DEALING THE DIGITAL

I don’t have a dealer. I’m working on it. Part of it is the question: what are you dealing? [1]  Mark Napier.

So you are a video artist. And yeah, it’s 2006, […] and your videos are short, like 2-3 minutes long. So what do you do with them? Do you stream them on public access? Do you upload them to YouTube? Do you sell them in limited editions in a gallery? Do you make music videos for bands? Do you enter them in underground video/film festivals? […] and that’s just for video, imagine what a headache you’d have if you made other forms of media art as well.[2] Cory Arcangel.

 

 Mark Napier and Cory Arcangel reveal the challenge that the art world is trying to conquer when it comes to digitally-created works of art: what are you selling and how do you sell it? Arcangel also points to the wide array of opportunities that are available to new media artists, a factor that has contributed to the growth of its own autonomous art world. Catching up with the digitisation of modern society, in the last year several marketplaces, digital canvases and digital security systems have been established and brought to market, indicating a burgeoning online art ecosystem [Table 3]. Within this section the obstacles presented in Chapter Two will be addressed by examining how the online marketplaces Sedition and Daata Edition are dealing the digital.

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Table 3: The Digital Art Market

OWNERSHIP AND THE BLOCKCHAIN

The online art market has grown steadily since the .com boom of the noughties, and in the last few years there has been an increase in the number of collectors prepared to buy art online.[3] In the Hiscox 2016 Online Art Trade Report it revealed that despite a 7% downturn in the overall art market, the online art industry grew by 24%, reaching $3.27 billion.[4] Predicting that the market will reach $9.58 billion by 2020, Hiscox noted the ascension of ascribe – a service which allows digital creators to lock in attribution and securely manage how their work spreads online – as a key moment in the development of the online art market.[5] Ascribe is using blockchain technology to artificially create digital uniqueness [Figure 15]. They provide digital files with not only authenticity, but provenance – a feature that is integral to ensuring the value of a work of art.[6] The role of companies like ascribe and new technologies, such as the blockchain, has been integral to the development of a market for digitally native artists. In an Artsy editorial, which addressed the technologies that may finally end art forgery, Rene Chun discussed the role of digital provenance. Noting how prices for technology-engaged art have risen (last year for instance, Arcangel sold an edition of Super Mario Clouds for $630,000, while in 2003 an edition had sold for as little as $3,000), Chun points to the developments in technological security as pivotal in the growth of both the online and digital art market. [7]

 

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Figure 15: Example of a digital Certificate of Authenticity. Courtesy of ascribe and Lumenus.

Companies such as ascribe and Monegraph have utilised the blockchain to allow dealers to sell digital editions.[8] The blockchain, put simply, is a decentralised public ledger that permanently records and verifies transactions.[9] A secure distributed database, the blockchain is providing the exclusivity and security that are cornerstones of the art market.[10] The artist and founder of Monegraph Kevin McCoy, set up the company because ‘digital art has a problem: Bits are infinitely reproducible, and people want exclusivity and verifiability. […] The blockchain solves that problem by providing a clear and distinct provenance.’[11] Essentially, Monegraph and ascribe provide digitally created works of art with a fingerprint.[12] Using the computer technology that has allowed crytocurrencies, like Bitcoin, to become assets of exchange, ascribe and Monegraph provide digital content with authenticity, rights and titles.[13] Lumenus, the newest digital dealer to enter the market, has partnered with ascribe to ensure that each edition is registered with a certificate of authenticity and verifiable with blockchain technology, this includes a built-in cryptographic ID unique to each piece.[14] This is intended to reassure both the artist and the collector, since it locks in authorship and ensures correct attribution.[15] Lumenus is representative of the digital art market, since the whole process takes place online – the creation of the work, its consumption and its distribution. When a work is purchased, the first available edition will be transferred, along with the certificate of authenticity, to the collector via email [Figure 15]. The work is then stored on the collectors ascribe account, and from here collectors are able to access, view, consign and download their purchased edition.[16] While the two platforms chosen as case studies for this discussion are not yet employing blockchain technology, Sedition and Daata Editions have been chosen due to the space that they occupy between the main contemporary art world and the digital art market.[17] The discussion below will now examine how these platforms are dealing art that exists purely in the ones and zeros of binary code.

