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April 17, 2023

The NFT Collector | Colborn Bell

The co-founder of the Museum of Crypto Art explains what makes MOCA a new kind of institution to Primavera De Filippi
Credit: GLIL, Colborn Bell, 2021. Courtesy of the Museum of Crypto Art
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The NFT Collector | Colborn Bell

Colborn Bell is the founder of the Museum of Crypto Art (MOCA), an exclusively digital museum that uses cutting-edge technology to display digital art beyond the traditional boundaries of physical space. It is a unique project for the way it engages artists and their communities as active participants in the curation process. Despite its name, MOCA functions quite differently from traditional art museums and institutions. Rather than a static collection curated by a small group of experts, MOCA is a dynamic and constantly evolving space where artists can showcase their work and visitors can participate in the curation process. In this way, it marks a significant departure from the model of the museum as a hierarchical and exclusionary structure toward a transparent, inclusive, and extitutional paradigm. 

I first met Colborn at GLITCH — a residency program I organize every year that brings together emerging and established crypto artists, curators, and blockchain engineers. I’ve always been struck by his dedication to promoting new ways of experiencing digital art and his commitment to exploring the possibilities of blockchain technology to enhance and democratize the art world. Recently, we sat down to discuss what makes MOCA a different kind of art institution.

Installation view of UntitledXYZ, AGORA in Somnium Space, 2021. Courtesy of the Museum of Crypto Art

Primavera De Filippi: Recently, we’ve seen leading art institutions begin collecting NFTs and an increasing acceptance of digital art practices as part of the canon. Are these positive developments?

Colborn Bell: Naturally, I have some reservations but broadly these are positive developments. There is a sense of conferred legitimacy, which doesn’t feel like anything we needed, but it is validating for the crypto art medium as whole. I sense a co-opting of the narrative away from the totality of what was done here by a group of artists for the benefit of everyone toward a focus on individualism. 

We need to recognize that crypto art is more than simply a market innovation but a set of philosophies and principles that hold a perpetual mirror up to the contemporary art world, its entrenched institutions, and its sordid practices.  
Alotta Money, (Still from) Last Luncheon on the Grass, 2020. Courtesy of the Museum of Crypto Art

PDF: How is the role of the museum different in Web3? What makes MOCA unique?

CB: From an ideological standpoint, the model of the “museum” as a centralizing repository for art, history, and narrative does not need to exist in Web3. The heart of the conflict lies in the speed at which technology and culture are developing and institutions’ (in)ability to respond in a timely and relevant manner. These traditional systems are meant to empower and uplift individuals, whereas crypto art speaks to the general failure of these institutions to recognize and promote a diversity of creative voices.  

Ironically MOCA’s early steps in 2020 were a signal that what was occurring at the time was historic and therefore worthy of aggregating/centralizing. However, in practice, MOCA is a museum in the process of “unbecoming,” which means we are developing curatorial tools that allow both artists and collectors to showcase work interoperably across digital worlds, while remaining within a museum context.

In a world where crypto wallets are galleries unto themselves, why shouldn’t we regard every individual’s blockchain history as well as their tastes and preferences on a par with a tenured museum curator. After all, they were there and participating in the movement in real time.  

We believe that the collective of self-assigned MOCA members and their collections constitute a more interesting and complex museum than that which a single biased actor, who is a retroactive participant in the movement, might choose to signal.

Manolo Gamboa Naon, mmntt, 2020. Courtesy of the Museum of Crypto Art

PDF: How do you combine the extitutional dynamics of the NFT space with the institutional mechanics of a traditional art museum?

CB: Our solution is to provide a complete tooling for curation that enables a tiered, multi-stakeholder approach that empowers self-assigned individuals to be valid partners in our Museum’s showcasing of work and telling of history. Our goal is to give people the ability to meaningfully participate in the institution’s own dynamics from a distance. The combined actions of those individuals provides the direction which the directors and core team are responsible for enacting. In this way, we are effectively inverting the traditional power dynamic and working relationship between a museum and its public.  

Instead of the public being a target viewer of an exhibition, suddenly they are the designer and curatorial spokesperson for a subset of work that was meaningful to them.  
Osinachi, (Still from) Self Portrait, 2020. Courtesy of the Museum of Crypto Art

PDF: In what ways is MOCA’s mode of curation decentralized? How does it enable a plurality of value systems to coexist while maintaining quality control?

CB: Let’s start with the Genesis Collection, which is fully owned by the Museum as a non-profit foundation. It represents an aggregation of work highlighting both the subconscious and egalitarianism of the crypto art movement. The requirement for participation is simple yet profound — one work from one artist who minted prior to December 2020. 

The Genesis Collection showcases the belief that the power of the aggregate was the major directional force that sparked this generational movement. 

However, it is equally important that it is inclusive, recognizing that everyone creating back then was equally valid in their expression at a time when there was little economic justification to do so. In a world subsumed by capitalism, is it not the heart of the artist to create solely for themselves and what they believe?  

Installation view of Skygolpe, private views in Somnium Space, 2020. Courtesy of the Museum of Crypto Art and Desiree Casoni (architect)

The first step toward decentralization is permissionless access, which we overlay with a simple check to maintain quality control. The next step is our Community Collection, which leans further into permissionlessness and accessibility by allowing anyone to add up to 100 artworks. Ownership of the work remains with the collector, yet it is showcased on our page and randomized daily. It has become a wonderful repository for artistic and cultural discovery beyond the context of the market. 

