Primavera de Filippi is a legal scholar, Internet activist and artist. She is at the origin of Plantoid, a blockchain-based life-form that illustrates the notion of a Decentralized Autonomous Organisation (DAO) through a mechanical creature that is autonomous, self-sufficient and capable of reproducing itself by means of cryptocurrency. As an artist she question established theoretical frameworks, in an attempt to explore new grounds through a sofisticated entanglment of robotics, biology, economy, technology and a good dose of seduction. Primavera talks about her work in an interview that is part of Loading, preliminary phase of research of GAME OVER, project conceived by the Association VILLAM, aimed at looking for and studing new “hybrid entities”, directed at possible paths of future reconstruction.
Elena Giulia Rossi: When was your first encounter with art? In which direction and in what terms do you think that art can be an active agent for improvement of institutional governance and social change?
Primavera de Filippi: As a researcher at CNRS, I analyze the legal issues and the governance of decentralized Internet infrastructures, such as blockchain-based systems. I am trying to develop a theoretical framework that explains how these infrastructures work from a legal and regulatory perspective.
As an artist, I try to question established theoretical frameworks, in an attempt to explore new grounds that have not yet been grasped by the doctrine, with a view to highlight the limits of law and its ability to adapt to technological and social developments.
All my artistic production is designed to interface with my academic research. I use art as a tool to illustrate the results of my research, but also (and above all) as a way to question some of the theoretical or legal assumptions that underlie the rules of law, while highlighting the limitations or drawbacks of some existing regulatory frameworks.
You give to your blockchain creature(s) the feature of a plant. With nature you clearly explain the ‘nature’ of the blockchain and you project it towards a better institutional governance. Ecology and economy are strictly interwoven. In future governance, how do you envision a complicity between blockchain and ecology in order to face climate crisis?
The idea with the Plantoid is to show that even though blockchain-based systems do not have legal personality or legal capacity, they can nonetheless acquire economic agency and smart contracts capabilities, so that they can de facto act like an economic agent, controlling cryptocurrencies or blockchain-based tokens and managing or exchanging them via smart contract transactions. Hence, if a Distributed Autonomous Organisation is designed to operate on behalf of a third party (be it either an animal or natural resource), then it can provide technical and economic agency to these creatures, even if they are not recognized by law as a legal person.
Plantoids can hire and artist who can make its offspring. What criteria drive the selection of the artist? Who establishes them on the first place? You imagine the plantoids more and more autonomous. Will they ever need the artist to a certain extent?
The selection of the artist depends on the governance structure implemented within the smart contract of the plantoid. Some of them have a very simple system: the more funds one has contributed to the reproduction of the Plantoid, the more weight they have in voting on the various propositions that will determine the design of the offspring. Others have a slightly more sophisticated system based on DAOstack holographic consensus, whereby people first use a prediction market to select amongst the various propositions, and then the funders can select the propositions they like the most. In the end, anyone implementing a new plantoid can decide on the specific mechanism of governance that they will assign to it. Eventually, some of them could rely on sophisticated AI in order to select the proposition more autonomously, without relying on external humans.
Regardless of their degree of autonomy, they will still need people to implement the design, I can hardly imagine a Plantoid recreating itself on its own, and I would say it’s probably outside of the scope of the project, since the idea is for the Plantoid as an art project to evolve by relying on a multiplicity of artists to reproduce itself in an evolutive manner.
What does artist mean in your vision?
Artists and researchers have a lot in common. Both are explorers constantly seeking to go beyond the boundaries of what is known. When a new technology emerges, it is therefore natural that artists and researchers are often the first to embrace it, to explore the new possibilities it offers. When artists integrate new technologies into their artistic practices, they can experiment with applications that no one had thought of before. This is what I tried to do with the Plantoids.
Can you talk about the Okhaos art collective that you founded?
