Books

What Blockchain Means for Contemporary Art

Now that the wild speculation on Bitcoin’s value and the explosion of fringe cryptocurrencies has died down, what has been revealed is a contiguous conversation regarding the use of blockchain technology in the work of several artists, designers, and thinkers.

Cover of Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain (2017) eds. Ruth Catlow, Marc Garrett, Nathan Jones, and Sam Skinner; London: Furtherfield & Torque Editions (image courtesy Furtherfield)

Since Satoshi Nakamoto outlined the fundamentals of blockchain in his 2008 paper “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” the technology’s assemblage of nodes, keys, hashes, signatures, and stamps has been further expanded. For example, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, through his platform’s introduction of the Distributed Autonomous Organization (DAO), has allowed mainstream financial institutions and NGOs to modify the original Bitcoin ledger system in order to implement unique versions of the software for their own self-tailored purposes.

Now that the wild speculation on Bitcoin’s value and the explosion of fringe cryptocurrencies has died down, the cooling of the Bitcoin craze has revealed a contiguous conversation regarding the use of blockchain technology in the work of several artists, designers, and thinkers. Pseudonymous Bitcoin architect Satoshi Nakamoto’s loud absence has become the stuff of legend. Yet what, if anything, will be the eventual applications of his crowning achievement? Beyond the more practical and market-oriented functions of blockchain, what kinds of more creative, imaginative futures can be realized through the technology?

Primavera De Filippi, “Plantoid Scheme” (image courtesy Primavera De Filippi)

Following up on their 2010 book, Artists Re:Thinking Games, Furtherfield’s Ruth Cathow and Mark Garrett have collaborated with Torque Editions co-founders Sam Skinner and Nathan Jones to produce Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain, a collection of contributions from artists, curators, writers, software designers, and critical theorists. The book is divided into three sections: documentation of artworks that incorporate or intervene in blockchain protocols, creative works including speculative fictions that explore the technology’s affective potential, and a theory section.

Rather than falling prey to cliché, neo-Luddite hysteria over technological acceleration, the documentation section offers a refreshing discussion of works that speculate on the liberatory possibilities of blockchain technology, as projects like Plantoid and terra0 dovetail with recent artistic preoccupations with biotechnology and artificial intelligence. According to designer Primavera De Filippi, one of the contributors to the book, the engineered, blockchain-based life form Plantoid exists in a dual reality, “both in the physical world (as a mechanical contraption made up of recycled steel and electronics) and the digital world (as a software deployed on top of a blockchain-based network)” Whereas a plant needs water and sunlight for survival, Plantoid craves cryptocurrency capitalization via blockchain transactions. The bio-informatic plant lures human investors through lights, sounds, and the beauty of its machinic stems and appendages. Plantoid’s digital mind provides crypto-economic incentives to those willing to support its life.

Primavera De Filippi, “Plantoid” (2015) (image courtesy Primavera De Filippi)

Another of the more visionary projects discussed in the documentation section is Paul Seidler and Paul Kolling’s terra0. A DAO, terra0 attempts to create a self-sustaining area of German forest. The forest’s software autonomously sells logging licenses on the Ethereum blockchain without human intervention, monitoring its resources through a network of satellites. An experiment in post-human capital administration, the forest will eventually purchase its land back from its designers, effectively creating what is perhaps the world’s first self-owned non-human entity.

The book’s speculative writing section includes Elli Kuruş’s future vision via an interview with the enigmatic (perhaps fictional) Professor Godord. Here, Kuruş situates blockchain within mutating notions of territory under 21st-century hyperconnectivity and globalization. As exemplified by the Sino-Google conflict which led to the production of the Great Firewall, this interview explores how the borderless nature of computer networks has led to two incompatible notions of sovereignty — one based on the amorphous cloud and one based on the rigid boundaries of the nation-state — and the possibility of a new understanding of citizenship for the information age.

The book’s theory section includes didactic writings by digital theorists, including a stormy essay by Hito Steyerl on the “derivative fascisms” of uninhibited global trade. Steyerl implicates both Bitcoin and artworld economics in the destructive process of capital, drawing a parallel between the trading of cryptocurrency and the trading of art-as-currency by celebrity dealer Stefan Simchowitz. The section also features a text by Serpentine curator Ben Vickers, who discusses historical examples of cloud-based management systems, from Vitalik Buterin’s ambitious Ethereum blockchain upgrades to the precocious Chilean Cybersyn project of the 1970s.

Paul Seidler, Paul Kolling, & Max Hampshire “terra0” (2016-ongoing) (image courtesy terra0)

Apropos recent immensely polarized cryptocurrency debates, Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain is a thoroughly relevant compendium for this largely uncharted area of technoculture. Because of its varied points of entry, the book provides an exceptional starting place for readers with varied points of interest. The creative projects discussed hypothesize on the future of blockchain applications vis-a-vis machine learning and capitalist automation. Additionally, the book’s speculation on cloud-based challenges to sovereign, Westphalian borders is particularly important for the current moment (especially considering recent Korean and Chinese legal restrictions on Bitcoin). The framing of this group of artists and thinkers demonstrates that blockchain technology is already providing ample fodder for new media projects.

Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain, is a collection of contributions from artists, curators, writers, and software designer, is available via Liverpool University Press.

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