Materiality and Ownership of Art on the Blockchain
by Ulya SoleyPublished October 28, 2022
During a speech at the White House, the 39th President of the United States Jimmy Carter states, “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”
Almost forty years later, this idea is still in effect. Piling up material goods is common and our digital routines seem to fit into the consumer culture, which encourages collecting and ownership. However, the nature of ownership changed in ways that Carter would not be able to imagine back then. The idea of art turning into shares on the blockchain has been put on practice. Buyers can have shares of an artwork, which is bound to stay in a warehouse. The stakeholders make profit if the work’s market value increases.
Blockchain technology makes it possible to create a system that has total autonomy in itself, and it guarantees uniqueness by authenticating digital objects. Thus, an art project on the blockchain could be conceptualizing a system that would function without an authority, which would log each response on itself.
The changing nature of ownership and collecting is connected to the changing nature of materiality. As Diana Coole and Samantha Frost state, materiality is always something more than mere matter: an excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable. “New materialists are rediscovering a materiality that compel us to to recognize that phenomena are caught in a multitude of interlocking systems and forces, and to consider anew the location and nature of capacities for agency.” So the question is, how does artistic production reflect this new materiality?
As David Joselit states, “The art world, in all of its formats, has become a vast accumulation of potential energy whose enormous reserves are beyond the capacities of any individual to consume.” According to Joselit, art is about the future potential, or the “futurity” of an object. It is an accumulated potential, which cannot be consumed in its entirety. The social and political aspect of it creates value, which can materialize the immaterial. Thus, artists sort and compile data that is collectively accumulated. “A radical realization of art, then, would be the deposition of the sovereign producer and a return of the shared wealth of creativity to its true owners: the multitude. For this reason, an appropriation and transformation of the artistic means of production comes to the fore – an opening up of cultural source codes to an undetermined end.”
Starting from the 1990s, the Internet, as an open source, had a revolutionary impact on art production as well as challenged its users about owning, licensing and exchanging the digital. While the Internet is open source, the blockchain secures the transactions through its system of chains. Some obvious implications of the blockchain’s secure transaction promise are: better functioning licensing systems, controlled circulation, digital collection management, and digital ownership where the history of previous owners is digitally embedded on the artwork.
“Art is not even immaterial: if conceptual art detached the material object from art, we are considering a type of post/nonconceptual art detached from the concept also.”
Blockchain technology makes it possible to create a system that has total autonomy in itself, and it guarantees uniqueness by authenticating digital objects. Thus, an art project on the blockchain could be conceptualizing a system that would function without an authority, which would log each response on itself. It can be a smart contract that sits on the blockchain, a visualization of blockchain activity, whether famous hacks or daily coffee purchases, a set of complex scripts or transactions that make the blockchain itself into art, crypto tokens, assets or trading cards that make a game of blockchain value thought experiments.
On a more phenomenological level, using blockchain as a medium could mean to strip art from its concept. Bjorn Magnhildoen, who created Noemata for digital and net-based art, argues that being and time have a different relation in the context of the blockchain: they are conflated. He suggests that after the dematerialization of the art object, via conceptual art, perhaps now we might, through the blockchain, deconceptualize the artwork. “Art is not even immaterial: if conceptual art detached the material object from art, we are considering a type of post/nonconceptual art detached from the concept also.” This approach problematizes conceptuality of art, rather than its materiality, because this hypothetical object can also be proved to exist without being produced. In the given circumstances, it is critical to think about how art will take shape. As a self-sufficient, self-governed and decentralized system, blockchain appears to be contributing to the materialization and commodification of art.
About Ulya Soley
Ulya Soley works at Pera Museum. She completed her MA in Culture, Criticism and Curation at Central Saint Martins, and her BA in Art History and Psychology at McGill University. Her recent curatorial projects include “A Question of Taste” at Pera Museum, and “Hosting Bodies” at Sanatorium. She’s a regular contributor to various art publications.
 Jimmy Carter, “Crisis of Confidence,” (speech presented at the White House, Washington, DC, July 15, 1979), accessed October 19, 2022 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lHplhMChZQ
 Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, “Introducing the New Materialisms,” New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 9.
 Davit Joeselit, “Marking, Scoring, Storing, and Speculating (On Time),” Painting beyond Itself. The Medium in the Post-medium Condition, ed. Isabelle Graw and Ewa Lajer-Burcharth (Frankfurt am Main: Sternberg Press, 2016), p. 11-20.
 Berry Slater, “Introduction to ‘The Author as (Digital) Producer’,” Engineering Culture: On ‘The Author as (Digital) Producer’, ed. Geoff Cox and Joasia Krysa (New York: Autonomedia, 2005), p. 20.
 “Blockchain Art Commission,” Furtherfield, accessed October 19, 2022, http://furtherfield.org/projects/blockchain-art-commission.
 Bjorn Magnhildoen, “Aphantasia – Blockchain As Medium for Art,” in Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain, ed. Ruth Catlow, Marc Garrett, Nathan Jones and Sam Skinner (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017), p. 312.