In this essay, Rachel O’Dwyer wonders if cryptokitties might tell us something meaningful about the market conditions of contemporary art and the workings of modern finance.
Codex is both delighted and humbled by the results of the live charity auction at Ethereal Summit. The outpouring of support from attendees has reaffirmed that we can use blockchain technology to unlock the value of art and collectibles. When we founded Codex, cryptowealthy investors had few avenues to access this lucrative asset class. Now, thanks to the hard work and determination of our dedicated team and the support of our industry consortium, we are proud to say that Codex is no longer just a concept; it’s a tried and tested reality. Through our live auction at Ethereal Summit, we have proven that the cryptowealthy want to invest in and collect art & collectibles and that the Codex platform can unlock value for collectors, intermediaries, and artisans alike.
– Codex CEO, Mark Lurie, May 12, 2018.
The Ethereal Summit in New York took place in May 2018. It featured a Live Art auction of blockchain artworks hosted by Codex, a company dedicated to building a registry for unique assets, and the R.A.R.E art platform, a startup keen to make digital works of art scarce and saleable. The works auctioned were “crypto-art”, rare digital and physical artworks that are associated with unique tokens on the Ethereum blockchain. To be more specific what were up for auction were the ownership and provenance details of the works of art encrypted in the Ethereum blockchain and represented by a token. Pieces included a Twitter Whale, a watercolour of the Ethereum logo by Terry Cook and a painting of a White Paper (a kind of manifesto commonly produced by new cryptocurrencies) by Andy Boot. Most of the works sold for between three and ten thousand dollars until the final lot of the evening, the Celestial Cyber Dimension cryptokitty is brought to the stage. Celestial Cyber Dimension is a cryptokitty designed by the company’s head of art Guile Gaspar. The cryptokitty for sale has both a physical and cryptographic dimension. It includes the ERC-721 token associated with the rare cat, as well as a custom hardware wallet that contains its private key and features a small animated version of the cryptokitty. The auctioneer’s voice catches in her throat as the bids reach $140,000, sold to an online bidder.
The cryptokitty phenomenon hangs somewhere between a game, procedural art and rare collectibles. The work uses the Ethereum blockchain to produce digital scarcity, allowing consumers to buy, sell and trade digital goods as though they had a physical, rival dimension. Cryptokitties started life as a game where players could run smart contracts to acquire, breed and trade virtual cats. The smart contract uses a genetic algorithm to determine details of the cat’s characteristics (called “cattributes”) including background, patterns, fur stripes, spots, colour and facial expressions. The output is a non-fungible token that is associated with a genetically unique cat. Players can store the genome data and perform different operations using the smart contracts, including making new kitties or breeding with others and auctioning their kitties to the highest bidder. Most of these cats are traded for around $25 but a few have been auctioned for more than $100,000. These cute virtual creatures have more market stability than many initial coin offerings or ICOs and their value has, as one commentator put it, “risen (and fallen) faster than just about everything in the analogue art world.”
A few weeks after the Live Art auction, I met with a number of artists and curators involved to discuss their experience of the event. One was Ruth Catlow, a director of the Furtherfield Gallery in London, an institution known for its work with peer-to-peer technologies that have been experimenting with art on the blockchain since 2013. Ruth was invited to act as a visiting judge and agreed to attend because of her fascination with the intersection of the arts and the crypto space. Watching the blockchain native works of art go for thousands, what did she feel was going on in that moment? What, even, was being purchased?
The Ethereal Auction seems to illustrate some truths about the art market and the variegated economic function of the work of art. Art Basel Miami’s director Noah Horowitz explored some of the motivations for purchasing art in The Art of the Deal, a book that explores the inner workings of the globalised art market. These motivations overlap and might not even be clear to the buyer herself, but alongside those that come from recognising the aesthetic or social value of the work, or, indeed, the sense that patronage of the arts is a social good, there are different forms of hedging at play. For example, a buyer might purchase a work as an asset in the hope that its market value will increase in the future, or even make a purchase to prevent the bottom from falling out of a market they have already invested in. But a buyer might also purchase a work of art because of what the act of purchasing says about her, culturally, socially and economically. Such “signalling” has long played a role in art markets. Buyers don’t just buy a beautiful object or an asset that they hope will grow in value; buying art is a form of self-investment in a world where social capital often correlates with economic returns. Using this framework, the flamboyant purchase of the Celestial Cyber Dimension cryptokitty might have had several different motivations – the desire to possess an artwork that the buyer finds meaningful; to make a strategic investment in a market; or to make a strategic investment in the buyer’s own social and economic reputation.
