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November 15, 2023

When MoMA Went Web3

The architects of the MoMA Postcard share how they engineered a global work of art with Jason Bailey
Credit: MoMA Postcard | Pink-Deeplearning-Enamel
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When MoMA Went Web3
MoMA Postcard is a new project from The Museum of Modern Art, powered by Autonomy, that celebrates the blockchain as a space for global co-creation.

Following the success of “Refik Anadol: Unsupervised,” last month The Museum of Modern Art in New York announced MoMA Postcard as a new experiment in global co-creation on the blockchain. For those who view Web3 as a space for radical inclusivity, this marked a watershed moment for a generation of digital creators historically ignored by the art world. The project began with an initial 15 artists — celebrated figures in the on-chain space of Web3 who herald from all over the world. With more than 10,000 people signing up for early access to the project, a number of postcards have since surpassed the mileage of the First 15, with each micro-community using their 15-stamp canvas to create social works of pixel art. 

Today’s official public launch of the project means that postcards will now be available to anyone who would like to participate via QR code both on-site and online. It also offers a chance to reflect on a collaboration that has united two art worlds that have often seemed unbridgeable. Here, Jason Bailey sits down with Autonomy’s co-founder, Sean Moss-Pultz, and MoMA’s Web3 Associate, Madeleine Pierpont, to discuss how they are engineering inclusivity on the blockchain.

MoMA Postcard | Cornflower-Radiosity-Figure

Jason Bailey: How did MoMA and Autonomy initially come together? And, Sean, what is the relationship between Autonomy, Bitmark, and Feral File?

Sean Moss-Pultz: I started Bitmark in 2014 after becoming obsessed with Bitcoin and the idea of decentralizing important things like money. 

I felt that decentralizing property would be a fascinating and empowering use case — if there was a property registry that anyone could use in the same way that they might send money from their bank account, that could really move things forward.

The first advisor I brought to the company was Casey Reas, whom I had met and befriended in the early 2000s. When I started Bitmark, digital money was becoming a thing and I felt that people would soon want to collect art online. That was why I brought in Casey as an advisor. I had no idea that no one would care until 2020. For the first six years, Bitmark struggled to stay alive, zigging and zagging until the two communities of crypto people and artists working in the digital format overlapped, and all this wonderful stuff emerged.

MoMA Postcard | Co-creator

MoMA approached us to do a show together, which became our November 2020 solo exhibition with Refik Anadol. That was our first experience working with any institution, let alone one of the caliber of the MoMA, so it was a privilege. Feral File was an initiative under Bitmark, but a rather strange beast. Casey Reas is a co-founder of Feral File, so it’s a startup working with an artist to create what we thought at the time were new opportunities for artists. Autonomy came about in the fall of 2021. A year prior, Casey had pointed me toward Hic Et Nunc and all of this stuff happening on Tezos. [At the time] you had to get a different wallet for Tezos, a different wallet for Ethereum, and a different wallet for Bitmark. I had three wallets, and none of them would show me my artwork, which I could only see by logging into my laptop. 

All I heard from artists was that they were getting bug reports from collectors who were upset that they couldn’t see their artwork in their wallets. I felt that somebody needed to devise a wallet for digital art collecting or this wasn’t going to work. That’s the origin of Autonomy. 

Last September, we were working with MoMA to install Refik’s “Unsupervised” project in the lobby and our team thought it would be nice to gift visitors with an NFT. They could experience this artwork in person and take home a digital memento, which, for most people, would be their first NFT. The collaboration between Autonomy and MoMA required solving the problem of how to allow people to scan a QR code with essentially zero friction and end up with a true Web3 wallet — a non-custodial, self-sovereign wallet — to allow them to find their memento right away. 

MoMA Postcard | Yellow-Blur-Poster

Madeleine Pierpont: One of the goals of the Memento Series was to extend the experience of the “Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” exhibition with celebratory take-home NFTs. By providing an easy wallet onboarding experience, we hoped to provide a bridge for people to start exploring the Web3 space and to support the exploration of all that is happening at the intersection of art and technology. We wanted to provide a truly accessible experience for everyone, including those unfamiliar with NFTs. 

We spent a lot of time experimenting with language — whether we would even call it an “NFT” or rather a “memento.” 

We included a Web3 glossary as a way for people to start considering some of the fundamental concepts and why they are important. There was a natural progression from the memento collaboration to what we’re doing with the MoMA Postcard. 

MoMA Postcard | Stamps by IX Shells, Operator, Dmitri Cherniak, and Linda Dounia Rebeiz

JB: Onboarding people into Web3 is notoriously challenging. Given how overwhelming that process was for such a long time, I’m curious about how successful or well-received the Refik Anadol Memento project was. 

