- A few hours with Judy Mam –
New York, 03/25/2018
It is a rather grey day in New York City, but not for me. I am meeting Judy and it couldn’t get more colorful. The Parisian scented tea she made accompanies my laughter to the funny story she tells about how she got these cups we are drinking from.
E: Judy is co-founder of DADA (www.dada.nyc), director of the art show at Rare AF 2 and a “rare” woman. Before talking about the festival, could you tell us about your journey to and through art on the blockchain? Can you recall a specific moment when something just clicked in your mind and suddenly everything started to make sense or was it a slow process that brought you here today, being the co-founder of such a successful platform that boasts the largest collection of rare digital art on the blockchain?
J: We started DADA about four years ago, as a platform where people can speak to each other through drawings made digitally on our platform, utilizing very simple tools. No one uploads material, everyone draws in the moment and spontaneously collaborates with others.
At a certain point, we were looking into different ways to monetize this content, because – even though it is about a community of people meeting and communicating visually – we believe that there is great value in the beautiful art they make and that they should capture this value. Therefore, we tried different monetization models that are completely unrelated to the blockchain, since at the time we hadn’t even heard about this technology. We tried to merchandise it with a store where we sold t-shirts, posters and other products. However, the problem with that were low profit margins and our products would get pirated all the time. We would find websites in China and all sorts of places that were selling these designs without our consent or our artists’ permission. We decided to take it down. We started thinking about adopting other e-commerce solutions, crowd-sourcing talent, licensing, etc..
Until when, I believe in the Spring of 2017, Beatriz, our founder somehow got herself invited to the first Ethereal summit. I don’t know how she heard about it. At that time, we had been accepted at Matter, a media accelerator based on design thinking – basically prototyping very fast, in order to learn what works and what doesn’t.
And it was just before then that Bea went to the summit and learned about the blockchain. she felt that this was something we should try. The possibilities blew her mind.. She came to – our CTO Abraham Milano, our two developers and me - talking about blockchain, and none of us had ever heard about it before. But the moment we started to learn about it, we really thought that it made sense for digital art and for many other things. It ascribes intellectual property, it guarantees ownership, it can be tokenized, it can become a digital asset that you can actually sell, and once something is registered on the blockchain it is immutable, its peer-to-peer. However, when we spoke to our mentors at the accelerator manifesting our interest in pursuing this during the six months that we would spend there, they completely freaked out. In fact, all you would hear about blockchain at the time was about people doing ICOs and stealing money. To their credit, though, they said they were not there to tell us what to do and if we wished to test it, then we should go ahead. And that’s exactly what we did, starting with finding out “how” to do it, since frankly, none of us knew where to begin. And Abraham – who now is an expert on smart contracts – has done all of them for us and he now basically handles blockchain for DADA. At the time, he just started – like anyone else – from scratch. We had friends reaching out to us saying they know someone who knows how to do it. We started researching and we found the CryptoPunks. What they were doing was very similar to what we wanted to do. How do we create these digital assets? Matt and John, the creators of Cryptopunks were super generous, and they helped us figure out resources and shared their knowledge. So, we started talking to people, and that is how we ended up here.
Well, this story is so cool, because the blockchain came to you as the solution. You didn’t start from it. You first start your journey, it is digital art and it comes with problems. Here comes the blockchain to solve them, and here you are.
Yeah, at least it feels like the most organic way to integrate it into our community, since it’s not only about the possibility of tokenization and monetization, but – in the broader scheme of things – it is the idea of the decentralization and governance of a community, the fact that a smart contract can be coded in a way that plays fair to the creators: that’s what excites us. As everybody knows, the problem with digital art is: “well if I can take a screenshot, why should I buy it”? All of us – the community creating rare digital art at the moment – are basically inventing this market from scratch. But again, beyond the market, the possibility of issuing a token that can be used as the currency in which a whole community trades, and the creation of an economy for artists, are also exciting. In this way, we move from the very particular situation where each artwork is a token - an NFT - to the fact that we can envision a collaborative community where art is a currency and everyone is remunerated. That’s how arrived at the the wonderful world of blockchain.
E: As we enjoyed in the last collection you launched - “Descontrol” – dialogue and conversation seem to be the fil rouge accompanying DADA’s mission and vision: in the specific case of DADA, an art dialogue, a conversation through drawings. That same conversation creates a new art market that differs completely from the traditional art market we all know, where individualism and secrecy are the main ingredients for a successful financial aim.
Could you explain to us how DADA and other platforms presenting art on the blockchain have been dealing with this matter, what you discovered following this path and how sharing and transparency create a system that is able to defeat the one we have been dealing with until today?
J: I think this is a very interesting moment, because this technology is creating a whole new market for digital art and there are several platforms approaching this matter in different ways.
