The Early Evolution of Art On The Blockchain — The Road to NFTs — Part 1
One of the things that blockchain is great at is immutably verifying ownership. That’s great for a currency, but also, not long after Bitcoin launching people were already talking about contracts, digital goods, ID and nationality all being stored or verified on a blockchain. Naturally, one line of discussion to sprout from this seed was that of art provenance.
Here I analyse the thread through tokenisation, gaming assets and memes through to crypto-art, which lead up to the mass adoption of the idea of the artistic Non-Fungible Token.
Right from the genesis block, Bitcoin has been used as more than a cryptocurrency. The first transaction contains an immutable message from the creator, Satoshi, with a headline from the days’ newspaper in it.
The idea of putting messages in blocks wasn’t really adopted in any way immediately after that, but a couple of years later bitcoin messages started getting used again.
ASCII Len / ASCII Bernanke
And so in 2011 the first “image” message followed, and it very much depends on what you class as an image. The message was a tribute to early Bitcoin dev Len Sassaman who had recently died. It contained two ascii images, one of Len and one of Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve at the time.
Despite being an image stored on Bitcoin there was no way to buy, sell or transfer such a thing. So the next big step came with …
During an event in 2014 at the New York Museum that aimed to pair artists with technical professionals, Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash built Monegraph on a cryptocurrency called Namecoin.
The idea was that users could pay a small fee on namecoin to store a twitter account and URL together. The URL would point to a digital asset, in this case a digital image.
Some commentators noted at the time that this has great potential for intellectual property protection of digital art. You could in theory verify undeniably that you had created a piece of art at a certain time and point to what that piece was.
Namecoin is an old chain and it’s unclear whether this message persists on chain in the same way that Bitcoin messages do. It seems as though this also is not tokenised in a way that makes it sellable, but again in theory you could create a marketplace that could sell these messages of ownership. Nevertheless the concept was out there now, clear as day. It would take new platforms to take it a step further.
Counterparty was a pretty innovative platform in it’s day. It was a very early open source, community crypto project, originally designed to be a peer to peer financial platform, which utilised the Bitcoin blockchain to store it’s own data. Part of its functionality was the ability for users to create their own tokens, with name and issuance.
Inevitably many examples of tokens backing art came about. Perhaps the first of these was OLGA, a dedication token by JP Jannsen to his sweetheart, issued on 12th June 2014, to which, a year later, he later added a data image of a pencil drawing of them kissing in a Counterparty broadcast (similar to a Bitcoin message).
This may be the first instance of a piece of visual art, backed by a token, with the possibility of trading inherently attached to it. And it’s truly non fungible, being an issuance of 1. Though JP didn’t intend to sell off his token of love. He still has it.
Perhaps more explicit was ICOKE by artist Nili Lerner (aka Nilicoins), who issued a token and explicitly stated that it was an art piece. She followed this up with other Art coins too, Disneycoins and Applecoins, with the same intentions.
Another notable token was Rhea Myers’ MYSOUL. A single issue token intended to represent the artists soul, and explicit in that was that it could be traded or given like any other asset.
These artistic crypto-experiments were great, but the niche appeal, and lack of understanding from those not used to such artistic experiments still prevented widespread appeal outside the art world. And still at that time Cryptocurrencies themselves had not really reached the mainstream.
Over time cryptocurrencies had been attracting creatives and creative developers of all sorts and it was inevitable that such interests as gaming, trading cards and art would be brought to the new technology. A platform like Counterparty could allow in game assets to be verified, bought and sold outside of game realms with the backing of a distributed ledger. One of the first to jump on this was Everdream Soft.
Having had prior success with computer trading card game Moonga, Everdreamsoft, inspired with the early idealism of Bitcoin, announced Spells of Genesis some time in early October 2014. Their in-game currency, Bitcrystals, was issued for a crowdsale and their intention was to use blockchain for their in-game assets too.
“I believe that blockchain technology will create a profound change on our society. We are at the dawn of complete change in how people exchange value over the Internet.” — Everdreamsoft CEO, Shaban Shaame, in May 2015
The First Trading Card On The Blockchain
On March 11th 2015 Everdreamsoft issued the asset “FDCARD” on Counterparty and on April 17th Everdreamsoft put up a post on their blog, “What is an FDCARD?”.
This is an FDCARD:
In the game the asset was a healing spell and the card idea was a nod to Folding Coin, a charitable Counterparty project.
Is this an NFT? Spells of Genesis lead developer Shaban Shaame calls them ORBs — Ownership Read on Blockchain, making the distinction that any tokenised asset that has an issuance of more than 1 is, in fact, fungible.
This asset takes huge influence from the trading card games industry. It can certainly be called the first crypto-collectible, in that sense. As for art? It can’t be denied that this is a graphic design art piece, by an artist, Alejandro Hurtado, tokenised and sold as an asset on a blockchain. And in addition it kickstarted the market for buying and selling that we know today.
Everdreamsoft continued with a steady stream of card releases over the next few years.
And here Spells of Genesis gives a nod to one of the newer platforms on the scene.
By this time another platform was starting to emerge with the intention of going a step further than Bitcoin. What if, at the base of the blockchain was a scripting language and the blockchain could verify blocks of code, called smart contracts. This was the innovation behind Ethereum.
Notable early art experiments with Ethereum’s coding language include Rhea Myers’ This Contract Is Art, a smart contract that renders text confirming that it is, itself, art. Any user can then trigger a transaction to cause the rendered text to confirm that it is not art instead.
Perhaps more significant is Myers experimentations with an art market platform directly inspired by Monegraph. It is much more detailed, allowing for someone to verify a URL to an artwork, buy, sell or send the token and it even includes an optional resale commission for the original artist, aka royalties. It’s not clear that this was ever launched but it exists as a true proof of concept.
Back to Counterparty
By now other projects on Counterparty were following close behind SOG.
The first gif on the blockchain was announced by Sarutobi, a fun little game that rewards players with bitcoin.
Online card game Force of Will announced their intention to go blockchain in September 2016, registering a whole bunch of assets in one go. Force of Will registered about 150, more than tripling the amount of game related crypto-collectibles at that time to 236.
And following up close behind these were the projects that would catapult it into the big time.
Read about Rarepepes, Cryptopunks and Cryptokitties in Part 2.
This article has been extensively re-written in light of some excellent research by MLODOART. Timeline here: https://ostachowski.com/about/what-is-crypto-art-or-nft-art/history-of-crypto-art/