Digital artist Benton C Bainbridge joins us to explore the meaning and purpose of “decentralized art” and how it fits into the greater decentralization movement and blockchain ecosystem. Benton’s June 13 exhibit Fork the System: artHash & Singular Editions with Benton C Bainbridge kicked off art-related programming at Starfish Mission, as well as an ongoing dialogue to be continued at:
- Explore IPFS protocol application for the art ecosystem, including a workshop on joining the IPFS Persistence Consortium for decentralized art
- Meetup link + Facebook event link
- Mechanism Design Mondays occur weekly from 6:30–8:30 pm at Starfish
8/25 (Sat.): Culture Industry Symposium (details TBD)
- An interdisciplinary workshop and art experience bringing together creatives and developers
Benton sat down with Starfish Network’s art and creative direction lead Beth McCarthy for the first installment in a series of interviews with leaders defining the emerging crypto/decentralized art space.
Beth: How is your work centered in the “crypto/decentralized art” movement?
Benton: I’m a media artist (which used to be called a video artist), so my medium is the electronic moving image. It’s very ethereal and coincidentally, ethereal is a good word to describe digital forms of money that use decentralization technology to store value and to exchange value.
My interest early on with Bitcoin was “what are the parallels between this form of value” and art? Electronic art, like cryptocurrencies and blockchains, suffered a lack of understanding by a public that was slow to embrace these mediums. But in our emerging decentralized era, digital art — including collectibles intended to exist only in the digital realm — is finally gaining acceptance.
So “decentralized art” is more than art about cryptocurrency, or that’s paid for with cryptocurrency, but an expression of decentralization itself?
Right. My thinking originally was, “what if there was a symbiotic relationship between cryptocurrency and digital art”? With “symbiotic” meaning, very specifically, “what if every unit of cryptocurrency had a piece of art that was associated with it such that you could use it as money or as art”? The logic being that even after the Confederate states failed in their horrible attempt to secede from the union and their currency became valueless, every one of those confederate dollars retained some value as a collectible.
Users could collect the art or use the money but didn’t have to be interested in both applications — it’d be equally usable as either currency or art. Certain thinkers, like [Ethereum and Consensys co-founder] Joe Lubin told me that idea is terrible because it would clog up the blockchain — though he did like my alternate proposal for a 3D artwork that paired units of cryptocurrencies with camera coordinates in the VR space. But in the past seven or eight months, the tech is finally substantiating art in a feasible, more agile way.
That’s also a helpful way for making the abstract ideas behind cryptocurrency and blockchain more tangible — I feel like many folks’ barrier to decentralized tech is its intangibility of it. This reminds me of the“Pokemon card economy” as a child — each Pokemon card was desirable for its inherent value but also functioned as a token you could trade for other things.
I’ll trade you my Pikachu for your candy bar…
That was a classic trade! So how do you conceptualize your role in the decentralized art movement?
Primarily as an artist tackling these ideas hands-on. I’m decent with technology but my understanding is more on the systems level– how these value systems intersect in society. Fundamentally, the problem we have now is not technical or technological. It’s not a problem with funding because so much money pours into the blockchain and crypto space. The problem is really sociological at this point.
The problem with adoption or problems that blockchain solves, or both?
Yeah, both. My contribution to the space, besides being an artist who has long examined models of how art intersects with decentralization technology, is that I spend a lot of time thinking about what went wrong with the cultural predictions of my heroes and how can we learn from some of their mistaken predictions.
What were some of those?
People like Nam June Paik, who is considered to be the founder of video art because he exhibited modified TVs in a gallery for the very first time. From the late fifties through the early seventies, Paik wrote down predictions about the role that media would play in society in the future, including communication by moving image and pictures.
Amongst other things, Paik promoted an “electronic superhighway” which became the Web. He predicted that we would learn by TV. Now electronic learning courses are common. He predicted that video would become a form of art. The TV guide would become as thick as the Manhattan Telephone Directory.
TV and phone books are obsolete, but he essentially predicted the explosion of channels. Paik foresaw that rather than this information being broadcast through a top-down structure by a few companies, we would all have access to the means of production to create TV and moving image media — but we would squander these increased possibilities for expression by sharing the most boring things. Which came true when one of the earliest projects someone made with a webcam was turning it to a live feed of a can of Spam just to see what would happen.
Paik got one critical thing wrong though: he thought the manifestation of these conditions would create a utopia.
Maybe for some people it is though… how did Paik define “utopia”?
Paik thought that the democratization of moving image technology “becoming of the people, by the people, for the people” would catalyze a utopia of individualistic thought unfettered by Big Brother. He used McLuhan’s term “global village”. There would be harmony in the global village since everyone could plug into a universally accessible, decentralized network. Like a broadcast by a young child at play in a remote island in some culture you never knew about. You would be like, look at this cute child and like, “oh, now I know something about these people over here. I’m sympathetic towards them.”
Well that aspect is certainly true. Does the disconnect between the present state and “utopia” lie in the sheer volume and banality of what’s shared?
Kind of. What Paik missed is the way algorithms would be used to advance interests solely focused on extracting value at the expense of social good. We created this thing called social media that did exactly what Paik predicted while getting none of the benefit from it except convenience and the sense that we aren’t fearful of missing out, right? We’re part of this tribe.
Paik didn’t predict the use of algorithms that would make sure that we don’t see that child in a remote island, her little video of her dolls that she made by herself and shot with her phone. Because the algorithms would rather show us something that’s proven to “engage” — so our social media feeds are optimized to zero in on the struggles of our own tribe.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this because this was the dream I bought into as a young artist. I started really young making art and showing as an artist by the time I was 15. No one understood video art then but I was like, it doesn’t matter because it’s inevitable that my art is the art of the future. I don’t care what you think because if it’s five, 10, 15, 20, 50 years from now, my art is going to be the art.
Which is starting to be true in some sense! Or, you’re working to make it true.
[Part II of this interview will be published soon]
Benton C Bainbridge (Bronx, USA) hand-crafts videos, performances and installations with custom digital, analog and optical A/V systems, applying decentralization tech to ethereal media art.
Benton collaborates with a wide range of artists, including media design and performance for two Beastie Boys world tours, analog video synthesizer FX for TV On The Radio’s “Staring at the Sun” music video, and Whitney Museum’s best-attended live event with video ensemble The Poool.
Bainbridge teaches New Forms in Media at School of Visual Arts MFA Computer Arts Department.
Currently, Barbara Held and Bainbridge are exhibiting media artwork at l’Auditori, Barcelona.. Benton is the resident media artist of One Step Beyond at American Museum of Natural History. Benton C Bainbridge is Artist in Residence at Andrew Freedman Home, where he is developing Decentralus: a decentralization research lab for the Bronx community. “Benton fingerpaints with video.” — Trilby Schreiber
Beth McCarthy directs art programming at Starfish, including curating our gallery, establishing the Adjacent Possible fellowship program for resident creators and researchers, and organizing workshops that foster connection between the creative and tech factions of the decentralization movement.