Additions to the Community Collection are timestamped, which gives both artists and collectors a moment of immutable recognition. At MOCA, we often sort through and share works in this Collection with our community via our socials. Because everything is on-chain, we can say that, as of today, 64,417 NFTs have been activated by 3,756 users, of which 9,151 have been added to the Community Collection. Filecoin has also provided us with a grant to permanently back up all the works activated via our curation technology. This is a wonderful archival tool and a powerful signal to collectors that they care about the longevity of their pieces. 

With all MOCA’s collections, individuals are able to leave permanent on-chain comments and likes, which creates a participatory logbook and living on-chain history.
Rare Scrilla, DJPEPE, 2016. Courtesy of the Museum of Crypto Art

PDF: How do $MOCA Tokens function? 

CB: $MOCA Tokens not only signal stakeholder support for the mission and longevity of the Museum, they also provide numerous benefits throughout the platform. We spent the last two years building out the curation technology and ROOMs ecosystem. Now we are switching our focus to what it means to truly decentralize curation, focusing on the following core questions:

1. How can $MOCA holders drive the programming decisions of the Museum?  
2. How can we facilitate the distribution of $MOCA tokens fairly to long-term stakeholders and historical actors?
3. How can we implement a staking mechanism to reward exceptional curation in ROOMs?
Angie Taylor, Mizaru 3D, 2021. Courtesy of the Museum of Crypto Art

PDF: Tell us about the hack that affected MOCA recently? How is the Museum recovering? 

CB: Unfortunately we had allocated our team stake (15% of total supply) to be vested over four years to a third-party token streaming service called Superfluid. In February 2022, the Superfluid contract that held these tokens was exploited, with the hacker selling $MOCA into our QuickSwap pools, which crushed the price instantly from $3.10 to $0.90. 

To say it was one of the more interesting mornings of my life is an understatement.  

But the Museum is even stronger for it. I’m forever grateful to the $MOCA team for the way they came together in that moment: Reneil and Qwellcode for their technical prowess and profound vision; and Shivani for her indomitable will, the passion she pours into understanding, and her fearlessly open and honest communication. 

I’m equally enamored with our community for its response — not once complaining about the price, being incredibly uplifting and supportive in recognizing that the fault lay outside our control, and being appreciative of the way in which we communicated transparently. Our summary of the incident can be read here, while the technically inclined can learn more about the particular vulnerability that was exploited here.

Joaquim Mutim, Pixel Mandala 001, 2021. Courtesy of the Museum of Crypto Art

PDF: How do the MOCA ROOMs work exactly? How do they reconceptualize the architecture of the metaverse?

CB: MOCA ROOMs are interoperable pieces of 1/1 architecture that pair with our curation technology to “stream” one’s own collection into multiple metaverse environments. MOCA ROOMs operate as nodes in our decentralized Museum, with the aggregate comprising the fullest expression of our vision. Thanks to our partnership with Filecoin, curation states are saved on-chain and preserved for all time. ROOMs allows for the removal of our individual biases as directors, because ROOM owners are able to bring their collections into the Museum and display them in the digital environment of their choice.

Our first thought when we created the Museum was that independent digital artists should be the builders of digital worlds rather than centralized entities like Meta, Epic Games, Roblox, etc. In our view, this would inevitably lead to more interesting and dynamic environments. We also strongly objected to the traditional model of the gallery as a white cube as well as the Plattenbau-type structures that are so prevalent in “popular” metaverse experiences

The digital sphere, and crypto in general, is a wild reimagining of what is possible that should stoke the imaginations of its participants. It should delight in its defiance of rules, order, and structure.  

Our goal is to house art inside of art, such that the totality of the experience is memorable and awakening. The creation of MOCA ROOMs is open to all builders so shoot us a DM if you’re interested in supporting the project in this way.

TwistedVacancy, MOCA’s Summer Office, 2020. Courtesy of the Museum of Crypto Art

PDF: Finally, what are your aspirations for the NFT space this year and what are your projections?

CB: Aspirations are attachments that, in crypto, more often than not lead to disappointments. So I am forced to practice a sort of crypto zen out of necessity for my own mental and emotional health. There is, of course, a general aspiration to always be better, to prove that this is more important and interesting than the serial scams and rug pulls. I wake up every day beaming with energy to share what I’ve seen. It’s important that people recognize that “art exists here!” 

MOCA is far out at the edge translating thought leadership into practical solutions, but often the depth at which we are operating can seem daunting to those who approach it. With this bear market, I hope that people take the time to explore and understand more deeply what we’ve created and how it can resonate — preserving cultural, artistic, and curatorial legacies over time. 

I also hope that the people who actually care about art wish to preserve and showcase their collections in a decentralized manner.

Having been through a handful of bear markets, the only acceptable projection is more pain; further attrition of people and projects; external condemnation of the space; and the entrenching of our outsider status. Yet it is only when aspirations and expectations are leveled to nothing that we can we begin to rebuild. For artists will continue to create, and they will continue to share, connect, build, and grow. Regardless of what happens, MOCA will be right alongside them celebrating their art.

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Colborn Bell is co-founder and Director of the Museum of Crypto Art (MOCA).

Primavera De Filippi is a legal scholar, internet activist, and artist, whose work focuses on the blockchain, peer production communities, and copyright law. She is a permanent researcher at the CNRS and Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.