A painting takes time and skill to forge, but a video can be copied in just a few minutes – and that highlights the need to find creative ways to protect video art creators and other digital artists.
Walter Benjamin’s famous text on the reproducibility of artworks – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – puts forward the idea that an artwork’s value has, at some level, to do with an inverse relationship between value and scarcity. Given that relationship, he asked how we might confer value on artworks such as books or records, which are in theory infinitely reproducible. Benjamin was a champion of reproducible art for its democratic properties, but he could not put aside the fact that some sense of value was inherently lost in the ease of reproduction, distribution, and consumption.
One workaround for preserving the scarcity to value ratio has been editioning artworks – numbering prints, photographs, lithographs to create officially sanctioned sets and limit the number of reproductions available. Up until recently, video and digital artists who make work that is by nature easy to reproduce have struggled to impose such limits.
In part, the struggle is ideological. Video art came about with the invention of portable, lightweight cameras like the Sony Portapak in the late 60’s. The cost of equipment and processing made filmmaking prohibitive for most people, but video allowed the creation of time-based visual media to become available to a vastly more democratic slice of society. That democratizing, counter-culture impulse carried over into the creation of the Internet and to digital art – art that is made at least in part by computers and might take the form of a website, a network, a jpg or gif, vectors or fractals created through algorithms, or data visualization.
Video Art Distribution
Over the years, many small-scale enterprises have attempted to create specialized streaming platforms for video art that could compensate artists while maintaining allegiance to principles of openness and accessibility.
An early, pre-internet example, Castelli-Sonnabend Tapes and Films, was formed by New York dealers Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend in the early 1970s to distribute films and videotapes by artists such as Bruce Nauman, Yvonne Rainer, Joan Jonas, Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Richard Serra, Claes Oldenburg, and Vito Acconci. The dealers hoped the endeavor would stimulate a market for video art.
A more recent effort, Souvenirs from the Earth, was created in 2001 as part of a project for the 48th Venice Biennale. Souvenirs from the Earth curates video art content for broadcast TV in France, Austria and Germany, and offers a limited catalog of films available for licensing.
The Chicago-based Video Data Bank has amassed a large collection of iconic works of video art that it loans to museums and other large institutions. In contrast to the “limited edition” of the gallery model, VDB’s titles exist in unlimited editions. Institutions are charged a rental fee for the loan of the video for a screening or exhibition.
In 2017, Dis, a magazine for contemporary art announced that it would move away from print journalism and instead host streaming video art content. Currently, the site hosts a limited number of free videos, but the founders say they are hoping to build an audience for content like the video version of Mckenzie Wark’s Hacker Manifesto. It is still unclear how the magazine plans to generate revenue or fund the digital artists they commission.
In the music industry, which has seen record sales sink to historic lows, streaming services like Spotify have outpaced record companies for industry dominance. In 2015, the website Beautiful analyzed what it would take for a music artist to receive a monthly minimum wage of $1,260 selling their music through various modes of distribution. They found an artist would need 172,206 plays paid out at $0.0073 per play on Google Play as opposed to 105 sales of a self-distributed $12 CD. Streaming for video art faces a similar dilemma of how to compensate artists but may be up against even bigger challenges.
On the one hand, platforms might create more opportunities for a digital artist to find new audiences, but it is yet unclear how they will stand out from the sea of content makers creating video art for streaming services like Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon’s Video Direct.
In light of this new media landscape, some tech-forward startups are betting on Blockchain as a way to innovate asset management for digital art. Blockchain, the cryptography technology that makes Bitcoin and other digital currencies possible, can be used as a means to protect video art and other digitally based artworks. Blockchain technology works like a distributed ledger, creating encrypted distributed networks that centralize information without revealing the owner’s identities.
In addition to creating scarcity, another avenue creators use to preserve value is copyright. In the United States, copyright is written into the Constitution, in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8. You might think of Blockchain as an embedded form of copyright, which uses technology to prohibit unlicensed users from sharing or reproducing a digital artwork.
Collectors have been among the first to look to Blockchain for art management to ensure the provenance and verification of artworks. The legitimacy of an artwork is established is through a complex paper trail of certificates, contracts, receipts of sale and institutional records that prove its provenance. Storing and transferring all of these paper items can prove difficult in the best of circumstances, and a handful of new software developers believe that Blockchain technology can provide a better option.
