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Radical Friends Summit
The opportunities of blockchain for the art world and civil society

Geometrical forms in different colours
Radical Friends Summit | Illustration (detail): © Radical Friends|Haus der Kunst

Automated, non-hierarchical, forgery-proof: blockchain technologies have big potential for reducing power imbalances in art and society. Cultural practitioners discuss their possibilities and specific applications at the “Radical Friends Summit”

By Stephanie Hesse

The Radical Friends. Online DAO Summit for Decentralisation of Power and Resources in the Artworld Summit, on 22nd January 2022 built on findings and networks of the project Decentralised Autonomous Organisations with Others (DAOWO), convened by the Goethe-Institut London, the artist-led online community and arts organisation Furtherfield and Serpentine Galleries. The summit was curated by Ruth Catlow, co-director of Furherfield, and artist and writer Penny Rafferty in dialogue with Sarah Johanna Theurer, curator at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. DAOWO is a transnational cooperation network that has been bringing together international institutions and communities from the worlds of art and technology since 2017 in order to examine the advantages and disadvantages of blockchain technologies for art, culture and society from local perspectives. Blockchain allows the governing of online transactions of values of any kind without a central administrative unit. The process is forgery-proof and based on consensus by all those involved.

Potential of DAOs in the art world and beyond

Sarah Johanna Theurer, James Whipple (eea; M.E.S.H.), conceptual artist Harm Van Den Dorpel, Curve Labs co-founder Cem Dagdelen and researcher and curator Aude Launay discussed on a panel the importance of decentral digital infrastructures for art, culture and society. The focus here was on the effects on the art trade (NFTs, smart contracts) but also on the financing and coordination of collaborative art projects, the collaboration between galleries and the handling of ownership. The co-curators of the summit, Ruth Catlow and Penny Rafferty, emphasised, hierarchical structures and power imbalances are not unusual in the art world. The application of blockchain technologies for example enables the ownership of works or decision processes to be shared democratically and amicably and thus provide a contribution to the abolition of elitist structures in art production and perception. They believe it is all the more important to hold a dialogue as to how we want to use these technologies. Ruth Catlow is convinced that “the doubts we are now expressing about the open-source art world, or aren’t, will have direct effects on who the future belongs to and who decides what this means for other people”.

Sarah Johanna Theurer got to the heart of the dichotomy of blockchain where both the potential and also the risks for the art world are justified: “We are dealing with a radical left but also libertarian legacy.“ On the one hand blockchain makes the existence of gatekeepers or power structures superfluous, on the other hand this technology is however accelerating the trend for turning attention, reputation, influence and the power of decision-taking and art into assets (tokens) and trading these against a price. Sara Johanna Theurer urges people, alongside the financial aspect, to also consider how blockchain redefines values and how as a peer-to-peer technology it gives us ideas as to how we can organise ourselves economically, politically and socially.

Fractional ownership of artworks

For the Dutch concept artist Harm Van Den Dorpel the one does not exclude the other. He is the co-founder of the online exhibition space Club Internet and sells downloadable artworks. With the aid of blockchain and tokens the ownership of these objects can be divided among multiple persons (fractional ownership): “The owners of artwork tokens constitute a group. They meet up in Discord and discuss how the value of the work has developed. To a certain extent they are thus owners of a membership token and the artwork itself becomes an entry ticket to this community. I believe that this is really a new participational phenomenon that are now seeing with cryptocurrencies.” The risk that continues to exist for Harm Van Den Dorpel is that through so-called governance tokens the power structures of the “old world” can be reproduced within DAOs.

Blockchain-based financing in music

Musician James Whipple has for many years been working with music scenes in social networks and communities of streaming services. He concerns himself with the question of how artists can work together in a community without the financial or commercial brokerage taking place externally. Existing options such as Spotify cover artistic stringency or licensing via GEMA or similar organisations. A blockchain-based solution could function without this intermediary. Blockchain-based financing could also aid new musical directions to establish themselves thanks to qualitatively-competitive productions.

Collective curating and blockchain as medium for new art

For Aude Launay the great potential of DAOs lies in the collective curating of exhibitions. In the historic sense the one or the other curator decides which artworks are shown in an exhibition and which are not. Being able to do this in a community and democratically now instead of the decision-making power all lying in the hands of one or a few persons changes the tradition of curating and also art collecting from the ground up.

