SCRF Interviews | The Decentralized Art Object Framework with Eric Barry Drasin (Ep. 8)

Overview

This episode of SCRF Interviews features an interview with CU Boulder Media Studies Ph.D. student artist Eric Barry Drasin, a media artist who describes the Decentralized Art Object Framework he created, some of his work, and his thoughts about serious art on the blockchain. Hosted by James Brandon McGirk, an editor at the Smart Contract Research Forum.

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Audio (Apple, Spreaker)

At issue:

  • One of the characteristics of contemporary art–particularly conceptual art–is the dematerialization of the art object itself, which refers to emphasizing the thought process even when it renders the art object (such as a painting on a canvas) obsolete.
  • The Decentralized Art Object Framework (DAOF) was a legal and technological framework using a blockchain to store coded sets of instructions that could become art objects in themselves, this allowing both transfer and “rematerializations” of generative work, i.e. the creation of authorized replicas per an artist’s specifications.
  • Since the DAOF framework mostly replicated traditional art contracts, Drasin used another maneuver to create his own work; he used the framework as a conceptual scaffold to present several speculative works that reimagining and interrogating reality.

Opening Normcorp’s whitepaper takes you to a blank page. Scroll down further and the page will increase in size, and continue increasing and increasing in length unspooling nothing but a blank white page until the browser crashes. Beneath the hood, the “whitepaper” is a set of instructions endlessly creating content-less div tags.

“It’s a monochrome,” explains artist Eric Barry Drasin. “These are no-content, single color pieces with a history stretching back to the Middle Ages with radically different meanings from what a Medieval Gnostic mystic might say versus a Russian Constructivist, but the basic concept is that a monochrome reflects the society that exists around them.”

Normcorp, part of Drasin’s 2020 MFA Thesis show “Exit Strategy,” took aim at startup culture, or more specifically Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, which advocates for rapid reinvention and reorganization that Drasin sees as eerily akin to performance art. “[The attitude is] we are starting a startup. We value value, it’s totally self-reflective except for the legality and the performativity of value itself.”

The work was built on the conceptual framework of another project that Drasin had been working on with his friend and mentor Benton C. Bainbridge, the Distributed Art Object Framework (DAOF), which was a technological and legal framework for storing and transferring art that gave rise to certain properties.

DAOF was based on a standard contract that had been developed for selling and transferring conceptual art in 1970, the Artists Reserved Rights and Transfer Agreement, developed by curator Seth Siegelaub, and lawyer Robert Projansky. The idea was to take performance art created using a generative process, meaning each time it was enacted, and capture the instances on the blockchain as coded instructions, so that they could be editioned, meaning replicated from a master copy, and collected.

“At the time we had envisioned it as a kind of open source commons platform, and while we might make some money, we didn’t want to do it at the expense of the community,” Drasin says. “We were working VCs and startup guys who were pushing us to become a business and talking about how they’d sell us out in a few years. It made us uncomfortable, and so we shelved the project.”

Meanwhile, as Drasin and his team worked on DAOF, he realized that he was also expected to produce artwork for his MFA that would refer to the historicity and conceptual frameworks he was learning about in his program. Drasin tapped into conceptual art’s long tradition of contracts and provenance.

Dadaist Marcel Duchamp had sold “Monte Carlo Bonds” in 1925, decorated with his shaving foam covered face and signature, promising ‘investors’ a stake in his ‘casino winnings.’ Yves Klein had sold receipts for “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility” (1959), which verified the existence of an invisible piece of artwork, and were given in response the successful performance of a ritual, in which the collector threw gold into the Seine River, witnessed by a lawyer and gallerist.

More recently, Mitchell F. Chan had recreated Klein’s bonds on the Ethereum blockchain (in “Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility,” 2017).

“I became very interested in the idea of contracts mediating social reality,” Drasin says. “I wondered what else we could do. Benton was talking about how blockchains could create an economy from scratch, and me being a student of political economy, I was always like… ‘wow, what does it mean to be able to do this? Can we encode better behaviors, better ideologies?’”