SEDITION

People need to get used to the idea of a digital edition, just as they took years to get used to the idea that an arrangement of pigment on canvas has an intrinsic value. It’s exactly the same with an arrangement of pixels on the screen: the reason why it has intrinsic value is because the artist designed it, and what you are paying for is the artist’s idea. [18] Rory Blain.

 Launched in 2011 by the art dealers Harry and Rory Blain alongside Robert Norton, Sedition aims to turn screens into art.[19] Catering to the global market, the online enterprise has embraced the neoclassical ideal. [20] Indeed, despite associating itself with the traditional art market through the use of reassuring ‘art speak’, Sedition is giving everybody access to art.[21] Cleverly, Sedition entered the online art world not through digital art per se, but through already established blue-chip artists. Placing itself directly within the main contemporary art world, Sedition gave the public the opportunity to purchase a Tracey Emin for $50.[22] After getting the attention of the public through the big names of Emin and Damien Hirst, Sedition then began offering the platform to moving image and digital artists.[23] Rory Blain describes Sedition as trying to present the best of what is available in contemporary art, not just new media.[24] However, the platform itself is particularly limited, catering only to JPEGs and video files and at present it is unable to support generative or web-based work.[25] In an interview with Paul Waelder Rory Blain described how the platform worked:

What we do is allow you to download the artwork into the app and obtain the digital certificate, which tells you which artwork you have. Still, collectors only start to feel a real sense of ownership when they can sell the artwork again, and through the fact that by owning a digital edition they might take a loss or make a profit in the same way that they could in the real world.[26]

This emphasis on the resale opportunity reveals the financialisation of art that has, unfortunately, become omnipresent in today’s market.[27] Blain continues: ‘they [the collectors] have the piece; they can resell it and potentially make money. Therefore, they have ownership of that artefact. But, as has always been the case, the ownership of the idea and the imagery resides with the artist.’[28] That Sedition has used the ability to resell the work as an attribute of ownership is further indication of the problems surrounding digital title. Blain himself recognises that what collectors are paying for is access.[29] However, owning a piece from Sedition is not without its restrictions. Once purchased, the work can only be viewed through their vault – an online storage facility that lets you access your collection anywhere, across all your devices – but, at the time of writing, videos have to be streamed.[30] In this respect, Sedition operates, as Sam Sedgeman has described, as ‘a more exclusive version of YouTube’.[31] Interestingly, Sedgeman compares the Sedition model to ‘a furniture shop where you’re able to buy a chair, but you can’t take that chair out of the shop,’ noting ‘if that’s the case, do you really own the chair?’[32] Here, Sedgeman foregrounds the issues around digital ownership that were discussed in the previous chapter. Moreover, while Sedition does not make use of the new blockchain technology, the restrictive measures in place on the platform obligate the collector to viewing the work in a particular space. Consequently, the collector does not have full access to the work since they are unable to truly experience the work how they would like; a feature that the newer marketplaces have permitted.[33]

Furthermore, the online marketplace disintegrates the distinction that exists in a bricks-and-mortar gallery between the commercial backroom and the non-commercial front room.[34] Accordingly, digital dealers have little control over the biography of the work of art. On Sedition, as in all the marketplaces discussed here, the works of art are allocated on a first-come-first-serve basis and, as a result, the ‘threshold resistance’ associated with the art world is broken down.[35] Indeed, as has already been noted, the Internet has provided artists with a new audience and Arcangel himself observes that his “internet audience is totally different from [his] art audience.”[36] This wider accessibility of digital art is reflected in its lower price and more so than any other body of work, digital and new media art have been integrated into e-commerce platforms. While platforms such as Artsy have allowed collectors to see what is available from galleries, prices are not always transparent. Acting as the middleman, placing the collector in contact with the gallery, Artsy has contributed to greater market access. However, it has not permitted a more democratic art world.[37]

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Figure 16: Screenshot showing the prominence of the ‘Buy’ and ‘Send as Gift’ buttons for Matt Collishaw’s The End of Innocence (2009). Sedition. Taken August 23, 2016.

