Simulating Equitable Art Worlds:
DAOs through a role-played lens
By Black Swan
Black Swan is a Berlin-based collective formed in 2018 to pursue horizontal and decentralized approaches to the traditional art world templates for art making. Through digital tools that facilitate peer support, artist-led funding, and horizontal decision making, we put resources into the hands of users, rather than the gatekeepers of the arts. Starting from our context in the Berlin art scene, Black Swan proposes an ecology of interdependent art worlds based on diversity and situatedness. Cultural institutions and figures, known as the silent stakeholders, contribute resources and yet are unable to influence how those resources are used. Instead they offer trust and care in enabling cultural workers – the active members of Black Swan – to use the resources they provide in potentially new and radical ways. By separating economic contribution from decision-making, Black Swan alongside its silent stakeholders and members, envisions a cosmos where wider communities and collectives of creative practitioners, not art bureaucrats sitting aloft of the community, benefit from the value created by their practices.
DAOs, decentralized artist organizations
In 2014, the founder of the Ethereum blockchain, Vitalik Buterin, published a text titled DAOs, DACs, DAs and More: An Incomplete Terminology Guide in which he tries to give shape and definition to the wider blockchain community’s interest in decentralized organizations and their associated acronyms. According to Buterin, a decentralized organization “involves a set of humans interacting with each other according to a protocol specified in code, and enforced on the blockchain”. In his definition, a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (or DAO) is then an entity that lives on the internet and puts automation at the center and humans at the edges. Since 2018, Black Swan has investigated, unraveled and problematized DAOs in order to address ways in which the institutions of contemporary art have pushed risk onto individual artists and failed to help provide the vast majority with basic economic security.
Black Swan’s initial manifestation was born through a paper commissioned by KW Institute for Contemporary Art as part of the REALTY series titled A Speculative White Paper on the Aesthetics of a Black Swan World. The essay proposes ways the artworld might learn from DAOs, while pushing back against the automation and decentering of humans implied by Buterin’s DAO. As Kei Kreutler notes, Buterin’s focus on automation, “led to the idea that organizational values could be automated and executed by code, a lingering idea that perhaps falsely suggests tacit knowledge can be fully expressed in a software protocol.” Art practices, and the theories and critiques that attempt to grasp and express them, are testaments to the impossibility to ever fully translate or protocolize these situated, material or ineffable forms of knowledge.
DAOs, and the blockchains that enforce their rules, enable the transfer of funds across borders, and make it possible to experiment with programmable co-ownership models based on transparent decision-making and record-keeping. While this opens up the imagination to alternative forms of organizing, blockchain remains a highly financialized milieu. The cryptocurrencies and tokens that are used as “incentives” for network participation circulate in open markets, making blockchains expensive to use and causing further issues with onboarding people to applications of the technology. For all these reasons, Black Swan to date has used blockchain and DAOs as tools for the imagination: blockchain thinking without the technology.
Blockchain has provided Black Swan with a model to think with, and to reevaluate and reimagine money, value, law, and third parties through the lens of the Berlin artworld. While this does not necessarily need to lead to the actual use of a blockchain, perhaps it catalyzes other modes of organizing, and might even reappropriate elements of a blockchain in the process. Our hypothesis is that artworld DAOs can help to redistribute decision-making power from a minority of collectors, gallerists and curators to a plurality of artists embedded in niche scenes and milieux, to enable emergent and ‘non-canonical’ forms of creative practice to flourish. Black Swan proposes a DAO as a tool of thought that sits inside the landscape of art making, a means of decentralizing the idea of organization in the arts, to short circuit, deuniversalize and bifurcate the present art organizational landscape and its tropes for the enrichment of art as a polyphony of unfinished languages.
From critique and speculation to modeling, role playing and simulation
Black Swan began with a critique based on personal experiences of trying to operate in the contemporary art world collected from various local practitioners over the years and by speculating on possible preferable constellations and organizational arrangements.
As a means of addressing the difficulties of operationalizing critique and speculation, Black Swan reframed its thinking as a series of research questions and hypotheses. Breaking our understanding of a DAO into parts, we set out to design working groups, role playing games and speculative workshops in order to test our assumptions with groups of creative practitioners in Berlin before committing to build out code or applications. This allowed us to better understand the psycho-social affordances and negative externalities of artworld DAOs and the various ways in which they might be designed.
Moving beyond grand but static utopian visions, Black Swan starts from the here and now, to contend with the messy and heterogenous present state of things and to recognize that all models, economic systems, and social structures have tradeoffs: history, context and milieu cannot be ignored or downplayed. Taking a cue from the distributed and networked agency of DAOs, Black Swan does not want to replace or dissolve the current art world into an equally rigid, monolithic and universalizing structure. By modeling, simulating, and role-playing different parts of DAOs with a diverse group of artists and practitioners, Black Swan develops strategies, tactics, and tools to seed artworlds that are shaped by and to the benefit of creative communities themselves.
Over the course of 2021, Black Swan hosted a series of participatory research activities into DAO mechanics with the aim of giving eventual form to a Black Swan DAO, a digital tool kit to enable artists and new cultural organizations to distribute resources in equitable and democratic ways. For Black Swan, institutions are edges – connecting relations – and not centralized nodes within a network. Black Swan’s proto-DAO was broken into elements that we could test by changing different variables. Over the year, we looked at the components of decision-making, hierarchy, exchange, and value.
Black Swan: The Communes
Off the back of a working group on modes of collective decision-making in the arts, Black Swan held a 36-hour long role-played hackathon at KW in August 2021. We invited 40 creative practitioners to role-play, simulate, hack and test the sustainability of different modes of exchange and organizational structures to better understand how these components might play out in a DAO. Participants prototyped creative ways of using a limited and unequally distributed set of resources pledged by diverse silent stakeholders, including: Light Art Space, Callie’s, Curve Labs, Ed Fornieles Studio, Folia, Kunstverein München, New Models, Trust, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and 221A in partnership with Goethe-Institut Toronto.
