In January 2020, after close on six months of wormholing in Reddit threads, I found Montrose Dawkin. This is the nom de guerre of a self-described “small time art collector and crypto geek,” who in the summer of 2018 spent close to USD 20,000 (EUR 17,500) on a fraction of Andy Warhol’s 14 Small Electric Chairs (1980) in the world’s first blockchain art auction.
Dawkin and ninety-nine other ‘investors’ were invited to bid on fractions of a 31.5 per cent share of the Warhol, a work that had failed to achieve its reserve price of USD 4 million (EUR 3.5 million) on a Bonham’s contemporary art auction in 2016. Each of the new owners has their shares in the painting represented by tamper-proof digital certificates stored on the blockchain of the cryptocurrency Ethereum. They will retain their shares even if the rest of the painting is sold at a later stage.
Blockchain, to hazard a definition, is a decentralised, publicly visible network of cryptographic transaction records which are near impossible to alter after the fact. One of the best definitions I have come across is courtesy of the website Hacker Noon: “Like DNA, which is a record of genetic transactions and mutations that spread as life expanded across the earth, blockchain too is a record of transactions, spreading across the internet as more people use cryptocurrencies.” Blockchain allows cryptocurrencies to be traded anonymously and legitimately, but is also useful for storing other kinds of transactional information. In this respect, it is the backbone of an enormous and highly competitive new international economy.
The Warhol auction is old news in the world of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, but if Dawkin is to be believed, this is the first time an auction bidder has spoken to the art press. “Why the lag?” I ask Dawkin over email. “Initially I couldn’t see how this was such a big deal for the art world. How is art different from any other financial instrument? But the fact that this sale could happen with cryptocurrencies is significant,” they said. “Now I own this part of real-world history and I paid for it with what a lot of people think is pretend money.”
Initiated by the blockchain startup Maecenas, the Warhol auction was a watershed moment for the art market. Although in this case access to the auction was exclusive, the model seems to promise a more accessible art market down the line. Potential buyers who could never possibly afford to buy a whole artwork can benefit from value accrual in the secondary market by easily buying relatively affordable shares in a work.
The sale was also the first time buyers were able to use Maecenas’s native ART currency tokens in a real-world transaction. In late 2019, Maecenas announced the listing of the ART token on the Binance cryptocurrency exchange. This is a platform on which different cryptocurrency pairs can be exchanged and, through a lattice of exchange relationships, new tokens like ART acquire value relative to more established currencies. This means that in addition to buying infinitesimal shares in works of art, you can also trade in the art market indirectly by buying and selling ART tokens.
The financialisation of art is not a new phenomenon, although many collectors, curators, and artists still balk at the idea. And not without good reason. Artworks which come to be represented by cryptocurrency tokens can, fairly directly, increase in value as the token performs better in a general crypto market. Likewise, a general crypto market crash could result, less directly, in an artwork “bottoming out,” that is, drastically and suddenly losing value. If we thought auctions were volatile for the art market, this is worse. History and institutionality come to mean very little for the value of artworks, which instead become pegged to the self-referential performance of a very particular kind of market. In pragmatic terms, this is just how money works in the age of crypto. In existential terms, ART probably shouldn’t be confused with art.
What (else) does blockchain mean for the art world?
In 2019, the Internet succumbed to a rash of listicles promising that blockchain technology would revolutionise the art market, if not the art world (and it is important to distinguish between the two). Besides easy financialisation, blockchain offers a secure conduit for recording the provenance of artworks. This is perhaps the most talked-about application for blockchain technology in the art world, and appeals especially to secondary market dealers, who regularly contend with the spectre of erroneous or fraudulent record-keeping. Because blockchains are essentially made of stored information, it is possible to use this technology to create tamper-proof digital certificates of authenticity. Put simply, producing a fraudulent transaction record in a blockchain is very difficult. In a post-truth world, blockchain might be the closest thing we have to independently validated fact.
The problem, however, is that if an incorrect record is inserted into a provenance blockchain, it is just as difficult to correct. A situation like this could arise when, for example, future information disproves an earlier provenance detail. The other problem with the provenance revolution is that it assumes that blockchain is impossible to hack. It’s not impossible; it’s just not easy right now.
For those of us who won’t be jettisoning money, real or otherwise, into secondary market speculation, it might be hard to see the relevance of all this. But there are reasons to pay attention to blockchain technology beyond the possibility of financial gain.
