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How blockchain is painting a brighter future for art in a Covid world

To celebrate the end of 2020, here is a Forkast.News editors’ pick from our archives, content that still rings fresh, true and — in a world now measured in nanoseconds — timeless.

The coronavirus pandemic’s devastating impact on the global economy has also affected the world of art, but a silver lining may be new opportunities for artists, galleries and collectors through blockchain and other emerging technologies.

“Covid could actually bring the art world closer to a tipping point in terms of acceptance of new technologies, just out of necessity,” said Joanne Ooi, co-founder of Art Unchained, a recent virtual art event in Hong Kong. “For the first time, art collectors and people who can’t go to museums are tuning into digital art fairs, as well as just digital artworks, but also, a lot of attention has been shown on how unsustainable the art fair model is, and that’s been the white-hot center of it for so long.”

Covid-19 has resulted in many job losses in the art industry due to prolonged restricted public in-person access to museums, galleries, and exhibitions. A recent survey by Washington, D.C., based non-profit Americans for the Arts found that 62% of artists were left completely unemployed, and more than 94% lost income due to the pandemic.

Museums’ business models and revenues have also been decimated this year.

“Museums rely on physical visitors, on ticketing, on café and shop sales, and now all of that has disappeared,” said Anna Lowe, co-founder of Smartify, an art app using AI to support museum experiences and art appreciation.

Blockchain and art

Despite the pandemic’s blow to the art sector’s traditional business models, new technologies and internet-based innovations may help fill some of the void.

Brooklyn-based startup Snark.art is one example of how art creators and curators are adapting to Covid. The platform helps artists “tokenize” and distribute their artwork on the blockchain network, allowing art lovers to fractionally own pieces of art.

See related article: Bitcoin-inspired art ‘Portraits of a Mind’ debuts at Christie’s New York

“Blockchain and tokenization can actually bring and inject an element of democratization and collective feeling into art appreciation by investment, as well as appreciation,” Ooi said. “Blockchain [also] has a Kickstarter-style crowd financing function — that’s actually what Snark.art has done — where a big group of people can actually finance an artwork from the beginning.”

Blockchain’s ability to crowdfund art could also help museums and other public cultural institutions raise money during pandemic-related closures.

“We see that physical events are mostly closed and artists suffer,” said Andy Alekhin, co-founder of Snark.art. “We see that a lot of artists are switching into digital, and for us, it was relatively tough to convince a leading artist to start experimenting with digital, with non-fungible tokens (NFTs), before the Covid. Now it’s super easy.”

An NFT is a unique cryptographic token, unlike bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies that are interchangeable. Therefore, NFTs can represent entire works of unique art, or fractions of a work of art, which could allow for many people to share in the ownership of a single work of art.

“[There are] huge, huge inflows of collectors and people trying to understand how to store digital art, how to trade digital art, what artists there are,” Alekhin said. “There’s a lot of interest right now.”

Blockchain’s presence in the art world has been growing, in particular through the increasing popularity of NFTs. CryptoKitties is one example of NFTs being used to create and trade original artwork depicting digital cats. In 2018, a CryptoKitty named Dragon sold for 600 ETH, or about US$172,000 at the time. Another similar project is CryptoPunks, which created 10,000 unique collectible characters, with proof of ownership of each stored on the Ethereum network.

Blockchain could also be used in the art industry to issue authenticity certificates, to record and approve the chain of ownership of works of art, for crowdfunding, tokenization and proving digital scarcity.

See related article: How tokenization via blockchain can digitize assets and open up investment opportunities

“Digital scarcity is making sure that something that can be, in theory, replicated without limits becomes a property with a number of it,” said Massimo Sterpi, a partner at Gianni, Origoni, Grippo, Cappelli & Partners, and a leading expert on art law.

Scarcity in digital art is similar to how the art business works in the traditional brick-and-mortar world. Blockchain can make sure an artwork is truly one of a kind, or enforce limited editions. “There is a wealth of adoption of these new technologies,” Sterpi said.

Watch the full online panel of Art Unchained moderated by Forkast.News Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau to find out more about how blockchain and other new technologies are changing the art world, providing new sources of revenue and fueling artistic creativity anew, to rise from this year’s setbacks from Covid-19.

Highlights

  • Joanne Ooi on artificial intelligence in art: “I don’t think AI is ever going to be able to come up with something as beautiful as genuine, as a groundbreaking masterpiece of human artwork.”
  • Andy Alekhin explains Covid’s impact on art: “Art, I think, is one of the industries that still is not totally digitized. It happened with every other industry, maybe like 15 or 10 years ago. Art is still physical and it’s quickly changing right now. The pandemic actually made a huge push. And it’s not only the way you sell art, it’s about the art itself. Your art becomes digital.”
  • Anna Lowe, on the creative industry’s development: “Creative industries in general [are] much more fragmented than other industries. You have small production houses, you have independent artists, and so it’s harder to have that investment at a large scale, where developers might get higher salaries in fintech or in an energy field. So in the art sector, I think it has been a little bit slow because it’s so fragmented.”
  • Massimo Sterpi explores the role of art in society: “[A quote by] Zach Lieberman: ‘artists are the R&D department of humanity.’ This is clearly an indication that artists are normally early adopters of any technology, and the latest disruptive technologies are certainly no exception.”

