Harm Van Den Dorpel Talks About left gallery That Utilizes Blockchain

Text. Eunji Park, Hara Shin, Yoonjung Choi
Edit. Eunji Park
Proofread. Charlotte Hunter, Inkyung Choi

On February 22, DDDD met Berlin-based generative artist Harm van den Dorpel at his studio. His broad practice includes sculptures, installations, works on paper, computer generated graphics and software. Rooted in the conceptual heritage of net art, his work often simulates neural networks. He also co-founded left gallery in 2016, an online gallery that utilizes the blockchain technology to sell digital artworks with enforced transparency. The artworks in the gallery are sold in downloadable formats(.exe, .epub, .mov, .saver, .html, and etc.) and all activities such as the distribution and sale of the work are recorded in blockchain ledger. Below, the two discuss left gallery in light of the theme of distribution of digital art online.

Harm van den Dorpel at his studio, Photo: DDDD

:DDDD: Thank you for allowing us to have an interview with you and inviting us to your studio!

:Harm van den Dorpel: That’s cool! Nice to meet you, too!

:DDDD: First, let’s talk about your story in 2015. Your work Event Listeners (2015) was the first instance where an art museum bought art using Bitcoin. left gallery was also launched in the next year. What was the reason for using blockchain to produce your work as well as to operate the gallery?

:Van den Dorpel: So the story of left gallery was that I made this screensaver Event Listeners and I showed it to MAK museum in Vienna. We discussed digital art for sale. It’s a long story. Let’s say, if you have only one painting and sell it to somebody else, it’s clear that you don’t have any more because the consumer took it. But when I make a digital work and sell it, I still have the file after selling it. So the artist can sell digital works again infinitely, if he wants. I mean it’s very difficult to say how much money the file as an work is worth, if the edition of work is unlimited. For digital art, it works in an incomparable way to paintings or sculptures.

In the case of blockchain, I can make a smart contract with a program and I record the information: the title of the work, the year, and the number of editions on the contract. So, when someone buys this token that belongs to the work, I will deliver the file and transfer this token to his wallet. It means that the ownership of the work is transferred to him but I still have the original file.

The token is exchangeable and its value is changeable all the time. The museum bought 20 editions and the price they paid with bitcoin and the price of the 100th edition are different because the price is rising all the time. When I sold the screensaver to the museum, lots of people were surprised that blokchain actually worked. I thought that blockchain can be used to sell digital art online.

Event Listeners(2015), screenshot of the site: left.gallery

:DDDD: Through this experience, you decided to run the gallery.

:Van den Dorpel: Yes. I thought that blockhain can make sense as a business model. People can pay and own digital artwork with a certificate. I also thought that I maybe should also operate the gallery for other artists because I already had an infrastructure for this work. So it’s quite easy to apply it to other people. In addition, blockchain is completely transparent. If I sell work in left gallery, then the artists who put their work in the gallery also see how much work has been sold and who has purchased it. It’s because of blockchain. I’ll show the consumer list of Ryan Kuo’s work File(2006)on the gallery’s website.

:DDDD: My name is also on the list. I bought his work as well.

:Van den Dorpel: It’s cool! This is a kind of transparency that I like and it’s very unusual in the art world. Most galleries are reluctant to reveal information about their consumers and purchase prices. So, at the beginning, people were really interested in the blockchain component. But, as time passed, they were less and less interested in it. I think most new technology has an initial excitement about it, and then it goes down for a while. Hopefully, at some point, it would go up again.

:DDDD: I’ve heard that works purchased at left gallery are resalable. How can digital work be resold? How can it be repriced?

:Van den Dorpel: There are different marketplaces and the consumer who bought the token that belongs to the work can decide to re-sell it to somebody else. That’s completely his decision because left gallery has no control. We would not have a role in the exchange. That’s really beautiful. Let’s think about this case: two different galleries issue certificates for the same piece of art simultaneously. Then people would be confused about who owns which edition. With blockchain, this problem can be solved.

:DDDD: Do you have any difficulties in the introduction of blockchain into your gallery operation?

:Van den Dorpel: This technology is still really young. For me to program the smart contracts connected to the people’s wallet transfer, things are really complicated. Sometimes a new smart contract I created and linked to blockchain has not been well executed. It’s also really slow and expensive. The computing power on blockchain is the same as on an old Nokia phone. The whole Bitcoin network can handle 7 transactions per second, while the Visa network handles 5,000 transactions per second. As a business model, this technology is expensive but very few people want to use it. It’s in a way sad, but that’s a reality now.

People often accidentally share or lose their private keys that identify them. If so, they cannot access their money or their token. Or, if I put one character wrong for the transfer token to somebody, it’s just gone. There is no way to recover it because blockchain doesn’t have any controllers unlike a bank. It’s just happened to me as well, even though I’ve studied computer science.

Ideologically, I love blockchain but practically it’s just hard. So, besides cryptocurrency, the left gallery’s using various payment methods such as PayPal and credit cards.

:DDDD: You mean that blockchain has transparency but it doesn’t guarantee the user’s privacy and security.

:Van den Dorpel: Yes. But perhaps there is a technical solution that people are working on. I love the blockchain community and I know that some people are trying to solve those problems. Let’s consider it from a different point of view. I’m from net art generation and the important thing about net art was that digital artwork could be free on the internet and everybody could enjoy it. Now it seems like it is free to use the Internet, but in fact we are paying for our privacy.

:DDDD: Speaking of which, what are your views on the work as an open-source? Some argue that digital art should be accessible for everyone to enjoy on the Internet as net art, while others say that authenticity of work must be thoroughly protected even online.

