Blockchain Future States*
Why did you initially become interested in the blockchain?
When I first heard of Bitcoin, I actually wasn’t all that interested–I just heard about it because friends were buying grey market stuff online with it and using it for alternative currency for that. This was like 2010 or 2011 I think. I dismissed it as inconsequential for me and not all that interesting or important. When I got really more interested in it seriously, it was in the process of research for an exhibition I did in 2015 at the Serpentine in London, where I was looking to chronicle the history of hacking. I was looking into where cryptography was currently (as some kind of essential sub-genre of hacking culture) and the Ethereum project was very prominent at that point. I then saw the other kinds of systems proposed on top of blockchain as more than just a money system for drugs, and started to read more. The story being told about the possibilities of radical transparency, a new decentralized web and governance infrastructure really interested me. I have been interested in the impact of the tech business community on governance for a while, looking at this in many projects, and this seemed to be a very important conversation to pay attention to within that context. This is when I decided to make some sort of dedicated research and presentation on the topic.
How has this body of work evolved in terms of specific subjects of interest—for example Bitcoin, Ethereum, DAO, etc.—and how has the material and conceptual form of the work itself developed alongside this?
I first just had to struggle a bit to try and understand what the implications of the technology really were. There is a lot of myth making involved in any story around blockchain. It’s a story that starts with the mysterious figure of Satoshi Nakamoto, already a myth, and it’s (still) hard to for me to understand exactly which part is narrative and which part is technology. Decoupling this as a non-technical person, one also never has the whole story. For me the process of making my exhibitions was first about finding a way to make the rhetoric possible to follow for an arts audience. This is initially why I wanted to have a kind of ‘infographic’ video as a part of the artwork, to explain the technology at a very basic level, but also to contextualize the explanation by being partly propaganda-like, including emphasizing some of the economic and ideological assumptions blockchain-like thinking takes as a given. An example of this is that financial incentivizing is key to collective action. I also wanted to underline just how fundamental some of the changes could be societally if the stories the blockchain bulls were telling were true. I had this idea that I could recast real company founders as a set of radical visionaries, breaking down different parts of the blockchain story and assigning the various different strands of possible political futures to each founder. So I looked for three founders that could represent a spectrum of companies–and picked Blythe Masters, from a capital markets perspective, Balaji Srinivasan from a Silicon Valley perspective, and Vitalik Butarin from a bitcoin community meet-up/independent engineer perspective. At the time (2016), this seemed like a fairly divergent spectrum of activity to focus on. Since then, it’s been interesting to watch those positions become closer, with Ethereum related things entering and even accelerating the capital markets space, and Ethereum becoming its own decentralized app ecosystem and virtual Silicon Valley, etc.To physically make each presentation as an exhibition experience, I took into account the context where I was showing, producing a different tone for each venue. In Berlin, the exhibition was staged in a former communist headquarters that is now a global business school. The room was a disused part of the building, still filled with a substantial and amazing communist mural–and so I made a kind of trade-fair presentation for each company. At the heart of each display, which aesthetically reflected the differences in attitude and ideology of each company, I produced a postage stamp with stamp designer Linda Kantchev, trying to distil into a visual object associated with nationhood, distribution, security, etc., the political propositions of each company. When showing in New York–where a number of banks and blockchain start-ups are based–I instead formulated each outlook into a giant display version of the board game Risk, drawing parallels between a gaming mentality and a political map of the world that features on a Risk board (and can describe alternate geographies/political formations), and this seemed to be something that communicated with the financial community and the art community alike. It was a condensed format that was legible and engaging.
You have described the work as partly ‘fan art’ where you are trying to offer a way in to understanding this technology. How do you achieve this whilst also maintaining a critical edge? And what does creative rethinking, or more specifically the appropriationist strategies you employ, offer in this regard?
That is one of the central questions of my work, I think. For me, it was about finding a tone where I was really getting what the core aims of the community building this technology were, to accurately understand where they’re coming from. But also to highlight some of the problematic aspects of what the technology proposes, while still reflecting this intense utopic tone that comes with the culture of the space. From spending some time with some parts of the tech community, many of the people involved have very honorable aims and are really ambitious about making a difference to the world in a positive way. A lot of people I have met in blockchain related spaces are just so smart and talented. But I think we are all–myself included–not always aware of how our actions and choices impact on politics and ethics. With my projects, my aim is to make this a central question, but there are a number of ways one can access that conversation, and spark a discussion in viewers.
I also think about what rhetorical strategy is most effective for opening up questions and discussion around technology and politics like this. I find artwork that seems to have answers, to point to ways of doing things that are solutions, to be often not all that engaging. I find a rhetorical approach that problematizes the material it looks at in order to open up the space for discussion to be less finite, and therefore less inert. So the angle of being a ‘fan’ has sometimes been a way for me to posit the idea of ‘what if’–what if we accept these visions on the terms they are publicized with, with the terms of the community that is presenting the ideas and building the infrastructure, what would the implications of that be–and leave it to the viewer to decide whether that’s something that we really want or not. To me, this is a critical position, but not one that guides a viewer’s own thinking as much as some other approaches.Do you have any ambitions to make work, or can you imagine using the blockchain itself as a medium, or using it as a means to organize and distribute your artworks or editions? What form might this take?
