Blockchain Storage is Not Preservation: How to Conserve On-Chain Art for The Long-Term

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, “Quantum Leap: Dark Star,” 2022 (Source)

Rhetoric around Blockchain technologies come with promises of immutable record-keeping, open access, and permanent storage. When the NFT platform Hic et nunc was shut down in late 2021, users were able to create a successor platform called Teia because the smart contracts and their associated tokens were decentrally stored on the Tezos blockchain and the entire user interface was available, open source on GitHub. . Records of ownership and transactions were safe, the artist-audience relationships established there had survived the platform’s demise totally intact. But the reality is that the artworks displayed on Hic et nunc themselves were not on-chain, they were simply referenced in the metadata of the on-chain smart contract, pointing somewhere else entirely. And even if the visual and sonic assets were on chain, just because a piece of art is “on-chain” to any extent, doesn’t mean it’s automatically being preserved.

In previous sessions we’ve talked about how to collect NFTs in a museum context, and how to prevent them from being lost. There are popular misconceptions around how safe on-chain artwork really is, and not enough expert-level guidance on navigating that. In our most recent WAC Weekly session, Regina Harsanyi, a Media Curator at Museum of the Moving Image gave the group a condensed version of her WAC Fellowship talk on the conservation of time-based media art, and how best-practices from that well-established field can be used to evaluate the preservation of artwork registered on a blockchain.

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Collecting and preserving artwork registered to a blockchain

The conservation of “time-based media art” (TBM) has been a distinct field of conservation for more than 25 years, pioneered by groups like Rhizome and the Electronic Media Group. Conservators working with TBM are dealing with issues like software compatibility, hardware integrity, and dependencies from third-party programs to rare electronic parts. And as a piece of software — code written in Ocaml, LIGO, or Michelson for Tezos — blockchain has dependencies like anything else. It assumes certain things about the machine it’s running on that might not be true in decades to come.

Regina Harsanyi opens with a few axioms to keep in mind when thinking about TBM conservation. Those include “storage is not preservation”, “variable media collection requires a migration mentality”, and “mutability over immutability”.

Celestial Objects by Saurabh (Source)

Expanding on that, she says:

“Most artists you’re aware of right now that are making code-based work are probably using p5.js, right? p5.js may not be supported by a browser in the future. So it doesn’t matter if you have it connected to a cold storage wallet, or even if you’re storing the documentation in a smart contract. If a browser that you’re interfacing with, which is out of your control, doesn’t support that rendering of that codebase, or your computer doesn’t — you don’t know how much is going to change about your computer — you have to think about how that p5.js codebase can migrate to a codebase, a format, something that doesn’t even exist yet. So having that migration mentality ahead of time, and being prepared for that, is the most important thing you can do for any of your artwork. And if you think about it, even works on paper, pigment on canvas or wood, sometimes those need to be migrated too.”

Preserving on-chain data will probably require downloading a blockchain node. That alone has several implied questions that conservators need to ask, like:

  • How is this software compiled?
  • What makes a computer compatible with this software?
  • How are soft and hard forks on this blockchain pushed to all nodes to download and update?
  • How could all of this affect the NFT over time?

And there are severe limits to what data can be stored on-chain. An Ethereum smart contract can only hold 24KB of data and Tezos approximately up to 60KB. Most “on-chain” artworks are running with blockchain data, but aren’t actually being rendered on blockchain software. This creates a dependency on off-chain data, which could be stored on anything from a web server or Google Drive folder — creating a single point of failure — or a more robust service like IPFS.

So once you’ve managed to map out all possible dependencies that an artwork relies on, you have to ask if your institution has the resources to collect this.

  • Do you have the right staff?
  • Do you have appropriate collections policies?
  • Do you have resources to commit to long-term preservation? (Regular auditing and periodic migration to new hardware, etc.)
  • Do you understand the total cost of care required?
  • Did you do a quality assessment of the work before continuing with an acquisition proposal?

