The Distributed Art Object Framework
This document is the result of several years of conversation stemming out of a digital art provenance project called Moving Pictures Gallery. It is by no means complete. There are many areas that need to be examined and unpacked, however this is a first step at defining a foundational layer from which other things can emerge.
I incubated MPG with Benton-C Bainbridge in 2016. Benton had previously been discussing digital objecthood for several years in the context of the Ethereum blockchain. While our work together congealed many of these ideas, the baseline distributed object system outlined below should be primarily credited to him. My work is in solidifying and articulating a generalized version these ideas to the public and unpacking the implications so we can proceed accordingly.
During my work with Moving Pictures Gallery I became more interested in the blockchain as a liberatory medium, with programmable flexibility that would enable groups of people to wield power within the larger macro economic framework in previously impossible ways. It wasn’t about putting pre-existent “art” (however one may define it) on a blockchain, but about groups of digital artists forming a soft union through smart contracts to participate in the secondary market for their labor.
I later became interested in the blockchain as the site of the art itself, rather than a contrived market for selling atomized digital warez. At every intersection of a technological shift we use old metaphors for new systems, try and put the radio on tv, tv on the internet etc. We need a new art for a new world. Art as contract is well established territory, at least since Marcel Duchamp released his own bonds in the early 20th century. As the art object de-materialized into conceptual art and performance, the legal system caught up by creating art contracts stipulating what the nature of the work was, so that it could be commodified by collectors. Lauren Van Haften Schick’s input initially invoked my own artistic development of smart contract art objects.
During this stage of my process, the Moneylab extension group at the University at Buffalo was instrumental in exposing me to academic critique of distributed currencies and the perils of applying free market principles to culture.
To that extent the project of the distributed object requires we think beyond our current frameworks and biases to re-imagining property as a type of open source digital commons. This does not abolish private property or ownership nor does it seek to. What I seek to introduce here is multiplicity, where various types of ownership and community can exist in simultaneity. Through this we can articulate a flexible framework for the emerging distributed political reality.
The issue with blockchain development as it currently stands is that most of the actors in the space are privately funded companies trying to OWN the idea of distributed property and leave their mark on the protocols and frameworks that define what it is. Indeed the necessity of capital investment requires a myopic view of intellectual property so a monopoly can be formed. It is good business. However on a fundamental level, if you follow the logic of dis-intermediation, no one can own any-thing, any more then we can own the concept of beauty. We can try, but it is morally reprehensible, and indeed practically impossible.
What we need now, more than ever are systems of collaboration and cooperation, that enable us to instantiate new forms of community and catalyze our own form of value. If we can think beyond conventional forms of wealth and money, we can think beyond conventional forms of relationship, and in doing so unlock the latent potentiality of all things. For indeed all beings throughout the universe, from earthworms to stock brokers have value and are worthwhile of respect and dignity.
What I ask of you is impossible. But I persist in my efforts nonetheless. What I ask is simple and straightforward, like an invitation to the prom. However this is a different type of prom. I want you to suspend your disbelief that another way is possible. I want you to believe, if even for a moment, that we have the power to shape a new world. Ground yourself in this freefall, and try and sculpt the air in the twilight darkness of the unknown. Sing and hear the extended reverb of your voice against the architecture of of a place which has yet to be built. You and only you have this power to see, and if enough of us choose to see together, a form may start to emerge from the darkness, glimmering.
- Eric Barry Drasin, July 5 2019
The goal of the distributed object framework is to provide a technological and legal context for the creation of non-fungible digital assets. This solution could begin to address the problem of perpetual storage, therefore enhancing the distribution of digital art, video and other time based media, and to provide a basic rubric for the buying, selling, collecting and licensing of digital media art.
The distributed art object could be defined as a specific digital file, group of files, set of instructions, documentation, or iteration of media file, set of code, connected assets in accordance with set of instructions left by the artist. Because digital media is subject to rapid obsolescence, part of the distributed object must account for what the parameters of the work are, so that it can be modified and updated over time. In other words, the artistic work must be defined in the contract so that its boundaries are known for reconstructing the work for future exhibitions when the entire technology underpinning the work has likely changed.
In addition, a smart contract will be used to define each work and the rules for it’s display and distribution (a license), and based on the smart contract attribution metadata, we will issue a blockchain based certificate of authenticity for each artwork. This organization of files, metadata, contract and token define what we call a distributed art object. It is in this way we solidify a non fungible asset in what is otherwise an ephemeral medium.
By using the distributed object framework, we can encode behaviors into the object that creates new, flexible forms of ownership, distribution of ownership, and value.
What is the Utility?
