​​Provenance and Permanence: Why On-Chain Art Matters

We are at a sea change when it comes to digital art, and it is all being driven by the blockchain. While many folks may dismiss NFT art, specifically pixel art, as being a fad, history will soon prove them otherwise. Monet and impressionists were looked down upon by the establishment for their new style of painting. Van Gogh never found success in his own time. And it took a while for the establishment to come around to the abstract drawings of the modernists, the everyday subjects of the pop artists and the graffiti work of the street artists. NFT art is at this similar inflection point. But as opposed to any previous artistic movement, NFT art solves two of the most problematic areas as it pertains to art history: provenance and permanence.

Provenance on Display in a Public Ledger

The art world has long struggled with provenance. Was that Renaissance painting done by the master or someone in his workshop? Is that unsigned Picasso real or not, even in a member of the estate says it is? And is that cheeky image on the street a Banksy or just someone imitating him? Because of the nature of the blockchain, all NFTs (non-fungible tokens) have solved one of the major problems in the art world: provenance.

Whether an NFT is created by an artist and uploaded to one of the exchanges, or it is minted by an individual through an Ethereum contract (this is quite often the case with generative art projects), an entry into the public ledger is made. This entry is incorruptible and undeniable—the exact moment of creation and who created it is documented.

Furthermore, because the NFT lives on the blockchain, every transaction of that NFT is recorded. You can see exactly how it was passed from person to person, how much was paid or what was traded and when those transactions occurred. With NFT art, there will no longer ever be a debate over whether a particular piece can be attributed to an artist or not. In other words, we won’t have conversations as to whether a piece is a real Caravaggio or not. There is no way to do this with the blockchain.

Nothing is Permanent, All Physical Art is Corruptible

Another issue as it pertains to physical art is that it can be completely erased from history. Think of the painstaking preservation issues that most museums employ, whether regulating the sunlight, temperature or humidity, to protect their most valuable assets. Then there are the restoration efforts (often ongoing) to return a masterwork, like the Sistine Chapel, to its previous glory. Art is also subject to geopolitical conflicts—World War II resulted in a number of pieces being lost to history forever. Try as we might to guarantee the permanence of a piece for future generations, all those efforts are subject to a certain degree of risk—the blockchain stands to eliminate this challenge.

While all NFTs solve the provenance issue, only some NFTs solve the permanence issue. This is because a number of NFTs point to a place where the actual digital asset lives; if that asset were to be deleted or removed, the NFT itself would still show a record on the blockchain, but the artwork could be gone.

Savvy artists/technologists have solved this problem by created a way to store the rendering of their artwork on the blockchain, or on-chain. This can be accomplished by crafting code for a scalable vector graphics (SVG) and storing it directly in the Ethereum contract itself. This means that the artwork is no longer a JPEG or PNG stored on a cloud drive somewhere, the NFT artwork is now physically part of the Ethereum network in perpetuity. That is the power of on-chain art: the representation of the artwork is as incorruptible as is the ledger that documents its provenance. This movement towards on-chain art is gaining steam, and becoming a hallmark for many of the blue-chip projects.

CryptoPunks is admittedly one of the most important NFT art projects ever created, but only proof of ownership—not the asset—is stored on-chain. Larva Labs addressed this issue with their second project, the Autoglyphs series. The work was pioneering and became the earliest example of on-chain art, however, the end user would have to do a little bit of work themselves to reconstruct it.

Let’s take a look at Autoglyph #3 to see how this works.

Autoglyph Number 3 from Larva Labs.

To get to that render you’d have to go to the Autoglyph Ethereum contract here and scroll down to “10. draw” and expand that field. By entering the value of the number of the Autoglyph (in this case 3) an clicking “Query” you can read the contract and get this output:

