and trading. Before this, people could copy tapes and compact discs for friends, but the scale, speed, and ease of sharing through p2p systems made this new way fundamentally different from what came before. The distribution system of brick-and-mortar stores vs. direct download have little comparison. Behaviors and ideas about property shifted quickly. In 1999, a search for Aphex Twin made it easy to download the Richard D. James Album and Come to Daddy. No payment was needed and none was expected by people using the software. These files were being shared by many computers around the world and they were quickly transferred to any connected computer. This same pattern, followed again and again, could lead to downloading hundreds of hours of music without any payment. This felt normal at the time, but it wasn’t legal. The response from the gatekeepers and copyright holders was controversial and punitive — people were prosecuted.

As music distribution transitioned from records to tapes to compact discs, the primary model was the same. The collector would buy a thing: a vinyl disk with grooves, a magnetic tape wound around spools, a thin polycarbonate circle encased in plastic. Tapes and compact discs were different than records because of the ease of making copies. In the case of tapes, they were noisy and copies degraded, and with compact discs, they were perfect copies. However, from vinyl to compact disks, the model of buying an object that became property was continuous. A collector could visit the used record store on Canal Street and sell her copy of Remain in Light because she owned that object. That same collector could also buy a used copy of Dark Side of the Moon that someone had earlier sold to the store. The full story of collecting records, tapes, and compact discs has another layer to it. Because these objects became property when they were bought, the owner could loan them to other people for as long as she wanted. The Queen is Dead could be loaned to a friend for a few weeks and if she liked it, that tape could be traded for Three Imaginary Boys. This whole system was flexible and legal and it worked well.

Today, people still buy compact discs, tapes, and records, but new options are more dominant and maybe more importantly, they are more convenient. Streaming services provide wide, but still limited, libraries of music. When music is purchased, it’s often digital files, either one song at a time or a full album of tracks. However, if a song is bought as a digital file for ninety-nine cents, this is different from buying a used cassette single for the same price. The cassette is property and the digital file is licensed. The license states that the music isn’t owned by the person who buys it. That person doesn’t have the right to loan it to someone or to resell it. In fact, that person doesn’t even have the right to give it to someone. This is legal, but it doesn’t feel right. This is the era of the arcane end-user-license agreement (EULA) that defines what we can and can’t do with the media and software we spend money on, but do not own as property.

The focus on music clarifies the differences between ownership versus a license to use something. Also, music was the first powerful media industry to be deeply threatened by downloadable digital media, followed by film/video, and then publishing. The last twenty years have yielded interesting shifts and now things feel roughly stabilized for the moment.

New Collections, New Media?

So far, this discussion yields a few difficult-to-answer questions: Can accessibility be a part of collecting art or is it in opposition to what attracts people to collecting? Will people still be interested in art if it’s not exclusive or a marker of status? Will the existing audience for collecting art shift or does a new kind of collection require building a new audience? Can or should the audience for collecting art scale to millions of people?

The kinds of collecting that people broadly engage with like music, cards, and comics are only possible when the work is mass media, meaning the items that people are collecting are in unlimited or large distributions. This kind of collecting might only work with things that are property and not licensed, as outlined above. The people who collect these things need to have the rights to sell them, to trade them, and to give them to others.

Some visual artists who work with media such as video and software look to this type of collecting with envy, but with conflicted feelings. These artists want anyone who would like to collect the work to be able to have it, but they also realize the advantages of the gallery system that is in direct opposition to this goal. On one hand, artists don’t want barriers of cost to prevent people from collecting the work, but artists are often specific about how to control the presentation of the work. For example, some works need to be viewed in precise lighting conditions and at a specific scale. A work with these requirements isn’t mass media, but is created for a unique physical space that can only be created within a controlled environment, as in a gallery or museum. The traditional gallery system also supports its artists through administration — taking care of sales, paperwork, promotion, shipping logistics and press communication. These services can only exist with a regular flow of sales of unique or editioned works with a high price point.