MP: I would say it’s been a great success. In total, we issued five different mementos, which ended up being claimed via QR code by over 20,000 people with little to no external marketing. Throughout the process, we identified where we could improve pain points around onboarding — it was exciting to execute something that would engage visitors both on-site and off-site. 

SMP: Of course, I’m biased, but I think Autonomy is the easiest wallet to use, whether you’re a newbie coming in for the first time or a serious collector with a huge art collection. The only difference today compared to a couple of years ago is that once you connect your bank account to Coinbase, the IRS comes after you, and the government marks you as an illicit money launderer (half-kidding). If anything, this space has become more difficult for new people to enter. [...] MoMA had the courage to say, “if this technology is important for arts or culture, could we put an experience into somebody’s pocket that they could leave with that would be enjoyable, fun, and whimsical?”

When we finished the Memento project, we transitioned into the Postcard by extending our thinking around a two-way link between an institution and an individual. This link can be incredibly rich because it cannot be intermediated. [At the moment] almost every relationship a business has with their visitors, patrons, or customers is intermediated by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, take your pick. But with Bitmark, we don’t know who the Autonomy users are.

What’s exciting about Web3 is that you can have this two-way link — a peer-to-peer connection between two parties. 

MoMA has this wonderful mission statement, which ends as follows: “[w]e’re committed to sharing the most thought-provoking modern and contemporary art, and hope you will join us in exploring the art, ideas, and issues of our time.” It’s this two-way dialogue between the public and the institution that I felt NFTs could capture like nothing else. 

MoMA Postcard | Silver-Backface-Graffiti

JB: Tell us a bit more about the MoMA Postcard and how your learnings from the Refik Anadol exhibition might have fed into it. 

MP: The Postcard project is a collaborative experience in co-creation on blockchain. It works like a digital chain letter, so whoever claims a postcard will have a blank canvas that they will stamp, and send on to whomever they want around the world. That recipient will then do the same, and so on, until all 15 stamps have been imprinted on a given postcard. 

One of the elements that makes the project so exciting is its collaborative design — each postcard requires collective action in order to produce a finished product. It therefore represents a micro-community of people who have worked together to co-create something in the broader context of the MoMA Postcard community. Accessibility was a priority, as was the need to create a warm space for conversation between various communities. 

We were looking to create a project that engages people who know nothing about NFTs, those who are super involved in the NFT space, those who are interested in art but don’t know about Web3, and anyone in between! 
MoMA Postcard | Co-creator

MoMA Postcard is also a toolkit. Those unfamiliar with Web3 will come away with a wallet and learning resources, having engaged with blockchain in a supportive community context. Hopefully this can serve as an entry point for more to engage with the space and the incredible artists and art-making happening here.

We’d been talking for quite some time about how to facilitate this kind of global community project that also showcases interesting use cases for blockchain on a technical level and as a medium. Sean had the interesting idea of enabling people to sign an artwork on-chain that would allow them to have ownership and evidence of their participation in a shared artwork. If I put one stamp on a blank postcard, then I am 100% the owner of that card. However, once all 15 stamps are filled, then all 15 co-creators also co-own that card with me. 

Working with Berger & Föhr, we decided to use pixels to pay homage to early computer and gaming art. MoMA also has a really fascinating collection of mail art such as Alighiero Boetti’s Viaggi postali (Postal Voyages) (1969-70), a project that involved sending mail around the world. It occurred to me that postcards are such a democratic mode of communication and a natural analogy for how the blockchain connects people globally. 

MoMA Postcard | Gold-Portal-Pop

SMP: I was involved with setting up and installing Refik’s artwork in the museum at a remote level. But, when I saw it in person, it completely blew my mind. One of the things that we hope we can get right with the postcard is to be able to bring the museum together with the internet. 

There is something special about the curated space of a museum, and I don’t know if it’s limited to its physical presence. With the Memento, you had to go in person to scan a QR code, but the postcard will be both IRL and on the web. Hopefully, a much larger audience will be exposed to the ideas of the museum that I think are so amazing. 

We wanted to consider how blockchains can connect people in new ways. What I really find exciting about the Postcard is that it shows how blockchains can be used for social rather than purely economic interactions. 

You also probably couldn’t do this kind of project without a blockchain, and I believe that the more we can show these types of things happening, the less intimidating the space will feel. 

MoMA Postcard | Stamps by Ykxotkx, Linda Dounia, Anna Lucia, and Dmitri Cherniak

JB: While there are physical limitations regarding who can access a given museum, cultural institutions should be thinking more about how they can expand their missions. When you think about a project like the MoMA Postcard, which moves beyond the physical confines of the museum, who do you imagine participating? 

