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January 16, 2024 Feature

The Certificate of Authenticity: Beyond Material Form

Charlotte Kent in Conversation with Mitchell F. Chan

©2024. Published in Landslide, Vol. 16, No. 2, December/January 2024, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

Winslow Homer’s Croquet Challenge (screenshot of video game)

Winslow Homer’s Croquet Challenge (screenshot of video game)

2022, by Mitchell F. Chan, photo courtesy of the artist

Landslide® presents an art historian talking with a contemporary artist on theory and conceptual art. Their unique outlooks challenge concepts in both the arts and the law.

What certifies a work? Declares its provenance and associated value? British art historian T.J. Clark provides some insight into these complexities when he discusses the relationship between artist Nicolas Poussin and his patron Jean Pointel, whose career success as a silk merchant then banker led him to buy many paintings by the classical 17th century painter. Pointel had lost his fortune at the end of his life, but the executors discovered that creditors had not taken all. Pointel somehow retained 21 paintings and a portfolio of drawings by Poussin, as registered by an established appraiser whose notes indicated his respect for the works as did the high value he gave them. There were no receipts to prove provenance or value but many letters between the patron and painter, most lost in time but quoted in 18th century sources.

The certificate of authenticity arises to simplify some of this archival and scholarly effort, but also as a strangely wonderful liminal object between the art world and art market.

With conceptual art, the certificate was mobilized further to complicate, undermine, and supersede the material art object. Mitchell F. Chan is a conceptual artist whose work with new media and digital culture always prods the boundaries of emergent technologies’ normative use. By 2017, significantly before the non-fungible token (NFT) hype, blockchain boom, and popular media flood around cryptocurrencies, he had already produced Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, widely considered one of the strongest early examples of artwork using blockchain. Through its creative misuse of blockchain’s provenance, certification, and record-keeping abilities, he showed how this emergent technology could be used as a medium and related it to the complicated history of contemporary art.

In this interview, arts writer Charlotte Kent and Mitchell Chan speak broadly about art, blockchain, certificates, and the unstable ground of all three.

Charlotte Kent: Do you remember when you first became interested in certificates and contract-like objects?

Mitchell Chan: I first became interested in certificates in 2013, when I was doing a project about Sol LeWitt. At the time, the music industry was trying to recover from peak Napster, and legacy media corporations were in shambles because “information wants to be free.” Bands couldn’t sell their music anymore because access was so widespread with digital proliferation—music as a kind of information—so revenue was based on touring (that is, selling ephemeral experiences) along with merchandise—a kind of token. The conceptualist idea about the location of value was completely wrong at that point. In early conceptual art, the artistic value of the artwork resides in the idea of the thing, with the manifestation an incidental gesture. The certificate that contained the information about the artwork had financial value, while the manifestation of the thing did not. That shift in the location of artistic value was also applied to commodity value. So, I developed a project where I translated instructions for LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #118 into code. I ran the code on a snowball iMac, which generated LeWitt-esque images. For the exhibition at Angell Gallery in Toronto (and later at Humber Galleries), the instructions-as-code were drawn on the wall in colored pencil, and also given away in a format akin to IKEA instruction manuals.

You also then iterated that project on Art Blocks, a popular generative art blockchain platform. This reminds me of a quote by Ed Halter: “media artefacts are only metaphorically ‘objects’ to be collected and stored; they are fundamentally technologies of communication, transmitters of information from peer to peer or from past to present.” Information wants to circulate. Much of your work does this by taking ideas that an earlier artist was messing with and renegotiating those ideas for our contemporary. In 2017, you riffed on Yves Klein’s Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility when you produced Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility.

Yes. In 1958, Klein presented this work that is an important precursor to conceptual art. He was only 30 at the time, and some 3,000 people lined up to see an exhibition of invisible artworks in a small, empty white room on a street of Paris, as the French Republican Guard looked on. The immaterial artworks could be purchased only for the most material of currencies: pure gold. According to Klein: “Seven series of these pictural [sic] immaterial zones all numbered exist already. For each zone relinquished, a receipt is given. This receipt indicates the exact weight of pure gold which is the material value correspondent to the immaterial acquired. These zones are transferrable by their owner.”