In theory, an artist might decide to make one work for a gallery and another work for mass distribution. This decision could be different for each work created, but this decision isn’t possible with traditional visual art that has an “original.” This is the essential difference with creating works that are digital media. With digital media, each so-called copy is identical to the so-called original. The very idea of an original with digital work isn’t applicable. Each copy is simultaneously as original and not-original as all the others. Therefore, an artist who works with digital media could have the option to make work for the gallery or to make mass media works that can be collected in an accessible way, but in practice this choice doesn’t exist.

At the present moment, an artist who creates works in mass media has the option to either make work available through a gallery or to publish the work for free and open online access. It’s true, there have been many initiatives to provide a third option over the last two decades, but they have either failed in succession or have not had a broad impact. I think these disappointments are the result of the inability to develop a base of collectors and this is partially a platform issue where existing technologies don’t support what people want. If the platforms do evolve and a collector base is nurtured, is it even possible for an artist to work in both ways? Can an artist succeed at playing the gallery game and making work that is financially accessible for a wider audience? Can an artist avoid galleries entirely, make only digital mass-media work, and still support themselves?

The social and emotional shift required for people to start collecting digital art, as they do music, feels like the difficult part, while the technical aspect is now possible. One way to manage the logistics is a blockchain, a frequently hyped and misunderstood set of technologies. At its most simple, a blockchain is a list. The blockchain innovation is the way the transactions are verified so they are confirmed to be accurate. A blockchain is open for anyone to read and it is distributed so everyone can access the data. The blockchain is the key to moving away from licenses toward property for digital media because the information is accurate and it isn’t centralized. Further, a blockchain can record loans and a history of sales transactions for a work. The provenance of the work is public and it’s guaranteed to be accurate; it can’t be forged.

As an example, an artist might decide to release a digital photograph to be collected. This photo can be a unique work or an edition of any number. The process starts by entering data about the work: title, medium, size, year, edition size, etc. This data, as well as a unique distillation of the photograph file is recorded into the blockchain. This “unique distillation” is called a hash or more colloquially a digital fingerprint. At this point, a record of the photo exists as a piece of property that can be transferred. If the decision is made to release an edition of ten, there are ten unique pieces of property. If a decision is made to release an edition of 2000, there are 2000 unique pieces of property. As the creator, the artist can then transfer the ownership to someone as a gift or can transfer the ownership to someone who buys it. This transaction need not be done personally or “by hand.” Software can automate this through a website or application, or an authorized representative can take care of the transactions. Once the change in ownership is recorded into the blockchain, the new owner has all of the rights to sell it, loan it, etc.

It’s important to clarify that the file itself, the artwork, can be copied and shared with others outside of the blockchain. A blockchain is unrelated to copy protection or digital rights management (DRM.) The blockchain keeps track of the transactions, but it doesn’t constrain what happens to the file; this is up to the owner. For example, if someone sells a digital photograph and that transfer of ownership is recorded into a blockchain, the original owner loses her rights to ownership, but she can keep a copy of the file. (There are ways to change this, but that is separate from the blockchain.) The new owner can do whatever she wants with the file, including the decision to copy it as many times as she wants and to distribute those copies. The people who have these copies are not the owners of the work.

This is a new kind of possession that requires a shift in ideas. One way to think about it is similar to how copyright works. Imagine a poem that is under copyright. Anyone might gain access to the poem in a book at the library or through the internet, but only the owner has the right to grant distribution, among other things. With the photograph example, other people might have a copy of the photo, but they don’t hold the rights of ownership for that image.

A Forking Path

There are two broad ways that collecting digital media might develop. One direction mirrors the existing art world through selling unique or exclusive things. This is the traditional, conservative model where a digital media file is sold as a unique artwork or as a small edition. This could be selling unique digital artifacts for a high price or an edition of a few hundred. This thinking is preceded by markets for printed work on the high end including lithographs and etchings in editions that make them more affordable than unique paintings and drawings. Numerous examples of this model for selling digital media are under development by individual artists and by venture-capital-funded initiatives. This might be a good business model if it works, but it’s not transformative for artists, the arts, or for society. It might broaden the possibility for more people to collect art, specifically digital art, but it remains exclusive. While this model will hopefully succeed and it will support artists, there’s an alternate opportunity.

