Primavera De Filippi: "As an academic, I try to understand the current state of the world and I struggle to develop a theoretical framework that can explain the way things work. As an artist, I try to challenge the current state of the world, in a continuous attempt to expand the boundaries of is deemed possible today."
Etienne Verbist: Who are you and what do you do?
Primavera De Filippi: Permanent researcher at the CNRS in Paris, working on the legal aspects of blockchain technology. Faculty associate at Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Co-founder and Director of COALA, an international non-profit organization aimed at understanding the interplay between blockchain and the law. Legal expert for Creative Commons France. Part-time artist, using the artistic medium to illustrate and challenge my research.
EVB: What’s your goal? WHY do you do what you do ?
PDF: As an academic, I try to understand the current state of the world and I struggle to develop a theoretical framework that can explain the way things work. As an artist, I try to challenge the current state of the world, in a continuous attempt to expand the boundaries of is deemed possible today.
All of my artistic production is informed by my academic research. I use art as a tool to illustrate the findings of my research, but also —and most importantly— as a means to challenge the law and underline the drawbacks and/or limitations of the current regulatory framework. In the past, given my academic research on the legal issues of copyright law in the digital world, most of my artistic production was intended as a means to transpose in the physical world the challenges faced by copyright law in the digital world. Today, as the focus of my research has shifted towards investigating the legal challenges raised (and faced) by blockchain technologies, the Plantoid represents an exemplification of the new opportunities provided by these new technologies, as well as the legal concerns that might arise from their widespread deployment.
EVB: What is your dream project?
PDF: My dream project is an art piece that is able to reproduce itself on its own, untethered from me or any other artist. This is what motivated the creation of the Plantoid, as “blockchain-based lifeforms” that is (1) autonomous, (2) self-sustainable, and (3) capable of reproducing itself.
My dream is to show that it is nowadays possible to shift away from traditional conception of copyright law, which is based on the notion of scarcity and exclusivity. With blockchain technology, the model of copyright can be shifted around. Instead of funding an artist, with the expectation that this artist will continue to produce new works that we enjoy, it now becomes possible to fund directly the art piece itself, which will be in charge of selecting and hiring the artists that will be responsible for its reproduction. This model goes, therefore, one step beyond the traditional logic of Open Source, in that the art piece actually acquires a life on its own, and is able to evolve independently of the will of the original author.
EVB: What role does the artist have in society?
PDF: I see artists as explorers constantly trying to push the boundaries of reality. As a new technology has come up, it is natural for artists to be the first one to experiment with these new technologies, to try and integrate them into their art and discover new applications of the technology that had not been thought of before. Artists have the ability to innovate in ways that are not commercially viable and are therefore often ignored by most commercial ventures. For my part, I believe that the blockchain provides a whole new set of opportunities for artists to experiment with new business models, and the Plantoid is just an example of what I consider to be a new model of funding the production of art —a model that could potentially be applied by analogy to many other sectors of activity that require the creation of resources of public or collective utility.
EVB: What themes do you pursue?
PDF: I have been researching the legal implications of blockchain technologies, with a focus on Ethereum and smart contracts for over 2 years now, and I was always fascinated by the ability to deploy software on the blockchain that runs autonomously and can no longer be shut down, or controlled by anyone.
Given my research on the legal challenges of blockchain technologies, I wanted to illustrate one of the most revolutionary—and yet still unexplored—aspects of blockchain technology: the ability to create “blockchain-based lifeforms”, i.e. algorithmic entities that are (1) autonomous, (2) self-sustainable, and (3) capable of reproducing themselves. These new types of entities are difficult to apprehend for most people. The Plantoid is an attempt at using the artistic medium to illustrate the inner workings of a blockchain, helping people better understand the potential benefits and challenges of this emergent technology.
EVB: What’s your favorite art work?
Jean Tinguely with Méta-Matic No. 17 in front of the Eiffel Tower, 1959. Photo: John R. Van Rolleghem, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam, 2016
© Arthur Ganson 2016
EVB: What memorable responses have you had to your work?
PDF: The best responses I had thus far is when people come to me to say thank you, because the Plantoid has enabled them to understand, or at least visualize this particular feature of a blockchain that they were unable to grasp until then, i.e. the potential of creating autonomous and self-sufficient entities that operate on their own and are capable of reproducing themselves. People are grateful because they finally get a sense of what this is all about, and interacting with an actual physical instantiation of the notion of a DAO (Distributed Autonomous Organization) is something that is really helpful to them.
EVB: What role does art funding have?
PDF : I believe the public sector should provide more grants for emergent artists, especially those experimenting with digital technologies, but it is also important that artists find a way to fund themselves independently of governmental subsidies. As an advocate for Creative Commons, I think it is crucial to identify innovative business models that do not rely on the scarcity and exclusivity inherent in the copyright regime.
I am convinced that blockchain technology will play an important role in the elaboration of these new business models.