Okhaos is an artistic collective created in 2008 to promote the creation of artworks that represent digital concepts into the physical world. At that time, while my academic research focused primarily on the legal issues of copyright in the digital environment, my artistic production was then a means of transposing into the physical world the challenges faced by copyright in the digital world. Today, my research focuses on the legal challenges raised by blockchain technologies, and in particular on the regulation and governance of stand-alone applications or decentralized organizations. My artistic production has therefore gradually focused on these questions as well. Most of the artists from the collective work with recouped material, mostly scrap metal, reworked into beautiful interactive pieces, which we defined as “mechanical algorithms”.
In one model of your Plantoids the artist is rewarded with (crypto)royalties. Does it mean that he or she detains copyright to a certain extent?
In terms of copyright, all Plantoids need to be licensed under Creative Commons Share-Alike licenses, in order to ensure that people can build upon it. In fact, the whole point of the Plantoid project is to eliminate the idea that the artist is the sole genius and exclusive proprietary of the works he or she creates. Rather, the focus moves to the art-piece itself, that can select who’s the artist that will be entitled to create a new derivative work.
As such, the Plantoid represents the beginning of a new relationship between creators, their work, and the progeny of the work.Indeed, the underlying mechanisms for the financing and reproduction of a Plantoid obviously clash with the traditional conception of copyright law, which is based on the notion of scarcity and exclusivity. Instead of relying on exclusive rights in order to prevent the reproduction and distribution of creative works, with a Plantoid, artists actually have an incentive to maximize the dissemination and encourage the creation of derivative works, because that is what will maximize their return on investment. This model goes, therefore, one step beyond the traditional logic of Open Source, in that the art piece actually acquires a life on its own, and is able to evolve independently of the will of the original author.
Most importantly, the Plantoid actually shifts the authorship model around, turning copyright on its head. Instead of funding an artist, with the expectation that this artist will continue to produce new works that we enjoy, it now becomes possible to fund directly the art piece itself, which will be in charge of selecting and hiring the artists that will be responsible for its reproduction.
When you talk about ‘improvement of institutional governance’, you mention the need of generating confidence and trust. The blockchain generates trust through an initial untrust and the consequence structuring of a common and shared control system (please let me know if this is correct). At the same time, your creatures are more and more autonomous. This is a very naive question: if I gain trust through the system what do I trust: the machine? Or the group of humans that control it through the Peer to Peer system? This question is addressed to now as well as to the future, when these creatures will be more and more autonomous.
For more information on Blockchain as a trust vs confidence machine, you can visit: Blockchain as a Confidence Machine: The Problem of Trust & Challenges of Governance (University of Oxford, faculty of law, 26.10.2020)
What is the role of man now and what will it be in the future generation of plantoids?
As said earlier, the role of man will remain in the Plantoid project, as the goal is for artists to continue to play an active role in the creation of the Plantoid‘s offspring. The goal is not for the Plantoid to become fully autonomous, it is for the Plantoid to be able to “hire” or “commission” artists in order to ensure its own evolution.
You created, or better say, you wrote the DNA for a series of plantoid, one of which is linked to charitable organization, can you tell a bit more about it?
The design governance of each Plantoid is determined by its artist, and some of these aesthetic or governance features can be recorded in the DNA of the plantoid as mandatory elements that need to exist into every descendent of these plantaids. Some of them have within their DNA that they must donate a portion of the funds they receive to a particular organisation, hence when that Plantoid will reproduce, all of its offspring will also need to incorporate a similar provision.
In what way the blockchain could support culture and art funding?
Related to the previous questions, once a Plantoid has collected enough bitcoins, it becomes responsible for commissioning humans to aid with its reproduction process. But before doing so, the Plantoid must send a small royalty (e.g. 1% of the value collected by the Plantoid) to the specific ancestor that has brought the Plantoid into life (i.e. the parent), as well as to the producers of the Plantoid at hand.
