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Many-Headed Hydras: DAOs in the Art World

Aude Launay interviews fellow curator Ruth Catlow and visual theorist Penny Rafferty on situating decentralised autonomous organisations in art.

Screenshot of CultureStake dApp

Furtherfield/DECAL, Screenshot of CultureStake dApp, 2020. Image courtesy Furtherfield.

If the ideas behind decentralised autonomous organisations (DAO) are not new (Satoshi Nakamoto roughly planted their seeds in the Bitcoin white paper twelve years ago[01]), it’s only been a few years that they have started to properly take shape in both the crypto and the art world. But as we know, a few years are an eternity in looking at the scale and development of crypto, so even if we’re talking about the last five years, it’s almost enough to cover DAO’s entire history. More precisely conceptualised and acronymed in 2013 by programmer Daniel Larimer, these organisations first found use cases in the financial realm, but they can now open to much more. So what are these organisations exactly about? In a nutshell, DAOs are groups of people deciding to delegate the practical management of their group to pieces of code in such a way that every action taken or every decision made within the organisation gets recorded and is accessible to each of its members. This means, as Vitalik Buterin, one of the main enablers of this technology, puts it: “automation at the centre, humans at the edges”[02].

This core idea of transparency and equal access to information is not really prevalent in the art world, to say the least. Since artists have started to experiment with DAOs as soon as it was technically possible to do so, it seems legitimate to ask if this technology can really allow for an emancipation of art and artists from the opacity and weight of current institutional frameworks. This is what we are discussing here with Ruth Catlow, a pioneer in the topic (usually under the name of Furtherfield, a non-profit arts organisation she runs together with Marc Garrett in London), and Penny Rafferty, a writer who she collaborates with on a think-tank series and on an upcoming book-manifesto. Both also co-founded Artworld DAOs that aim at allowing artists to regain control over their practices, but also at opening up decision-making on public art to those most concerned: the public.

AL: So many different worlds collide around blockchain technology, that I feel I must ask, what drove you to the blockchain space?

RC: Firstly, Rob Myers, an artist, hacker, writer and friend, prompted us (by “us”, I mean Furtherfield) to experiment with a Bitcoin wallet, which we did in 2010. It seemed really difficult and a bit boring, so we gave up and lost the wallet, which is a shame. Then in 2014, Rob started writing about art, money, blockchains, and their potential for looking at questions of value and organising, especially as Ethereum[03] was coming online. He wrote a provocative text[04] which challenged us to realise our DIWO (Do It With Others) ethos (punk, networked collaboration) through decentralised autonomous organisations… making it “DAOWO”!

The DIWO campaign we had instigated in 2006 was more of a manifesto and an approach to networked art, play, resistance and collaboration, whereas DAOWOs (or at least elements of them) are now in the making as executable art world manifestos.

Penny Rafferty and Calum Bowden, Black Swan Genesis, 2019

Penny Rafferty and Calum Bowden, Black Swan Genesis, 2019, sketch-up based on Gnostic System. Image courtesy the artists.

PR: For my part, I feel it was mostly via some very unique people I met in this field around 2015 who were thinking the same things I was thinking about technology and physical grassroots applications. I often behave as an entangled being, like a moth to a flame, and the people I meet start to run through my veins. Hence, so did those from this world — the brilliant minds of the programmers, hackers, squatters and activists I have met through these new models and interfaces.

AL:   But unlike many other spaces, the blockchain space has this particularity that it gathers a lot of people that have an interest in conceptualising it as much as in technically building it, which seems logical since it’s a space constantly in the making. What I mean is that most of the time, the same persons are doing both, and that’s not that common in other research areas. And it’s the same for the two of you…

PR:   Yes, for me theory was always the beginning. I was never interested in just playing with code, I wanted to see what the code could do in order to change, and not just fix a problem. To be honest, I find a lot of the blockchain space really horrific. It has so many backwards cultural growing pains, but between the cracks there are some very real, radical and strange spaces for trying other things.