One obvious application of blockchain technology that could benefit artists is the opportunity for anyone to set up a system of micro-tipping or micro-donations without having to pay any of the fees that most payment systems require. Another related opportunity of blockchain technology is the ability for artists to set up crowdfunding campaigns that are managed solely and exclusively code, without any intermediary operator managing the relationship between the artists and their backers. Besides, with the blockchain, artists can grant every one of their backers with equity in their works, for them to subsequently enjoy a share of the profits that will ultimately be generated by these works. Finally, blockchain technologies can be used to bypass traditional collecting society, whose interests are often not aligned with that of the artists, to set up new and automated systems for collecting royalties from the public in such a way that the royalties fees are automatically redistributed to different artists in proportion to their actual contribution to the work.
EVB: What research do you do?
As a legal researcher, I have been working on exploring the legal implications of decentralized applications for many years now, and as soon as Bitcoin came out, I became extremely interested in investigating the challenges and opportunities provided by blockchain technology. I could see the technology as providing an enormous potential for decentralization and disintermediation, and decided to focus most of my research on studying its benefits and challenges for the legal system.
I am particularly interested in exploring the interplay between smart contracts and legal contracts, and as well as the new challenges raised by the advent of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations, which operate autonomously on the blockchain (in that they do not need, nor heed their creators) and which are self-sufficient (in that they can charge users for the services they provide, in order to pay for the resources they need). To the extent that these algorithmic entities can posses digital assets (e.g. cryptocurrency) and hold specific rights and obligations, how can the legal system interact with these system? Shall they be granted some form of legal recognition or even legal personality? The plantoid is my first attempt at implementing a DAO in the physical world, in order to address the issues..
EVB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
PDF: “You never fail, until you stop trying”
EVB: What is the role of the people, the crowd in your project?
PDF: People are an essential part of the Plantoid project, in that they are necessary to ensure its reproduction. Indeed, Even if it is completely autonomous, a Plantoid cannot reproduce itself on its own. It requires the help of third parties to support them in the reproduction process. Just like traditional plants often rely on third parties—like butterfly or bees—to support them in the pollination process, Plantoids rely on the cooperation of human beings, acting as symbiotic agents assisting the Plantoids in the process of instantiating themselves into a new physical form.
EVB: How can they participate in your project?
PDF: The reproduction process of a plantoid can be distinguished into three different parts:
(1) Capitalisation phase: this is the phase in which the Plantoid will try to seduce people and lure them into sending Bitcoins.
(2) Mating phase: this is the phase in which the Plantoid will try to identify the right group of people that they each want to ‘mate’ with. Hence, when it is time for reproduction, a Plantoid will open a call for bids, inviting artists and programmers to submit a proposition as to how they envision to instantiate the next Plantoid.
However, the Plantoid cannot judge the artistic merit and intellectual value of these propositions. It thus relies on the help of human beings to advice as to what is the most appropriate and suitable proposal.
(3) Commission phase: this is where the Plantoid will transfer all of its Bitcoins to hire the people who submitted the winning proposal, who will thereby be commissioned to engage in the production.
EVB: The crowd economy creates meaningful experiences and shared value, how do you see it for your work?
PDF: When it comes to commissioning a work, everyone who has contributed to the funding of the Plantoid will be asked to vote on the merits of the proposals received by the Plantoid during the open call. Votes are done by sending micro-transactions on the Bitcoin blockchain to the public address that uniquely identifies each proposal. Of course, every vote will be weighted by the amount of funds that each party has effectively contributed.
EVB: CO-Creation and participation are emphasized in the crowd economy and communities take an active stake in crafting positive futures.
PDF :Given the characteristics of the reproduction process, the evolution of Plantoids will follow a Darwinist approach. Different artists will implement different kinds of Plantoids, whose phenotypes will attract different types of donors—either because of their aesthetic beauty (i.e. their body) or because of the underlying economic incentives and governance rules underpinning their operations (i.e. their soul). Every Plantoid will therefore evolve or expand into multiple branches or species, each with their own characteristics. From a Darwinian perspective, the reproduction of each and every Plantoid is based on an evolutionary algorithm, with multiple Plantoids experimenting with new physical characteristics, but also diverse personalities and governance structures depending on their environment. The popularity of each species will ultimately depend on the degree to which they are appreciated by the people surrounding them.
EVB: In which part of the new economy are you active?
PDF: #1 Crowd Currencies
#3 Equity-Based Crowdfunding
#10 Online Communities
#11 Mass Collaboration
#12 Open Innovation
#13 Crowd Intelligence
Primavera De Filippi is a permanent researcher at the CNRS in Paris and faculty associate at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, where she is investigating the concept of governance-by-design as it relates to blockchain technologies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, etc.
Primavera holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. She is a member of the Global Future Council on Blockchain Technologies at the World Economic Forum, as well as the founder of the Internet Governance Forum’s dynamic coalitions on Blockchain Technology (COALA).
In addition to her academic research, Primavera acts as a legal expert for Creative Commons in France and sits on the stakeholder board of the P2P Foundation.
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