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May 21, 2024

The Aesthetic of a Protocol

An interview with Distributed Gallery
Distributed Gallery, X-Based Sentiment Gauge
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The Aesthetic of a Protocol

Georg Bak: What does Distributed Gallery stand for and how did your collaboration as artists get started?

Distributed Gallery: First of all, it should be noted that Distributed Gallery is not a gallery. We are a small collective of artists, carpenters, and hackers. A small multitude of friends.

Our aim is to counteract the over-interpretation of 'artistic intentions' and advocate for a different approach to artwork, one where the artwork serves merely as a specific and situated experience of a protocol; namely, a set of technical, economic, and social rules that extend beyond the artwork itself. I'm not entirely sure why we favor this perspective. 

Perhaps it's because with a protocol, there's an aesthetic of anonymity. Protocols are essentially nobody. They organize without revealing themselves, acting as hosts for things other than themselves. They simultaneously create freedom while governing. Also, most of the time -- in art, at least -- we don't talk about protocols because they are behind things. They are the worlds behind the world that silently organize our lives, life itself. Protocols are somewhat akin to anonymous power; it’s seductive and could be scary. So I'd say we engage in protocol art because we have an affinity for the aesthetic of protocols, and there is an aesthetic because there is a poetry of protocols.

To give you an example, a brilliant piece of protocol art, which may not explicitly define itself as such, but is significant to us and could serve as inspiration for our works, is Blake Fall-Conroy's Minimum Wage Machine. It's an artwork that allows anybody to work for minimum wage. As long as they turn the crank, the user is paid in pennies over time. For instance, if the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, then the worker is compensated one penny every 4.97 seconds. If they cease turning the crank, they stop receiving money.

This artwork is magnificent in how it perfectly illustrates the concept of the aesthetic of protocols; it governs and creates freedom simultaneously, all while being a perfectly anonymous and silent entity.

Here, it is placed in service of a magisterial idea: to enable the experiential understanding of the sensory aspect of what is essentially just a legal rule, namely, the minimum wage. In the rotating movement of the crank and the accompanying sound of the coins cascading, the artwork profoundly deepens our comprehension of the economic world by translating it into a sensory experience. There's a strong likelihood that individuals will cease quickly due to discomfort in the wrist and a sense of futility. This aspect encapsulates the poetic essence of protocols.

Blake Fall-Conroy, Minimum Wage Machine, 2008-2010, updated 2012, and 2016

GB: What was the first artwork you created as Distributed Gallery?

DG: In a sense, we could argue that the first artwork created by the Distributed Gallery is the Distributed Gallery itself. It all started with discussions between friends in 2017 as we were exploring Ethereum for a few months. At the time, we didn't have much involvement in the art world, but Ethereum immediately intrigued us as an interesting technology for experimenting with new ideas due to the immutable nature it offered (it's disheartening to witness your graffiti erased). So we came up with the idea of creating a ready made: an ERC20 token designated as a work of art and minted as a single instance. In the world of ETH with 18 decimal digits, it looks like this: 0.00000000001 ETH.

Smart Contract of the Ready-Made Token

DG: The challenge we encountered was that to create a ready made, we required a signature. Signing an artwork is a performative act, and to perform such an act, one needs a status, which typically requires institutional or social recognition. However, we were relatively unknown in the art world. So we decided to play a homonymous game by signing the Ready-Made Token with the name of the inventor of appropriation art, Richard Prince, and create our own Richard Prince. Subsequently, we needed a gallery to exhibit our Richard Prince, leading to the creation of the Distributed Gallery. To facilitate transactions, we developed a smart contract with an auction mechanism. With the bait set, all that remained was to await the art world's response. And, indeed, they pounced on it as anticipated.

A cryptic twitter reaction from Richard Prince about the Ready Made Token

DG: It’s a long story, but what happened next was very well documented by Jason Bailey and later by The New York Times.

