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NFTs and the Museum. Part 5: Art Collections on the Blockchain

Unframed-Lacma, December 2021

Elian Carsenat, Founder, UNCOPIED Joey Heinen, Digital Preservation Manager, LACMA Joel Ferree, Program Director, Art & Technology Lab Art + Technology

Ostracon Recording a Barter Transaction, Egypt, New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty (1315–1201 BCE), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Carl W. Thomas, photo © Museum Associates / LACMA

NFTs present challenges for collectors not just for the logistics of ownership and exchange, but also for long-term sustainability and authorship of artworks. Questions arise as to what stake various blockchain technologies have in guaranteeing that these unique assets have a life beyond the immediate, and questions around the transmutability of these assets onto other blockchain systems remain murky. For this installment of NFTs and the Museum, LACMA Digital Preservation Manager Joey Heinen interviewed Elian Carsenat, computer scientist and founder of UNCOPIED, an authentication system for digital artworks (including NFTs).

Joey Heinen: As blockchain technologies become more dominant in the art market and in data systems and protocols, I am interested to see the emergence of discussions around open data and shared repositories as opposed to just thinking about rarified assets and objects. Tell me about the work you are doing related to NFTs and blockchain. What gap are you trying to fill?

Elian Carsenat: UNCOPIED started from a different perspective. Back in July 2020, I was looking for a solution for a digital artwork made in collaboration with Dario Rodighiero (metaLAB (at) Harvard University) and Eveline Wandl-Vogt (Austrian Academy of Science; Ars Electronica Research Institute Knowledge for Humanity). The objective was to distribute the digital image freely as Creative Commons, yet make limited-edition physical prints which could be proved to be limited. So the initial problem was to tie a physical object with its unique ID, a certificate of authenticity and some metadata about the object. In our current world, any physical object can be copied or faked. Similar technology which allows one to forge a rare edition of Galileo’s scientific work can be used to photocopy certificates as well. A first idea was to use a split tally stick, with a barcode. An early human invention (Upper Palaeolithic, refined until modern times), split tally sticks were used to record bilateral debts. A stick (squared hazelwood sticks were most common) was marked with a system of notches and then split lengthwise. This way, the two halves both record the same notches and each party to the transaction received one half of the marked stick as proof. The longer part was called stock and was given to the party which had advanced money. In England, tally sticks were in use till the 19th century and we inherited the term “stock exchange” from these small pieces of wood. Expanding on this idea, I discovered another medieval system which seemed easier to adapt. The chirograph is a medieval document, which has been written in triplicate on a single piece of parchment, with the Latin word “chirographum” written across the middle, and then cut through to separate the parts. Here is an example of such document:

An English property conveyance in triplicate chirograph form, 1303

So UNCOPIED started with the design of a quintuplicate chirograph to create secure paper labels with a unique ID and QR codes cut in two halves instead of the word chirographum. As the chirograph is made from a single sheet of paper, this physical property of uniqueness can be applied to any object. For example, the world’s largest drink brand produces 100 billion plastic bottles a year. Let’s imagine they would like to distinguish “the last 100 plastic bottles they will ever produce” and make it a “readymade” in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp. They could use a limited-edition chirographic label. The digital proof of uniqueness is on a public blockchain. The physical proof of uniqueness is distributed among several people, who each own a piece of the chirographic puzzle. With a quintuplicate chirograph, up to four people can participate in a form of consensus (the Famous Drink Brand who issues the certificates, the Collector, UNCOPIED, and a trusted fourth party). Each of these four persons can prove or disprove if the chirographic label comes from a different sheet of paper. Our initial use case for blockchain technology was to create unique IDs for physical objects and their chirographic labels. The problem of unicity affects NFTs as well: an NFT is essentially a unique ID associated with a unique wallet address. Nothing prevents creating multiple NFTs associated with the same digital object on the blockchain, or even on multiple blockchains. This process (be it “copyminting,” plagiarism, or even self-plagiarism) is really hard to circumvent, as any image or digital object with a tiny difference is effectively a different object. You need a reverse search engine (like Google Image Search or Tineye) to identify similar images. So the idea gradually became a mission statement: creating an open source solution to certify the authenticity of both physical and digital objects, combining the physical chirograph with QR code, blockchain, IPFS, and a reverse search engine.

Joey: I see. So the approach in utilizing open-source technologies is more or less to streamline the process and allow for more open, collaborative authentication of these types of artworks?

Elian: Yes, taking into account that this open collaboration should be international from the start. The choice of open source helps with the long term maintainability of a software application stack designed to evolve over a long period of time.