Radical Friends Summit
The opportunities of blockchain for the art world and civil society
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 beyondSarah 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 artworksFor 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 musicMusician 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 artFor 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.”