Blockchains are networked between people behind computers, and although these people are anonymous and decentralised they still constitute a voluntary community. Blockchain communities parallel important forms of voluntary collectivisation and self-organization in historical and contemporary art, which, like cryptocurrencies, have been attempts to redistribute critical or economic power. There is an isomorphic relationship between these forms of community, and in a few special cases the structure and etiquette of blockchain communities informs that of real-world artists’ platforms.
A new web-based organisation called the Decentralized Autonomous Kunstverein (DAK), for instance, is an experiment in how the logic of decentralisation and self-organisation might be applied to an art institution. Still in the phase of accepting “proto-members,” the DAK is a voluntary members’ organisation, like a brick-and-mortar kunstverein, that uses funds raised from members to commission and ‘host’ new artworks, exhibitions, and related events. Because the organisation is not physically based anywhere, projects can take place anywhere in the world. Decisions about where and how this happens are made through democratic voting processes and without the influence of a central curatorial voice. Programming decisions are aggregated and curating becomes a function of group behaviour in service of DAK’s core values (according to its website): “individual sovereignty, decentralized collective governance and non-coercion.”
What about the artists?
Not all institutional gestures are this earnest. In December 2017, a web project called The Distributed Gallery launched by announcing it would auction off a “readymade” token by Richard Prince that consisted of one Ethereum token. This went viral, and for a moment the art world thought, not implausibly, that Richard Prince had extended his forays into appropriation to cryptocurrency. This wasn’t helped by Prince, who equivocally denied knowing what blockchain is, but didn’t deny having made the work.
It turned out to be a joke (though one of Prince’s galleries referred to it as a “scam”) but it sparked an important question: what does blockchain technology mean for artistic practice?
More and more artists are grappling with this question, and experimental gallery structures are emerging around blockchain-based practices. On its website, the New York gallery and “art production platform,” Snark describes blockchain as a “nascent artistic medium,” the raw material of a genre or movement in the making. Snark, which is listed as a gallery on Artsy, works with artists to realise projects which use blockchain technology in ways that are essential to the artwork, and then sells these through the same process of tokenisation as the Maecenas auction.
An instance of this is the work In The Darkest Hour, I Am By Your Side (2019) by American artist Duke Riley, currently on sale in fragments on the Snark website. This work is a three-channel film about a Samsonite suitcase equipped to breed bedbugs and which doubles as a diorama of a luxury hotel room – a sly reference to news reports in August 2019 of a rumoured bedbug infestation in a Florida resort owned by Donald Trump. On screen, digital bedbugs crawl all over the grid that divides the central channel of the film into purchasable fragments. Each fragment is sold as a smart contract on the Ethereum blockchain and is made publicly visible only once purchased. This means that the full film will only be viewable once all the fragments have been bought through Snark. The work thus relies on a decentralised collective mass-action mimicking the logic of blockchain technology itself.
Ultimately, perhaps because our understanding of blockchain is so closely linked to money, it seems difficult for blockchain art – if we can call it that – to escape the financialisation model. Even so, few examples seem willing to acknowledge that the destiny of blockchain art is the financialisation of artists themselves. For Swedish artist Jonas Lund, this is an inevitability worth embracing.
Lund has created the Jonas Lund Token (JLT), a cryptocurrency that can be earned by fulfilling certain “bounties,” actions that are beneficial to the artist’s career. Writing a review of a Jonas Lund exhibition for Artforum can earn you 100 JLT, while posting a work by Lund on Instagram and using the appropriate hashtag gets you between 0.001 and 5 JLT. In many cases, the final reward is discretionary and varies based on a combination of your own prominence and influence in the art world and that of the platform on which the career-enhancing action takes place. JLT buys you the right to interfere in Lund’s artistic practice by voting for different proposals for new works and exhibitions.
Although difficult to quantify, Lund says the impact of the JLT on his practice so far has been positive. “It has created a community around my work and practice that helps combat the loneliness of the artist studio,” he wrote in an email interview. That said, he doesn’t buy the idea that blockchain will revolutionise the art world: “It’s a slow-moving beast that isn’t exactly open for disruption.”
For curators, blockchain might be something of a death knell, an infrastructure that finally takes authorial and institutional power out of the hands of the few who currently decide the fate of the many. For Lund and artists like him, this is simply part of the new fabric of everyday life.