This document comes out of several years of conversation stemming from a digital art provenance project called MovingPictures.Gallery. It is by no means complete. There are many areas that need to be examined and unpacked; however, this is a first step at defining a foundational layer from which other projects may emerge.
I incubated MP.G with Benton C Bainbridge in 2016. Benton was researching digital object-hood since learning about Bitcoin in 2009. While our work together congealed many of these ideas, the baseline distributed object system outlined below should be primarily credited to him. My work is in solidifying and articulating a generalized version of these ideas to the public and unpacking the implications for further development..
During my work with MovingPictures.Gallery I became interested in the blockchain as a liberatory medium, with programmable flexibility that would enable groups of people to wield power within the larger macro-economic framework in previously impossible ways. It wasn’t about putting pre-existent art (however one may define it) on a blockchain, but about groups of digital artists forming a soft union through smart contracts to exercise agency in the secondary market for their labor.
I later became interested in the blockchain as the site of the art itself, rather than a contrived market for selling atomized digital warez. At every intersection of a technological shift we use old metaphors for new systems, put radio plays on tv, tv shows on the internet etc. Now, we need a new art for a new world. Art as contract is well established territory, at least since Marcel Duchamp released his own bonds in the early 20th century. As the art object de-materialized into conceptual art and performance, the legal system caught up by creating art contracts stipulating what the nature of the work was, so that it could be commodified by collectors. Lauren Van Haften Schick’s input initially provoked my own artistic development of smart contract art objects.
During this stage, the Moneylab extension group at the University at Buffalo was instrumental in exposing me to academic critique of distributed currencies and the perils of applying free market principles to culture.
To that extent, the project of the distributed object requires we think beyond our current frameworks and biases to re-imagine property as a type of open source digital commons. This does not abolish private property or ownership nor does it seek to. What I seek to introduce here is multiplicity, where various types of ownership and community can exist in simultaneity. Through this we can articulate a flexible framework for the emerging distributed political reality.
As it currently stands, most of the actors in the blockchain development space are privately funded companies trying to OWN the idea of distributed property and leave their mark on the protocols and frameworks that define it. Indeed the necessity of capital investment requires a myopic view of intellectual property so a monopoly can be formed. It is good business. However, on a fundamental level, if you follow the logic of dis-intermediation, no one can own any-thing, any more than we can own the concept of beauty. We can try, but it is morally reprehensible, and indeed practically impossible.
What we need now, more than ever are systems of collaboration and cooperation, that enable us to instantiate new forms of community and catalyze our own form of value. If we can think beyond conventional forms of wealth and money, we can think beyond conventional forms of relationship, and in doing so unlock the latent potentiality of all things. For indeed all beings throughout the universe, from earthworms to stockbrokers have value and are worthwhile of respect and dignity.
What I ask of you is impossible. But I persist in my efforts nonetheless. What I ask is simple and straightforward, like an invitation to the prom. However this is a different type of prom. I want you to suspend your disbelief that another way is possible. I want you to believe, if even for a moment, that we have the power to shape a new world. Ground yourself in this freefall, and try and sculpt the air in the twilight darkness of the unknown. Sing and hear the extended reverb of your voice against the architecture of a place which has yet to be built. You and only you have this power to see, and if enough of us choose to see together, a form may start to emerge from the darkness, glimmering.
— Eric Barry Drasin, July 5 2019
How do we think about the future of digital property, and tie it to the process of cultural production?
Is it possible for us to create a fluid definition of art that helps determine how we develop the underlying technologies, rather than the other way around?
Can we create digital economies that aren’t subject to a speculation market? Can digital cultural production be envisioned as a platform cooperative?
If we re-imagine money, we re-imagine relationship. Does the concept of digital property as an open source digital commons have implications for how we treat relationship?
Can we create localized co-investment economies that create networks of accountability? Can art serve as a prototyping environment for how this could work?