For example, a few years ago, by chance I met with Calum Bowden, Catrin Mayer, Paul Seidler and Max Hampshire at Trust, an incubator for utopian conspiracy that supports a network of artists, designers, technologists, ecologists and thinkers out of a shared working space in Berlin. We started to look at how we could decapitate the “grooming” that went on in the art world here on a local level. This term “grooming” often refers to the time in which a young artist cuts their teeth, gathers momentum and hones their practice in order to be scooped up hopefully by a blue-chip gallery or institution which has given nothing to the process of the artist’s refinement in their early years. The people that provide that are generally those that run project spaces, off sites, lower-tier galleries, digital critical platforms or are unpaid curators. Generally, these avenues are also understaffed and juggling multiple sources of a precarious economy in order to refine their content and give the maximum support to every artist who passes their threshold. So we started to look at how technology could eradicate this problem.

In the autumn of 2018, we started to build Black Swan, firstly as a paper prototype. In brief, Black Swan is a new decentralised approach to traditional art world templates of funding and resources. It favours artist-led peer-to-peer funding and community organising. The Black Swan model was originally customised for Berlin, but we hope that once we have the digital components and the first tests run, we will be able to offer it to other cities so they, too, can create systems that place resources into the hands of the users rather than the gatekeepers of the arts. Also, on that note, a fully operating prototype will be running, testing and gamified through Trust in September this year as part of the think-tank series Ruth and I led at the start of the year.

To be honest, I find a lot of the blockchain space really horrific. It has so many backwards cultural growing pains, but between the cracks there are some very real, radical and strange spaces for trying other things.

Penny Rafferty and Calum Bowden, Black Swan Genesis, 2019

Penny Rafferty and Calum Bowden, Black Swan Genesis, 2019, sketch-up based on Gnostic System. Image courtesy the artists.

RC:   Yes, culture should determine technical infrastructure, and not the other way around. Any other approach (such as the centralised monopolistic “services” offered by FAMGA[05]) are technical colonialism. The CultureStake[footnote = "06'] dApp that we are building at Furtherfield connects communities, artists and cultural organisations through playful, collective decision-making. It does this using quadratic voting on the blockchain to put people and places at the centre of cultural programming. Currently, people and places have very little say on decisions about the arts that are resourced and funded in their locality. Major artists and cultural sponsors have the upper hand and this can result in a winner-takes-all, and one-size-fits-all “blockbuster” programming. 

CultureStake has grown from conversations within Furtherfield’s community of artists, techies and activists. We are working with blockchain developers Sarah Friend and Andreas Dzialocha, who are both also artists and musicians, as well as the design team at Studio Hyte. We all desire to build art worlds that catalyse collective imagination, and this means seeing art worlds as connected communities, rather than as machines for generating art product through competitive individualism.

CultureStake also grows out of the UK context where Brexit taught us that the ecology of systems for a fair democracy are corrupted and broken with horrible long-term consequences. CultureStake is a system that experiments with democratising arts commissioning by providing communities and artists with a way to make cultural decisions together. It does this by giving communities a bigger say in the activities provided in their area, and by creating and sharing better information about what is meaningful in different localities. It also provides a setting and a context for people to experiment with and reflect upon the fitness-for-purpose of our democratic systems.

CultureStake is a system that experiments with democratising arts commissioning by providing communities and artists with a way to make cultural decisions together.

AL:   Speaking of voting, how do you both envision it when it comes to approachability, since the blockchain isn’t a very well understood idea yet for everyone?

PR:   Usability is of course the ultimate goal, which may mean taking some parts “off chain” but really, as I understand, it’s getting people to vote, which is the hardest task in DAO culture. We have a way around that. If you don’t vote, you likely no longer need the Black Swan community. We are a fluid DAO, which means others can take your place if you don’t need it, as we have a limited capacity of people who are active in the DAO at any one point due to resources.

RC: We are prioritising appeal and approachability in our development so that the voting process itself is fascinating. But its take-up really hinges on connecting with the needs and appetites of communities. With CultureStake, any cultural entity can set up a vote using the app and consult closely with the communities most impacted by their work. For example, a city council might need to find out which new artwork should occupy a recently vacated public plinth, or an arts organisation might need to know which artist on their shortlist should be next summer’s blockbuster. The app can be used for in-person or online voting events that provide tasters for larger projects. People vote on the ones most meaningful to them and where they live, while arts organisations go on to commission them at scale.

Penny Rafferty and Calum Bowden, Black Swan Genesis, 2019

Penny Rafferty and Calum Bowden, Black Swan Genesis, 2019, sketch-up based on Gnostic System. Image courtesy the artists.