MP: This project is radically inclusive. Anyone around the world who wants to participate, can participate. We launched MoMA Postcard with a special collection entitled MoMA Postcard First 15, comprising 15 artists based all around the world, each of whom has taken a different journey through the worlds of art and blockchain. 

The MoMA seeks to connect “people from around the world to the art of our time.” What could be a more appropriate way of fulfilling that mission than a project like MoMA Postcard? 

The Autonomy team has achieved so many amazing technological feats for this project. In the app, you can track the passage of your postcard and see the mileage. We’re trying to demonstrate translocal connectivity, with communities brought together by shared interest rather than shared geography. 

MoMA Postcard | Neonpink-Fill-Matte

SMP: It’s not a static piece. It is a software artwork in the sense that it is a web-accessible folder pinned to IPFS. Each stamp is an image that is generated and saved. The underlying postcard is the asset, and the NFT gates access to create and upload your stamp into a folder, which means that the NFTs are accessible on marketplaces and with any Web3 or crypto wallets. A postcard is a collection of stamps. What we’re doing at Autonomy is helping you to make the stamp. 

We take your longitude and latitude and approximate it to the nearest city. The metadata is like the journey. 

You can also pick your location as being on the web, to remain private, which would contribute zero to the distance the postcard is traveling. Ultimately, we add up all the distances for the leaderboard, but it’s not a competition, it’s more just to have fun. Participants receive notifications that somebody has stamped the postcard, and they can go into Autonomy and see it there. The First 15 artists were like the original alpha testers — they’ve helped us to catch all kinds of things that are difficult to understand. They have been unbelievably generous with their time, giving us feedback on how to make the project better and easier to use. 

MoMA Postcard | Co-creator

JB: A traditional role of museums is the display of artifacts for visitors to appreciate. In this case, you’re encouraging audience participation therefore making the visitor into a creator, which feels unique and interesting.

SMP: I grew up with HTML 1.0 and I am nostalgic for that moment when the barrier between creator and consumer collapsed. 

One of the real promises of Web3 is to get back to a place where people are both creators and consumers. This project aligns with that and hints at what is possible today with NFTs and blockchains.

MP: Art and community are synonymous because art is ultimately a shared experience. When people go to a museum, they want to participate in enjoying the art together. That is why collector bases converge on different artistic movements. Blockchain enables that kind of interaction in new ways. 

It is a shame that so many people have negative perceptions of what is going on in Web3 and are unaware of the art and community emerging there. With MoMA Postcard, we have sought to highlight some of the amazing artists working in the space in order to break down the current barriers and foster dialogue. 

MoMA Postcard | Darkkhaki-Gradient-Glass

JB: Mail art has a rich history, but how do you position this project relative to analog or even pre-digital art history? 

MP: One could read MoMA Postcard as a social or conceptual artwork; there’s certainly a strong focus on conceptual and performance art in the NFT space. Mail art was certainly an inspiration for this project, which, as a way for artists to communicate in a globally networked fashion could also be considered a predecessor to net art, which iterated on it in the digital space. This project is the next evolution of that. 

JB: Which blockchain is it on? 

SMP: Initially, it’s on Tezos. We wrote an FA2-compatible smart contract and we also have a version that is ERC-1155-compatible in the works. But both embrace the idea of semi-fungibility. Few projects have used this idea of collectively owning an asset, which I think is fascinating from a social and economic perspective. Our technical goal is to make sure that it’s compatible with the entire ecosystem and the largest possible space of people working across Ethereum and Tezos. Like our ethos at Feral File, we plan to support whichever blockchains the artists are excited about. 

JB: I’m always interested when you’re able to give people constraints and a small number of operations that can yield an almost infinite set of outcomes. It’s like with generative art — a lot of the time, it’s the simple systems that create complex outcomes. I’m excited to see what emergent behavior will come out of it. It feels like there’s a lot of potential for surprise and joy.

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Sean Moss-Pultz is the co-founder and CEO of Bitmark, a pioneering force at the intersection of art and technology. His passion is in developing technologies that empower humans. Prior to Bitmark, he was a senior executive for EMQ, a financial technology startup. Recognized as a pioneer of open-source hardware, Sean launched and was CEO of Openmoko, the first open-source phone and a precursor to iPhone and Android smartphones. He holds bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physics from UC San Diego.

Madeleine Pierpont  is a creative-innovator working at the intersection of art, technology, and Web3. Driven by her desire to facilitate meaningful engagement with cultural and material aesthetics, she curates, strategizes, and produces art/tech projects across the digital and the physical. She leads Web3 projects at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Jason Bailey is the creator of the art and tech blog and founder of GreenNFTs and ClubNFT, where he serves as CEO.

MoMA Postcard is a new project from The Museum of Modern Art, powered by Autonomy, that celebrates the blockchain as a space for global co-creation.