(please excuse this outline, medium doesn’t allow for my original formatting with nested bullets)
Distributed Object Framework V.1
- Files is zipped, hashed, uploaded to IPFS
- Any file, or set of files can be uploaded this way
- Legally binding announcement via twitter
- Contains file hash, ipfs hash, public wallet address where token is stored
- Distributed storage
- Upload zipped file
- File becomes immutable and indelible once uploaded
- Issues location hash
- Redundant json file for metadata
- States parameters of the work
- Individual to each work
- Transfers ownership of the COA
- Artist resale royalties
- Automatic percentage of resale of token distributed to artist’s wallet
- Issues token signifying ownership
Certificate of authenticity
- Embedded on the blockchain
- Embeds IPFS location hash
- Embeds file hash
- ERC-721 token
- Token contains metadata pointing to the other information
- Ipfs hash
- COA hash
- File hash
- Token could be eventually used for access to file through wallet viewer
- Wallet viewer
- Manages user identity on the system, by tokens, enables access to the work
- Complex modular licensing schemes
The goal of the distributed art object framework is to provide a technological and legally enforceable context for non-fungible digital cultural assets. This solution could begin to address the problem of perpetual storage, therefore enhancing the distribution of digital art, video and other time based media, and to provide a basic rubric for the buying, selling, collecting and licensing of digital media art.
The distributed art object could be defined as a specific digital file, group of files, set of instructions, documentation, or iteration of media file, set of code, connected assets in accordance with set of instructions left by the artist. Because digital media is subject to rapid obsolescence, part of the distributed object must account for what the parameters of the work are, so that it can be modified and updated over time. In other words, the artistic work must be defined in the contract so that its boundaries are known for reconstructing the work for future exhibitions when the entire technology underpinning the work has likely changed.
In addition, a smart contract will be used to define each work and the rules for it’s display and distribution (a license), and based on the smart contract attribution metadata, we will issue a blockchain based certificate of authenticity for each artwork. This organization of files, metadata, contract and token define what we call a distributed art object. It is in this way we solidify a non fungible asset in what is otherwise an ephemeral medium.
By using the distributed object framework, we can encode behaviors into the object that creates new, flexible forms of ownership, distribution of ownership, and value.
What is the Utility?
The function of the Distributed Object is that it is a digital asset that can move seamlessly between distribution, viewership and provenance frameworks. This means that the object is not bound to one service or platform in order to legitimize its existence. The current paradigm for assets purchase in video games, or digital art purchased on platforms, is that the objects are dependant on the platform from which they were purchased. The distributed object does away with those boundaries by creating digital assets which can be seen and modified independent of what system they are in. In this sense, the object, not stored in any specified server, whose meta data can be accessed by anyone capable of looking at the blockchain, can then be bought and sold through any number of services and marketplaces.
The distributed object framework is an agnostic system consisting of a set of tools that substantiates a digital file, set of files, instructions, relationships and ownership. It is the confluence of these separate components that enables the distributed object to exist. The distributed object cannot exist without all of these components working together. The distributed object is a digital asset given materiality.
What is the Blockchain?
An in depth explanation of the blockchain is beyond the scope of this paper. There are multiple types and versions of blockchains that all serve different functions and have different capabilities.
The basic premise of a blockchain, such as bitcoin, is that a peer to peer network of computers maintains a ledger that is spread across all of the nodes as a “block.” When a user goes to make a transaction, the transaction broadcasts itself to the network and is recorded on the ledger. Once a transaction occurs, it cannot be erased from the blockchain. This creates a “chain” of blocks over time. The accuracy of the ledger is maintained by the computers on the network performing complex equations in exchange for small amounts of the bitcoin currency. This is known as the proof of work algorithm, which maintains consensus on the network. By consensus we mean that all transactions and account balances are agreed upon because all parties are constantly checking to make sure that the math is perfect. This is known as a “trustless” system.
The second generation of blockchains such as Ethereum, can run automatically executing programs, known as smart contracts. In the same way that all of the computers are working together to maintain the ledger, they can also work together to execute programs. Smart contracts manage and negotiate the transference of value based on specific criteria being met. User A agrees to pay user B a certain amount of money if X conditions are met. When X conditions are met, the smart contract releases the money from user A to user B.
A smart contract can also be used to form a DAO, or Distributed Autonomous Organization. A DAO is an organization that functions as an automated legal framework. There can be shareholders and consumers, but it largely eliminates the need for certain types of administration.
Smart contracts are primarily used to mediate value between people. Because the system is programmable, the nature of currency, and exchange can be accessed and reprogrammed in many different ways.
