From the archive – a short story by Rob Myers: is this the defining creative act, or the greatest art crime, of our age?
On 18 April 2057 art-collector-turned-artist-provocateur F.N. Müller acquired and destroyed one of the most auspicious, and valuable, art tokens that has ever existed on the blockchain. Here, Rob Myers speaks to the artist and examines how this unprecedented action sheds light on the world of art’s value as it once existed – long before the blockchain came to govern all aspects of economic and social life – and asks whether this is the defining creative act, or the greatest art crime, of our age.
Sale of the famous artwork token 0x13950FA26222953AC648B222… – ‘The Token’ – was scheduled to take place on the blockchain via a smart contract auction at 11:17pm on 17 April 2057. As the closing date of the auction drew near it became clear that someone was trying to manipulate the speed at which transactions on the blockchain were being periodically registered as blocks. Unbelievable amounts of computing power were being thrown into the network, then withdrawn just as suddenly.
It is worth reflecting on just how much computing power it takes to manipulate the blockchain, and on how much that costs. During the 2010s and 2020s those costs (and the costs of any harm to the price of the cryptocurrency and other tokens stored on the blockchain that resulted) would have been borne in fiat currency, and so it might have been rational to attack the blockchain because it was not ‘real’ money. Nowadays attacking the blockchain undermines the very foundations of value, property and knowledge in global society. Game theorists will tell you that a rational person will only undertake such an attack if it makes economic sense for them to do so. Game theorists tend not to cover artworld events.
Security experts watching the attack unfold determined that this manipulation was intended to bring about the production of a particular block at a particular time – the block that would contain the final sale of The Token was being deliberately delayed in order to make it auspicious.
Auspicious blocks, transactions and tokens contain data with properties that – by accident or design – carry striking meanings or relationships. The more of these properties, and the stronger the relationship between them or to the wider world, the more auspicious. The Token already had very few properties that were not auspicious.
The attack completed successfully with block 0x5908D820E15128BA86302BA0… in the small hours of 18 April. Alongside this attack on the blockchain itself, another smaller attack had targeted the smart contract that was running the auction for the sale of The Token, with a flood of unusual transactions. The bidding price was held artificially low as successive bids were offered, delayed and then suddenly invalidated. Finally, as the close of the auction approached, a bid came in that was so large that observers could not believe it was genuine.
The winning bid had a sting in its tail: the digits of its value, the time it was made, its ID number and the account address it was sent from all auspiciously encoded a message. By becoming part of the blockchain record of the already storied history of The Token, these created an exquisite and provocative composition of form and content – constructing an unsettling contemporary memento mori for an artworld public that knows how to read it. The auspicious properties of the block containing the sale encoded the birthdate of the artist who created the physical artwork that the token represented.
Just as observers were realising the full impact of this seemingly impossible series of technonomic transgressions, The Token’s new owner burned it. ‘Burning’ a token is the act of sending it to a blockchain address from which it is mathematically impossible to transfer the token away, meaning that it cannot be sold or updated in any way, ever again. This is an old tradition: in 2014, bitcoin holders burned BTC 2, 124 (the equivalent of US$40 million in fiat currency just three years later). The message encoded in the winning bid and the sheer audacity of the burn all pointed at one person: Swiss artworld enfant terrible F.N. Müller.
The Art of the Token
It is difficult to remember a time before today, before every aspect of our lives was managed by the blockchain – even more difficult to remember a time when the blockchain was not the primary medium for art production, commerce and scholarship. It may be hard to believe, but back then, legacy artists really did hire fabricators to make overwrought chunks of metal or other middle-size dry goods, whose provenance then had to be established through art galleries that kept prices secret, auction houses that kept buyers secret and critics and historians who kept their motivations secret. It is hard to remember the moment when the blockchain – a peer-to-peer network of computers that updated a public ledger in chunks or blocks of transactions every ten minutes – allowed first money and then other assets to be represented by immaterial digital tokens, while smart contracts managed them with incorruptible rules, represented as computer code; when first artists and then the rivals to traditional art institutions rushed to this new world of transparency and strongly secured certainty.
Yet they mostly used these tokens to represent physical and visual art, even as society became inexorably financialised and virtualised around these very tokens. Physical art provided a reassuring presence in times of great change, as both a monetary and an ideological investment. But as society became more and more tokenised, and as the cost of storing useless physical items increased, it was the tokens themselves that became increasingly the subject of artistic production, speculation and critique.
Paradoxically this started with works that were never intended to be sold. Canonical art in museums and private collections that had not touched the market in centuries became popular objects to be represented as proxy tokens, in part or in whole, very early on. Some of these tokens had identity numbers, dates and other properties or relations between them that seemed unlikely, amusing, significant or otherwise ‘auspicious’. Collectors soon lost interest in the artworks that these tokens were meant to represent and started collecting the tokens themselves because of the tokens’ various auspicious properties.