In the context of art history, we could say that the inception of the Distributed Gallery and the Ready-Made Token started as a pastiche or parody game aimed at delving into questions surrounding celebrity, reproduction, and authenticity. It was just another contemporary manifestation of the tradition of artistic appropriation, where we played with notions of interpretation and recontextualization, serving as a form of metatextual reflection.

GB: In both the Chaos Machine and One-Arm Crypto Bandit sculptures, the concept revolves around merging blockchain technology with traditional craftsmanship, resulting in a fusion of the digital and physical realms. Can you explain the concept behind these two artworks?

DG: After the Ready-Made Token, we had gained a bit of notoriety, and Simon Denny invited us to take part in the Proof of Work exhibition he was curating at the Schinkel Pavillon in Berlin. At the time, we already had the idea of creating an open network of communicating jukeboxes where whenever one jukebox plays music, all the other jukeboxes in the network would synchronize to play the same song. We envisioned this network as 'open,' allowing anyone who created their jukebox to connect it to our network, thereby fostering a kind of listening community.

Then came the slightly more audacious notion: 'The jukebox burns the banknotes you insert and transforms them into ERC20 tokens, allowing the users to add sounds to the playlist played by the machines,' thus extending the project into a crypto jukebox based on a collaborative IPFS playlist with a community token associated with it. The idea was to offer the user the sensation of a "transition" from one currency to another, and therefore from one community to another. As the philosopher Bernard Aspe said in a text dedicated to the Chaos Machine that we have published: “The «fiduciary» note is the material symbol of a common trust, the symbol of what binds a community together through shared trust. But this trust has no other real object than itself: it is because all the others place their trust in this strange object, the banknote (or the cryptocurrency unit) that I too can trust. I trust the trust of others. It is only in this way, only as trust that refers only to itself, that value «exists».

We're a group of friends with diverse skills: hardware hackers, Web3 developers, carpenters, writers...

So we devised our plans, each of us toiling away in our own respective corners, and then reconvened in Nantes to assemble everything. This resulted in the creation of two sizable jukeboxes, each weighing 100 kg, interconnected with each other. It was a bit wild, but remarkably, it all came together seamlessly.

Distributed Gallery, Chaos Machine (both machines), 2018

DG: What we are passionate about is engaging the senses such as sight, hearing, touch, and smell. The Chaos Machines exemplify this in a marvelous way. You insert the bill, it burns, you see the flames, smell the burning, then music emanates from the speakers, followed by the sound of the printer spitting out a paper QR code that you have to tear off. All of this unfolds with the knowledge that when the music plays, another machine somewhere in the world plays the same piece. This resonates with what I previously mentioned about the "listening community," where community embodies the ‘ecstatic feeling of being with.’

Burnt banknotes inside a Chaos Machine

DG: The One Arm Crypto Bandit embodies a somewhat 'pedagogical' approach as it aims to offer users the sensory experience of how a pair of cryptographic keys (private and public) are generated on Ethereum. Its mechanism is very simple: each arm action generates a pair of new Ethereum private and public keys. If it ever happens that any of these private keys is already in use, its funds become immediately available to the user.

Private keys generated by the One Arm Crypto Bandit

DG: The idea behind this artwork was to create something humorous that gives the user an understanding of the key generation protocol on Ethereum by helping them grasp that security is based on magnitudes as vast as the number of atoms in the observable universe. Additionally, the aim was to convey to users the distinction between the notions of probability and possibility. While it is technically possible, through interaction with the bandit, to stumble upon the private key of a wealthy individual, the likelihood of this occurrence is exceedingly slim. This artwork resonated particularly well with individuals outside of the crypto realm, as it facilitated a quick grasp of the fundamentals of asymmetric key logic in an enjoyable manner. It’s a work that makes people laugh, also because every time you pull the arm the machine jokes about jackpot impossibility. Knowledge must be eroticized, as Michel Foucault said.

Distributed Gallery, One Arm Crypto Bandit, 2021

GB: Is interaction with the viewer of the artwork an important component that leads to the completion of the work?

