Masha McConaghy PhD is a curator and co-founder of the Berlin-based startup, ascribe.
Here, we speak to Masha about her thoughts on the future of collecting digital art, ascribe, and how new technologies help with managing digital collections.
What is ascribe and how is it working with artists and collectors?MASHA MCCONAGHY
ascribe is a project that started in 2014 and is now a rapidly expanding startup here in Berlin. ascribe is the outcome of a vision we had to help to change the art world, to make it not only possible but easy to manage and collect digital art by leveraging the blockchain technology. We’ve built functionality for artists and creators to lock in authorship, create authentic limited digital editions, securely share and easily transfer the rights of their work.
What is blockchain technology?MASHA MCCONAGHY
Think of a blockchain as a “spreadsheet in the sky,” that has thousands of copies that no one owns. Anyone can add an entry to it, no one can ever delete from it and anytime someone adds a new entry, all the other copies auto-sync. That’s a blockchain. It’s a public service to the world, owned by the world.
A fundamental limitation of digital art has been: how do you collect digital art? How do you track the lineage of ownership from the artist, to each new collector, when digital by its very nature is all about easy, free copying? The emergence of blockchain technology, originally created to record the transactions of digital currency Bitcoin, hints at a solution and will change the way artists are compensated and how collectors own authentic digital content with clear ownership and usage rights.
By using the blockchain technology to store this information, anyone can verify ownership of the work, distinguish work from unverified digital copies and trace the origins back to the artist so collectors can buy authentic pieces with confidence.
What does it mean to own in the digital age?MASHA MCCONAGHY
The definition of ownership is definitely challenged and is shifting with digital art. When an artist creates a work, it is protected by copyright. By using a combination of copyright and contract law, it’s possible to establish ownership and usage rights. This hasn’t been widely used yet however because it’s been too hard to use.
With 180 different copyright laws in 180 different countries, it’s expensive to register in some cases and it hasn’t been easy for the individual users. Going forward, standardized licenses and contracts will be common practice. Contract law has far less variance across borders than copyright law and this is key to the standardization. This transparency into ownership and usage rights would benefit artists and collectors alike. Individual creators should be able to use existing laws to protect their IP, to monetize their digital creation and to share their ideas.
Do you think the attitude to collecting digital art is changing?MASHA MCCONAGHY
The whole Internet is changing and this change will influence all aspects of our everyday life. Digital art and the art market as a whole will inevitably undergo changes.
Since the Internet went mainstream we’ve been through two phases. The first was extremely positive, the second, a little less so. The first phase was when people really experienced the Internet for the first time in the 1990s, thanks to the invention of the World Wide Web and the first easy-to-use web browser. It was the wild west of the Internet, with flashing gifs and personal home pages. The second phase was all social media and the cloud. While easier to use, it has become more centralized and is controlled by a small handful of “horsemen of the Internet.”
The approaching third phase, I think will be amazing for digital art and the art market as a whole, bringing the best of both worlds, the democratized spirit of the first phase and the ease of use of the second. New systems for buying, consuming, distributing and displaying digital art will inevitably appear and I believe that artists will be better compensated through those new systems. It is not just that collecting digital art is changing, but collecting as a practice is changing because of the ever-evolving media used by artists and new technologies available as tools for collectors.
Why are people, including art collectors, hesitant about going digital?MASHA MCCONAGHY
One concern is if you have a big digital collection, or have digitized your physical collection, how do you share that with the world, without losing “control”? Many have hesitated to share their work on the web because once the copies start spreading, there’s this feeling of loss of control and ownership. For me, it’s important to have the choice of different collecting models whether for editions, sharing, licensing, multiple ownership or online streaming. Collecting is a subjective practice.
So as a collector, is it safe to store artwork on the Internet?MASHA MCCONAGHY
No medium is guaranteed – just like someone can come into your home and take a painting off your wall, a thief can steal your computer. Having copies elsewhere is what makes the cloud so much more secure than simply storing artwork on a hard drive. If you have something extremely valuable as a file, it should be backed up in several places and stored on the cloud.
What would you say are the benefits of storing artworks online?MASHA MCCONAGHY
Archival and preservation is another big issue. Storage and conservation are something that the digital world, museums and institutions are as concerned about as much as collectors are. Even those that do not have digital or video art in their collection, have the physical collection digitized. Digital art, especially video, also pose the question of obsolescence of the medium. A particular couple of video art collectors have spent more money on the restoration of VHS cassette and file retrieval after having the artwork for more than 20 years, then what they initially paid for the artwork. Think of how much video art has been lost because of that. Life expectancy for the VHS cassettes is only about 20 years, then it severely deteriorates with no way for restitution.
