Jess spoke to Blockleaders about how an art teacher had a profound inspirational effect on her, her stint at Sotheby's, and how her latest project, Codex Protocol, uses blockchain to determine provenance.
She spoke about boats too.
The great Pablo Picasso once said that the purpose of art is to wash the dust of daily life off our souls.
Art has been associated with mankind since the very beginning of time. From Altamira to the Louvre, the history of art is long, rich, and it is eternal.
The art trade is a lucrative business, too. While the exact figure for the global market worth depends on who you ask, and which factors you take into account, fine art moves billions of dollars every year.
But the one problem inherent to the art trade business is provenance. Determining the origin, history, and authenticity of a particular piece is crucial to ascertaining its worth.
Provenance is not an exact science, as some pieces may go back hundreds of years so tracing their exact path can be challenging. A lot of educated guesswork is involved, which can lead to uncertain results.
The immutability of blockchain technology has enabled a new, solid method of determining provenance, and this is where Jess Houlgrave sails in.
Jess is the co-founder of the Codex Protocol, a decentralized title registry for valuable collectibles. But Jess is much more than that. She's also the founder of shEOS, a female-only blockchain organization. And, to make things more interesting, she has had stints at Sotheby's, is an avid sailor, and a collector of old maps, a hobby I've honestly never come across. All told, Jess is a rather interesting individual.
From finance to art: Jess' draw towards the finer things in life
Before becoming involved in the blockchain ecosystem, Jess spent a number of years working in finance. Such disparate careers attracted my attention, so I wanted to know how and why she made the transition.
"So I was working in financial investment side. I invested in companies, funds, etc. Some of these companies were looking at new technologies, so I became aware of blockchain and crypto at this time. I also had a friend who was heavily involved in the crypto space from quite early on, so I had a way in. Besides, I hold a degree in Economics, so it was all these different components, the crypto economics, the investment side, that got me interested."
Sailing the friendly seas
Jess is a sailing enthusiast and, although she does not own her own boat, she continues to enjoy the activity. I definitely wanted to know more about this aspect of her life.
"I grew up in a family where sailing was our main hobby, and I'm lucky enough to have friends who own boats, so I quite enjoy sailing with them."
If Jess did have her own boat, what would she call it?
"I don't know, I'd have to sail it first, before I knew what to call it. Changing a boat's name brings bad luck, they say, so if you buy a second-hand boat, it's considered bad luck to change its name. So you get what you're given!"
Sold! Jess' stint at Sotheby's
British-founded Sotheby's is the fourth largest auction house in the world, with an annual turnover close to $6bn.
As it turned out, Jess spent some time working at this famed institution.
"I worked at Sotheby's back in 2016, helping clients bid on items. So I would bid for them in the room, or on their behalf. I spent time at the Sotheby's Institute of Art, where I was writing a Master's Thesis on the applications of blockchain technology for the art world. So during the course of my research, I got in touch with a lot of companies working both on and off the blockchain space, trying to find out how all might be impacted by this new technology. The outcome was the first piece of academic research into the applications of blockchain technology for the art world."
On a childhood full of art and wonder
I was curious to know about when the art loving seed was planted in Jess' life.
"I had a very inspiring art teacher at school. I really loved art classes, and thoroughly enjoyed the creative process. Now, I wouldn't consider myself a highly skilled artist in terms of drawing or painting but I really did enjoy creating something. I used to take ballet classes too and would enjoy the performance side of that. All this is what really sparked my interest in art. A wonderful teacher, and the creative outlet that art provided.
"I wish I had more time to produce art, to absorb myself into creating something. But I tend to have a lot of things going on at once, so that can be a hindrance to the creative process. So isolating myself, and giving myself time and space is really important."
I dream my painting, and I paint my dream, said van Gogh.
Inspiration is a very personal and intimate thing. It can come at anytime, from anywhere, and strike you with mighty force. Sometimes, you just need to paint, or write, or sculpt that afterimage that's etched in your mind.
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Where did Jess' inspiration come from?
"I used to do a lot of architecturally-inspired drawings. I'm totally fascinated by architecture, particularly ancient architecture. For instance, I have an ink drawing piece of the Colosseum hanging on my wall at home, which took a long time to do. It really was a labor of love. I find this type of architectural stuff very appealing."