With cryptokitties, the art purchased has no physical manifestation. In these cases, controversially, the buyer is essentially purchasing a 256-character string that signifies ownership. “In this instance, the artwork auctioned stands in for and is interchangeable with any valuable non-fungible asset” says Ruth. The cryptokitty has value as a set of rights to a financial asset. The buyer doesn’t purchase an image or an idea so much as a cryptographic certificate of authenticity that can be used to speculate on the future performance of the token. This is one situation where content isn’t king. Ruth puts her finger on it when she says that the aesthetic significance of a cartoon cat or a watercolour of an Ethereum logo (another piece for sale) is basically beside the point. Buyers not only have no rights over the future uses of the image, they don’t even have any rights to possess a lasting reproduction.
When we spoke about the mood of the auction itself, Ruth went on to suggest that the purchase was also about the social or economic status of the buyer; “in that moment the buyer was purchasing a souvenir of a moment – a moment he himself created by buying the token” she says. Witnessing the giddy hype of the crypto-auction Ruth was convinced that purchasing the token was also an act of “signalling”, designed to say something about the status of the buyer to the crypto-community. This also chimed with the perspective offered by the auction’s organiser, Jess Houlgrave, when she told me that these auction prices are often driven by a degree of bravado and ostentation on the part of the newly crypto-wealthy. Here the work of “art” is the public sale of the cryptographic token and the buyer’s involvement in the frothy hype that circulates around its future worth.
Webb Keane has argued that one of the fascinating things about money is the way it can’t ever be reduced to the materiality of whatever it’s made of. This in turn means that money’s uses and meanings can never really be pinned down either, making it vulnerable to slippage and open to reinterpretation. Since the readymade at least, we can say the same thing about the artwork; its meaning and its cultural and economic “value” circle around the formal attributes of the work without ever fully alighting. These values and meanings get made and remade in situated practices. It’s easier to see the market at work in Celestial Cyber Dimension precisely because there isn’t any valuable “thing” that’s getting in our way. The distance between the artwork as a valuable asset or commodity and the work of art as liquidity or money has all but disappeared. The ERC token slips back and forth between art and money and manages to be both at the same time. In this way it’s like a lot of contemporary art but it’s more obvious. I think this is why it fascinates us so much. It promises to tell us something meaningful about the market conditions of contemporary art, but also, maybe about the conditions of modern finance.
Art is the New Asset Class
Art and the market have always been deeply entwined, but, as Max Haiven points out in Art after Money, Money after art, we’re experiencing an intensification of these processes. And this intensification isn’t just more of the same, forcing us to look more closely at the commodity status of the artwork. The extent of operations performed around physical, digital and entirely conceptual works means that art isn’t just a commodity to be bought and sold, but becomes the currency of exchange for hedge funds and private equity funds, where it is traded like any other financial asset. And in becoming less a commodity and more of a financial asset, the material or ontological status of the work becomes more difficult to grapple with.
Deloitte’s 2017 Art and Finance report argues that while art has always functioned as a financial investment, this approach is growing in significance due to low interest rates in other investments, the need for new financial instruments and markets, and the sense that burgeoning technologies can solve extant issues regarding authenticity, risk, high transaction costs, market transparency and market regulation. While art as a speculative investment isn’t anything new, banks and boutique lenders are developing new kinds of financial instruments specifically for the art market. Art investment funds, where groups of buyers club together to invest in a portfolio of works are one example. Another is art securitisation, where collectors use works in their portfolio as equity to raise capital and secure future loans. Institutions offering such services include auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but also new boutique lenders specialising in art and finance such as Athena Art Finance Corp and Artemus.
In the past fifteen years there’s also been an increase in what are called “High Net Worth Individuals” (or simply HNWIs) looking to invest their capital in what Deloitte are calling “passion assets” such as cars, fine wine and fine art. Often the future market value of these goods is divorced from any pleasure or use on the part of the buyer. In a keynote at the Talking Galleries Symposium in Barcelona in 2015, the Global director Marc Spiegler described the death of what he called the connoisseur collector, a buyer intimately acquainted with the art world and the emergence instead of a new breed of plutocrat collectors who buy “with their ears, not with their eyes”. Investors are encouraged to invest in art works as a way of diversifying their portfolios and hedge risk in the face of falling interest rates and market volatility.
Artworks bought for investment purposes are often housed in special extra-legal or tax-free spaces known as freeports where they don’t incur duty fees. Because of the fiscal legacy of the freeport, as spaces where goods like tea and grain were historically stored before being shipped elsewhere, the works in question are fiscally “in transit” from one place to another, even if they are going nowhere anytime soon. Here the freeport is a kind of “bank” for art investments and the works in question are just assets, often staying in their high security vaults indefinitely or even changing owners without changing location.
