Masha McConaghy of BigchainDB and ascribe.io
For this series Art Insiders interviewed 5 Berlin-based women that work on the intersection of art and digital technology.
Find out what these frontrunners have to say about Berlin's art and tech scenes, the current status of the art world, and in what ways digital technology is affecting it.
Masha McConaghy, PhD is a curator and co-founder of BigchainDB, a blockchain database as well as ascribe.io, a service enabling immutable attribution for artists and clear provenance for digital and physical art.
"Ascribe aims to empower artists and creators by creating a clean, transparent connection between the artist and the artwork. This allows the creation of unique digital editions without any confusion about who the creator is."
Could you tell us a bit about your background?
I am trained as a museum curator. I got my Museology Degree from Louvre School, Paris. At the same time, I also did my PhD in Arts from Pantheon-Sorbonne University, Paris. My thesis explored the relationship between art and commerce, from historical times to present day. Those relationships between the two worlds always fascinated me. Curating exhibitions is a passion of mine. I’ve organized exhibitions throughout the world, worked with curators at the Louvre Museum in Paris, and directed a commercial gallery in Vancouver. Now, my current pursuits are at the intersection of art, intellectual property (IP) and applications of cutting edge technology.
I moved to Berlin temporarily, for a curatorial residency. My husband Trent and I loved the art and tech communities here, so we decided to stay. The city is fairly affordable for artists and entrepreneurs alike, and it has a huge intellectual force. It’s not judgmental but experimental, supportive and open to new ideas.
Where did the idea for ascribe.io come from?
We had idea for ascribe in mid 2013, when seeing that many collectors and galleries found it difficult to collect and sell digitally-based artworks such as video or GIFs. When I asked those collectors why they wouldn’t collect this art, they always responded that they just didn’t know how, as they didn’t know what exactly they were collecting, or how they owned the work. Trent was following bitcoin for a while already, and we asked: what if you could own digitally based art the same way that you own a bitcoin? I loved this idea, given my experience exploring the relationship between art and commerce. This mutual dependence - yet often superficial relationship - fascinated me.
A digital file has its own rules, where once you put something online it’s very difficult to trace back to the original creator. Furthermore, you can easily copy a digital file without loss of quality and spread it across the internet in seconds. By linking a digital currency to a digital file, you can actually capture the value of this file, which I find very interesting.
How does ascribe.io work ?
Ascribe aims to empower artists and creators by creating a clean, transparent connection between the artist and the artwork. This allows the creation of unique digital editions without any confusion about who the creator is. Ascribe also allows the transfer of usage rights, laying the foundation for strong digital provenance of ownership.
Copyright law is very different country to country, but contract law works across borders, so we developed a convenient solution for international use. We embedded four simple contracts, which can be used for things like private viewing, consignment, transfer of ownership or loaning the work for a certain period of time.
Furthermore, in the digital world, there’s this difference between title and copy, so even if there are thousands of copies on the internet, with blockchain technology you can secure the title and always trace it back to the rights owner. As an artist, you want to spread your work to get your name out to improve your visibility without giving owner rights. You can have a copy on your laptop, but it doesn’t mean you own it. This idea of digital ownership changes a lot.
"The internet is making the art world more transparent. Notions around ownership are changing, and changes the behavior of artists and collectors. Blockchain technology supports this new sense of ownership, where a clear and transparent provenance is a priority."
So how did you move from ascribe to creating BigchainDB?
We saw a variety of digital IP types where ascribe could be used. Besides artists, we saw writers and photographers use it, as well as people who made designs for 3D printing, or people who used it for software. We started conversations with marketplaces having high volumes of IP. We found that the bitcoin blockchain was too slow and impractical to support all this traffic. We had to come up with our own solution, which is how we pivoted towards BigchainDB.
BigchainDB is a software that merges the ideas of scalable ‘big data’ databases, with the characteristics of blockchain technology: transparent, immutable, and decentralized.. The goal with BigchainDB was to create the plumbing to support various verticals from intellectual property, to other verticals like supply chain, the internet of things, identity, and more. In the same way ascribe would function on top of this software, other industries can now also build their own ascribe-like systems on top of BigchainDB.
How do you think the art world is dealing with these new notions of transparency and ownership?
Transparency in the art world is tricky. From one side, there must be transparency in the provenance of the artwork, as the proof of its authenticity plays a major role in its valuation. At the same time, the art world is very untransparent world: a lot of deals are done under the table and there are a lot of fakes on the market. Some industry players are not incentivized to improve this situation, as they profit off fakes. The internet started to make the art world more transparent. Notions around ownership and what it means to own something are changing, which in turn will completely change the behavior of artists and collectors. Blockchain technology supports this new sense of ownership, where a clear and transparent provenance is a priority.
Traditionally in the art world, keeping aspects of the art market opaque allows certain people to control the art market. But the new and younger generation of artists and gallerists seem a lot more eager on keeping things transparent. Other technologies like machine learning / artificial intelligence help enhance the transparency of the file’s online presence. Those are exciting times and we are only at the very beginning of development of these new technologies. It will take some time till they get adopted by the mainstream and become “invisible”, simply part of our everyday use.