Full Transcript

Angie Lau: Welcome to the first week of Art Unchained, the art and technology event sponsored by Swire Properties which explores how technology is impacting the creative world, from the art industry to everyday consumer products. Welcome, everybody. It’s a thrill to be here. I’m Angie Lau; I’m Editor-in-Chief and founder of Forkast.News. We cover blockchain and emerging technologies that shape our world at the intersection of business, politics and economy. And now we’re going to, today, include art in that. Just to tell you a little bit more about Art Unchained. It takes place over these next two weeks and it consists of two online forums — which I’m very happy to be hosting — and a media art installation at ArtisTree.

The first forum, this one, is about technology and art, and the second forum, next Friday — I really want you all to be there as well — is about how blockchain is going to impact consumers. But besides the forums, there’s a media art installation by a French artist named Patrick Tresset. In fact, you see the artwork right there on your screen now, this artwork called Human Study #1, 5NRP, is five robots sketching human sitters in 20-minute sessions. Each robot has been programmed to sketch in a different style, kind of like five different artists. The artwork truly reflects the questions and themes that will be discussed during the web forums. For example, how is technology being used by artists to both create art and sell it? How is technology making it easier to understand and collect art? So that’s exactly what we are going to discuss right now: the intersection of art and technology, and most importantly, you.

So everyone, if you are ready, so are we. Please help me welcome our panelists right now. First off is Anna Lowe. Anna, hello. She’s the co-founder of Smartify, the world’s biggest art app using AI to enrich art appreciation and museum-going. The Smartify app has been downloaded, get this, two million times. It’s in use right now at the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre, just to name a few of the museums where you can use the app, and I wish we could travel more so that we could actually appreciate it. But there is no doubt that even if you physically can’t be there, you can actually appreciate this through the app. It’s really incredible to see.

Our next panelist is Andy Alekhin, co-founder of Snark.art. This is one of the most prominent and successful businesses selling tokenized digital and traditional artworks using Ethereum. Ethereum, if you know, is one of the blockchain protocols that is the engine behind our next generation of computing. We’re going to learn more about this for sure, we’ll catch up. But besides using blockchain to sell artworks, Snark.art has launched five projects to demonstrate the creative and artistic potential of that technology, and a recent project was the distribution of a limited edition crypto-fortune cookie, so we’re definitely going to ask Andy about that. So apparently you can open your cookie, read your fortune, or hold on to it and trade it for more later. But once you open that cookie and read your fortune, the cookie token becomes worthless. So is this art? We’re going to ask Andy about it.

Joining Anna and Andy is Massimo Sterpi. He is a partner at Gianni, Origoni, Grippo, Cappelli & Partners. Massimo is one of the world’s leading experts on art law, especially the legal ramifications of technology and property rights and licensing. He’s also a passionate collector of media art. Massimo, welcome.

And last but not least, Joanne Ooi is the co-founder of Art Unchained. She writes about art, culture, sociology, and technology in her newsletter On My Mind, and created Art Unchained in order to bring more mainstream attention to digital and media art.

But before we get this panel started, I do want to say this to you all directly. Don’t forget, this is an interactive conversation. So that means we want to hear from you, our audience. So you can ask the panelists privately and us through the Q&A in Webex, and we’re going to get those questions flowed through me to our panelists. All you need to do is make sure to choose ‘post’ when sending the question to us. And if you want to make some public comments, please feel free to do so. You can use the chat function and everybody’s going to see it. If everyone is ready, let’s begin. It’s incredible to be here. Thank you so much. We’re so excited to talk about this intersection of art and technology.

Massimo, I want to start with you. Can you give us a general overview of art and tech, some of the technologies and innovations that are reshaping the future of art?

Massimo Sterpi: Let me start with two quotations that I think will set the tone of the conversation. First one is one that goes back to 2011 by Zach Lieberman, to say that: “artists are the R&D department of humanity.” This is clearly an indication that artists are normally early adopters of any technology, and the latest disruptive technologies are certainly no exception.

But I was even more struck by a very recent quote by Marina Abramović, the world-famous performance artist that a few weeks ago declared to launch a VR (virtual reality) project that was sold at Christie’s that: ‘I believe that the art of the future is art without objects. It is a pure transmission of energy between the viewer and the artist.’ I think this is very impressive and I think it really shows the way as normally as she can do.

The two main trends in art are — one is the adoption of technologies, and the second one is dematerialization. So certainly we start from these two trends. How was this new technology adopted? Of course, there was adoption by the artist using all these tools, AI, blockchain, robotics — we are seeing robotics in action right now, with the project of Patrick Tresset — and augmented reality, virtual reality, even smart contracts, we’ll see, and even biotech, in some occasion. But also the art market has adopted many of these technologies.

