In her video work How Not to be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013) Hito Steyerl, a German filmmaker, narrates:
“Today most important things want to remain invisible.
Love is invisible. War is invisible. Capital is invisible.”
An important detail to add to this quote is that attribution and provenance are too, becoming less and less visible. With the plurality of various social media platforms, it is almost impossible to track one’s own image. This article is engaging with questions of digital provenance and copyright, a question of credibility of the authenticity of a digital image. Such digital platforms as ascribe, s[edition], ikonoTV and, most importantly, bitcoin shall be discussed.
Provenance, coming from the French word provenir - to come from, to originate, is a document that records a history of an object - a chronology of its owners, or places where it has been exhibited or stored at. Provenance history is a crucial document for any art dealer, gallery, museum or a researcher - it is a documented proof of an authenticity of a work of art, as well as a proof of ownership and attribution. It also plays a major part in the evaluation of work of art - for instance, it is known that a bigger part of Russian Avant-garde art is a fraud. Therefore, in order to ask for a higher price for a work of art, a dealer must make sure that the provenance is immaculate, and there can be no doubts that the work has not been fabricated.
The situation is highly different when it comes to digital art or any work that can be stored in a digital form. Take, for instance, a digital photograph, that can be easily reproduced and redistributed. Most social media platforms offer a “share”, or a “reblog” function, but this does not mean that all users would choose to credit authors of content that they upload. When obtaining a paintings, or a sculpture, or any other work of art of long-established medium, one, first of all, becomes an owner of a physical object that they can touch and experience the surface, but they also become owners of that important piece of paper, provenance, without which a work of art has almost no value at all. What value is there, though, to an artwork that comes from an allegedly insecure and hackable cloud? Potentially, there are technical ways of protecting one’s work - by adding a watermark onto an image, only distributing lower resolution images, and few other mechanical tricks. Though, this does not prevent the creator from having their work stolen or redistributed.
A service called ascribe was founded in summer 2014, and launched in March 2015. Using blockchain system, a creator is able to securely store and share their work, whilst also tracking its location and history - therefore, keeping a digital provenance of a digital work of art. By registering their work using ascribe, a user is truly declaring their authorship.
In order to explain how ascribe works, it is important to introduce the system of blockchain. Blockchain is a recording technology that could, potentially, store any kind of information. Most famously, it works with a bitcoin currency. Blockchain is an indestructible, everlasting provenance machine that ensures clarity of product supply; making sure that any transfer happens securely and safely - and, most importantly, transparently. It is a service that offers anybody to add an entry, owned by everybody and nobody at the same time, perpetually engraving information, without giving a user a chance to erase it.
So, by using blockchain technology, ascribe is able to permanently register ownership and record history of a single file. The system claims to offer creators timestamp of their authorship, to make sure that artist’s copyright protection is effective in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. With another tool that was recently launched by the same company, WhereOnTheNet, a user traces the pathway of their file, and is able to see who is sharing the content, and where it could be found - not only in order to “hunt” for illegal distribution of it, but also to as a proof of demand and reputation of a creator, which, indeed, is very important for artists.
Screens are the new walls
“Screens are the new walls.”, said the co-founder of a revolutionary marketplace s[edition]. This, arguably, might be the most crucial statement about future and, indeed, present of visual cultures. Even though it does not take a Ph.D. in Computer Science to remove a watermark from an image, owning an original is an important step for any art collector, or anyone hoping to become one.
S[edition] is a company that was launched in 2011 by a founder of Blain|Southern gallery, Harry Blain, and the above-mentioned Robert Nolton, former CEO of Saatchi Online. It is an online platform that allows aspiring art collectors to purchase limited editions of world-renounced artists, such as Tracey Emin, Jenny Holzer, Elmgreen & Dragset, Wim Wenders and many more. Prices for artworks vary from £6 to £1,272 for a digital edition of 100 of Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa. S[edition] is a safe and affordable marketplace for digital artworks, but its real significance is the certificate of authenticity that the buyer receives, meaning that, potentially, they are able to resell, or even exhibit their very own edition of a world–renounced artwork. An opportunity of having not only authentic, which is the most important part of it, but also very much affordable art collection literally at one’s own fingertips is truly seductive.
Imagine sitting down in front of TV, flipping the channels, when you suddenly come across a channel that only broadcasts artworks. In a FinancialTimes interview, Elizabeth Markevitch, the director of ikonoTV says,
“Television is more and more a maximum of information in a minimum of time. We are giving you a visual experience It’s not just a zoom in, zoom out; it’s a reading of the painting. It gives you two minutes of pleasure, giving you the tools of how to read.”
ikonoTV is the first ever television channel, that broadcasts HD artworks twenty-four hours per day. There are no commentaries, no descriptions, no interpretations - the viewer is free to simply enjoy and “to have an emotional response" to the artworks. All copyrights are granted to ikonoTV for an exchange of promotional material free of charge, or are obtained directly through the artists. The fact that such unique and mesmerizing service exists is a proof that traditional, long-established art that could be enjoyed, for instance, at Louvre, does not lose its value or its affective attributes by being on a flat screen – neither does it lose its credibility and authenticity.
Whilst a process of building a digital archive, that requires different techniques of copyright and provenance is expanding, it is a grand question - what does it do to the physical archive, and traditional methods of archival recordings, and how does it change theory and philosophy of an archive? A certain digitality of building an art collection is, essentially, inevitable - for safety and accessibility purposes, most art collectors and bigger collections will always have a digital reproduction - a photograph - of any work of art they own. The unreliability and fragility of what seem to be unbreakable and ultra-reliable machines is truly questionable. A genius intention to use blockchain mechanism in order to avoid art fraud, as well as to simplify and improve a process of gathering together provenance is truly spectacular. Indeed, it is natural for old-fashioned and old school art collectors to speculate about authenticity and value of digital art, but rest assured, this is the future, and the future is now.
Estere Kajema, MA Contemporary Art Theory.
Specially for artlaw.online