“Technical innovation and the use of emerging technologies as artistic media and themes have substantial continuity throughout the history of western art” (E. Shanken, 2007)
Blockchain as subject matter
Simon Denny created his “Blockchain Future States” exhibition at Petzel Gallery in 2016. In this show, Denny used the imagery of the board game Risk, and Japanese games Pokémon to examine and explore the roles and perspectives of three key players in the blockchain ecosystem. Berlin-based Denny, who’s work has also been exhibited at the Berlin Biennale and the Hammer Museum, LA, says his interest in the blockchain is really around the culture of the tech industry. The blockchain is ‘really hard to understand’ and Denny believes that as an artist, he can play a role in helping to distil that information.
Denny also sees that he has an important role to play in fostering dialogue between the tech world and the artistic community. He notes the association between blockchain technology and extreme libertarian views is considered dangerous by many parts of the artistic community and so there is a tendency to pull away from dialogue. This role as mediator and facilitator is an important part of Denny’s artistic practice. He has had significant engagement from the tech community and has been invited to exhibit his works at several tech conferences. He believes that taking a tolerant approach and exploring the topic in his artwork could help bring understanding and could influence the politics of the blockchain community.
Cryptograffiti also uses blockchain as his subject matter. Cryptograffiti, based in the US, creates street and fine art which explores the origins and uses of the blockchain. Cryptograffiti’s current work is comprised of tangible materials from industries being disrupted by the blockchain such as credit cards and safety deposit boxes. Early in his career, cryptograffiti was the first artist to utilize a public-facing wallet to receive crypto donations for street art by incorporating QR codes into his work. Upon discovering his work, passers-by could send bitcoin in support of the art. QR codes have been used by other artists such as Crypsi to embed Bitcoin wallet addresses or other information into their works. Cryptograffiti’s aim is to ‘spread the word’ about blockchain to the wider community.
Furtherfield is an artist-led community, arts organisation and gallery based in North London focused on ‘creating, viewing, discussing and learning about experimental practices at the intersections of art, technology and social change’. Furtherfield produced a film (below) and organised the ‘New World Order’ exhibition in June 2017 exploring the blockchain.
In September 2017, they released a book called ‘Artists Re:thinking The Blockchain’ which contains essays, stories and artworks by some of the most amazing minds in the blockchain / art space. This book deserves a whole separate post (which I will do soon) but I highly recommend it to anyone interested in art, the blockchain or both. It is a great example of how creative minds can bring new perspectives and questions to the blockchain space and why its so important that a diverse group of people are involved in the development and application of blockchain technology.
Blockchain as a new medium
What about producing art using blockchain?
New-york based artist Sarah Meyohas began exploring the bitcoin in 2015 because she was interested in how we conceive value. Meyohas says she wanted to do something in the BitCoin space but setting up a gallery as a ‘mine’ was too simple so she thought of issuing a coin and ‘Bitchcoin was just too funny’ she says, referring to its feminist ‘push’ in the largely male world of cryptography. Meyohas created the new digital currency Bitchcoin which was available to buy. She jokes that hers was one of the first ICOs nearly two years ago but suggests that the aim was not to raise money but to explore BitCoin and digital currency as phenomena. Bitchcoins can be collected and redeemed for Meyohas’ work.
Ed Fornieles is interested in cryptocurrencies and blockchain as self-contained ecosystems. He is interested in using smart-contracts to produce self-replicating platforms and believes that art is a great place for testing ideas and ‘seeing what happens when things go wrong’. When it comes to the blockchain, Fornieles thinks art can be used to model and test political futures.
The Finiliar, one of Fornieles’ recent creations is a digital avatar which is kept alive and either thrives or suffers according to the performance of digital currencies. I strongly believe in Ed’s Finiliar vision and transformative power — aside from being an interesting, appeling and accessible visualisation of digital currency, I think that the idea of our finances being embodied in a creature which we need to care for and to play an active role in its well-being is really interesting — society is becoming more and more concerned with our health and well-being and yet so many people lack basic understanding of what it means to be in good financial health.
Digital artist Rob Myers is using the blockchain as the subject matter and the medium for some of his works. Myers believes that where the technology allows for new ways of producing art to emerge, they will produce an avant-garde that will be ‘recuperated by the existing art world’ (2017). Myers’ Proof of Existence (shown above) is the most poignant example in his oeuvre. Using the blockchain to record identity is a key talking point in the blockchain ecosystem at the moment and this work raises discussions related to social identity constructions, limitations of the blockchain, validation and social registering. Thus also falling into ontological and epistemological certainty elevating the artwork to fascinating realms of knowledge.
Primavera di Filippi, founder of O’KHAOS and COALA, created a robotic flower ‘the Plantoid’ which lives and reproduces using BitCoin micropayments. Each Plantoid carries a QR code connected with a BitCoin wallet. Humans act as ‘symbiotic pollinators (O’KHAOS website, n.d.) who can ‘tip’ the Plantoid in exchange for a dance of colours and sounds. When the Plantoid has enough BitCoin in its wallet, it commissions, using smart contracts, another artist or group of artists to produce another plant. In this way Plantoid operates in relationships more akin to the historic model of patronage than anything the ownership-sales framework. (Myers, 2015). The micro-tipping model used by Plantoid to keep a particular artwork funded illustrates the possibility for radical new business models for cultural goods in the future. (O’Dwyer, 2017, p.5).
There are several other artists doing challenging, interesting and note worthy work about, or using, the blockchain: E Brout & M Marion; YT Coin Artist; Lans King; Vesa Kivinen; Tree of Ténéré; BitCoin to Burning Man and many others — if you’re an artist or work with artists producing work about or using the blockchain, please get in touch!
I think it is encouraging that artists are engaging with the blockchain for two reasons.
Firstly using art to translate complex, technical topics like blockchain into something that the non-technical public can understand and digest is key to spreading the word about the blockchain. By using the way the art allows people to access and discuss topics with new eyes, new ways of digesting information develop.
Secondly, and most importantly, artists are allowed, even encouraged, to question, challenge and confront new ideas in ways that wouldn’t even cross the mind of most people. Having artists create dialogue with the blockchain community or question accepted “truths” of blockchain systems can help people critically assess the blockchain and its promises.
Thank you to all the artists who participated in my research and especially those who kindly gave me permission to include their work in this post.
This post is the second in a series which explores the use of blockchain within the art ecosystem. The first is here.
Do you think art can help us understand the blockchain? My goal is to encourage the art ecosystem to engage with blockchain as a tool. Discovering its potential requires dialogue between all parts of the artistic community so please leave your comments below, get in touch or follow me on twitter @JessyBlock.