:Van den Dorpel: my artworks are open sources. People can see how they are made online but open sources come with different kinds of licenses. So I used the licenses that allow the work to be viewed and compiled but it cannot be resold. The open-source is really close actually. It’s like you can see but you cannot touch it.

:DDDD: Then can it be called open-source?

:Van den Dorpel: It depends on the case. It’s a good question. Many people use free software but it means that it is stolen and it does not have appropriate elements. Some of my open source work uses technology that is not free. It’s using the flash player which is owned by Adobe. So, I could put the source code of that work online and it can be called open-source but it’s not free software. All different layers have their own legal licensing.

So I think that the thing you mentioned in relation to net art is more a question of accessibility like who can watch it. The idea of net art was that art can be run in a computer browser so that everybody can see it but the source code would be a secret.

Richard Stallman was in the free software movement and he really hates the term open-source. It’s because the big corporations such as ibm used to say that their software is open-source but actually you had to pay to use it at some stage.

autobreeder-lite(2016), screenshot of the site: https://left.gallery/

:DDDD: Are there any consumers who complain about this technology?

:Van den Dorpel: Everybody! As I said, the blockchain scene is still developing but it’s not directly applicable to the average consumer’s browser. It’s more similar to a bank or a big corporation. It’s just like a big system and too complicated for people to understand clearly. I hate to bring the bad news about blockchain but if I just look how many people pay with cryptocurrency or how many people want to have it, I realize that the numbers are really declining.

Usually left gallery sells apps made by artists on App Store and Google Play because there are only two systems in the world to install any kind of apps on a device. But people don’t realize that almost 20% of the price goes to these platforms. They also have very strict rules about usability which have to comply with Apple’s values. If I make an app as an artwork which has no practical value, then Apple will very likely not allow it to be on App Store.

It’s 100% monopoly and censorship by these two corporations. This is the reason that left gallery has to find a new way, or an alternative distribution platform.

:DDDD: How about the artists? Do they understand how your gallery operates with blockchain? Aren’t they worried about the consumer who wants to use their work without any agreement? It’s because there’s no contract which refers to the legal policies or the creator’s right.

:Van den Dorpel: Some artists seem to understand very well, others do not. But most of them don’t want anything to do with the big corporate world. That’s the cliché but also the truth. So they are eager to embrace alternative possibilities but it’s very hard.

When it comes to ownership, I think that you can do anything with the work, if you buy and own it. I was once on a panel discussing what ownership truly means. The lawyer who was there said that if you really own something, you have the right to destroy it. It was almost like a philosophical discussion. The copyright becomes active if the person wants to file a lawsuit. So, I care more just about how the artwork works.

:DDDD: Then, besides online sales, have you ever organized any events or exhibitions?

:Van den Dorpel: Yes. With others as left gallery and as an individual curator, we organized an exhibition in the Hague. There’s a curator’s selection of new works, commissioned by the gallery. We designed the exhibition venue to look like an Apple store, with tables similar to the store's tables. And the exhibition’s staff were wearing yellow t-shirts to talk with people who had questions about the work with blockchain components. It’s so funny because people felt really comfortable in the venue decorated like an Apple store, more than if they were having to feel careful in an art museum. There was also one element which was a bit provocative. If no visitor would buy the work, the credit was designed to decrease every hour. When the credit reaches zero, all the work is switched off.

:DDDD: Did it often happen?

:Van den Dorpel: Actually, we sold a lot. It’s never happened.

:DDDD: Do you have any specific cases where you have restored or recompiled artworks?

:Van den Dorpel: Yes, All the time. It’s a very difficult issue for me, especially because I use a mac. It’s quite a nightmare. Every time Apple updates a new operating system, we have to check all the things such as whether it still works, and pay Apple again to recompile the app as well.

The artists are primarily responsible for checking because they have the source codes. This sort of thing happens quite frequently even in museums. So museums usually buy my software work together with my computer and before that, I often scratch the internet connection off the computer so that it doesn’t update automatically. This is because the work may not operate anymore, if the computer is updated. When I participated in the exhibition Vertiginous Data at MMCA in Seoul a similar thing happened. I showed two digital works Nested Exchanged (2018) and left gallery Explainer (2018). left gallery Explainer was a sort of lecture that I programmed on a screen. But it was hacked because I forgot to destroy the Bluetooth connection. It was hacked by somebody who thought that would be fun.

:DDDD: What are your future plans for left gallery?

:Van den Dorpel: I’ve been really busy with left gallery in the past two years, mostly curating exhibitions in art venues because I thought that it’s important to do that. But it took all my time, and couldn’t focus on my work. So I decided to focus on digital works without making physical exhibitions. I want to invite artists who can show their works in the digital gallery. It’s still curating. We can also decide whom we ask and the artists will be free to use whatever work they want to sell, a little bit like Bandcamp. So this is what the future will be like: more of an automated entity operation.

:DDDD: Do you have any advice for people like us, who are preparing to operate a collection using blockchain?

:Van den Dorpel: The beauty of the blockchain system is that everybody has a full contract and the whole network has no central point. This is also a flaw because people often don’t want to be free. When we tell the artist about the tokens for your purchase and that they have to be careful with them, they say, “I don’t know what it is, but can you keep this for me?” They like the central institute which controls their privacy, and they are willing to pay for it.

Beside blockchain, there are some websites which can help with transparency and provenance such as ipfs and DAT protocol. They use very powerful and clear technology, not blockchain. I think they are an optimistic world. For distribution of art and provenance, maybe we should go more in that direction.

Newsletter Subscription