Blocking The Figure: How Bitcoin Could Lead To Greater Freedom

The Architecture of Tomorrow—Art and Culture Douglas Turner Andy Rolfes Bitcoin Blockchain Rhizome

Cover: Michael Manning’s randomly-generated paintings, image by the author

The only thing more simultaneously pressing and enigmatic than how artists are supposed to deal with rising rent is the future of art-making itself. With digital art seeming to be the current standard-bearer, it seems pertinent to dwell for a minute on the implications of a world of immortal and malleable digital media. As such, Rhizome—the public organization formed in 1996 that focuses on technology in contemporary art—organized “Blockchain Horizons” on October 22nd to discuss how blockchains, Bitcoin and their security, transparency and decentralization capabilities can and are influencing contemporary culture.

If you think you’ve heard more about the latter, that’d be no surprise—the cryptocurrency BitCoin has been in the news fairly frequently. To try to explain blockchains, think of a large, distributed ledger that utilizes immense amounts of real-time data to cross-reference transactions to make sure everything is in order. The blocks sent around the network contain the proof of work and the transaction data—that’s essentially how cryptocurrencies such as BitCoin can be so secure without relying on intermediary parties. It is an entirely complicated and quite esoteric topic, so it is, of course, appropriate to relate to art-making, and I was lucky that the New Museum live streams such events.

The Architecture of Tomorrow—Art and Culture Douglas Turner Andy Rolfes Bitcoin Blockchain Rhizome

Rachel O’Dwyer explaining the key components blockchains.

So the presentations went forward in front of a full house—thankfully streamed—with Dublin-based, postdoctoral researcher, Rachel O’Dwyer, providing a strong primer on blockchains and their implications of artificial scarcity and smart contracts. Following her was the duo behind PWR, Hanna Nilsson and Rasmus Svensson, discussing their decentralized text platform, txtblock, and before getting to a lengthy advert for Monegraph—another platform trying to figure out how to package and sell pure, unadulterated creativity—DeForrest Brown Jr. and  Nick James Scavo* presented their Rhizome-sponsored, on-going project called Futures Along the Blockchain. Focusing on the interactive, annotated website, they proposed the “limitless potential of the artist working with their audience”, questioning how to “solidify ourselves as artists [or] as authors”. While the site focuses on applying blockchains to music distribution, it nonetheless provides interesting implications on the future of art in general with its democratic approach.

The Architecture of Tomorrow—Art and Culture Douglas Turner Andy Rolfes Bitcoin Blockchain Rhizome

DeForrest Brown Jr. and Nick James Scavo going into the process behind Futures Along the Blockchain. Each line leads to the contributor’s annotation.

An interesting read on Bitcoin itself, the site most importantly reflects the core of blockchains. By having multiple authors contribute to the work as a whole, the “labor” to produce the whole becomes magnified as stereotype of one author to one, published work is purposefully and tactfully subverted. As DeForrest has annotated online, the multiplicity allows recapitulation rather than destruction, benefitting from the decentralization of power and validity through numbers.

The Architecture of Tomorrow—Art and Culture Douglas Turner Andy Rolfes Bitcoin Blockchain Rhizome

Still from a video displaying a bitcoin farm where countless computers “mine”, or process the distributed database, in return for bitcoin.

That itself is quite interesting, but truly the most important aspect is that artists working digitally can finally establish permanent and transparent provenance, as they do at the creative licensing platform, ascribe. The tricky issue of artists having control of their work online becomes more facile when equipped with the complex mechanisms of blockchains, and there becomes a “limitless potential of the artist working with their audience” that further opens up the relationship between artists and their audience.

It’s obviously very different between valuing a chair and a painting of a chair. It is even more so between that painting and a digital creation of the same thing. Imagine that digital chair being made bit by bit from an array of artists. Being able to link each artist to their contribution, along with being able to control who gets to use it, could lead to fantastic play between artist and audience. Then again, copyrights were made to do the same thing—look where we are with that.

The Architecture of Tomorrow—Art and Culture Douglas Turner Andy Rolfes Bitcoin Blockchain Rhizome

To say something like Bitcoin is the savior of digital art would be a bit much, especially with the numerous problems that go with an unregulated system. (Even if it is one run by hard code.) But, one way or another, freeing art from its old constraints does seem to be on the mind within the digital scene.

The Architecture of Tomorrow—Art and Culture Douglas Turner Andy Rolfes Bitcoin Blockchain Rhizome

Occupying a dedicated website—and Rhizome’s own home page before falling behind a GeoCities/ early-internet-styled splash page to debut their website’s new design on November 1—is a site created by Michael Manning and Zach Shipko that randomly generates compositions every time you load the page, deriving from one hundred paintings made by Manning. With supposedly 9 billion unique painting combinations, 100 Paintings invites viewers to save and share the versions they see, creating a type of personalization and intimacy that is rarely experienced in real life, much less through a screen. Algorithmic and interactive works like Manning’s are accomplishing right now what those who would contort blockchain programming to do: make works of art a one-to-one experience and redefine the relationship between artist and audience.

The Architecture of Tomorrow—Art and Culture Douglas Turner Andy Rolfes Bitcoin Blockchain Rhizome

Michael Manning Installation view

Whether or not blockchains become an intimate part of art history is most likely up to how well we might be able to use it in an authentic and enthusiastic manner. As the panel proved in their discussion, there are still a solid number of issues with the technology, including avoiding aggressive exploitation, not to mention the nebulous connotations surrounding Bitcoin itself that might steer away some from experimenting with it. However the winds ultimately blow, I believe Manning’s portfolio itself proves that, beyond buzzwords and shiny tech, there is an interesting love affair between artmaking and boundless, digital malleability that must be watched.

*10/4: We originally reported that “…DeForrest Brown Jr. and  Nora Khan presented their Rhizome-sponsored.” It was, in fact, Nick James Scavo who presented with DeForrest Brown Jr.

Andy Rolfes is a fine artist, photographer and multi-disciplinary designer based in Brooklyn, NY. He enjoys combining them all to explore the interactions between reality and virtual abstraction. He is also a past contributor to the experimental collective, Join The Studio, the Dallas-based WAAS Gallery, and TWOHUSTLERS agency, and is trying to figure out what to do with all of these Post-It notes.