Posted: January 6, 2019 -
Matt Hall is the Co-Founder of CryptoPunks and Larva Labs alongside John Watkinson. They refer to themselves as “creative technologists” who “make things for android, iPhone and the Web.” One of their latest projects which garnered wide spread attention was CryptoPunks, an Ethereum-based tokenized ecosystem where digital creators can distribute artworks.
Hi Matt, thank you for agreeing to speak with us.
How did the idea of Cryptopunks come about?
In early 2017 John Watkinson (my partner and co-creator of the CryptoPunks) had been fiddling around with a pixel character generator, and it was getting to the point where it was making lots of really cool interesting characters. We just weren’t quite sure what to do with them. No idea really seemed to be strong enough until we discovered Ethereum, and had the idea to make them unique and ownable on the blockchain. From there we started the work of trying to actually figure out if it was possible, and in what form it should take when actually implemented on Ethereum.
Was it purely an experiment? What problems were you looking to solve?
We really weren’t sure if it would work from both a technical and a psychological perspective, so yes in that sense it was an experiment. The technical questions were around how best to represent the art on the blockchain and whether we could make the experience easy enough to use that people would actually buy and sell them. The psychological question was whether people would feel like they even owned something under this system. When you have a painting on the wall you feel confident you own a piece of art, it wasn’t clear the same would be true of ownership of digital art recorded on a blockchain.
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
The first big one was figuring out how to make all this work within the extreme constraints of the blockchain. It’s cost prohibitive to store actual image files on the blockchain, so we needed to figure out a way to represent the art being owned. The system we came up with seems to be the standard now for most projects, so I think we got that part right.
Really early on we also had a bug in the code that governed the sale of a CryptoPunk. The bug meant that buyers of a punk got the punk, and their money back. One of the truly unique things about code running on the blockchain is that it can’t be updated, which is pretty scary as a developer. So we basically had to release a separate version of the code on the blockchain and convince everyone to switch over to it. Luckily we were early in the life of the project so everyone was fine with making the switch and sales really took off after we completed the transition. It however was a pretty tough introduction to the realities of developing for the blockchain. I am also happy to report that the code has been running perfectly for a year and a half since then with no further problems.
The project certainly spurred on a lot of discussion and got the ball rolling in many ways. What are your biggest accomplishments with Cryptopunks and more broadly with Lava Labs?
Looking back now, the CryptoPunks ended up being the first of it’s kind on the Ethereum blockchain. “Non-fungible tokens” are one of the more exciting use cases for the blockchain and there are VCs investing in lots of companies working on related projects. That’s pretty amazing to see, I can’t wait to see where all of this ends up.
Overall we’ve been lucky enough to be early on several big technologies. I think we’re getting pretty good at zeroing in on what’s really interesting about a new technology. We were both early users of the internet before it went mainstream, and were already writing smartphone apps full time way back in 2006 (more detail here.
Can you talk us through how you can own a digital piece of art?
Digital art is weird (and great) in one very specific way: It’s possible to possess a digital work of art, but still not own it. Possession and ownership are not necessarily connected in the digital world. This is not how the physical world works: it’s very clear who has a painting, and usually clear who owns it. Digital art can be anywhere and everywhere, so that makes ownership somewhat confusing. Gallerists have been solving this problem by issuing certificates that state ownership of a digital work. The blockchain is basically a digitization of this system that adds two really powerful things: 1) it makes buying and selling art fast and inexpensive, and 2) it provides a layer of trust that removes the need for lawyers and middlemen, and generally makes fraud impossible.
This means that in the case of the CryptoPunks, every one of the 10,000 punks in existence has their full ownership history tracked perfectly in a publicly readable blockchain. Every one of them has a unique and undeniable owner, and each of those owners could sell their CryptoPunk to anyone in the world for any price and pay less than a dime in transaction fees.
And what are the benefits of owning digital over a physical art?
What you own requires no maintenance, can’t be destroyed or damaged, has guaranteed provenance and (when buying or selling) requires no insurance, shipping fees, storage fees or transaction fees. It also can be viewed by anybody, while the ownership remains undisputed. It’s kind of like owning a work of physical art that is permanently on loan to a public museum.
What are the pros and cons of storing an artwork on the blockchain?
Currently we don’t actually store the art on the blockchain, and as far as we know no one does. Eventually as blockchains improve this could be possible, but not at the moment. For now the standard thing to do is store the files on a distributed system so multiple copies of the file can exist on many different computers. This helps preserve the art against accidental or intentional deletion. However, the file is inextricably linked to the blockchain record (via a “cryptographic hash”), so that it is always clear what the blockchain is referring to.
You expressed doubts at the Christie’s Art+Tech summit about blockchain being poorly suited to dealing with physical art, can you explain why? Have your views changed at all since?
My views have changed somewhat. I was primarily concerned about the disconnect that exists between the blockchain and the real world (For example, if a painting burns in a fire, who updates the blockchain?) However, since the Christie’s summit I have heard some interesting arguments that art world record keeping could at least benefit from the transparency that a blockchain could provide. So I think I’m coming around to the idea that there could be some real value there.
Cryptopunks was a project you launched through Larva Labs, have you got any more projects planned?
Yes! We’re still very interested in blockchain art, and by that I mean art that uses the blockchain as a fundamental part of it’s concept (as opposed to simply owning something on the blockchain). We have a few new ideas in this space we hope to complete in the first half of 2019.
Are there any companies using new types of technology that you are watching with particular interest at the moment?
I’m particularly interested in the work snark.art is doing with Eve Sussman called “89 seconds Atomized.” They are splitting the final artist’s proof of Eve Sussman’s acclaimed video “89 seconds at Alcazár” into 2,304 unique blocks. It’s an experiment in ownership and collective interaction, the piece can be reassembled and screened at will by the community of collectors. This is a great example of art that uses blockchain as a fundamental component of its concept and function, I’m really interested to see how it develops. I also intend to loan my atom to any potential showings.
What are your goals for the coming year?
Make more stuff! It took us some time to properly digest what was fundamentally interesting to us about the CryptoPunks. I think we have a grasp of that now, especially after seeing the project evolve over the past year and a half, so are ready to build on that now with some new decentralized art projects.