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.
- 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.