Blockchain technology could reshape the digital-art market for years to come.
The first Rare Digital Art Festival, aka Rare AF, aka Rare as Fuck, was held on a cold January Saturday in the offices of Rise New York. The organizers, Kevin Trinh and Tommy Nichols of the Rare Art Registry Exchange, had announced the event only a few weeks earlier, but by midmorning, the airy coworking space was swarming with crypto boosters and speculators, gamers, meme aficionados, artists, and collectors. This unlikely crowd (mostly young men, though I heard one audience member marvel at “all the women” present) had gathered for panel discussions, demos, an initial-coin-offering announcement, free sandwiches, and a live digital-art auction. Like many tech events, the aim of the conference was ambitious bordering on grandiose: the attendees of Rare AF believed they were witnessing history. They were certain that blockchain technology would reshape the future of digital art for years to come.
All the panels shared an underlying premise: The rise of digital media has made every kind of art widely accessible, but it has also created many problems. Because people can copy and share files freely and infinitely, artists don’t receive compensation for their work. Worse, an increasingly powerful cadre of middlemen services (Amazon, Spotify, etc.) have been fracturing the media landscape while reaping almost all of the profits.
Enter the blockchain, a decentralized and immutable ledger of digital transactions with the power to reintroduce scarcity and property rights to the digital-media economy. Many conference participants held strong beliefs about the superiority of a particular blockchain (Bitcoin vs. Ethereum), but for artists and collectors, the processes and results of these competing cryptocurrencies are fairly similar. An artist creates a limited-edition crypto collectible—the digital equivalent of a signed print—and exchanges it with a buyer for some cryptocurrency. The new buyer truly owns this digital object; they can keep it in their crypto wallet, show it off in a virtual gallery, or project it from a digital picture frame hung on their wall—a service offered by panelist Vladimir Vukicevic’s company Meural. Just as you can share reproductions of the Mona Lisa, someone could still copy and paste the image, but the provenance and price history of the original are accessible to all. The original of these works is identifiable and cannot be replicated, which is why they are called “provably rare.” Kieran Farr, a panelist representing a virtual-reality platform called Decentraland, summed things up to a round of applause: “Finally, authenticity has value.”