Art, Blockchain, and Basketball: Jason Bailey’s Vision for a Decentralized Art Industry [Part 1]

Art is All About Data

Jason Bailey hardly needs much of an introduction to the crypto-curious art crowd. Founder of the hit blog Artnome, which explores the intersection of emerging technologies and the contemporary art world, Bailey has established himself as an intellectual juggernaut when it comes to thinking critically on blockchain’s utility in creative practice. From market analysis to understanding new forms of artistic work, nothing has escaped his inquisitive thinking when it comes to AI, generative art, decentralized technologies, and much more.

Today, we had a chance to speak to Jason about his entry into the space and what he’s excited to see in a decentralized future.

Photograph by Nastya Sergienya. Source

The Creative Crypto (CC): Welcome Jason! Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

To start, I was always the world’s worst math student and a total black sheep, horrible at anything that had to do with following a set of rules to get to a very specific outcome. And then I found my niche in art, which I loved in part because it felt like the opposite of math and engineering. With art, I found that my own creative approach to problem-solving was actually rewarded.

I self-identified as an artist from a really young age. In college, I studied painting, sculpture and printmaking. Unfortunately, like most artists, there wasn’t much opportunity post-graduation. Through a sort of classic nepotistic story, my dad’s colleague hired me to be a technical reporter, which was funny because I’m neither technical nor a reporter. I’ve been in product development for the last 20 years and have now worked at six or seven different companies, as big as HP and Autodesk. I prefer the small startup environment and I’m currently at a machine learning startup in Cambridge.

CC: How did you begin reporting on emerging technologies?

I crossed over to marketing somewhere in that process about 10 years ago. I went back to school at night to get my MFA at a really cool program at Mass Art called DMI (Dynamic Media Institute). There was a lot of data visualization, UX design, and overall exploratory digital work. We were using Processing pretty early on and things like that. There was a component around writing and understanding the history of digital art, which is pretty unique and rare.

When I graduated from that program, I started this basketball data visualization website with my brother that briefly took off. We got to a half million visitors within a couple of months and Nike was reaching out. We were in Sports Illustrated and ESPN. I like basketball a lot, so it was a way to marry art, data visualization, and basketball together. That helped me realize and gave me the confidence that if I made good content even about niche topics, there’s an audience out there.

CC: How did you start Artnome?

After that short project, a couple of years ago I read this book concerning provenance about art forgery, and the history of art is the closest thing that I have to a religion. It’s pretty hardcore for me and is actually a funny story that I don’t think I’ve told a lot of people. My parents actually found cutouts of pictures by Salvador Dali and Escher under my mattress when I was 13 or 14. Since there wasn’t any internet back then, it was the only way to save my favorite works. I was a super art nerd, which got me thinking – really big companies like GE and Toyota have incredible data and databases concerning their industries. So there has got to be a database for everything, even art right?

The provenance book spoke to not only about the forgery of artworks, but also the forgery of actual provenance documents and the records that we would use to try to figure out the history of art. To me, works of art are literally the most important objects that we have. As humans, we’ve decided these are the things that we care most about. We’ve collectively invested in these temperature controlled buildings and every university is going to have programs centered around them.

So you would think that we should have at least a basic count or database of what exists and where it is. I mailed Harvard University and Princeton and the Getty Institute and the Smithsonian, asking where the database that has all the most important works of art by all the most important artists is. One after the other, they emailed me back and said sadly, no such thing exists.

What we do have is extremely inaccessible. For example with Picasso, the full catalog raisonné is around $20,000. It’s not like something that people could easily access. There should obviously be a database around with all of this stuff and I was bummed about it for a few weeks. And then my wife was like, “hey, why don’t you build it?” So my brother and I basically invented a crazy machine using two DSLR cameras that made it so I could very quickly scan books. I did a bunch of research to find the most liberal libraries to borrow and scan whatever I could. I did this for about three years, becoming sort of a hermit… more of a hermit than I already am.

I soon had sort of a moment of clarity, thinking this isn’t going anywhere. I’m just going to run out of money and no one’s going to be able to benefit from the data. So I came up with Artnome to share insights from this one-of-a-kind database around art history and to see if there is an audience and if there would be people that would help invest in it. I was reminded of just how much I love writing about the intersection of art and tech in general.

CC: And things blew up from there?

The site got a lot of attention, just last year around December of 2017. I had a couple of days off from work for the holidays and I was writing my 2018 market predictions and one of them was going to be about blockchain. My wife, who’s my editor, suggested that it should be its own post.

And in one Saturday morning, I did all the research and wrote the first article, that the blockchain art market is here. I bought some CryptoKitties and some data artwork. Two days later, I started getting dozens of emails and invitations to speak in Europe. I kind of just stumbled in at the right time into the right topic. The article went to the top of search results for Google for blockchain and art.

So I started interviewing industry people and talking to folks and going to conferences. And as I did that, I realized that I had sort of found my tribe in a way. I started meeting people like the Dada team and the CryptoPunks duo, and the conversations just kept on going.

CC: What does ‘Artnome’ stand for? Where did you come up with that name?

