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Issue 231

What Can DAOs Do For You?

Terence Trouillot speaks to Ruth Catlow, Rhea Myers, Penny Rafferty and Bhavik Singh on how DAOs can support artists, create a more equitable art world and promote social play within the digital sphere 

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BY Terence Trouillot, Ruth Catlow, Rhea Myers, Penny Rafferty AND Bhavik Singh in Features , Roundtables | 02 NOV 22

Blockchain technology has quickly become a prodigious force in the art world, most notably with the seismic rise of NFTs in the market sector, but more recently in the way artists use Web 3.0 innovations to self-organize such as decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). But what are DAOs exactly and how do they function within the realm of artistic production and collective practices? As Rhea Myers succinctly states in this roundtable discussion on the subject: ‘DAOs are a collaboration between code, capital and community: they are the blockchain equivalent of a charitable trust.’ But as we learn from this conversation between practitioners in the field of art and tech, DAOs are much more malleable and experimental by nature, offering new paradigms for how we might distribute wealth and resources to the artists, or how museums might acquire new works of art. This roundtable looks closely at what DAOs can do for the art world.

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Terence Trouillot There seem to be a number of contradictory definitions concerning the role and function of DAOs – or decentralized autonomous organizations.

Rhea Myers To me, DAOs are a collaboration between code, capital and community: they are the blockchain equivalent of a charitable trust. But that’s a very technical view. DAOs can also be parties on the blockchain depending on whether we want to zoom in or out.

Ruth Catlow We can think of DAOs as peer-designed organizations, built in code on the blockchain, which are managed and operated by their members. DAOs enable people to experiment with new value systems, to pool resources and to decide how those resources should be used for the collective interest and the individual interest, and to coordinate and track action. It does all these things while allowing its members to think beyond state boundaries and jurisdiction.

RM The question is always: why have a DAO when you could just have a corporation or a cooperative? When individuals are excluded either legally, financially or geographically, as Ruth just pointed out, DAOs are a good fit.

Penny Rafferty At the core of the Web 2.0 framework was this notion of social connections. This was then packaged as a trans-local, social-citizen militia. What we’ve all begun to see, however, is that there was never any real notion of the social: Facebook was never about friendship, connection or conversations – it was about commercial agents making money off emotional metadata. DAOs can do the vital work of understanding technology as something that is inherently social and can facilitate test beds for decision-making to retool our understanding of what structures we want to put stake in today and into the future.

Bavik Singh Much of what I think has been said already but one of the things I personally deal with is transitioning groups from a trust-based, loose collective into DAOs or other structural forms. In The Real World of Technology [1989], Ursula Franklin writes about technology as means of codifying pre-existing value systems, such as the law or financial institutions. But those kinds of codification system are difficult for entities such as internet art groups to adopt: it’s logistically and philosophically unnerving to suddenly become a legal entity like a co-op or to open a bank account together. By contrast, DAOs are this lightweight means of codification that feels internet-native, enabling the systemization of a community’s values, which allows them, in turn, to accelerate their purpose or fulfil their goals.

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TT What do you make of the attention currently being paid to DAOs within the art world?

BS I think the really interesting question is to consider, given that arts organizations have a long and complex relationship to cooperative modalities and systems, what do DAOs specifically bring to the art world that allows certain ideas to flourish?

RM The simple answer is money; the complex answer is also money. Following the financial crash of 2008 – against the background of financialization and a rush to take control of digital cash – people began to realize the benefit of doing certain things without the state observing. Artists deal in reflection, representation and codification. As Penny said, DAOs are a wonderfully rich set of affordances for concretizing the principles that you work with. None of this is to ignore any of the problems of directly interfacing with existing capital and financialization. But, for me, it’s the fact that you’ve got this organizational, representational and artistic medium that is embedded in wider ideas.

PR DAOs have existed in the art world for many years, so the current focus is actually coming from outside. We have lived through a moment where the internet and its tools suddenly became an important way of actually communicating on a global scale: the internet had to prove its worth beyond leisure and the whole world had to be onboarded. I think that during COVID-19 lockdowns – when internet connectivity became extremely relevant – this potentially paved the way for these types of technology to play a fundamental part in world organizing.

RC In order to survive, we were forced to participate in the value systems, invisible financial flows and cultural creative reproduction that we’ve since discovered is inextricably linked to these scary, state-surveillance, capitalist systems. DAOs are important now because we need different communities co-creating value systems that serve living systems so more people get involved with experiments in deepening democracy.