The ambition of the freeport and the rise of new kinds of arrangements like art funds and arts securitisation are an attempt to make artworks that are lumpy and illiquid (difficult to sell quickly) more liquid in a global market. When a work of art enters the freeport it allows a buyer to hold it there indefinitely without paying tax while they wait for the conditions of a resale to be right. In the meantime, the freeport also provides a stable and secure base from which to list the work as collateral in a loan. A buyer can potentially use the work or even sell shares of a work of art to finance the purchase of other works, for example, without, depending on the legalities of the country, having to surrender the work itself.
The extra-legal and extra-territorial dimensions of the freeport are a space of fascination for artist-theorists such as Hito Steyerl and Stefan Heidenreich, who believe the structure is emblematic of an institutional shift from the public museum and strategic investment in a national cultural policy towards a globalised art market. Here art functions as a financial instrument without duties or obligations to the nation-state, while the state acts as a para-corporation whose main duty is to shore up the market. But it also seems that theorists are fascinated by the ethereal geographies of the freeport, the way its financial operations have the effect of displacing the materiality of objects and geographies, of making things disappear from view.
Mark Taylor argues that the financialisation of goods isn’t just about allowing new kinds of things to enter the market. In facilitating new markets, the physical asset and its financial correlative begin to part company. To be extremely reductive, there are three different kinds of financial instruments. There are bonds, which represent a claim to a debt obligation, and there are stocks, assets or commodities, which represent an ownership claim over a thing. Stocks and bonds are traded in secondary markets. Then there is a third kind of financial instrument called a derivative, which represents a measurement of the risk associated with the performance of bonds and stocks. For example, in advance of the financial crash, goods like mortgages were associated with a kind of derivative called a credit default swap. The derivative wasn’t someone’s debt or a share in the house itself; it was a kind of bet on the likelihood of default in the underlying bond. In such a case, the real value of the mortgage is less important than statistical probability of its price performance within a specified timeframe relative to other portfolio holdings. Value is determined by its risk quotient relative to other assets controlled by the fund.
Art works in a freeport context behave like commodities or shares, but as part of broader portfolios of investment, they also come to behave as derivatives. Taylor makes the point that the transformation from commodity or asset to derivative decouples the value of the financial instrument from the good itself; value accrues less from how much the asset is actually worth and more from the information and confidence that circulates around the good. The breathless Codex art auction seems to suggest something similar, the production of an aesthetically empty work of art on a blockchain whose value resides in its derivative functions. This is particularly the case with blockchain-based tokens where there is massive volatility and uncertainty in the market. I’m saying this, not to fetishise the freeport or the financial system as a thing where everything “magically disappears” or is abstracted from the real, but to acknowledge the very everyday ways in which things are now transformed and displaced within markets, and ask what that means for the cultural and economic value of contemporary art.
Art on the blockchain
Since 2014, companies have been experimenting with the use of the blockchain as a registry to store details about the ownership and provenance of digital (and more recently, physical) art. Bitcoin was exciting in part because it solved what’s known as the double-spend problem; it created a decentralised registry where a digital token could be recorded. In the bitcoin system the rare or scarce thing were the bitcoin tokens that people transferred. With the development of Ethereum, the system expanded so that tokens could represent many other things and many arrangements between them.
Initially Bitcoin was imagined as an anarchist technology that, through a cryptographic mechanism, removed the need for a trusted intermediary such as a central bank or state in the management of money. Once imagined as a horizontal technology that could form the basis for new ways of thinking about money or co-operation, the design of the coin has mostly functioned as a speculative instrument, a kind of Ponzi scheme that rewarded early adopters. People buy bitcoin or Ether in the way they buy stocks, in the hope that they will increase in value and can someday be sold on for a profit. The wild gains experienced by early adopters, leading to the term “crypto-wealthy” to describe dudes who have millions in bitcoin but can’t stand their round in the pub, has led to multiple blockchain start-ups emerging and offering new kinds of coins that represent a stake in a company, some kind of utility or a murky combination of the two. The blockchain is a database that stores and verifies its data in such a way that it’s extremely difficult to defraud. Initially the data in question was a ledger about who owned what bitcoin at any one moment in time, but Codex and others imagine a registry of works of art or digital music files. Here the tokens offered represent utility on the platform and potentially a stake in artworks.