The unique material of digital media presents a new opportunity for collecting that wasn’t possible with prior forms of visual art. This is only possible with digital media because of the absence of an original and the condition that all copies appear to be identical. As a hybrid between unique objects and the unique qualities of digital objects, each “identical” digital copy can have a unique and verifiable digital signature. Therefore, each version can look and perform interchangeably, but each is singular. Each version can be registered, bought, sold, loaned, and traded as a unique object, and importantly, each can be accurately verified. This supports a new model of collecting digital media where an edition can be sold in large numbers for lower cost or a large number of unique works can be managed, but each still includes all of the traditional rights of ownership. For example, edition 132/500 or edition 5243/20000 can be bought, recorded, and verified. In a different direction, an artist can produce any number of unique works in a series. To use an older idea from photography, imagine each image on a contact sheet can be sold as a unique work. Or, more likely, a set of images edited from a few rolls of film. The logistics of doing this were prohibitive with analog media, but digital media can fully support it. As another example, imagine a piece of software that generates images. Each of these images could be offered as a unique work within a series, rather the more traditional model of editioning only one of those files.

There are other unique elements to collecting digital media that weren’t possible until recently. To recede back to music for one final comparison, the thing that made collecting music on records and tapes possible was the accessibility of playback hardware. For that media to be collected, there needed to be a way to experience it. For example, record players were available in a range from inexpensive models to exotic devices for audiophiles, but access to listening to vinyl was possible on an individual, family, or community scale. At the time collecting records was emerging, digital media did not yet exist. It has only been in the last few decades that digital media playback hardware has become accessible and high-enough quality to engage large groups of artists to create work for it. Hardware that plays digital media files recently shifted in a positive direction with the development of slim, high-resolution flat screen technologies and more powerful home media players, including video game systems and hardware embedded directly into televisions. Now, millions of people have easy access to digital media files through the internet that can be experienced through mobile phones, tablets, and new kinds of televisions. In addition to the devices that people already have, there’s a growing number of hardware manufacturers who are focusing specifically on designing screens for the display of digital art.

To have a broad impact, a new model of collecting media art will need to be extremely accessible. It will need to work broadly across cultures, incomes, and age; it needs to be approachable for millions of people. This new model will need to be decentralized. It must support diverse groups curating and selling work without centralized control. The proprietary “store” systems created by contemporary tech giants are the opposite of what is needed. Individuals and small groups should be able to create their own “galleries” or “labels” and individual artists should have the freedom to release and control their own work directly.

As long as artists continue to live within capitalist economies, a new form of collecting digital media will need to provide financial support for the artists that participate. It will still be an option for artists to post work online without compensation, but an alternative should exist for people who want to pursue it. The entrenched gallery system doesn’t support this kind of work and the model of finding grants, fellowships and commissions for digital work supports too few. Similarly, some artists have been successful on different crowdsourcing platforms, but those systems and audiences favor a narrow range of practices and sensibilities. Artists who create digital media do not have enough opportunities to support themselves with their work.

The Dematerialization of the Art Object

Today, even though art is still associated with wealth and traditional media, the need for either to be required for art was dismantled deep within the twentieth century. With certainty, it can be asserted that the status of an object as art is unrelated to scarcity, cost, or materials. It’s time to proceed with what was started many decades ago. Artists have long used mass media and have explored new materials. For example, it’s been over fifty years since On Kawara started the I Got Up series by sending postcards stating the time he woke up each day and twenty-seven years since Felix Gonzalez-Torres placed a pile of candy in the corner for the museum audience to take for his Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) The spirit and legacy of Dada, Fluxus, and net.art remain relevant today.

It’s time to build on those ideas and to move forward, rather than to regress or maintain nostalgia for the power relationships and dependencies of patronage and exclusion. In the future, a native digital media collecting ecology might be radically different from the current art market, but this new kind of collecting probably won’t affect the existing market. The current art market is a niche that will continue to evolve, but not in this direction. If a new model succeeds, it will emerge as new territory.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Sean Moss-Pultz and Casey Alt of Bitmark for the exchange of ideas on this topic over a number of years. Thank you to Addie Wagenknecht and Kerry Doran for reading drafts and contributing excellent comments and questions.

Casey REAS

Written by

Artist and educator. UCLA Department of Design Media Arts. Co-founder of Processing, Processing Foundation. Twitter: @reas

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