State of the Arts: Blockchain’s Impact in 2019 and Beyond

By Ruth Catlow, Furtherfield/DECAL & Ben Vickers, Serpentine Galleries

This paper sets out emerging themes, sectors and technical priorities in the blockchain space for forthcoming DAOWO Summits[2].

Art has the opportunity today to play a key role in the shaping the cultural landscape of a technology that will fundamentally transform how humans cooperate over the course of the next century.

2018 was the year of cryptocurrency speculation, boom and bust. However beyond the drama, the growth of blockchain technologies in financial industries has been accompanied by developments in a wider range of sectors from manufacturing to the creative industries[3]. Film, games and music have all seen significant development of blockchain systems that seek to empower new stakeholders in both production and funding pipelines. As 2018 came to end, it was notable that arts journalism was full of stories about a proliferation of new blockchain-based art businesses. Many of these stories revealed disquiet about the effect of incentives on values and imagination within the artworld.[4]

“Legitimately progressive ideas […] emerged, only to be sidelined time and again by the supposed allure of “participating in art” through fractional ownership and tokenizing great works to “release liquidity” bottled up inside them, as if we were discussing the need to frack shale formations during an OPEC tantrum.” — Tim Schneider, Artnet

Arts and the Blockchain

Damien Hirst famously said “Art is about life, art markets are about money”. 
The race is now on in the professionalised arts sector to build the one-blockchain-art-protocol to rule them all. Optimizing art market machineries for profit with automated authentication, provenance, and fractionalisation — it will hasten the absolute and final consolidation of art into a financial asset class. This vision of a future artworld anticipates an increase of millions of new collectors learning to speculate, hold and hedge portfolios of artists whose value is traded on stock markets, all enabled by blockchain technologies. An artworld where people know “the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

However other artworld players are placing community at the heart of their blockchain enabled missions and its excavation is raising important and critical questions about the future of the art market: “If art is an alternative currency, its circulation also outlines an operational infrastructure. Could these structures be repossessed to work differently? How much value would the alternative currency of art lose if its most corrupt aspects were to be regulated or restructured to benefit art’s larger communities?”[5]

Aware that “radical imagination is not something individuals have but something collectives do”[6] they are looking for better systems for supporting cooperation and shared values through decentralised technologies such as blockchains.*

Illustration by Lina Theodorou, of Bad Shibe, by Rob Myers, (2017). Image courtesy Furtherfield Gallery

Emerging Blockchain Priorities and Topics Beyond the Arts

Meanwhile in the wider world, following the crypto hype-cycle of 2018 and the ensuing “blockchain winter”, more purposeful and accountable protocol developments are now underway[7]. This moment sees a reassessment of priorities and values for future builds that are more responsive to diverse societal needs and conditions. Key themes include:

1. Trust

Society is in gyrations around the uncertain status of facts and fakery in politics and business. Some posit blockchain-enabled transparency as the basis for a “trust machine” that promises the end of information asymmetry. Tokenisation is proposed as a way to pay for systems with integrity, a type of reputational truth market that disincentives the dissemination of fake news.

Cryptography is employed to prove the “truth” of events, of identity, belongings. Incentives are employed to encourage “good behaviour”. Meanwhile, the dynamics of communities are changed by the capitalisation of respect and social consensus. “How, you might ask, do we know that the information that gets cryptographically secured is the truth? And who, you might ask, gets to determine what is good or bad behaviour? Indeed…”[8] Eg. Projects such as CIVIL “the community-owned journalism network based on transparency and trust” continue to spawn controversy.

2. Ecology

Future visions of land-machine hybrids imagine all of nature, visible and coordinated — leading to “land as platform”[9]. In the case of Regenerative Agriculture “a balance sheet for earth” is proposed to measure existing ecology states with perfect view access. Blockchain systems are mimicking the natural world and at the same time forcing the world into computing systems. These visions find their expression through protocol design: scalability, security, energy problems, and their solutions. E.g. Ethereum has recently announced an intention to reduce its energy consumption by 99% by a root and branch rebuild of its protocol;[10] Artistic projects such as Terra0 help us to imagine the consequences of automation for human relationship to other natural systems; WePower enables green energy procurement and trading that could see decentralised, trusted, renewable energy production between peers.

3. Getting Organised

Blockchain initiatives are currently engaged in the development of tokenised organisations with highly experimental and unpredictable incentive structures. Raising a series of complex questions: Can we design technical systems for decentralised organisations to serve the interests of its members? Who decides how to make decisions?[11] Can we imagine a time when transparent, collective decision-making technologies supercede human leaders and authorities? And will these automated organisations discover a way to privilege and empower values-aligned investors, over opportunists and the speculators? The potential of blockchain for coordinating attention and action are inviting us to rethink governance and what it means to participate and invest in a community and its infrastructure. E.g. CultureStake conceives of a tokenised cultural commons for transnational arts commissioning; oscoin is building a decentralised network to allow a fair economy for world’s open source software.

Illustration by Maz Hemmings made during the LARP What will it be like when we buy and island (on the blockchain)? created by Ed Fornieles 2018.

The DAOWO Summits aim to bring diverse perspectives to the new economic paradigms enabled by decentralised technologies — promoting and sharing the new narratives that are shaping art, culture and society.

The programme is designed to catalyse cooperation between disciplines and sectors, enabling participants to interrogate the benefits and pitfalls of blockchain developments for arts, culture and wider society. Our approach is to connect visionary artists, cultural workers and blockchain entrepreneurs, together with local initiatives, communities, institutions and businesses to develop new transnational systems and approaches.

The programme title is inspired by a paper called DAOWO — Decentralised Autonomous Organisation With Others written by artist, hacker and writer Rob Myers.

“A DAO is is an organisation which runs on a blockchain.
This organisation is made of a series of smart contracts.
These smart contracts are pieces of code that function like a legal agreement.
They automate payments, exchanges and other actions without the interference of a corruptible or fallible human being or institution.”

DAOWO Summit UK is a DECAL initiative — co-produced by Furtherfield and Serpentine Galleries in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut London. This event is realised in partnership with the Department of Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, New Media Scotland, The Turing Institute, London and DACs.

*Artists’ community building is most potent where artists are taking blockchain technologies as their medium. See the Furtherfield Art and Blockchain resource for a fascinating deep-dive into artworks, exhibitions, and writing on this topic.

________________

[1] In Summer 2018 Ruth Catlow and Ben Vickers convened two meetings of Guild to establish emerging themes, sectors and technical priorities for forthcoming DAOWO labs. 
[2] See www.daowo.org
[3] Digital Catapult (2018) Blockchain in Action State of the UK Market
[4] Tim Schneider (2018) A Miami Beach Conference United Art and Tech A-Listers to Make the Case for Blockchain — And Ended as an Allegory of Market Mayhem, Artnet
[5] Hito Steyerl (2016) If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms, E-flux
[6] Quoting Max Haiven (2018) Art After Money Money After Art. Pluto Press. Notable experiments in arts-blockchain communities include Art Decentralized, DADA NYC, and RARE art
[7] See #BUIDL 
[8] Jaya Klara Brekke (2018) I SAW THE BLOCKCHAIN AT THE END OF THE WORLD, TURNED AROUND, AND WALKED BACK, PostScriptUM #31. Series edited by Janez Janša, Aksioma — Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana 
[9] Jay Springett (2018) Deep Sensing 
[10] Julio Gil-Pulgar (2019) Ethereum 2.0’ Proof of Stake blockchain aims to cut energy use by 99%, Bitcoinist
[11]Kei Kreutler (2018) The Byzantine Generalization Problem: Subtle Strategy in the Context of Blockchain Governance