A company called Codex, for instance, has developed a decentralized database for the art market, as well as collectibles like jewelry, cars, and antiques. Using Blockchain for art management allows them to create a central database for provenance information pertaining to a work of art. This would allow owners to share information about their artworks while allowing their identities to remain private.
Using this same cryptography technology, another set of companies are hoping to create public databases that make digital creations trackable with the stated goal of helping artists to easily license and transfer their work. Monegraph, for instance, is establishing a watermarking for video art and other digital artworks that will make copies easily searchable on the web. Binded creates an easy-to-use process that works much like copyrighting to create a legal ownership record. At Verisart, the founders have an ambitious dream to catalog every artwork on the internet that will eventually create an algorithmic network that will help digital artists find audiences for their work.
The Bigger Picture
Blockchain technologies are a far cry from the initial democratizing call of the internet. And thus far, such efforts appear to be more a dream of Silicon Valley than of the brick-and-mortar art world made up of galleries and auction houses. Despite the enthusiasm among tech startups for Blockchain, the internet may be collapsing the entire category we know as video, outpacing any efforts to create specialized niches such as video art.
Long before Napster and the Pirate Bay, the most widely distributed band of the pre-internet era, The Grateful Dead, encouraged the recording of their live shows by setting up a “taper’s section” at their performances. Instead of limiting the distribution of their work, they encouraged it. The Grateful Dead saw themselves in the business of playing music, not selling records. By never repeating a set, they set out to make every show a unique experience. By letting their fans record and distribute the recordings of their shows, they built deep and lasting relationships with their fans.
In a 1995 article for Wired magazine, technology analyst Esther Dyson predicted that the selling of “services and relationships” through the distribution of free intellectual property was the future of content creation on the internet. She wrote:
Creators will have to fight to attract attention and get paid. Creativity will proliferate, but quality will be scarce and hard to recognize. The problem for providers of intellectual property in the future is this: although under law they will be able to control the pricing of their own products, they will operate in an increasingly competitive marketplace where much of the intellectual property is distributed free and suppliers explode in number.
In such an environment, it is the platform, not the digital artist, that stands to benefit. Since 2016, Facebook has been the big winner in the video art game. The so-called pivot-to-video occurred when Facebook convinced media outlets struggling on their own digital islands to produce more video content. Since then, publishers of print and online journalism who pivoted to video ended up forfeiting loyal audiences to reach a pool of more distracted viewers, making their enterprise more not less precarious.
Services and Relationships
The dilemma facing creators in the late 20th Century, according to Dyson, was something akin to what farmers in the early 19th Century faced with the rise of commercial farming. When vegetables turned from food into food commodities, the small farmer’s options were: move to a city, become a manufacturer or invent some new service that could support the industrial food pipeline.
Since Dyson wrote her article 20 plus years ago, however, we’ve seen the return of the small farmer, because, as it turns out, some people prefer food over food product. In another surprising turnabout, sales of hardback book have surged since 2014 while sales of e-readers and ebooks have slowed. Publishers whose focus had been on cutting costs turned their attention to producing fewer titles of better quality and bringing back techniques like embossing, page staining, deckled edges, and embossing to give hardback covers a richer, more luxurious feel.
According to New York gallerist Edward Winkleman, a long-time purveyor of video art, one of the most successful moves by digital and video artists to create value for their work has been to supplement the moving or digital image or artwork with the sale of film stills, preparatory drawings, photographs, or objects related to the production of the work. Matthew Barney, for example, found a market for the sculptures, costumes, props, and installations, along with film stills, made for his series The Creamaster Cycle (1994-2002), an epic story told through five feature-length videos. In a similar move, musicians challenged to come up with additional incentive for fans to purchase albums have produced deluxe, luxury editions with special bonuses such as commissioned artworks.
When establishing value for video and digital art, the bright lining to the cloud, or perhaps the cloud itself, is that most of art’s value as a commodity still derives from a complex set of social relationships. The market is composed of a hierarchy of objects that to an outsider–someone who has no knowledge of art’s internal logic or trends–might appear completely illogical. Why, for instance, does painting X command $2 million dollars while painting Y is worth only $500?
Blockchain won’t help overcome this. There is still a sea of creators out there vying for a small set of coveted positions in the market and just because technology can help them reach people, it does not mean they will give up their attention or their money. When trying to create value for video art, digital art, or any other kind of art for that matter, it may be the old “making friends and influencing people” that counts. If you are a digital or video artist, invest your attention in a community of makers, sellers, and collectors who understand and support digital and video work.
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