By contrast, Sedition simultaneously highlights its accessibility and commerciality by the presence of the ‘Buy’ and ‘Send as Gift’ buttons [Figure 16]. Thus, it is possible to position Sedition between Velthuis’ ‘Hostile World Theory’ and his ‘Nothing But’ approach since the platform both champions the aesthetic but unashamedly aligns itself with capitalism, a feature that many gallerists wish to conceal.[38] Moreover, the blatant use of discounts separates Sedition from the main contemporary art world. For instance, you can purchase New Order, a collection of three Gordon Cheung works for the discounted price of £53, or alternatively you can use a promotional code to receive twenty per cent off any of his works [Figure 17].[39] Discounts can be viewed within the same lines as the gift economy, and for Velthuis they serve both relational and economic purposes.[40] Differentiating between courtesy, museum and flexibility discounts, Velthuis aligns each specific type with their cultural, social or economic meaning. For instance, a museum discount is awarded because the acquisition of the work by an institution will offer a return, which will be in the guise of raising the artist’s reputation.[41] However, on Sedition, where you receive a discount for what is effectively bulk buying, it is difficult to identify either a cultural or social meaning behind the markdown. Instead, the presence of discounts and sales, a feature that can also be found on the marketplace 23vivi, more than anything else highlights the integration of art and commerce on these platforms. Indeed, on 23vivi, which established itself in early 2016, price points have already been heavily discounted [Figure 18]. This transparency of prices and the availability of discounts represent a key point of departure from the traditional art market.

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Figure 17: Screenshot of Gordon Cheung’s New Order Collection available from Sedition for £53. Taken August 23, 2016.
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Figure 18: Screenshot of 23vivi’s featured products showing their use of discounts. Taken August 23, 2016.

DAATA EDITIONS

We need to believe that, in the same way we easily buy music and films online via the likes of iTunes or Amazon, we can buy art via digital files and not have to [physically] possess an object to give a work its validation. [Appendix C] David Gryn.

Founded by David Gryn, Curator of Film and Moving Image at Art Basel Miami Beach, Daata Editions is a marketplace for commissioned video, sound and web-based art.[42] Launched in May 2015, the founders’ background in the main contemporary art market, specifically the fair circuit, has forged Daata a unique position in the art ecosystem and has allowed art to ‘meet the digital world’.[43] While Daata operates as an online platform for digitally native artists, it is successfully positioning itself in both the online and offline art world. Since its launch, Daata has taken part in Independent Brussels, New York’s NADA, Berlin’s ninth Biennale and in August 2016 Daata participated in Copenhagen’s CHART Fair.[44]

Acknowledging that moving image had previously not been taken to fairs because of ‘the commercial ramifications of bringing [work] that may not sell,’ Gryn has created a model for selling artworks that galleries tend to shy away from [Appendix C]. This model focuses on commissioning eighteen artists per season to produce works that are between two to three minutes long, paying the artist upfront and providing them with a royalty every time an edition is sold – this itself is quite unique to the art world.[45] The idea behind Daata is ‘not to be a gallery but an online platform that commissions artists and promotes it well’ [Appendix C]. Yet, Gryn embraces the role of patron and provides the artists’ Daata commissions with ‘support, recognition and praise’.[46] Chloe Wise, one of the artists commissioned by the platform, has highlighted the importance of Daata to digitally native artists:

 For an emerging artist, especially for an artist working with digital media, it can be hard to find viewership, a consumer market, a collector base, the funds with which to produce work, and a comprehensive placement within the art world for oneself. Working with Daata Editions not only enabled the artists, including myself, to create work that otherwise may not have been made, but to circulate this work in the context of art fairs, screenings both indoors and outdoors, in a gallery setting as well as online and placing the works into great collections and institutions. This visibility and accessibility is imperative to digital work, which is in a state of growth and change, and is so easily dismissed in the constant flow of images and videos on the Internet.[47]

