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A Bitcoin for GIFs Aims to Make Digital Art Ownable

How do you put a price on a GIF if it can be copied with a keystroke? Maybe digital currency can change that.
Image: Ed Singleton

Art buyers don't tend to buy digital art, except for a website or domain name here and there. It's hard to put a price on a GIF if it can be copied with a keystroke.

But maybe digital currency can change that.

At Rhizome's Seven On Seven conference at the New Museum last Saturday, multimedia artist Kevin McCoy and entrepreneur Anil Dash suggested a way that a cryptographic block chain like the kind used to track bitcoin transactions could also be used to establish that a particular digital artwork is "original," confirm its author, and, they hope, develop a market for it.


After a day of brainstorming and hacking, the pair took a GIF, authored by Kevin and his partner Jennifer McCoy, and registered it in a Namecoin wallet. It was likely the first time anyone has given a work of art a place on the blockchain. Dash bought it for the four dollars he had in his pocket.

The first blockchain-verified GIF

The idea to combine digital currency and digital art has lately been brewing in some sort of hive mind. Both McCoy and Dash had imagined it separately. Back in October, McCoy started a thread on the subject in a Bitcoin forum—though to a fairly unenthusiastic response from the cryptocurrency community.

And in Paddy Johnson’s review of net art poster boy Brad Troemel’s March show at the Zach Feuer Gallery, she connected the dots between Troemel’s references to Litecoin and his own predicament as a digital artist: he had made a name for himself online but still needed real-life objects to make a buck. This is precisely the problem McCoy and Dash set out to solve for internet artists everywhere with their project; its name, monegraph, is a portmanteau of the mission: monetize graphics.

There are intriguing parallels between the ways that value is constructed in digital economies and in art markets, and not just on a philosophical, "this is worth what we agree it's worth" level. “Like Litecoin’s ‘block chain,’ a built-in algorithm that creates a digital trail of every transaction ever executed, the art market uses provenance to construct value,” Johnson wrote. McCoy and Dash have taken this approach, assembling Monegraph on top of the Namecoin protocol, which was originally developed last year as an alternative, network-verified domain name system. (This requires users to spend a Namecoin each time they create or transfer an artwork, or about four cents.)


But the coin is less important than its underlying block chain: the chronology of transactions contained in a block chain can build value in a digital work the same way auction records and gallery labels have for traditional works.

A verification system that links an author to a work of art might seem at odds with the logic of digital artwork. The possibilities that new technologies have afforded us and the new ways we relate to one another in digital space have led to a reorientation to the value of the artist. “Now that we can reproduce and remix virtually any picture, is there any point in trying to trace those images to a source?” Johnson has asked, while Troemel has suggested it’s “art after social media” which has threatened previously held notions of authorship and property.

Whether or not McCoy and Dash’s block chain verification catches on, online authorship is in a transitional moment. And the attempt to develop a digital provenance for net art reflects a much broader movement that extends beyond art: to monetize what we produce and consume "for free" in these early days of the internet.

For now we’re in an awkward teen phase, where attempts to regulate and commercialize still rub up against remix culture. A few months ago designer Daniel Pianetti posted a faux Louis Vuitton ad on Tumblr, featuring a dazed Lindsay Lohan in court, gazing over her lawyer's luxury handbag. He did not attribute it to an author.


"After half an hour and a few reblogs, posted it in their site crediting, for absolutely unknown reasons, my name as 'design and art direction,'" Pianetti explained via email. "From there it escalated, in less than 12 hours Yahoo, E!, Daily Mail and tens of other websites wrote about this parody, all crediting me as the author of something I neither made nor declared, even adding biographical details and making me into the 'artist' who created it."

In the following hours, Pianetti received an email from Louis Vuitton’s Copyright Civil Enforcement Director (as well as from the piece’s real author, who preferred to remain anonymous but was still peeved someone else seemed to be taking credit for his work). Pianetti’s anecdote exemplifies this phase we’re in: Buzzfeed and Louis Vuitton want authorship to function traditionally, even if that doesn’t quite fit with the way most images are now created and circulated and modified.

Awkward negotiations continue. Even before there's a codified way of verifying art work like what McCoy and Dash are proposing, the internet art world is starting to imitate the gallery art world with its prestige and stars. Troemel once again seems to exemplify our transitional moment, writing about art’s subversion of traditional models of authorship and private property while becoming a micro celebrity notorious enough for his name to end up tagged on walls around Williamsburg. The critic Brian Driotcour has explored these contradictions, as seen through Troemel’s submission-based Tumblr The Jogging. "Troemel describes the circulation of images on Tumblr as ‘anarchy,’ [but]… ignores his own proprietary relationship to the Jogging.”

Blockchain-verified digital art could catch on, and if it did, it could create a more traditional model of authorship for net artists as they negotiate the murky world of authorship and ownership online. But McCoy believes projects like monegraph are "a necessary step for the creation of a market in the traditional sense.” But transitioning to a system of verifiable authorship and ownership alone won't create an environment where artists can display and sell native digital works online. But how those works are made and seen and sold will rest heavily on the imaginations of the technologists as well as that of the artists. McCoy adds, "A lot of work has to still happen to create a functioning marketplace."