Just to mention a few examples, a few fields of usage, for instance, for AI, we can mention art appraisals, or we can mention applying to relational management, or even exhibition curation, or checking of authenticity of works, or calculating immediately in a matter of seconds, the shipping cost of artworks around the world, or even the most recent trend, use it to do [KYC] actions as requested by anti-money laundering laws.

And if we talk instead of blockchain and we have experts around the table today, of course, we have issuance of authenticity certificates. We have approval of the chain of title, we have use of cryptocurrencies, we have tokenization, and we will talk more about that, or creating for digital work, what is called digital scarcity, that is making sure that something that can be, in theory, replicated without limits become a property with a number of it. But like in the traditional brick and mortar world, the physical world, to add numbers and limited edition. So you see there is a wealth of adoption of these new technologies, and I’m sure we’ll have opportunities to focus on some of them in the rest of the conversation.

Lau: It’s that notion of dematerialization that content, instead of on a canvas or in the shape of a sculpture, is actually going to live digitally. It’s our Covid world right now, when we physically can’t actually be in the same space together. This panel would have been in person on the stage at ArtisTree. And so here we are and yet we’re adapting and we’re formalizing. Blockchain is no doubt integral to that. We are lucky, in fact, to have one of the leading businesses in art and blockchain space here.

Andy, you’re doing blockchain in art. But let’s get the audience up to speed first, here. So, audience, you might have heard about blockchain, and you might know about it, but just let me take a moment to explain what it is so that we all know what we’re talking about. Essentially, it’s accounting or ledger in digital form. Just like Massimo is saying about dematerialization. It is, instead of bookkeeping in book form, it’s now digital form. And it’s not kept centrally in one place like a book, but it is decentralized, and in fact, it’s shared. And in that way, it is immutable, in other words, it cannot be changed.

Therein lies the trust and really a whole new way to record transactions. But it’s also opening up new ways to work together, even in art. So, Andy, that’s what you’re doing at Snark.art. Tell us more about what you’re doing.

Andy Alekhin: Just want to add a little bit about the blockchain definition, that it’s more than just like a ledger, it is also a global computer. It’s a distributed computer, and that’s what makes it interesting for art. Like now you can create programmable art. Now, that will live on blockchain.

Now you create something that was not impossible or that was not possible ever before. We think about blockchain as a new medium for artists. And that’s what we’re interested in, mostly. We started about three years ago and when all these NFT standards started with projects of CryptoPunks and CryptoKitties.

Lau: I’m going to stop right there just to get the audience up to speed. NFT is non-fungible tokens. So that means it cannot be traded, it is unique, there’s only one, you can’t trade it for other things. In the art world that application is actually really relevant. But please, continue.

Alekhin: Right, yes. And so it started with the project of CryptoPunks. Two guys from Brooklyn came up with 10,000 pictures of punks and they tokenized and just put it on their website and everybody could take these pictures for free. Initially, nobody even took these pictures. But then there was an article in New York Post that maybe this is the future of art, and immediately, everybody took these pictures and started trading them. And for now, the rarest punks, you can buy them only maybe for US$50,000. And overall, the value of the project is more than US$3 million, right now. And that’s how it all started.

These guys became famous and all the nifty standards emerged. We, with my friend, were watching this and thought, “oh, this might be interesting, there is something.” Immediately we started reaching artists that we know, and said, “let’s experiment, let’s do something.” That’s how our first project emerged. We collaborated and we started the company immediately and we felt it could be like a good idea to collaborate with established artists and to help them to experiment on blockchain.

Our first project, we collaborated with artist Eve Sussman. It’s a famous digital artist and her most important artworks, she curated it 15 years ago. It’s a ten-minute video and she created Velázquez’s Las Meninas with real actors. This video is in the collection of major museums. It’s in MoMA, Whitney, it’s in a museum in Korea. Artists still own the last edition of this video. What we did, we broke this last edition into 2,000 pieces and tokenized them on blockchain, and sold these pieces to the artist community. And now, this last edition is collectively owned by about 400 people all over the world.

Also, we created a smart contract logic on the blockchain. So if you own one piece, you can borrow the rest of the pieces for 24 hours from the community and recreate the whole video. And next day you can loan your piece to somebody else in the community so they can recreate the whole video. It’s not only collective ownership, it’s a collective experience. If you don’t want to loan your piece, you can not do this.

The artist is very happy because, one, the piece got new life. Even if it’s in major collections, it’s rarely seen. Maybe MoMA takes it out of its archives once in five years. And now, the community of collectors do screenings almost every day. The piece becomes more available because the last auction price of the piece was about US$200,000, but you can buy a fraction for US$100. So more people can afford it and your community can now afford, like buy something from her.

Lau: But it’s that exclusivity of community. It’s the value of a community that appreciates the art, gets together, I can borrow the other pieces that I don’t have because I’m a part-owner. I want to bring in Joanne here. You are at the intersection of taking a look at art and culture. That kind of energy in the community is already very unique in the art world. And to have that kind of digital representation, that adds a different layer to culture, to society, to art. I’d love your views here.

