The Tech behind Bitcoin Could Help Artists and Protect Collectors. So Why Won’t They Use It?
Growing up in Soviet-era Latvia, Masha McConaghy never imagined she’d become a curator: The only access she had to modern art was in the books her father’s students smuggled into Riga from East Berlin. “I remember sitting on the couch and going through these beautiful books,” she says. “I could make up whole stories from one painting. My imagination went wild.”
McConaghy soon realized that art was her calling. She taught herself French and moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, where one of her professors introduced her to curating. “Before it was all old books and dead people,” says McConaghy. “Suddenly I was talking to real people.” McConaghy went on to pursue a museology degree at the Louvre School, and worked at the museum as an assistant curator. “I would go out for a smoke, and see the Louvre, the Tuileries, the sun setting on the city,” she says. “It was magical.”
It’s an impressive résumé, but by the time I met McConaghy in Berlin this year, her career had become much more cutting-edge. Her latest artistic venture? Utilizing blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin, to revolutionize the art world. We met at a cafe near Alexanderplatz where McConaghy explained how the city’s blossoming tech culture was inspiring her. “It’s refreshing for me coming from the traditional art world,” she says. “People are not afraid to fail.”
Blockchain, or the “spreadsheet in the sky,” as McConaghy likes to call it, acts like a giant online ledger which records every entry and updates everyone who is part of the ledger’s network accordingly. No one owns it, everyone can access it, but once a transaction is recorded in the blockchain, it cannot be removed or altered. In the case of bitcoin, this means that currency transactions can occur securely without the need to use a bank.
But for McConaghy and other curators, artists and collectors, blockchain has incredible potential in the art world as a means of verifying authenticity, enhancing traceability, and improving the security of art market transactions. Last year, McConaghy founded ascribe.io, a startup that lets artists register their work into the blockchain, creating “a permanent and unbreakable” link between the artist and their work. Through a unique cryptographic ID, each artwork can be authenticated and its ownership rights securely transferred to galleries or collectors. “It’s all about empowering the creator,” says McConaghy.
For Berlin-based digital artist Harm van den Dorpel, blockchain presents a solution to many of the problems facing the art world today, particularly for those creating and dealing in digital and net art, which by its very nature can be easily copied and transferred. “Blockchain creates a fingerprint,” he says, “something that identifies the owner. Through blockchain, you can see who owns it now, who owned it before and who created it.” By making each artwork identifiably unique, blockchain can also impose scarcity on an digital works that have often been seen as difficult to collect due to their reproducibility. “There’s a lot of good digital artwork that no one knows how to monetize,” says van den Dorpel. “For artworks to be desireable, to be valuable, it’s very important for a work to be scarce.”
Last year, van den Dorpel became the first artist to sell an artwork authenticated through blockchain to a museum. The MAK—Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna purchased his Event Listeners (2015), a screensaver created in a limited edition, using bitcoin. In a press release, the curators wrote that MAK “is the first museum in the world to have acquired a decentrally authenticated digital artwork with digital currency. The museum sees this as a new form of collecting in the digital age.”
At the time, Event Listeners was simultaneously displayed on Cointemporary, a digital-only online gallery. Founded by Valentin Ruhry and Andy Boot, the gallery is “dedicated to one artwork for a period of ten days, with the aim of allowing the work to carve out its own space in the Internet.” Would-be collectors are forced to purchase works from Cointemporary using Bitcoin. And the gallery then transfers ownership rights to the buyer through the blockchain, using Ascribe.
For Ruhry and Boot, Cointemporary is as much a conceptual experiment as it is a working gallery. “We wanted to create an actual internet of space,” say Ruhry. “Where it’s not about scarcity, it’s about the value of our webspace.” Cointemporary allows artists to display their work beyond the constraints of platforms like YouTube or Instagram, and enables them to securely sell the rights to their work online using blockchain. The gallerists hope the online space will inspire more artists to create digital works and encourage collectors to buy and collect digitally by assuaging their fears over security and originality. As Ruhry says, thanks to blockchain, “you can track the work forever.”
