By Frances Liddell, Institute for Cultural Practices
Exploring Blockchain in the Cultural Sector was an online conference that took place on 16th October 2020, hosted by the University of Manchester.
The ‘Exploring Blockchain in the Cultural Sector’ conference was born out of a need to bridge a gap, specifically, a gap between those working in the blockchain community and researchers, artists and students in the cultural and creative sectors. During my time researching this area, I’ve often found blockchain conferences to lack the research-led initiatives, instead they are often filled with start-ups promoting their new platform. On the other hand, museum and technology (musetech) conferences have yet to recognise blockchain as a potential tool and I often find myself having to spend my time simply explaining what blockchain is. So, this conference aimed to hover on the line between these two sectors, and, although I could not have predicted a global pandemic, taking the conference online opened up the event in more ways than I could have imagined. We had over 150 registrants for the conference spanning from across the world including; India, Brazil, Canada, the U.S, Nigeria, Australia, Finland, France, Germany and the UK, certainly, a sign that this is an emerging field worth talking about. In what follows, I reflect on the five sessions of the day and summarise the key points from the conference.
Session 1: Governance & Economies
The first session focused on blockchain in the context of governance and economies and Denise Thwaites and Baden Pailthorpe began proceedings with presenting their findings from the project ‘Foraged Stories’, which considered if blockchain could positively impact and make visible the labour relations of a story economy in a community library. Participants were encouraged to ‘forage’ for stories which were stored on a decentralised app (Dapp) that supported the circulation and exchange of this story economy. The project encouraged engagement through the use of stamps which were given to participants for reading and contributing stories. During the talk, the researchers mentioned that in the future these tokens could hold a potential redeemable value in local cultural organisations or as a form of governance and curatorial authority within the library. They also noted how the participants developed a sense of ownership and purpose in gaining these stamps, which suggests that this approach helped to reinforce a sense of community. In this way, this project combines storytelling as a community practice with the use of tokens as a form of incentivisation and this facilitates the formation and strengthening of a community, and this indicates a potential use case of blockchain as a way to highlight the labour and investment of participants in cultural crowdsourcing projects.
This theme of labour and transparency continued with Helen Knowles’ presentation on her piece Trickle Down – A New Vertical Sovereigntywhich explores value systems and wealth disparity through a four-screen video installation and soundscape. The four settings depicted in this work include; prisoners at HMP Altcourse in Liverpool auctioning off plants in return for manual labour, attendees at the Ethereum summit and the auctioning of CryptoKitties, buyers and sellers at the Openshaw market in North Manchester, and the Russian community buying works at a Sotheby’s auction. These very different economies are brought together in the work which can only be initiated by a pound coin inserted into a central and transparent machine, and this sets off the smart contract that converts this coin into crypto-currency and divides it among all the participants of the project. In this way, the project advocates for a process of reimbursement that was non-hierarchical in nature.
It was interesting to hear about the practicalities of this project, namely the movement of the physical pound coins collected during the exhibition and the human labour involved in this process. While the piece implies a flow of exchange from physical money to shared cryptocurrency, in fact, Helen and the gallery had to collect these funds and transfer it into a bank account and the smart contract had to be fitted with its own set of funds beforehand so that the process could work. In this respect, the project resonates with the process of mining on the blockchain where the distributed and invisible human labour grounds the production of new coins (Bjerg, 2016; Zimmer, 2017; Dodd, 2018), hence in both cases, there is ‘invisible’ human labour involved in the process of renumeration.
The final presentation of this session was from Aude Launay who introduced four DAOs run by artists which included; the Decentralised Autonomous Kunstverein (DAK), the Trojan DAO, the Black Swan DAO and the Culture Stake DAO. While some of these DAOs are yet to be practically implemented, they all involve reconceptualising the ways artists and local communities work together and potentially replace age old institutions with flexible ones. Like the two previous presentations, value was a key theme throughout with this need to make value visible and highlight the labour of artists. Time, money and effort are all treated as of equal value in each initiative and this re-evaluates what is considered meaningful in each of these organisations. This also promotes the human element as the critical part to these projects as DAOs do not fully automate everything, and as Aude mentioned, organisations are about people working together and DAOs simply automate the organising aspect to this such as the process of governance.
