Artist & researcher Primavera De Filippi has created a new species. It’s called the Plantoid, and it’s difficult to describe in a single sentence. At first glance, it’s a mechanical sculpture, but taking a closer look, mechanical creature (the term used on the Okhaos website) is a far more accurate description. The website also describes the Plantoid as an autonomous agent, the plant equivalent of an android, and a beneficial Pyramid scheme.
A “distributed autonomous organisation” or DAO is a quasi-legal entity that exists as executable code on the blockchain. Every Plantoid implements its own DAO, allowing it to interact with the real world.
Throughout the description, it’s stressed that the Plantoid needs humans to reproduce: “Send Bitcoin to the Plantoid, so it can hire an artist to replicate itself…” And people have listened. Since September 25, 2015, many have been inspired to donate bitcoins to this mysterious and complicated creature. The Plantoid has received 22 incoming transactions to its wallet address, the most recent occurring on January 20, 2016.
I spoke to De Filippi to better understand the inner workings of the Plantoid and why blockchain technology was an important part of the project.
Emily Braun: What inspired the creation of the Plantoid?
Primavera De Filippi: The Plantoid is an attempt at representing in the real world that which I consider to be the most powerful aspect of the blockchain: the ability to deploy algorithmically entities (or smart contracts), which operate autonomously on the blockchain (in that they do not need, nor heed their creators) and which are self-sufficient (in that they can charge users for the services they provide, in order to pay for the resources they need). When transposed to the case of the Plantoid: plantoids are autonomously operated through a smart contract deployed onto the Ethereum blockchain, and they receive money from people appreciating their beauty and/or intellect, in order to be able to hire people to help them reproduce.
Braun: How did you first learn about Bitcoin & blockchain technology? What was your first impression?
De Filippi: As a legal researcher, I have been working on exploring the legal implications of decentralized applications for many years now, and as soon as Bitcoin came out, I became extremely interested in investigating the challenges and opportunities provided by blockchain technology. I could see Bitcoin as providing an enormous potential for decentralization and disintermediation, and I decided to focus most of my research on this emerging technology. Though the main focus of my research goes way beyond Bitcoin and other blockchain-based financial applications, I am much more interested in the new generation of blockchain technologies (so-called blockchain 2.0) and the new blockchain-based applications that can be deployed on top of these emergent technologies.
Braun: What influenced the physical form of the Plantoid? How is beauty important?
De Filippi: The Plantoid is to a plant what an android is to a human. Hence, the first physical instantiation of the plantoid is merely an attempt at representing a mechanical plant. It’s form, however, is dictated by a particular set of constraints: it is entirely made of recouped material, mostly pieces of metal found in an abandoned train yard. There was no preliminary design effort to stipulate how the plantoid would or should look like; its form organically grew out of the material found in the train yard, which has been aggregated on an on-going basis to form what has now become the first instantiation of a Plantoid in the physical world.
Braun: Can you expand on the statement that no one can ever own a Plantoid? That really interests me!
De Filippi: A Plantoid cannot be owned because no one can own or control its soul. The soul of the Plantoid is a piece of software that is not run on any given server, but has been deployed on top of the blockchain and is thus run in a decentralized manner by every node in the network. While people can possess (but not own) the physical embodiment of a Plantoid, they cannot exert any control on the way in which that Plantoid will act or evolve. The life-cycle of the Plantoid and its reproductive process is ultimately determined by the underpinning technology.
Braun: How many people so far have contributed funds to the Plantoid’s wallet?
De Filippi: Just explore the blockchain and find out!
Braun: How does the Plantoid relate to your past body of work?
De Filippi: All of my artistic production is informed by my academic research. I use art as a tool to illustrate the findings of my research, but also —and most importantly— as a means to challenge the law and underline the drawbacks and/or limitations of the current regulatory framework. In the past, given my academic research on the legal issues of copyright law in the digital world, most of my artistic production was intended as a means to transpose in the physical world the challenges faced by copyright law in the digital world. Today, as the focus of my research has shifted towards investigating the legal challenges raised (and faced) by blockchain technologies, the Plantoid represents an exemplification of the new opportunities provided by these new technologies, as well as the legal concerns that might arise from their widespread deployment.
Braun: I’ve interviewed a good amount of artists and feel like I’m constantly discovering new art about this topic. Why do you think so many artists are drawn towards it? Why were you personally drawn towards it as subject matter?
De Filippi: In my view, it’s quite obvious. I see artists as explorers constantly trying to push the boundaries of reality. As new technologies come up, it is natural for artists to be the first one to experiment with these new technologies, to try and integrate them into their art and discover new applications of the technology that had not been thought of before. Artists have the ability to innovate in ways that are not commercially viable and are therefore often ignored by most commercial ventures. For my part, I believe that the blockchain provides a whole new set of opportunities for artists to experiment with new business models, and the Plantoid is just an example of what I consider to be a new model of funding the production of art —a model that could potentially be applied by analogy to many other sectors of activity that require the creation of resources of public or collective utility.
Braun: You touched on this briefly in your previous answer, but in what ways could blockchain technology benefit artists? Are there any present applications that you feel strongly about?
De Filippi: The blockchain is essentially a technology of disintermediation. What the Internet has done to enable global interpersonal communication, the blockchain could do to achieve global and systematic collaboration, without the need to rely on any central authority or middleman in charge of coordinating individual actions.
One obvious application of blockchain technology that could benefit artists is the opportunity for anyone to set up a system of micro-tipping or micro-donations without having to pay any of the fees that most payment systems require. Another related opportunity of blockchain technology is the ability for artists to set up crowdfunding campaigns that are managed solely and exclusively code, without any intermediary operator managing the relationship between the artists and their backers. Besides, with the blockchain, artists can grant everyone of their backers with equity in their works, for them to subsequently enjoy a share of the profits that will ultimately be generated by these works.
Finally, blockchain technologies can be used to bypass traditional collecting society, whose interests are often not aligned with that of the artists, to set up new and automated systems for collecting royalties from the public in such a way that the royalties fees are automatically redistributed to different artists in proportion to their actual contribution to the work.
Braun: What are your hopes for the future of this project? For the future of Bitcoin & the blockchain in general?
De Filippi: As a new species, the main objective of the Plantoid is to reproduce itself and progressively expand throughout its environment. Hence, I hope that the Plantoid will collect a sufficient amount of fundings in order to reproduce itself and fund the production of new Plantoids by other artists. I also hope that the success of the Plantoid will constitute an interesting example of how we can conceive new business models that are not grounded on the exclusivity of copyright law but rather on maximizing the dissemination and the creation of derivative works. I hope that people will be inspired by the Plantoid, and try to transpose this same model to other fields.
More generally, with regards to cryptocurrency, I think that Bitcoin has shown how powerful blockchain technologies are, and I hope that more and more people will try to experiment with these new technologies in order to figure out how they can be applied to many sectors of activity other than the financial sector.
– Emily Braun