The Price of Memory
Art and Cryptocurrency initially appear as different as Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus, yet further investigation reveals a kindred similarity between the two. The perceived value of art and cryptocurrency are both strongly bound to subjectivity. This subjectivity rests on the public perception of scarcity and demand for these goods. Although the perception of these goods is not regulated by a government body but relies upon a conglomerate of ineffable characteristics to govern the community sentiment. But how does the public, or more precisely, the market generate art and cryptocurrency’s value?
One may initially hypothesize that value is determined very differently between art and cryptocurrency yet, these disparate worlds are connected by their shared use of memory. In an article entitled "Bitcoin is Memory", William J. Luther and Josiah Olson draw parallels between memory and bitcoin’s ability to function as a public record-keeping device. The loose threads of human’s fallible memory are bound into the physical form of cryptocurrency and art. These forms are labelled with a prescribed dollar value that washes over the memories of the past. Despite the object’s saturation in memory, the value expressed monetarily distances us from this collective past and memory.
How we define cryptocurrency and art contributes to our understanding of their function as public records and collective memory. Art is notoriously difficult to define and is therefore dependent on general public consensus to categorise disparate objects as “art”. We depend on our collective understanding of what art was, to determine what art is. Bitcoin on the other hand is easier to define, but perhaps more difficult to understand. Bitcoin is an open-source, peer-to-peer cryptocurrency developed by Nakamoto in 2008 and launched in 2009. Essentially, cryptocurrency is a type of digital currency that maintains a record of transactions. New units of the currency can be created by solving mathematical problems on the computer. This type of currency is different from our traditional conception of money because there is no central bank influencing its value, nor is it backed by a government.
The similarities between art and cryptocurrency are even substantially significant to facilitate a union between the two mnemonic forms. This fusion led to the emergence of "crypto art" which grew in popularity through the 2010s because of the ability of this technology to buy and sell purely digital artworks by anyone in a decentralized manner. The Observer Magazine reported the foundation of a start-up called the Blockchain Art Collective (B.A.C.). According to The Observer, B.A.C. is “the newest part of a constantly growing ecosystem of start-ups testing how to use blockchain technology to standardize unpredictable aspects of the art industry.” The use of cryptocurrency and art as a public record keeping device is naturally incomplete. However, by joining art and cryptocurrency it is possible to prevent any individual entry in the shared network from being altered or deleted. B.A.C. (along with other start-ups experimenting in the field) have recognised the potential for blockchain to store information about artworks, such as records of sale and provenance, in an unaltered digital record. This shift denotes a coalition whereby the individual portions of cryptocurrency and art are joined together to mitigate the failings of their individual memory and become a stronger whole unit.
The process of merging art and cryptocurrency is referred to as the creation of Non-Fungible Tokens (or NFT’s). NFT’s are crypto tokens that are one of a kind and cannot be replaced. They are digital items that are stored on the block chain in a similar way to bitcoins. The main difference between NFT’s and bitcoins is that Bitcoins are fungible (as opposed to non-fungible.) Fungible bitcoins can be traded or exchanged for one another. They are reproduceable and exchangeable for the same value. Non-fungible tokens, on the other hand. are unique and are therefore not interchangeable. This means you can trade one bitcoin for another bitcoin that is exactly the same, similar to exchanging one $2 coin for another. NFT’s are more comparable to a rare, unique collectors coin. The limited supply of NFT’s contribute to its scarcity and value.
This process of tokenization is not exclusive to the art world. In March 2021, Kings of Leon were the first band to release their album, “When You See Yourself,” as an NFT. Whatsmore, tokenization by musicians is not restricted to their music. In early 2021, Shawn Mendes partnered with “Genies”, a company that makes 2D avatars, to design virtual versions of his most identifiable accessories. This partnership generated NFT’s of Mendes’ signature Fender guitar, gold ring and embellished vest. Far from cryptocurrency being restricted to an elite group of finance experts, cryptocurrency lends itself to various types of artistry in the digital space. The consistent trait of cryptocurrency that appeals to all types of artists is cryptocurrency’s ability to carve out a space in the digital record that is unique and specific to the artist and their work.