In this respect, all three presentations focused on this idea of hidden labour and forming alternative approaches to the renumeration and collaboration of people. In each case, the participants are asked to invest in some way and this labour is both valued and made visible, indicating a non-hierarchal practice to value. Of course, such ideas resonate with the cooperative movement, suggesting that blockchain is not creating anything new, however, it is about to what extent blockchain can make this process more effective and transparent for cultural and creative organisations, and in doing so, support a stronger sense of community.
Session 2: Tokens
The second session focused on the theme of tokens and considered the use of tokenisation as a way to reconceptualise value and critically examined the notion of the cryptocollectible. Patrice Poujol’s presentation looked at the application of tokens as a funding stream in different film case scenarios. His underlying argument was based on how to redefine value using blockchain tokens and he ground this idea in the context of David Graeber’s (2001) analysis of value, in which value is not only viewed in a monetary sense but it also focuses on what is desirable. In other words, what other forms of value can we capture with tokenisation? His three case studies highlight this need for collaboration with audiences, an idea that resonates with the previous discussion on the shift from audience consumption to participant investment. Of course, there are barriers to address, such as legalities and adoption, however, this need to re-evaluate what values are prioritised is a significant point when it comes to the creative and cultural industries, particularly in light of the economic climate and reductions in arts funding.
This idea of value was also a prominent theme in my own presentation where I considered the use and implementation of cryptocollectibles at the National Museums Liverpool (NML). This case study, which is part of my ongoing PhD research, examines the notion of value in the context of connection and collaboration which I ground in museological discussions on shared guardianship and collective ownership. My research asked a group of participants to personally ‘invest’ in the collections by prioritising their experiences about particular museum objects which were then digitally represented and owned in the form of cryptocollectibles. In doing so, I found that a layered ownership begins to form in which both the museum and the participant have a stake in the cryptocollectible and what it represents, and I argue that this provides the potential for shared guardianship to form. This concept also builds on the argument that the collections of national museums, such as the one at the NML, are owned by the nation and so there is sense that they are ‘collectively owned’, cryptocollectibles could extend this idea and reconceptualise the notion of ownership in the context of the digital museum collection.
Pablo Somonte Ruano’s presentation also examined cryptocollectibles but in the context of his piece ‘Aura and Transvestment’. His discussion is developed from Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura, which he understands to be a metaphysical form of authenticity rooted in the presence of the work. With cryptocollectibles, cryptography holds an auratic power as it imposes an artificial scarcity in digital artworks; it returns artistic production to a ritualistic tendency as these digital files gain a proof of ownership and a desirable authenticity. However, in doing so, the commodification of these digital artworks restricts the abundance of this media and simply builds a market based on intangible entities that are ‘conjured’ up through authenticity. His argument about ‘transvestment’ can be summarised in a quote he noted from Brian Massumi (2018); ‘Even before capitalism is overcome, it may be possible to have one foot in both streams, in ways that prefigure its beyond’; in other words, ‘transvestment’ works at the intersection of capitalism and the commons, it produces a form of hybrid where artists work in both so that they can be remunerated for their work. As such, he argues that value is not about the work of art but about the ‘art in work’.
All three of these presentations reflect these ideas of investment and the value in hidden labour. Specifically, each look at the use of tokens as a way to represent and emanate these values, an idea that we also saw in Denise and Baden’s presentation. Moreover, Pablo’s discussion connects to this alternative mode of working such as the DAOS described by Aude where the whole process of the artist’s work is taken into consideration. These presentations ask us to re-evaluate which values we currently prioritise, and to consider what ultimately creates value in the context of the creative and cultural sectors.
Marcus O’Dair’s keynote presented the main opportunities, risks and barriers to the application of blockchain in the cultural and creative sectors based on his book Distributed Creativity: How blockchain technology will transform the creative economy (O’Dair, 2019). Marcus’ core argument was grounded in the idea that blockchain is a disruptive technology and such technologies are never taken up quickly, instead there is often a slow adoption, but this does not lessen the potential impact that blockchain technology could have across the sectors.
