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The Ethereal Summit

Experiencing the first ever crypto-currency art auction of digital art works

Author: Helen Knowles


Lead image: Knockdown Centre Brooklyn

Casual slacks and trainers, rucksacks, loafers, trainers, a sharp black suit jacket, trainers and more trainers. A floral skirt, a chequered shirt, some gold slip-ons, trainers, bare legs, jeans and, of course, trainers.

Brooklyn, Knockdown Centre, a sprawling, sandblasted industrial brick factory set amongst the low-lying warehouses of Bushwick. Open skies shimmer and transmute the relics of industry into crypto-mining, and with this comes a summit – The Ethereal Summit – called to enable the hot-deskers, coders, hedge-fund managers, financiers, entrepreneurs, dreamers, artists and activists to coalesce over one massive, weekend onslaught of PR and social media. Slick and frantic, Bitcoin and Ethereum converts, pushers, idealists, subvertors and speculators, all together in one huge wispy latte of a deregulated (un) convention centre.

Myself and Denis Jones, my collaborator on the art project Trickle Down – A New Vertical Sovereignty got ourselves to New York last May to witness the first ever crypto-currency art auction of digital art works and record conversations with participants at the Summit. Sparking conversations about the jurisdiction of the digital world, we explored it’s looming omnipotence and how the blockchain is transforming the relationship we have with states, fiat systems and countries to which we have traditionally given our allegiance.

This was also an opportunity to capture a visceral sense of the crypto community. How did they express themselves, what did they look, feel and sound like? The aim was to see if we might be able to get some of the employees of Consensys (the company behind Ethereum) to sing. The idea was that the act of singing would be a vehicle to connect with who these individuals are and this recording would then be used as part of the installation. Arone Dyer of Drone Choir was there to aid this process.

Will King was the art correspondent at Consensys helped us navigate the various rooms which housed talks, workshops and artworks. This backdrop included the revered figure of Joe Lubin, one of the Ethereum founders, literally worshipped, whooped and prostrated upon, and entrepreneurial startups, each grandly espousing the commercial viability of their crypto-products. A particular female presenter spoke over-enthusiastically about ‘Dala’, which seemed conveniently named to sound like the dollar but was apparently taking off as a currency for the unbanked in Africa. Collisions with various characters included crazed fund managers who were trying to assure their clients that Ether and Bitcoin were NOT taking a nose-dive, women who believed Satoshi Nakamoto (the mythical inventor(s) of bitcoin) was female (why not?), and an assortment of restrained-looking graphic designers.

The art room abounded with ‘worthy’ socially engaged crypto art projects and less worthy,  complex artworks which seemed to hide behind the technology and unashamedly commercial works. But the best was called Bail Bloc. It distributed usb sticks to enable anyone with a computer to capitalise on your computer’s unused processing power to mine the crypto currency, Monero. This then contributed to a fund to pay for bail in the US, and as a result, in the past year alone, 45 people have been freed from bond.

“An estimated 1 in 5 people are in ICE detention because they cannot afford to pay their bond….Like cash bail, immigration bonds punish the poor by forcing those who cannot pay for their freedom to remain in detention until their hearing.”

Bail Bloc website

The founders admitted they were capitalising on the crypto hype (another solution to helping people raise bail would be to hold a crowd funder to contribute fiat currency). In this melange myself, Denis and Arone drew together various participants at the Summit to take part in conversations about digital sovereignty that proved to be very illuminating.

Out on the steps under clear skies, our first conversations included: the founders of Bail Bloc, a spokesperson for a startup to create self-sovereign identities, a curator and scientist, and a couple of digital art dealers. The blockchain provides us with “new ways to scale trust” and the chance to “attest you are a friend, attest you have some credentials (and consequently) interact with state parties”. For those of you who don’t know, it is a ledger, “a collectively managed  consensus” and, apparently, is immutable. Whether this becomes an exercise/matrix in absolute surveillance or absolute transparency remains to be seen. The chat bounded around. To share “your truth in the network” and verify who you are and who your friends are, how they are perceived or rated and how you are perceived or rated on platforms like Facebook, Uber, Instagram, Snapchat (to name a few) has huge implications for self-sovereign identities. This brought us to the idea of tracking refugees who “do not have a state that backs their identity” and therefore could benefit from authentication through technology. There was a moment of dis-ease, a quiet lull. Yes, it does depend on how the technology is used, for what purpose and whose benefit.