Through this stack of technical and legal protocols, the digital object is given “thingness,” or individuated existence as an object. The ontology of the digital file changes, from that which is infinitely replicable, to that which is given unique instantiation. This is made possible through hashing, a process whereby a file is converted into a sequence of characters given its properties, and the same file will hash differently in time and space.
Because of this, the distributed ledger enables us to track provenance with certainty. We can trace ownership of an object back to its origination. For fine art objects this is important to prove that the work is not counterfeit.
The smart contract defines the nature of what the work is, and the provenance certificate stores both prior and current ownership of the object.
There are broader implications though beyond just the creation of a digital asset which can be bought and sold, because the programmable nature of the distributed object enables us to re-imagine how property functions and what its purpose is.
Re-materialization of the art object is a shift towards a type of new materiality in art. Whereas the art object was de-materialized in the latter part of the 20th century, through the distributed object framework an idea or ephemeral work of art is given an entirely new ontology, or rematerialized.
The Distributed Object can be one or it can me many, but for the first time the materiality of the object exists natively digital and instantiates itself physically, rather than the inverse. In this way, the idea becomes more material then the physical object.
We cannot change the fundamental nature of digital materiality as a substrate. Digital files are inherently copyable. But using the distributed object stack, we can now employ ownership strategies that enable new forms of collection, sharing, and licensing.
This introduces multiplicity into art, in as much as the work and therefore the idea of the work as property can exist in multiple dimensions. If the distributed object instantiates a physical object, this opens up a further blurring of the lines between the real and the virtual.
Through the distributed art object we see the culmination of the post-internet moment, where art full straddles the digital and physical, embodying the network itself. Similarly, the idea, once encoded into the smart contract bestows a materiality to the idea. The idea as a set of instructions sitting in latent potentiality.
One of the most compelling early use cases for the use of smart contracts in mediating digital art sales was the concept of artist resale royalties, or droit de suite. Historically American artists have been locked out of participating in the value that their work generates on the secondary market, thus being alienated from their labor. This is compounded by the issues surrounding working with galleries and mounting exhibitions, where often the costs associated with producing the work are shouldered by the artist, while still splitting 50% of the gross income with the gallery.
In one example, an artist sells a work for $100 when they are relatively obscure, but that work later sells for $1000, or $10,000, the artist does not receive royalties from their work’s resale. This is an interesting notion because unlike other forms of property, artists are legally protected to assert agency over their work after it has been sold in other ways, such as the conditions of it’s exhibition.
There is no mediating agency or union that could help enforce this type of legal agreement en mass. Indeed since the anti-trust lawsuits leveled against unions during the Reagan administration, it is impossible to organize an artists union to help enforce contracts that protect them.
However, a smart contract could be employed as a type of meta-mediating agency constituting a form of soft unionism. If digital artists all decided to use a smart contract system to engage the sale of their work, they would be effectively asserting collective bargaining in the secondary market of collectors, auctions, galleries, museums and other art institutions.
Furthermore, the choice to sell work this way would not interfere in the collection of the work, because through the Distributed Object Framework, the artist can tie the definition of their artwork to the smart contract itself. Therefore if a disreputable collector tries to circumvent the smart contract and tokenized artwork, they immediately invalidate the work and the artist can revoke the ownership rights of the collector, and destroy the work if need be.
It cannot be emphasized enough that the importance of the distributed object is its ability to be programmed as an economic actor. If we define economy as a form of relationship then we have a new way for asserting economic autonomy in the age of extraction capitalism and the attention economy.
Certificate of authenticity
The certificate of authenticity is a legal document historically associated with a work of fine art that acknowledges its legitimacy and provenance. The information included in the certificate of authenticy includes the
- name of the artwork
- the year it was created
- The medium
- The description of its parameters, which could include its dimensions, i.e. pixel aspect ratio, or any other identifying information that delineates the nature of the work.
- Instructions for exhibition
- Instructions for re-instantiation or upgrading the work
- Previous owner
By storing the CoA on a blockchain, the provenance or proof of the authenticity of the artwork becomes inextricably tied to the substrate of the artwork itself. It becomes part of the object. This makes it possible to track and manage the history of the artwork through digital distribution mediums and collectors.