He presented the main opportunities under four themes; ownership, payments, increased control, and new business models. These broad themes highlighted some the unique qualities using the technology, namely the potential for collaboration, the distribution of power and wealth, and the ability to authenticate. However, in highlighting the risks and the barriers, Marcus also showed that there are some practical issues to overcome if the technology is to be taken up by the sector. These included technological issues, environmental issues, legal and policy making problems, as well as social barriers such as the lack of public take up. What was clear from his discussion is the need to highlight blockchain as simply a technology and not a solution to all economic, political and social problems within the sector. Blockchain has the potential to reimagine the sectors’ approaches to ownership, authenticity and social infrastructure, but it could also support the storing of works illegally or reinforce current social hierarchies. In this way, blockchain is ‘neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral’ (Kranzberg, 1995, p. 5); instead, it is contingent on its surroundings and on those that choose to engage with the technology.
Session 3: Provenance
Gareth Fletcher began the provenance session on considering provenance and blockchain in the art market and questioned if the art market is putting too much trust into the use of blockchain. When we think about the key attributes of blockchain, the art market would appear to be a clear benefactor with blockchain’s ability to address the issues of transparency and provenance. However, as Gareth notes, this potential solution needs to be considered carefully and, again it goes back to this idea that blockchain is simply a tool, it cannot stop others from using it fraudulently. In other words, the technology cannot prove the documented information is accurate, also known as the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ problem.
Using a case study of an anonymous company working in the space of blockchain provenance documentation for art, Gareth highlights how there is room for misinterpretation about what exactly such organisations are able to do. In summary, it appears that these organisations are hiding behind a veneer of blockchain’s ‘transparency’ and ‘trust’ so to avoid taking any responsibility for records embedded into the blockchain that are not accurate. Moreover, the case of the online art auction platform ‘Paddle8’ going bankrupt suggests that the data stored on these platforms could be at risk if these businesses fail. Therefore, while trustworthy brands of the art market such as Sotheby’s has the potential to improve the public’s perception of blockchain technology, there are also considerable barriers and risks to consider before users can completely trust the new process of documentation.
Mark Bell’s presentation on the ARCHANGEL project continued with the theme of trust. This project was a collaboration between the National Archives and the University of Surrey and explored trust and preservation of born-digital artefacts. As Mark noted, there are challenges to digital preservation such as document integrity, data corruption, format shifting and the potential for malicious deletion and, although some of these issues can be addressed individually, blockchain offers a system that can address these challenges. The project consisted of six archives from across the globe taking part in using a private blockchain to consider if the technology could embed trust into digital archiving. Therefore, this notion of trust was a key point again and Mark noted how cultural institutions such as the National Archives hold an authority over knowledge that enables users to trust that the information provided is accurate. However, with the increasingly lack of trust in the digital world with the likes of fake news, AI written articles, and deep fakes, such institutions might start to lose their reputation as a trusted institution in this space, but blockchain might help to reinforce these institution’s authority and reputation within the digital space through its immutability and distributed nature.
Meanwhile, Simone Wesner’s presentation on the topic of provenance focused on the notion of transparency and drew upon earlier conversations about hidden labour and value context of weaving. Her initial research project was to collect information and form a network of weavers with the aim to eventually document the different aspects of a weaved craft’s life cycle. In doing so, she considers the value of documenting the provenance about a piece and explore the narratives of care. Her interviews with weavers found that this idea was a welcome one, although, the interviewees’ limited knowledge about the technology could be a practical implication. At the core of this research is this notion of reputation through provenance, which suggests a shift away from focusing on value creation in an economical or monetary sense, to one that is embedded in cultural, personal and social values. However, as mentioned in the previous two presentations on the topic, the ‘garbage in; garbage out’ problem remains a significant point to consider as this project will only produce the intended values if the information provided on the blockchain is accurate.