I’m not sure. I’ve had ideas along these lines that I’ve mostly discarded at this point. For me, the most fundamentally disruptive story I’ve heard about blockchain would be how it could monetize the attention economy. So, essentially, likes might become real financial value because of a proliferation of tokens and a very liquid exchange environment where micropayments would be no big deal. That is a very disruptive idea, and something that I could imagine becoming a reality. I’ve met some very smart people working in this kind of space and I think their understanding of what they’re doing is very sophisticated. So I have thought about putting time and energy into these kinds of ventures. I have thought about art journalism platforms that are somehow tokenized. But I am also deeply ambivalent about the benefits of blockchain, so I am not sure about putting my time and energy into building on it. I have reservations about what decentralization actually means within the projects that I know about which are already being built and funded in this space. I have reservations about what governance really looks like on these platforms, when it comes down to who is actually making important decisions about infrastructure and therefore what is possible. It seems to me that developers, admins and owners of infrastructural hardware have a lot of power that is not particularly decentralized. I have questions about accountability in a privatized (i.e. non-state regulated) environment. I also have questions about the benefit of a further financialization of experience, and an extension of the already quite vast cultural reach of market logic. So I think at this stage I would still rather be an observer, to document what is happening culturally around blockchain, but not to be an architect of it directly. That means I miss the gold rush, but hopefully not the chance to have a meaningful dialogue with those who are actually building these things. I think, or rather I hope, smart people want smart feedback, if it’s presented respectfully and in an engaging way. I more see that as my role and what I’m best suited to right now.
Can you tell us a little about your series of ‘gamer cases’ and stamps, and the processes and thinking behind them?
These cases stem from a longer series that I started in 2013, using what I feel is kind of the physical/object-based or sculptural language of competitive gaming. Many players involved in gaming like to customize their PCs, there’s a genre of this that is called Case Modding–as in modifying computer cases. It’s a pretty amazing field; there are lots of super interesting cases, and a whole network of competitions and products made for this market. I used this to make gaming cases that resemble corporate deal toys or like homages to winning companies. I find the paradigm of game-like thinking relates culturally to business and tech business spaces in a pretty native way–many of the prominent actors in this space either are or were gamers themselves, plus I think one could make an argument for the idea that a gaming mentality is akin to the way a lot of tech business people approach building a business and making a life. The series I made reflecting blockchain-based companies focused on legacy corporates that are adopting blockchain, like JP Morgan and Chase, BNY Mellon, some key DApps like Argur and other organizations like the DAO. In each sculpture, the aesthetic of the case is supposed to reflect a certain outlook of each company–for example, the JP Morgan one is fairly slick and contains a language that is close to bank design, whereas the DAO one is a cyberpunky/cypherpunky DIY leather suitcase containing a PC and connected to an off-the-shelf suitcase-shaped customizable PC case, which is much slicker and has a bunch of DAO rhetoric printed on it.
In creating fictional postage stamps, I’m interested in using that form as a waning technology and a literal image-turned currency to look at blockchain as this new package for contrast and familiarity. Stamps (as a form) at once serve as an actual currency stand-in for a trusted, secure distribution system and also imply national sovereignty and convey the visual codes of a nation state.
The stamp for Digital Asset reflected a conservative, centralized use of blockchain simply to make the existing bank and sovereign money systems more efficient by replacing settlement staff with software. So we used a woodcut-like illustration, a symmetrical regular grid and a kind of “queen’s head” layout of conservative stamp design that rotated into a centralised network diagram throughout the stamp sheet, pointed towards a central bank.
The postage stamp design for the company 21 Inc includes “free floating” diagonal stamps across a map of Silicon Valley–as the technologist “cloud” of Bitcoin hardwired computers float above the nationalist land below, and cables made of Bitcoin join each machine. A move away from the gridded sheet of the Digital Asset stamp and a representation of decentralization, the post-national bitcoin currency reigns.
The stamp for Ethereum borrowed from the Sci-Fi/fantasy genre linked to Magic: The Gathering (a familiar aesthetic touch point for many in tech). Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayeck–Austrian economists that are key in framing the market-based logic that ripples through all blockchain projects gaze across a Ethereum enabled globe with Vitalik at its helm and the father of network-theory Paul Baran. The perforated Ether stamps cut across each other, suggesting a “distributed currency and a network platform behind digital money that can be used to produce alternative governance structures”.
You’ve clearly spent a lot of time mining the web and exploring the many different and competing narratives surrounding the blockchain. What do these conflicting voices and the rampant speculation, for example whether it will truly be a new WWW, or just a new banking protocol, say more broadly about these different factions, and our relationship to technology, power, and trust, today?
