Interview

Misha Libman:
"Our team is split between the art world and the technology world"

IMAGE: SNARK.ART
INTERVIEW: ANASTASIIA PODBEREZKINA
ALMAMAT educates people in IT, and ALMAMAT. IT Faces explores the global IT community: personalities, businesses, lifestyles, and trends. Today's interview features Misha Libman, a co-founder of the New York-based company Snark.art, a technology laboratory and an "art production platform that uses blockchain as a creative medium." We discussed with Misha the recent experiments at the junction of IT, business, and art.
Misha Libman and Andrey Alekhin
Snark.art
image: Snark.art

Misha, before we talk about the recent collaboration of Snark.art with Eve Sussman – a blockchain-based artwork "89 Seconds Atomized" based on her artwork "89 Seconds at Alcázar" – please tell us about your entrepreneurial background?

Misha Libman: I've been working in startups since I was 25 years old, most of my career. This project was the next step in terms of trying something new. On the one hand, I've always been active in working on video art projects. On the other hand, I've also worked in startups related to web application development and statistical analysis. About a year ago, those two roads met.


"89 Seconds Atomized" is an elaborate video art piece, shattered into video fragments, 'atoms', so the art collectors can own small fractions of the artwork. Is each 'art atom' a form of an art cryptocurrency? How does it work technically?

Misha Libman: We use Ethereum for transactions. We create tokens which represent a unique piece of art.

In future projects, we will have some other forms of tokens, similar to a cryptocurrency. Because ultimately, cryptocurrency is a token. There are two types of tokens: fungible meaning that you can exchange one token for another – and non-fungible meaning each token is unique. For example, one 'atom' of Eve Sussman's artwork can't be exchanged for another 'atom', because they are different 'atoms' and their inherent characteristics are not one-to-one. Whereas, if someone has one Bitcoin or one Ether, it's exchangeable for another Bitcoin or Ether. We are working on a poetry project that uses fungible mechanics. I wouldn't call it a cryptocurrency, but it does have a token structure or can have a token structure similar to the cryptocurrencies.


How did you begin your collaboration with Eve Sussman on "89 Seconds Atomized"?

Misha Libman: When we started thinking about the use of blockchain technology in art, we had crazy thoughts about creating mutating artworks or artworks that respond to their owners or allow communication across millions of participants. We also started looking at some of the projects that attempted to use the blockchain technology creatively. They ranged from collectible games like Сryptokitties to actual business processes that use the technology.

When we began thinking about our project creatively, we felt that it could easily become one of these ideas that ends up on the bookshelf. It was important to see if we can get actual artists involved and have a collaboration – create an artwork. I have worked with Eve Sussman on several video art projects previously. It was a natural step to go and talk to her. We explained to her the characteristics of the blockchain technology. She was very quick to grasp the basic idea and started proposing her vision for using the technology. That's how the conversation began.
"89 Seconds Atomized"
SNARK.ART

How do you see your blockchain & art project in terms of its business model and the interest from the art collectors?

Misha Libman: What we are doing at Snark.art, especially with this first project, is an attempt to experiment with the concept of co-ownership of an artwork which allows its collectors to collaborate to reconstruct the original project.

There are several interesting aspects here. One of them is that we are democratizing access to higher-end art. For example, today's art market is more than 60 billion dollars a year. Probably, 70% of the artworks sold have a sale price of more than $50,000. It's not affordable to the middle class or Millennial generation that is very interested in art but does not have access to the resources needed to afford such expensive artworks.

In this first experiment, we shattered a rather expensive artwork into over 2,000 pieces allowing each co-owner to have a piece of an actual video. And this division and democratization is significant and interesting for artworks like Eve Sussman's that are at the higher end of the spectrum and very expensive to produce.

On the other hand, we are creating a more digital interactive experience by allowing these hundreds, potentially thousands of co-owners to collaborate and reconstruct the original artwork. It's an entirely new take on how an artwork can be shared and experienced. The artist is also very interested in the idea that the artwork can never be whole again, reconstructed fully. As the collectors lose access to their digital wallets, the artwork overtime may die like a living organism.

