In February – March 2021 a wave came through. A tsunami. It was caused by the digital collage Everydays: The First 5000 Days, put up for auction at Christie’s and becoming the first purely digital artwork in the history of the auction house. This event naturally attracted attention – Christie’s is far from the last name in the art business, and the very fact that this digital ‘object’ appeared in the respectable world of entirely tangible paintings, porcelain, antique gilded furniture, rare timepieces, and red bottles of Maotai vodka, seemed like a well-planned PR stunt, calculated to spark intense public debate. The PR worked, everyone took notice, and as Christie’s was putting its reputation on the line, does it mean it was worth it? Might there be something useful behind these new-fangled technologies, hitherto mainly seen in the inflation of digital bubbles, the black and grey market, extortion, smuggling and the open desire of the founding fathers of numerous cryptocurrencies to make money on transactions? The answer came loud and clear: on 11th March, the previously little-known artist Beeple, creator of computer illustrations, leapt into third place on the list of most expensive living artists, right behind Jeff Koons and David Hockney.
There was certainly an unusually large amount of hype, and opinions and estimates varied wildly, from the absolute certainty expressed by time.com that “NFTs [non-fungible tokens] are shaking up the art world – but they could change so much more”, to the perceptibly sarcastic statement “JPG file sells for $69m, as ‘NFT mania’ gathers pace”, which is how nytimes.com reported it, and washingtonpost.com’s frankly negative reaction that “Beeple’s digital ‘artwork’ sold for more than any painting by Titian or Raphael. But as art, it’s a great big zero.” David Hockney, ranked second on that list, is closer to the position of washingtonpost.com, describing Beeple’s art as “silly little things.”
The topic is, of course, controversial, but $69m for something ‘digital’ is a clear reason to take the emergence of the blockchain factor in art seriously – preferably with an understanding of the relationship between art and NFTs, i.e., that they are non-fungible tokens, and blockchain technology as a whole. Alas, even the term “Cryptoart”, which is increasingly used to identify this (new? No) phenomenon in art, causes confusion. Looking closer at this term, it should be clarified first of all that the technology of non-fungible tokens, like any other blockchain technology, is not directly related to the process of creating a work of digital art.
This whole story seems to have been made up of two main components. The first is the activity of the new ‘crypto-elite’ (let’s call it such), which, in order to increase the capitalization of the industry, uses, among other things, methods not dissimilar to those used in the creation of financial pyramids. Who paid $69m for Beeple’s work? Yes, the founder of the self-styled ‘crypto-exclusive fund’ Metapurse, from Singapore, better known under its nickname ‘Metakovan’. The second component is somewhat more positive, as opposed to the first. The difference between digital art and traditional, material art is that the former can be copied, with no visible differences between the original and the copy, while even the most advanced technologies still cannot create an exact copy of a material, macroscopic object. Perhaps in the future this will be possible, but that beautiful future is a long way off. Until now, the institute of provenance and attribution by the expert community as a whole has coped fine with its work regarding material objects of art. But the digital artist has (or had?) a problem – how to prove that they are selling the original piece if a copy can be made so easily and indistinguishably from the original? The buyer of digital art has a similar issue – how to prove that this work of art belongs to you, and have solid, unquestionable arguments against those who refute this claim or choose to make unauthorised use of the work and infringe on the copyright. In principle, public agreement on each specific work of art is an adequate solution – everyone knows that the Mona Lisa is kept in the Louvre, and everyone agrees that any others are fakes or copies.
However, there is no worldwide consensus for each picture on the internet. Blockchain technology, created perhaps, in some eyes, by somewhat unpleasant individuals, is a technology that implements the mechanism of public consent in some kind of extremely clever algorithm, which we have no interest in analysing here at all. It is important to understand that blockchain is an artist’s uncopiable signature, as well as a way to sell a work of art. Is it useful for artists? Certainly. Will blockchain businesspeople make money in the new market? Of course. Does it mean this opportunity should be closed? And even if it does, who can do it? The cat is already out of the bag, blockchain has already entered the world of art, and now it is important to wisely take advantage of the new opportunities that have opened up.
Here is a legitimate question: what is the connection between this and watchmaking? The events following the scandalous sale at Christie’s show it has a connection, and a direct one at that. Watchmakers and watch brands live in this world and react to everything going on in it. On 25th March, 2021, just two weeks after the, let’s say, ‘historic’ auction, Jacob & Co. announced the sale of the virtual watch Epic SF24 on the ArtGrails blockchain platform, with cities in the world time indicator replaced by the names of cryptocurrencies, and a virtual tourbillon on the virtual dial. On 30th September, Jean-Claude Biver put a ‘digital twin’ of his own prototype model of the Bigger Bang All Black Tourbillon Chronograph up for sale on wisekey.com/wiseart. Finally, on 1st April, Konstantin Chaykin announced the NFT-Joker project he was producing, where, unlike his colleagues, there is no virtual watch but a unique work of art taking two lunar months to create. Of course, the Joker watch is a feature there, but Konstantin Chaykin’s meaning, idea and message are about the essence of time and its many faces.
Blockchain technologies are just taking their first steps in the world of haute horlogerie, but it would be a mistake to ignore them or consider them insignificant.