While not being totally sure about this, I have some inclinations. I think the idea of it being a totally new www is very attractive for a number of very smart investors and technologists more broadly. Sometimes I think the desire to be a part of the foundations of ‘building the next web’ and ‘making the Facebook of the financial web, or web 3.0’, is a story too compelling to this community not to exist. I think some people need this story. I think maybe if blockchain didn’t exist, somebody would have to invent it to provide a focal point for a new generation of ambitious founders, talented engineers and disruptive investors. I also think that the narrative of alternative systems, about not trusting the government or ‘centralized orgs’, about building ‘fairer’, technologically enabled alternatives to state systems as fundamental as money and governance mechanisms is in tune with a wider distrust of states/politicians/‘the man’ that is identifiable in many cultural/political directions of the now–such as Brexit and Trump. I think this is an engineer’s answer to this societal zeitgeisty feeling, whereas there are other answers for other demographics. I think blockchain’s strong links to libertarian, exit-based thinking, and its investment in a story around incentives, like people needing to be financially incentivized in order to act, penetrate beyond tech as well. They go hand in hand with the logic that private enterprise is more efficient and smarter than state systems, that individual liberty equates to freedom–all these tendencies show themselves in other parts of society, not just within tech and finance.What does the development of, and dialogue around, the blockchain suggest regarding how we are envisioning the future, and the kind of technologies people need, desire, or are promoting?
I think I somewhat touched on this in my answer to the previous question, but maybe the desire for alternative collectivity, for systems that don’t involve ‘traditional hierarchies’ or ‘centralization’, and that speaks of a contemporary desire for ‘alternative’ macro stories, for collective societal narratives that are believable and different from the familiar stories that we seem to have somehow worn out. The collective stories of the 20th century don’t wash in the same way that they used to. People don’t believe in the 3rd way, they don’t believe in corporate systems leading to fair globalism and responsible inclusive growth. Lies are both more and less visible in a world with our web–making an environment where hypocrisy seems to be more rife than it used to be. A technology that (in a seemingly irreconcilable contradiction) both provides an answer to privacy (through cryptography) and transparency (the infallible public ledger) at scale, which in turn magically provides us with new hope for alternative governance mechanisms and an antidote to corruption… I can see why this is appealing as a popular new macro story.
Finally, let us imagine for a minute that a truly radical form of the blockchain were to fulfil some aspect of its potential or promise, what might that be and how might art be changed by it?
As I say, I think the most disruptive yet plausible thing that blockchains propose is a radical monetization of the attention economy. I think the way image producers and artists might earn their money, and what kind of art becomes visible and valuable might change as a result of this. Art is a system that seems to be tangentially affected by technological changes, rather than directly affected. The business model for the MoMA canon art world has stayed quite similar, but has accelerated over the last 20 years, since email and travel has changed things, and fairs and jpeg-based sales proliferated. That’s I guess the impact of web 1.0. With web 2.0, people do sell work off Instagram–for example advisors make a lot of use of Instagram, and traditional primary galleries, but to a lesser extent. Artists also make use of Instagram but it’s less directly for sales–again I am talking about a MoMA-canon kind of art, and artists and galleries that aspire to be a part of this kind of canon. Personalities of artists are shaped through web 2.0 social infrastructure, and curatorial patterns seek and identify work on social networks. For the impact of a possible web 3.0, I think the fact that artists and the art world use the attention economy and often in a self conscious way, means that any changes to the way that works–what platforms they interact with and how–could again effect the mechanics behind art, again indirectly, but profoundly. If we lived in a world where many people had very liquid personal or project-specific currencies and worked around a tokenized culture of tradable value units that followed where attention went, one might get more crowd-funded art projects, and that could change some business models. One might also see an intensification of artwork that spoke to many people rapidly through images. To me, this would have more profound effects on art and its production and reception than for example, a transparent blockchain ledger that either enabled digital work to be guaranteed to be unique (and therefore supposedly more salable), or authenticity to be guaranteed by a unique traceable hash. These are the two blockchain art models I hear most often posited, and I don’t think they are all that profound.
* This interview was initially published in Artists Re: Thinking the Blockchain, edited by Ruth Catlow, Marc Garrett, Nathan Jones and Sam Skinner, published by Torque Editions & Furtherfield in September 2017, and distributed by Liverpool University Press. We republish it here alongside a French translation to coincide with the newly available digital version of the book (free to download: torquetorque.net), launched in February 2018 at Transmediale, Berlin. The print edition is available to buy from Liverpool University Press
(Image on top: Simon Denny, Blockchain Risk Board Game Prototype: Capital Markets Digital Asset Edition, 2016. Folde Board: plywood, canvas, foil; Boardgame box: plywood, foil; Figures, cards and dice: Spraypaint on 3D printed figures, coins, plexiglas, digital print on cardboard along; Game rules: UV print on dibond. Courtesy Simon Denny ; Petzel, New York.)