BLOCKCHAIN: AFTER PROTOCOLS Special issue of Espace – art actue

—Call for Contributions—
Edited by Nathalie Casemajor in collaboration with Erik Bordeleau
In 2023 the Centre Pompidou acquired a group of works dealing with the relations between blockchain and artistic creation. Most of the works consist of Net Art, which relies on internet connectivity protocols. Curators Marcella Lista and Philippe Bettinelli situate them within a lineage of protocols (and certificates) in conceptual art and minimalism. The acquisitions were exhibited alongside historical works such as Yves Klein’s Chéquier (1959), which certifies the assignment of “a quantity of painterly sensibility, immaterial and transferable.”
Since 2008, the rapid development of blockchain technology has paved the way for new protocols for exchange and creation in the art world. Blockchain technology uses validation protocols to authenticate blocks of information that link together to create a shared, encrypted ledger. This dossier will focus on artistic appropriations of the blockchain, with particular attention paid to blockchain protocols for creation, economics, and governance. But beyond the formalism of protocols, the dossier focuses on aspects that transcend procedural and mechanical frameworks.
Canadian artist Dmitri Cherniak uses this technology as a creative medium to make generative art registered on the blockchain. He devises conceptual protocols, creating algorithms that execute predefined instructions to automatically generate works. In 2023 Sotheby’s auction house debuted its platform for on-chain generative art. The launch paid tribute to Hungarian artist Vera Molnár, a pioneer of digital and algorithmic art, renowned for her abstract geometric works. Given the massive success of NFT sales in 2021, Sotheby’s is betting on crypto investors’ continued interest in collecting NFTs, despite the market’s collapse post-pandemic.
Use of the blockchain in the art market has attracted media attention as well as frequent criticism from within the art world. As a selling system, blockchain largely relies on the certification protocols of blockchain ledgers: the registration and authentication of a work’s uniqueness (the underlying principle of NFTs, which stands for non-fungible tokens) creates an instance of rarity in an infinity of digital reproducibility. Transfer provisions in “smart contracts” are also directly encoded in the blockchain, making it easier to monetize and exchange the works. Blockchain protocols are revealing new ways to conceive of value certification, currency, types of property, power distribution, and financial systems in the art world.
Several recent initiatives have looked to blockchain to re-imagine organizational modes in the art world. At the forefront since 2015, Furtherfield Gallery in London (UK) has been testing blockchain-inspired governance protocols. The gallery combines institutional critique with early internet culture’s ideal of free and open-source software to envision new templates for finance and co-creation in the arts ecosystem. The results of their experiments were published in the book Radical Friends – Decentralised Autonomous Organisations and the Arts (2022). The Palestinian collective Dayra, working in a similar mode, presented The Question of Funding, a speculative prototype of a financial system for Gaza’s arts community, at Documenta 15 (2022).
Another set of practices, more closely related to Post-Internet Art, takes the form of installation or video works. These works engage with blockchain as a realm of representation and a means to explore our relationship with technology. Among the first to embrace these issues, the artist Simon Denny curated the two exhibitions Proof of Work (2018) and, with Bettina Steinbrügge, Proof of Stake: Technological Claims (2021). The exhibitions’ titles borrow from blockchain technical validation protocols, questioning the technology’s emancipatory potential. Hito Steyerl’s video Animal Spirits (2022) is especially damning in its critique of cryptofinance markets’ toxicity and the illusory nature of an emancipatory technology. Mika Rottenberg’s video Spaghetti Blockchain (2019) serves up social surrealism with a blockchain network made of marshmallow-soldered raw spaghetti, gelatinous cylinders, and mechanical handiwork on an absurdist assembly line, forming a sequence of physical reactions in partitioned but interconnected spaces within an intricate system, the meaning of which is anyone’s guess.
Vera Molnár defined her work as 99% order and “1% of disorder.” This special dossier involves the tenacious 1% that escapes the abstract formalizations and dreams of automation associated with the blockchain. We are interested in things that defy protocol; overflows; jammings; ungluings; the unthinkingness of automation; procedural fatigue; the technological unconscious; circumventions of procedure; noncompliance; the materiality and deformity of networks and media; the irruption of the organic in the machine; the inoperable — the becoming-animal of the machine. Practices analyzed in this issue may include blockchain as a medium for artistic creation; artworks that appropriate blockchain’s realm of representation; experimental museum and institutional practices; and blockchain applications in the art market or in arts governance. Proposals should extend beyond blockchain protocols, incorporating aesthetic and political perspectives to elucidate relations between realms of the informal and technological formalization.
To contribute to this themed issue, please start by emailing the assistant editor (gcorto [@] espaceartactuel [.] com) before May 31, 2024 with a brief proposal (around 250 words). We will respond quickly if your proposal is accepted. Your full text should be no more than 2000 words long, not including footnotes, and must be submitted before September 6, 2024. Honorariums are $65 CAD per 250-word page.