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“The File as an Object” at MAK Vienna : An evening about artwork, status, and value in the digital age

This post is a wrapup of an evening session at MAK Vienna among digital art thinkers, which we at ascribe were honored to be a part of.

MAK is the world’s oldest design museum. It was started in 1863 and has been a leading presence in the art & design world ever since. Since 1986 it’s also been a contemporary art museum. It’s older than Canada! Gotta love Europe.

For the last decade, MAK has been hosting a regular event called MAK NITE. MAK NITE gathers leading thinkers on provocative, cutting-edge topics. The MAK NITE of March 31, 2015 was special for us. The topic of the night was ” Digital Superposition: The File as an Object. An evening about artwork, status, and value in the digital age.” link.

We’d been invited to participate, given our work to help digital artists secure and protect their intellectual property. We said yes, of course:) Marlies and Valentin – thanks for the invite, and for your gracious hospitality! And thanks to MAK itself for the sponsorship. 192 people attended the event, with another 28 who live-streamed in.

Harm van der Dorpel kicked off the event with a talk. Harm is a leading digital artist from the Netherlands, and now living in Berlin. Harm surveyed some touchpoints of the work in his career, which I will now describe. First off was a 2008 video-like online piece called White Rectangle: silhouetted woods, an old church in the background, with a white rectangle moving back and forth horizontally and partially obscured by some trees. As Harm described the piece, I found myself drawn into its simple hypnotic motion.

Harm described a more recent work called Deli Near Info, it’s an immersive experience that is at once inviting yet vaguely threatening. Visiting the site, one sees various objects placed seemingly randomly through the page. You can drag them under different verticals, Trello or Jira style. The reference is intentional, as Harm’s also a pro software developer. Clicking to an object takes one to a different page of random objects and text. As I explored, a Harm-bot — a button-shaped image of Harm’s twitter pic — kept chasing my cursor. I didn’t know what would happen if this caught my cursor… but because it was so doggedly persistent in following me, I didn’t want to know! So I kept moving and clicking to keep out of Harm’s way.

Harm unveiled a brand-new piece that evening called “fixme”: a screensaver (!) that “grew” random patterns to slowly fill the screen, while simultaneously showing lines of poetry written by Harm. The pattern-growing was using “L-system” technology, which has roots in artificial intelligence (AI) research and was featured in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. This branch of AI is near and dear to my heart, from my background doing genetic programming of generative systems. On their own, the L-system patterns would have felt cold; but the poetry humanized it, and made for a compelling piece.

A panel followed Harm’s talk. The panel had five speakers, each of whom gave a short talk. Then, all the panelists became part of a Q&A among the panelists, MC Marlies Wirth, and the audience.

The speakers and their respective talks, were as follows.

Valentin Ruhry. Valentin is a Vienna-based artist who creates works both in the physical realm and the digital realm, often with a playful take on technology. With Andy Boot, he’s a founders of Cointemporary, an online art gallery that sells exactly one art work every 10 days — with bitcoin. Valentin showed the audience the cointemporary.com site, and the next work that he was going to put up soon — “The Love I Got” which he’d created. Valentin did a live demo where Max bought a work from Cointemporary, using Bitcoin. (The second half of this step came up in my talk, described below.)

Max Tertinegg. Max is the founder of Coinfinity, an Austrian company which makes it dead simple to buy bitcoin. For example in Austria, thanks to Max you can buy bitcoins just as easily as you can buy credits for your phone. In his talk, Max explained what bitcoin was about, as a digital currency and store of value. I thought it was cool that he skipped getting into mining at all, in order to focus on the core value propositions of bitcoin. Then he led into the blockchain by calling bitcoin just “the first application”. He described the blockchain, as simply a database – a special one that no one owns. All these descriptions made me smile, as I share the same view:)

Jakob Braeuer. Jakob is a Berlin-based lawyer who serves artists, galleries, and institutions in art world, with clients spanning the globe. Jakob gave several examples of issues at the intersection of art and law. For example, He described how when a painting is sold, there are typically no legal issues because the exchange of value is cut and dried: money goes one way, and the physical object goes the other way. But when electronic art is sold, it’s much harder because there is no physical object trading hands. Lawyers have been helping, in order to ensure the rights to the work are properly transferred.

Trent McConaghy (yours truly). I’m a co-founder of ascribe, based in Berlin. I began my talk by describing the origins of the WWW, and how it’s exploded in popularity and revolutionized much of the world. I described a problem: if you’re a creator and you share your work on the internet, as soon as you put it out there you lose control of it. You don’t know where it is, and it’s hard to establish that it’s yours. The result is that with the status quo WWW, it’s hard to “own” digital property on the web. I described how in the pre-history of WWW, this issue was anticipated; but the WWW design did not account for it; which is why we have the issues of today. Finally, I described what ascribe is doing to help creators: to identify where on the web copies of the file have ended up, and to help establish who owns it — to “own digital art the way you own bitcoin”. I summarizes ascribe as a service for digital artists and collectors to have control over their intellectual property.

Valentin and I then did an (unplanned) live demo on Cointemporary plus ascribe. Recall from Valentin’s talk, that recall that Max had bought a work from Cointemporary. Here, Valentin did the second of two steps: he used ascribe to transfer the ownership from Valentin to Max. (I’ll do a separate blog post soon to elaborate Cointemporary plus ascribe.)

Following our talks was a Q&A session. The moderators and audience asked some great questions, which the panelists fielded from their respective areas of expertise. At one point I mentioned how with services like ascribe, there’s less need for lawyers to handle selling digital art — with an apologetic nod to Jakob (the art lawyer). I was delighted when Jakob responded by saying “great!” because it helped the art world, and it simply meant that some of his practice would shift to areas of higher value.

One question that resonated was: the internet is meant for sharing freely, so isn’t charging for digital works against the idea of the internet? My answer was simply that artists and creators who create works that people find of value deserve a fair chance to get compensated fairly for it. There are many possible models to get compensated, from selling a piece just like a painting or a print, to all-you-can-eat subscriptions (Spotify style), to tipping (Radiohead style). I’d love to see more of the latter, as it encourages sharing freely while still giving an opportunity for artists to get compensated fairly.

A reception followed the talks, where we had a chance to hang out and have one-on-ones with fellow panelists and audience members alike. Jakob taught me a few more things on the finer points on art law, and Max on bitcoin. (Thanks Max and Jakob !)

A video of the event is available here.

It was really a pleasure to be part of this event. Once again, I’d like to thank Marlies Wirth and Valentin Ruhry for all their efforts putting together this very special evening, and for being such excellent hosts!

All photos © MAK/Nathan Murrell