So far, the most common use is to have artists tokenize their art to be submitted to a platform or a gallery – just to name a few: SuperRare, R.A.R.E. Art Labs, Makers Place... It works, in a way, like a regular gallery, where artists are selling their individual pieces and they need to be “accepted” or curated into the system. Their work also needs to have ‘verified provenance’, facing the challenge of proving that artists are uploading art that belongs to them – although I think this is the case in the vast majority of times. But I believe that we are the only ones doing something beyond the individual artists’ monetization. It’s really about creating collaborative art and providing a system where a single work of art can be comprised of different drawings made by different artists. For instance, it is possible to purchase one of the individual drawings or to get the whole conversation. So how are we different from other platforms? Number one, everything is made on DADA. I often stress this because it makes a huge difference in the art-making itself. Artists or whoever wishes to, come onto the platform not presenting something that they have already created, that looks perfect, for which they have used all the tools at their disposal, with the only remaining step of basically just putting it out there, or with the intent to sell – which, is perfectly fine. Instead, they access DADA and they are asked to express themselves, using very basic tools, not many features. People with different levels of skill utilize the exact same tool. You can draw your own piece but then someone will reply to you and someone else will reply to that person, and you may reply to that. You are creating a conversation. Therefore, we really believe that DADA is a new form of digital art, although it is not the first time in history that people speak visually (e.g.the Exquisite Corpse invented by the Surrealists) – or do collaborative art or create platforms where they can draw together. But this is a very specific mode of artistic expression in which people are actually in a dialogue. It is almost like a musical improvisation, a jam, where someone starts with some colors, certain styles, a theme, and others respond in harmony to that.
And you also solve the proof of provenance, since artists create directly on your platform.
Exactly, for every one of them we have an email address, a time stamp, and we can see that they are using the tools. We know that these drawings were made by the people who claim to have made them.
During the Radical-xChange conference in Detroit, someone asked me if we mean to supplant the art market as it already exists, if we plan to take over. My answer is: no. First, it is impossible. And secondly, that is not the idea. The idea is to create a whole new market, for this new genre. Digital art has existed for a long time but not as rare digital art. It did exist in the form of people creating digital works – every video that is digitally uploaded, or a song, creative content that lives in a computer is, in a way, digital art. The difference now is that we can actually make it into digital assets that we can transact. This market is still extremely early, also due to the many hurdles that prevent people from adopting it –one of the main ones being the fact that they are not familiar with crypto currencies.
We live in our bubble of the art on the blockchain space, we all know each other, we all attend the same conferences and panels, we all love each other. But we are a niche and even when we speak to those who are deeply into crypto currencies or super blockchain enthusiasts, still, many haven’t even heard of Crypto Kitties.
So, the first hurdle is just for people to realize that exists; the second is for artists to realize that this is an amazing tool for them. Some of them have already embraced it and every time I see the art it makes me happy. I am not only speaking about artists onDADA, but also of many others using different platforms. It feels good to witness the validation, the excitement for the results of getting collectors and having their art being collected – even though the vast majority of collectors are not aware of this option yet.
Also, the blockchain is hard to explain. It is not a simple technology, it has many moving parts, it has different layers of use and it also comes with some bad perceptions. For instance, Bitcoin: people hear of crypto currencies and all they can think about is that they collapsed. There is a lot of misinformation, but in the end the real hurdle is that it is such an early technology, and still very clunky and complex for some people to use. I like to compare it to the very first mobile phones that were the size of a fridge.
Eventually it will happen, as it happened with cell phones, but at this point it requires that people make a bigger effort than what they are used to, in terms of purchasing or collecting. And here is another hurdle: the fact that, somehow, people really feel that they have to own or collect something physical. They need to touch it, put it on a wall, or they need to be able to manipulate it with their hands. I completely understand it, but here cognitive dissonance comes in. I may be naïve, but I don’t really see the difference between owning a work of art like the one hanging on the wall in front of me right now and owning a DADA drawing in my computer or a rare art piece, or Crypto Kitties. I have a CryptoPunk, and I also have a Crypto Kitty that owns a work of DADA art : I have a number of DADA drawings, I have an Eve Sussman atom and one piece by one of our artists on Superrare. I have a small but growing collection, and the only difference is that these pieces are in my computer. I wish there would be better ways for them to be displayed into or that we would be able to see all of them in one place. But other than that: it’s mine! I bought it! Or, it was a gift and I own it.
We hope to educate people about the fact that once you pay for it, you have it, and you can sell it or give it to someone. Eventually, we hope to give people the possibility of having a beautiful display. However, as I said, this is a completely new market and we need to create it, since it really is still in its infancy.
E: So, it is happening! I am here interviewing you for a new magazine – Bitcoin Weird – concerning the crypto world with special attention on the creative size side; for the first time ever, in May, we will have an art fair for digital and crypto art – CADAF – organized by New Art Academy; panels about art on the blockchain found their way directly into Art Basel and other fairs; and you will be the director of the art show in the second edition of the RARE AF that will occur on the 18thof May.
We all know that at the first edition of RARE AF, which took place last year in January, the Homer Pepe card – from the Rare Pepe art on the blockchain project – was auctioned for the equivalent of around $40,000. But although this event at Rise New York - made history, the audience and participants could still be referred to as a niche. This year, RARE AF 2 will be hosted on two floors at the Bushwick Generator, presenting workshops, talks, education, panels, a call for papers and an art show.
How excited are you to be a part – as the art director - of this event and how can you explain – from the creative side – the growth of this niche and the interest?
