Wherever you find new technologies, you’ll find artists messing with them. Whether it’s cave people using earth pigments to sketch animal figures on a cave wall, wannabe-poets distributing their verse via the printing press, or proto-influencers painting images with light through the invention of the camera, creatives are routinely the earliest adopters of new technology.
It’s the artists that apply technology in novel ways — poking and prodding and tracing the edges of its capabilities — all in the pursuit of better expressing themselves. Often their experimentation shapes how these new technologies are adopted by mass audiences.
The blockchain is no different. Already, artists are inventing fascinating new ways to employ and advance this technology. Recently, I went to Germany to give a brief rundown on the ways blockchain technology and art intersect at The ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe. Since not everyone could make it, I thought I’d lay out some of the interesting possibilities blockchain raises for art here.
Bringing Blockchain to Life is an experiential installation with both a live component viewable only at ZKM, and a supplemental landing page created by Guilherme Twardowski, Renan Sgorlom, Bastian Müller, and other CryptoKitties team members.
The live component of the ZKM exhibit — and if you happen to be in Germany, you should go see it — visualizes the real-time creation of a CryptoKitty on the blockchain. Viewers can watch live as players’ breeding requests enter the network and their Kitty gets assembled from its parents’ genes to generate a new, unique cat.
CryptoKitties is a decentralized game built on the Ethereum blockchain — that’s right, blockchain, as in the technology that powers cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
Unlike Bitcoins, however, CryptoKitties are non-fungible tokens, ie. digital collectibles, rather than fungible currencies. But what does non-fungible actually mean?
Well, think of it like this: a $10 bill is a $10 bill. If you and your friend swap two of them, you both still have ten bucks. They can also be split up into different denominations of $10. Bitcoins are the same: every Bitcoin has identical value. It doesn’t matter which bitcoins you have, only how many (quick math, more = better).
Non-fungible tokens like CryptoKitties are different. Each one has its own value, calculated by both quantifiable factors — rarity, exclusivity, social significance — and intangible considerations like personal meaning and aesthetic preferences. They can’t simply be exchanged one for one. In fact, a CryptoKitty can hold two completely different values to two different people: worthless to one, priceless to another. Like a work of art, a CryptoKitty can mean something different to every viewer.
That means each cat is 100% unique.
To create CryptoKitties, our CTO Dieter Shirley worked with the Ethereum organization to develop the ERC-721 token: a new non-fungible token standard for the Ethereum blockchain. We call this new token a cryptocollectible.
This creation of the cryptocollectible is, in my opinion, one of the most important uses of blockchain with respect to art, because it allows artworks to harness blockchain technology in profoundly powerful ways. There are many examples, but I’ll focus on the ones that I‘ve experienced firsthand:
1. Provable digital scarcity
2. Provenance and anti-forgery
3. Providing monetization methods for artists
4. Changing our relationship with art and how we engage with art
1. Provable digital scarcity
It’s easy to see how scarcity works in the physical world , because we’re limited to accessing physical pieces of artwork in order to experience them. If your friend has a painting you love in their house — an original Picasso, let’s say — they can’t simply copy it and give it to you. You could take it home and hang it above your couch, but then your friend no longer has it to enjoy in their living room. To truly experience the painting, you have to be present with it (you could snap a photo of it on your phone, sure, but I’m sure we agree that’s not really the same thing).
Unlike a digital file, you can’t instantly duplicate and share this physical object. Copying it requires a great deal of time, talent, and resources, so much so that forging comprises its own multi-billion dollar underground industry.
Even if there are several copies of work, scarcity remains a factor. Take the vinyl version of Nirvana’s Bleach album. One is the regular pressing, available on Discogs for 20 EUR. The other is a limited edition pressing with custom red marble vinyl, marked as 040/500, that includes an additional blue 7" vinyl. This special version sells on Discogs for 1,780 EUR. Not just because you get more with it, but because it’s rare.
In the physical world, collectors value the intended limits of quantity set forth by the artist — the exclusivity of a work contributes largely to its value. Nirvana wanted the limited edition Bleach to be available only to the first 500 keeners. I want it… I don’t know a Nirvana fan who wouldn’t.
Fans value the limited run for its scarcity, custom components, and as collector’s items. The regular edition Bleach album is still a great collector’s item, but it’s much more widely available and that’s reflected in the lower price.
So how does scarcity work in the digital world?
Prior to blockchain, enforcing that same scarcity in a digital environment was impossible. The internet allowed for songs, movies, images — any artwork, really — to be downloaded for free in minutes and immediately copied and shared. Bad news for creators.