Blockchain for art
Jess wrote a Master's Thesis on the practical applications of blockchain for the art world, so she spoke with great insight on the matter of provenance, and other issues inherent to the art trade.
"Blockchain tech does have real-life applications for art. They range from artists using blockchain to create art, or payments, examining provenance, storing information about artworks, and so on. All of these things are big ideas about this technology might impact the art world.
"What I'm most interested in however, is provenance, and how we can use this technology to reduce the risks when purchasing art items. Traditionally, there has been a lot of risk evaluation involved in the art trade. For example, where did the piece come from? Is the piece authentic? Blockchain tech can really help us to track and preserve that information, which actually has a great impact on the value of arts for collectors, intermediaries, and artists involved.
"That's why I'm really interested in how the technology can be used, and that's where Codex is focused."
The Codex protocol
Jess is the co-founder of Codex, a decentralized title registry for art collectables. It is a rather interesting project that deserves further insight.
"I joined the Codex project towards the middle of 2017, alongside Mark Lurie, whose previous business was an online marketplace for arts and collectibles. He sold the business in 2016. Mark was thinking about the impact of this technology on the auction industry, and high-value goods and collectibles. Because of my previous research in the art space, I ended up joining Codex.
"What the Codex Protocol really is about, it's a set of open source smart contracts that enables artists and intermediaries to create digital records for real assets. So, let's take a painting created by an artist. We can create a record for that painting on the blockchain. That record can act as a certificate for authenticity, containing information about ownership, materials used, etc. That record can then be used to determine provenance, the history and identity of the object, in other words.
"So Codex facilitates the easy use of blockchain for art and collectables stakeholders."
shEOS: Female power on the blockchain
The female presence on the blockchain space is on the rise, as the technology has enabled a greater possibility of entrepreneurship, and the diversification of work projects.
Jess is the founder of shEOS, a female-only blockchain organization.
"The EOS blockchain is a delegated Proof-of-Stake blockchain, which means that holders of EOS tokens have to vote for the people they want to run the network. There can only be 21 block producers at any one time, which leads to a very fast and scalable blockchain. So a block producer has to campaign, as they need to be voted in.
"So shEOS is a block producer. What makes us unique is that the group is formed entirely by women, and we give a portion of our revenue every month to fund girls' technical education. We all passionately believe that women often don't have equal access to educational opportunities. So we work with schools and education providers to develop technical curricula that are focused on girls' education."
An interesting quandary: compare blockchain with a work of art
Technology can be art, and art can be technology. But which work of art does blockchain resemble the most?
"That's a really good question. It makes me think of an artist I admire, Jessica Angel. She produces art that is based on the visualization of networks. So even before blockchain came into existence, she was visualizing digital networks. So if I had to compare blockchain with art, it'd probably be Jessica's, where there's this kind of distribution and equality, and white space. Her art has a decentralized, distributed feeling about it."
How has blockchain changed Jess' outlook on work, life, and the art world
Blockchain tech has had a deeply changing effect on Jess' professional life. Codex Protocol and shEOS are the most obvious manifestations of this change, and I wanted to know how she felt about this shift.
"Blockchain has impacted me in a few ways. Firstly, I have moved from being an academic and a finance professional to being an entrepreneur. That has meant a huge change to the way that I work, the pace of my work.
"But I think the biggest change has been driven by the people I've met while working on this space. There are people from all different backgrounds, who are using the tech in so many different ways. And the common thread is that they are all so passionate about it, and I think that's what the most inspiring thing is for me.
"I meet innovators and forward thinkers every day. If I had one goal for blockchain in the art world is that I hope that technology is ultimately used to ensure that value reaches the people who are actually creating this value. By this I mean that there's a lot of artists who are producing incredible work, and have amazing careers, but don't actually get much of a benefit. There are a lot of intermediaries who take a large chunk of the potential benefits. So many artists don't actually get the funds they are entitled to.
"So I think that if this technology can be used to benefit artists, by helping them to protect their markets, safeguard their estate and manage their inventory, that's what I have high hopes for."
Old maps, art, blockchain, and boats. Jess Houlgrave is an eclectic woman who speaks confidently and sails through life with ease and grace. Codex Protocol and shEOS show great potential to become runaway successes in the blockchain space by bringing fairness for artists, and creating blocks for the EOS network respectively.