AL:   And in order to do this, both CultureStake and Black Swan use quadratic voting[07]. Can you expand on this relatively new conception of voting?

PR: When using quadratic voting (QV) for decision-making, each user has multiple votes that can be allocated to various positions, or they can abstain from voting until the next round without omitting their vote. This is interesting in relation to seeing voting as more of a social force than just a point system. It offers collective decisions to be made without the tyranny of the majority, by allowing people to vote on how strongly they feel about an issue, rather than if they are in favour or not. This also means that marginalised voices could in effect put all of their votes in one place to see one proposal go through, whereas someone else may distribute their funds equally to two proposals rather than just choosing one. This is a new way of looking at voting principles which unearths preconceived ideas and tropes that are rooted in our make-up.

RC: By forcing people to indicate not just their preference, but also the strength of their support for a proposition, QV puts more information into the system, making a vote less vulnerable to interpretation by the powers that be. Also, because it “costs” voters more of their voting credits to express a strong opinion, it promotes a more nuanced and reflective decision-making. Quadratic voting challenges the idea that democracy has reached its pinnacle with the current one-person-one-vote system. It prompts a conversation about motivations, incentives and obstacles for engaging in collective decision-making processes, at a time when we desperately need better ways to coordinate at scale.

However, one of the big problems with QV is that unless you’re someone who has a feeling for numbers, it’s quite hard to really understand the impact of your voting. One person, one vote feels much more straightforward — you can visualise it as an analogue process — tick a box on a piece of paper and put it in a ballot box. With QV you have to estimate the results, calculate how you want to distribute your votes, and work out how this will affect your influence as an individual in a collective decision. QV only really becomes intelligible to most people through well-designed digital interfaces, so there is an access problem.

Quadratic voting challenges the idea that democracy has reached its pinnacle with the current one-person-one-vote system.

AL:   Imagine that would become the “new normal” for democracy… This could be taught in civic education classes! Children could be given the quadratic tables.

RC: [Laughs] This could provide an invaluable focus for learning about the relationship between numbers, data and rhetoric in human decision-making. The thing that I most like about QV is its defamiliarisation effect. It feels important right now that we discover new ways to make decisions together about things that are important to us, across distance and difference, and to think about which rules and systems we can trust. The arts are a good place to do this because the risk levels are low, and the engagement has the potential to be high, so we can experiment, practice, and rehearse together in different ways.

AL:   Penny, when I first heard about the Black Swan DAO, about a year ago, I remember you saying, “A DAO is a many-headed hydra.” There is something very combative, almost aggressive in this image. Could DAOs really be a tool to fight the established and consensual art world?

PR:   Yes! It’s funny you mention that because it’s true that I keep coming back to myth-making as a tool of empowerment. Of course, I am also seeing DAOs as very different machines to their likely original genesis. I think what drew me more and more to a DAO interface and theory was the fact that you could create a set of systems or materials that could easily be taken and reworked by another group trying to find similar answers. This sharing movement really drew me in. I think what a DAO can do is to offer a space for people to test their own criticality, their own agenda and also collective decision-making in communal spaces. This is something that is not new — co-op, squats and collectives all exercise this — but typically this is done from communities that are already consensually entangled, whereas a DAO offers a space for people who may differ in a certain set of parameters to come and build together.

AL: Ruth and you have been running this DAOWO programme of labs and debates for a little while now. What has been your most striking discovery thus far?

RC:   That there is a massive disconnect between the attitudes, life experiences and vocabularies of technical cultures and critical contemporary arts cultures. It’s really hard for us to communicate our values and concerns to each other. I’m not sure if this is more of a discovery or more a conviction that there is huge value to be gained from artists and art world players if they were to learn about DAOs.

AL:   Are most of the people in your development teams artists-programmers?

RC:   Yes. Mixing both is not easy, but artists can gain a lot from learning about rule-based creation, and engineers about the value of embracing and negotiating difference. It has become increasingly clear that we need to be building cultures before structures, otherwise we end up serving machines, and the people that own and build them.

PR:   I totally agree. I think it’s also because there is a new genre of cultural workers and they want to do, not just speculate.

AL:   Could you tell us about The Global Artworld DAO summit you’re cooking up?