Together, these presentations reflect the opportunity of enforcing trust through blockchain and such an opportunity also highlights the potential in creating reputation and supporting authority in the digital space. As we saw in each of these presentations, the process of documentation gives evidence that can be used as a way of proving ownership, contributing to an artist’s reputation, and reinforcing the cultural institution’s authority as the presenter of knowledge in the digital space. Hence, provenance is more than simply documenting what we already know about a piece, the process can inform a sense of trust that is valuable beyond the artwork.
Session 4: Creative Industries
The final session from the conference considered the impact of blockchain in the creative industries and Alesja Serada provided a reflection on the use of blockchain in gaming, specifically looking at the game ‘CryptoKitties’ which is renowned for its implementation of non-fungible tokens on the Ethereum blockchain. The game consists of players buying, selling and breeding digital cats which are stored as ERC-721 tokens on the Ethereum blockchain, however, the game has recently moved to the blockchain Flow due to the ever-increasing high gas fees on Ethereum. The game continues to use non-fungible tokens as these tokens’ scarcity and proven authenticity remains the integral part to playing this game. But, as Alesja notes, this scarcity value is questioned in this game due to the lack of active players, indeed, the game has over a million digital cats and yet only around 3,000 active players which, in the context of supply and demand, indicates that these cats are far from scarce. Therefore, there is a paradox at play here, where the game tries to attract players with the idea of holding a scarce digital cat and yet the lack of players contradicts this digital scarcity. In other words, the game needs mass adoption if it is to work at all, an argument that reflects the situation with all cryptocurrencies; hence, value is dependent on the community as much as it needs the concept of scarcity.
Manuel Badel’s presentation focused more on the media industry and the potential of blockchain, his work consisted of the key findings from the report Blockchain Technology and the Canadian Media Industrywhich included opportunities to find new sources of financing, traceability, and facilitate coproduction. He also highlighted the core challenge to the adoption of the technology, namely that blockchain is the ‘slow disruption’, by which he means that blockchain is a disruptive technology but it will take time before it is accepted, adopted and implemented, an idea that resonates with Marcus’ earlier comment about blockchain and its potential impact. He also noted the process of which an industry is transformed by a technology; in the first instance there is education, then there is experimentation, collaboration and finally transformation. His example of his current work with the DPAC/ Kino platform highlights how experimental projects can embody these different stages, it also reflects a need for industry professionals and researchers to collaborate together so to facilitate the transformation of the creative, media and cultural sectors using blockchain technology.
Rouslan Ovtcharoff ended the session with an overview of blockchain in the entertainment industries in which he highlights how blockchain entertainment platforms have the potential to engage audiences through methods such as incentivisation, monetise content and enable content creators to go directly to the audiences and fans. Another core opportunity mentioned is this ability to create marketplaces which produce new economies, and specifically in regard to digital art there is this ability to create ‘value out of nothing’. Virtual worlds offer a case in point; blockchain has infiltrated this area with platforms such as Decentraland and Cryptovoxel where players can buy virtual land using cryptocurrencies. Rouslan compared this idea to the beginnings of MySpace in which users decked out their profiles with pictures and music, and in a similar way, these virtual spaces have become a way of presenting people’s identity and a new form of social media. In this way, the value of these virtual spaces is sourced from the users’ desire to present their identity; it is translated from the users’ engagement with these spaces.
Once again, the key point to these presentations was this idea of value creation, namely, the value created (or the lack there of) in the digital space through digital scarcity and the value in educating, experimenting and collaborating. This idea of value reflects more widely across the various presentations of this conference, specifically, there is this question of what do we value as a sector and how do we go about presenting these values?
The responses to this question will help to mould the future of this emerging field, whether this is in policy making, education or experimenting with new projects. It will also help to minimise the risk of initiatives simply implementing current infrastructures and support the sector in focusing on the hidden values in cultural production. Hence, blockchain has the potential to be a disruptive technology in this sector but only if those that are part of this field help to shape the technology so that it meets the needs of the sector.
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Frances Liddell is a third year PhD student at the Institute for Cultural Practices and the organiser of the ‘Exploring Blockchain in the Cultural Sector’ conference. Her research involves working with the National Museums Liverpool and explores how blockchain technology might be implemented in museums to cultivate a sense of collective and psychological ownership between a museum and its audiences.
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