What Blockchain Has to Do With Art

Courtesy Codex Protocol

The technology behind bitcoin may just revolutionize the business of buying, selling, and collecting.

Rebel Entertainment Complex is a Drake-approved hot spot located on an old shipping pier overlooking Toronto’s Inner Harbour. On a bright early morning last summer it was playing host to the first Blockchain Futurist Conference, a gathering of dreamers and opportunists and bitcoin evangelists and habitual early adopters who all believe, with every fiber of their being, that the cryptographic technology known as blockchain is The Future. The start-ups represented seemed to touch every industry, from the predictable spread of bitcoin barnacles (bitcoin wallets, bitcoin ATMs, bitcoin security) to a long list of not-so-predictable ones, including real estate, hotels and hospitality, and art. Bermuda’s minister of national security was floating around and kibitzing; the tiny island territory, it appears, is bucking hard to be a global leader in the blockchain economy. In other words, it was a gold rush.

The Blockchain Futurist Conference is the kind of event where speakers introduce themselves by saying things like “my background is I helped change the way the world communicates.” To be fair, he kind of did: The guy who said it, Jeff Pulver, popularized voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP. Conference attendees also tend to make wild, seemingly paradoxical declarations, including that blockchain is “the most overhyped, misunderstood new technology in the history of mankind” with the potential to soon become “at least a four-quadrillion-dollar opportunity.” That was Pulver again, and on that stage, in that moment just one year ago, he was more right than he could’ve possibly guessed.

Related: Everything Is Bigger in Texas—Including the Art Collections

Blockchain, you see, has a branding problem. Say the word to someone and, nine times out of ten, what they will hear is “bitcoin,” a digital currency that is the technology’s sexiest and best-known application. Bitcoin is a thrill ride––it goes way up, it goes way down. In the summer of 2018, one coin was worth about $7,000. Right now its value is roughly half that. Where it’ll be in six months is anyone’s guess, and venture capitalists are getting sick of guessing.

Blockchain, by contrast, is super boring. Blockchain is often compared with a ledger––an analogy that makes it more understandable if not more exciting. It consists, in essence, of a series of un-hackable, unerasable blocks of code filled with information of value, each of which can be unlocked only with a single cryptographic password, or “key.” Together, they form an impenetrable database. Think of it as a tree that can never be chopped down, can’t even be dented, and can grow forever. Bitcoins are just one type of fruit that you can grow on a blockchain tree––and, so far, the most poisonous. But blockchain can also grow medical records, or complex spreadsheets, or collectible cat holograms.

Some fruits are catching on fast; some aren’t. But everyone’s planting trees.

The slow, fitful adoption of bitcoin has dampened the buzz around blockchain even as, in practice, the technology is in full liftoff. And while there are downsides to spooking venture capitalists into holding their cards, it also has a way of separating the innovators from the speculators. Which is why the art world, of all industries, is pushing so many chips to the center of the table. It’s not an industry known for betting big on technology, but this one is very different.

For as long as art markets have existed, they’ve been hobbled by one massive challenge: establishing “provenance,” which is just a fancy word for rock-solid proof that an artwork is real and that the seller is the rightful owner. Whether the work is new or centuries old, its provenance is the proof of purchase and ownership and, therefore, the key to its value. Firm provenance, though, is hard to come by, and the older the artwork, the harder it gets to trace its succession of owners. Countless pieces hanging in museums made at least one illicit stop along the way, and plenty more have gaps in their history.

Enter blockchain––a technology perfectly suited to fill those gaps and prevent any more from ever opening up. Applied to the art world, it empowers artists (and dealers and collectors and museums) to add a work to a digital art registry and then buy a “token” for it, like a fingerprint that travels with it forever, confirming who made it, everyone who has owned it, and how much they paid for it. The token is added to the registry, and you get the key. Voilà: airtight provenance, forever.

“There’s a lot of excitement right now about blockchain, and with excitement also comes a lot of misunderstanding and crazy money,” says Jess Houlgrave, who studied the technology at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and is now chief operating officer of London-based Codex Protocol, an art registry powered by blockchain technology. At the Toronto conference, its representatives were swarmed. “Everyone wants to add ‘blockchain’ to something, because it’s cool.” Houlgrave says. “The reality is you have to think very, very carefully about whether a blockchain is right for what you’re doing.” A lot of the fool’s gold is already getting sifted out, and if we squint our eyes and imagine a little bit, we can start to see where art and blockchain are headed next.

First up would be artworks created using blockchain code and traded within closed blockchain markets. The most infamous example so far is the craze for CryptoKitties––a limited series of digital illustrations of very cute cats, viewable on any kind of screen. Now, let’s be clear: CryptoKitties are kitsch, and the people who collect them aren’t exactly art fans. They’re more like cybergeek speculators. But the cats illustrate one of the most promising art-world applications of blockchain, for they allow both rarity and controlled expansion, enabling a market to grow slowly without diluting value. At a charity auction organized in early 2018 by Codex Protocol, with an auctioneer supplied by Christie’s, one of the cats sold for $140,000, allowing its new owner to, yes, contemplate the image itself but also to hold on to it as salable asset. In five years, one could expect a limited series of cryptographic drawings by Jeff Koons or Richard Prince.

Then there’s “fractional ownership,” or buying small shares in a work of art rather than owning it outright, which might help address another of art’s historic problems: Very few people can afford it. Brooklyn-based start-up Snark.Art is using blockchain to build a communal marketplace where would-be collectors can buy, for instance, single-frame slices of short films by esteemed video artists Eve Sussman and Tommy Hartung. The crypto key to your slice then gives you viewing access to the complete film via the chain’s decentralized network. It’s a model that also has the potential to revolutionize how artists make a living, by giving them the ability to retain shares of their own work and collect a share of the profits down the road as the value of their work increases. Snark.Art recently announced a partnership with Artsy, the prominent online art news site and art database, to bring blockchain technology to mainstream artists, art fans, and collectors.

Blockchain also has the power to upend the kind of art that gets made. “Until now, artists have been captives of the gallery system,” said New York–based gallerist, art collector, and author Adam Lindemann, which means artists are also “captives of making paintings or sculpture––it has to be flat work or plop sculpture. That’s all they can make because that’s what we’re trained to buy, that’s what people can sell. Why does it have to be that?” Lindemann is putting his money where his mouth is: He’s a lead investor in a start-up called Artblx, which is building a platform similar to Snark.Art’s, with the goal of helping artists, as Lindemann describes it, “produce something that’s for a hundred people––a hundred people own it together. I’m interested in how people can jointly own a work of art that is created specifically for joint ownership.”

These are the most refreshing ideas for blockchain––the ones that aim to advance the creation of art itself. Companies like CryptoCanvas and Dada invite artists to join up and coauthor work on their platforms, like a shared canvas, then sell the paintings and share the proceeds. It may not sound like the best way to make great paintings, but it’s a fascinating way to think about the future of protest art: mass rallying cries that can’t be crushed or erased by a repressive government. No wonder Ai Weiwei is already tinkering with it.