But now blockchain enables a digital item to be one-of-a-kind. By adding it to an unchangeable, transparent record that tracks provenance and ownership, it ensures a digital asset can’t be duplicated with a few keystrokes.
That’s a central component of CryptoKitties.
Take the adorable Kitties above. On the left side, we have a “Fancy Cat.” They’re limited edition cats with special artwork — just like the limited edition Bleach record. On the right we have a normal Kitty (just ignore the unicorn horn, for the sake of this argument) which is very cute but much more common and, as a result, can be purchased at a much lower cost.
I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention that players derive all sorts of value in their Kitties aside from just price. They may love their Kitty for any number of personal reasons spanning from a wacky trait, to the moment it represents, or simply because the Kitties’ adorable features melted their cold, cold heart.
You’re probably thinking, “can’t I just copy and paste that image and own the cat?” Yes, you can — but you don’t actually own the cat (the ERC-721 token), you merely own a low-res JPEG of its art. You couldn’t breed it, bring it into the myriad experiences available for your Kitties, or sell it for any value. Plus, you’d be a jerk.
Players really do own their CryptoKitties, and any similar digital assets — ownership which is backed by the permanent record on the Ethereum blockchain. The CryptoKitties website is simply a lens through which you can view your ERC-721 token via our user interface, artwork, and game experience. You can buy and sell Kitties on a number of other exchanges — although they’re less user-friendly — and bring your Kitty into numerous experiences developed on top of the core CryptoKitties platform.
Even though we made CryptoKitties, we can’t take yours away. Even if our company disappears, the cats go on.
Ya’ll are probably on that Fortnite kick. If you don’t know what Fortnite is, I can’t help you. But, essentially, it’s an online multiplayer game where 100 people land on an island and fight until only one is left. And it’s awesome.
I understand that Fortnite itself isn’t art — but we’re getting there, so hear me out.
Fortnite is free to play with the exception of purchasable “skins,” essentially wearable avatars, and other purely cosmetic items. But in Fortnite you don’t actually own your cosmetic items — Epic Games, Fortnite’s developer, does. You can’t sell your items or transfer them between accounts, and they don’t increase in value over time. If Fortnite dies, your items do too.
If you were an early adopter of Fortnite, back when their Battle Royale mode was first taking off, and bought a “rare” Halloween “Skull Trooper” skin like the one above, you don’t benefit from contributing to the early success of the game. The act of selling your account to transfer these cosmetic items is against Epic Games’ terms of service: “Users do not own their accounts, and gifting or otherwise transferring of accounts or access keys is prohibited.” Even one of the most popular Fortnite streamers, Tfue, was temporarily banned due to violating this specific term.
I hope that someday these items will actually belong to players, accrue value, and become transferable from experience to experience. Imagine if you could bring your Fortnite avatar into another game like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft, the same way you can bring your CryptoKitties into other experiences in the KittyVerse (as we call the collection of community-build experiences and games developed on top of the core game).
2. Provenance and Anti-forgery
The word provenance is probably not the coolest word I’ve ever heard — but it’s a vital one when it comes to blockchain and art.
CryptoPunks showcases well how blockchain technology establishes provenance and combats forgery with their transaction history ledger. Each CryptoPunk is a unique collectible character, algorithmically-generated in limited quantities, and whose proof of ownership gets stored on the Ethereum blockchain.
I own CryptoPunk #1102… and I think it’s pretty special.
The entire history of each CryptoPunk is saved on an easily-accessed immutable ledger, which records every action that’s ever involved this token. Collectors can trace every moment of the token’s life, see every time it’s changed hands, and thereby determine provenance, ownership, and value.
The makers of CryptoPunks, Matt Hall and John Watkinson, are also pioneers of “the world’s largest blockchain music platform,” a new streaming website attempting to disrupt the music industry and enable direct artist-to-listener relationships. This is definitely one to watch — and we’ve actually published our first podcast on Choon featuring Parker Thompson and Mack Flavelle — a shameless plug for you to take a listen.
Another great example of a company using blockchain protocol to provide foolproof provenance is Codex, “a decentralized registry for unique assets like art, fine wines, watches, and more.”
The Codex platform allows users to submit an item to the Ethereum blockchain as a Codex record, in which a name, description, and photo can be added to a public ledger that records transaction history from wallet to wallet. According to Codex, “in art and collectibles an item’s identity is central to its value. To buy or sell, get insurance, or take out a loan, previous owners, history, and authenticity are constantly checked and verified.”