Using the DAOF framework as a conceptual scaffold, Drasin imagined a number of hypothetical organizations: there was the “Decentralized Autonomous Katamari” (2017), a “relational sculpture and digital poem existing as an object across digital and virtual space.” Like Klein’s rituals, DAK relied on a set of rules constraining the use of the tokens and guaranteeing recursive value increase.

He imagined the results as a Cookie-Clicker like stack beginning with an ICO sale and a server farm, and ending with the retrospective on a terraformed Mars after consuming all of the earth’s resources.

Next came “Post Capitalist Karaoke,” (2018/2019) where a speculative piece where a whirling hypercube danced behind the words to an altered karaoke version of Cher’s (1998) Believe, where the word “love” had been replaced by “capitalism.” But there was a problem.

“It’s very difficult to imagine life beyond capitalism,” Drasin says. He considers himself part of the tradition of artists using new communications technology to reimagine reality. When asked about blockchain related work specifically, he replies that he’s sad there hasn’t yet been a great blossoming of art that makes use of the blockchain as a medium.

“There’s been a bit of a gold rush,” Drasin says, referring to the explosion of NFT collecting. “Artists have been paid peanuts for years and suddenly think it’s time to get theirs.”

The problem with the combination of web3 and art is that anything that touches the blockchain seems to become a hard speculative asset.

“You have to deal with the nature of the system itself,” Drasin says. “What is the material structure system? What are the fundamental ideological encodings within, can we start twisting, can we glitch them, can we break them? That slippage allows new things to emerge.”

Check out his next piece, DungeonMasterLLC, which debuts on April 15, 2022.

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To get the discussion kicked off here, how do you think artists and engineers could be working together to improve the way that artists are compensated and their work archived and safeguarded? @tebogonong I’m curious what you make of this conversation given your background in archiving and blockchains. Is anyone else at SCRF working with any art projects?

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@jmcgirk I enjoyed this trip down the rabbit hole of artwork detached from everday reality. :slight_smile:

To your question, I have high hopes and deep-running concerns. Web3 and the NFT movement were supposed to establish clear ownership of digital goods in general (not just artwork), and in so doing create entirely new capabilities for the internet.

Not surprisingly, the first wave of NFTs was largely a stunt, easily co-opted by insiders at the expense of FOMO-driven public latecomers.

What will it take to create an equitable DeFi world immune to all the oldest scams, cons and machinations of self-dealing monopolists? Will it come down once again to regulation by centralized authorities which essentially strangles decentralization in the cradle? Or can DeFi marshal not only its technologies and protocols but also its constituents to create a new extra-planetary path forward, independent of the battles between sovereign states?

It could still go either way. Unfortunately, unlike the arc of the moral universe, human financial affairs don’t naturally bend toward justice.

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One of the strange things about buying art NFTs is that they don’t actually fit the most stringent guidelines for buying art in the United States (I think this is the law - CA Civ Code § 1744.7 (2020). So many ‘serious’ artists have hesitated to get involved (and Eric’s Moving Pictures gallery project was intended, among other things, to address this issue).

Not sure if it was entirely a stunt. The first real NFTs were created by Monograph and Anil Dash, around 2014ish, and that was entirely on-chain, then there were similar projects like Mitchell Chan’s Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility in 2017. Cryptokitties was the first big collectible project and I’d probably draw a bright line between collectibles with varying levels of rarity, which are more like packs of baseball cards than pieces of art, I do agree deeply with what Drasin was saying about there being a lack of art that addresses the intrinsic qualities of the blockchain, it’s even more apparent with narrative art – you see a few poems and ebooks sold as ERC-1155 (editions) but they don’t really make use of blockchain technologies. Not that you need to, but someone should… .

