Harm van den Dorpel: Unstable Media, the Post-Internet Art Movement and Blockchain
Digital art is all at once tangible and intangible, dynamic and static, existing both online and offline. This inherent duality ultimately forces the viewer to think about things beyond what they see on screen. Artist Harm van den Dorpel could be seen as a philosopher of the digital era, exposing more people to opportunities to ask questions about life online. How does the Internet influence culture? How does the Internet influence our daily lives offline?
With a background in computer science and artificial intelligence, van den Dorpel started making digital art by creating online animations. Since then he has integrated a variety of mediums, both originally digital and originally physical, into online exhibitions that pull digital artifacts into an amalgam of ideas. He uses algorithms and data to explore how things online relate, or not, to one another. He creates what is called “unstable media.”
“I think that if you look at all my work over time, it’s about aggregating a big pile of information, a pile that has particular origins but it is still not completely defined and it’s not really clear what all the data could mean,” he said. He then applies self-made algorithms that ingest the information and adds subjective feedback as the final layer. Just as one can like on Facebook, van den Dorpel has created networks which he trains by giving micro-feedback sometimes thousands of times. It is the algorithms fed with this feedback that are giving a new kind of organization to the data, turning it into information, a narrative, theme or conclusion that makes his work so unique and so compelling.
He, along with other contemporaries, is related to the post-Internet art movement, cultivating a new way of exploring technology, digital footprints and social networks.
“My generation of people who grew up with digital media don’t really care about owning anything. We often don’t have the big houses to hang work in.”
Deli Near Info
The idea for Deli Near Info originally stemmed in 2008 while he was working on an earlier project called Dissociations, which generated pages containing images and text, the combinations of which were algorithmically determined. He needed to create a database with properties that could “think alongside” Dissociations. In 2014, he quietly launched delinear.info, an open project with more of a collage logic, adding a layer of social networking to the mixture.
“I approach these kind of things really slow, I don’t work on it for a long time and then launch it, I launch it from the start” he explained. “I like starting with something small that barely works and then building it up. I’ve never really announced delinear.info as a thing, it just grew gradually.”
Outside of the regular 300+ contributors, art schools and art academies in the U.S. and Helsinki use Deli Near Info, as does the record label PAN. PAN uses an isolated version, creating what they refer to as “a conceptual album that acts as an immersive virtual ecosystem.”
Utilizing the ascribe API to enhance his work, van den Dorpel can ensure ownership is maintained while he focuses on providing the philosophical and aesthetic layers to the art.
“ By leveraging ascribe’s API artists can get the support to ensure the art remains digital and maintains its original integrity, benefiting both the artists and collectors.”
Launched in late 2015 with Paloma Rodriguez Carrington, left gallery produces and sells downloadable objects. Intended as both an artistic statement and long-term business and curatorial platform, van den Dorpel is tackling an issue he feels few are prepared and properly equipped for in the gallery world — selling digital art.
left gallery features and sells a variety of forms of digital media from novels to screensavers. ascribe’s API is currently being leveraged as a part of the editioning process of work each time a purchase is made.
Harm describes finding ascribe as part chance and part opportunism during his search for a new way to distribute non-material artwork.
Cointemporary, an online gallery that sells ascribed limited digital editions, approached him looking for a piece of art they could sell on their platform, which at the time was only selling material objects like paintings and sculptures.
Through conversations with Valentin Ruhry, artist and co-founder of Cointemporary, he learned they were going to start doing digital editions, registering and storing the pieces with ascribe and would only be accepting payments with Bitcoin. It became clear that he was already well versed in these concepts still abstract to most, prompting Ruhry to invite him to join a panel discussion at the MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art) in Vienna.
“I had had the idea of creating a screen saver and the opportunity gave me that deadline,” said van den Dorpel. “They sold it on cointemporary.com and I was surprised at how well this was going with people actually buying it. I kept getting inquiries from interested buyers.”