I love Bhavik’s idea of DAOs being these lightweight, digitally native tools for self-organizing. Looking back to the experiments of historic art movements such dada, situationism and fluxus – or, more recently, the curatorial approach of the artistic directors of Documenta 15, ruangrupa – the artists and activists of these peer-built networks understand that the most interesting thing their art can do is to reshape our context and show how things might be organized, seen or experienced differently to create new access points for different kinds of people.

BS Fundamentally, if you’re feeling stuck in the throes of the art world and you want to break out through collective action, it doesn’t have to be as hard as restructuring your entire organization. You can play with these notions through the mechanisms of the DAO without even engaging in the blockchain.

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TT It’s interesting hearing you all talk about the potential that DAOs have for artists and activists to think about new ways of governance or economic structure. In terms of how DAOs can help artist communities self-organize, could you speak a little about Unnamed Fund, Bhavik, which is a DAO you started through NEW INC and the New Museum.

BS Unnamed Fund is a cooperative, creative financial ecosystem that is trying to reimagine the infrastructure behind artists’ grants driven by the fundamental question: what if artists were in control of the funding and distributing of the money that powers art? We raised funding from a couple of organizations – just as a regular venture capital fund or arts organization would do – then we let the community vote on where those funds should go.

We had a lot of discussion within the community and amongst the organizers about how to conduct the vote and what the application process should be. So far, we have run one experimental funding round. Community members applied through a short form and people vote via the web-based non-blockchain platform RadicalxChange, which uses a mechanism called quadratic voting whereby participants express their preferences not as a single choice but in terms of their degree of interest in each option. The funds have since been distributed. It gave our community a tangible sense of what it feels like to participate in a meaningful financial decision without that process being burdensome. Everyone just went to a website and clicked some buttons.

RC It’s interesting that at least three of us here have been experimenting with quadratic voting. We have been running a similar project called CultureStake in Finsbury Park, north London, where Furtherfield is located. We invite people to come and experience sketched digital works in the park, then vote on the work they would like to see realized at a larger scale. Using quadratic voting enables them not only to express their preference but also the intensity of their preference. This provides a way of connecting people around artistic value and cultural meaning in a way that allows them to see themselves together in places they care about.

PR Within this artistic framework, it’s interesting to see the conceptual affordances that have been given to DAO thinking and participation. Black Swan – an experimental digital DAO led by political and local motivations, which I mapped out in 2018 and later I tried to conjure with Calum Boden and Laura Lotti in January 2021 – was designed to relocate resources from the art world stakeholders to cultural users and addressed the notion of stakeholders. Within the original framework of a DAO, the stakeholders and end-users are the typically one and the same. With Unnamed Fund or Black Swan, however, those with power and resources become, in effect, silent stakeholders who are held accountable for providing those resources directly to the end-users for distribution. In essence, this interrupts the gift economy that is typically available to cultural practitioners. In the case of Furtherfield, however, the decision-making was given over to users of the park. So, you can see here the split in versatility of DAOs and how they begin to offer up conversations about the distribution of power and choice, as well as how to self-organize around sets of potential insignia that have material consequences.

RM The response that a lot of people have to DAOs is like seeing how sausages are made. The question I’ve always had for alternative art organizational projects is: where does the value come from? But, in truth, it should be: where does the money come from? These are questions that people are often offended by but they are necessary questions for any economic and social-justice group within the art world. DAOs just expose the plumbing. You see the money coming from venture capitalists or crypto early adopters and you have to account for how you are allocating it – whether that comes in the form of discussions with RadicalxChange or whether it’s a system of QR codes or whatever. But, to a degree, we are all guilty: there is no such thing as ethical production under capitalism, and getting your hands dirty – or recognizing that they are already dirty – is one of the often-unpleasant but very necessary accordances about DAOs. With Unnamed Fund or with CultureStake, you know where the money has come from. As artists, giving over any part of our agency or creativity to machines looks like the worst kind of extractive hyper-financialization. But, if you are bending it into something that acts as a sustainable commissioning market for art, it’s still a model that gets artists paid and work exhibited and made.

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TT We’ve discussed the advantages of DAOs, but I wonder if we could speak a little about any potential disadvantages.

RM There are many disadvantages to DAOs, which are not inherently resistant to commodification, recuperation or hyper-financialization. People often don’t vote consistently and we should not assume that the few hyper-interested, constant voters are doing so in the best interests of the DAO.