The role-played hackathon was designed to test and simulate the structural and emotional affordances of organizational tropes and the ways in which they interface with and impact each other. Participants were assigned one of four groups that were framed as communes: Clan Commune, Guild Commune, Cult Commune, and Venture Commune. These models were gleaned via the Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani’s Structure of World History, in which he views society according to four historically grounded modes of exchange: mode A is association and the reciprocity of the gift, B protection, plunder and brute force, C is commodity exchange, and D is the more idealistic and yet to be realized return of the gift to the commodity form and the shift to a world republic.
Image: The Communes structure
These communes were meant to act as microgrids, together and alone. They served as a vector to problematize assumptions about organizational structure and exchange embedded within the arts and blockchain industry discourse around DAOs more generally. For instance, the past couple of years have witnessed the return of the guild within web3 as a model of organizing, or at least as an inspirational namesake. Historically, a guild was an association of merchants and craftspeople that protected the interest of its members through collective bargaining and often by providing exclusive legal rights to engage in certain economic activities. As economist Sheilagh Ogilvie discusses, by protecting the interests of a small group at the expense of society at large, guilds became powerful rent-seeking institutions in collusion with political elites to exclude certain people from participating in or benefiting from markets. Yet in a 2019 text, Mat Dryhurst speculates on the possible benefits that artistic communities–failed by the institutions that claim to serve them–may gain by adopting the model of the guild through DAOs, specifically in their affordances of, “low-barrier exclusivity, compensation for contributions of value, and collective adherence to a hard coded, incorruptible, mission.” While guilds might benefit their members, their impact on those excluded from membership could be economically destructive. Given this ambivalent history, we wanted to test how this model would play out in comparison to others.
In addition to the guild, we wanted to evaluate the organizational models of the Clan, the Cult and the Venture. We used the Clan as an example of kinship relations characterized by the gift economy as a way to test the affordances and limits of the gift as a socio-economic construct. We associated the Cult with commodity production and the quintessential example of the Contemporary Artist’s studio and its highly centralized organizational form. And we designed the Venture form to resonate with today’s horizontal or holacratic venture capital model and landscape of investment or “venture” DAOs. By naming these groups communes, instead of DAOs, we aimed to interrupt the notion of a commune as a group of people living outside of society, to encompass the long tradition of communes as territorial and administrative units, and communing as intimate and spiritual interaction.
Image: Organizational charts
Each Commune managed a resource set, ranging from materials and residency spaces, to liquidity, mentorship, and opportunities for visibility such as podcasts and digital residencies, aiming to create sustainable artistic strategies for their commune and navigate the others onsite. Each group explored their own historical example of cultural economics to, “re-discover and re-present Art to The Institution and the world beyond”. The Communes were free to fork and mutate the given parameters of their organizational structure over the 36 hours in order to ensure the survival of their collective interests by exchanging resources and forming alliances with other communes.
After the hackathon the role-played identities, communes, and world dissolved but participants retained the resources and reflections to use as either individuals or collectives. Participants were later invited to the Black Swan Discord server, where they were able to continue, mutate or fork the processes seeded during the hackathon and realize their roadmaps and the resources they secured, or propose new ideas altogether. To make proposals and vote, participants used Cygnet a consensus-building tool designed by Black Swan following a 6-week working group at Trust in which we tested different ways of making decisions with a group of nine artists.
By speed-running the history and formation of different organizational structures in a fictional environment, Black Swan gained valuable insight into collaborative dynamics toward reflecting on possible ways of structuring artworld DAOs. Black Swan: The Communes surfaced dichotomies, tensions and challenges that are endemic to the artworld but are often ignored or through optimism rejected. Some of the traits surfaced during our KW event included the unavoidability of competitive dynamics among groups, the role of clout and prestige in valuing a resource, the unequal levels of economic security in a diverse group of artists, the operational efficiencies of top down hierarchies, the importance of being able to switch and adjust roles and hierarchies, the central importance of consensus building not only within but between groups, the power asymmetries deriving from uneven distribution of technical knowledge and skills, the importance of some types of gatekeeping, and care as a critical part of curation.
The energy, enthusiasm, and insights that were unleashed over those 36 hours, are currently being processed by Black Swan as we develop the next steps of the DAO and toolkit. Join us in the Black Swan Discord to follow these developments, future updates, and announcements.
Many thanks to The Communes participants for their help, contributions, and support: Alexander Iezzi, Ana-Maria Deliu, Andrew Pasquier, Azmi Recep Özdaş, Billy Bultheel, Carina Erdmann, Caroline Woolard, Daniel Artamendi, Eaf Aytch Tiea ,Ed Fornieles, Emilia Kurylowicz, Erik Bordeleau, Everett Williams, Felix Ansmann Müller, HASHIA, Hannah Chabbani, Ilja Karilampi, Ingeborg Henriksen, James Grabsch, Joey Holder, John Lee, Kaitlyn Davies, Liz Strumpf, Lou Drago, Lukas Eigler-Harding, Marcel Darienzo, Marianna Simnett, Maximilian Prag, Maya Indira Ganesh, Moritz Tontsch, Parrr Geng, Petja Rossenova Ivanova, Sam Bunkeheads, Sebastjan Brank, Shade Théret, Silvia, Sylvia Rybak, Xiaoji Song, Jen DeNike, and Daniel Shinbaum.
Black Swan is currently maintained by Laura Lotti, Penny Rafferty, Calum Bowden, and Leith Benkhedda.