RC: The Global Artworld DAO summit has come out of the series of DAOWO labs[07] that I have been running with Ben Vickers, the founder of the experimental project unMonastery and Chief Technology Officer of Serpentine Galleries in London. We have received the support of the Goethe-Institut since 2017, where we use a variety of arts-led methods to critique and explore blockchain technologies and cultures. The DAOWO Global Initiative aims to build a transnational network of arts and blockchain cooperation with organisations and communities in cities around the world. Penny and I have been working to develop think-tanks that prepare cultural community activists and partner organisations to host their own Artworld DAO think-tank events in their own locations and organisations. In this process, we use a variety of uncanny working methods and a toolkit of technical introductions, theory, work with the body, thinking, talking and break-aways. We now have labs (and some new Artworld DAOs) running in Athens, Minsk, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Berlin and Seoul.

AL:   This way of handing over a project in order for it to disseminate is conceptually not very far from the idea of automation that underpins DAOs.   Do you believe that Black Swan or CultureStake will become truly autonomous one day? Do you think true autonomy through blockchain-embedded code is attainable in such structures?

PR:   I wonder, what does autonomy even mean? Can I even understand it in its true form, since I am a product of this world?

But answering your question more formally, I don’t think Black Swan will ever be totally autonomous. However, I do hope it becomes ingrained in other people’s lives, that it gains new symbols, experiences, motions, and that eventually it may even become obsolete because we would have learned to live another way. This probably will not happen in my lifetime, which is why we must start mutating now.

AL:   To me, it’s a bit like what we see as problems with self-driving or autonomous cars. When would the code embed within a system the totality of its necessary parameters for it to run without any further change? Could these be revolutionary systems… Autonomous, rebellious systems?

PR:   I don’t think I want to live in a world that is not in flux, or fluid, or is not able to be wrong. I think certainty is not autonomous.

AL: Sure! That’s why I keep coming back to questioning the meaning of the “A” for “Autonomous” in DAOs.

PR:   The “A” points to how it can always be changed, since DAOs are built knowing that they should and will be changed by their users.

AL: Yes, but with so-called autonomous cars , isn’t the aim to have a system running without any human intervention at the end of the day? So on a practical level, how do you envision the long-term running of the Black Swan or of CultureStake, for instance?

PR: I think Black Swan will run fairly easily if there is a want or need for art forms that do not sit within the status quo of traditional formats, if people still believe that the idea of the individual artist is rather archaic. But Black Swan needs human culture to feed it, otherwise it will become very bored.

My dream is that CultureStake becomes part of a bunch of initiatives that change the way art worlds are conceived, so that art’s status would no longer be primarily a commodity with a price, a marker of value.

RC: I don’t dream of a world without human intervention. I think that life improves when we get more involved, rather than less. But CultureStake will continue to run beyond the scope of us as its initiators if it opens up new meanings and relationships between people in places, whether they be existing relationships amongst artists, viewers, curators, venues, individuals, communities, or as well as new ones that are created with other external players and even with more-than-human systems. My dream is that CultureStake becomes part of a bunch of initiatives that change the way art worlds are conceived, so that art’s status would no longer be primarily a commodity with a price, a marker of value. Rather, people would come to know what culture is worth in their own localities — whether geographic or networked — and they will know how to coordinate its creation for themselves.

Some of these art world DAOs will be both artworks and organisations, or organisations that are artworks which are part-autonomous and part-automated. We have already seen artists work with blockchains to produce programmable artworks, generative artworks, artworks to deconstruct surveillance capitalism, artworks to address carceral injustice, evolutionary social artworks, and enacting experimental art ownership mechanisms. These can then be explored trans-locally, either adapted for practical use and deployment by different communities in different settings, or through critique and discussion.

To this end, Penny and I are now working on The Artworld DAO Reader , planned for publication in early 2021. This book is a manifesto, a manual, a meditation and a magical system for trans-local art world cooperation and reinvention.

PR: What we call “the world” in “the art world” is the after-effect of a semiotic architecture which has been built up and organised through space, time, matter and myth by builders both rogue and commissioned. Living can be defined as an experiment in viewing and potentially participating in this semiotic structure, which may broker or break the previous semiotic structure we knew as “the world”. Technically, we all have access to this edifice yet we do not all hold the keys to the motherboard — but imagine if we did! If we all held the tools to look to this “world” and see beyond its conventional meaning and simultaneously find a gap that could be filled with an experience that has not been experienced yet. Even more, imagine if everyone had the ability to act if they chose to create that, what would that world look like? Unfathomable chaos or fluid conception?

