Art, Bitcoin, blockchain

Article in The Pullman Magazine n°6

Thanks to The Pullman Magazine for the article talking about the exhibition Bitcoin Art (r)evolution:

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The Beauty of Blockchain

BLOCKCHAIN HAS BEEN MOST CLOSELY ASSOCIATED WITH THE WILD WORLD OF CRYPTOCURRENCIES. BUT THE TECHNOLOGY IS BEING ADOPTED BY A SLEW OF  INDIVIDUALS AND INSTITUTIONS, INCLUDING THE GLOBAL ART COMMUNITY, WHICH IS USING THE POWER-TO-THE-PEOPLE TECHNOLOGY TO BREAK AWAY FROM A SYSTEM DOMINATED BY MIDDLE MEN AND INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY THEFT.

Investors electrified by blockchain technology often compare this moment in its life cycle to pivotal tech milestones in the past. “For those of us who have been involved in  software for a long time, it feels like the early days of the internet, web 2.0, or smartphones all over again,” said Marc Andreessen when he and his colleagues launched a16z crypto, a $300 million fund for blockchain-related projects. Andreessen should know — he is a co-creator of the first widely used web browser and a founder of a venture capital firm that has invested in Airbnb, Lyft, and Facebook.

A lesson for the uninitiated: in crude terms, a blockchain is a digital, shared ledger of transactions or records. Bundles of information are linked together by a network of decentralized computers. Every event is tracked and all participants have access to the same records, which makes fraud difficult.

So that’s the technology in a very basic nutshell. But how does this translate to our day-to-day reality? The first applied example of blockchain technology was the now-famous bitcoin and it’s earliest adopters were mainly savvy geeks and sneaky gangsters. More recently, people have realized that blockchain has a wide range of real-life applications. Governments, like the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, are using blockchain to store property records. Banks are launching blockchain divisions. And Carrefour, a French mega-retailer, is using it to guarantee the traceability of the chickens it sells.

The possibilities of blockchain haven’t escaped members of the art world, where some envision the technology supporting independent transactions, monetizing digital art, and establishing tamper-proof tracking of an artwork’s provenance. Artists who are particularly frustrated with hegemonic international galleries are seeing blockchain as a way to gain independence and democratize the art community, to operate outside of the systems they’ve been forced to rely on in the past.

In Paris, Pascal Boyart, a painter and street artist, and Natacha Bernardin, an art advisor,
organized Crypto Art, a September 2018 exhibition where all of the artwork was sold in cryptocurrencies. The pieces, made by artists from the U.S. and France, each came with a certificate of authenticity on the blockchain. Some of them had been sold on OpenBazaar, a blockchain-based marketplace, before the exhibition.

OpenBazaar uses another intriguing innovation: smart contracts. Via Ethereum, a decentralized platform with its own currency called Ether, users can write smart contracts on the blockchain, offering mechanisms that ensure promised funds are only transferred if the terms of a contract are fulfilled. Smart contracts are already being used by musicians. A service named PeerTracks, for example, attaches a smart contract stipulating how revenue should be divided for every song an artist uploads.

The reasoning behind structuring the Paris exhibition around cryptocurrencies and blockchains was both subversive and practical. “Thirty years ago, you could pay for your apartment all in cash or your car all in cash,” Boyart said. “Banks, institutions didn’t have so much control.” He sees being able to exist outside of traditional financial systems as a statement of self-empowerment. The “Bitcoin Art (r)evolution” exhibition he and Bernardin are organizing will involve no third parties — no banks and no gallerists. “I think this can bring back a little bit of democracy for artists,” Boyart said. “I like to be free in my art and not depend on one person, and I like the aspect of being in direct contact with people who like my art.”

Boyart is one of a small group of street artists experimenting with placing QR codes linked to their crypto wallets near their work, so that passerby who want to make a contribution can easily do so. All you need to donate to the artist is a cryptocurrency
wallet — hopefully not an empty one — and a phone to scan the code on the wall. Earlier this year, Boyart added a QR code to one of his murals, which depicts the artist Rembrandt van Rijn, who struggled to make ends meet despite being widely celebrated, reading a tax bill. The piece is called “Rembrandt Back Against the Wall.”

Makers of digital art — GIFs, videos, virtual reality, online installations — are hoping they can use blockchain to their advantage, too. After all, it is hard for digital artists to sell their work since it rarely “exists” in the physical world, and it can be easy for their work to be copied and shared fraudulently. R.A.R.E Digital Art Network is attempting to change that. The blockchain-based platform has two goals: “to limit the number of copies of digital art that can exist and to monetize each one.”

R.A.R.E gives artists ownership tokens for each piece of art that they submit, and artists can then sell those tokens to collectors for cryptocurrency. Once you buy one of these tokens, you own the art. You can place it in a virtual gallery, project it on a wall or into a picture frame, or keep it in your crypto wallet the way an investor might deposit a painting in storage. Another service called Ascribe.io provides artists with cryptographic IDs for their work. This makes it easy to trace where a piece originated from and can prevent unauthorized usage.

Blockchain technology is being adopted by more orthodox art institutions as well. Recently, Christie’s held a daylong Art+Tech Summit that explored how blockchain can help collectors verify the authenticity and provenance of artworks by storing information about ownership and the chain of acquisition in an industry-
wide, secure ecosystem. Some galleries, such as Dadiani Fine Art Gallery, have accepted cryptocurrency as payment for pieces.

Boyart believes blockchains have a vibrant future in the art world. “It’s a new way for crowdfunding,” he said. “You can support artists you like anywhere in the world. For the moment, it’s not mainstream, but I think it’s beginning. The art world needs it.”

@The Pullman Magazine n°6 – December 2018

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