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Decentralised Autonomous Organisations
The Opportunities of Block Chain for the Cultural Sector

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

The future belongs to the blockchain technology. Exciting new opportunities will arise not only for technology companies, but also for the art sector, especially when working with DAOs. Processes can, for example, not only be designed to include more participation, but also to allow the experience of artistic worlds as a connected community.

By Sarah Johanna Theurer and Sarah Lehnerer

DAOs, Decentralised Autonomous Organisations, are an organisational form based on the blockchain. They are considered to represent the future of the internet by many. The World Wide Web as well as Web 2.0 of social media had repeatedly provided hope for a participative, many-voiced public domain – and then disregarded in particular communities of developers and artists time and time again. Blockchain technology is the framework of the so-called Web 3.0, a further developmental stage of the internet, where centrally organised platforms such as Facebook and Amazon could be replaced by decentralised interest groups. The art and culture sectors could also profit from this.

State-owned cultural institutions are traditionally situated off market and justified reservations exist regarding the application of market mechanisms to areas outside of the market. Can we create non-extractive and non-monetary relationships with more solidarity by applying financial technologies?

This question was investigated by the Goethe-Institut in collaboration with the Haus der Kunst Munich during the online symposium Radical Friends - DAO Summit for Decentralisation of Power and Resources in the Artworld in January 2022. Jaya Klara Brekke, researcher within the field of political economy, pointed out the ambivalent inheritance of this technology: “DAOs connect the structures of radical left action groups with a liberal market logic.” They accelerate the tendency to convert influence as well as the powers of decision making into asset values (tokens) and trade these for a price on the one hand, whilst the blockchain offers the possibility of autonomous organisations on the other.

Extended relations

DAOs are first and foremost groups of people who delegate the practical administration of their group to algorithms. These must be determined and designed by their members, which is why we speak of a peer-to-peer technology. Every action carried out and every decision made within such an organisation is recorded on the blockchain, transparently available and comprehensible for every one of their members. Membership of a DAO will normally come about with the acquisition of tokens of this DAO.

New technologies – like the blockchain and its DAOs – are never just a means to an end. They establish new forms of consensus and decision-making as well as of the administration of resources and capital. DAOs will therefore change not only markets, but also social infrastructures.

The possibility of the DAOs to grant ownership rights to users and co-creators of a network protocol creates organisational models outside of private ownership and value creation. These organisational models are not new, as artist Kei Kreutler explains in the Gnosis Guild blog with an illustration by Elenor Carrington. She compares DAOs to cooperatives, groups of friends and collectives and is of the opinion that these “small” organisation forms are often overlooked by “large” institutions.

In an article for FlashArt magazine, Penny Rafferty, co-curator of the Radical Friends Symposium in January 2022, pleads for a “post-public area, for a free space, in which users can manage themselves”. A DAO could constitute such a space. Participation and participation policies are important factors for cultural institutions such as museums, which can support or question their right to exist.

Alternative values

Rather than disregarding DAOs as just another step of the expansion of markets and the financialisation of the world, we should examine how this technology is redefining the value we as communities place on things in the public domain. Value is not inherent in objects, but constitutes an accreditation that varies considerably between different cultures, industries and social classes. Processes such as research or reproductive labour could be allocated specific values within a DAO, and will therefore not just support the visibility and comparability of these unpaid services, which are often forgotten within the world of art. They could instead contribute towards compliance with set minimum wages and replace the prevailing “gift economy”, in which payment is made following provision of a service and in the form of prizes and invitations. This would question the decision criteria of those who have managed cash and value awards to date. For cultural institutions this would mean that the financing of public property and the redistribution of means could incorporate more co-participation and therefore more local relevance.

Intelligent rules 

DAOs make it possible to organise the transactions of all types of values without a central administration unit. The process is forgery-proof and depends on the consensus of all participants. Organisations such as the Goethe-Institut, which has been active as a decentralised network of 158 institutes in 98 countries for many years and works closely with respective local communities and the civil population, can serve as an example for this, but also as a laboratory for implementation purposes.

The “soft contracts“ model that currently prevails in cultural work and includes mutual benefits, but does not specifically mention or specify the same, could allow use of “smart contracts”, a form of intelligent contract based on the block chain, which allows the use of new working relationships. Alana Kushnir, lawyer and Principal Investigator of the Serpentine Gallery‘s R&D platform Legal Lab, is investigating new solutions for the art sector of block chain technology and researches prototypes of these intelligent contracts that automatically encode and implement complex agreements. The digital generation of trust increases efficiency by removing intermediaries and other administrative units that protect copyright, for example. Automation could reduce bureaucratic hurdles and barriers.

New tasks

DAOs also allow us to revise authority at least on a theoretical and metaphorical level and to create alternative value systems by means of self-organised autonomous structures. They establish a management structure in which the organisation can take the interest of all members, the so-called “value-oriented investors”, into consideration proportionally. And it allows the transparent determination of decision processes through smart-contracts and encoded consensus processes.

Developer Cem Dagdelen describes the blockchain as a “speculative promise”, saying:  “A blockchain is only as powerful as the capability of creating a common culture for network members, an exchange that is based not just on transactions.” DAOs allow us to see the worlds of art as connected communities and not as machines that generate a product through competition-oriented individualism. As author Max Haiven has formulated: “Creativity and radical imagination are not things that display individualism, but something that is achieved by the collective.” DAOs can help us to invent new forms of the economic, political and community organisation (and their management), although mainly on a metaphorical level as of now. What the blockchain does not represent to date due to its access limitations through token acquisition and the ecological problem of an excessive energy consumption to the detriment of the global South, however, is a completely decentralised environment, in which communities from all over the world collaborate on open source organisations.

More experimental laboratories and openness on the part of cultural and art institutions are needed in order to jointly face these questions.