Jess Houlgrave, co-founder and COO of Codex, is a must-follow Twitter account if you want up-to-date news on anything related to blockchain and the art market.
3. Provides a monetization method for artists
Blockchain doesn’t just help creators protect their art, it also helps them monetize it. A great example is DADA.nyc, a platform to create artwork and sell it for ether on their marketplace.
There are two components of DADA. First is the community page, a social network where users can chat with one another in real time through a continuous piece of collaborative artwork — a virtual doodle in which one person draws, sends it over, and the other responds with their own doodle. Second is their art marketplace, built on blockchain technology.
The DADA art marketplace features art collections that are permanently embedded in the blockchain and can’t be modified. Buyers can verify edition numbers, that the artwork being sold actually belongs to the seller, and who originally created it. DADA has taken the work traditionally done by galleries and digitized it.
DADA has a transparent breakdown of how the commissions from sales through their art marketplace is distributed between sellers, artists, and DADA itself, and how the company is using its share to enhance their product.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting both founders of DADA, Beatriz Ramos and Judy Mam, at Creative Tech Week in NYC. They’re both leaders in this space, and worth a follow if you want to sound smart and artsy — smartsy — at parties.
Finally, KittyHats explores other ways for artists to collaborate and monetize their efforts. A third-party Chrome extension that applies artwork on top of the CryptoKitties UI, KittyHats allows users to create hats and other accessories for Kitties to wear, upload them to the Ethereum blockchain, and sell them for ether.
The cool thing about this project — and blockchain in general — is they didn’t have to ask our permission to do this. Blockchain is transparent and open-source, so anyone can build on top of an established concept and tap into a dedicated audience. Communities are free to create their own games and add-ons for the Kitties and shape their own experiences.
KittyHats applies new artwork on top of the existing tokens that live on the blockchain, therefore, your cat (the token on the blockchain) actually owns this hat. If you sell your cat, the hat goes with it. An add-on experience like this creates massive partnership opportunities.
We love this kind of third-party development so much that we created a program called the KittyVerse, where developers can build complementary experiences on top of our game. Everybody wins: developers get to realize their ideas and make some money, and players get new and diverse experiences and ways to play.
We’re super excited to see what’s in the future for blockchain technology. We think the kind of collaboration fostered by communities like the KittyVerse is key to blockchain reaching its potential.
4. Blockchain changes our relationship with art and how we engage with art
Through blockchain, artist John Orion Young is giving his fans a new way to collect and interact with his work.
When you purchase a piece of John’s artwork and become a JOY collector, his smart contract automatically sets a new price for the next buyer. This guarantees Young some profit if you sell the work again. But even cooler, it transforms the buyer from being not just a collector, but an advocate to facilitate the next sale of a JOY piece.
John has plans to have a 3D/AR/VR viewer for his pieces and also indicates in his road map there will be a “JOYworld — a magical creative space in virtual reality.” I’m excited to see what’s next for John Orion Young.
This is just one example of how blockchain empowers art collectors to directly interact with the artist themselves, and also gives patrons stake in the life of a piece.
Speed Dating for Decentralized Art Marketplaces
As this article is an introduction, and I’m really starting to drift down the rabbit hole of what’s to come, what’s possible, and what excites me in the space, I’ll rapid-fire list a bunch more must-see marketplaces.
Marketplaces, as I define them, let users purchase digital artworks or digital collectibles which live on the blockchain as a token, and displays those tokens on a front end UI as an image, gif, or other media file.
OpenSea is a cryptocollectible marketplace where users can browse, buy, bid, collect, and sell across 50 categories. Their UI also displays the collected artworks or collectibles currently contained in that user’s wallet, turning your wallet into a personal gallery.
The powerful competitive edge of OpenSea is that, unlike many marketplaces that only allow a user to browse tokens native to the platform, OpenSea lets users access pieces from CryptoKitties, CryptoPunks, SuperRare, and other marketplaces. From one place, a user can browse, buy, bid, collect, and sell pieces from any of the supported marketplaces.
Founded by John Crain
SuperRare is a digital art marketplace that’s powered by the Ethereum blockchain. Their smart contract allows artists to upload a limited-edition piece of art which is tokenized on the blockchain. It’s like owning a verified limited-edition print, as the intellectual property of the original piece remains in the artist’s possession, but you own a verifiable limited print of the artwork.