BS This notion of DAOs as a quantification of the qualitative really resonates with me. DAOs are often introduced against the background of a trust-less, anonymous internet. In this context, power is frequently centralized amongst a few people who cast all of the votes. DAOs also can be subject to ninja manoeuvres whereby, despite a vote taking place, somebody else receives the asset and does whatever they want with it. DAOs are at their best when they are a means of codifying community trust rather than replacing it. So, I would say that, if you’re interested in bringing a DAO into a community, make sure that you’re putting in the hours – long consultations, co-designing, understanding different perspectives – that is required to build trust with the community, rather than hoping that the DAO can serve as a Band-Aid on a communication problem.

RM We’re talking about the issue of structurelessness here, which is something to avoid in any organization. The other disadvantage I forgot to mention is that, sadly, if you wish to operate in public or in the meatspace, DAOs are not a replacement for the law. If you’re going to be doing anything offline as part of a DAO, please talk to a friendly lawyer first.

RC I’m reminded of a tweet I saw yesterday from Sphere DAO – a large community of experimental, esoteric artists – which read to the effect of: ‘DAOs need to be built at the speed of trust.’ There are some DAO systems that, instead of dealing with economic capital, deal with social capital or reputation. In my view, they can potentially become really messy, and I believe this the deep work that a lot of us will be doing over the next few decades.

PR One of the strongest disadvantages of DAOs, I think, is that they require competencies which many of the users who could potentially benefit from them don’t have. DAOs run on the specific skillset of proposal-making and local governance structures which are flawed in terms of access, time, knowledge, anxiety and prejudice – although I do think these disadvantages are gradually being addressed by projects like Decentralized Detroit and SX noir.

TT Do you feel DAOs are integral to the future of the art world and, particularly, to a more equitable art world?

PR No, DAOs aren’t integral to the art world, which I’m sure will continue as it has for generations. The model of the art market is not broken. But, in terms of producing radically new forms of art, I don’t think the art market does. What it relies on heavily at the moment is something Kate Brown actually coined during a 2018 talk as ‘grooming’ – a term I learned when I started to think about Black Swan – which is when blue chip galleries and institutions specifically skim off mid-career and emerging artists without having invested any of the backbone and resources that were required to build the artist’s career to that point, which are instead typically the product of labour or favours performed by project spaces, peers, unpaid interns, alternative economies and, for the lucky ones, trust funds. If we really want to create new chapters in art history, then we need DAOs to help us understand what artists require early in their career to make fierce work, to support their imaginations, to offer them resources they actually want rather than the ones we think they need or wait until they are plump enough from the scene.

RM DAOs are not yet integral to the art world but trying to imagine a future in which they are is a really fun thought experiment – possibly for a horror novel! I’d also come back to the fact that they’re a transparent medium: it takes money to make art. You can use your body to do a performance and that may cost you nothing, but you still have to eat and keep warm somewhere. The money in the art world comes from the petrochemical industry, from colonial capital that’s sitting in funds behind the doors of aptly named universities, museums and foundations, and from venture capital. Ideally, we need to take out that laundering layer of ‘grooming’ which Penny mentioned and disintermediate the asset-stripping galleries by enabling profitable early investment in artists, as DAOs and NFTs allow you to do. This is both a genuine redistribution of wealth – paying an artist’s rent for a month, for instance – and a means of addressing of an injustice within the art world. DAOs and NFTs have led to this minor but important redistribution of wealth whilst everyone has been trying to work out how you stop wealth redistribution through blockchain technology.

BS What’s essential to an equitable future of art is the redistribution of power and capital. I think DAOs may be the best financial vehicle for that necessary but difficult work. It’s too soon to say whether DAOs are essential for the art market but I do think they might be the option that’s the most fun. We don’t talk enough about that aspect, but it’s a lot of fun to be part of a DAO. I think, at its best, the internet is simply a group of people hanging out and having a good time.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 231 with the headline ‘DAOs: Parties on the Blockchain’.

Main image: Radical Friends Symposium, 2022. Courtesy: Furtherfield 

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

Ruth Catlow is an artist, researcher, curator and co-founder of the arts organization Furtherfield. She is co-editor of Radical Friends – Decentralised Autonomous Organisations and the Arts (2022).

Rhea Myers is an artist, hacker and writer.

Penny Rafferty is a critic and writer. She is the co-founder of Black Swan DAO and co-editor of Radical Friends – Decentralised Autonomous Organisations and the Arts (2022).

Bhavik Singh is an artist and technologist. He is co-founder of the DAO Unnamed Fund and runs the experimental design and development studio soft networks.

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