But the receipt wasn’t the point. Klein drew a clear distinction between ownership of the receipt for the artwork and ownership of the true “immaterial value” of the artwork. To acquire the latter, a holder of a receipt for the artwork could participate in a ritual that destroyed the receipt, a.k.a. certificate. Klein distinguished between two related but fundamentally different types of ownership: the absolute ownership of the thing, and the legal ownership of the deed to the thing. In different terms, we could say he separated the ownership of spiritual use value and material exchange value. In Klein’s project, it is impossible for a collector to have both. The work challenged notions of materiality, ownership, and the rituals of exchange.

Now, the virtual experience has become an accepted substitute for the physical or spatial experience. At the same time, the complete abstraction of ownership and value has come to pass, not just through the adoption of digital payments and currencies, but also through byzantine processes for creating financial instruments on Wall Street. I am most pleased with the way using blockchain extends and improves the conceptual alignment of the artwork and its transaction model. The sale of a Digital Zone produces a type of documentation that is as verifiable and presentable as a paper receipt, but also nonphysical. Hence, even the formal, transactional element of the project has been immaterialized. It seemed obvious to me, in keeping with my earlier approach, to recreate the Zones as a website and deploy a smart contract on the Ethereum network to facilitate their transaction. It’s profound that Klein’s nearly 60-year-old experiment can critique today’s immaterial culture and overheated digital asset market.

How do you see the certificate, either as Klein or you mobilized it?

The certificate, as a token or a piece of paper, is an abstraction of the work: part icon and part symbol. It is Plato’s shadow. The token is permanently attached to the core of the work—the idea of the work—but that attachment is stretchy and flexible. It can map over the rough contours of a different world (usually the financial world) while still representing the general shape of the idea. The shadow can move and project into terrain where the actual artwork cannot.

Since the found object and conceptual art, artists have declared everything and nothing to be art; I’m thinking here of Duchamp’s urinal and Warhol’s invisible sculpture. Legal scholar Amy Adler develops an argument around art by fiat that I know has interested you. How do you see this artistic claim playing out within the context of digital art that is often treated as an already dematerialized object because of its seemingly nonembodied presence?

This is an interesting extension to the previous question. The certificate of authenticity in the 1960s, and now the token in the 2020s, can be seen as a way of delegating the administration of that authority of fiat. As you point out, Duchamp (and later Klein) asserted that any object (or nonobject) could be imbued with a sort of aura—or, in Klein’s case given some of his interest in mysticism, a kind of magic—by the sheer will of the artist. The conceptualists take this phenomenon and automate it, in a sense. They imbue the certificate with that authority, and then allow it to operate autonomously.

That autonomous operation would seem to set up a whole new possibility: of selling the certificate separate from the art. They aren’t by necessity tied, and certainly the finance industry has already made similarly weird moves. The artist Hamzat Raheem insists in his contracts that if the two are ever split that he renounces the work. Given how often digital works are not tied to the NFT, the material work—by which I mean image or video that is associated with the token—could be destroyed or lost. If the owner still has the NFT, from your perspective, could they just find someone to remake the work?

I see no reason that NFTs should differ in this regard from practices that have existed in contemporary art (and conceptual art, in particular) for decades. A Dan Flavin sculpture, for instance, may be reconstructed with all new fluorescent light tubes and fixtures, and so long as that reconstruction hews to the artist’s instructions and is in some proximity to a certificate of authenticity, it can be considered authentic. Mainly this seems to point out that artists should clarify these things.

As an artist working with a wide array of computer-based media, how much time do you spend explaining these technologies to audiences, from galleries to collectors? Do you see that as part of the cost of making a work?

