July 14, 2022

DAOs in the Art World

Ahead of their new publication, Ruth Catlow and Penny Rafferty discuss how DAOs can build a more pluralistic Web3
Credit: R Catlow and P Rafferty, Radical Friends — Decentralised Autonomous Organisations and the Arts, 2022. Cover design by Marijn Degenaar
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DAOs in the Art World

RCS: Artworld DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) seem to offer the potential to generate greater equity for artists. But how can they serve as a model for the wider Web3 ecosystem?

Ruth Catlow & Penny Rafferty: Artworld DAOs model a kind of experimental social play with artistic, historical, political, and technological systems as a way to approach artworld organizing. Kei Kreutler thinks of them as operationalized artist manifestos. In the book, she proposes that we draw on a wider pool of metaphors as we encode new organizations, delving into the organizational unconscious to guide us. Web3 can benefit from this approach. 

The core problems we address in the book are as follows: How might diverse communities be empowered to take collective action in their own interests? What new physical spaces and social relationships might these produce, generate, or service? What experiments might transform the primary status of artworks from speculative objects into narrative portals that might produce different social realities?

The art world is a test bed for the wider world we live in. Our hope is that the concepts, experiments, and imaginaries that underpin our research leak out so that DAOs can serve as vehicles for equity as well as translocal governance, consensus building, and micro-gridded revolts.

The problems that artworld DAOs seek to address: disenfranchisement, class conflict, gender inequality, and the impotence of current collective architecture are not unique to the art world. DAOs can therefore offer knowledge and tools to other communities.

That said, we do not advocate a “one-size-fits-all” methodology, meaning that the findings of one community should not be implemented by another without assessing its own needs. Above all, DAOs should be adaptable to the community that uses them, and not subject to outside influence. 

R Catlow and P Rafferty, Radical Friends — Decentralised Autonomous Organisations and the Arts, 2022. Cover design by Marijn Degenaar

RCS: What are you seeking to achieve with your new publication, Radical Friends (2022)? 

RC & PR: The activation of a global mesh network of radical friendship. This book was inspired by a number of figures external to the Web3 space — from Octavia E. Butler, who highlighted our need to reassess change and run with chaos, to Simone Weil, who stressed that our political, spiritual, and social uprootedness demands “real, active and natural participation in the life of a community.”¹ Entangling such visionary thinkers with our own experience of DAOs, the book seeks, in the words of Rhea Myers, to “Let a thousand DAOs bloom” by offering tools of demystification, interdependence, and consensus building.² 

Myers herself analyzes the aesthetic, epistemological, and ontological potential of DAOs in the art world for art-making, collecting, curating, commissioning, critiquing, performing, enacting, and collaborating. But the book also shows how “the new rhizome of roles and incentives” that DAOs create can destabilize our critical certainties. In talking about the book, Amy Ireland encapsulates the moment, saying: “Web 3 diagonalises the principles of Web 1 and Web 2. Binaries are dead. Everything is both good and evil, emancipatory and oppressive, singular and infinitely replicable.”

Right now, we see artists experimenting with technologies that the art world would ordinarily avoid and in ways that the blockchain community might miss. These include Terra0’s automated resilience tools for ecosystems, which started out as a prototype for a self-owning forest, and the DisCo Coop’s support system for democratic workplaces. This is why the book advances the interests of radical friendship. Because if the field of what is possible is to be reset in the febrile economic-ecological-social networks enabled and activated by DAOs, then it is increasingly important to find common cause and collective good. For while our techno-social worlds become evermore complex and bewildering, the bond of friendship is understood and valued in all societies. It is this spirit of radical care that we want to activate in and beyond our artworld DAO experimentation.

Paul Seidler, Paul Kolling, and Max Hampshire, Terra0, 2016-ongoing. Courtesy of the artists

RCS: Tell us more about the concept of translocality?

RC & PR: Translocality is a crucial concept when establishing value systems for interdependence and cooperation in the arts. As artists and organizers working with networked media, translocality is a way to avoid becoming too comfortable with the invisible violence of universalizing digital networks. It also helps to understand changes to the way one thinks and feels about the networked places and communities to which one belongs, as well as how power flows between them.

As a result of globalization, migration, and hyperconnectivity, we all live in multiple layered and interconnected “localities” — both physical and online — all at once. This makes numerous demands on us personally and politically, while raising complex questions about where we belong, as well as the kinds of citizens we need to become. The power of extractive state and corporate capitalism is ill-equipped to support urgent changes to local and global governance. But because DAOs offer a toolset for peers to encode rules, relations, and values into joint ventures, they allow collective action beyond borders and the chance to reconsider our horizons.

The four artworld DAOs featured in the book are led by groups of artists, technologists, and theorists embedded in cultural communities across Berlin, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, and Moscow/Minsk. 

  1. Cygnet, developed at Trust in Berlin, designs tools for the horizontal resource management of art-making as part of Black Swan DAO’s toolkit. 
  2. Bhavisha Panchia prototyped Covalence DAO to cultivate and incentivize sharing between its members to counteract the “asymmetrical economic tilt” that restricts access to participation in the South African art scene.³  
  3. Developed by Hong Kong-based artist Samson Young, anthropologist Massimiliano Mollona, and digital studio MetaObjects, Ensembl uses the DAO form to reflect upon questions of value, stake, roles, work, collectivity, and sharing in an interdisciplinary context of contemporary music-making. 
  4. eeefff invites participation to a game called Economic Orangery that is based upon the collective imagination of decentralized economic institutions in the Belarusian revolutionary situation. 

