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Here's a New Model for Selling Art with Bitcoin

Eric Barry Drasin and Benton C. Bainbridge inaugurate their Moving Pictures Gallery project with a performance by audiovisual artist Jonas Bers.
May 12, 2016, 8:25pm
Bers’ setup. All photos courtesy Moving Pictures Gallery.

For some collectors, words like “bitcoin” and “blockchain” sound way too Silicon Valley and far removed from the art world. But some gallerists are embracing these new technologies as the art market’s new frontier, like Eric Barry Drasin and Benton C. Bainbridge, realtime media artists intent on changing the way digital and new media art is bought and sold.

Working on the fringes of the mainstream art world, the two recently launched Moving Pictures Gallery, pairing with the online art-selling platforms Ascribe and Artlery, which use bitcoin and blockchain technologies to keep a transparent, permanent record of provenance, and to keep a “smart contract” agreement between artist, collector, and patron, ensuring that all involved parties automatically receive compensation for their contributions to valuing the work.

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Moving Pictures Gallery was inaugurated by a performance by audiovisual artist Jonas Bers, who played a setup of hacked videogame machines from the 80s and 90s. While the performance, which was streamed online and can be viewed on YouTube, might initially look like a complex syncing of noise and visuals, the two are actually one in the same. He’s not playing modular synths, he’s playing video signals, which contain inaudible sound frequencies. As he amplifies bits and pieces of the signals, connected into feedback loops through his custom-created audiovisual equipment, the video signals become audible, and at the same time, the sounds create visual patterns on the screen.

With Drasin and Bainbridge’s sales model, portions of this synesthetic performance will be selected and sold as unique editions. The duo spoke with The Creators Project on the occasion of Bers’ performance, to explain their radical ideas surrounding what they think is a necessary restructuring of the art market to match the proliferation of digital and new media art.

Bers performing live.

The Creators Project: What is realtime media art?

Benton C. Bainbridge (BCB): Early video artists were interested in ideas like, ‘how can we perform digital music?’ and ‘can you play an image?’ That’s our interest.

Eric Barry Drasin (EBD): Also, these tools are becoming rapidly more accessible to more people. We’re starting to see this proliferation of technique and virtuosity in the performance of these instruments. Now, we’re seeing this point where we’re bringing it onto the stage, and it’s becoming this type of live cinema, live theater. And we’re starting to treat it truly as visual music, with virtuosic performers like Jonas, that can tell a story and bring the audience through something, in a very live way. This is the new electric guitar. But also, it’s art.

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What exacly is "Performing Systems?"

EBD: A few years ago, my friends and I needed a context to really develop and focus what we were doing. So I started a video art collective called the Fast Food Collective, and from that developed Performing Systems. It is the space where people exhibit fully fleshed-out concepts, video scores, that are specifically single-channel. It’s one projector, two speakers, and someone standing in front performing for the audience. I wanted to just focus on the relationship between the performer and the technology that they’re using.

How are you using Artlery and Ascribe?

BCB: We [as a society] don’t really have a system set up for fine artists to participate in royalties from resales, and Artlery is very focused on that.

EBD: We’re getting our certificates of authenticity from Ascribe, and then we’re selling it though Artlery using a smart contract that has resale royalties built into it. Droit de Suite is the term [Artlery uses], French for “right to follow.” Basically it’s resale rights: if we sell a Jonas Bers for $10 today, and then a collector sells that same piece for $100 next year, Jonas deserves to participate in resales of that work.

You could actually build, with the proper infrastructure, a self-executing contract, where that sale could be the thing that triggers the exchange of that artwork, while at the same time, funneing off the percentage to the artist.

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Artlery is also focused on the people that appreciate art. Every time you look at the Mona Lisa, for example, you are adding to the value of that artwork. Artlery is interested in setting up a system where that’s acknowledged. All these blockchain technologies seem to point to this future where there’s this sort of radical participation of users in the economic value that’s created by art participation.

Bers perfoming. Photo courtesy the author.

Could you clarify how blockchain works in relation to selling art?

BCB: The blockchain is like triple-entry accounting, which acknowledges that any human can make a mistake. To enter each item on a ledger in triplicate means three people are checking one another. The blockchain is at the core of how cryptocurrencies work, and the idea is that accounting is done, not by three people, but by a vast network of computers, all of whom can check the legitimacy. In the generation of the cryptocurrency in the first place, called “mining,” the blockchain can confirm that it’s been correctly mined, that it’s a central confirmation across a whole network of computers. Those transactions are all entered with a time-date stamp, and are confirmed by all computers that have access to this public blockchain. So essentially we have all the advantages of multiple-entry accounting, but more open.

Why have you adopted this format?

EBD: The promise of electronic media, not only digital media, is that you can spread it widely. That’s a great thing, but I started with the question, ‘why aren’t realtime media artists collecting one another’s work?’ I came to the conclusion that this community simply didn’t have the superstructure in place so that they could actually collect one another.

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BCB: We’ve sort of just come to the conclusion over the years that art doesn’t have an inherent value. The logic of the free market swoops in, and says, ‘ok, we’re completely devaluing your labor.’ So, with Performing Systems, we’ve been creating these very specific performance environments, where we can really assert the authorship of the performer and the technologist, and treat is as a score. The audience comes to understand that this is something they should treat with some regard, not as something ancillary to a product message, or to theater, or to anything else. It’s important for us to assert the context that we want the work to be seen in, which is that this is, in fact, fine art.

Watch the full documentation of Bers’ performance below.

What do you think about the tension between the traditional fine art market, which relies on scarcity, and the digital art world, which operates on the premise that digital works can be infinitely shared or easily copied?

EBD: Given the trajectory of some of these blockchain technologies, we’re going to start seeing that digital media files are going to be treated as physical objects. It should be the choice of the artist to determine how they either want to license or sell that work. We’re asserting that this is a thing, and it is an object, and we are selling it as an object, it’s a unique object. It’s created out of a unique process that can never be replicated in time and space. Eventually, more people are going to figure out more interesting licensing techniques. Artlery is creating a really interesting system for licensing art and disseminating ownership. At it’s core, what we’re trying to do, is assert the singular nature of digital media, using these technologies, that are currently on the verge of existing.

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Do you think of this project as an avant-garde, or a future mainstream model?

BCB: Exactly the latter. A future mainstream model. I like that personally because, if you look at Nam June Paik’s early writings, there’s a collection of his writings called, Videa n’ Videology; and it’s not like he came up with every idea on his own, but he synthesized all these ideas, and what he was writing about over half a century ago, is the way we live today. He was writing things like, ‘in the future, there will be hundreds of channels of TV.’ ‘In the future, there will be a TV channel to watch paint dry.’ All these things came true. At the time, he sounded like he was tripping, but I’ve seen many of his ideas come true.

Find out more about Moving Pictures Gallery on their website.

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