As we start yet another new year with everything that a fresh start promises, questions about the increasing digitalization of our world that grows each and every year usually surface. How will traditional banking be affected this year? Is 2019 the time when people will get chip implants to track their body and location? Will AI actually take over? Questions like these usually derive from the work we do or from where we come from. With my background in art, I’m no different in the direction that my questions take, as they are connected to the potential of art and technology.
From my perspective, as a professional who has worked in the arts and culture sector for a long time, I’ve lately found myself down the Blockchain rabbit hole, hence my interest has gravitated towards the intersection between this and contemporary art. I want to know — will this be the year we will see an actual connection between the two? And if so, will it actually be good?
So, where are we right now in terms of the intersection between art and blockchain?
In 2018 Christie’s decided that they wanted to jump on the blockchain bandwagon and co-curated together with Vastari, their own summit called Discovering Blockchain. Speakers covered a wide range of topics, from artist Kevin Abosch (the artist behind Iamacoin.com) talking about bleeding blockchain to Leanne Kemp, CEO of Everledger, explaining what Blockchain is, from the ground up.
Further to this Portion was launched, a blockchain-based auction house, which “allows anyone to be a collector” — (Portion.io, n.d.) and mainly focuses on digital art but also aims to cover physical arts. According to their website, they aim to broaden their scope to the mentioned category on February 13th this year.
The billionaire Adam Lindemann decided that it was time to combine blockchain with one of the bigger gatherings of the art world, and hosted a conference during Art Basel Miami Beach that explored how blockchain can change the art world. What was interesting about The Art of Blockchains was that it did ask the question of how blockchain can influence the art-making process.
The feeling in the industry was the maybe 2018 was the year art and blockchain would come together and create a bigger change, however it didn’t happen. Is 2019 the year it finally will?
After analyzing in-depth the events mentioned, my personal feeling is that the lack of understanding between the two communities is greater than one would maybe have foreseen from the beginning. The blockchain ecosystem seems to think that the art world has its arms wide open to changes and influences from the outside. And truth be told, the art world doesn’t even understand what blockchain is, and because of that, tends to dismiss it completely, or only think of it as a way to make more money.
When it comes to the creative side, art and blockchain take a completely different shape. I’ve got a feeling that when the art world talks about the intersection between the two they usually end up desperately grasping for projects within the topic without even understanding it — they know that they should be a part of technological developments, even though they don’t understand, because that’s just the way the world works — development happens and no one wants to be left behind.
Currently, the forcing of this intersection has led to creation and promotion of projects that are prone to misrepresentation, projects that don’t bridge the potentials at all and are just examples of how it shouldn’t be done. As artists and technologists need to talk about and show something, they show whatever is available to them, without even understanding the piece or the quality of it.
The profound differences between the two communities have resulted in somewhat disconnected approaches to the concept as a whole. Many of the existing art and blockchain projects are not actually relying on blockchain to exist, it is not an actual part of either the concept nor the function, but rather facilitation of something that doesn’t fundamentally changing the project itself. As you, in the decentralized ecosystem, say, they are shoving the blockchain into the art piece just because it’s the trend.
One example of this is the use of these technologies in the selling process or in the development of the art market. While this does not modify the creative process, technology might help the art market but then, of course, it’s about market development and not some much about the creative potentialities of these two communities.
However, and I would like to highlight this statement, let’s not close any doors, or say that there are no projects or pieces that have managed to combine art and blockchain, without looking at what is out there thoroughly through the eyes of both communities.
One of the pieces that come to mind is mentioned previously in the text, Kevin Abosch’s IAMA coin. The combination of art and blockchain took the shape of a physical element — 100 limited prints made of his own blood — stating the Ethereum contract address on which the project was built on and is depending on. Besides the prints, it also consists of 10 million virtual artworks in the shape of standard ERC-20 tokens. The two aspects of this piece are, to some degree, showcasing an understanding of the physical elements of the art world and the more technical elements of the Ethereum blockchain.
Abosch has done a similar project together with the renowned artist Ai Weiwei. Even though it wasn’t printed in blood this time, the physical aspect of PRICELESS was again a printed address to an Ethereum wallet containing a nominal amount of a PRCLS token. The name symbolizes all the invaluable moments the two artists have shared, and it is also these moments that were symbolized when minting the two tokens that the project consists of. Essentially one of those tokens will never be sold at any price, whilst the other was divided into 1 million fractions and made available for private collectors and institutions.
Looking at everything that happened last year and the discussions that are ongoing, it seems like the majority of the connections being done right are not about the creative aspect that could happen in the intersection of art and blockchain, but rather how it could change the art market.
However, Abosch (and Weiwei) managed to create something that fits into this junction, without seeming forced. Abosch understood that to actually build something that will be able to connect these two eccentric communities there needs to be genuine collaboration, research, and experimentation that allows for both to bring their strengths to the table — allow for people from blockchain to use and share their knowledge and vice versa with the art world — and from there lead to a more creative approach, rather than just look at how blockchain can change the art market from a money-making perspective.
TL;DR — when wondering about blockchain and art, and thinking of steps forward that can help to materialize this intersection, we should be asking ourselves the same question technologists ask themselves when designing a product — does it really need to be on the blockchain?