But right now, I think that so much connection between bodies and individuals needs to be repaired before we enter this other landscape. I’m concentrating more on that, like the feeling you have when you hang out in the kitchen all night, just ignoring the rest of the party.

  • 01.

    Read this white paper in full here:

  • 02.

    Vitalik Buterin, “DAOs, DACs, DAs and More: An Incomplete Terminology Guide,” Ethereum Blog, May 6, 2014,


  • 03.

    Ethereum is a global, decentralized open source blockchain. See Ethereum.

  • 04.

    Rob Myers, "DAOWO: DAO it With Others", Furtherfield, 2015.

  • 05.

    FAMGA stands for the five big tech giants: Facebook, Apple Inc, Microsoft Corp, Google, and Inc.

  • 06.

    “CultureStake”, Furtherfield, undated.

  • 07.

    According to Glen Weyl, the inventor of quadratic voting (QV), it offers “a better way to make collective decisions that avoids the tyranny of the majority by allowing people to express how strongly they feel about an issue rather than whether they are in favor of it or opposed to it. The way this works in practice is quite simple: 1) A voter is able to express how strongly they feel about a certain decision by buying and applying more votes to their desired position, 2) Voters can vote as many times as they want, but they are assigned a set number of voting tokens over a certain period of time and the cost of each vote/token increases in a nonlinear way, 3) In turn, quadratic voting takes advantage of the fact that the stronger someone feels about a certain position, they more they will be willing to allocate more of their votes to that position. In terms of why quadratic voting is ‘quadratic’, Vitalik explains in his article On Radical Markets, the voting is ‘quadratic’ because the total amount you pay for N votes goes up proportionately to N.” Quoted from: Eximchain Blog, “What makes Quadratic Voting an effective Democratic Voting Mechanism”, Medium, Aug 17, 2018.

  • 08.


Artists and Contributors

Penny Rafferty portrait

Penny Rafferty

Penny Rafferty, a writer and visual theorist based in Berlin, is one of the co-founders of the blockchain-based micro-economy-in-the-arts platforms Ishtar Gate and The Black Swan DAO. She co-develops the think tank series Artworld DAO’s with Ruth Catlow in coordination with The Serpentine and Futherfield and continues to work as both an auditor and researcher in the tech cultural field. Her theoretical essays and creative texts have been commissioned for Cura, Kaleidoscope Magazine, Keen on,, NRW Dusseldorf, Flash Art and Elephant Magazine amongst others. She was the in-house critic at STATISTA Berlin, a KW+ZK/U initiative, in 2019.

Ruth Catlow picture

Ruth Catlow

Ruth Catlow is an artist, curator and researcher of emancipatory network cultures, practices and poetics. Artistic director of Furtherfield, a not-for-profit international community hub for arts, technology and social change co-founded with Marc Garrett in London, in 1996. She co-edited Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain (2017); and, with Ben Vickers, she runs the DAOWO arts and blockchain lab series. She is director of DECAL Decentralised Arts Lab, a Furtherfield initiative which mobilises research and development by artists, using blockchain and web 3.0 technologies for fairer, more dynamic and connected cultural ecologies and economies.

Aude Launey picture

Aude Launay

Aude Launay is an independent writer and curator trained as a philosopher. For the past four years, her research focus has been on distributed decision-making through algorithmic and blockchain-based processes in art. More generally, she is interested in art that interferes with the power mechanisms underpinning governance structures.

She is a researcher in the Blockchain in Media program of the Orleans School of Art and Design (2020-2022) and has been awarded a research grant (2019-2020) by the CNAP (French national centre for visual arts) to pursue her work around the democratic decision-making systems prototyped by artists with blockchains.

Calum Bowden portrait picture

Calum Bowden

Calum Bowden creates stories, worlds, and platforms that reimagine relations between organisms and algorithms, humans and nonhumans, the Earth and the cosmos. He co-founded Trust and Black Swan. Calum took part in the post-graduate program at the Strelka Institute, Moscow. He has an MA in Design Interactions from the Royal College of Art and a BSc in Anthropology from University College London.