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Plantoid: the blockchain-based art that makes itself

Plantoid (2015) by Okhaos is a self-creating, self-propagating artwork system that uses blockchain technology to gather and manage the resources it needs to become real and to participate in the artworld. Structured as a Decentralised Autonomous Organization (DAO), once it is set in motion the code of the Plantoid system combines the functions of artwork, artist and art dealer in a single piece of software.

As its name implies, the physical Plantoid artworks are cyborg-looking welded sculptures of flowering plants. Flowers are a popular icon of naturalised aesthetics in art and culture. Their aesthetic and art historical appeal makes them an effective subject for subversion. Radicalized flowers wander through recent art like triffids through the English countryside. Helen Chadwick’s “Piss Flowers” (1991-2) are a proto-xenofeminist riposte to idealisation of nature and the body. Mary Anne Francis’s “The Blooming Commons” (2005) combines the ideas of organic and creative fecundity to help artist and audience consider how making art open source affects its aura. Plantoid can easily be cast in this tradition.

The physical form of Plantoid is determined by its blockchain presence, which represents an advance on the state of the art. The Bitcoin blockchain is a database that represents control of resources. Most simply these resources are amounts of Bitcoin but we can encode information representing other resources – and the right to control them – into the blockchain as well. Current general purpose Bitcoin blockchain-based systems such as Counterparty can easily represent tokens for games, for reward and voucher schemes, or for stocks and shares. Placing these on the blockchain does not magically improve them over existing means of issuing them but it does reduce their barrier to entry and make securing and maintaining them easier. It also defamiliarises them by placing them in a new context and makes them accessible and thereby inspirational to new audiences. Melanie Swan turns this idea up to 11 in her excellent survey of the state of the art and its future potential “Blockchain“, describing the application of the idea of blockchains ultimately to the global economy and even the human mind.

Plantoid sculpture

Beyond tokens, the blockchain can be a cheap and effective database of existing property and rights, including recording Free Culture licensing. It is simple to create such a system, I made the first one for artworks based on Ethereum myself. It cannot be an effective means of policing DRM (as DRM is inherently broken) and must not be treated as a means of rolling back the limits of and exceptions to the existing property and copyright regimes or of creating new entitlements ex nihilo. This would turn a technology with great (if contentious) potential for liberation into a tool of exploitation. Making a GIF of Apple’s new emoticons and selling the blockchain title to it for $250 reflects existing social pathologies rather than new technological or artistic affordances.

The technobiophilic machine-nature-form hybrid nature of Plantoid is described by Okhaos in terms that cast cryptocurrency as metabolic and reproductive resources. To quote the project page:

Perhaps the initial Plantoid will need $1000 to fully turn into a blossom. Whenever that particular threshold for the Plantoid is reached, the reproduction process starts: the Plantoid only needs to identify a new person or group of persons (ideally, a group of artists) to create a new version of itself. Given the right conditions, the Plantoid is able to manufacture herself, by executing a smart contract that lives on the blockchain, and has the ability to commission welders, companies, and other beings to build and assemble a similar being.

It’s here that we see how Plantoid represents an advance on existing systems. The parameters of each physical Plantoid are encoded on the Ethereum (rather than the Bitcoin) blockchain as smart contracts, representing the economic and manufacturing logic and the aesthetics of its production as a kind of genome. Plantoid is an active artistic production agent rather than a passive registry of existing art.

The defamiliarising effect of the blockchain allows us to unbundle the collections of rights and responsibilities that make up roles within the mainstream artworld. Paying for the creation of art, its storage and restoration, transport and exhibition. Inspiring, designing, manufacturing, promoting, experiencing, critiquing and art. The artist, the gallerist, the critic, the installer, the attendant. A new territory like the blockchain allows us to shake things up rather than to try to double down on existing relations and distribution of wealth in order to extract new rents.

Plantoid opens up the roles of artistic production in precisely this way. It uses the structure of a DAO to incentivise the funding, governance, production, exhibition and reception of Plantoids in a virtuous circle (a positive feedback loop of production). None of this confers ownership or property rights over the physical Plantoid artworks on individual human beings. Their relationships are closer to those of patronage, crowdfunding, or tipping but unbundled further. There are technological precedents for this such as the way Aaron Koblin’s “The Sheep Market” (2008) commissions drawings from clickworkers, Caleb Larsen’s “A Tool To Deceive And Slaughter” (2009) manages its own sale, the way Bitnik’s “Random Darknet Shopper” (2014) orders goods for delivery to the gallery, or Imogen Heap’s release of the single “Tiny Human” (2015) using Ethereum smart contracts

From the project page again:

Plantoids are part of an ecosystem of relationships that is powered by two driving forces: aesthetic beauty and automated governance. Plantoids subtly motivate these interactions, partly through their form and physical beauty, but also by empowering people to participate in their governance. Participants (that is, active members of the DAO) are able to decide on such things as where the Plantoids may be exhibited, whom they might visit, and exactly how they are to be reproduced.

When it receives funds by the audience, the Plantoid evolves and turns into a more beautiful flower, by e.g. moving around a means to gratify the donor and progressively opening up its petals as more and more funds are stored into its wallet. Once enough funds are secured, the Plantoid can use this money to reproduce itself, by commissioning a third party to produce a new Plantoid.

The smart contracts that instantiate these relationships contractually direct human actors to govern the DAO, to manufacture new Plantoids, and to exhibit (and return) the work. The danger of such DAOs is that of any embedded socioeconomic intent – whether corporations, charitable trusts or high frequency trading bots. We may end up with an economic Skynet that reduces us to peons in an algorithmic gig economy, any reflection of our actual needs or desires (such as to make art) perverted by the incentives encoded into an inhuman system. Plantoid exists to ensure the production of art, and its realisation by human artisans. Given the rockstar economics of the artworld and the continued collapse of socioeconomic support for artists outside it that production is badly in need of new means of continuance. The art-economic equivalent of “grey goo” – polychrome goo? – or Terminators armed with spraycans rather than phased plasma rifles seem much less likely scenarios than art DAOs becoming lifeboats or TAZes for the funding of art that is not simply decoration for the 1%. Plantoid’s explicit involvement of human producers in a comradely relationship makes it more a node in the network of collaborative and mutually supportive relationships in the peer economy than an Uberization of artistic production.

Any gap between the ambition and the technology of Plantoid can be crossed by its autopoeitic nature. Ethereum contracts cannot yet manage Bitcoin balances, for example, but using Ethereum’s existing native cryptocurrency “Ether” or one of the proposed systems for managing Bitcoin accounts from Ethereum would address this. Art’s function here, as in its development of religion at the dawn of history, is to create demand for the development of new means of production and relation that a dryly complete rational plan could not reach. Appropriately enough for such a hyperstitional work I discovered it via the blog of renegade philosopher Nick Land.

Without wishing to ventriloquise or reframe its achievements, Plantoid is an exemplary realisation of the potential of mutual interrogation and support of art and cryptocurrency. It’s an art project that uses cryptocurrency and smart contract systems to materially support itself. And that project makes the still abstract potential and operation of cryptocurrency and smart contract tractable to consideration through art. I for one welcome our new hyperstitional DAO artwork overlords.

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Rob Myers is an artist, writer and hacker based in Vancouver, Canada. his art comes from remix, hacking, and mass culture traditions, and has involved increasing amounts of computer code over time.

During the 1990s he was an art student, then an art & technology student, then an art & technology lecturer, then a serial art and technology startup worker. In the 2000s he programmed games, prepress software and more and became involved in Free Software and Free Culture.

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