Defying Obsolescence: How Blockchain Tech Could Redefine Artistic Expression

While some artists embrace ephemerality as a feature of their work, others are driven by the desire to leave a legacy.

by Paul de Havilland 10 min March 25, 2020
Defying Obsolescence Blockchain Tech Could Redefine Artistic Expression Cointelegraph Magazine Art Week
Share Share Share Share

As dark as the rising plume of thick smoke was, it couldn’t possibly have conveyed the damage being done to our cultural heritage on June 1, 2008.

The Universal Studios blaze in Los Angeles took fire crews twelve hours to extinguish. The true extent of the damage, however, would reach back through the decades, and deny future generations an immeasurable wealth of artistic expression.

Perhaps you wondered if, one day, the technology might exist to decipher the lyrics in the almost-unintelligible version of “Louie Louie” recorded by The Kingsmen, which was investigated by the FBI in 1965 after a complaint that the song was obscene. After a 31-month investigation, the agency declined to press charges. And although the lyrics were always public, we’ll likely never know the truth — the master copy was incinerated.

An estimated half-a-million Universal Music Group master tape recordings were destroyed in the inferno. Original tracks by artists of the caliber and cultural significance of Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Tom Petty, and Nirvana disappeared forever. The original recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s seminal “Remaining Awake During a Great Revolution” speech was lost.

While many of the recordings had been digitized, the fidelity of the master recordings can never be replaced. As long-time sound engineer for Prince, Susan Rogers points out, “When a listener is listening to a master mix, that’s as good as it gets. Everything else from there is a copy.”

Is blockchain technology the first best hope for artistic permanence?

Almost all music is now recorded digitally, with only a handful of artists reverting to reel-to-reel recording for the quaint discipline it demands. The same is true of film, as professional 4K digital film cameras now rival traditional 35mm film in both resolution and dynamic range (even the British war epic 2017 was filmed with digital cameras).

Of course, not all art can be digitized. Live performances, and many fine arts, and installations are temporary by nature.

But blockchain technology promises a whole new level of immortality. As a technological revolution with no single point of failure, distributed ledgers represent the first best hope of genuine data permanence.

Provenance and intellectual property

For the most part, distributed ledger technology and art have had a fairly transactional relationship. The democratization of the fine art market, once steeped in elitist opacity and domination by powerful institutions, has coincided with the emergence of blockchain.

In late 2018, Christie’s recorded the $317 million sale of the Barney A. Ebsworth Collection on the permissioned Artory blockchain. It was, according to the famed auction house, an experiment. The ostensible prime purpose of recording transactions of works of art on a distributed ledger is to demonstrate provenance..

In an industry characterized by a notorious lack of transparency, recording the sale and movement of artwork on a blockchain will boost collector confidence. Art forgery is rife, with some estimates of the number of fakes hanging in galleries, museums, and private collections running as high as 20%.

A Time Magazine article in 1990 famously reported that of the 800 canvases Camille Corot painted in his lifetime, 4,000 ended up in the United States.

As blockchain technology provides a trail of ownership and movement to the art world, passing off a fake painting as authentic could become impossible.

The technology is also deployed by artists from pop singers to digital art creators to protect and earn money from their intellectual property rights. Zeptagram, a music rights platform running on the Telos network, allows recording artists to tokenize their music rights and share profits with their fans and supporters.

Christina and Johan Lowenstrom of Swedish band Tapefly created Zeptagram because they “felt that there was a need to create more ways for musicians to be able to live off their art and to give back power to creators.”

Blockchains can act as service layers providing provenance and authenticity to works of art, as well as afford artists the ability to tokenize their work to generate income. Yet there are more profound properties distributed ledgers lend to the arts.

Defying obsolescence

Almost as a byproduct of more mundane uses, blockchain technology removes from artistic creation a characteristic that has always been part of its makeup — built-in obsolescence.

But does removing the property of built-in obsolescence simply mean a new medium of storage, delivery, and consumption? Or does it have the potential to change an artist’s message — to go to the very heart of what is being created?

In discussing obsolescence here, the intention is not to suggest that the artist’s message becomes irrelevant, but instead to note that until now humans have not created a medium that will not degrade over time.

Perhaps the closest we’ve come are the plaques on the Pioneer probes and the Golden Records aboard the Voyager spacecraft, which Carl Sagan noted “would only be played if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space”. President Jimmy Carter suggested that:

“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”

Voyager Golden Record.

NASA / Nick Sagan

For Vandal from DAOrecords, a blockchain-based music label, “the idea that art can live on beyond the lifetime of its creator, or that words, sounds, and images can endure the ages… [means that] artists have begun to embrace the technology that is making this possible, and at the same time innovate…”

Not all art forms can be saved for eternity. Van Goghs and Rembrandts fade. “Paint,” as Primo Levi pointed out in his novel The Monkey’s Wrench (1978), “is an unreliable partner.” Rembrandt’s 1642 masterpiece The Night Watch has been undergoing public restoration since September of 2019, in a bid to restore the piece to its original luster.