J: I am not only excited, I am moved! The first RARE AF – and I will never forget –took place on January 17th, 2018, following a tweet by Joe Looney – whom I affectionately call “the grandfather of rare art”. That was the tweet that launched a thousand ships, where Looney mentioned some of the projects working with blockchain in art that he was aware of. Amongst the names were CryptoPunks, as well as us (DADA), R.A.R.E.Art Labs and a couple of others, like Age of Chains. He then suggested that we should have a festival Or a conference. And to be honest, we didn’t know exactly who he was – although I had heard about Rare Pepes at the time. But when we saw our names in there, we were like, wow, happy he found us! In the tweet, he also mentioned Fred Wilson, an important investor and a partner in Union Square Ventures, collector of Rare Pepes and one of the few people who were bullish about the blockchain from the very beginning. Fred answered that we should do it and the good people from R.A.R.E. Art Labs entered the scene, basically organizing it in one month. And this is the story of how that festival was created, he kind of just put it right there. We helped find some speakers, and we organized a cocktail at our place the night before, because literally no one knew each other. We thought it would be nice to kind of break the ice before the event
The festival hosted talks by DADA, CryptoPunks, R.A.R.E. Art Labs and, as you mentioned, there was an auction. It was really an interesting moment, there were people from the media and from the art world – Sotheby’s and Christie's – it was a cool mix for an amazing and special day. You could feel that something was being born.
Now, a year and a half later, the R.A.R.E. Art Labs guys have passed the mantle of the festival and the community, in a way, has taken it upon itself to organize it. Therefore, it’s more of a communal effort, but to see the number of new projects, new artists, new platforms since last year, is just unbelievable.
E: And now, the director’s words.
How is the art show at RARE AF2 structured? We see there is an open call for artists and platforms to apply, be selected and participate: could you talk a bit about the process and the curators?
Additionally, a part of the art show will be guiding visitors through a more historical journey, witnessing the origins of rare digital art and its development, including a Rare Pepe art gallery and others. Could you talk about how important these projects are in the crypto art community and how important it is to show them to the world?
J: We have a mix of fantastic curators: we have five experts in this field Jason Bailey, also known as Artnome, who really is one of the first ones who started to look into this space from the perspective of an art critic and art expert.
Joe Looney, who is a seminal figure in this space.
Anne Bracegirdle from Christie’s, who has been a bridge between the fine art world and the blockchain world and who helped organize the Christie’s “Art + Tech Summit” last July in London.
Elena Zavelev from New Art Academy, director of CADAF.
Georg Bak, a, very well-known and respected curator of digital art and digital rare art.
So far, we have 40 application entries to the festival*, between platforms and mostly individual artists. We have also invited all the platforms that were part of the first art festival, since I think it should be a legacy event, plus new players in the field. It’s a very welcoming space..
A funny anecdote: at some point Jason Bailey divided this art space into blockchain art 1.0 – 2.0 – 3.0. DADA is in the 1.0… wow! It was only a year and a half ago and this is what I call “blockchain time”: everything happens super-fast!
Regarding the art show, I want the festival to be a representative survey of where we are at,–what are the most interesting projects, what the artists have been doing, what are the new projects ,–and to also include the people who pioneered the space, who were instrumental in making it happen.
I really would like for it to be a survey and I thought it would be good to have a group of experts - discerning eyes – to ensure quality: we want it to be “blockchain art” and not “art about the blockchain”. So, no BITCOIN paintings!! Well, maybe if there are good ones! Haha! But the art needs to be tokenized. Whether it is physical, digital or conceptual, it needs to be rare. And I am so excited about it!
I am really looking forward to seeing all the art gathered in one place, since it tends to feel a little scattered. The really interesting part will be to see it all together and to see people making the connections, as well as analyzing how artists are using it, what they are communicating, what platforms they are exploring, and how they are using smart contracts, tokenization or governance in different ways. And I think this is how we continue to push the space forward.
E: What does Judy expect from this art show and what should we expect from it? Will this exhibition be able to captivate any kind of audience – as long as it is interested and engaged – and create communication and bridges – still very much needed – between what we call the art world and what art is in the blockchain world?
After all, does art exist in different worlds? Isn’t that a continuum?
J: It certainly is. I don’t think there should be much of a difference between one kind of art and the other. Frankly, people are really too used to categorizing things, even though I can understand their reasons.
But what I expect for the visitors is to see the value. And when I say value, I mean it in all its aspects: the creative value, the emotional value, the cultural value, as well as the value that they may ascribe to it, in case they feel the art speaks to them and they wish to own it. I want people to not only see the value of art that is shown when covered by the media, meaning like when a Crypto Kitty goes for $139,000 at an auction.
Although it is kind of sexy to know – people think the price is ridiculous or exaggerated and it makes a good story – I want them to understand that THIS is not its only or most important value., that the actual value of rare art is in all the amazing creative brilliant minds who are trying to figure ways to make this space thrive, to support the creation of art, and to invent new economic models for artists. There, this is what I hope to achieve. And finally, to have people in the room look at those pieces and experience a great art show.
*the deadline of the open call was met with 90 submissions, 11 of which are platforms