The function of the Distributed Object is that it is a digital asset that can move seamlessly between distribution, viewership and provenance frameworks. This means that the object is not bound to one service or platform in order to legitimize its existence. The current paradigm for assets purchase in video games, or digital art purchased on platforms, is that the objects are dependant on the platform from which they were purchased. The distributed object does away with those boundaries by creating digital assets which can be seen and modified independent of what system they are in. In this sense, the object, not stored in any specified server, whose meta data can be accessed by anyone capable of looking at the blockchain, can then be bought and sold through any number of services and marketplaces.
The distributed object framework is an agnostic system consisting of a set of tools that substantiates a digital file, set of files, instructions, relationships and ownership. It is the confluence of these separate components that enables the distributed object to exist. The distributed object cannot exist without all of these components working together. The distributed object is a digital asset given materiality.
Through this technological and legal stack, the digital object is now something that can be both owned and controlled in novel ways as indicated through the description of the smart contract and certificate of authenticity. Any instantiation of the object, either digitally or in physical space is only a reference to the distributed object which exists in through distributed platforms. Within this context the re-materialization of the art object is not the thing itself, therefore once tokenized it cannot be bought or sold without the sale going through the smart contract.
Ownership, licensing and scarcity are now things that can be modulated and controlled from the outset of the distributed objects creation. Different monetization strategies can be employed through the use of smart contracts and smart tokens, which enables the artist, collector or fractional owner of the intellectual property to earn revenue through different means. This includes but is not limited to, unique singular digital assets, multiples created from an original source file, licensing schemes that remunerate the owner for use of the object, or creative commons licenses that stipulate the conditions of remix and reuse. Artists can participate in the secondary market through resale royalty schemes built into the smart contract that mediates the sale of their work.
The eventual employment of blockchain enabled wallet viewers, will further give control to the creator of the distributed object as to how and by whom their IP can be viewed. In the case of the fine art collector, their distributed art object, once purchased from the artist, may be locked away in distributed storage until the rights have been purchased or licensed by a museum or gallery.
In the event that the file is copied for exhibition, it still doesn’t affect the ownership rights of the material and is still subject to copyright enforcement by the country of origin.
We cannot change the fundamental nature of digital materiality as a substrate. Digital files are inherently copyable. But using the distributed object stack, we can now employ ownership strategies that enable new forms of collection, sharing, and licensing.
Eventually, the use of “wallet viewers,” or digital rights management tools will be built into browsers which will enable the owners of the distributed object to exhibit, loan, or broadcast their artwork in numerous configurations.
Defining a community context for the distributed object
While this document seeks to define the concept for a distributed art object, at this point I am primarily invested in maintaining the idea of the distributed object as part of an open source digital commons so that no part of the protocol can be monetized or monopolized.
I believe that this framework should be developed as platform agnostic as possible, with an easy to use user interface that makes it easy for artists to leverage their collective power in the marketing of their own work.
Furthermore, the concept for what an object is, how that object exists could be radically envisioned. Up to now we separate the concept of the object from the community that creates it, and the object circulates through a network of elite institutions and collectors. What about communities of practitioners that aren’t producing objects? This begs further examination as to what the nature of art is and how it functions within different cultural ecologies.
For instance, in the digital attention economy, the means of distribution retroactively influences the type of art that is produced. We create content for the platform we intend to share it on. We compete for attention which is monetized by that platform and not distributed back to the creator.
The idea of artists participating in the secondary market is radical, in as much as any content creator is currently shut out of the wealth they create by the extraction economy. However is there a bigger picture here that we are missing?
- How do we think about the future of digital property, and tie it to the process of cultural production?
- Is it possible for us to create a fluid definition of art that helps determine how we develop the underlying technologies, rather than the other way around?
- Can we create digital economies that aren’t subject to a speculation market? Can digital cultural production be envisioned as a platform cooperative?
- If we re-imagine money, we re-imagine relationship. Does the concept of property as an open source digital commons have implications for how we treat relationship?
- Can we create localized co-investment economies that create networks of accountability? Can art serve as a prototyping environment for how this could work?
Distributed Object Framework V.1
- Hashed file
- Files is zipped, hashed, uploaded to IPFS
- Any file, or set of files can be uploaded this way
- Social announcement
- Legally binding announcement via twitter
- Contains file hash, ipfs hash, public wallet address where token is stored
- Distributed storage
- Upload zipped file
- File becomes immutable and indelible once uploaded
- Issues location hash
- Redundant json file for metadata
- Smart contract
- States parameters of the work
- Individual to each work
- Transfers ownership of the COA
- Artist resale royalties
- Automatic percentage of resale of token distributed to artist’s wallet
- Issues token signifying ownership
- States parameters of the work
- Certificate of authenticity
- Embedded on the blockchain
- Embeds IPFS location hash
- Embeds file hash
- Issues ERC-721 token
- Token contains metadata pointing to the other information
- Ipfs hash
- COA hash
- File hash
- Token could be eventually used for access to file through wallet viewer
- Wallet viewer
- Manages user identity on the system, by tokens, enables access to the work
- Complex modular licensing schemes