Start-ups have explored ways of associating other physical valuable goods such as physical works of art with the blockchain. In sum this involves coupling a physical object to a hash, which is encoded on a blockchain such as the Bitcoin or Ethereum. Art is just one example of the rise of asset exchanges on the blockchain: companies are tokenising real estate, natural assets, gold bullion, and just about any tangible or intangible asset imaginable. Cryptographic tokens are used to represent a specific object that exists in the real world. This coupling of the physical, material thing to a cryptographic hash is called ‘tokenisation’, and the broader shift of revenue streams towards utilising the latent equity in everyday things is called “tokenomics”.
The cryptokitty is just one example of the tokenisation of art objects. Tokenising an artwork basically means associating a particular work with data, metadata or a digital object that can circulate in a market in place of the artwork. Since “Colored Coins”, an early experiment where fractions of Bitcoins were associated with metadata tokens, cryptographic coins have been associated with metadata in order to represent a collectible luxury good and to represent or link the token (an entry in the blockchain) with a particular work of art.
In 2015, Rhizome in New York hosted an event entitled Blockchain Horizons, imagining the future of the blockchain for the creative and cultural industries. Among the presenters was artist Kevin McCoy, who had developed a blockchain startup called Monegraph. Monegraph was at the vanguard of developments at the intersection of blockchain and the creative and cultural industries. It used the Bitcoin blockchain to record the ownership and provenance of digital images, be they works of art or stock images. In brief, this involves associating details about the ownership or provenance of a digital file with a bitcoin hash instead of details about a bitcoin transaction. With digital art, a proprietor such as the artist or dealer could use a cryptographic hash function to authenticate a work and sign this with their private key. This hash could be used to inscribe ownership and attribution details with respect to the artefact, producing an unbreakable record of authenticity. Using a consensus mechanism such as “proof of work” , property rights associated with a digital good such as a work of art may be encoded in the blockchain and may not be overwritten or falsified. These rights can be transferred in their entirety in the same way that Bitcoin tokens are transferred from one address to another, by transferring cryptocurrency from an owner to a recipient address. Monegraph was one of the first blockchain applications associated with what are sometimes known as passion assets. Another was Everledger, an insurance company who turned to the blockchain to record the authenticity and provenance of diamonds.
Blockchain technologies are now being used with art in various different ways, as a provenance, traceability and authentication tool, as a visibility tool for artists, as a template for new payment models such as crowdfunding, and as a form of asset exchange, where physical works of art are stored in freeports, represented by cryptographic digital tokens and traded as equity in a market, divided into shares or used to secure loans.
One example of the latter is Maecenas, a start-up tokenising physical works of art on the Ethereum blockchain. Maecenas allows dealers to list up to 49% of the value of a painting on the blockchain, opening up a dealer’s collection to new streams of finance, while allowing investors to diversify their portfolios by investing in fine art. Maecenas have developed an ICO called, provocatively ART, a clearing and settlement token for art auctions that is currently trading at $ 0.543936 and which is represented as a utility token for managing and implementing the Dutch auction process within the Maecenas platform. The Maecenas white paper provides a description of this process:
Maecenas uses blockchain technology to create tamper-proof digital certificates linked to pieces of art. These certificates are highly secure and impossible to forge thanks to the cryptographic properties of blockchains. A single artwork is broken down into thousands of certificates, similar to how a public company issues shares, Investors can then purchase these certificates to own a percentage of a given artwork, and they can sell them back to other investors at any time via the Maecenas exchange. Artworks can be listed in any fiat currency (e.g. USD, EUR) or cryptocurrency (e.g. BTC, ETH).
Targeting the illustrious HNWIs, Maecenas is currently trying to develop partnerships with freeports in Geneva to house works that will be listed on their blockchain.
Even more recently, a number of art fairs and galleries have focused on artworks that are “native” to the blockchain, such as those auctioned at the Codex and RARE Ethereal summit in New York. At the recent Ethereal Summit, artist Kevin Abosch exhibited the Forever Rose, an ERC20 token called ROSE on the Ethereum blockchain that derives from Abosch’s photograph of a rose. “It doesn’t exist in a physical sense.”, Abosch explains, “it is the result of using blockchain technology to create a virtual proxy of the photographic work.” Unlike Monegraph and Maecenas, then, which link works of art that exist in the digital or physical sense, the ethereal Forever Rose doesn’t have a physical presence, or even a virtual presence, just a monetary one. In other words, these aren’t tokens that are associated with physical or digital works of art, but works of art or collectibles that, like a centenary coin, consist of the tokens themselves or the smart contracts they encapsulate. The artist suggests that this work, as well as a similar project, Potato #345, pose crucial questions concerning the relationship between objecthood, scarcity and value.