I think we’re stuck with scams, cons, and machinations. One of my favorite books is Jay Robert Nash’s (1974) Hustlers and Conmen which details just about everything you see in web3 today, with a few tech variations. Eventually, I think DeFi will be tamed by the institutions and the legal systems and onerous requirements like KYC and anti-money laundering and it’ll be functionally indistinguishable from other banks.

I have more faith in DAOs personally, I think new, flexible, organizations will be an important bulwark against what @ntnsndr described as the economization of everything (which Drasin is also criticizing with his work).

I was searching for the right word, but “stunt” wasn’t exactly what I wanted, and of course I painted the whole phenomenon with one broad brush to make my point.

I agree for organic reasons, but what exactly are the intrinsic qualities of the blockchain? Decentralized records of activity verified by consensus of some sort?

Nash added to my reading list. And I agree about DeFi, but then we’ll have to stop calling it DeFi and just call it Fi, or CenFi. Or BigBrotherFi.

Agree here as well.

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I’m a big fan of Robert Coover who wrote about how various technological leaps radically changed the novel. There were stone tablets, then scrolls of fragile parchment, then wax codicies, then delicate handwritten codexes, then hand pressed printing, typesetting and mass distribution and finally what we have to do – an entirely digital process except for the very last step (unless you’re using a Kindle). There’s a similar story to be told with art… Drasin refers to electricity becoming seen as a sculptural medium, and the dematerialization of the art object; now we can re-materialize conceptual art to some extent with the blockchain… so that opens up new possibilities, it’s just hard to say what… Damien Hirst made auctions and fractional ownership a kind of medium, while making millions in the process. Blockchains are great for fixing events in history, I think there are interesting things to do with memory and of course in the microsocieties we build on top of the blockchain (as Drasin has done).

@jmcgirk Thanks for reminding me of the whole dematerialization/rematerialization theme, which is clearly an important path into the future of the metaverse (which will NOT be owned or controlled by Mark Zuckerberg, by the way). I can see its applicability to art and I hope it means control of work and fair compensation for artists. (See my comment about Punk6529.)

But somehow it isn’t the art world that really brings home dematerialization for me, and it certainly isn’t securities (which don’t have much physical reality in the first place). It’s the much larger story of the dematerialization of immovable properties, specifically real estate, that gets me to the “holodeck” dimension of all this. When you wrap your mind around that, the depth and scope of the paradigm shift we’re talking about really hits you.

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I think I pointed this marvelous project out to you elsewhere, and I know that @jyezie is writing a review of one of their presentations; but [https://movingcastles.world/](https://Moving Castles) - which was funded by Gitcoin - have created a model for an independent metaverse that would rely on binding together the little secret chatrooms, guilds, and servers that communities use, they imagine themselves as a kind of ‘moving castle’ a kind of shambling bolus of stuff held together by a friendly demon and the community’s will that moves a community of people through a hostile universe… perhaps that could serve as model for art and the metaverse to come

Thanks for this podcast, learnt so much about decentralized art but the guest speaker said something that intrigued me and made me a bit confused,
When discussing the History of Media Art, he said something about a contract created in the early 70’s " artist reverse rights and transfers agreement, the contract is so easily replicable that can meditate sale and re-sale of works protecting the rights of artists that made dematerialized art work,
Here’s my question : artist have the right to revoke the rights without transfer of ownership,is there any law that supports this and how is it possible that an Artist can revoke their own work without transfer of ownership and if that’s the case who does it belong to then ?

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One area that frequently battles with attribution is provenance, where the question is a little hazier because the conflict usually tends to focus on ‘verifying’ whether paintings are real or not. This DW article goes into the legal questions a bit: How provenance research came into the spotlight | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 12.04.2022

One thing that came up recently in the US, and is more pertinent, was an issue over Cady Noland revoking some her work, which focuses on a 1990 law called the Visual Artists Rights Act.

One key provision states that an artist “shall have the right to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of the work of visual art in the event of a distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.”

Apparently, it’s a very rare exception to the US’s general stance on property rights, where ownership tends to be the final word.