Daata in essence acts as the gatekeeper, making its commissioned artists accessible and desirable for collectors and institution, and Gryn’s reputation is key to the platforms success. In a market where gentleman’s handshakes are the norm, reputation and trust is integral. When you purchase a work of art from a dealer, you place your trust in that individual that what you are buying is authentic and has the correct attribution. When you purchase a work from Daata, the same principles apply. It is noteworthy, that unlike any of the platforms that have launched in the last year, Daata does not utilise the blockchain to reassure its collectors that what they are purchasing is one-of-a-kind. While Gryn revealed in conversation that he has been in discussion with the companies offering this service, he sees it as ‘another boundary, another protection, [and] another off-putting process in the art world’ [Appendix C]. Seeing the blockchain as a layer of sophistication that is not present in the traditional art market, Gryn believes that the trepidation that surrounds the reproducibility of digital art is tenuous, noting that:

The idea that anyone is going to want to copy or steal is unlikely. I’ve been involved [in the art world] for twenty years and I’ve never had anyone steal anything from me and I’ve even wished for it because I know it’s probably a success. […] I’m working with artists where maybe a few hundred at any point want to see it, if that, maybe up to a few thousand, but it’s never that much more. [Appendix C].

Gryn acknowledges that the risks associated with the traditional art world, such as misattribution and forgery, are still present, but they are not pressing matters. The digital attribution services of ascribe, Monegraph and Niio are trying to satisfy the art markets craving for authenticity and uniqueness, yet Gryn argues that his collectors know there is authenticity in a work because of the individuals involved in Daata, namely himself, and because the artists they commission are often those that are revered [Appendix C].

Daata, unlike Sedition, has adopted a very hands-on approach with the artists it works with. While Sedition has little control over the biography of the work of art, Daata ensures that each season at least one work is donated to an institution [Appendix C]. Although they are giving the work away for free, the artist and Daata both gain a return on investment in the form of a reputational boost; the artist is seen as worthy of collecting, and the platform is seen as respectable and trustworthy. By placing works in major collections, such as the Hammer Museum of Los Angeles, which received a donation in Season One, the artist and the medium acquire institutional kudos, which, as has already been noted, has played a substantial role in developing a collector base for digitally-engaged works of art [Appendix C].[48] That institutions such as the Hammer and notable collectors such as Julia Stoschek have collected works from Daata is highlighted via the ability to view the sales history of each piece available on the platform. It is even possible to view all the works that form an individual collection; for instance Julia Stoschek’s running total is 109 editions [Figure 19]. The ability to see what is being collected and by whom is at odds with the art markets culture of secrecy.[49] Yet, the platform does accommodate this by making it possible to remain anonymous; Sedition also does something similar.[50] Knowing that the work of art you have purchased is also in the collection of a prestigious institution or individual fulfils the expressive motivation behind collecting works of art.[51] That is, you acquire both a form of social and cultural affirmation by being part of a club of only a few other individuals.

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Figure 19: Screenshot of the Julia Stoschek Collection acquired from Daata Editions. Taken August 23, 2016.

This social motivation behind collecting also plays into Daata’s use of dynamic pricing. Here, an early supporter and acquirer of an edition will receive the work for a lower price; in effect, they receive a ‘bargain’. All the editions available through Daata start at either $100 or $200, rising as the number of editions sell out.[52] The logic behind this form of pricing is that as the work starts to sell out, the increasing price point reflects the growing popularity of the artist. Due to the transparent nature of the platform, it is possible to see that while the first edition can enter a private collection for as little as $100, the individual who purchases the final edition will be paying upwards of $2,000, just for the privilege of owning a work that is now deemed ‘collectible’ [Figure 20]. Here, it is possible to make a comparison with the pricing of emerging artists in the main contemporary art market. Like its offline counterparts, the initial price points given to Daata’s artists are prudent.[53] When representing an emerging artist, a gallery will ensure that the work enters the market at a low price point. By adopting a “slow and steady route” towards pricing, the gallery ensures that the work can easily enter a collection, but it also adds credibility to the artist by ensuring that a price reduction does not occur.[54] Reductions, such as those offered by 23vivi, suggest that the artist is not doing well [Figure 18]. Therefore, in order to retain an artist’s reputation, a traditional dealer will never reduce the price.[55]

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Figure 20: Screenshot of the sales history for Rachel Maclean’s Let it Go – Part 1. Daata Editions. Taken August 23, 2016.

