Three Times Three Modes of Blockchain Art

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

RARE AF 2

The second Rare Art Festival is coming to Bushwick Generator in Brooklyn, NY on 18th May 2019.

Tokens Equal Text” will be among the art on display (and sale!).

More information and tickets here:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/rare-art-festival-tickets-60307156328

Token Grid

Token Grid, 2019, Ethereum DApp.

The grid is a Modernist icon and the underlying organizational form of many aspects of our daily lives.

This one exists on the Ethereum blockchain. Anyone can change it but only if they are willing to burn one of the grid contract’s ERC-20 digital tokens to do so.

View and alter the grid here with an Ethereum-enabled browser:

https://show.robmyers.org/artworld-ethereum/dapps/token-grid/app/index.html

See the source code here:

https://gitlab.com/robmyers/artworld-ethereum/tree/master/dapps/token-grid

Hacking Creative Composition at CADAF

I’ve a couple of pieces at CADAF in New York with Kate Vass Gallerie (above is one of the giclées, “Local Maxima: SFLT2, Square” (2019)):

https://cadaf.art/artist-rob-myers

Creative Crypto have a profile of me ahead of the event, from which I’ve stolen the title of this post:

https://thecreativecrypto.com/rob-myers-hacking-creative-composition/

New Art: Tokens Equal Text

Tokens Equal Text” (2019) is a Rare Art edition with a twist.

In Tokens Equal Text the demands of Rare Art are simultaneously met and frustrated by constructing evocations of the imagery of Vaporwave. This appropriates the aesthetics of a genre of appropriation art in order to create a critical circuit between blockchain technology and art theory.

Rare Art consists of blockchain tokens representing limited edition ownership certificates for digital art files. It is an example of the kind of blockchain quasi-property ownership that I described in “Blockchain Poetics” (2017) and wrote about in more depth in “Tokenization And Its Discontents” (also 2017). Despite having written about Rare Art in depth, my own work with blockchain tokens as art has not previously engaged with it. “Art Coins” (2015) for example does use the text field of CounterParty tokens to contain “the work” but as a written description of an imagined artistic genre rather than the URL of a digital image file.

In contrast to the strongly held but under-examined idea of ownership via cryptographic artificial scarcity that underlies Rare Art, Vaporwave art has a more ambiguous relationship to concepts of ownership and authorship. As appropriation-based art, Vaporwave is not amenable to claiming original authorship or ownership as intellectual property. Its subjects are those of past promises of the satisfactions of ownership and consumption of commodities which are then ironized by an economically precarious later generation. Despite this, some of Vaporwave’s audience places value on possession of extensive digital media collections or limited edition releases of obsolete physical recording media.

Describing rather than depicting the appropriated visual elements of Vaporwave sidesteps the problem of their ownership and authorship. Depicting those descriptions in a visually appealing way then re-aestheticises them and makes them available and desirable for ownership as Rare Art. Tokens Equal Text does this by creatively misusing the Ethereum standards that are used to create Rare Art, in order to create conceptual tension between its resources. Its ERC-721 tokens have no metadata but do contain content, (mis-)encoded as their ID numbers. The ERC-998 tokens that contain them do provide images in their metadata for platforms to display but these are just previews of their content as rendered by Tokens Equal Text’s display interface.

These layers both exceed and disappoint the technical and aesthetic requirements of Rare Art in order to capture, exceed and disappoint the limits of ownership in Vaporwave. And vice versa. This folds two different forms of belonging – ownership and the aesthetics of genre – back onto each other in a mutually intensifying circuit which critically reflects them and the worlds in which they are embedded.

You can view and purchase works from the series on OpenSea:

https://opensea.io/assets/tokensequaltext

or contact me for physical versions.

Next: Tokens Equal Text
Recent Media Coverage

Perfect and Priceless

https://arteez.ch/lart-du-blockchain-a-la-galerie-kate-vass-zurich/

Proof of Work

https://www.spikeartmagazine.com/en/articles/i-wanted-protocol-identify-community

General

https://blockpublisher.com/come-say-hi-to-the-blockchain-artists/

“Blockchain Aesthetics” at Ó̵̞͠O̸̮͠ͅP̷͔̊͝S̵̡̱̑.̵̻̯̏͘.̶̜́͛.̷͔̑ : Obfuscating Ownership: Privacy & Sousveillance

OOPS Exhibition, Curated by Julian Stadon
December 10th-11th 2018 at University of Hertfordshire Art & Design Building
Opening Event Monday 10 December 16:00 – 18:00

This exhibition showcases a wide range of artists that specifically address the issue of personal data protection, privacy and identity obfuscation. This includes building new identities, hiding existing ones, remediating personal data to developing legal precedents for intellectual property.

Artists:

Tiare Ribeaux & Donald Hanson, Heather Dewey Hagborg, Erik Zepka, Heath Bunting, Pierre Proske, Varvara and Mar, Julian Stadon, Branger_Briz, Rob Myers, Mez Breeze

https://www.herts.ac.uk/uhbow/whats-on/2018-autumn-and-winter/oops-exhibition

Images courtesy of Julian Standon.

Blockchain Aesthetics At Perfect And Priceless

“Blockchain Aesthetics” in “Perfect and Priceless” at Kate Vass Galerie, Zurich until 11th January 2019. Image courtesy of curator Georg Bak.

The print on the left is forty inches square, and the screen on the right is being driven by a Raspberry Pi 3. In the gallery they are hanging next to John Watkinson’s awesome CryptoPunks prints, so they are in good company.

Here is some media coverage:

https://www.krypto-magazin.de/perfect-priceless-wertesysteme-auf-der-blockchain/

https://www.artnome.com/news/2018/10/26/is-art-blockchains-killer-app

https://medium.com/@cultbytes/perfect-priceless-value-systems-on-the-blockchain-45ee2b3ba36f

https://www.artlog.net/de/kunstbulletin-12-2018/perfect-priceless

https://www.guidle.com/de/veranstaltungen/perfect-und-priceless-value-systems-on-the-blockchain-zuerich_AJF9iTK

https://thecreativecrypto.com/perfect-priceless-exhibition-at-the-kate-vass-galerie/

Contrary to what you might read, I’m still based in Vancouver, not New York.

Perfect and Priceless

“Blockchain Aesthetics” is in the awesome show “Perfect and Priceless” curated by digital art expert Georg Bak at Kate Vass Galerie in Zürich, Switzerland from 16th November 2018 – 11th January 2019.