What is a signature in the age of the Internet?

An image generated by Midjourney in response to the “smart contract ascii art” prompt (image via Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

The prevailing myth of Bitcoin’s enigmatic founder posits that Satoshi Nakamoto is a pseudonym for a group of developers who aspired to create a digital currency that could exist outside government, banking, and third-party control. Together, they spawned a currency that could be stored in code, verified by a huge shared network of peer-to-peer transactions taking place on computers around the world. These on-chain transactions are constantly secured using cryptographic proofs.

Proof, as it happens, has always been an imperative for the authentication, management and distribution of art in a global marketplace. Rarity was central to the commodification of traditional art long before our fascination with (or repulsion for) NFTs today. The entire art industry, so to speak, has been backed up by expert appraisers, ledgers, and other means of record keeping to assess ownership, preservation, provenance, and condition. In the printing industry, artist’s proof has historically referred to the impression of the first print, taken to determine the condition of the plate, woodcut, or other surface. In modern practice, however, artist’s proof often denotes the first completed work that is identical to the other numbered editions. This methodology has been slowly and meticulously developed over hundreds of years.

When we look at our current moment at how rapidly we’ve evolved from print to photography to the internet, it’s clear that the internet has introduced a new set of complications when it comes to claiming proof of ownership or arguing that something is an original. In the early 1990s, the World Wide Web entered our homes and for the first time ever we could meet each other across geographic boundaries and share information freely across a global network. Suddenly, we were all publishers, unsigned. And while concepts like property ownership and signatures have been applied to physical-world entities like artwork, deeds, or lease agreements, they’ve continually eluded us in our digital spaces. Watermarks, copyrights, DRM and DMCA offered clumsy and inelegant ways to enforce digital rights. But in late 2020, NFTs were introduced to the wider public. The term NFT, short for non-fungible token, has regularly been misinterpreted as shorthand for a variety of unrelated topics, from GIFs to cryptocurrencies to glossy 3D renders or huge PFP illustration sets.

Yves Klein, “Zone de sensibilit picturale immatrielle Srie n1, Zone n02” (received to Jacques Kugel) (photograph courtesy of Sothebys, Inc. 2022)

As a cryptographic unit of record keeping, an NFT can be viewed as analogous to a signature or autograph. What NFTs offer artists is a simple signifier for digital property, one that uses blockchain cryptography to link a token (much like a certificate of authenticity) to a digital object, such as a generative artwork, a text or a photograph. Minting an NFT creates a publicly verifiable and traceable record, the provenance of which is stored on-chain, and therefore is virtually impossible to forge. On a widely distributed internet whose architecture has become largely predetermined by a few monolithic tech giants, artists who produce work and share creations online now have a tool for verifying ownership of their content (and perhaps, for the first time, they can even profit from that content).

For decades, artists have envisioned new ways to record and authenticate their potentially intangible creative output. As an example, we can look at the history of conceptual art: Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings, for example, only attribute instructions on how to make the works, or Yves Klein’s “Zone de Sensibilit Picturale Immatrielle” (1959), the form of detailed property rights documents in blank space. More recently, Rafal Rozendaal’s pioneering Art Website Sales Contract (201114) was used to verify the sale of browser-based artworks, each linked to a particular domain name. The contract specifies the transfer of the electronic data and expository files necessary to operate the website to its new owner.

Since the arrival of NFTs, many artistic interventions have pointed to the general aura of epistemic vibrations involved in the creation and gathering of purely digital resources. Damien Hirsts “The Currency” (2021) introduced a collection of 10,000 NFTs corresponding to 10,000 original works of art by the artist, each a single dot painting carefully signed by Hirst and stamped with a watermark, microdot and hologram . For a period of one year, buyers can choose to hold the NFT or trade it for its physical counterpart. After the year, any painting or NFT left by the buyer unclaimed would be destroyed. The result of Hirst’s unconventional experiment was a total of 4,851 NFTs and 5,149 paintings preserved.

Damien Hirst, The Currency (image courtesy of the artist)

Smart contracts (encoded instructions used to issue transactions on the blockchain) and related NFT metadata have opened up even more avenues for artistic intervention and signature. Ryder Ripps’ provocative NFT collection, RR/BAYC, uses smart contracts that contain the same URLs as those embedded in Bored Ape Yacht Club’s NFT collection smart contracts. RR/BAYC intentionally satirizes the wildly prolific, high-value PFP series as a whole. Artists have also added their own signatures, images and unique decorations to personalize the smart contracts themselves, in the form of ASCII art. Rhea Myers’ conceptual work, “Is Art” (2014/15) is an Ethereum contract that has been asked to declare itself a work of art or not; the status of the contracts remains until the next transaction is sent to change it. In the summer of 2022, Anika Meier and Operator introduced a conceptual series entitled Not signed, which features a selection of signatures from 100 artists who identify as women. The project aims to draw attention to well-known gender disparities in the art world; as reported by Helen Gorrill in The Guardian, works signed by men increase in value, while works signed by women tend to decrease in value over time.

NFTs have been the site of much apparent development, innovation and creativity, along with speculation, hype and volatility. Instead of delivering on its initial promise to subvert or challenge the existing art world, the NFT market has reproduced some of its wildest asymmetries. The margin of buyers and sellers who benefit from these digital economies is reduced by power dynamics such as access to technology and a deep understanding of market trends. The fledgling medium has already fallen prey to obfuscation and manipulation in a field governed by evidence and scarcity. If a non-fungible token is indeed the signatureand not the artworkthus much of our current cultural lexicon does not seriously represent the difference between owning the item and owning the certificate.

If we zoom out and look at this phenomenon through a much larger lens, it starts to look like we’ve taken another step towards hyper-financializing the internet and wealth consolidation. But somewhere over the horizon, just beyond all the speculative fervor, we may begin to see a hint of potential in this new tool for composing identities, establishing ownership, and fostering new forms of online collaboration. Many artists, including Damien Hirst, Anika Meier, Ryder Ripps and Rhea Myers, have already begun offering glimpses of what that could be like.

Rhea Myers, “Is Art” (2014/15) (image courtesy of the artist)
Rhea Myers, “Is Not Art” (2014/15) (image courtesy of the artist)

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