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How to Buy Art on WhatsApp – Text Zien

Last week I bought my first work of art. The only thing is, I didn’t buy it but ‘claimed’ it, like a ten-pound note on the street, and actually I’ve already lost it. Does this make me a collector? Maybe, but not a very good one.

Omsk_Social_Club_Psychomancy Syndicate_2020 (in transition)
Omsk Social Club Psychomancy Syndicate 2020 (in transition)

The work is called ‘Association Grid: Dark Night’ by British artist Ed Fornieles. For now, it is stored somewhere on a zipped file on my phone, waiting for me to create it. The work is strange and unconventional, a series of photos of monkeys and brains and Mark Zuckerberg, fizzing with associations in a stone-circle round, but the way that I bought it was perhaps more unconventional still – via WhatsApp, by texting Zien.

‘Association Grid: Dark Night’ by British artist Ed Fornieles.
Installation shot Ed Fornieles ‘Association Grid: Dark Night courtesy Zien Photo Mark Westall

Zien describe themselves as a ‘new way to collect art for the digital native’. By signing up to its WhatsApp broadcast, clients receive notification of artwork releases via ‘drops’ of ‘scarce editions’. Scarce editions are a new format for this WhatsApp dealing, and consist of a digital file of an artwork, with a licence to produce it and instructions on how. So, in the infant spirit of the internet, it is all free. There are costs woven into the structure though; to jump the queue for drops there are paid upgrade options, and to get the works fabricated requires a transaction with the broadcast.
The word ‘free’ immediately evidences how disruptive Zien is for the traditional functioning of art commerce. Speaking to its founder Peter Holsgrove, I was told of Ziens foundation in looking at different ways to engage with the art market. Scarce editions are an answer to the question of how much one can participate in the market without having the capacity to own and collect works, they ‘link the chasm between participating and observing’, Holsgrove says. He and the rest of the Zien team have a history of working in blockchain and cryptocurrency, and the transactions on the platform take place via an Ethereum blockchain, a technology behind the cryptocurrency Ether.

All of this – the cryptocurrency, the texting, the facelessness, the intangibility – seems so far from the art world as we know it, but that’s exactly why Zien is so attention-grabbing. Because there are within it elements of the personality, thrill, and glamour that characterise so much of art collecting now. There is the tension of privilege (exclusive broadcasts, upgraded access) versus parity (free artworks available to the fastest finger), the intimacy of a text to your pocket versus the distance of a robotic reply, the tugging of convenience of buying art on your phone versus the demands of its creation. When the art world is restricted to the same screen-size foot-age of gallery space, the endless network available to Zien feels like an empire.

Zien gently prods at how we sell art and what we are buying. It messes with the definitions of what it means to ‘own’ a work – we own intention rather than a product, and when we buy art as .zip files will the current tax-free freeport storage that keeps great artworks in warehouses across the world find its equivalent in secreted hard-drives? Hopefully not, when one claims a scarce edition via Zien, one owns a work but also has a responsibility towards it. We buy the art, but we also bear the responsibility to actualise it, we have to act after our transaction.

Omsk_Social_Club_Psychomancy Syndicate_2020_2
Omsk Social Club Psychomancy Syndicate 2020

Though Holsgrove is keen to note that Zien, unlike other new digital platforms for the art market, is emphatic about the translation from URL to IRL. This is not work meant to exist solely in the ether. It’s evident in their next drop; ‘Psychomancy Syndicate’ by Berlin-Based collective OMSK Social Club and curated by Lucy Sollitt, makes demands on its owner, filling physical and mental space. Described as ‘a 3D printed sculpture – or a portal to sacred experience of your own making’, the work comes with contractual demands for its fabrication and authentication – noting where it should face, the intention setting requirements for its activation and the owners updates on the rest of the editions in the series, which are received every 23rd full moon for a lifetime. Responsibility lies with every owner to collectively make the work real. 69% or more of the original sum of ‘Psychomancy Syndicate’ editions in circulation must be authenticated at any one time, or all the Scarce Editions are invalid. As Holsgrove explains, ‘there is a reversal of the authentication process – authentication is bestowed to collectors’. Each edition is also connected to the blockchain, so anybody can read the ledger of authentication.

‘Psychomancy Syndicate’ by Berlin-Based collective OMSK Social Club and curated by Lucy Sollitt
Installation shot OMSK Social Club Psychomancy Syndicate 2020 courtesy Zien Photo Mark Westall

How Zien will expand – how it will meet the demands of exclusivity, personality and luxury that colour the art world today, for better or worse – is to be seen. A WhatsApp-based concierge service for high net-worth collectors? Live-streams with artist studios? Fewer and fewer free editions available? The possibilities go on but the ethic, the fissure into traditional functioning, is already there. It is a form of art-buying that asks for integrity, for collaboration, and for suspension of the norm, and it is one we should all be excited about. @ziendotio

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