How Blockchain Tech is Inspiring the Art World

(@yessi_kbello) | Published on May 14, 2015 at 20:25 BST

blockchain tech art

Since its creation in 2009, bitcoin's blockchain has proved that value can be moved across a network that cuts out the traditional 'middle men'.

While the broad strokes of distributed ledger technologies like bitcoin are a hot topic, it's not just Wall Street or multi-national corporations that are paying attention.

Artists are also exploring how the experimental technology can provide new ways to track and verify ownership through tools like smart contracts – authenticated by cryptographic data.

Blockchain authentication

Stephan Vogler, an artist and entrepreneur based in Germany, thinks the blockchain may be the answer to the art world's perennial problem, authenticity.

Forgery is rife in the art world. While traditional forms of licensing would create a tradable commodity, he said, buyers could not be certain the license was authentic – nor would they be able to assert whether the author had created multiple copies of the piece.

"Bitcoin offers a solution to this problem. Just like bitcoin can replace banknotes, it can replace the piece of paper with the license text on it. I see great potential in bitcoin and its technology."

He continued: "The blockchain is the first decentralised trustable database, which can track the ownership of virtual properties in a reliable way."

By placing a hash value  – a set of cryptographic functions that enable people to identify data – of his digital artwork on the bitcoin blockchain, the artist enables potential buyers to verify that the artwork has been licensed.

Stephan Vogler
Original? Stephan Vogler says his artwork on the right is protected by copyright, whereas the simplified version on the left is likely not.

Every one of Vogler's pieces is published under a license which transforms its usage rights into a legally limited and tradable virtual asset using blockchain technology.

According to the artist, the traditional licensing of digital art is opaque and often relies on some kind of physical materialisation – limited edition prints, paper certificates, printed and signed licenses – creating scarcity, a pre-requisite for market value.

Scarcity also destroys the digital character of the work and with it many special properties strictly inherent to digital art, such as easy worldwide transmission or the possibility to prove the authenticity of digital signatures, he said.

"My new [blockchain-based] license preserves these features of digital art while making it a scarce good at the same time."

Blockchain 'wizardry'

Hanging Gardens samuel miller
'Hanging Gardens' by London-based artist Samuel Miller.

Samuel Miller, a London-based artist, has a rather imaginative way of explaining how the distributed ledger works.

"Imagine we are having a conversation and there's ten people in the room, if it [the conversation] was being recorded on the blockchain, it would be like a wizard sitting in the corner of the room, taking down all the notes, noting down absolutely everything that's said and then reading it back to everyone."

Miller has always been interested in power, power relations and self-governance, he said, and was first attracted to bitcoin because it coalesced with these subject matters in "weird and wonderful ways".

Though his lack of technical expertise was a hinderance at first, Miller seems to have finally found the solution that he was searching for. "When things are recorded in the blockchain, you can trust them."

Speaking about the blockchain's potential for licensing content, Miller concluded: "It just kind of can be used for anything, to get rid of lawyers, to bypass copyright law – which is obviously really important for artists. It [the blockchain] will completely empower artists."

Interest from institutions

It's not just individuals that are exploring the technology, institutions within the art world are taking note, too.

Austria's Museum of Modern Art (MAK) made the headlines earlier this year when it became the first museum to purchase a piece of art with bitcoin.

Speaking to CoinDesk, Marlies Wirth, a curator at MAK, said:

"The idea of the a decentralised economy in the realm of the Internet ... is of course interesting and relevant for us. We think that museums should engage with such developments and show how they can be integrated in the everyday practise of artists and art institutions."

Further proof that the museum is interested in ongoing developments in the crypto space is found in its recent exhibition of Valentin Ruhry's work, artist and co-founder of Cointemporary, a scheme that exhibits works online available for purchase in bitcoin.

Commenting on the existing – and the evolving – bond between art and blockchain technology, Ruhry said that there is a number of people and organisations which are looking into Certificates of Authenticity based on the ledger's technology.

For example, Berlin-based Ascribe services artists, galleries and collectors to allow them to register, transfer or archive digital art using time-stamped cryptographic ownership certificates on its blockchain-based Ownership Registry.

Ascribe is joined in the space by Monegraph, a collaborative venture between a New York University professor and a technologist, which enables artists to secure digital property on the namecoin blockchain.

Although it is still early days and crypto 2.0 is still in its relatively nascent stage, it seems that distributed consensus ledgers such as the blockchain will continue to gain momentum among artists, who are typically interested in ways of eradicating the middle-men to gain greater control over their work and their profits.

Paintbrush image via Shutterstock  

Blockchain TechnologyCrypto 2.0Smart Contracts

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