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This Digital Art Gallery Immortalizes Your Patronage in the Blockchain

"You can buy next-to-impossible-to-valuate works of art with a next-to-impossible-to-valuate currency."
Image: Flickr/BTC Keychain

How do you make an art gallery for the internet, where attention only lasts as long as a listicle, and work is easily copied? For Vienna-based artists Andy Boot and Valentin Rurhy, Bitcoin is the answer to both of those problems.

Boot and Rurhy started Cointemporary last year, a digital art gallery that shows one piece at a time for a week and sells it for a fixed price in Bitcoin. Even though the value of Bitcoin tends to fluctuate wildly, the price for a work on Cointemporary is a flat fee negotiated with the artist using the average Bitcoin price over the last 24 hours.

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The gallery has sold some physical art, but digital files and even software are also regularly featured. Right now, you can buy a neural net—a program that simulates neural connections in the brain—that uses transhumanist futurist Ray Kurzweil's texts as training data to generate new sentences. The app is called Long Short Term Memory, and there are only 15 "editions" available for purchase. Each edition is backed up by a unique ID on the blockchain, the publicly viewable ledger that stores Bitcoin transactions.

"It is pretty obvious that until now, any kind of digital rights management has failed," Ruhry wrote. "This is not the user's fault, it´s the fault of the owners and distributors, and their approach to digital property. The users have always used digital content the right way. You simply can't own a file like you can own a car."

An obvious question is how can you possibly sell a digital file in distinct "editions"—if I torrent an album, is that edition number 293484750 of that album? It seems a bit silly, but Andy and Rurhy have turned to Ascribe, a service that uses the blockchain to solve this problem.

"It is pretty obvious that until now, any kind of digital rights management has failed"

On Ascribe, a digital or physical artwork is registered in its system as proof of ownership, which is backed up by a file with a timestamp on the blockchain. You can still make the file available to everyone in a torrent, for example, but you will always have proof that you're the original owner.

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The blockchain normally stores blocks of Bitcoin transaction data, but it's possible to upload other files, too—a photo of Nelson Mandela has been found there, for example. Uploading proof of a file's authenticity can be done by performing an irreversible cryptographic hash function with the file data. This results in a code, a unique ID, that can be slipped into a block of transactions. To confirm the authenticity of the original file, you can repeat the hash function and see if the result is the same.

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The flat Bitcoin price of the works is a risk for Boot and Rurhy, because if someone happens to buy a piece of art in one of Bitcoin's frequent price slumps, they'll have to make up the difference in exchange themselves when they pay the artist. The reasoning behind this decision, Rurhy told me in an email, is that attaching value to art and Bitcoin are of a similar kind of esoteric alchemy.

"Andy Boot and I have been interested in the concept of cryptocurrencies for some time now and saw surprisingly many parallels to the art world," Rurhy wrote. "Or, to put it in the words of a Ycombinator user: 'So you can buy next-to-impossible-to-valuate works of art with a next-to-impossible-to-valuate currency. It makes sense, when you think about it.'"

According to Rurhy, Cointemporary will be going on hiatus for the summer after their next work goes on sale. So, if you feel like trading your internet money for some internet art, you'd better do it quick.