Originally, when I was trying to gather the database like Zillow data or whatever, I went with the name based on the idea of a genome. The idea was to look at something that people haven’t historically looked at from sort of an analytical point of view.

CC: This past summer you were part of the Christie’s panel and they’ve been in the news again recently because they’re registering their collection onchain with Artory. What are your impressions of this major institution entering the space?

I didn’t anticipate that they would do anything blockchain-wise for a few reasons. Big companies are kind of slow, hard to innovate. They just finished the GDPR project and GDPR and blockchain are sort of like oil and water. I think it’s a smart move. I believe deeply that there are opportunities for blockchain to improve provenance. They’re approaching this is as a test, trying it out. I think it’s pretty cool when a big company takes a risk and does something.

Bailey at the Christie’s Art + Tech Summit

I would like to see all of the art logged, not just the stuff that gets sold. I’d like to see a day where all of that info is on a decentralized database. I think it would help a lot with forgery. I think just the idea of an analytics revolution around art is a new lens and a new way that we can talk about and evaluate what makes something unique.

CC: What are the key potentials in having a decentralized database?

Some of the work that I’ve been interested in doing is with visual search, using machine learning so that you can actually search paintings for what’s in them. Without a database, we could never pursue that effectively before. Like how many paintings by Monet have dogs or which artists painted this year with certain new materials. The conversation just gets really rich quickly. A little bit of a departure from your initial question, but I think without Christie’s and Sotheby’s and these heavyweights adopting new technologies and things like blockchain, I don’t think we’ll ever get to sort of my vision of all of this data being available.

When I had my sports analytics blog, the NBA had lots of data that they weren’t sharing. They were using missile tracking technology to figure out the exact coordinates of the ball, for example. So if you’re a basketball nerd, you’re drooling over data like that. But teams in the beginning, because they didn’t want to give away their edge, weren’t sharing it. It was groundbreaking when fans could access a whole bunch of data that they didn’t have before.

I’m doing something similar, hopefully in the next year or two, with the hope of building an entire new culture of people that appreciate and discovering new things in art based on the data that blockchain makes available.

CC: You’ve spoken on provenance a few times by this point. Do you think that’s one of the most important aspect of blockchain that’s impacting art right now? People have discussed a number of aspects of blockchain  in terms of governance protocols, monetization, and tokenization.

I’ve worked as a digital designer and with artists for a long time. I have a passion for seeing other artists being able to find better ways for them to sell their work and do their work. So I think blockchain, on the second front that interests me beyond provenance and documentation, is the digital side. The ability for digital artists to be able to create digital scarcity and buy, sell, and trade digital goods is quite exciting. And that has actually taken off a bit faster even than the provenance side in my opinion. I mean, they’re both moving quickly and the Christie’s news with Artory is great, but there’s a dozen or so online digital marketplaces that are starting to develop their own personalities.

If current artists leverage blockchain technology to authenticate and track their works, we will have a clean, unalterable record of their artworks and can avoid posthumously piecing together a record of their work in a catalogue raisonné. For this reason alone, blockchain may be the most important technology to ever hit the art market.

Source – The Blockchain Art Market is Here

CC: Just this past summer you talked about how the culture of newer generations are going to be more likely to purchase and sell art. How do you think blockchain is going to affect that? Is it going to be so democratized that it dissolves the legacy market or will people migrate to more digital forms of buying and selling?

I think the biggest mistake people make is thinking that it’s a zero-sum game, that Christie’s or Sotheby’s are the enemy and must be disrupted in order for the democratization of art to happen. To me, they’re very clearly different markets. There’s this group of a few thousand people on the planet who have lots of homes and boats and tons and tons of money and they’re going to continue to go to Christie’s and Sotheby’s for the very high end of the art market.

Christie’s is the number one online art seller and it’s some tiny tiny fraction of their total business. It’s not what they’re focused on. They see the digital opportunities as being more around education.

If you’re going to drop $10,000,000 on a painting, you’re probably going to want to go to the auction physically for a lot of reasons, right? You’re going to want to see the work in person, to be there with the experts. If you’re doing it for prestige, you’re going to want other people to see you there. I don’t see the digital online stuff like blockchain-based digital artwork cutting into that.

One of the more interesting areas where I think there’s an emerging market is within a large segment of tech sector folks that make 200 to $300,000 a year, sort of an upper middle class who weren’t raised necessarily in the arts. This is a growing demographic that can buy things because they enjoy them. Art for a lot of people falls into that category of enjoyment without any history of collecting.

I think when you start selling digital art and things like AI art, and you’re doing it on the blockchain, it plays right into the interest of those young wealthy people.

So it seems logical to me that there would be a market that would emerge on that front. I just hope that by cutting out the middlemen, blockchain offers a way to have markets across the board. Folks that maybe don’t have a whole lot of money can consider collecting art because the costs go down when it’s digital because there’s no shipping, scoring, and whatnot.

Big thanks to Jason for joining us on this conversation! Keep an eye out for the 2nd half of the discussion next week and explore his work with the links below. 

Artnome Website:

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