One artist incorporating cryptocurrency into his practice is French digital artist, Pascal BoyArt (known as P-BOY.) P-BOY creates art out of cryptocurrency and cryptocurrency out of art as he highlights the importance of memory to both. Not only does the form of cryptocurrency and art share significant similarities in memory, but P-BOY invokes images of past artworks in the content of his work. P-BOY began his career as a graffiti artist and muralist. He now transforms these analog versions of his art through the process of “tokenization.” That is, generating NFTs out of the Ethereum blockchain to give “the opportunity to collect immutable and non-reproducible digital tokens.” (according to his website https://www.pboy- art.com/nfts )
One of Boyart’s recent murals shows Rembrandt van Rijn reading through a large tax bill. This image evokes the collective cultural memory of Rembrandt who, despite being a celebrated Dutch Gold Age master, struggled to make money throughout his career. Irony is revealed in the present moment as the contemporary audience is aware that Rembrandt’s piece “Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit” sold for $180 million (USD) at auction. P-BOY’s piece is titled Rembrandt dos au mur, or Rembrandt Back Against the Wall, a pun on the artist’s financial situation and the work’s wall mural nature. This work is a transformation of Rembrandt’s iconic self-portraits into a version where he dubiously reads the tax bill. This digital iteration of Rembrandt comes to life as he winks at the onlooker in the NFT version. The work is digitally divided into three, unique, animated parts. With Bitcoin, the artist has an easy way to set up direct financial transactions with the people and P-BOY has placed a QR code on the physical mural to receive payments. P-BOY has told Next Web, “I think it’s great news for the future and it will bring more sense, talent, freedom, and creativity from the artists … the most interesting aspect is decentralization—a peer-to-peer horizontal system … Art and creation need that, I believe.”
"Rembrandt back to the wall", Paris 2018.
Another NFT artwork in P-BOY’s series is “Liberty leading the people 2019”. The image depicts the iconic female iteration of liberty but now she is leading the French people in yellow vests. The inclusion of yellow vests refers to the Yellow Vests movement in France during the late 2010s. The so-called Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) is a protest movement, which reportedly has no political affiliation, that continues protests across the nation over poor living conditions. PBOY has added an enigma, a 'bitcoin puzzle' to the fresco, that when scanned gives the person 1.000 euros in Bitcoin. P-BOY tokenized this fresco in January 2019 into 100 unique parts. The analog fresco was made on 105 rue Aubervilliers, 75019 Paris, but it was censored by police headquarters after one month.
The significance of Liberty leading the people and the iconography of Rembrandt’s portraits are firmly cemented in Western culture's collective memory and their influence cannot be understated. Hence, the original's expensive price tag with one of Rembrandt’s original portraits being sold for £14.5 million ($18.7 million) meanwhile, “Liberty leading the people” is owned by the French government and does not have a price.
So, what happens to the collective memory underpinning the value of these great works when they are reimagined and repurposed by contemporary artists and cryptocurrency?
To answer this question, we can turn to the discography of Frank Ocean and his own ties to artistry through his musical sampling and bitcoin. Music sampling is akin to the practice of reusing a portion of an artwork in another artwork. The difference is that the musical artist takes from previous songs or sounds and repurposes them in their own work, thereby creating a new piece that is reminiscent of the aural past. Frank Ocean’s song “Chanel” contains the lines "Amazing the cash online unknown" and "Blazing the dash counting money at home." Dash is one of the most popular cryptocurrencies and phrases included in this song have led to one hypothesis that Ocean is an advocate of Bitcoin.