Joanne Ooi: I think that blockchain and tokenization can actually bring and inject an element of democratization and collective feeling into art appreciation by investment, as well as appreciation in the manner that Andy just described. I also think that blockchain, without getting into it too deeply, has a kickstarter-style crowd financing function — that’s actually what Snark.art has done — where a big group of people can actually finance an artwork from the beginning.

I think that that actually addresses a lot of problems that have been revealed by Covid, where museums and a lot of public cultural institutions are basically getting decimated right now. This provides an alternative means by which to procure some very important public goods for art and culture.

Lau: If we think about what art really means, which is, as Massimo very eloquently said, “it is the R&D of humanity.” It is how we view ourselves at the cross-section of experience of the artist and the times. And it almost has a creative, artistic, historical documentation of culture.

Andy, I want to get back to you really quick, because that fortune cookie experiment that you’re doing, it sounds fascinating. Can you tell us a little bit more about this fortune cookie that disappears forever once you open it? In real life, once you eat the cookie, it’s gone. But you’re doing it in a digital way. Tell us more.

Alekhin: Sure, absolutely. Initially, we met a poet. If you decide to become a poet, you probably will be poor until the end of your days. There is no way to monetize poetry. With DLT (distributed ledger technology), how can we help? That’s how this project actually emerged. We created this idea: 10,000 fortune cookies, digital fortune cookies, each one is a token on the blockchain. You can acquire this token — we distribute them for free — you can get this token and you have two options: you can keep it and maybe trade it for later, or you can crack a cookie and destroy a token. But at the moment of opening, AI will create a fortune for you.

This AI was trained by our poet, so actually, when you open the cookie, it’s not that you are just destroying it, it’s also an act of creation, the creation of poetry. In real time, you are creating poetry. Now, we distributed about 2,000 cookies out of 10,000. So the project started quite recently and we see that, like most people, they prefer to keep the cookie closed, like only 20% of cookies are opened at the time. So maybe people like more about the money or maybe they will wait for a special occasion to open the cookie. We’ll see. And also, AI was trained during the project. So, AI gets smarter and smarter within the process. So there is a chance that you will get funny or more interesting prophecy if you open your cookie later.

Lau: I like that. And you bring up AI technology, artificial intelligence in the art world. Anna, that’s exactly what you’re doing at Smartify. How are you applying artificial intelligence to modify and how we engage with art and culture?

Anna Lowe: From our side, it’s very much what Joanne was talking about in terms of democratization and really trying to bring out to the widest possible audience. So Smartify is being described by New Scientist as the Shazam and the Spotify of art. Shazam is the music recognition app and Smartify works by identifying artworks using the camera of your smartphone. So you just hold it up in front of an artwork or a sculpture or an architecture, and then it will basically pull all the information from the museum database into your phone immediately using image recognition technology.

We also use A.I. for personalization. I guess that’s the Spotify reference from that quote. So the idea is that the more that you’re looking at things, the more we can recommend to you other things that you might enjoy, whether they’re nearby to you or in a collection on the other side of the world. But we’re looking for ways basically to use AI in personalization and basically rankings in search.

Lau: That’s really, really cool. Part of art, though, is also experiencing things that challenge your personal taste. Like whether you like it or not, [you] should sometimes really still see and view art through perhaps the prism of another time or different cultural background or a different gender of the artist that is opposite to us. Does AI take that into consideration as well?

Lowe: Yeah, absolutely. Exactly as you say, the part of the AI that we use has to kind of throw in different things and challenge things because it’s quite hard, it’s less like Spotify in that way. You don’t want to just hear the same kind of songs that you always like. You actually want them to be challenged. So we definitely work on that and we do it in partnership also with our museums and the collections to kind of put their works onto Smartify to make sure we’re sharing things in an equal way as well.

Lau: I’m fascinated by that because you must be talking to people just like Joanne there, who’s very thoughtful about it. I’m curious, Joanne and Anna, and open it up to everybody on the panel, as we think about the technology, it truly is just a tool. It’s the humans that defined how we’re going to use that tool. And, when it comes to art, Joanne, I’ll begin with you, how we are teaching machines to learn about culture, if that can even be done?

Ooi: I don’t think we can. I think that at the end of the day, art is eminently human, and basically, machine learning and AI is based on existing received data. The spark of inspiration is always essentially going to be something that can only arise in the mind’s eye. For it to be real art, and for something to be truly original and revolutionary, it’s something that hasn’t existed before.

So by its very nature, I don’t think AI is ever going to be able to come up with something as beautiful as genuine, as a groundbreaking masterpiece of human artwork. That’s my real view. It can only get us so far. It can shepherd us to the right places like the Smartify app. But beyond that, I’m glad. I’m glad to have come to that provisional conclusion. 

Lowe: I was going to say I think it’s interesting, though, because, obviously, there are GANs, generative adversarial networks, that are creating artworks and probably Massimo can talk about that more, but the raw material, let’s say, of the creative industries is language imagery and sound. And those materials can be digitized and converted into data. And then that data can be put through an AI to manipulate and transform and change. In Smartify, we analyze that data, but there are people who are actually creating things from that. It’s completely new. There is that element of creativity, definitely in some AI artworks.