Cem Dagdelen views participation from a production perspective. As a mechanism-designer he considers based on game theory how mechanisms will be developed for collaborative cultural productions and which blockchain-based negotiation tools (protocols, smart contracts) in particular for financing art projects will play a role. It always motivates artists to propose projects if a community can decide which project receives which amount of support - projects which would never have been selected by a high-level jury or other gatekeeper. He is looking forward to a future in which the artistic production can be proposed directly and systemically, perhaps as a radical reaction to the world we’ve inherited from the institutional elite: this would make artists in these areas much more propositional and risk weirder forms of expression and economic experiments. This new opportunity to experiment means for Cem Dagdelen that they can become the medium for new art. However he currently assesses the reality of blockchain as a “speculative promise”, its functionality still needs improvement. He thus supports Ruth Catlow’s call to consider how we want to use blockchain technologies: “Blockchain is only as powerful as we are able to create a shared culture among the network members, an exchange that is not based only on transactions. Memes are such examples of a network creating a culture.”

Applications in the cultural sphere

How does the practical application of blockchain technologies look in the cultural sphere? Which working methodologies can be transferred? During the symposium four DAO prototypes were presented by teams from Berlin, Minsk, Johannesburg and Hong Kong.
Screenshot of the Summit video, showing a presentation chart, a woman with long hair and a man with a full beard. A man is translating into sign language. Radical Friends Summit - Screenshot of the Summit video | Screenshot (detail): © Goethe-Institut London
Black Swan from Berlin is a digital initiative, which uses playful methods to transfer resources from established institutions to cultural practitioners. Significantly the funders do not have influence on the decision of who receives how much, this is decided by the artists’ community by means of blockchain-based technology. Black-Swan founders Laura Lotti and Calum Bowden developed a prototype called Cygnet which serves as a voting mechanism. They experimented with various decision models (emojis, lottery, quadratic voting) in several local working groups who within two weeks developed 16 proposals. One of the most important findings was the clear preference for quadratic voting, since this not only allow a decision for or against a project, but also incorporates the intensity of the voter's preference in the decision. We can learn from Cygnet that moderation plays a pivotal function in these decision-making mechanisms and that these must also remain hierarchy-free in order to function.
Screenshot of the Summit video, showing five persons, in the centre a man and a woman against a golden background . Radical Friends Summit - Screenshot of the Summit video | Screenshot (detail): © Goethe-Institut London
The artist duo eeefff from Minsk, consisting of Nicolay Spesivtsev and Dzina Zhuk, is committed to more artistic utopias in its DAO. Their prototype achieves worryingly palpable political actuality. It shows which possibilities blockchain technologies offer civil societies in order to organise social movements, for example in Belarus, but also Kazakhstan or Ukraine decentrally and hierarchy-free. They jointly name the project a “school of algorithmic solidarity”. A special element: their work is conceived as a LARP (Live Action Role Play). Fictitious game situations create a safe space in surveyed environments, in which where transparent action would be too dangerous, and thus offer the possibility of testing scenarios. It's about supporting each other with resources in solidarity in a network. A special aspect of the crypto-economy is that one can support groups with resources without suppressing other communities. The team would like to further develop this point in the future, which involves not only the advent of new technologies but also re-inventing relationships between people.
Screenshot of the Summit video, showing five persons, in the centre two women against a white background. Radical Friends Summit - Screenshot of the Summit video | Screenshot (detail): © Goethe-Institut London
Bhavisha Panchia’s and Carly Whitaker’s vision is using their prototype Covalence Studios to create a space for all artists and art-supporters in Johannesburg, offering the possibility of collaboration outside traditional institutions. As a type of virtual studio they create a platform on which interested parties can share resources: in the form of knowledge, networks, to source materials or other conceivable means. Alongside mapping experimental spaces in Johannesburg, which support collaborative practices, anyone can publish calls to collaborate on the platform. Covalence Studios is thus a pioneer in Johannesburg and South Africa, where a large part of artistic production is determined by the art market of large galleries. The next research phase will clarify with which incentives and token guidelines the members would like to work and thus develop an economy of their own.
Screenshot of Summit video showing two persons, in the centre a man whose portrait overlaps with an animated image with added effects. Radical Friends Summit - Screenshot of the Summit video | Screenshot (detail): © Goethe-Institut London
Samson Young, together with MetaObjects and Dr Massimiliano Mollona initiated the prototype Ensembl in Hong Kong, a DAO experimenting with blockchain technologies in the area of contemporary music creation, in order to consider which roles, values and participation forms there may be in an ecosystem that is in a constant state of flux. The name Ensembl here is to be taken literally, since the DAO enables its members to organise decentrally for collective improvisations. The methodologies are heavily based on the genre itself, as the terms “improvisation”, “composition” and “open score” are used as analogies for projects in a constant state of flux and changing roles. One of the prototype's function is for instance to distribute funds automatically on the basis of the agreements protocolled on the blockchain, instead of paying them to the ensemble director (Samson Young), who would then allocate the funds to its members.