It’s not the “cost of making a work”—it is the work. A good way to make art is to place two or more ungainly and difficult questions adjacent to each other, such that a viewer can see the ways that the contours and twists in those questions echo each other. One good reason to do that is to make those ungainly and difficult questions more approachable—more manageable and malleable. Another good reason to do that is to explain the world around you. So, really, the whole point of Digital Zones is to explain blockchain technology, and hence the Blue Paper, so called as reference to Klein’s infamous blue that aimed to discuss both projects and so produce a comparison. But I will add, I had very little initial success using Digital Zones to explain crypto to art people. The project broke through when the audience changed, and the project was explaining art to crypto people.

Now Digital Zones is an important, perhaps even canonical, work because it precedes the hype and market explosion of 2021. What provided the market value for the certificate?

I think the seed of the value came from a genuine place and reflects the potential for tokens to commodify conceptual art. A small number of crypto-native people saw value in the idea that the token represented. The token was a digital, tradeable manifestation of a thesis about crypto, a subject about which these collectors were passionate. They were excited to see that framed within the history of conceptual art. The magnitude of that value is the result of it existing within a completely unprecedented speculative bubble.

How did you get interested in blockchain technology?

I came to crypto because the Ethereum blockchain and its Solidity programming language made it a viable art medium, but also because, as a phenomenon, it bore artistic consideration.

What do you mean by “artistic consideration”?

I thought the fact that this immaterial, nonreferential financial system has manifested itself in the world and has actually gained traction must say something about the society we live in. So we use art to consider what that statement might be.

Smart contracts have been touted as a way to get rid of legal contracts. Because smart contracts are bits of code that automate an outcome based on a trigger, they can automate the terms of the agreement between buyer and seller and run when predetermined conditions are met. This is great when the terms are clear and quantifiable, but transparency of terms isn’t always best; there are reasons to leave wiggle room. Given all this, some artists using blockchain and smart contracts will still include a legal contract with the sale of a work. Is an NFT per se enough to operate as a certificate from your perspective, and if so, why?

An NFT in and of itself is just a reasonably permanent blank document.

Right. For all the rhetoric of immutability and forever, permanence is always in doubt. Perpetuity depends on chains and platforms, wallets, and all kinds of material maintenance not shutting down or getting lost, hacked, and so on.

That is all true, and it is still very useful as an accurate and (mostly) tamper-resistant way to denote the ownership of some digital good. Still, it obviously carries no inherent legal weight, nor any specification of the owner’s or creator’s ongoing rights with regard to that digital good. That ambiguity has been a big problem for some creators. Most notably, there was a big brouhaha when CryptoPunks collectors were upset that their ownership of the tokens did not convey to them full commercial intellectual property rights to their CryptoPunk. This was a ridiculous thing to expect; as if IP law would work differently just because something was sold on the blockchain!

So much confusion remains for creators and collectors, as well as platforms and galleries, about these kinds of laws and rights. I think because blockchain is not nationally centralized, people think no laws apply.

I and many others have tried to write out actually enforceable legal terms regarding the ownership of our artworks, and write that text either on the blockchain or in our token metadata. That helps. Because no, the NFT is not enough to operate as a certificate. A good certificate carries with it interesting terms and usage rights. Many artists I’ve spoken to have said explicitly that the data posted to the blockchain contains all the information required should reconstructing the piece be necessary. If the image or print were ever lost, it should simply be reproduced from the information stored on-chain. The adjacency to the token will authorize that reconstruction as “canonical” or “authentic.”

These matters of intent seem important for artists to declare for posterity, especially given challenges of “conservation” later. The metadata offers an interesting place to commit that for the record. Do you seek legal advice when producing certificates and contracts?

Yes, I do seek legal advice when producing projects.

The certificate may represent a work of art, but if an artist repudiates the work it becomes unsellable. Given art by fiat, to what degree is a certificate anything at all, and not just another zone of immateriality?

Well, unfortunately we’ve seen examples in the real world. As an example, that same popular series CryptoPunks were actually first launched on a smart contract that contained a bug. The creators issued a new, corrected contract and asserted that the previous version should be ignored and only the tokens produced by this new contract should be considered as the art. The creators’ will was accepted for years, until CryptoPunks became simply too valuable. The digital artifacts of the original had remained on the blockchain, and were soon rediscovered by speculators and influencers who attempted to form a narrative around them. The whole thing was quite sad. But the reality is: the will of the artist is accepted only so long as it is profitable to accept.

