November 18, 2021    East vs. WestArtsTechnology

Philosophical Question on How to Archive NFTs

Some years ago, I watched a PBS documentary about art archiving. What struck me as most interesting was the difference between Eastern and Western philosophies of art archiving. In the East, archiving means maintaining artistic integrity, whereas, in the West, it means maintaining the original materials. So, in China, archivists would paint over an old painting with fresh paint to preserve the original look, which would be blasphemy to Western archivists as their goal is to preserve the original paint.

When it comes to dynamic digital art (including “generative art”), which philosophy makes sense? For Westerners, the natural answer is to preserve the files permanently. Services like Art Blocks do exactly this. The files are stored on decentralized, immutable storage systems, like IPFS and Permaweb. Some are even stored “on-chain” on the Ethereum network. Once saved, they cannot be changed or deleted. I would assume that Western collectors of art would feel good about this too, but here are the problems I see.

Yesterday, I discovered that Apple’s QuickTime player could no longer play videos encoded with Animation codec. Ten years ago, it was the de facto standard for rendering vector-based animations because it’s lossless. Back then, I would have never guessed that Apple would discontinue support for it. I thought it was as safe as the JPEG format.

At the height of the popularity of Flash, if you had asked any Flash developers about the risk of it being discontinued, they would have laughed at you. When something is trending, it always feels invincible until it isn’t anymore, like teenagers who think they are immortal. And, even if all of your dependencies remain alive, some older versions or features of them might get deprecated for security reasons.

As an artist, you have two options to address this problem of endless dependencies. The first is to accept the natural decay of life. This is what Robert Rauschenberg proposed. His paintings had many objects attached to them that degraded over time. I would imagine some even fell off. Rauschenberg considered this decay to be an integral part of his artistic intention. So, whatever happens to his paintings over time will always be part of his art.

The second option is to keep adjusting and fixing your digital art to maintain the original experience. Given that NFTs pay some percentage of the secondary sale to artists, this can be considered a maintenance fee. Of course, artists cannot forever guarantee it, and they will eventually die, but as a collector, I would feel better if artists said they would try their best.

With digital art, preserving the files doesn’t make much sense because doing so might make the work entirely unviewable, which happened to the work I created in 2001 using Macromedia Director. Besides, the concept of “material” doesn’t actually exist in digital art unless your work also involves hardware. Files just happen to be the closest thing to physical material, but this is only a metaphor. Unlike Rauschenberg’s paintings, natural decay in digital art can cause it to be inaccessible even if the files are preserved perfectly. So, in my view, the Eastern approach to archiving makes more sense.

Many ancient Japanese temples are not actually ancient in terms of material; they are rebuilt from scratch at certain time intervals to preserve the original look. With the introduction of NFTs, we had to rethink what it means to “own” an artwork. A Western mind would cling to the idea of owning the materials that make up the work, which is why digital artists are eager to satisfy that demand by storing their files on IPFS. But, when you own an NFT, it’s not the files you own. The files can be copied any number of times and shared with anyone. So, if you are worried about losing files or access to them as a collector, just copy them everywhere. It’s better than saving them on IPFS because you’d be able to access them even on a computer without any network access. You can send copies to all your friends too. You are not buying exclusive access to those files. So, who cares if the artwork was entirely rebuilt with different libraries of code, like Japanese temples, to preserve its artistic integrity?

When you own an NFT, you essentially own the concept of ownership, nothing more. But this ownership is not meaningless. Just as Marcel Duchamp made art by placing a urinal in a gallery, buying an NFT can also be an artistic statement. By buying an NFT of some unknown artist, you are declaring to the world that you consider it to be art even if nobody else thinks so. With NFT, more people can participate in defining what art is, especially if the ownership can be shared by many to lower the individual cost.

So, what is important in digital art is the preservation of experience, not files. Just because decentralized systems and “Web 3.0″ are trending, we shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon for its cool factor. After all, the cool factor will vanish sooner or later, and when that happens, we would be left wondering what the point of storing artworks on IPFS was. Cooler heads, not trend, would then prevail.