Max Osiris and the Crypto Art Rabbit Hole

Arts & Culture

BY ANDREW FABIAN SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY FEB 26, 2021

When Max Osiris answers the phone this past Tuesday, he is just stepping away from the bar with a freshly poured Guinness in hand. For him, no time is a bad time to talk about crypto art, the confounding and decentralized world of digital fine art that just might disrupt the entire infrastructure of fine art as we’ve known it for the last 500 years.

He directs me to the landing page of SuperRare, one of the internet’s largest crypto art galleries, which reveals a somewhat familiar interface. Like Etsy or Saatchi, the site loads into a grid of squares with trending items and works for sale. SuperRare’s product listing page features thumbnails of digital art, some animated and some not. The aesthetic looks a lot like what one would expect of a purely digital artform in a cutting-edge space—glitched out abstractions, futuristic robots and childlike scrawls that evoke meme culture. But what lies behind the artwork, inside the 1s and 0s, is what makes them a wholly different entity than traditional fine art or even traditional digital art.

“Crypto art is an artist’s expression tokenized on the blockchain that attains automatic provenance and is able to be exchanged, sold or owned,” he says, as though those words compute in the average brain. Follow-up questions arise in a flurry. What is the blockchain? How is artistic expression tokenized? How is provenance obtained automatically? From here, the conversation meanders into philosophy, dips a toe in economics, makes use of words like “mimetic” and, occasionally, explores what can safely be described as art.

Blockchain is the same technology behind bitcoin. It authenticates a digital entity and disperses that authentication across thousands of computers. In cryptocurrency, that means the security and financial stability that comes from traditional financial institutions like banks and/or governments can be provided by the end users themselves by virtue of the fact that the currency itself has its own security programmed into it. In crypto art, the digital file of the artwork is all but impossible to copy by virtue of its tokenization, which is an encryption of sorts. So, similar to bitcoin, the validity and value of crypto art is not determined by a centralized body comprised of art experts, art dealers and art collectors—historically the white and wealthy elite—but is instead mediated directly between the artist and an audience of users who all help authenticate the artwork by hosting a small piece of the blockchain. “One bitcoin equals one bitcoin,” says Osiris, “whereas each piece of crypto art has its own valuation.”

When Osiris completes a work of digital art, he sets the price like any aspiring artist might. In his early days in the space, $100 was the going rate for his work. “But the early adopters all got together early on and decided that each subsequent time the piece is sold, the artist gets 10% of the sale,” says Osiris. That means that each time it trades hands, Osiris gets a cut. And in a rapidly ballooning field, the possibilities for profit are immense. “The people who are collecting crypto art now are probably gonna make bitcoin collectors seem obsolete,” he says. But for Osiris, it’s about a whole lot more than just money.

One collector recently shared with Osiris how he purchased a collection of Banksy pieces and stored them in a warehouse. That warehouse then burned down, destroying all of the priceless work. “But crypto art will never burn down. These images exist in distributed server farms,” says Osiris, “so in a strange way, it’s a much more redundant but much more intangible thing. It’s all about decentralization and a new era where we’re challenging long-held notions about art.”

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