The screensaver he created for the occasion became the first piece of art to ever be sold for Bitcoin, ultimately purchased by the MAK.
“ They say that 2016 is the year of blockchain and I do think we will see huge changes in the coming year.”
When ascribe hosted their first hackathon in September 2015, it was his first time using the open source API. “One of the things that work really well are the emails and the easy communication,” he says of ascribe’s technology. “The API itself is also straight-forward.”
When building left gallery, ascribe was the only choice considered for the task.
“When someone purchases a piece on left gallery they receive a few emails,” he explains. “One from their payment processor confirming the transaction, one from left gallery that has a link to the downloadable file in a secret URL and one from ascribe that says you are now the owner edition 24 of 100 for example, where you can download the first version of the file.”
“It’s an extra security for collectors to have an impartial party confirm the effective ownership and which edition they have.”
By leveraging ascribe’s API artists can get the support to ensure the art remains digital and maintains its original integrity, benefiting both the artists and collectors. For him technology like an ownership blockchain provided by ascribe is not only beneficial to art online, but also to the way society lives online altogether.
“The classical Internet has the memory of a goldfish, but what it does remember it repeats like a parrot. It’s great that ascribe allows us to trace intellectual property,” he says.
ART ON THE BLOCKCHAIN
As a pioneer of the post-Internet art movement, a lot of thought around the complexities of creating, buying and collecting digital art go into his own work and education remains a large component of this.
“Generally people have no idea but when I explain it, they think it’s really interesting,” he says. “They might not completely understand the whole story with blockchain, it’s kind of over their heads which is ok.”
“The collectors who own physical works that they have paid a lot for, appreciate the fact that they are unique. It’s something they can hang in their house and know it can’t be copied,” he explains. “I think that my generation of people who grew up with digital media don’t really care about owning anything. We often don’t have the big houses to hang work in. If you install an app on your phone, you’re not going to look at your phone and think look how cool it is that I bought these apps. It’s more of service you’re using, it’s about access.”
“ That’s the thing with digital objects. They are always alive and you have to keep updating otherwise they die.”
Digital art is experiencing some of the same problems as music, a form of digital art in itself. He draws a comparison here in the same way that people aren’t as concerned where it comes from, or whether they really own it, just that it’s accessible.
“That’s the thing that I like about ascribe, that it’s a blockchain technology, its peer-to-peer and non-regulated which are the answers to these kind of problems. I’m not sure if it’s what will happen but I hope so, I’m working towards it.”
The next issue that van den Dorpel would like to tackle with ascribe is what he calls versioning. The problem of versioning is one he sees as both a practical issue that needs to be fixed and as a philosophical problem, one that begs questions around the essence of a piece and what defines the unchangeable core of the work of art.
“Just like this chain of provenance that we receive with ascribe, you want a chain of versions,” he says. “So let’s say I have an edition of 500 and we’ve sold 100 and we make a change, then what? If I sell a digital artwork and there’s going to be a new version of an operating system which would stop it from functioning, then I would have to make a new version of it.
“That’s the thing with digital objects. They are always alive and you have to keep updating otherwise they die. Traditionally, there is a moral judgment on changing an artwork whereas in apps and software, it’s judged if you don’t update it and I think I have to incorporate this in art pieces.”
He also sees wider adoption of blockchain technology as a crucial piece to establish more legitimacy and ultimately secondary markets emerging with everything from stock photography, music, sound effects and themes for software.
“The art market is a difficult market and the art world is one of the most conservative. The art world takes 20 years to accept new technology, and then you look at the world of tech and how fast it is always developing. I think the future of ascribe is in things that have to do with creative industries as a whole and not necessarily just fine art, there is so much possibility within this platform.”
“I’m wary of blindly accepting the gospel of singularity and decentralization,” he says. “They say that 2016 is the year of blockchain and I do think we will see huge changes in the coming year.”