Introduction

This essay draws distinctions between different approaches to art that uses cryptocurrency or blockchain technology. It does so to contribute to the debate about art that uses cryptocurrency or blockchain technology by helping us to talk about it in an inclusive and expansive but clear and coherent way.

First it distinguishes between three different ways that cryptocurrency or blockchain technology can be involved in the production of art.

Then it distinguishes between three ways that cryptocurrency or blockchain technology can feature within artworks.

Finally it distinguishes three different positions or attitudes that can be taken with regard each of these.

Each section includes examples which are intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive of or exhausted by the categories they appear under.

1. Modes of Production of Art

The production of a piece of art as something that exists in the artworld can involve cryptocurrency or blockchain technology in different ways. Any given piece or art or art project may involve one or more of each of these, but any one is enough for a project to be considered “blockchain art” in some sense.

1.1 Socioeconomic

Art that involves cryptocurrency or blockchain technology in the social and economic aspects of its coming into being or existence in the artworld. For example the organization or funding of the artwork’s conception, design, production, authentication, sale, auction, provenance, exhibition, critique or storage.

Maecenas

Plantoid

1.2 Technical

Art that incorporates cryptocurrency or blockchain technology into its physical form, or is in turn incorporated into blockchain or cryptocurrency technology. For example the inclusion of blockchain hardware into an artwork, the inclusion of content or data stored on the blockchain into an artwork, the storage of an artwork on the blockchain, or the construction of an artwork from resources that exist on the blockchain.

Artworld Ethereum – Rob Myers

Rare Pepes

1.3 Conceptual

Art that refers to cryptocurrency or blockchain technology and its related ideology and aesthetics on the level of form, subject or content. For example art that uses imagery from blockchain projects or personalities, that makes the hidden structures and forces of blockchain networks visible, or that embodies cypherpunk principles of decentralization and trustlessness.

The Legend of Satoshi Nakamoto – @coin_artist

Terra0

2. Modes of Structure of Art

Following 1.3 above, the internal structure of an artwork can be simplistically but usefully broken down into its form (its internal organization or composition), its subject (what it depicts or denotes, what it is of or about), and its content (what it says about its subject or how it affects the viewer).

2.1 Form

Art that has cryptocurrency or blockchain technology as its form. Not as its gross physical construction, that would be “Technical” form in the sense of 1.2 above. Rather it is uses of cryptocurrency or blockchain technology as a medium rather than as a substrate, or as a means or part of the composition or organization within the work itself.

Autoglyphs – Larva Labs

Jonas Lund Token – Jonas Lund

2.2 Subject

Art that has cryptocurrency or blockchain technology as its subject – it depicts or alludes to them in some way. It may be commenting on them or it may be using them as merely metaphors, indexes, or evocative visual or material hooks for artistic engagement with matters for which cryptocurrency or blockchain technology are only tangentially related or are entirely unrelated.

What Will It Be Like When We Buy An Island (on the blockchain)? Ed Fornieles with Ben Vickers and Ruth Catlow

The Edwards Copy – Brad Troemel

2.3 Content

Art that has cryptocurrency or blockchain technology as its content – it seeks to inform or effect the audience’s understanding of them in some way.

0xΩ – Avery Singer and Matt Liston

Bitcoin Bear Whale – Matt Habel

3. Modes of Evaluation of Art

Each of the above modes may be used promotionally, critically, or contemplatively. This is true of any kind of art, but it is worth making the point that it is also true of art that engages with cryptocurrency or blockchain technology as this is sometimes forgotten by both proponents and opponents.

3.1 Critical

A naive view of art that engages with cryptocurrency or blockchain technology would regard it as essentially a form of promotion. That can certainly be the case, although that promotion is in itself a critique not least of the existing artworld, its socioeconomic form, and the naive view itself. But much blockchain art is critically engaged with the ideological and substantial impact of its materials. Art is well placed to provide this critique, turning abstract arguments into objects that can inform the conversation.

Clickmine – Sarah Friend

Bittercoin – Martin Nadal

3.2 Promotional

Social and political movements and phenomena find their reflection in art, for example both Western bourgeois and Soviet modernism. This need not be advertising or propaganda (although their is certainly much of that both for and against cryptocurrency and blockchain technology). It can be folk art, politically committed art, or art that is guided by or seeks to guide the principles and possibilities of its subject on a deeper level.

Doge Memes – Various

HODL – Cryptograffitti

3.3 Contemplative

To depict the previously unseen or unrealised is to provide a powerful resource for contemplation, consideration, and interrogation. Unlike critical or promotional art it does not seek to guide the viewer in a particular direction, rather it provides them with a new map of a new situation that they can follow as they wish.

Blockchain Aesthetics – Rob Myers

The Pareto Deck – Kei Kreutler

Conclusion

When discussing “blockchain art” or “crypto art”, we should take a moment to ask “what kind?”. The discourses of ownership, proof, trust, encryption, identity, value, decentralisation and consensus play out differently in and through on-chain rare art collectibles and gallery art critically incorporating the physical paraphernalia of cryptocurrency. Finding commonalities and differences between different modes of using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology in art, rather than assuming that one is critiquing or promoting a singular phenomenon, is important for developing our shared understanding of them and for further realising their potential.

The ideas used here developed from my talk at DCTRL in December 2017 about the book “Artists re:Thinking The Blockchain”, which used a different set of categories –

https://www.slideshare.net/robmyers/artists-rethinkingtheblockchain-97004972