Ooi: Well, on that note, actually, Massimo is quite involved in this space about these artworks which have been created by AI to mimic the subjective interpretation of genuine human artists. So Massimo, why don’t you take it from there?

Sterpi: Actually, yes, it’s a topic of conversation. We have to distinguish [between] the human spark and let’s say the reproduction of creative activities, a reproduction of creative activities can be done by machine. And actually, I just want to mention, for instance, in music that a company called Ampera Music recently passed the Turing test. So basically it was impossible to distinguish if certain music was done by their own algorithms or by a human. So this gives you already some indication.

Anna mentioned GANs or a generative adversarial network or CANs which are creative adversarial networks, let’s say in both cases, a couple of algorithms, or neural networks, to be more precise, working one against the other. One, creating random images, which is called the generator, and the second one, selecting, among those images, the one that resembles more human-made. So this interaction generates images that we tend to recognize as artistic images. They are seeding our perception of these images as artistic images.

But that said, I think there is an interesting development that is completely, maybe still, not so much explored, which is that, the cost of creation, if done by machines, goes near to zero, to just push a button, you can create an endless number of images. Ahmed Elgammal is a professor, turned into a digital artist, recently said in an interview that with the algorithm he created, called AICAN, it can generate so many images that a potential business model is these algorithms, these neural networks creating images based on existing images.

So very up to date images because it was just a composition of the latest color, the latest lines, the latest trends. So everything seems so much up to date. In theory, he proposed to launch something like a prêt-à-porter collection of artworks that can be updated every six months. So imagine common spaces like the whole of a hotel or the waiting rooms of the dentist. Why do you have to keep artworks forever on the wall? You can change them every six months. So you see, even this completely new way of generating works is probably generating a completely different way of enjoying, and keeping these artworks. The evolution is continued.

Lau: Keeping it not necessarily on the wall, but experiencing it. And then just noting what Anna was saying, is that it can help, suggest to the audience and to the people the person appreciating the art. But then it can also be completely iterative. Which is what art is. Art reflects all of us.

Bringing it back to the business side, Anna and Andy as well, and Massimo, what are the future trends in both AI and blockchain that you think is going to affect your business and the art world, more generally speaking? All of you are at the forefront of thinking about technology. The industry is quickly catching up, but still needs to catch up. Where do you think the impact will be?

Alekhin: Let me start, maybe. Art, I think, is one of the industries that still is not totally digitized. It happened with every other industry, maybe like 15 or 10 years ago. Art is still physical and it’s quickly changing right now. The pandemic actually made a huge push. And it’s not only the way you sell art, it’s about the art itself. Your art becomes digital. We see a huge inflow. 

Lowe: Agree with Andy. It’s still early days, I think, in the art sector, although things are changing. I know the creative industries in general, they’re much more fragmented than other industries. You have small production houses, you have independent artists, and so it’s harder to have that investment at a large scale, where developers might get higher salaries in fintech or in an energy field. So in the art sector, I think it has been a little bit slow because it’s so fragmented.

Actually, at the moment, governments are kind of doing work to try to kind of meet that gap. So, for example, in the U.K., the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Center is trying to kind of get the U.K. government to set up a center for AI and creative industries to afford that investment on a kind of a national level. I think those initiatives will definitely help bring it more, particularly from in terms of public institutions using AI to do conservation work. How do we look after our work and use it in those ways? So I definitely think that kind of large level of investment is needed.

Sterpi: I just want to make an example: the fact that the forthcoming Bucharest Biennale that would be in 2022 will be curated by an algorithm, an artificial intelligence, this sets the tone for the future interaction between ourselves and machines. Machines will be almost trying to be alternatives to human curation. And already a curation program conceived for our galleries has been recently revealed. So rather than doing the curation and the “accrochage” (engagement) yourself, you can have an artificial intelligence helping you to do that.

Lau: Well, it also speaks to the necessity of this new way of thinking about curation, when we physically can’t meet and, you know, consult with each other in physical space. Covid-19 has absolutely accelerated the pace of change, and I’m curious if you’ve noticed that covid-19 has accelerated the pace of even your business. Andy, Massimo, and Anna, this is for you. Andy, how have you seen Covid-19 impact your business?

Alekhin: Well, we see that physical events are mostly closed and artists suffer. We see that a lot of artists are switching into digital. They start producing digital art. And for us, it was relatively tough to convince a leading artist to start experimenting with digital, with NFTs, before the Covid. Now it’s super easy. And on the collector side, we see that the sales of NFTs, of digital art on blockchain, we still don’t have this data for 2020, but I think they will at least be three-fold. So these are huge, huge inflows of collectors and people trying to understand how to store digital art, how to trade digital art, what artists there are. There’s a lot of interest right now.

