enabling a market for digital art

Seven on Seven 2014: Kevin McCoy & Anil Dash/ Rhizome (2014)

‘digital artists have a lot of problems’ – Kevin McCoy

When Technology Meets Art: This Year’s Seven on Seven
May 15, 2014

As they reminded us [Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash], artists who make digital artworks—whether cartoon GIFs or looping video clips—are vulnerable to seeing their work stolen, copied, and recycled, with no acknowledgement of ownership. McCoy and Dash’s solution? They realized digital artists could stake claim to their handiwork by borrowing Bitcoin technology: essentially, by burying miniature certificates of ownership in the bowels of a Bitcoin-like currency’s permanent activity records.

—in VOGUE (read the original publication)

video loop 2014
The second recorded NFT, “Cars” was transferred from the McCoys to Anil Dash live on stage at The New Museum in May of 2014.

Seven on Seven 2014: Kevin McCoy & Anil Dash

Presented by Rhizome, the Seven on Seven conference pairs seven leading artists with seven influential technologists in teams of two, and challenges them to develop something new–whatever they choose to imagine—over the course of a single day.

Anil Dash is a New York based entrepreneur and long-time blogger. He is co-founder and CEO of ThinkUp, a new service that helps people get more meaning out of the time they spend on social networks. He is also co-founded Activate, a consultancy that helps companies strategize at the intersection of technology and media. Dash serves on the board of Stack Exchange, the Data & Society Research, and the New York Tech Meetup.

Kevin McCoy is an artist working and exhibiting internationally with his partner Jennifer McCoy. His artworks explore changing conditions around social roles, categories, genres and forms of value. His work has adopted many methodological approaches: exhaustive categorization, recreation and reenactment, automation, miniaturization, and most recently, remote viewing and speculative modeling. His artwork is represented by in New York by Postmasters Gallery and in Geneva by Gallerie Guy Bartschi, and can be seen in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and MUDAM in Luxembourg. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art Professions at NYU.

Excerpt of cars.gif by Jennifer & Kevin McCoy
(not monegraph signed)

A Bitcoin for Digital Art
Currency is boring. Let’s make GIFs!
By Anil Dash
May 9, 2014


Copy and Paste

There has been hand-wringing about the fate of digital artists for at least as long as there has been digital art. But as most everyone’s computers got connected over the last two decades, the most fundamental cause of concern has been the effortlessness with which any given work can be instantly, and perfectly, copied. In a realm where novelty, rarity and exclusivity underpin so much of the (real or perceived) value of a work, copy and paste goes from being an act of creation to an act of destruction.

Reblogging is essential to getting the word out for many digital artists, but potentially devastating to the value of the very work it is promoting. What’s been missing, then, are the instruments that physical artists have used to invent value around their work for centuries — provenance and verification.

Provenance for an artwork can be asserted in countless ways, from witnessing performance art firsthand to having a world-famous auction house bet its credibility on whether a work is an original or not. This function is critical not just in enabling an economic art market, but also in the study and understanding of individual artworks and their context within a movement or culture.

Verification, on the other hand, takes on a new urgency in the digital realm. In this context, verification means the validation that a work is unchanged from its original form, and that the work in question is the actual work being discussed as a creation. It has, of course, always been possible to forge a work (and this is one of the issues meant to be solved in physical art by checking provenance), but there’s a more philosophical debate about verification in the digital realm, where simply viewing an image in a web browser results in a copy being made on the viewer’s computer or phone.

Various efforts have been made to assert forms of provenance and verification for digital art over the past few decades, but most relied on the artworks to remain within closed, proprietary technological silos; few were designed to verify a work while also allowing it to be widely displayed across the Internet. As a result, the only way for artists to really build a market around their digital works has been to convert them into physical forms.



Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference has an august history, bringing together formidable artists with truly credible technologists, at least until I got picked as one of those technologists. Held at the New Museum, this year’s event set the bar high from the start, opening on Saturday morning with a corker of a keynote from Kate Crawford followed by an excerpt from a video of the late Aaron Swartz discussing his 2012 collaboration with Taryn Simon, Image Atlas.

Kate’s characteristically brilliant presentation contextualized normcore and the NSA and drones and Occupy, in case anyone worried that every Big Important Idea couldn’t fit into a single talk. Following that with an evocation of tech’s most besainted young activist was enough to move anyone in the audience, not just those of us who were his friends. And then six pairs of extraordinarily talented artists and technologists followed. We still had a full seven hours to go until we were scheduled to present.

Kevin McCoy and I were batting cleanup together. Kevin and I had met just 48 hours earlier, with no introduction and little instruction except that we would have one day to create something we wanted to share with this audience. Within five minutes of our initial introduction, we knew exactly what we wanted to build. Each of us had been ruminating about the potential applications of Bitcoin’s block chain technology to the realm of digital art for months. Given the pedigree of the event, we knew we would have to at least present an idea worthy of Seven on Seven, even if its execution were necessarily compromised by the 24-hour deadline on which it was created.

I’ll skip past the typical hagiographic creation myth here to instead emphasize the fact that much of this idea was not novel. Indeed, many people have been pondering this exact combination of art and technology — enough that Kevin and I asked each other several times, “Why the hell hasn’t anyone done this before?” Just some of the influences on our thinking:

— In February, Paul Ford outlined non-currency uses of the block chain in MIT Technology Review: “[T]ake digital art. Larry Smith, … an analyst with long experience in digital advertising and digital finance, asks us to ‘imagine digital items that can’t be reproduced.’”


All of this to say: Ain’t nothin’ new under the sun. And yet, for all the conversation, and all the people who’ve been ruminating on provenance and verification in a digital world, we hadn’t seen the pieces come together until now. That little bit of hacking Kevin did last Friday night may mark the moment that everything went from theory to practice.

—in Medium (read more)

McCoy Space


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