The CoA is important in establishing the provenance of the artwork because it has been the primary vehicle by which the art market recognizes the work of art. While the information could theoretically be contained in a token which transfers from wallet to wallet, it is important that we not conflate a non fungible token with a discrete document that serves the function of validating the parameters of the work.
This is the primary site where the nature of the work must be described. Even in the case of video art, which would seem to the casual observer as fairly straightforward, often the location of what is considered “the Artwork” is not as straightforward.
If a video is based on an analog image processing system built in the 70’s, perhaps the work is the system itself, and the video is just a document. Perhaps the artwork existed on a 3/4 inch tape and to upgrade it to a digital 4k platform would destroy the work in the eyes of the artist. Perhaps it doesn’t matter and the content itself is the work, and therefore it doesn’t matter if the file is uprezzed as standards change.
One of the important things to remember is the precedent for artists to disavow their artwork. This is what separates art from other forms of conventional property. Whereas art can function as a conventional commodity, if an artist chooses to disavow the work before it goes to auction, the work could be rendered essentially worthless.
To this extent the definition of what an artwork is is crucial. This is supplied in the certificate of authenticity.
To update the CoA will also involve instructions for how an artwork is to be re-instantiated and upgraded over time as the technology changes.
Distributed storage is a protocol layer defined by a pervasive p2p and redundant storage architecture. The file is stored in something akin to a peer to peer (p2p) cloud that is like a combination of a cloud server and bittorrent. Files stored in such a network are hosted across the participating servers in a way that both creates redundancy as well as uniqueness of the file. Similar to a blockchain, one information is stored on the network, it is hashed and authenticated by the rest of the network. The file is encrypted, and hashed at a specific location within the cloud, and is accessed through a public/private encryption key. Multiple servers serve the same file as part of this distributed cloud, authenticating the original file which has been hashed and stored in that specific location.
This serves to substantiate the digital object because it is now being served from multiple p2p clients and given a unique hash at its location within the distributed cloud. This is important in as much as it provides the foundational layer to substantiate the digital object, giving it an ontology which is then executed through the other layers of the distributed object protocol framework.
While the Interplanetary File System, or IPFS is currently the most prominent example of a distributed storage architecture, there will also be emerging possibilities for entire blockchains that are dedicated to certain types of media or content, with more or less degrees of efficiency in how the content is stored and served to users.
Through this technological and legal stack, the digital object is now something that can be both owned and controlled in novel ways as indicated through the description of the smart contract and certificate of authenticity. Any instantiation of the object, either digitally or in physical space is only a reference to the distributed object which exists in through distributed platforms. Within this context the re-materialization of the art object is not the thing itself, therefore once tokenized it cannot be bought or sold without the sale going through the smart contract.
Ownership, licensing and scarcity are now things that can be modulated and controlled from the outset of the distributed objects creation. Different monetization strategies can be employed through the use of smart contracts and smart tokens, which enables the artist, collector or fractional owner of the intellectual property to earn revenue through different means. This includes but is not limited to, unique singular digital assets, multiples created from an original source file, licensing schemes that remunerate the owner for use of the object, or creative commons licenses that stipulate the conditions of remix and reuse. Artists can participate in the secondary market through resale royalty schemes built into the smart contract that mediates the sale of their work.
The eventual employment of blockchain enabled wallet viewers, will further give control to the creator of the distributed object as to how and by whom their IP can be viewed. In the case of the fine art collector, their distributed art object, once purchased from the artist, may be locked away in distributed storage until the rights have been purchased or licensed by a museum or gallery.
In the event that the file is copied for exhibition, it still doesn’t affect the ownership rights of the material and is still subject to copyright enforcement by the country of origin.
Eventually, the use of “wallet viewers,” or digital rights management tools will be built into browsers which will enable the owners of the distributed object to exhibit, loan, or broadcast their artwork in numerous configurations.
Contract as Art
Art since the dematerialization of the art object has become signified by the legal contract which describes the boundaries of the work.
This has precedent dating back to Marcelle Duchamp releasing his own bonds in the early 20th century. In the 1960’s Yves Klein made a contractual piece called the Zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility, where in order to redeem the certificate of authenticity, the collector of the piece must dump a certain amount of gold in the Seine river and have it documented by a gallerist and lawyer.