DG: Definitely. We often liken ourselves to crypto-carnies, arriving at events with our machines made of wood and metal, enticing people to engage by investing their money. The idea that sacred artworks that cannot be touched or used or connected to anything annoys us a bit. But one does not choose their personality. The moment when your machine works flawlessly is truly an incredible feeling. It's beautiful. I remember that this beauty was well described by Georg Simmel in the end of the 19th century in an essay titled “Sociological Aesthetics,” where he eloquently discusses the beauty of machines and the strong connections that exist between beauty and utility. And it doesn't matter how "useful" the machine really is, as long as it accomplishes something.

GB: Is there something like a leitmotif that runs through your artistic work?

DG: Having fun with friends, primarily. For the rest, our program is not very different from that of Dada or the Situationists: merging art and life to such an extent where they become inseparable. For example, with the Chaos Machines, we really liked the idea of having one in an artist's space connected to another in a working space (Full Node), then one at Kate Vass Galerie in Zurich and the other in Room77, the now-closed first bitcoin bar in Berlin. Ultimately, we just want to merge art and life through protocols.

Jazz concert on Feb. 3, 2019, at Room77

GB: The fascination of artists with creating alternative systems of value through their art is indeed longstanding. Figures like Warhol and Beuys printed their own banknotes, Duchamp experimented with securities like the Monte Carlo Bond, and Manzoni famously sold his own excrement at the price of gold. At its essence, blockchain technology operates on the exchange of fungible and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). With the emergence of NFTs, artists now have the opportunity to tokenize their works and bring them to market in a new way. However, does this mean that artworks have essentially become akin to shares on a stock market?

DG: I believe that has always been the case with art, which is a market like any other. The essence of a capitalist economy is that everyone wants to extract money from others. With the advent of the Internet, it just happens tenfold faster than in traditional physical markets; in the realm of "Internet money," such as cryptocurrency, this process unfolds even more rapidly, with the NFT market serving as a prime example. The speed and accessibility of online platforms have undoubtedly intensified the commodification of art and the pursuit of financial gain within the art market.

Criticizing NFTs may appeal to many because it's an economy of proliferation characterized by an avalanche of images and a close, almost intimate connection with finance. This makes it something extremely visible because the image attracts the eye and money calls forth the worst intentions, all amplified by social media, which greedily feeds on this infernal couple combining images and greed.

GB: On May 27th, you will unveil your new project, and you have built the infrastructure for an art market where the tradability of the artwork is restricted in a certain way according to external principles. Twelve artists were invited to use this market infrastructure and limit the tradability of their works based on external, sometimes unpredictable influences. Can you explain how this infrastructure works?

DG: This new project called [aside] is quite simple to understand: firstly, it allows the immobilization of any NFT on the Ethereum blockchain, making it non-transferable (a lawyer might say "inalienable"). Secondly, it unlocks the artwork based on external events fetched by our Chainlink oracles. So once again, it's a question of the link between art and life.

Sometimes, a few examples are more concise than a lengthy explanation, so let me present a few use cases:

  • Obvious’ and Ivona Tau’s artworks will be locked at mint time and will be unlocked according to the state of a sentiment gauge which estimates people’s feelings towards AI.
  • Jared S. Tarbell's artworks will be locked until new moon, full moon, and the next three eclipses.
  • Anna Ridler’s artworks’ liquidity will be tied to the tides of the River Thames and will dynamically evolve with tide movements.
  • Rhea Myers’ artworks will remain locked until the ETH price reaches $10,000.
  • Travess Smalley’s artworks will be locked until fog appears in specific locations around the globe.
  • Addie Wagenknecht’s artworks’ liquidity will be linked to earthquake magnitudes in different locations worldwide, also dynamically evolving with tremors at the geolocation points.