Sterpi: I wanted to make an example about physical interaction with the work for market purposes, because of course there were, before, the physical event, the fair, where you were in front of the work, and you had the context. You had people talking to you, explaining things to you. You were seeing other works around you, and there was a buzz around the work. And then all of a sudden, the fair becomes digital. So rather than being in a space with people, you are in a white space. There is a digital image on a digital white wall.

And actually, when they did this for Art Basel in Hong Kong, there was a very negative reaction of the galleries, because they say, the setting was the same for everyone, a digital page with the bench in front and the painting was there. They say not every work can be shown like that because it makes every work identical, irrespective of the size, of the technique, and there is no context. You cannot put even another object. So people reacted and then the fair had to adapt.

And now more and more the more innovative fairs are proposing VR and augmented reality experiences where actually you can have access to certain information, to certain details of the work that were even not possible in real life. So even our market is embracing these new technologies to try to adapt to remote interaction with collectors.

Lau: It’s great. Joanne, you were saying?

Ooi: Oh, I was going to carry on from about both those points, that first, I think Covid could actually bring the art world, the art industry, closer to a tipping point in terms of acceptance of new technologies, just out of necessity. Not just because for the first time, art collectors and people who can’t go to museums are tuning into digital art fairs, as well as just digital artworks, but also, I mean, a lot of attention has been shown on how unsustainable the art fair model is, and that’s been the white-hot center of it for so long.

But I think it’s going to be a question of the critical hurdles for the adoption of more digital technologies and blockchain, but also VR, AR, AI,  all of these, just a greater understanding of use of cryptocurrency — so, for example, PayPal now allowing the use of bitcoin on its system — combined with more legitimate art players, I think this is a big point about one of the obstacles that the industry has faced, the media art industry, is that all too often it’s speculative crypto investors who are launching these blockchain art businesses.

Very different from Snark.art. Snark.art has very legitimate and important world-class artworks that it’s tokenizing, and actually that is the only way to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the art establishment which revolves around Art Basel. But my main point being that I think Covid is bringing us much closer to an important inflection point and so much the better because, in fact, that’s why I founded Art Unchained in the first place.

Lau: Yeah, that’s a great point. I mean, it is the accessibility. And so, if you don’t have millions of dollars for the world’s greatest art to add to your private collection, you go to the museum and you hope in aggregate that there is a foundation that gives the art experience back to people in a museum experience. But what if these new pieces still are in the hands of private collectors?

Blockchain is one of those ways in which we can bring back accessibility. To your point, digital asset art is often seen as an alternative asset.  You buy a piece of art with the potential of the artist in his or her work to gain a greater cultural significance. It rises in value. That’s an investment piece. So just putting on that lens, is this a way in which the average person like you and me can appreciate high end art or just art in general want to contribute to it? All I can afford is my 20 dollars and I get my fraction of this piece of art. Does that change the relationship that future generations will have with the art world? I’m curious about what you all think of that.

Ooi: I think this is actually one of the most central changes that’s being brought about through tokenization. In fact, if you go into Snark.art now, you could download a free artwork. And I think that this is an incredible revolutionary disruption; it is that the value of an artwork can go up based purely on the number of people who view it. As opposed to this secret cabal of collectors and curators who set its price, here we have something which is more akin to YouTube views.

The more people download and look at a piece of art, it’s a straight relationship where the value of the art just goes up, and you don’t need to have physical, exclusive possession of the artwork in order for it to appreciate in value, which means that as many people as can see it, can have access to it. So I think this is actually one of the most liberating things about Blockchain, that makes it very exciting for widening the tent of art appreciation and art collection.

Alekhin: The democratization is not only in terms of the price, but also in terms of the access. Now, you can own and have your artwork in your telephone, and you can actually watch it or be connected 24 hours. And this is the major difference.

Lau: That’s really, really cool, and I wanted to sneak in and say, audience, we want you to be involved in this conversation. I know that you’re curious about it. This is why you’re here. You’re learning about the technology as it’s implemented in art, but there’s zero doubt that it’s already being implemented in your companies, within your industries. So it’s great that you’re here. Please do ask away and go into the chat box and ask the question of the host. I do encourage you to do that.

But, Andy, you make a great point. It is that evolution of the relationship. You add a layer of technology and all of a sudden, not only does art reflect the technological innovation, the innovation is also recreating the infrastructure of business, which actually is super important because, you know, we used to joke, “starving artists,” right? And yet these are the most revered after their deaths; often the most revered speakers and thinkers of our time, appreciated post-mortem. Yet during their lifetime, they slaved away because they were committed and passionate about their art, often driving them into poverty.

Can technology finance passion, support passion, support talent, in a more accelerated way than maybe in the past?

Sterpi: If I may, actually, I think that’s a very interesting point, because we have to consider a saying. I recently had a conversation in another conference with David Nimmer, who is, let’s say, the guy that wrote the Bible of copyright, and the discussion was around copyright being the job law of the future. Why, do you say? Because actually, everything material will be done by machine. So what work remains for humans? Basically, for humans, what remains is creation….

Lau: Massimo, I think you’re on mute all of a sudden.