Similarly, in the 1950’s artists like Sol Lewitt started making procedural scores for the creation of his artworks that would be executed by assistants. The work was located in the contract stipulating how the piece was to be executed. This extended through emerging practices like performance and time based media, where the work was often carried out in relational spaces, processes and other non object based mediums. Joseph Bueys made “social sculptures” involving enacting speculative relationships among the audience.
Starting in the 1970’s electronic art started becoming readily available as videotapes, electronic media sculptures and computer art.
All of this is to illustrate that art stopped being exclusively about objects before the advent of electronic media, and that the nature of the art shifted to a legal contract to help identify its boundaries.
In relationship to the advent of digital currency and distributed technologies, it follows that art seamlessly transitions into this distributed context because the foundational framework for the distribution and collection of ephemeral artworks has already been established as a type of intellectual property asset class.
The finance of art
On the distributed web, the nature of digital property shifts. Boundaries that existed between different forms of value container start to collapse into a single programmable object. Financial instruments such as stocks and bonds, currencies, and art objects become interchangeable.
The financial instrument is a purely speculative device that is abstracted value based on many levels of separation from materiality.
The contract ultimately serves as container for the obligation of the user to the issuer of the contract. In the case of fiat currency, governments issue notes and force taxation using those same notes. Bonds are issued as promissory notes. Stocks are contractual relationship partitioning ownership of a company which can then be bought and sold on a secondary market. Art too, is a contractual relationship which can be bought and sold on a secondary market.
In as much as the legal structure holds through the implicit threat of state violence, the legal construct of money and a corporation can be seen as performative contracts.
When one combines these notions, there becomes the possibility for a type of generative art that assumes the role of the legal entity, both producing value through the production of its own value and disseminating that value through its exhibition and marketing. By radically restructuring the relationship of art to business to financial instrument, a new type of relational art emerges that uses the raw properties of financial technology as its sculptural medium.
Content and the Means of Distribution
There are different financial and technical parameters for each type of media which are reflected in their mode of distribution. Music distribution poses specific challenges relative to the art, however the structure of what we think of as music and the music industry is entirely based on contexts constructed during the mid 20th century when recording technology and a sophisticated marketing apparatus for selling recorded material was co-developed.
The way we think and make music has developed retroactively from music distribution channels.The distribution channels mirrors the economy. If people listen to the radio and buy records at the record store, then the content will reflect those frameworks.
In this way, the economic structure conditions the medium and therefore should be thought of as a substrate for the creation of content, rather than the inverse. In this case, distribution retroactively conditions the content, as artists will create content for that system, restricting creative possibilities to fit the parameters of the distribution channel. Therefore, in order to invent a truly new form of art, we need to start by creating a new economy.
In the current climate of platform extraction capitalism and the attention economy, creatives provide free labor to distribution platforms in order to gain visibility through those platforms. This was a specific feature of the web 2.0 as the venture funders forced many platforms to monetize by both creating a network effect monopoly on their social platforms and then monetize the platform by selling adverts on the content uploaded to them.
Through the creation of a new economic web 3.0 framework, it may be possible to create new forms of content distribution which in turn enables new forms of culture.
Defining a community context for the distributed object
While this document seeks to define the concept for a distributed art object, at this point I am primarily invested in maintaining the idea of the distributed object as part of an open source digital commons so that no part of the protocol can be monetized or monopolized.
I believe that this framework should be developed as platform agnostic as possible, with an easy to use user interface that makes it easy for artists to leverage their collective power in the marketing of their own work.
Furthermore, the concept for what an object is, how that object exists could be radically envisioned. Up to now we separate the concept of the object from the community that creates it, and the object circulates through a network of elite institutions and collectors. What about communities of practitioners that aren’t producing objects? This begs further examination as to what the nature of art is and how it functions within different cultural ecologies.
For instance, in the digital attention economy, the means of distribution retroactively influences the type of art that is produced. We create content for the platform we intend to share it on. We compete for attention which is monetized by that platform and not distributed back to the creator.
The idea of artists participating in the secondary market is radical, in as much as any content creator is currently shut out of the wealth they create by the extraction economy. However is there a bigger picture here that we are missing?
In future iterations of this document I hope to unpack ways in which we can think about the confluence of technology, economy and community to envision radical alternatives to the dominant contemporary cultural paradigms.