And to understand what you even need to collect, it’s important to understand the details of each layer of the “technology stack” an artwork depends on: the blockchain, the hosting platform, even the marketplace the piece was first minted and sold on. Most popular platforms like OpenSea only include a file for “the artwork” — actually 100MB — a thumbnail of that file, the title, edition number, and a short description. Could a museum “acquire” that piece just by transferring the NFT to their wallet?

In reality, properly acquiring an artwork registered on a blockchain will require some work with the artist. Several questions need to be answered:

  • What are the essential components of the artwork? (Image and video files? A working smart contract?)
  • What historical data is necessary to collect and preserve? (On-chain transaction history?)
  • What documentation is necessary to preserve? (Instructions for setup and display of the piece)
  • What other supplements are necessary? (The artist’s original description of the work? The website it was launched within?)

And once you’ve cleared up all of that, then there are questions around your own hardware. Right now, best practices mandate that you use a cold storage hardware wallet to store your NFTs, but they don’t specify much else. What are your protocols around seed phrases and login with that wallet? Do you have a plan of maintaining the token URIs in each NFT? Preserving your blockchain node, preserving the blockchain itself? How are you going to document all of this?

Are curators and collectors prepared for this?

When she talks to private and public institutions about this, Regina Harsanyi finds that many don’t have the resources necessary for collecting and preserving time-based media art according to best practices. She points to MoMA’s Media Conservation Initiative and the Whitney’s Media Preservation Initiative as examples of free, public resources for best practices in TBM preservation. While best practices for on-chain work don’t exist yet, most of this talk is about applying TBM preservation techniques to art registered on a blockchain. With TBM preservation being so well-documented, and those resources being freely available, any museum interested in collecting NFTs would be well-served by reviewing and applying those practices to their collections.

In a Q&A session after the talk, George Vitale asks how much understanding there is among private collectors about these issues. Institutions have a professional and ethical obligation to preserve the works they’re collecting, but private collectors don’t.

There are a couple of aspects to this that are unique to web3. For one, the nature of the blockchain means that all art is inherently accessible to the public. So someone can “collect” an NFT and “display” that NFT on a dedicated screen in their home, but they’re not responsible for stewarding those digital files the same way someone keeping a painting in their home is responsible for its safe keeping. The on-chain registration is distributed amongst thousands of people unknown to the collector. The actual file for the artwork could be stored anywhere, only by inspecting the token’s JSON can they find out; a casual collector might not care to know, or even understand that this is something they need to worry about when buying a piece.

On-chain storage is not preservation

One important theme of the talk was that on-chain storage does not equal preservation. Just because an asset is registered on a blockchain, that doesn’t mean that it’s stored forever. In fact, Regina Harsanyi goes even further and suggests this idea of an “immutable” blockchain is neither useful nor accurate when it comes to very long-term preservation projects. This is why she mentions throughout the idea of a museum storing their own blockchain node as part of the archive.

When asked about the use of blockchain as provenance, she points out that with any blockchain, “we know that anything about that chain — its software, its protocols — can change, has changed, and will be changed. There’s nothing immutable about any aspect of it including the transactions, and the provenance, and the validity that we currently see. Already, Bitcoin and Ethereum and probably Tezos and every blockchain out there has done some kind of soft fork. … As long as there is consensus, any aspect can change, right? Just because you have people agreeing in a room — you could argue that it’s an oligarchy to some extent because even node operators are really often centralized and running on Infura. So it’s like the actual amount of people who are involved in decentralization, even at the node operation level, is so tiny. So if you have a little room of people making decisions on soft forks for any aspect of protocol for a chain, nothing is immutable.”

Artwork registered on a blockchain is vulnerable to many of the same risks as any digital artwork in any medium. Conserving this work for the long term has some challenges, but best practices from time-based media art preservation can do a lot for archivists approaching this work for the first time.

WAC Weekly is part of WAC Lab, a new program unleashing the full potential of Web3 for the arts and culture produced by We Are Museums in collaboration with TZ Connect and Blockchain Art Directory, and powered by the Tezos ecosystem.

WAC Weekly is being organized every week on Wednesday at 5pm UTC. Register here to join the next episode.

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