Distributed Gallery, a space that describes itself as a gallery dedicated to blockchain art, recently developed an art piece called Readymade Token by Richard Prince Prince is an artist notorious for appropriating online images and selling them as gallery photographs, so this segue into speculative tokens didn’t seem out of character. The work initially went on sale for 1 Ether (approximately $650). The plot thickened, however, when it became clear, through a Twitter conversation, that Prince had no knowledge of the work, or indeed, of the blockchain. The work was revealed to be a conceptual experiment on the shifting nature of the ready-made artwork and the artist’s public signature in the age of cryptography. The true creators of Readymade Token, Olivier Sarrouy and his friends, had been experimenting with the blockchain for a while and wanted to make a thought experiment. “We wondered if we could take something like a coin or its token equivalent on the blockchain and make it ‘art’ just by saying, “well it’s a piece of art and we’re trying to sell it in the art world””, Sarrouy tells me in a phone interview.
The same can be said for cryptokitties. What buyers essentially purchase when they purchase a cryptokitty aren’t rights to the image of a cute cat but a 256-character string. Purchasing a cryptokitty, some say, is a bit like purchasing a baseball card with a picture of a cat on it. The only difference is there is no baseball card and there is no cat. There isn’t even any guarantee of a picture of a cat. Like money then, the ownership claim lays claim to nothing more than the act of ownership itself. What’s valuable is the information circulating around the good. Information is trust, confidence, reputation, a single moment created by hubris and purchasing power. The transaction takes place on a purely informational basis. The art in question isn’t a commodity with a use or exchange value but a financial instrument whose performance relies on the hype and information that circulates around the good.
Mckenzie Wark has written about the art as an intangible ownership claim in relation to the work of Tino Seghal, whose performances have no commodity form but are sold through a notarised oral contract between artist and buyer, who shake hands to seal the deal. If the buyer chooses to resell then the same oral contract is used. This oral contract is the only added value of an otherwise intangible performance. Seghal’s work is described journalistically in terms of its anti-market perspectives, an intangible deliberately designed to short circuit familiar circuits of production and consumption, were it not for the fact that intangible assets are now at the heart of a financialised economy. When Seghal shakes on a sale, anything from £50,000 to £100,000 can change hands. Wark, a performer in Seghal’s This Progress (2010) at the Guggenheim, describes overhearing that a Seghal had almost gone on the secondary market. Seghal’s work is typical of experiential and relational art. In the 1960s there was a sense that the advent of conceptual art and the dematerialisation of the art object was supposed to challenge the commodity status of the work of art. Here, “dematerialisation” challenges the artwork’s commodity status, but only to push it forward into increasingly abstract markets and financial arrangements, where materiality ceases to matter and flexible systems of rights become key.
This shift from commodity to financial instrument also implies a different economic relationship to the artwork, where the certificate of ownership and authenticity, rather than the formal manifestation of the work itself, are what is most significant. The idea that economic value resides in a certificate of authenticity as opposed to in an artistic image, performance or experience chimes with the marketing of much conceptual and experiential art. While researching the connections between economic value and acts of authentication and signification, artist Sam Keogh points me towards a legal discussion of the value of a Dan Flavin, a conceptual artist known for this fluorescent light tube sculptures. A buyer who has lost the certificate of authenticity wants to know what her Flavin is now “worth”. Nothing it turns out; she lost the right to call her light bulb a Flavin, or crucially to resell it as such, when she lost the certificate of authenticity.
Much of the blockchain art seems to function in a similar way; discussions of whether a buyer owns the image are not so significant when the buyer is really purchasing a financial instrument. The cryptokitty owner owns a 256-character string and no rights to the image of the kitty or its future use by the cryptokitties company. The image might be lost to the ether, but so long as he can prove that he owns the token, he doesn’t really lose anything. The distance between the artwork as a valuable asset or commodity and the work of art as liquidity or money has all but disappeared. The ERC token slips back and forth between art and money and manages to be both at the same time.
Thanks to loads of people for insights and research that went into this article: Ruth Catlow and Furtherfied, Maecenas, Monegraph and Ascribe, all who have talked to me on numerous occasions, Codex’s Jess Houlgrave, Helen Kaplinsky, Andy Boot, Olivier Sarrouy, Sarah Friend, Jonas Lund, the Institute of Network Vulture’s Moneylab and all the participants at their 2018 event in London. Thanks to Bill Maurer, Brett Scott and Taylor Nelms for their fascinating insights and feedback into my half-baked ideas about tokens, to Max Haiven and Stefan Heidenreich for chatting to me about freeports. Many thanks to The RIA Charlemont Grant for covering my research trip to the UK, The Fulbright Commission for funding a further research trip to the Institute of Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion to consolidate this work. Finally, many thanks to Michaele Cutaya and Circa for inviting this piece.