Bail Bloc explained their growth was “powered by how much people talk about us”. That resonated. It certainly seemed that the hype and faith around crypto currency was intrinsic to it’s value. And believe me, a lot of money had poured into the Ethereum vision laid out before us. A thousand pound tickets, trendy bijoux plates of food, perfect coffee and slick presentations on huge stages. The Bail Blockers exclaimed that surely, it was “more peaceful to gain power (and value) through social media?” The curator spoke out saying, that it was better than the traditional means of “enforcing a currencies value by pegging it to petrochemicals” implying that the dollar was tied to oil. Given the debate about how much electricity is used to mine crypto (in particular bitcoin), the argument seemed somewhat fragile…

Ashleigh was in our second group of crypto and blockchain pioneers. She was blonde, bubbly, articulate and seductively convincing in her twinkling American lilt. Ashleigh could persuade any would-be investor that an Ethereum mortgage is not only a ground-breaking investment but one which is possibly the future. Words gently cascaded from her lips, caressing each consonant…

“How can we use our token to incentivise people to act in a certain way?”

Incentivisation is an intrinsic element of crypto-currencies. Satoshi wove rewards into mining and the verification of the ledger, so that by making available computer power to check each entry across the globe, participants reaped bitcoin. However, Ashleigh’s comment revealed that there was the possibility to manipulate investors or participants, for good or bad. To be fair to Ashleigh, the ‘certain way’ she was talking about was to entice investors to act more ethically, or for the companies’ good, or the groups’ benefit.

The finale of the Summit was the Codex digital art auction. This opportunity meant that we could witness and document (alongside the three other auctions in the Trickle Down project) the first ever crypto auction of digital artworks and see the kinds of people who were bidding. Whoops of glee accompanied every bid, as the breathy auctioneer whipped the now drunk attendees into a frenzy and the Crypto Kitty reached 140K. Tellingly, only once was Eths (Ethereum currency) actually mentioned –  dollars were the spoken currency. The handful of investors who owned the majority of Eths demonstrated their financial power, philanthropy (the money was going to charity) and excitement at being able to continue to shape the ensuing conversations online about Ethereum’s value (oh, and the art).

The razzamatazz of the Summit had somehow led us to believe that when we went to the Consensus Offices we would be swallowed up by Google-style bean bags and break out rooms. The reality was very interesting. We could have been entering the offices of Sidewalk, an artist collective or fashion startup. Blitzed with stickers on the anonymous-looking doorway, Consensys offices belie nothing of its world renown in the crypto community. Will King very kindly took us through a tour which consisted of a conglomeration of individuals essentially hot-desking on a plethora of projects. In the queue to coffee the day before, I had met a well dressed, long standing figure of the Consensys community who spoke of the imminent move to actually employ people, give them a wage and some job security. The entire business had been founded on the principals of a startup and given its growth, in order to make working there more palatable or attractive to individuals, a shift was happening. However, that still looked a way off as we strolled around the busy and slightly ad hoc assortments of desks and hipsters or coders drilling their way through the workload of different projects.

Will was very skeptical that we would manage to get anyone to sing. Arone had attempted to cajole some software developers at a desk of four, to see if they might like to take part. “You like music right?” They awkwardly conferred that they did, but then burrowed back into their computers. Will opened up to us: “no-one here does anything for free”. We explained that by taking part on a very basic level, contributors to Trickle Down would receive micro payments every time someone parted with some money in exchange for the experience of the work. An ethereum contract was going to be written which was to be attached to the blockchain and would autonomously pay each collaborator. Will still looked reticent, but he had promised to give us some space to invite people to sing and duly stuck to his promise.

Sunlight streamed into the turn of the century floor-boarded factory space in late afternoon, as Denis and Arone set up mics and warmed up their voices. A bizarre atmosphere of elevated creativity and anticipation settled over the room. Only Will was available, as he distributed black sweatshirts to us emblazoned with the words ‘Consensys or Nowhere’. Arone began, her voice plied and swelled the air as Will harmonised, a deep, quivering, reed-like richness. I relaxed, drew breath and watched. Layer by layer. Will was so overcome with the experience it gave him the confidence to run downstairs and draw up several other members of Consensys to sing. Denis dueted with a similarly bearded, jumpered comrade. Evidently the incentive here was more than a crypto payout. The exchange of energy and satisfaction in being able to express yourself in a new way leveraged more singers into the room.

Trickle Down – A New Vertical Sovereignty is an artwork by Helen Knowles, in collaboration with Denis Jones, supported using public funding from Arts Council England. The artwork is produced by FutureEverything with additional support from Whitworth Gallery, Arebyte Gallery and FACT.

With thanks to Daniel Dressel and BlockRocketTech and Known Origin.