Ecosystem Spotlight: TRANSFER Q&A on Preserving Artistic Value with Decentralized Technology, Data Sovereignty, and Harnessing Value of Data

Feb 1, 2024
Filecoin Foundation TRANSFER Blog Post

Q&A with Kelani Nichole, Founder of TRANSFER on preserving artistic value with decentralized technology, automated governance systems, harnessing the value of data in unique ways.

Experimental media art has long been overlooked by the traditional art world, and because of the rapid rate of obsolescence, much of the work is at risk of loss.

TRANSFER is an experimental space exhibiting virtual worlds and decentralized networks in contemporary art since 2013. Post-pandemic TRANSFER has been virtual-first, exhibiting internationally at institutions, art fairs, and pop-ups. In 2023, TRANSFER launched an initiative to preserve all of the works they’ve supported over the years with the TRANSFER Data Trust, an artist-owned cooperative trust model that artists can use to maintain and grow the value of their artwork.

Installation View TRANSFER Download at The Thoma Foundation in Santa Fe, 2018

TRANSFER received a Dev Grant from Filecoin Foundation to help bring the TRANSFER Data Trust to life based on the emergent concept of Data DAOs, providing the necessary foundation on the Filecoin Virtual Machine (FVM).

Recently, we had an opportunity to talk with Kelani Nichole, Founder of TRANSFER. Read on for her thoughts on preserving artistic value with decentralized technology, automated governance systems, harnessing the value of data in unique ways, and why Nicole says the Filecoin network is, “the only place where this visionary idea could come to life.”

Tell us more about the TRANSFER Data Trust.

Nichole: All of the work at TRANSFER is virtual first but with immersive and interactive installations, our focus has always been physical exhibition design. At the core, however, our inventory is data.

The TRANSFER Data Trust aims to be a future-proofed method of thinking about data stewardship.

With support from FF’s Dev Grant program, TRANSFER was able to build a proof-of-concept prototype for the public-facing component. Working with another project in the Filecoin ecosystem, Fission, we built and deployed a decentralized catalog for works in the trust, which essentially makes an end-user a node in our decentralized data network, authenticating their browser as an access point, and delivering data from the decentralized web about the inventory of works available.

If users are an institution or curator they can request a loan and if they are a collector they can make an offer on the work. This is all transparent and recorded on the public ledger, immutable, and accessible for provenance.

The concepts in this prototype have allowed us to bring these ideas into the artfairs and test with collectors and curators. We brought some restored works to the PHOTOFAIRS NYC to test this prototype, and The Art Newspaper called us the ‘undisputed phenomenon of the fair’.

Finally, we are developing a conservation protocol layer on top of the data to allow for efficiency in keeping the artworks maintained as they evolve over time. Doing this specialized work of conservation and care – which is currently centralized in institutions – in a decentralized and distributed way will create great efficiencies can ensure the work stands the test of time.

Tinsel Poycarbonate (2019) by Huntrezz Janos, Augmented Reality Face Filter Installation represented by the TRANSFER Data Trust featured at PHOTOFAIRS New York 2023

Talk about the automated governance system you are building.

Nicole: Post-pandemic, the landscape of cultural institutions is in a crisis of funding and operations. The slow rate of change and antiquated organizational models make it difficult for institutions to adapt quickly, which is essential in our contemporary world.

The TRANSFER Data Trust organizational model is based on a ‘Perpetual Purpose Trust’ coupled with the legal structure being developed in part from research coming out of MED Lab Boulder ‘Exit to Community’ and the ‘Colorado Trust’ model.

We are taking inspiration from this work and seeking to establish a cooperative member-owned data trust for artists which runs on automated bylaws, essentially replacing a board and membership co-op structure with smart contracts. The non-profit organizational model will be open sourced so any artist collective or organization can easily form an entity and start to build equity in their data.

We recognize that there is an immense amount of human labor that will be involved in maintaining the data in trust long-term, so we do not seek to automate the ‘work’ of the organization (namely conservation, curatorial and care practices) but instead hope to automate the framework around the coordination and compensation of that human labor, beyond our lifetimes.

What makes this project unique?

Nichole: TRANSFER and our artists are in a very unique position. First, we have a decade of learnings from our cooperative experimental practice to build tooling for collaboration and trust around real-world use cases. Second, the contemporary art market is one of the only industries that has a well tested means for assigning financial value to what is essentially data via appraisal of time-based media artworks. There is a decades-long practice of independent 3rd party appraisal for insurance and valuation of artworks that are media-based, video, installation, software, etc. By combining the emergent ideas of data DAOs being pioneered by Filecoin with these industry practices, we are in a unique position to effectively hold data that has certified financial data.

Still from Epic Biblical (2020) by Lorna Mills, Animated GIF Installation represented by the TRANSFER Data Trust

In our earliest calculation with only 10 of our 60+ international artists collectively holding inventory together the TRANSFER Data Trust will represent over $5.7M in data-based assets (art works) cooperatively held in a non-profit entity. We believe this is a very unique position to build out a provable use-case for harnessing the value of data through the Filecoin ecosystem. Further, this is in line with the traditional art market, not the rapidly fluctuating speculative NFT market that has emerged since 2020, so it has stability and longevity that is proven in art historical time frames, beyond short cycles of speculation. If the model propagates, this idea can change how artists think about growing the value of their artworks.

What is the potential future impact?

Nichole: History has shown that avant-garde artists shape major shifts in culture and technology. We believe that if the TRANSFER Data Trust is successful in rethinking the value of data, these behaviors and beliefs can capture the imagination of popular culture. In the future, everyone will think of the value in their data in a new way, and it will ignite a widespread movement of data sovereignty.

Learn more about TRANSFER Data Trust on the Filecoin Ecosystem Explorer, the interactive showcase of diverse projects that make up the Filecoin ecosystem.

The Filecoin Foundation Dev Grants program helps advance projects and aims to award additional grants to boost development in the Filecoin ecosystem. Check out our other grant recipients and learn how you can apply for Open Grants and Microgrants.