Can blockchain save art?

Last month I spent a week in Moscow where I spoke at the Skolkova Robotics Forum on Smart Matter: 4 Things That Are Making Every "Thing" Smart. While there, I happened to visit a very unique gallery in the heart of Russia's top cybernetics institute, the National University of Science and Technology, or MISiS.

There, I met Anna Karganova, the director of the Russian Abstract Art Foundation, and Olga Uskova, its president. (Olga is also a scientist, CEO, and self driving car technologist.)

After viewing some of the art, our conversation surprisingly turned to blockchain.

To put it mildly, that's not what I expected from an art historian.

But as the conversation developed, it became clear that artists and curators are looking to blockchain as a possible solution to three problems in art. Provenance, or where an artwork came from, is always a challenge. Fraud will be an issue as long as people are paying millions of dollars for famous paintings. And knowledge about the art is something that curators are always hoping to share.

Here's a summary of our conversation:

Koetsier: How can blockchain help artists and the art world? 

Karganova: In the future, within just 5-7 years, blockchain technology will significantly increase the safety level for all participants of the art process. There are issues that blockchain can already solve now and some issues for which the technology still needs to "grow up."

For us collectors, the most attractive and important thing this technology can give is the potential transparency of all the processes. In the open decentralized database which we can already build with the use of blockchain, we can store information and learn about the origin of the artwork ... we can get info [such as] who's the owner of it and who owns the copyrights. This technology also makes it possible to monitor all the transactions with the particular piece of art and maintain the provenance (exhibitions participation, publications in the catalogs, etc.).

If we have such a database, all the painters and their heirs will be able to track all the movements and relocations of their artworks. This will protect them from illegal sales and situations when after the exhibition the works are not returned to the owners for long time. It's worth mentioning that the technology will be really useful and important for acceptance of artist's resale royalties. So in long term perspective, painters and collectors will be more willing to participate and give their works for various temporary exhibitions.

The most interesting feature that can be developed with the help of blockchain technology is the possibility to purchase a piece/a share of an artwork. But for this one - the necessary legislative base is not yet available in the world. 

Uskova: In this regard, in my opinion, we can implement such an advanced thing as a special cryptocurrency that will be used to evaluate artworks. Accumulation of the art's capital/net worth can depend exclusively on demand: for example - on the total number of views or on the number of acquisitions.

Koetsier: Where would it be the most useful? 

Karganova: First of all, blockchain technology can significantly help us increase and control circulation of the artworks. If we link all the originals to a single open database - this will ensure the number of copies of the paintings/photos/videos is fixed and guaranteed. In general, for all the new multimedia in art - blockchain is a perfect breakthrough system. And it will be especially interesting for those potential buyers who are attracted by innovations and high-tech in arts, but who are often stopped from a real purchase because of the particular insecurity of the art segment.

Koetsier: Honestly, I was really shocked to hear you talk about blockchain. Maybe I had an internal prejudice ... art is creative, and blockchain is technology. How did you get interested in technology? 

Karganova: Art and Technology have been linked for a long time already and we just can't ignore this fact. Some time ago there were doubts about online auctions, but now this method of bidding has successfully and organically merged into the art environment that is historically quite conservative.

The convergence of arts and technology is a process that comes from several directions.

Artists who work with audiovisual and VR technologies often build their works on the basis of rethinking classic art and ideas embedded in it. More and more traditional museums include media artworks in their expositions. And of course all museums are trying to make their expositions digital to store them in worldwide web. One of the important reasons for this is the necessity to attract young audience. There are steps towards art from the developers of artificial intelligence too. 

Uskova: Blockchain is a technology that is based on a new revolutionary ideology. For the artist it's not only about the safety of the artworks' storage and an easy access to virtual galleries, but it is an opportunity and a tool for creation of a new type of digital art. For example it may be an object that consists of many decentered, infinitely embedded worlds that are linked to and united by a single idea.

In the collection of our foundation we have works of a unique artist, Vladislav Zubarev. Back in 1977, when the world hadn't yet suspected the existence of String Theory and before the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle, Zubarev introduced to the contemporary art world his Concept of Temporality.

He said that in a current time, with its dynamics and pace of change, it's impossible to be a truly modern creator without putting time into a single coordinate system. He began to draw in four dimensions and his paintings got really magical dynamics, secrets of which are still not solved up to date by experts from around the Globe. Zubarev's Theory of Temporal Art (1977) included so many correct guesses about the nature of space and time that in 2000s delegations of physicists visited him trying to understand how could an artist in the 1970s visualize what has later been discovered in 2000s.