 .|.-.+........|.-.-.+........|.-..|.-.-.+........|.-.-.+......|.%0A|.....--......|.....|--.....||....||-+.....|.....|-+...........|%0A..-|.+-...+...|..-|..+-..+...|...-|.+-.......|..-|..+...+...|...%0A-.|+..........|..|..-..+..+..|..-.|+.....+....|..|..-..-..+..|..%0A...........|||..|............||||||............|--|||...........%0A+.+..-.+........|.+.+......|.|.-..|.|.-.+.+....|.-.-.+......+...%0A.--............--+....++....||....||++....++.....--....--.......%0A.-...+...|...-|..+...+...+...|...-|..-...+.......|...-|.+-...+..%0A.........|..-.|+.|+.......|..|..-.|+.|+.-..+..|..|..-.|+.-..-..+%0A.......|||...|..............||||||||..............|---|||.......%0A..+........-.-.+..-.+.+....|.|.-..|.|.-...............-.-.+....-%0A....|.....--....-+.....+....||....||+....-+...........--...|-+..%0A....|...-...+|..+-..+....|...|...-|..+|...-..+....|...-...-|..+-%0A....|..-.|-.|+.-..+..+....|..|..-.|+.|+.-..+..+....|..|..-.|..-.%0A||||...||..................||||||||||..................||---||||%0A......-.+.+..-.-......+....|.|.-..|.|.+.+..-.+.............-.-..%0A-...||-....-+....++..........|....|-+...--+....+..........||....%0A..-|..++|..+-...+...+....|...|...-|..+|..+-...+...+....|....|...%0A-.|..+..+.-..+..+.........|..|..-.|..|..+.-+.-..+..+.........|..%0A..........................||||||||||||..........................%0A+|.-.+....+.+....+....|......|.-..|.-.+..|.-.+..-.+....+.+....|.%0A.-+....+.....+.........||....|-...|-...||+...--+...-+....++.....%0A.--...+...+....+....|...|....|...-|..+-|..+|..+-....-...+...+...%0A...+..+....+.........|..|....|..-.|..-.|+.|..+.-+.-....-..+....+%0A.....................||||||||||||||||||||||.....................%0A..+....+....|....|......|....|.-..|.-..|.-.+..|.+.+|.-.+..-....-%0A...+....|....|....||....|....|-...|-...|-+..||+...|+...|-+...-+.%0A.....|....|...||...|....|...-|...-|...-|...-|..+||..+|...+|..+--%0A.|....|..|.|..|....|....|..-.|..-.|..-.|..-.|..-.|+.|.|+.|..+.|.%0A||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||%0A....|....|....|....|.-..|.-..|.-..|.-..|.-..|.-..|.-..|.-..|.-..%0A-...|-...|-...|-...|-...|-...|-...|-...|-...|-...|-...|-...|-...%0A...-|...-|...-|...-|...-|...-|...-|...-|...-|...-|...-|...-|...-%0A..-.|..-.|..-.|..-.|..-.|..-.|..-.|..-.|..-.|....|....|....|....%0A||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||%0A.|.+..|.+|.|.+|.-..|.-..|.-..|.-..|.-..|....|....|..|.|..|....|.%0A--+..|+...|+..||+..|-...|-...|-...|-...|....|...||...|....|.....%0A.+-...+-|...+|...+||..+-|...-|...-|....|....||....|....|....+...%0A-....-..+.-.|+.+.|..+.-.|..-.|..-.|....|......|....|....+....+..%0A.....................||||||||||||||||||||||.....................%0A+....+..-....-.+-.+..|.+|.-..|.-..|....|..|.........+....+..+...%0A...+...+...-....-+..|+..|-+..|-...|....|...|....+....+...+...--.%0A.....++....+-...+--...+||...-|...-|....||.........+.....+....+-.%0A.|....+.+....+.-..+.-.|..+.-.|..-.|......|....+....+.+....+.-.|+%0A..........................||||||||||||..........................%0A..|.........+..+..-.+-.+..|..|.-..|..|.........+..+..-.+..+..|.-%0A...|....|....+...+...-+..|+..|-...|...|....+...+...-+..|++..|-..%0A....||..........+....+--...+-|....|..........++....+-....-||...-%0A..-.-.............+.-..+.+.|.|..-.|.|....+......-.-..+.+.-......%0A||||---||..................||||||||||..................||...||||%0A.-..|.-..|..|....+..+..-.+|.+|.-..|..|....+..+..-.+|.-|.-..|....%0A-+..|-...-...|....+..-...|+..|-...|...|....+..-+..|+...-...|....%0A..+-|...--...........+-....+||....||....+.....+-....--.....|....%0A-....+.-.-...............-.|.|..-.|.|....+.+.-..+.-.-........+..%0A.......|||---|..............||||||||..............|...|||.......%0A+..-..-.+|.-..|..|..+..-.+|.+|.-..|..|.......+|.+|.-..|.........%0A..+...-+.|-...|.......+...-..|-...|...+...+...+..|-...|...+...-.%0A.......--....--.....++....++||....||....++....+--............--.%0A...+......+.-.-.|....+.+.-.|.|..-.|.|......+.+.|........+.-..+.+%0A...........|||--|............||||||............|..|||...........%0A..|..+..-..-..|..|....+.....+|.-..|..+..+..-..|..|..........+|.-%0A...|...+...+..|-..|.......-+.|-...|...+..-+..|-..|...+...-+.|-..%0A|...........+-|.....|.....+-||....||.....--|.....|......--.....|%0A.|......+.-.-.|........+.-.-.|..-.|........+.-.-.|........+.-.|.%0A