Sterpi: Sorry, I said most humans will be dedicated to creative activities. And therefore, having new digital … of distribution, of appreciation, and also of compensation, because as you said, it’s very different to the public that you have for a 20 million dollar, or for a million tokens for 20 dollars. So, of course, you can have a big public online showing with these micro-contributions. And you are right that the entire world of the art market or art creativity is completely changing.

Lau: It’s completely changing. 

Lowe: To get in there as well, like we work with museums a lot. And obviously we all know how museums, business models, have been completely decimated this year. Museums rely on physical visitors, on ticketing, on cafe and shop sales. And now, of course, all of that has disappeared. And most of them don’t have any online business models. But I can see that kind of future where actually engagement, number of eyeballs, on, let’s say, the Mona Lisa, that’s how we can share profits.

Because obviously for Smartify, it works across museums. You know, people are using their own phones to engage with content. So how can there be some kind of universal ticketing that is online, that is distributed, that is helping museums to get paid in new ways rather than just physical visits buying an independent ticket? I think it’s an interesting area as well.

Lau: Think of how we can apply that technology right now in Smartify. If the museum curator could walk around with his or her phone, and we could access that private tour. We can’t be in the Louvre right now. We’re stuck exactly where we are around the world. And yet if there was something like this, it would absolutely open it up, not to just people who are physically close to the Louvre if they’re able to actually attend, but around the world, wouldn’t that be cool?

Lowe: Yeah, totally, I mean, so there are already hundreds of free tours on Smartify, and looking to the future, I think it is about, you know, new types of payment models — distributed payment models — rather than just buying a ticket. That kind of measuring engagement and measuring popularity, I think it’s an interesting idea.

Lau: All right. It’s better than watching YouTube videos all day. Hey, we’ve got some questions from the audience, and audience, thank you so much for your questions. Keep it coming. And if you’re just sitting there going, “oh, I really want to ask that,” please just go ahead. We’re getting a lot, so I’m just going to open up to the floor.

One person’s asking, “what are other technological innovations that get more younger people into visiting museums and appreciating art?” That’s a great question. How do we get the young people?

Sterpi: Of course, younger people are much more used to interactive experiences, so people where they can command, they can interact with the experience rather than with the passive experience of going to a museum and just staring at a painting for half an hour. So certainly, creating interactive experiences will be the best way to attract a younger audience,

Lowe: Just to jump in on one short point, I think we can look at platforms like Twitch, where you’re watching a livestream and gaming and commenting along, I think those are really interesting platforms that we could be looking at for the future of museums.

Alekhin: Yes, I agree. And gamification of art, I think is a very important topic. We see that and hope that the next wave of artists, young artists, will come from video games. There are lots of video game creators that don’t think about themselves as artists, but they are. And I think we should expect this.

Lau: That’s actually really cool. Joanne, what do you think about that?

Ooi: Absolutely. I think there needs to be more interactivity. I also think that millennials are looking for a lot of authenticity and integrity. I think the days of the artists being walled off by art galleries and the whole system of being so opaque is something that they find quite distasteful, because actually, when it comes to even brands in general, millennials are very demanding, and they want to know about the people who founded and established these brands.

What are their attitudes towards the environment like? What are their personal activities, et cetera? It’s going to be no different in the arts space. And I think that the more art content that actually brings the artist forward in the experience of discovering their artwork is going to really be assisted by digital technologies. And so, yeah, I think that basically gamification and interaction, authenticity and all  these digital tools are going to be critical to unmasking the art world to a new generation of art-goers.

Lau: We have a question, I think this is an interesting, potentially new path; “if you are interested in media art, how do you get started?

Ooi: Well, I think that one of the great things about Covid is it’s taught us all how to appreciate and go to art fairs virtually. So actually, it’s not an elitist, intimidating experience, as it has always been, to go walking around art fair booths and being too scared to go in and look at it. So I think actually one of the best ways is just, first, go online. I mean, the granddaddy art fair of media art has always been Ars Electronica. So I would go and visit that.

And I think Snark.art actually is — I hate to just give a naked shout out here, Andy, but I actually think that it’s fascinating. And there’s free artworks. There’s also a new digital art fair… I can’t remember, it just launched. But anyway, you could just Google the topic. There’s a cornucopia of references and websites that just the average punter could visit and learn a ton from.

Lau: And events like this. I mean, artistry is a perfect example of how accessible suddenly the art world is despite Covid. So there’s a physical art installation that we showed you at the very beginning, but it’s also happening in real time right now. You can go live, it’s being live-streamed, we’re talking about it across a digital platform like this, people are engaging with us from their laptops, from their phones.

So this is also just an example of how there is a recognition that art must take this form as well. There you go. There’s one right there. In terms of career and business, Massimo, I think it’s fascinating that as an attorney, you know, all of a sudden you find yourself in this space. How did that happen?

Sterpi: Actually, for myself, you know, it was quite natural because I’m an IP lawyer, intellectual property, and have a strong interest in technologies. So at some point, the two things that were completely unrelated at the beginning was art, and then technology started to go towards the other, and actually they are almost merging. But if I may, I want to elevate this to a cultural level by reminding you that the Greek word for art was “techne.” That is the same basis for the word “technology.”