So, there are many elements in this specific project. It was a very successful attempt to use technology as a medium, but also to solve some problems that exist in the art market.


By democratizing access, are you trying to change the perception that Contemporary Art is elitist?

Misha Libman: It's probably more of a perception. Galleries and museums are open to the public. Anyone can become an art collector, especially if the aim is not to collect very high-end art – it's really not something prohibitive. But in terms of having access to higher-end art, it certainly is prohibitive. Perhaps, with our experiments, we may find solutions where not only the wealthy individuals will have the ability to collect and experience sophisticated art.

Misha Libman: "In this first experiment, we shattered a rather expensive artwork into over 2,000 pieces allowing each co-owner to have a piece of an actual video"


How do you see Contemporary Art in 2019?

Misha Libman: My opinion is limited to my world – and we are mostly working with Digital Art. I find that reception to Digital Art is not progressing fast enough. It's still a small part of the art market. We were at Art Basel Miami in December – and Digital Art was probably not even one or two percent of all the artworks presented there. I would say that contemporary art is changing, but not that rapidly.


In your opinion, does technology change art?

Misha Libman: I don't think technology necessarily changes art. I look at technology more as a tool that artists can use to experiment with – just like a paintbrush. This is why blockchain is fascinating to me. It potentially allows artists to make creative decisions in whatever medium by using this technology and trying to work in a slightly different setting. It's a challenge for them. And it's a challenge for us too – to help them figure this out.

Blockchain technology has been used to try to solve some problems that exist in the art world. About two years ago a few projects attempted to bring more transparency to the art market by tracking the provenance of artworks. I don't think of this as necessarily being a fundamental change – but it certainly is an advantage for the art world, but doesn't impact the art itself.


What do you mean when you say "to bring more transparency"?

Misha Libman: Provenance recording is a huge issue in the art market. There is very little transparency in pricing or ownership of art. Unless an artwork is sold through an auction house where information is publicly available about its price and ownership, most art transactions are private, and there is very little transparency available there.

There have been attempts to bring more transparency in the art market through the use of blockchain technology. The question of their success, of course, depends on whether or not the art market wants this transparency.

Misha Libman: "I look at technology more as a tool that artists can use to experiment with – just like a paintbrush"


Can you imagine an emergence of a new kind of art that conceptually centers itself around the ingenuity of applying current technologies?

Misha Libman: I would separate two concepts. One is the innovation in terms of technology, and the other is a step forward in a creative sense. Just because someone grabs a new digital camera that can create crazy new photographs, it doesn't necessarily make them artists. But maybe it's the use of this camera that creates ideas and pushes a new form of creative expression.

Blockchain technology allowed Eve Sussman from her loft in Brooklyn to write a piece of code that can potentially bring together two thousand people to engage through an artwork. And she doesn't need Facebook or Google to create this social network. That is quite amazing that artists using these new technological tools can push both the technology itself and their creative process. From such experiments we may very well see the emergence of a new kind of art.


Do you think that crypto collectibles phenomenon has the potential to become a new mass market with marketplaces and private collections as a new type of digital assets? What do you think of crypto collectibles in terms of art?

Misha Libman: I think that such crypto collectibles projects as Cryptokitties have shown in the past year that they've engaged a certain type of audience and they are successful in doing so. Cryptokitties made a step beyond pure collecting, because they created an interactive experience by allowing owners of kitties to produce new collectibles by breeding them from the previous generation.

It's hard to predict whether this is a temporary kind of fetish or it has more room to grow. But we can look back into other collectible items throughout history for comparison: people collect baseball cards or stamps. So this may be a new manifestation of this need for collecting, which may be quite appealing to the younger generation or the people who are into gamified collecting.

As for "89 Seconds Atomized", it's more of an art project rather than a collectible project. The video itself is a sophisticated piece of art, and I find the 'atoms' to be quite beautiful in their abstraction. The thing that unites these projects is the aspect of collecting. To be an owner of something and to create a collection is a kind of a human instinct. I certainly see it in our art projects. And it's clearly the case for digital collectibles.