Mainstream contemporary art has plenty of examples where the artist’s will wasn’t accepted as pure directive. But this issue of certifying value still points to the argument made by philosophers George Dickie and Arthur Danto in the late 1970s and early 1980s about art being recognized because of the institutions surrounding it, whether those be the person having gone to art school, a gallery, or someone who owns a lot of objects also known as art. Certificates themselves take so many different forms, from operating as receipt of sale, to representing a concept but also used for performance, to being a mobile extension of the art that propagates the artwork through assorted actions over time. What other artists’ work with contracts or certificates do you find interesting?

A rough idea I’m thinking through right now is how different certificates have different approaches to condensing the time span over which an object can be translated into value. As an example, Duchamp’s Monte Carlo Bonds translate a fairly typical Dada/surrealist technique: the congealing of “chance” into an art object, which then has value due to its chance operations or effects. Duchamp’s work skips over the artwork part (although the bonds, a.k.a. receipts, are aesthetically produced) so that “chance” is directly congealed into value.

Ed Kienholz’s Contract for Purchase of Concept Tableau is, essentially, a futures contract. Like LeWitt’s efforts, the certificate describes the work to be produced, but unlike LeWitt, Kienholz retains responsibility for the execution of the work—just at a later date, and at an additional production cost. A couple things happen here: first of all, there is an explicit separation of the real material value of the work and the surplus value provided by its status as art. They are essentially separate line items, the latter to be paid upon receipt of the certificate, the former to be paid later (and optionally!). Recognizing these as separate types of value, he unlocks those values on different timelines.

Plato idealized beauty, proposing “true” beauty to exist beyond material form, whereby physical objects merely represent it, with artistic representations of physical objects a kind of simulacrum. Do you find the dematerialized object to provide beauty?

The dematerialized object provides the wonderful sense of beauty, which results in me absent-mindedly staring off and letting my mind bounce around the playground of ideas and propositions that an artist has created. This playground is portable and free, and does produce genuine joy in me.

That reminds me of the statement attributed to conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner: “Once you know about a work of mine, you own it. There’s no way I can climb inside somebody’s head and remove it.”

I can’t tell you how many times I drift off while doing the dishes, thinking about all the complexity of a Taryn Simon artwork, or a Paul Pfeiffer piece. I also think that this kind of provocation is more essential than ever because, as you and others have pointed out elsewhere, we’re in a period of intense image inflation. The purely aesthetic provocation loses a lot of its value amidst such abundance and saturation. Perhaps naively, I hope that a small sliver of the population that came to art due to the speculative NFT bubble has stuck around and perhaps absorbed some of that culture either through active participation or through osmosis.

To end, I am reminded of Pointel. Art, materially perched on a pedestal or dematerialized, lives not only through its market value but in that strange admixture of thoughtful beauty that can comfort. As T.J. Clark alludes, Pointel must have cared for those works, garnered some level of comfort beyond their market value, not to have sold them in his impoverished state. Dematerialized art tried to return audiences to that feeling. The certificate can represent the purchase of or replace the material object, but the point is always the artist’s proposition.

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    Charlotte Kent

    Montclair State University

    Charlotte Kent, PhD, is an associate professor of visual culture at Montclair State University and an arts writer, with research that theorizes and contextualizes contemporary art as it relates to and responds to digital culture. Contributing to numerous arts and culture magazines and academic journals, she is also an editor at large for The Brooklyn Rail and coeditor with Katherine Guinness of Contemporary Absurdities, Existential Crises, and Visual Art (forthcoming 2024).

    Mitchell F. Chan is a media artist best known for creating one of the earliest conceptual blockchain artworks, Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (2017). His diverse body of work is performed in both physical and digital public spaces and includes code-based works such as his Art Blocks project LeWitt Generator Generator (2021) and large-scale public projects such as Monument to United Nations Peacekeeping Veterans (2022). He currently creates video games as art.