Guest Post: If the Library of Alexandria Were Built Better

By: Maxwell Cohen, Museum of Crypto Art

I came across a new Jorge Luis Borges story the other day, which is to say, new for me. Though my own sensibilities also lean towards fairytales and fantasticalities, I know painfully little of his works. But like with every other Borges barnstormer I’ve come across, when I got into this text, it spoke to me. The Library of Babel is a short work, yes, but it threw me down a time-space rabbit hole akin to its subject: A kind of hyperspace library within which all the minute history of the universe is recorded…somewhere. Borges describes, “The universe (which others call the Library),” as being “composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries…above and below — one after another, endlessly.” The story itself concerns the brave studiers of this library, who travel into its depths seeking “the catalog of catalogs,” the single unifying tome that contains within it the codex to, well, all of —*gestures around*— this.

Being mostly intangible, that library cannot be burned down, which sets it apart from all the libraries here in our own world. And there are a number of ways to “burn down” a library. You can, like, actually burn it, with fire, which is what happened to the famed Library of Alexandria, first by Caesar’s hand, but a few-hundred-years later Diocletian rolled through to finish the job. You can also achieve this same destruction through banishment, as the Catholic Church has done with its buried archives underneath the Vatican, which is probably real but also probably not full of demon-conjuring literature in the way writers like Dan Brown have imagined. Inaccessibility is akin to erasure, as far as I’m concerned. Which brings us to the way most libraries burn down:  Through sheer negligence. Inaccessibility is akin to burning, and inaccessibility can be achieved through both deliberate and accidental means. Information unvisited is information unknown. Preservation is key, yes, but it means nothing without eyeballs.

Filecoin Foundation is obviously dedicated to preservation, which is why the alignment-cum-collaboration between themselves and my organization, the Museum of Crypto Art, fit hand-in-glove from the start. We’re a many-faceted museum, but in summation, we provide the crypto art community with preservational, exhibitional, and curatorial tools —like our auto-scrolling MOCA Shows, or our interoperable metaverse art galleries known as MOCA ROOMs— while publishing columns, essays, and podcasts about the space, and on top of this, we host two enormous collections of crypto art. The first, our Permanent Collection, is bisected into smaller collections featuring works from early crypto artists as well as artists from traditionally underrepresented communities around the world. The second is, to me, much more interesting. That’s our Community Collection, a ~9300-piece-strong, decentralized assemblage of artworks non-custodially activated into the collection by our community. By integrating Filecoin back-end archiving processes into our tech-stack, we’re able to essentially safeguard every piece in our collections (i.e. their media data) forevermore, as well as every individual state of curation the collections experience, as well as every curated exhibition uploaded into MOCA ROOMs, which can be freely programmed with pieces from one’s own collection or any of ours. Filecoin integration means that anyone, anywhere, at any time, in perpetuity can see what our community of crypto artists and crypto art lovers found enriching, curatorially significant, and worthy of preservation, plus when they decided so.

Thus, the cultural library that is the Museum of Crypto Art is safe from a great variety of different burnings. It’s up to us to continue accruing eyeballs, and we plan to, and for the rest of this essay, I want to talk about what incredible possibilities could arise if we do. Because from my perch, the combination of Filecoin archival tech with a Museum like MOCA is perhaps the greatest preservational advancement for artistry since the invention of the mass-market camera.

Now let me tell you why.

Because with photography, an artwork no longer needed to be nearby to be seen, admired, influential. The masterpieces of Post-Impression could flood out of Europe. Anthropofagia didn’t need to be confined to Brazil. The American modernists could take a gander at the world of artistry around them without needing to actually travel to Paris or London or wherever European Modernism, for example, was sizzling. And thus, even if a museum/gallery/studio actually burnt to the ground, and even if every piece therein were turned to ash, they would continue to exist in photographs! I can gaze whenever I like upon the glory that is Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), despite it having been stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and never found. You’d have to burn down the entire world to get rid of this sucker now. Libraries, rest easy.

And so what does that allow? Everything. Textbooks, art classes, essays like this one, all can include the actual artworks they mention. I remember in grade school, a group of parents would come into class once-a-month for what they called “Art Soup,” a small lesson about a given artist which led into an arts-and-crafts session emulating their work. There I was, at 6, splattering paint on paper a la Jackson Pollack, whose works were projected onto the blackboard before me.

Take this a step further. Because while we have achieved the ability to preserve and disseminate the art itself, art alone does not a movement make. There is so much minutiae in an art movement, the relationships between individuals, the gallerist choices, the exhibitions and curations that reflect a changing sensibility day by day, year by year, the sudden explosions in popularity of a style, a medium, a technology.

We’ve long preserved the art, but when you take Filecoin archiving and marry it to a museum ecosystem like MOCA’s, we can preserve literally everything else.

Say you were able to cleanly and quickly search through every single curatorial state of MOCA’s Community Collection. You could compare what pieces were activated into the collection on September 18th, 2021, at the very height of the PFP boom, with February 28th, 2022, when artist open editions were being unleashed daily unto the populace, to July 1st, 2023, once AI tools had been so widely spread and used so prolifically that every other piece in every collection everywhere seems to be AI-generated. Imagine being able to see sensibilities changing in real time, with what speed, led by which visionaries.

Every trivial aspect of the crypto art movement, preserved for whatever academic or scholarly pursuits the future deems worthy. Every player, every seer, every stubborn adherent to the past, their choices and interests all recorded forevermore, all searchable, compilable into a raw matter of crypto art. As an academic or research tool, this allows for an unprecedented level of retroactive expertise, previously impossible depths of insight leading to unforeseeable conclusions.

MOCA wants to create a suite of tools that can be ported from our museum into any other that digitizes their holdings and seeks permanent blockchain backing. Theirs may not involve community curation, but it will be equally important to see how different arbiters of artistry demonstrate different attitudes towards significance.

Being able to easily search through these Museum states, that’s the next big step. We have to make the process both user-friendly and deeply-customizable. Have no fear, we’re working on it, a big play opened up by Filecoin’s steadfast and dependable backend integration. Only when institutions like ours can focus fully on innovation, with the Filecoin network silently and perpetually providing preservation underneath it all, can such outcomes abound.

And do they ever abound…