Each of these projects demonstrates how rules and agreements for experimental organizations and economic models can be facilitated by smart contracts and decentralized ledgers. They also explore the potentials and pitfalls of using trustless technologies in cooperative decision-making and task management, as well as reputation and resource-allocation processes across distance and difference, starting from their own situations.

DAOs are, by nature, translocal insofar as they are coded to allow for difference. They therefore stand to reverse the universalizing tendencies of global tech companies that seek to maintain cultural and economic domination. 

Bhavisha Panchia, Covalence Model. 2022. Courtesy of Bhavisha Panchia

RCS: How can DAOs help to protect and support marginalized communities?

RC & PR: DAOs can only help communities that have the requisite knowledge, which is why it’s crucial for us to get our toolkit-cum-book into the right hands. It all comes down to who gets to hold, shape, and use these tools in contexts that matter to them, and how their users can be held accountable.

Up till now, DAOs have remained a largely niche concept whose technical ecosystems have been built for use by developers. As a result, DAO technologies have served the interests of those with either the technical know-how or financial resources to generate what are, in effect, unregulated shell companies. 

However, shared governance technologies are now fostering the kinds of lateral relationships through which cross-border cooperation can emerge — allowing non-experts to test their potential, while ensuring genuine accountability and transparency. This is why it was important for us to include prototypes of artworld DAOs, as well as exercises, and even a LARPing (live action role-play) guide in order to open up DAO-building to a much wider field.

In the past — and especially in Web2 — social media has packaged the principles of connectivity, relationality, and revolution into its front end. But people are now starting to see this for the agitprop it is. Many are now migrating to Discord, where radical ideas can spiral and sprawl instead of being repackaged in endless infographics. What DAOs offer these communities is the ability to organize privately with transparency, to hold their own funds, and to create consensus between radically pluralistic connective nodes.

Black Swan, Cygnet Interface, 2021. Courtesy of Black Swan DAO

RCS: Five years on from the book, Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain (2017), what has changed in the conversation around the blockchain as a cultural infrastructure?

RC & PR: Furtherfield published Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain to present artworks, theories, and speculations about the potential of blockchains for the art world and beyond. At the time, there were only a few functioning art prototypes like Plantoid and Terra0, but the field and its imaginaries were still developing. The world is an entirely different place now, but the emergence of NFTs and crypto art, as well as the multitude of new communities, has created an entirely different backdrop to our work.

In the new book we have created an Artworld DAO Timeline that traces artistic practices and modes of solidarity. Artist collectives mix with role-playing games, cryptography, and occultism to give a sense of the radical roots and kinships that underpin the DAO form and its community. It was in 2017 that OpenSea launched its decentralized exchange and marketplace for digital collectibles. That same year, Dapper Labs developed the ERC-721 token standard for a range of digital, breedable, collectible CryptoKitties, recording over $1 million worth of transactions in a single week. At that moment, blockchain art and finance merged in the public consciousness — a trend that peaked in 2021 with the infamous Beeple sale. But 2017 was also the year that Ingrid LaFleur stood for mayor of Detroit on an Afrofuturist manifesto that included a proposal for Universal Basic Income paired with local cryptocurrency. Meanwhile, Bail Bloc software was being developed as a means of distributing cryptocurrency to support those who can’t afford to post bail. 

Radical Friends attempts to present, process, and respond to the resistant, constructive, and critically engaged ground-level social practices that have developed since. Today, blockchain technology continues to secure billions of dollars worth of cryptocurrency and cannot easily be unthought or unbuilt. Culture will therefore be shaped by those who engage with it. While misgivings about its libertarian and accelerationist affordances are understandable, artistic engagement with blockchain can enact a multitude of other approaches to ownership and cooperation with the potential to inscribe radical friendship into global systems, thereby creating the conditions for translocal and planetary flourishing.

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Ruth Catlow is an artist researcher and co-director of Furtherfield and DECAL Decentralised Arts Lab. She is co-editor of Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain (2017) and PI at the Blockchain Lab at the Serpentine Galleries R&D Platform.

Penny Rafferty is a writer, critic, and visual theorist based in Berlin who works as an auditor and researcher at the crossroads of art, culture, and technology. Departing from her research and thinking, she has initiated and co-founded Black Swan, a proto-institution for interdisciplinary research and practice.

Radical Friends — Decentralised Autonomous Organisations and the Arts (2022) consolidates five years of research into a toolkit for fierce thinking, as well as new forms of radical care and connectivity that move beyond the established systems of centralized control in the art industry and wider financial networks. It includes essays, interviews, exercises, and prototypes from leading thinkers, artists, and technologists across this emerging field, including Legacy Russell, Rhea Myers, Hito Steyerl, Ramon Amaro, Terra0, and many more. Radical Friends, the book, follows Furtherfield and Torque Editions’ ground-breaking book, Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain (2017).

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¹ S Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind, A Wills (trans.), London and New York: Routledge, 1952, 40

² R Myers, “A Thousand DAOs,” in R Catlow and P Rafferty (eds.), Radical Friends — Decentralised Autonomous Organisations and the Arts, Torque Editions, 2022, 93.

³ B Panchia, “Covalence Studios,” in R Catlow and P Rafferty (eds.), Radical Friends, 326.