When Worlds Collide
The blockchain art bunch and the traditional art world meet in London.
By Judy Mam
We met the indefatigable Anne Bracegirdle, Associate VP of Photography at Christie’s, at our first meetup in New York as she was keeping tabs on the budding art on the blockchain community. Only six months later, Anne, Elliot Safra from Christie’s, and Bernardine Bröcker from Vastari hosted a seminal conference in London bringing together art experts, founders of blockchain-based art platforms and people who are trying to solve intractable problems for the fine art industry.
It was a thrill to be at a 250-year old auction house that is showing foresight and moxie by inviting these two very different, even opposite worlds, to a dialogue.
The first part of the day was devoted to a crash course on what is blockchain, the highlight being an effortless explanation by Nicolas Cary from Blockchain.com. To spice things up, there was a blockchain pros and cons debate, and some speakers scared the bejesus out of the room with warnings about money laundering, vanishing billions in cryptocurrency, non-compliance with GDPR and other hair-raising examples of everything that can go wrong with the technology.
The second part of the day explored the art and artists who are at the vanguard of this movement. I was invited to speak at a panel moderated by Jason Bailey, a pioneering expert in this field, and which included our dear friends and colleagues Masha McConaghy of ascribe.io, John Zettler from Rare Art Labs, and Matt Hall from Cryptopunks. Most speakers concerned themselves with problems and opportunities that blockchain can address in terms of the art market, so it was time to shift the focus back to the artists. We spoke about how our community is coming up with different ways to champion unheralded artists or create new communities of collectors. We were rather gleeful about the fact that your art or your crypto can get lost in digital space if you are not careful, and because of decentralization, no one can do anything about it. It would be no wonder if the audience thought we were delusional. But we were also passionate about the possibilities, technical and human, of this new technology. Apparently, consensus was that this panel was the most fun.
The last part of the day was devoted to ventures like Codex and Artory that are solving problems of the traditional art market like provenance, authorship verification and lack of transparency, through the application of blockchain. Companies like Maecenas, Look Lateral and Tend are also creating financial solutions to give liquidity to art holders through fractionalized ownership — selling stocks on a painting — and in one case, providing luxury experiences to “ambitious millennials”, such as sharing a work of art like a time-share condo in Miami.
As Anne pointed out in her impassioned introduction to this emerging art space, blockchain gives us the opportunity to talk about utopia, which is what should excite people. I agree. While most of the attention is focused on the specific issues that blockchain can help solve — create more transparency, certify ownership, track provenance, ensure correct attribution, in my opinion, those are needed but cosmetic changes. Blockchain inspires us to imagine completely new economic models around art and new ways of benefiting society.
After a full day of exploration, a panel of experts was convened to share their final conclusions. Kati Price, the head of digital media and publishing at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of The Serpentine Gallery, Sylvie Gleises, an art insurance expert from AXA, and Richard Entrup, the Chief Information Officer at Christie’s, talked with moderator Georgina Adam, a respected art journalist, about what they had gleaned from the conference.
It was very sad.
No one expects people who are used to a 250-year-old way of doing things to storm the Bastille all of a sudden, but it was alarming to see how resistant and tepid they were, which may be a sign of sheer incomprehension. GDPR, of all things, seemed to be the panel’s most pressing concern. A valid one to be sure, but addressable, and rather petty, considering the breadth of the possibilities discussed and considering that GDPR was created to stop abuses by centralized platforms, an issue that decentralization can address.
I am not shocked anymore by the singular focus of the media on the financial aspect of art. It seems that art itself or artists are entirely inconsequential to the discussion, which is purely about transactionality, insurability, inventory, liquidity, etc. It was clear to me that none of the final panelists even contemplate considering blockchain-based digital art as part of their preoccupations. Richard Entrup from Christie’s is obviously interested in the topic but he spoke about the digital music business as if blockchain-based platforms that are currently coming up with solutions like Ujo, Singular DTV, Choon, and Resonate were yet to be invented.
When Silvie Gleises, from AXA Art, mentioned that she could see some of the benefits to society, the moderator made sure to squash this promising topic immediately by replying: “But let’s talk about the market”.
Talk about a bubble. Of reinforced concrete.
But the icing on the cake was Hans Ulrich Obrist, from The Serpentine Gallery, whom the moderator introduced beyond fawningly. Olbrist was supposed to speak about what he heard throughout the day, but he was not even present during the day. He showed up not only having not bothered to conduct the most cursory research about the topic, but with sheets of prepared remarks with which he pontificated about digital artists who are completely unrelated to blockchain, namedropping experts and reciting quotes, and generally being, in my opinion, the personification of everything that is wrong with the art world: insularity, pretentiousness, and contempt for the audience.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most disappointing intervention in this conference was not a financier, insurer, dealer, or auctioneer, but a star curator; a person who wields inordinate influence in building or ignoring the careers of artists. This is the kind of concentrated power in the hands of a few tastemakers that art communities in the blockchain are eager to disrupt. I am convinced that we can and we will, and the world is already a better place for it.
It is also not a coincidence that after such crushing indifference from this McKayla Maroney of panels, no one in the audience had a question to ask. It would have been exciting to hear a passionate pushback from these representatives of the status quo and a spirited debate to follow, but they added nothing of value to the discussion.
I felt bad for our wonderful hosts, who worked so hard, so smart and so graciously to bridge these worlds, only to hear a deflating note to an otherwise remarkable day.