Arguably one of the most transformative technologies of the decade, blockchain has a problem: it’s complex, and fundamentally boring. But the tech is so transformative, that it’s more important than ever for a variety of perspectives to weigh in. We’re taking a look at how businesses, online communities, and artists are responding to these changes.

Blockchain Basics

To get us started, imagine a dollar bill. Then imagine it has a link to a Google spreadsheet on it, and everyone who spends that dollar registers where and when they spent it. Everyone who spends that dollar can check and verify where it was and where it came from, and anyone who takes the dollar can, too. That’s a super basic way to think of blockchain: whenever something is traded, it’s recorded as a ledger entry – a “block” – on a spreadsheet that anyone can review. The connected history of those blocks – the spreadsheet itself – is the “blockchain.”

You usually hear about blockchain in connection to digital currencies, such as bitcoin. Bitcoin is its own sprawling, confusing concept. It’s the oldest “cryptocurrency,” but it wouldn’t be possible without blockchain. The blockchain removed the need for centralized banking, replacing it with a tamper-proof, anonymous ledger tracking how every electronic “coin” is spent. That way, nobody could just make up bitcoins, or spend the same bitcoin on eight cups of coffee. Before that “dollar” trades hands, bitcoin software checks the distributed ledger to make sure it hasn’t already been spent. Instead of a bank keeping tabs, it’s a giant spreadsheet, with copies distributed through a decentralized, secure, physical network.

But blockchain and bitcoin aren’t the same thing. And when you look at just blockchain, things get even more interesting. You can literally track any information you want, and you can connect that information to anything. A bottle of wine with an RFID tag, a painting with a unique signature, even classified documents, can be traded and tracked through the blockchain.

For the art world, an important element of blockchain is tracking provenance: who creates the thing and who they give it to. Provenance is critical to the functioning of the fine arts world, where forgeries are a constant risk and where people pay more for a painting if, for example, they know it belonged to David Bowie. Blockchain makes recording all of that more secure and easier to verify. It’s also an area for critique, and artists have a role in raising questions about a world where literally every object can become commodified.

Art Gets Binded

“Putting records on the blockchain is one piece of the puzzle in dealing with fraud,” said Nathan Lands, CEO and Founder of Binded, a San Francisco company that provides resources for creatives to register their work to a blockchain. “If someone makes a fraudulent copyright claim on the blockchain in an effort to make money, there is a permanent record.”

Binded provides a platform for artists to upload images from a computer, through Instagram or other integrated services, and organizational tools for creators to manage their copyrights. “By allowing creators to make their copyright claims on the blockchain, they own that record forever,” said Lands.

The tech makes it simple to do. I was able to upload images from my Instagram account just by creating a Binded profile and adding a hashtag. Binded’s tool creates a unique fingerprint for an artwork and adds it, permanently, to the blockchain. Lands said that right now, the company is letting creators know how their image is being used, and will soon allow artists to register their work with the U.S. Copyright office. All of these steps are another layer of protection and control for artists who, increasingly, are sharing and creating work online to build an audience.

“Long-term there are many things we can do to help creators by making it possible to instantly identify who owns a copyright,” said Lands. “We’re just getting started.”

Blockchain provides fine artists, photographers, video artists and others who share work online with a clear concept of ownership. But the distributed nature of the blockchain is allowing innovation for the arts from another, more unlikely source: a controversial cartoon frog, and the online communities that love him.  

Reclaiming Pepe

A particularly bizarre, but important, example comes from fans of Pepe, the cartoon frog originally created by indie comic artist Matt Furie. Pepe inspired an active internet subculture, with people making and sharing fan art of his slacker amphibian. But to Furie’s increasing frustration, many images started being inscribed with political messages. Out of his hands, it quickly escalated until Hillary Clinton and the Anti-Defamation League declared the frog a symbol of white supremacy. For Furie, and legions of his online fans their beloved character had been transformed.

It’s a challenge facing any artists and entertainer working in the age of social media. How do you create something, share it online, and open it up to a community of fans, while still maintaining your control? In this case, they turned to blockchain.

Fans of Pepe began to register and trade new Pepe cartoons as “cards” using a distributed ledger. Anyone could create a card, but new Pepe cartoons are verified on a blockchain that strictly rejects anything hateful. (Though in the end, Furie still decided to kill Pepe off). This verification also means the cards can be traded. Build a Pepe, say how many exist, and if people want it, they can trade for it, creating a legitimate value for “Rare Pepes.”

This all sounds nuts, and alternative economy emerging in defense of a cartoon frog’s reputation is certainly absurd. But it’s a big deal, and certainly not the first time a major tech breakthrough has risen from an obscure internet subculture. But it points to a future where artists can foster a creative community for their work while maintaining control over how that work is used. It has inadvertently pioneered a method for building a meaningful “collection” of online art and, therefore, “collectible” digital objects that can be traded just like physical objects.

There are already mobile apps that tap blockchain data to let collectors play games with their own Pepe cards. You can draw this out to cover a whole new world of “digital objects,” blending the real and digital worlds in unique ways. It adds a whole new dimension to augmented reality gaming, for example.

And that’s where artists come in. If an entire ecosystem can spontaneously emerge around amateur frog drawings, anything seems possible, particularly when paired with smart objects or the Internet of Things.

A New World Order?

The possibilities being high, so are the stakes. And some are concerned that the confusing and alien nature of blockchain tech is limiting broader engagement in deciding how to use it.

Ruth Catlow is an artist, and the co-founder and co-director (with Marc Garrett) of Furtherfield, a London community hub, gallery and lab for critical questions in arts and technology. Furtherfield is hosting an exhibition around a critical interrogation of blockchain’s potential, ‘Artists Re:thinking the Blockchain,’ to be published in book form in June 2017, and hosts a current exhibition, NEW WORLD ORDER, through June.

Blockchain is a powerfully transformative technology, but many artists are worried that the conversation has been limited to financial industries, Catlow said. “This is a problem because technologies develop to reflect the interests of those who develop them. Artists can help.”

Some works in ‘NEW WORLD ORDER’ draw on bitcoin and blockchain to function. Terra0 is “an artwork and prototype for a self-owning, self-exploiting forest” created by Paul Seidler, Paul Kolling and Max Hampshire. An automated process – a fairly crude AI – connects a forest to the blockchain, allowing the forest to sell its own logging rights and to buy new land where it can grow. One can imagine the forest “wandering” in this way, sustaining itself through an endless process balancing self-destruction and expansion. It’s a way of imagining consequences of a world where every single movement is not only networked, but precisely commodified.

Other artists in the exhibition imagine this future in novel and dystopian terms. Rob Myers co-wrote a sci-fi novella, illustrated by Lina Theodorou, imagining a world where blockchain transactions include information about “likes” and “followers,” linking data about your social media to your purchasing power. But Myers has also presented blockchain works that highlight its emancipatory potential, through the creation of distributed arts organizations and trusts, where funding and participation are coordinated and distributed through the blockchain.

What’s NEXT?

Blockchain continues to be a focus of the FinTech sector, but the elegant open nature of the technology means it could be used for a variety of unique and novel purposes. From instant collectibility for digital art to forests that manage their own conservation and expansion, there’s a range of powerful possibilities – and critiques – that could benefit from broader interdisciplinary engagement. 

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