In fact, the iconic painting’s name serves as a cue that today’s painting is not the one that Amsterdam audiences viewed in 1642.

The varnish on the painting has darkened significantly over its almost 400-year life to lend it the appearance of being set at night. It was originally a daytime scene. (As if to reinforce the point, the current name of the painting isn’t even its first: it was originally, and less evocatively, the Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq.)

Three people painted by Rembrandt no longer even appear in the exhibited work — they were cut away from the canvas in the eighteenth-century.[TS-VCSC-Lightbox-Image content_image=”4891″ content_image_size=”large” attribute_alt=”true” attribute_alt_value=”Rembrandt – The Night Watch (1642)” lightbox_title=”alt”]Live performances can never be re-created. Chalk art washes away in the rain. Even tech-led installations have use-by dates as technology changes, as the Beecher Center for Electronic Arts discovered when an exhibit using cathode ray tube televisions gradually burned out, so the museum had to make the decision to replace them with flat-screen TVs behind curved glass frontispieces.

Would Nam June Paik, the artist, have agreed with the decision? We can’t know: he died in 1996, the same year that Panasonic stopped making CRT televisions.

Artists of all stripes have always – knowingly or otherwise – engaged in creative expression with a contemporary audience in mind. Artists create for the audiences they can conceive of, and these are, by definition, audiences with whom they can conceptually relate.

Van Gogh masterpieces may be enjoyed a hundred years after his death. But it is unlikely he could have imagined how his work would be appreciated by a society so alien to the one he knew.

The fact that his work still resonates with art lovers speaks to the timeless nature of his art, regardless of his intentions. Could it be that artists might want to prepare themselves to create for societies beyond their personal realms, especially with the potential for permanence that distributed ledgers offer?

If built-in obsolescence has been a central feature of all art and an unavoidable property of many of its mediums, artists embracing the promise of blockchain-led permanence appear comfortable with the benefits of longevity.

BitArt Productions, which helps companies explain their blockchain services through live theater, believes watching a digital recording of a live performance is a valid form of theatergoing.

While conceding that “there will always be an intrinsic difference between experiencing a live performance and enjoying a recording of a live performance,” the production house contends that, “You may not have been able to see Lin-Manuel Miranda perform Hamilton live… [but] by capturing it in real-time through blockchain technology, the performance can now reach a far greater number of people… [than those] lucky enough to see him… in the flesh.”

Transience vs. permanence

Some artists revel in the ephemerality of their creations. Their power is largely defined by their impact in the moment. One of the most notable artists to express himself through transience is Banksy.

Famously installing a shredder inside a piece, Girl With Balloon, that sold for $1.4 million at auction — only to be instantly destroyed — the provocative artist’s message is as much about pro-artistic purity as it is anti-commercialism of art (despite his more recent diversions into suing alleged copyright-infringers).

For @AGNFAB1, an active contributor and artist for Decred, Monero, and Horizen, Banksy’s antagonistic relationship with the art industry is part of his creative message.

“The message was more important than the artwork itself,” the fine artist told us:

“The artwork will never be preserved but the memory of that specific happening will last for the foreseeable future. Art doesn’t need to exist as we know of existence. Art is very complex. It’s up to the observer and only our imagination is limiting us. That is the beauty of art.”

Art remains one step removed from longevity

The idea that his work might resonate with generations to come might not have been offensive to abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, but it is not likely to have had any impact on his work. Rothko’s work was deeply personal, and while the artist famously wrote that he wanted people to look at his large canvases from a distance of 18 inches, his mistrust in public taste was well documented:

“A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!”

The permanence that distributed ledger technology can bring to art, while valuable for preserving our cultural heritage, may not influence the act of creative expression at all.

Renaissance painters’ works are remarkable not simply for their depiction of a particular time and place in human history. They are notable for the creativity and devotion of their makers.

For Cecelia Jabarine-Marshall, an applied theater practitioner working with international and migrant youth on socio-political topics such as national extremism, xenophobia, gender, and discrimination, nothing quite approaches the “in-the-room” moments that “the presence of atmosphere, of energy… only found in the room or space where that performance takes place” create:

“The built-in obsolescence of creation is the price that we pay in theater. Sure, you can record a performance and have it then permanent, but it will never be the same. It will not be the same piece that was created originally and the meaning it had when it was first created is different than what it is when another person consumes it years or decades later.”

Shakespearean tragedies remain relevant because they speak directly to base human emotions: ambition, jealousy, greed, vengeance, and impulsiveness. Their universal messages remain as valid today as they were in Elizabethan England. As poet Benjamin Jonson presciently described the Bard of Avon in 1623, he was “not of an age, but for all time.”

Blockchain promises a way to free art from its built-in obsolescence. But it has no way of endowing art with timeless relevance. Only art itself can do that.

Share Share Share Share
Paul de Havilland small

Paul de Havilland

Paul de Havilland is a fan of disruptive technologies, and an enthusiastic investor in startups. He has covered both traditional and emerging asset classes, and also writes extensively on politics and development. His passions include violin and opera.