So this is what can happen with blockchain technology too. Decentralized blockchain is a system of the different connected worlds of ever-changing information ... a great basis for art objects of a new type.

Koetsier: How big an issue is fraud in the art world? Any idea of the scope of the problem?

Uskova: The problem of buying fakes is not that big at the moment as it was 10-15 years ago. There are several explanations for this.

Firstly, buyers' interest has shifted towards the post-WWII and contemporary art, where there are a lot of options to track the origin of the artwork and its provenance. Secondly, methods of technological analysis have really improved. As for those who prefer to buy antique and classic art - these people do this for many years already and they are experts themselves. It's more correct to call them not collectors but connoisseurs. 

For Russian art, the most frequently falsified period is Russian avant garde of the beginning of the 20th century. It may now seem to everyone that the most famous fraud cases are left in 2000s, but nearly several months ago the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent was involved in one huge scandal. Russian and international experts doubted the authenticity of some avant garde paintings from one private collection on show in the museum. This led to a large-scale investigation and early closure of the exhibition. It turned out that the provenance of paintings was unclear and consisted of different fake legends, and even the mentioned publications in exhibition catalogs were forged. 

So what should we prepare for? I think that in a short term perspective the art of the middle 20th century will be in focus of fake makers. In Russian Abstract Art Foundation we have already started creating the database of samples for our artists and completing the catalogues raisonnés for internal use. 

Koetsier: Defending against fraud is one thing blockchain can help the art world with. Anything else?

Karganova: Before buying an artwork, you should check as many details and facts as possible.  

There are two main types of expertise: technological research and the one provided by art historians. Technological expertise studies pigments & binders and defines whether the painting fits the period that is claimed. But this type of study doesn't prove or identify the artwork's authorship. To confirm or to disprove the authorship, during the technological expertise, experts take X-rays. This study case helps to see the structure of the painting and compare it to the museum samples. In some cases ultraviolet light may be implemented. It identifies the signatures applied over the old varnish and shows the preparatory drawings that are individual for each artist.

If we talk about the expertise by art historians, they usually do some kind of a scholarly research. If you are about to close a deal, it makes sense to ask for an opinion of several experts, and better from different countries. Usually for a certain time period or an author - there is a limited number of experts. If two or three experts say that the work is genuine, then in the case of suspicion there will be no one to make an objection. The given certificates themselves should also be checked for authenticity. Nowadays to do that, specialists from auction houses ask the organization, that provided the expertise, to confirm has it issued the submitted papers or not.

All these processes are very time-consuming. And just imagine if all the data could be uploaded to one open database! 

A clear provenance is a very strong reason to buy an artwork. The ideal and rare situation is when the whole history of the artwork can be traced from the artist's studio to all the exhibitions and all owners. If any time periods are missing - then the provenance research is required.

Koetsier: Anything else that I'm missing?

Uskova: Nowadays we can witness just the beginning of the blockchain technology formation process; it is now still on the early stage. But the first deals begin to appear. There are still very few of them, but they set a precedent and allow us to identify all the possible downsides and limitations.

I think that the attractiveness of blockchain will grow with the generation that develops it. The great role of the current art world is played by people who are used to some certain rules and entourage. Pre-auction exhibitions, electrified atmosphere in the auction houses, discoveries of various unexpected data, positive art experts' feedback - all of these provides emotions that are so important to the collectors of the old formation. This emotional experience, that is integral from the process of artwork purchase, is one of the most important parts of arts collecting. When people for whom speed and results are more important will get the necessary resources -- then the introduction of the blockchain will no longer be an issue.

But now, when mathematicians and software developers work with AI projects, they also can no longer work without Contemporary Art. For example the Cognitive Pilot project team, that is now developing neural networks for self-driving cars, has recently moved to a new level - developers are now creating emotions for artificial intelligence.

This kind of work requires a fundamentally different approach: not mathematics, but arts ... in order to understand and project emotions. So in order to understand different emotions, neural networks specialists participate in master classes about Arts that are conducted by the unique method of Ely Belyutin.

Modern programming is a form of a modern art. It has ceased to be a purely logical apparatus. With the advent of heuristic methods of programming and the creation of AI-objects, software products have a new theme of emotion that is so inherent to contemporary art.

Koetsier: Thank you for your time!

Published on: May 23, 2018