Misha Libman: "That is quite amazing that artists using these new technological tools can push both the technology itself and their creative process. From such experiments we may very well see the emergence of a new kind of art"


Artists have to promote their art actively. And the art market is a very closed market. Is it possible to solve this problem through technology?

Misha Libman: The art market is very top-down, and it's certainly difficult market to be in. There are millions of artists all over the world, and no one may ever see or hear about their work outside of their local communities. There are projects using blockchain to create platforms for emerging or unknown artists to expose their works and to give them access to communities outside of the traditional art market. They are also working on decentralizing the art curation process.

It's not our current aim to solve the problem of top-down nature of the art market. Right now, we are looking at the technology as a creative medium and trying to figure out how it can be used in an artistic sense.


Tell us about your recent partnership with Artsy?

Misha Libman: We hope that our Artsy partnership would allow us to reach a much wider audience, because Artsy is probably the top art marketplace online. At least, in the United States, most galleries are represented on it. The art market is constantly looking for new audiences and we bring that by representing Digital Art and Blockchain-Based Art that tends to be more attractive to the younger generation.


Snark.art is a digital gallery, it's also positioned as a technology laboratory. At the same time, it's an IT business. You mix art and IT – looks like this reflects some market processes.

Misha Libman: In terms of our company structure, even our team is split between the art world and the technology world. We have people who are doing the actual development, and they may not fully grasp the artistic side of the project, but they understand how the project works technically better than even the creators of the project. There is a balance between these two sides. That's also something that makes the projects more alive and interesting, forces our developers to become artists essentially – and artists to become a little bit of developers.


Are these borders blurred?

Misha Libman: Sometimes. It depends on what we are talking about. On the technical level, it's a fairly straightforward development process. In terms of the artistic elements, we need to make sure that our developers understand the artistic idea on some level.
"89 Seconds Atomized"
SNARK.ART

So how do you describe yourself and your co-founder Andrey Alekhin in terms of your responsibilities?

Misha Libman: We work in a place that tries to bridge art and business processes, which is not a very natural pair. Snark.art is a business project. We want this project to be sustainable and we do take a commission from the sale of our artworks, which finances our future development and projects. From that side, we certainly are not doing this purely for our artistic interest. But on the other hand, it's important to be inspired by what you are doing. We both love the experimentation and development of creative ideas.

So perhaps, we are somewhere on the border between these two sides. Sometimes we are more of one and less of the other – and vice versa. I currently work more with the artists. And Andrey is right now concentrating on our business relationships. But we support each other, and sometimes I'm on the business side and he's meeting with artists. In a startup situation, you have to do everything because it's still a small venture. At this stage, we have to wear many hats.


Is that the reason you call your tech laboratory, digital gallery, and business 'Snark', the cryptic creature from the poem "The Hunting of the Snark" by Lewis Carroll?

Misha Libman: 'Snark' came around in the very beginning. We were trying to come up with a good brand, because it's important to have a name that you can stand behind. We had plenty of ideas. When the name 'Snark' initially came around, I don't remember anybody hating it. Then we slowly began to fall in love with the idea of the chase for this creature, Snark, that no one has seen. It describes our adventure as I feel in some ways we are chasing something new that hasn't been done before.


Are you going to produce digital tools which artists could download as a program and use on their computers?

Misha Libman: We will provide in open source format the tools that we create working on our projects, so that other artists can use them and take advantage of our technologies. Can we make these tools user-friendly enough so that you could download and use them? We have to see whether we can do it down the road.


What do you think, can artists advance technology?

Misha Libman: If we take blockchain as an example, this technology is currently being explored in a variety of areas from finance to political voting system, journalism and art. By nature, artists tend to experiment and explore new ideas. By being their guide into this technology, we may help not only produce great art but also find new use cases for blockchain. We are excited about seeing how artists can push blockchain technology. An artist is thinking much more creatively and may find quite interesting uses for blockchain. This could ultimately translate into something bigger that goes beyond their art projects. That's what we hope to discover. ALMAMAT. IT Faces
Images: SNARK.ART