 

The price point of the work of art conveys a lot about the reputation of the artist. While many try to ignore art’s entanglement with commerce, Gryn observes that: ‘if you don’t have a price point you don’t have value, because often people don’t revere the value of the artwork unless they can see it is worth something’ [Appendix C]. Here, it is worth recalling Blain’s comment regarding the resale opportunities that are open to Sedition’s collectors via their Trade platform [Figure 21].[56] While a work of art’s investment potential should not lead one’s decision to collect, knowing that the work of art you own is worth more than you originally paid has a psychological impact on the collector; it reinforces in their mind that they have sound aesthetic judgement.

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Figure 21: Screenshot of Sedition’s trade platfrom. Taken August 23, 2016.

While the trade option is not key to Daata Editions, in an effort to bridge the ‘digital divide’, the platforms discussed here ensure that the possibilities available for digitally engaged artists are equal to those available to artists working with more traditional mediums.

[1] Morris, ‘Museums & New Media Art’, 31.

[2] Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook, Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media (Cambridge Mass.:MIT Press, 2010), 230.

[3] Hiscox, Hiscox Online Art Trade Report (2016), 1.

[4] Claire McAndrews, 2016 TEFAF Art Market Report (Maastricht: The European Fine Art Foundation, 2016), 45; Hiscox, 1.

[5] Hiscox, 7.

[6] Findlay, The Value of Art, 39.

[7] Chun, These four technologies may finally put an end to art forgery’.

[8] Adam James Butcher, ‘Emerging Technology enables serious Collectors to trade Digital Art securely’, The Huffington Post, (April 7, 2016), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adam-james-butcher/emerging-technology-enabl_b_9624700.html [accessed 9/04/2016].

[9] William Mougayar, ‘The Blockchain is the New Google’, TechCrunch, (May 11, 2016), https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/11/the-blockchain-is-the-new-google/ [accessed 21/08/2016].

[10] Lars Holdhus ed., Futures Along the Blockchain (2015), http://futuresalongtheblockchain.com/ [accessed 28/05/2016]; The potential of this technology is also being recognised by the auction houses, for instance Niio, a platform for digital management, distribution and display, will be showcased at Sotheby’s New York this September (personal correspondence between myself and Rob Anders, co-founder and CEO of Niio).

[11] Chun, These four technologies may finally put an end to art forgery’.

[12] Chris Tse, ‘Monegraph: Building a Blockchain-based digital art market’, (presented at Couchbase Connect Conference, October 6-8, 2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXVy3HUI5zM [accessed 21/08/2016].

[13] Mougayar, ‘The Blockchain is the New Google’.

[14] Lumenus, ‘FAQ’, http://lumenus.co/ [accessed 22/08/2016].

[15] ascribe, ‘FAQ’, https://www.ascribe.io/faq/ [accessed 22/08/2016].

[16] Lumenus, ‘FAQs’, http://lumenus.co/ [accessed 22/08/2016].

[17] The marketplaces that are employing blockchain technology are marked with an * in Table 3.

[18] Pau Waelder, ‘Collecting Art in the Age of Access: Interview with Rory Blain, Director of Sedition’, ETC Media, 102 (2014), 55, http://blog.seditionart.com/2014/08/26/interview-with-rory-blain-etcmedia-montreal/ [accessed 21/08/2016].

[19] Sam Sedgman,‘What does it mean to “buy” digital art?’, The Space, (2015), http://www.thespace.org/news/view/buying-digital-art-sam-sedgman [accessed 6/04/2016].