The consequences of the practice of sampling for art, music, and cryptocurrency are twofold. First, the reuse of famous portions of music and art invokes the cultural and historical context of the original work and brings those features into the present time period. Second, this practice not only informs the present but alters how we perceive the past. These dual factors contribute to the essence of nostalgia pervading sampled musical and artistic pieces as the past is reawakened in the present moment. In this way, artistic reproduction and musical sampling impacts our collective memory to pay respect to the past and to create something new in the present. This practice is often necessarily accompanied by nostalgia for a past moment that we will never get back. The idea of nostalgia for the past is the principal focus of Ocean’s first album “Nostalgia Ultra”. Ocean explains the album is “a longing for the past. That's what this record felt like." The reminiscence saturating Ocean’s album is retrospective, but it is also reflective of our awareness in the present moment and how this moment is perpetually fleeting. The rhythm of Ocean’s music is fleeting, with every second, every beat is already gone.
Yet despite the ephemeral nature of music, the past and memory are strongly present throughout the album. Ocean samples from a wide variety of musical artists including “Strawberry Swing” by Coldplay for his song “Strawberry Song,” “Optimistic” by Radiohead is sampled in “Bitches Talkin (Metal Gear Solid)” and “There will be Tears” by Mr Hudson turns into “There will be Tears” by Frank Ocean. The form of Ocean’s music makes the passage of time evident and the intertextual content he incorporates expands our understanding of the past and time in the present moment. Human memory is often incomplete but, when artistic iterations of memory are coalesced, they become stronger and function as a more complete record keeping device. Despite this, the nature of memory is ephemeral and slippery. When we revisit the past through the incorporation of past music or art in contemporary artworks, we alter our memory of the past in the present moment. The function of art and bitcoin to influence memory reveals an important expectation of value, specifically as value is influenced by the public record and collective memory.
Both cryptocurrency and art enter into a symbiotic relationship with the collective memory - bitcoin and art are tools that help strengthen the collective memory, while they rely on the collective memory for meaning and ideas to create art and the blockchain network. Despite the reciprocal nature of this relationship, we can note instances where the collective memory of art is constructed and facilitated by expert tastemakers. One example of an elite group that curate the art world is the Salon in Paris, France. The Salon began in 1667 and it was the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Between 1748 and 1890 it was arguably the greatest annual or biennial art event in the Western world. Members of the Salon were in control of selecting portions of the collective memory from history to include in present and future art. This process then influenced upon the collective memory during this period. Artists such as Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh have all had work shown in the Salon. But the exclusivity of the Salon quickly became parochial and led to the exclusion of who we now know to be great artists such as Claude Monet and Edouard Manet.
This revelation begs the question: If an artist isn’t shown in a recognised institution, where do the great artists works go?
Here we can turn to Bitcoin as a means to neutralize this issue. Bitcoin provides a forum independent of restrictions pertaining to class, location, or education. Of course, participants still require a computer, a network, and a basic understanding of Bitcoin but these requirements appear far more achievable than the lottery of knowing certain people or attending certain schools. NFT’s preserve the digital record attributing credit to the artist and the democratic nature of this forum prevents fraud or interference with the digital blockchain. Therefore, Bitcoin provides a means for artists to not only sell their artwork, but to be recognised for their artwork and to avoid fraudulent reproductions. A convergence of cryptocurrency and art has the potential to reduce certain aspects of the traditional artworld that inhibit the creative process and create a more democratic art world. Memory, both individual and collective, is inherently flawed, but the convergence of both Bitcoin and Art can strengthen the collective memory to mitigate these failings. Rather than the artworld continuing to operate by traditional, analog means the incorporation of cryptocurrency into the artworld facilitates an egalitarian collaboration on the future of collective memory on a global scale.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostalgia,_Ultra https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/15172-nostalgia-ultra/ https://www.theringer.com/music/2021/2/16/22285362/frank-ocean-nostalgia-ultra- unmaking-of-rb
Luther, William J. and Olson, Josiah, Bitcoin is Memory (June 7, 2013). Journal of
Prices & Markets, 3(3), 2015: 22-33., Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/ abstract=2275730 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2275730