In the art world, there are several philosophical opinions on the matter. What do we need to preserve, is it the content or the medium that the file is supported on? What should be considered an artwork? It’s always best to ask the artist directly when possible about their intent and opinion on the future preservation. For some artists and collectors the ephemeral nature is part of the artwork. The artwork simply degrades and disappears over time and it is important part of the concept. For other artists, it is all about the file and the content it contains, the physical wrapping is only the means of carrying the digital media and they want to preserve that content for the future generations.
What do you tell people who might be skeptical of the conversion to digital?MASHA MCCONAGHY
I am definitely not trying to convert people into collecting only digital. I love physical art myself. In addition to my digital collection, I also have some paintings, photographic prints, drawings and sculptures. The truth is, more artists start their creative process by using digital tools these days. Some painters might do the sketch prototype in Photoshop before they pass onto canvas, others may make a model in 3D software before they print it out on a 3D printer and materialize it into a sculpture. Technology is everywhere, even when we don’t really think it’s connected or when we can’t see it. For me it’s about helping artists get compensated for their art and making sure they are not punished for choosing a more contemporary tool for their creation. Some might not collect digital because of its immaterial nature, but I try to convey that there are very simple solutions for collecting digital art. Many of the major challenges for those creating and collecting digital art actually have solutions available today. By equipping yourself with the right tools and gaining visibility into where copies end up, one can celebrate the copies, the popularity that ensues and the compensation that follows. Everyone wins. For the first time, there’s a regaining of control by the artist and collector.
What are these “simple solutions” of collecting digital art?MASHA MCCONAGHY
I’ve noticed that when you talk about Bitcoin or blockchain to people who do not feel comfortable with technology, their first reaction is a variation of “this is not for me.” When I explain the benefits of blockchain and decentralized technologies and walk them through it, people get it, it suddenly all makes sense. For the record, it took me some time and research to fully understand the potential this technology offers in the context of collecting digital art and I encourage those who may approach this with skepticism to do the same. The payoff is incredibly rewarding.
Complementary to the blockchain is the idea of vast decentralized storage itself. Imagine instead of storing a single file to your hard drive, or to a cloud service that you have to pay for, that you can store it to a vast hard drive in the sky that, once again, no one owns or controls. File types could get automatically updated as new formats emerge. Multiple copies are spread all around the globe. This technology combined with blockchains points to a whole new approach to archiving, the closest thing to a “public service” type of archival yet.”
With the rapid advancements of technology, what are the challenges that make creating and collecting digital art pose?MASHA MCCONAGHY
For making digital art, it is amazing to see how artists adapt to new tools for their own artistic expression. The challenge there is simply keeping up with all the innovative new tools! The artists who are interested in new technology, learn and adapt to it quickly or they work with experts in order to include it in their work.
Collecting digital art is where the big challenges are. In particular, the “elephant in the room,” has been if you buy a piece of digital art – a video, a gif, a screensaver – what do you actually own? Let’s say ownership of digital media was solved, then what about provenance? How do you track the provenance of a digital file when it is hard to prove digital ownership? Right now there is no information about the history of a file, yet the foundation of value in art is the history of the piece.
Acquisition of digital art is a challenge because of unclear usage rights and complicated contracts and legals because of the immateriality of the medium. It is very clear when it comes to a physical object what rights you have, but ownership of a digital piece is much more complicated and ambiguous. Another challenge is that digital files can be copied ad infinitum and distributed throughout the Internet. Those who are familiar with copyright law, understand that not everyone with a copy is actually the owner, but it doesn’t make the collector’s role any easier. How do you reconcile all the copies with the act of collecting? What’s the value of a collector’s copy, one that they’ve paid money for, versus all the other copies?
Finally, where do you see the future of digital art going?MASHA MCCONAGHY
I am a big fan of technological developments like artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality. I’m looking forward to the impact artificial intelligence will have on the art world, so far we’ve only scratched the surface. In the coming years I would also love to see more virtual reality exhibitions and the new methods of collecting that will be associated with it. It’s a more powerful concept than just a medium for consumption. When wearing VR goggles for example, the space outside goes away, you’re literally wearing the gallery space on your head. This is profound. Virtual reality democratizes the exhibition space back to the artist’s vision. I think it is going to be amazingly exciting to experience, quite literally, the artwork. If we broaden the idea, it’s not just about the art space but also about the nature of perception itself.
I think going forward the art market as a whole will be less compartmentalized. Right now digital art has its own category but it will inevitably become part of the broader art world. It’s an art medium appropriate for the 21st century.
With new technological developments, the future of the Internet will definitely change the way digital art is stored and distributed. It is extremely exciting to see how all those technologies could become such a seamless part of our life, of our new Internet.