While that appears to be a bunch of gibberish, Larva Labs provide instructions in the Ethereum contract (in the vein of Sol LeWitt (as Artnome pointed out) or Maurizio Cattelan’s banana) where anyone can draw out the Autoglyph. And in fact technical people have written scripts to do this automatically a code to do so.

* The output of the 'tokenURI' function is a set of instructions to make a drawing.
 * Each symbol in the output corresponds to a cell, and there are 64x64 cells arranged in a square grid.
 * The drawing can be any size, and the pen's stroke width should be between 1/5th to 1/10th the size of a cell.
 * The drawing instructions for the nine different symbols are as follows:
 *
 *   .  Draw nothing in the cell.
 *   O  Draw a circle bounded by the cell.
 *   +  Draw centered lines vertically and horizontally the length of the cell.
 *   X  Draw diagonal lines connecting opposite corners of the cell.
 *   |  Draw a centered vertical line the length of the cell.
 *   -  Draw a centered horizontal line the length of the cell.
 *   \  Draw a line connecting the top left corner of the cell to the bottom right corner.
 *   /  Draw a line connecting the bottom left corner of teh cell to the top right corner.
 *   #  Fill in the cell completely.

So while the project is completely on-chain, there is a level of effort to render out the piece. Recently, a number of projects look to build on this foundation by storing common file formats (such as SVGs) on-chain. This cuts down the level of effort because SVG is a format that is commonly able to be rendered online.

Blitmap, a project created by Dom Hoffman, is a project that began to push the merits of on-chain artwork (disclosure: I’m an active part of the Blitmap community). The collection of 100 original works and 1600 siblings—a derivative of an original work that a person could mint with the color palette of another in the collection—are completely stored on-chain. The graphic that you see in OpenSea or on the Blitmap website can be reproduced anywhere simply by looking at the code in the contract itself as long as the Ethereum blockchain is around. Let’s look how this can be down with my Genesis Rose Blitmap #119:

Genesis Rose Blitmap #119, the sibling of the first two Blitmaps, Genesis #0 and Rose #1.

To generate the SVG, you would go to Blitmaps Ethereum contract, scroll down to “28. tokenSvgDataOf” and enter the Blitmap number 119 and query for the code (which is pretty lengthy and I have not pasted here). From there you can take that and save it as a text file with an *.svg extension that can be opened in any other application, or you can use an online rendering tool such as the one Owen Shen has provided on GitHub.

One could argue that this still doesn’t truly solve the permanence issue by saying if the Ethereum blockchain ceased to exist, so too would the NFT art. However, this is probably as close that we can ever truly get. By having the blockchain replicated and authenticated across a network of nodes and a number of distributed apps (Dapps) and money being exchanged in a decentralized manner, it would be a catastrophic event of dinosaur proportions that would cause the network to cease to exist. The blockchain is as close to anything permanent that mankind has created.

Blockchain is the New Medium

Because the blockchain affords provenance and permanence, it has also given way to becoming a new artistic medium. Just as ultramarine was a rare paint to source in the Renaissance, the knowledge of writing solidity code is a rare resource in today’s digital world. These artists/technologists are literally creating pieces in a completely new medium and those doing it on-chain have certain restrictions and limitations of what they can do as a consequence of the high cost associated with storing information on-chain.

And it is exciting to see what they are doing, how they are pushing the boundaries. Some, like Blitmap, take a work created by an artist and then make it on chain. Others, such as the recently launched solSeedlings, are creating generative art by seeding algorithms and letting a bit of randomness create an artwork. Then you have the 0xmons project that uses nueral networks and machine learning to create a completely unique piece that a user that an owner can then pay the “gas” to put online.

The blockchain is the new medium. It solves provenance and permanence and is giving way to a new form of self-expression, one that can be completely human aided by algorithms. And it is not going anywhere.

Special thanks to Dom Hofmann, founder of Blitmap, for his review of some of the technical pieces around being on chain—find him on Twitter @dhof.

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