The thing I really love about SuperRare is their minimal aesthetic combined with a very well-curated artist network. Their platform is still in beta, but you can apply to join the artist network here. Or if you are looking to collect, simply head over to their website and create a wallet.
Founded by Kevin Trinh
OK, first off… who doesn’t want this wild Kanye print? It’s badass.
Rare Art Labs is an art marketplace that, spoiler alert, runs on the Ethereum blockchain, offering collectors and artists a digital community gallery space to exchange rare digital art for ether.
Again, a super minimal user interface and a curated list of artists, which you can apply to join to submit your own pieces. What I really enjoy about scrolling through this platform is the ability to like pieces, watch pieces (so I can easily revisit ones i’m interested in), and also follow particular artists to get notified when they release new work.
Rare Art Labs keeps a list of staff selects, new pieces, and featured pieces, which makes it feel like a properly curated gallery. Bruce Sterling from WIRED wrote “rare, collectible digital art is here to stay.” Looking at the incredible digital art that’s popping up across multiple platforms, I completely agree.
These are people and teams that have influenced my understanding of the space and helped shaped the blending of blockchain and art.
Founded by SNDBX’s Michael Lee and Kirk Finkel.
The Creative Crypto is an online magazine that focuses on art, design, and development in the crypto space. They have easily-digestible content that’s supplemented with beautiful design, allowing the sometimes esoteric crypto space to be newbie-friendly while still providing concise and informative content.
Jason Bailey’s website artnome.com is an excellent source of context to stay informed on everything that’s happening in art and blockchain. His podcast Dank Rares routinely hosts a wide variety of guests and is invaluable for anyone exploring the space.
One of the most informative and consistent podcasts that dives deep into topics surrounding cryptoart and cryptomusic. Also DJ J Scrilla makes these podcasts flow and pop, so it doesn’t sound like this clickhole explanation of Bitcoin.
Simon Denny is an artist living in Berlin who I discovered through the Proof of Work Exhibit at the Schinkel Pavillon. The exhibit is running from September 8 to December 21, 2018. As the Creative Crypto Magazine says, “the group exhibit showcases major examples of innovative and creative use of blockchain in an interactive way. Major projects showcased include the work of Distributed Gallery, terra0, Rob Myers, CryptoKitties, and FOAM.”
Denny also showcased his “Blockchain Future States” exhibit at the Petzel Gallery in New York. In Blockchain Future States, Denny investigates Ethereum, 21 Inc. and Digital Asset, creating oversized versions of Risk and Pokemon among other works, which is “highlighting the differences in each company’s utilization of blockchain and the political and ideological differences these are based on.”
Just look at some of the thought provoking work in this exhibit… My favourite is Distributed Gallery’s Chaos Machine. It allows attendees to insert a piece of paper cash that gets burned inside the machine. But don’t worry, you get more for your bill than just a momentary flash of warmth: a random song from their global playlist plays, and you receive a QR code which allows you to upload via smart contract a new track to their playlist.
There are two copies of the Chaos Machine, one at the Schinkel Pavillon, and the other at Full Node Berlin. The machines are connected, and if music starts playing on one machine, you know someone on the other side is burning their hard-earned cash.
Watch the video and try not to be amazed by this crypto-jukebox powered by the destruction of money.
Also shouts out to these other notable influencers and thought leaders that I will hopefully also have a chance to speak with and write about: Isaac Kaplan, Amy Whitaker, Tim Schneider, and Vladimir Vukicevic.
Not here but you want to chat — please email me: email@example.com
To conclude… Art is cool. Music is cool. Gaming is cool. Blockchain is cool.
To pull another analogy from the realm of music: if you rely on streaming services, you never truly own the music you’re paying for. If one of these sites were to shut down you’d lose your collection.
However, if you purchase a record you know that you’ll always have access to it. Blockchain is the same, but for digital assets. When you purchase something digital you now own that thing — sounds simple, but in the virtual context this is revolutionary. No one can take it away from you. Even if the website or company goes down, if you’re connected to the Ethereum network, you can access your asset.
Securing artwork on the Ethereum blockchain means:
- Transparency of ownership and provenance
- A transparent ledger that records transactions
- New methods of monetization for artists
- True ownership of art
- Artworks become extensible and can be brought into new experiences
I can’t explain why I feel more connected with a piece of art when I purchase it for a fair price that was set by its creator, but I definitely feel it. I engage with it with more intention, and most importantly, create a lasting relationship with that artist and a collection that can be passed on through generations.
Boy With Tulip 🌷