How can artists get paid for the value they bring to society? It is an age-old, vexing question, one that artist and entrepreneur Beatriz Helena Ramos hopes to reinvigorate through Dada, the visual conversation platform she launched in 2014 with fellow artist-technologist Judith Mam. Dada is a cross between a marketplace, an art project, and a technology startup—a uniquely hybrid status that may well be the key to redefining success for artists in the digital age.
Dada was conceived as a social network where people can speak to each other in drawings rather than words. More than merely a drawing platform, it is Dada’s conversational quality that fosters moments of real magic among users: “You fall a little bit in love with everybody that responds to you,” said Ramos. “You feel like they’re listening to you. Not just to what you’re putting into a drawing conceptually—but what you’re not even aware that you’re putting out there, or the subconscious.”
With more than 150,000 users worldwide, Dada has done the seemingly impossible in the digital age: scaling intimacy. At this point, a typical trajectory for a tech-enabled social network looking to monetize might be to go the way of Facebook and introduce income-generating features like ads to the platform. The risk, of course, is such a move might degrade Dada’s impossibly beautiful sense of community—”our ace card,” is what Ramos calls it.
The cost of maintaining a technology platform at scale means an arty project like Dada is unheard-of on the internet. In its early years, Dada’s full time staff of four to five have mostly had to forego salaries to keep the platform alive. While looking for a sustaining way to generate income, Ramos became inspired by increasing excitement in the tech world over decentralized applications—a new type of software that is not deployed by any single individual or company, and makes use of consensus mechanisms like blockchain to store information. Ramos believes the key to empowering artists is for them to retain intellectual property rights to their works, something blockchain is uniquely capable of enabling.
On a hunch, Ramos and her team decided to set off on the lesser-known path of turning Dada into a blockchain-enabled marketplace in which the drawings generated on the platform could be bought and sold using cryptocurrency. By that time, the team had earned a place in the 2017 cohort at Matter, an accelerator for early stage media companies (disclosure: I was a mentor at Matter the previous year), which provided a fertile ground for quickly implementing these ideas. “What we saw in Bea was one of the most creative, scrappy, accomplished, crazy visionary founders that we have ever worked with,” said Corey Ford, Matter’s Managing Director.
The concept of partial ownership of an artwork has little weight in the art world because it has been historically unfeasible to track the sale and resale of a work of art and there is no mechanism to ensure a percentage of that profit is funneled back to the artist in an efficient and transparent way. A recent study by NYU Steinhardt assistant professor Amy Whitaker shows the dramatic result if an artist like Jasper Johns had been able to retain a 10% ownership stake in his own art works. As the price for his work increased with his increasing reputation as an artist, each resale of his works would have resulted in significant additional income for Johns in his lifetime.
When associated with a cryptocurrency, the partial ownership model to artistic creation is extremely easy to implement using blockchain, because digital works can be “signed” and tracked so every sale and resale results in an automatic partial payment to the originating artist. By October 2017, Dada had added a new type of user to the platform—the collector—and released “Creeps and Weirdos,” a collection of limited edition digital drawings generated exclusively on the platform which were signed and available for purchase in the cryptocurrency Ethereum. Last May, Dada received an investment from ConsenSys Ventures, the investment arm of ConsenSys, a global consultancy that specializes in building decentralized applications on the Ethereum blockchain, to build out a fully integrated marketplace.
Equal parts artist and entrepreneur, Ramos has been successful by most measures. She has has worked with large companies like Disney, MTV, and The New York Times, has directed over 100 commercials for some of the biggest brands in the world, and eventually built out her own animation studio with offices in Brooklyn and Venezuela. The balance has often been an uneasy one: “I’m what I call an unconscious capitalist, because I have companies and employees and clients and all of that—but I’m actually an anarchist, a social anarchist, in my soul.”
If Dada’s marketplace model succeeds, a small percentage of each purchase transaction would funnel back to the platform, ensuring it can sustain itself indefinitely, and vindicating Ramos’ iconoclastic vision of artist empowerment above any corporate, political, or advertising interests. It also promises to create revenue for Dada’s artists while maintaining the beauty and authenticity of its user interactions. The most important thing, Ramos is careful to emphasize of this new phase, is to figure out how to inject money into the Dada creative ecosystem without destroying the magic.
An uneasy mix of money and magic
With the investment from ConsenSys, the Dada team are now looking to design and implement a custom cryptocurrency—a DADA coin—that would form the underlying unit of value for Dada’s marketplace. Artists can earn DADA coins for their creative activities on Dada, and might then be able to trade DADA coins for real money. “To me the opportunity here is can you create a whole new economy, a completely new business model that hasn’t been done before—and that’s what we’re going for,” says Ramos.
In designing the DADA coin, Ramos sees the challenge as: “Can we issue a cryptocurrency where the economic system is based on our values, where the values are collaboration and collective ownership?” She points out that overly simplistic ways of modeling such a system—for example, directly tying the value of a work of art to its market price—undermines some of the more ephemeral incentives of artistic creation, like community and conversation.
Value and values
How might an ideal economy for artists actually work? “Art is similar to innovation,” says Ramos, “where you have to do a lot of experimentation.” The trick is to foster an environment where artists can create and experiment freely, independent of financial or political pressure, and yet somehow derive income in a passive way from the value that experimentation brings to society.
What happens if one drawing on Dada sells for 10 cents, while the drawing it was in response to sells for $1 million? This type of relative inequality happens all the time in traditional artistic ecosystems, where artists might frequent various creative communities for inspiration and cross-pollination, yet each artist generates income individually. On Dada, each drawing is displayed, literally, next to the drawing that inspired it, making the value of artistic inspiration explicit in an intriguing new way. The question remains: can this type of value actually be quantified and rewarded?