[20] Butcher, ‘Emerging Technology’.

[21] The use of terms such as ‘edition’, ‘collection’, ‘curation’, ‘certificate of authenticity’, and ‘provenance’ embed the platform within the art world and as a result reassure traditional collectors; Sedgman,‘What does it mean to “buy” digital art?’.

[22] Waelder, ‘Collecting Art in the Age of Access’, 53.

[23] Ibid., 54.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Sedgman,‘What does it mean to “buy” digital art?’.

[26] Waelder, ‘Collecting Art in the Age of Access’, 54.

[27] For further discussion on the financialisation of art refer to: Anna M. Dempster ed., Risk and Uncertainty in the Art Market (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

[28] Waelder, ‘Collecting Art in the Age of Access’, 54.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Sedition, ‘Support’, https://www.seditionart.com/support [accessed 21/08/2016].

[31] Sedgman,‘What does it mean to “buy” digital art?’.

[32] Ibid.

[33]Newer marketplaces such as Lumenus, for instance, allow the collector to download the work directly to their computer, tablet or smartphone via ascribe.

[34] Velthuis, Talking Prices, 29.

[35] Ibid., 90.

[36] Jones, ‘My Art World is Bigger than Your Art World’, 13.

[37] I have previously used Artsy to get in touch with bitforms gallery regarding the work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, while Steven Sacks did contact me, he wanted to know if I was already a collector of Lozano-Hemmer’s work, on informing him that I was not, communication subsequently ended – thus highlighting how important the ‘who’ is when it comes to collecting art.

[38]In Talking Prices Velthuis puts forward two contrary views regarding the market for art. First, there is ‘the Hostile Worlds Theory’ which proposes that the market alienates the artist. This has been summarised by the art critic Robert Hughes who in 1990 stated: “What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture”. The second model is the ‘Nothing But’ approach; here art is considered no different from any other commodity. In line with Velthuis’ own opinion that ‘art as culture’ and ‘art as market’ cannot be made distinct, online platforms are blurring the boundary between culture and commerce; Velthuis, Talking Prices, pp. 3-27.

[39] A promotional code was provided by Sedition to the attendees of their talk ‘Art in the Digital Age: Art Collecting for the Home’ presented at Shoreditch House, June 17, 2016.

[40] Ibid., 73.

[41] Ibid, 113.

[42]Daata identifies itself more with the artists than the medium, and it achieves this by promoting itself as a marketplace for artist web, sound or video [Appendix C].

[43] Daata Editions, ‘About’, (2015, https://daata-editions.com/info/about [accessed 22/08/2016].

[44] Daata Editions, ‘News’, (2015), https://daata-editions.com/info/news [accessed 22/08/2016].

[45] Sylvia Wu, ‘Collecting on the Cloud: a digital exchange with David Gryn of Daata’, On Screen Today, (October 9, 2015), http://www.onscreentoday.com/conversation/art-collecting-in-the-air [accessed 6/4/2016].

[46] Velthuis, Talking Prices, 55.

[47] Emily Steer, ‘5 Questions with Daata Editions,’ Elephant Magazine, (November 21, 2015), https://elephantmag.com/5-questions-with-daata-editions/ [accessed 22/08/2016].

[48] Velthuis, Talking Prices, 113.

[49] The role secrecy plays within the art market is discussed by Scott Reyburn in ‘What the Panama Papers Reveal about the Art Market,’ International New York Times, (April 11, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/12/arts/design/what-the-panama-papers-reveal-about-the-art-market.html?_r=0 [accessed 22/08/2016].

[50] Sedition, ‘Collectors’, Gordon Cheung, https://www.seditionart.com/gordon-cheung/collectors [accessed 23/08/2016].

[51] Velthuis, Talking Prices, 73.

[52] Wu, ‘Collecting on the Cloud’.

[53] Velthuis, Talking Prices, 155.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., pp. 155-156.

[56] Sedgman,‘What does it mean to “buy” digital art?’.