One collector who needs no such encouragement is Alain Servais, a Belgian former investment banker who’s been collecting digital art since the late ’90s. Back then, Servais says digital art wasn’t even considered art: “One time I brought back a desktop computer on a plane, with the artwork’s software loaded on it,” he says. “I had to pay tax at the rate of computer goods, not as if it was a work of art.“ Since then, Servais says the legitimacy of digital art has increased, but not as much as he would like. “The art market is still object-obsessed,” he says. “But the most interesting works of art are virtual.”
Part of the resistance towards technology, including blockchain, is the conservatism of the art world itself. “We’re talking about the beacon of advancement and humanism, but it’s also one of the most conservative institutions I know,” says Servais. “They won’t touch technology with chopsticks.” (McConaghy laughingly remembers her professors at the Sorbonne telling her that the idea that the internet had changed society was “debatable.”) Servais says that the art world has a certain suspicion towards the internet.
For Servais, McConaghy, and others, blockchain presents a solution. “The forgery problem has always been there,” says Servais. “But now there are many more outlets for buying and selling work, as well as higher prices. If it’s easier to sell for more, it’s easier to put fake work into the system. Blockchain is a means of digitizing the certification process.” And it’s not just for digital art. Servais says blockchain should be used for certifying all works of art, even sculptures and paintings by Old Masters.
There have been no shortage of fraudulent art deals this year, including a recent case in Austria where a criminal gang attempted to sell works by Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet valued at €72 million ($79.6 million) using forged certificates. According to the Economist, the total value of sales of counterfeit goods worldwide, including things like clothes and jewellery, can be as high as $1.8 trillion annually. “When you see this happening in the 21st century, it just doesn’t make sense,” says Servais. “Whether it’s a Rodin or a Monet, why not just make it an entry in the blockchain?”
Others are more ambivalent about the technology. Simon Denny is another Berlin-based artist who also works with blockchain—not as a tool but as a creative concept. When we met, Denny’s studio in Berlin looked like something out of a sci-fi experiment, filled with technological detritus, sculptures of video game characters, and three giant replicas of the boardgame Risk. “Each [sculpture] offers a different perspective on the future of blockchain,” he explained. Denny, who earlier this year presented a blockchain-themed work at the Berlin Biennale, had created these works for his solo exhibition, “Blockchain Future States,” which was on display at New York’s Petzel Gallery this fall. “I want to make blockchain accessible,” he told me. “But I also want to ask questions. I’m a fan of critical art.”
For curators like McConaghy and artists like van den Dorpel, blockchain offers a kind of utopia: Open sourced, freely available and totally decentralized, it’s an escape from the traditional financial world. But for Denny, many of the firms that are utilizing blockchain technology are starting from a neoliberal, right-wing view of the economy: “All of the futures of blockchain end up there,” says Denny. “I want to make a caricature of these companies and what they represent, of a world where power is increasingly defined by private companies.” Still, Denny is not entirely critical. By utilizing things like board games and videogames, his work remains playful, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions about the technology.
Denny is skeptical about the application of blockchain to the art world itself. For him, provenance and verification of artworks isn’t an issue. “The art world is too small,” he says. “Things move too slowly. Art sales are very personal; everyone knows where a work came from. The art world can’t be disrupted from the outside in.” Even Servais admits the technology has its limitations. “Is it the grail and the final solution? No, of course we need to keep improving,” he says. “But it is a fantastic base that we can continue.”
As for McConaghy, blockchain has always been just one of many technologies that will continue to change and improve the art world. For her, technology is about creating many possible answers to a problem, not a single solution. “People think it’s a magic bullet, but it’s not. Blockchain is one vehicle, a tool where you don’t have to trust just one institution,” she says. “ I grew up in the Soviet Union, I like having choices.”