This is not a Ponzi scheme – as is often done in the context of most crypto-currencies – but rather a legitimate pyramid scheme (akin to a multi-level marketing model, where a sales team or person is compensated not only for sales they individually generate, but also for the sales of others they recruit, creating a downline of distributors and a hierarchy of multiple levels of compensation) that is actually beneficial to the system. Indeed, such a model contributes to incentivizing the production of Plantoids with the most favorable aesthetics and genetics. The artists commissioned with the (re)production of a Plantoid will not only receive the Bitcoins collected by the Plantoid that commissioned them, as an ex-ante (based on forecasts rather than actual results) lump-sum payment, but also a small proportion of the funds collected by all the Plantoids they created, and all the descendants that these Plantoids have generated. These artists thus has an incentive to create the most attractive and appealing Plantoid, to maximize the visibility of this Plantoid, and encourage the remix or the making of derivatives works, because that will maximize their return on investment, as ex-post (based on actual results rather than forecasts) royalty payments.
We have in mind this image of the plantoid as a carnivore creature that takes advantage of its seductive means in order to earn money. Does this image connects to your vision?
Every artist is free to do whatever they want, as long as they respect the contractual conditions (e.g. the DNA of the plantoid need to be respected). so if they want to make a carnivorous plant, and such a proposition is voted upon and selected, then yea, the carnivorous Plantoid will come into being. It does not depend on my, it depends on the governance structure incorporated into the plantoid, I do not have any more control over the way in which the Plantoids will evolve than anyone else involved in the governance process.
Primavera De Filippi is a legal scholar, Internet activist and artist, whose work focuses on blockchain technology, artificial intelligence, and copyright law. She is a permanent researcher at the CNRS in Paris, and faculty associate at Harvard, working on the legal challenges and opportunities of blockchain technology and artificial intelligence. In 2010, she co-founded an artistic collective Okhaos with a view to further the production of mechanical algorithms that instantiate digital concepts into the physical world. She is at the origin of the Plantoid project, a blockchain-based life-form that illustrates the notion of a Decentralized Autonomous Organisation (DAO) through a mechanical creature that is autonomous, self-sufficient and capable of reproducing itself by means of cryptocurrency. Primavera’s work has been exposed in various museums, galleries and art fairs around the world including Ars Electronica (Linz), Furtherfield Gallery (London), Kinetica Art Fair (London), Centre Pompidou (Paris), Grand Palais (Paris), Gaité Lyrique (Paris), Cent Quatre (Paris), Fort Mason Center For Arts & Culture (San Francisco), Aksioma Center for Contemporary Art (Ljubljana), Filodrammatica Gallery (Rijeka), as well as festivals such as Burning Man (Nevada), Fusion Festival (Berlin), and Nowhere (Saragoza).
The interview is part of Loading, the preliminary phase of GAME OVER, a project aimed at researching and studying new “cultural entities”, people, objects or research from different disciplines (physics, bio-robotics, AI, agriculture and medicine) and transporting them into the art world. This is a research project, but also a gesture that goes beyond simple interdisciplinary dialogue, becoming quite radical: a real “transplanting” of research areas aimed at preparing future c(o)ulture, where “creativity” equals “invention” and “invention” equals contributing to a transformation. A spark, a sign of a genetic mutation, a change of direction, a short circuit. A different energy that is also marks a change which is taking place and could constitute new lifeblood for the Culture system. This first phase is an investigative one aimed at visionaries, hybrid thinkers from various fields, including those from the cultural sector, who can express their views on current needs, each in relation to their own disciplinary field while generally respecting culture and society at large. Project team: Anita Calà Founder and Artistic Director of VILLAM | Elena Giulia Rossi, Editorial Director of Arshake | Giulia Pilieci: VILLAM Project Assistant and Press Office; Chiara Bertini: Curator, Coordinator of cultural projects and collaborator of GAME OVER – Future C(o)ulture | Valeria Coratella Project Assistant of GAME OVER – Future C(o)ulture.
images: Primavera de Filippi, Plantoid. Courtesy of the Artist (cover) Primavera de Filippi, portrait