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Art Unchained: A Digital Revolution in the Art World


Technological innovations have been shaking up the art world. Thanks to technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, the once opaque and exclusive art market has been opening up in ways it never had before. But what does that mean for the future of the art industry and its processes, from the way we discover art, to how and what kind of art is sold and bought?


“It means greater accessibility to the art world,” says Joanne Ooi, cultural commentator and co-curator of ArtisTree’s upcoming art-meets-tech programme, Art Unchained. “Technology is giving access to the broader general public, with new business models that make it easier for the audience to discover art.” 


In the past, if you wanted to view art, you would go to a gallery. Today, screens are the new walls. With just a few clicks you can effortlessly search for artworks and “visit” virtual museums any time, from anywhere. “In a way, just as technology is widening the scope of art appreciation, it’s also expanding the audience for all kinds of art,” says Ooi. 


Accessibility also means art collecting is no longer reserved for the wealthy; through technology, the general public now has the potential to purchase art at a lower cost and in a secure, transparent manner. “Blockchain technology, in particular, is a decentralised ledger that can facilitate transactions and enhance safety between market participants,” says Jean-Luc Gustave, managing director at Sors Digital Assets and also co-curator of Art Unchained


“The art industry is estimated to be a US$65 billion industry and 90% of this is over-the-counter transactions,” he continues. “If you consider the art market as a value chain, from creation to protection to valuation to trading to asset optimisation, you realise how non-transparent this industry is.” The problem with an opaque market is that it can lead to issues such as price manipulation, secret commissions and art forgery. 


Here is where blockchain as a digital record-keeping technology comes in. Since transaction data stored in a blockchain network cannot be modified and are publicly verifiable, it’s easy to track provenance and confirm an artwork’s authenticity. It also allows vendors and buyers to make instant, direct transactions without involving banks, thus eliminating any associated costs and clearance time. Put simply, selling and buying art are made faster, cheaper and safer. 


Aside from being used to certify physical artworks, blockchains can also do the same for digital art. Artworks that exist only in digital formats, such as videos and images, are easy to steal and replicate. Hence, it used to be hard for digital artists to make sales when they couldn’t control the scarcity and distribution of their works, and when buyers couldn’t verify the files’ originality. But that has since changed.


“Now with blockchain technology, we have the tools to unlock the value of this type of art,” says Ooi. It works by associating a digital work with a token, which the artist can use as an access key to the encrypted artwork. The key can then be passed to the buyer as a certification of authenticity and proof of ownership. For example, digital artists can sell limited-edition works by issuing a set amount of tokens. This way, they are able to guarantee rarity which, according to Ooi, are “crucial to the commercialisation and flowering of this category of art”.


Whether it’s digital or traditional art, advances in technology have created new possibilities in trading and collecting artwork – but with that comes new considerations, too. Art tokenisation, for example, allows you to own just a share of, rather than the entirety of an art piece. While Gustave doubts this would be the ultimate frontier of art investment, it opens up the conversations about the implications technology has on the art market. “Blockchain technology has already been disrupting industries like banking and insurance, and I see the art industry as the latest market to be disrupted and enhanced by it,” he says. “We’re still in an early stage, but it’s unstoppable in changing the way art is perceived as an asset class, and ultimately, the art industry as we know it.” 



Join Jean-Luc Gustave and other industry experts in their panel discussion on technology’s impact on the art industry during Discover Taikoo Place this November. 


Stay tuned to ArtisTree’s Facebook page for the latest news about Art Unchained. 

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