Digital Art Provenance
Kevin McCoy, Monegraph

Digital art poses a number of challenges to the standard practices of art collecting. And why wouldn’t it? Digital works have many attributes that make collecting it challenging. They are fragile -- easily corrupted, they are easy to duplicate any number of times, they can become obsolete and non-functional. Normally we like our art to be unique, hardy and permanent.

When collecting art meant the control of physical objects, the concept of provenance reigned supreme. A unique item of singular value benefits from knowledge of the history of its ownership, helping establish and maintain its value. Does provenance even mean anything in the digital realm?

Problems posed by non-unique and non-physical artworks emerged well before digital artworks, and the art developed methods of dealing with these challenges. Prints, photographs and other reproducible works were assigned edition numbers, and given an overall edition size. Non-physical works such as instruction-based works, performances and other intangible forms have been defined via agreements, and certificates of authenticity have been created, signed and recorded for many different types of works.

But is provenance the best thing to import into this new world of digital art? Is emulating physical property the best way forward? And is provenance even recording the same thing as it was before?

It is clear that artists will continue to respond to the on-going digitization of experience by making work that is digitally based. Collectors and supporters go where artists lead, giving us to key words: collect and support. Buyers of these works are as much supporters of digital artists as they are collectors of works that have a clear, if speculative, future value.

Daata Editions captures both aspects of this role by editioning each work with a known set of edition numbers, then attaching the name of the collector publically to each work. That way, the collector has both the rights that provenance traditionally establishes - ownership rights, but also the right of support -- let’s cheekily say ‘bragging rights’. These records are part of the gallery’s documents, a paper trail of a history of relationships between dealer, artist and collector.

Another way of handling this relationship has recently emerged. The blockchain, that distributed, secure recordkeeping system at the heart of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, has been held up as a way to secure the ownership of digital works, making a irrefutable link between artist and collector. I should know. I was one of the first people to produce a working model of it and have spent the past several years offering a platform for artist to register digital works using the Bitcoin blockchain.

But so far, it’s been a mostly theoretical exercise. Not many people feel a need to record their works in such a way. I think the lesson here is that the relationship of mutual support between artist, gallery and collector is the most important dynamic, at least at this stage of digital art practice. And if that mutual support needs to be recorded somewhere, it’s overkill to wrap it in the technology and rhetoric that accompanies blockchains. It’s fine, even appropriate, for it to live in the gallery’s files, along with the names and contact information of all participants involved.

Despite this current state of affairs, I’m still excited about blockchain technology. It’s a place of innovation, excitement, hype and hope. Who knows where it will go in the future. But for now, the focus of digital art practice is staying right where it should, on the work itself, not on innovations in digital recordkeeping.

Kevin McCoy, Monegraph https://monegraph.com/

Kevin is the co-founder and CEO of Monegraph. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art Professions at NYU where he oversees the department's digital art practices. He has had a long studio art career working collaboratively with his partner Jennifer McCoy.

Monegraph along with Daata Editions, Even Magazine, Tech:NYC and Ace Hotels, is hosting Digital de Suite. An Afternoon Discussion on Art, Droite de Suite & Blockchain Technologies. Friday May 4, 2018, 3-6pm at Ace Hotel New York, 20 West 29th Street, New York, NY 10001 Sign Up Here

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