Regarding the "how it works” aspect, when retrieving data from external sources and injecting it into Ethereum, the best solution currently available is undoubtedly Chainlink Functions. Chainlink Functions provide an incredibly robust, serverless, and gas-efficient solution to connect your smart contract to any Web2 APIs. It's straightforward to use: essentially, each ERC721 token inherits the Chainlink's FunctionsClient contract, enabling us to make calls to the Decentralized Oracle Network (DON) to retrieve data from any APIs. If the data returned actually matches the unlocking conditions of the [aside] smart contract, then the NFTs are unlocked.

Jared S. Tarbell, Ray Marching New Moon, 2024. This work will be unlocked during the new moon of August 4, 2024.

GB: The project is called [aside]. How did this project title come about?

DG: What we had in mind from the outset was a generic protocol for time-locking artworks. The idea was to create a protocol that allows collectors who are stressed due to NFT floor price fluctuations to remove their artworks from the market by time-locking them for a duration of their choosing. So at first, we named the protocol "freeze-it" to signify the idea of immobilization. However, in the end, we opted for [aside]. This is to convey the idea that the artwork is now "aside from the market," living its life detached from market forces, away from finance and speculation. But it's also the owner, who has a psychic attachment to the artwork, who finds themselves alongside the questions that the market might pose to them, perhaps thereby freeing up some psychic space to think about other things, to remain deaf to the noise of the market, and perhaps to appreciate the artwork beyond the value it carries within it.

This work created by Obvious and Ivona Tau will be unlocked if public sentiment towards AI becomes very positive and reaches the [80,90] interval

GB: Can you tell us something about the first works of art created using the [aside] protocol and which oracles have been chosen?

DG: The next project we are launching on May 27th is named “AI Index” by the AI artists Obvious and Ivona Tau. This drop will have the following feature: all purchased NFTs will be locked at mint time and will be unlocked according to the state of a sentiment gauge that estimates people’s feelings towards AI.

The sentiment gauge based on X assesses the public's feeling towards AI. This gauge is updated hourly and score is visible here.

DG: To do this, we have built an X-based sentiment gauge that monitors various AI-related hashtags to estimate public sentiment towards AI. Obvious and Ivona will create 100 unique NFTs distributed in groups of 10 across the 10 intervals of the gauge. The mechanism for releasing the NFTs is extremely simple to understand:

"As soon as the gauge reaches one of these intervals, the associated 10 unique NFTs will automatically be unlocked forever."

X-based sentiment gauge built by Distributed Gallery

DG: We made this choice because the debates surrounding AI development are particularly intense, so engaging with people's sentiment towards AI appeared to be an intriguing challenge. Sentiments are what open us to the world, providing insight and an understanding of it. The world, whether present, past, or future, is given through sentiment, even if it is only given in a sort of irreducible depth, a fundamental opacity. Worlds awaken in our feelings. So it's fascinating to approach the question of AI from a sentimental perspective.

Obvious and Ivona Tau, Dystopian Drapes. This piece will only be unlocked if public sentiment towards AI becomes extremely negative and reaches the [0,10] interval.

DG: To bridge the gap between sentiment and anticipation of the future, Obvious and Ivona drew inspiration from the covers of prominent magazines such as Vogue, The Economist, TIME, and many other sets of data, creating covers produced by their AIs that depicted a spectrum of our human relationships with AI in various possible futures. These ranged from optimistic scenarios where AI enriches our lives to dystopian visions of control society.

GB: Thank for sharing with us about the history of the Distributed Gallery and your new project [aside].

DG: Our pleasure!

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Georg Bak is an art advisor and curator who specializes in digital art, NFTs, and generative photography. Bak has worked in senior positions at Hauser & Wirth and as a fine art specialist at LGT Bank (Switzerland) Fine Art Services. He currently advises institutions and art collectors at the intersection of blockchain technology and art. He has advised MoCDA (Museum of Contemporary Digital Art), CADAF (Contemporary and Digital Art Fair) and Rare Digital Art Festival #2. He is on the curatorial board of SNGLR Art Collection, CRYPTO OASIS Art Collection and GENAP Collection. As an independent curator he has worked with Sotheby’s, Phillips and The Vancouver Biennale.