Artists followed by constructing new tokens or derivatives of these tokens that had ever-more auspicious properties in ever-more striking relationships, from the qabbalistic to the savagely satirical. Auspicious properties of a token might be an unexpected large prime number found in the price of a sale, an accidental encoding of the colour code of Yves Klein Blue in a date, the fact that the token featured in a chain of blockchain transactions that points to an (in)famous historical personage or event, or a transaction ID number that spells out a fragment of a poem if you misread it as text.
Collectors flocked to these auspicious tokens. Critics and institutions sought to tackle what they saw as a wave of numerological kitsch by staking their reputation and wealth in prediction markets designed to reflect and manipulate the reputation and prices of the new medium. To their surprise, this both made them wealthy and restored the cultural power and social standing that they had lacked for much of the later twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first. Captured by the new medium in an accelerating feedback loop of critical and artistic production, the difference between aesthetic, art historical and market value collapsed into singularity.
It is worth remembering that legacy art made prior to the tokenisation era had its own auspicious properties, although people did not use this term. Symbolic form, skilled technique and the use of different physical materials were all qualitative properties that were believed to make some artworks more valuable than others in ways that can seem mystifying to us now. These properties were embedded in their own informal blockchainlike structure of art-historical scholarship, with each new journal article, lecture or exhibition referring back to and incorporating those before it in order to establish that they were a valid continuation of the chain of critical value.
The more auspicious quantitative properties of legacy artworks were not necessarily only economic ones. The sale price of an artwork is a revealed rather than a stated preference for a work, and the importance of price cannot be overstated for that reason. But the compositional and stylometric mathematics of an artwork, its physical dimensions, its age and its provenance were all seen as contributing to an artwork’s value.
Some properties of legacy artworks were seen as transcendent or eternal. Others were more obviously contingent on historical or cultural factors and could even be seen to be at odds with each other – for example the symbolism of a work depicting subject matter concerned with class politics contrasted with the same work’s auction price and ownership.
Legacy artworld institutions, whether commercial, academic, state or nonprofit, amounted to trusted third parties in the value of art as surely as banks and states did in the value of fiat money prior to the blockchain. That value rested on faith in those institutions; it was a matter of collective belief, and that belief could be rocked by scandal or by the collapse of bubbles.
But it would be cruel to contrast the limits of physical art, and of commerce and provenance tracked by fallible human beings on paper ledgers, with the freedom of tokenised art. Rather we should take pause and show appropriate humility when regarding the tokenised art of our own era. There may come a time when it too is forgotten, deaccessioned or regarded as a mere precursor to something greater.
F.N. Müller seems to take no such pause. Given rare access to his communication channel just after he completed the burn of The Token, I asked: why did you do it?
“Once I learned that The Token would be sold, and that the sale was close to, but not quite at an auspicious time, that knowledge would not leave me alone. It became an obsession. Here was a token already overloaded with auspicious properties, and it was about to be blemished by a missed opportunity. I resolved to do whatever was necessary to create and seize that opportunity and send the cultural value of The Token to the moon.”
But didn’t creating that cultural value destroy unbelievable amounts of economic value, much of it in the form of cultural capital staked in prediction markets, I asked…
“I would deny that in the strongest possible terms. The resources I used to ensure that the sale of The Token was auspicious were my own. And there is something hollow to this talk of cultural capital. Before I burned The Token, who even remembered the legacy artwork that it originally referred to? A work titled The Large Glass, by an artist called Marcel Duchamp. It was damaged by being cracked shortly after it was first fabricated in the early twentieth century, long before it was finally smashed beyond repair, while being put into storage before being deaccessioned from a museum somewhere in Pennsylvania a couple of decades ago.”
But didn’t the manipulation of the blockchain and the auction transactions cause ripples far beyond the artworld?
“I did nothing wrong. The code for the blockchain and the auction define the rules that we can act within, and I followed those rules. Code is law, bugs and all, and I acted within that law.”
And what of burning The Token?
“Again, that is not something that is prevented by its code. And for those who are bleating about the destruction of art – nothing is being destroyed. It is being transfigured, and that is what great art has always done and must always do. This is the burning of a rocket engine, not a book. The Token is still there, you can still see it on the blockchain. My creative act has placed it forever out of reach of the stink and sweat of commerce, framed by auspicious properties both natural and deliberately constructed.
“Our networks, our tokens, our economies, are a second nature atop physical nature. I am transfiguring the sublime of that nature directly into the sublime of art. This is the one true artistic gesture of our age, the marriage of physis and techne under the sign of number in a way that only the techonomic power of the blockchain can assemble but that defeats that power in the name of art.
“You do not have to believe me when I say this. You do not have to trust the word of any fallible human being. You just have to trust the math of the blockchain, in this as in all things.”
Only time can tell whether Müller’s ‘creative act’ will cover him with eternal glory or with the ‘lone and level sands’. But in the current era, time passes one block at a time, and each block inscribes the spectacular final act of the story of The Token, irrevocably, into what has long since become the one true record of our reality.
Published in ArtReview, October 2018