So in Ancient Greece, actually, techne indicated the physical ability to create something, and it was completely irrelevant whether it was artistic or technological, it was the act of creativity. And after 2000 years, we are back to techne, meaning art and technology, you know. So the two things are rejoining after many years. 

Lau: This is Anna’s phase, she’s in artificial intelligence. But we often talk about reaching singularity. A dinner party joke is that actually we’ve already achieved singularity. It’s us. It’s the human. The human. We are singularity. And so is that a machine function or is it an us function?

Sterpi: Actually, if I may and I don’t want to steal all of the time, but I totally agree with you. I think we are already much more augmented than we perceive. Actually our smartphones are an extension of our brain and over all of our memory. Now, you don’t need to remember so many things. You have everything accessible. So actually humans are becoming augmented, and actually artists are just becoming augmented themselves.

This very sterile discussion about artists, when you see these artworks like the faceless portraits that are transcending time, people ask, is this the work of an artist? Are you an artist or the work of an algorithm or a neural network? This is a very [strange] question, actually. It’s a human. There is still a human behind the machine. But the human behind the machine and the machine are just interacting. And it is the human that becomes so much empowered by the power of the machines. So I think that the singularity point is almost there, but fortunately, the human is still behind.

Lau: That is a great way to kind of sum up this session. One last question and quickly to all of you, as you kind of look into the future. As we augment ourselves through the experience of this universal thing called Covid, as we take a look at technology like blockchain and AI and potentially other technologies on the horizon like quantum, what do we ultimately want to say about ourselves in art? And how do we elevate our conversation as humans? So I guess the question is, looking to the future, how will art be seen and viewed and regarded because of technology?

Ooi: So I’ll start. I wanted to say that technology can be a crucial way to reunite and rehumanize art. And I think that it’s become very passive in one way. So actually, media art is something which allows the viewer of it to step into the shoes, the mind, the eyes, literally and potentially, of the artist who created the art. So I hope that technology is actually going to bring us closer together.

What we have seen in the last 30 years, is the art world actually creating more distance, and actually a gulf, in terms of knowledge and access, which I hope can now be bridged by technology. So I want it to become both itself creatively — it will always be eminently human, but hopefully technology can be this important nexus to draw people together.

Lau: Oh, Anna, please go ahead.

Lowe: For me, technology, it’s exactly what Massimo said. It’s about increasing the potential of humans, increasing the degrees of freedom of humans. Surely that has to be the role of it. And I think particularly for artists who are at a slightly lower level, not in that kind of elite, very small, top artists in the world, we’re talking about public institutions — if technology can help bring robust business models where they can sell art if they’re independent artists, where they can show art in a way that is sustainable, then I think that’s what I’m looking for from technology.

Alekhin: I just wanted to add that technology is just the tool. It’s an important tool. We use the term augmented creativity a lot; sometimes technology right now, it helps you to be more creative, it helps you to have thousands of options instead of two. But like curation, like what you’re picking, it’s still your choice. And it will not change. Like with the technology, it will be the same. So in many ways, technology is important, but it’s still the same old art.

Lau: It’s the creativity function.

Alekhin: Exactly.

Sterpi: Yes, I want to mention that in my opinion, the future is showing us a path to more active participation of the art lover and the collector in the life of the artwork. You mentioned the value based on a number of views. I like enormously the project of Snark.art that permits you to borrow the entire work because you just own a fraction of it and you have that for yourself and your friend or your viewer for 24 hours.

So there are ways of participation that were simply impossible in the physical world. And I think that’s exactly where technology will be the most fascinating, making participation possible for a wider public and making creativity something that we can not only watch, but actually participate in.

Lau: Well, then, that’s exactly what we’ve created today for the past hour because of our audience, because our audience participated. Because of the artistry of the intellectual conversation that happened on this platform, we have created a brilliant piece of art for the past hour of which our participants who’ve dialed in live from across Hong Kong and across Asia to participate.

So I want to thank my co-artists here who have joined us on our panel, and the co-artists who have joined us in our audience. Thank you. This is a collective, participatory experience and we really thank you for it. It is thanks to Swire as well, and artistry. That is an actual artist, Patrick Tresset and using the technology to actually have humans participate in the creation of that art. So I want to thank you all for watching our forum.

Now, if you’ve enjoyed this one, I truly hope that you will tune in to next week’s event, Blockchain: A Brave New World of Consumerism, featuring speakers from MasterCard and Tracr, De Beers’ blockchain platform, hosted by yours truly. That event is going to take place at 12:30 on Friday. And of course, you can watch the livestream of the media art installation I was telling you about called Human Study #1, 5RNP, every day from 11:30 to 7:30 by logging onto the ArtisTree section of the Taikoo Place website.

So to all my co-artists here on this digital panel and my co-artists in the audience, I want to thank you. I’m Angie Lau, Forkast.News editor-in-chief, co-founder and CEO. I hope to see you next time. Until then, bye everyone.