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Trickling Down Hide and Seek

Trickle Down: A New Vertical Sovereignty invites us to rethink value and imagine the possibility of equal distribution of wealth.

Rather than money issued by a nation and administered by central banks, art is a networked, decentralized, widespread system of value. It gains stability because it calibrates credit or disgrace across competing institutions or cliques.

– Hito Steyerl, ‘If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms’(1)

‘INSERT COIN HERE’; a flickering light shows visitors to a coin slot-machine, part of an electronics panel framed in a large glass sculpture in the middle of the dark gallery space. The large glass sculpture and adjacent vessel, where all pound coins are collected, form one of the elements in Helen Knowles’ new art installation Trickle Down: A New Vertical Sovereignty.

The rhythmic repetition of ascending numbers, cheering, crowd voices, applause, excitement, and sometimes laughter, come and go around the room. The sounds accompany projections of video stills captured at different environments, or rather auction scenes that artist Helen Knowles attended and got permission to film. On one side of the gallery space, images reveal details of expensive fabrics, fur, silk, designer clothes and extravagant accessories; the auctioneer leads on a careful choreography with information from across the room and bids, while the numbers are moving up at a dizzying pace. This is the Important Russian Art Auction at Sotheby’s afterall.

In another instant we experience moments from a different kind of auction, this time at the close of the Ethereal Summit – a global conference about blockchain technology – in May 2018.(2) This was also the first auction to issue blockchain provenance titles for all artworks sold, and hosted by Codex Protocol, a platform that uses the Ethereum blockchain to register and certificate art creating a decentralised ecosystem that captures information about artworks such as provenance, sales, copyright and so on. The art auction at the Ethereal Summit closed with a $140,000 record-breaking – and headlines grabbing – sale of a specially commissioned CryptoKitty, a unique digital collectible, with the proceeds benefiting an art and blockchain charity.(3) The closing bid price announcement as captured by the artist here, gets a wave of cheering and applause from an adrenaline-high crowd of entrepreneurs, blockchain enthusiasts and digital art collectors witnessing the event. Does the Ethereal Summit auction and subsequent sales hype mean blockchain art and collectibles – from CryptoKitties and Cryptopunks to virtual worlds’ Cryptovoxels and Decentraland crypto-art – get an artworld nod of approval?

From the clamorous announcement of prices and participants bidding against each other with each subsequent bid being higher that the previous one, to auction houses splashing on marketing costs, flying in valued clients or offering sellers advantages and sales guarantees, auctions are all about theatricality and spectacle. They are in a way a performance of a ledger. As the recent example of the act of shredding of Banksy’s Girl with Balloon painting at the Sotheby’s auction shows, the spectacle with attached social media frenzy serves also to enhance the market value of the work. In this specific case, what is first thought of as critique of the commercialisation of an anti-establishment artist, to borrow the late Mark Fisher’s words, “what we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead, their precorporation: the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture.”(4)

The capacity of the blockchain to create digital scarcity, the idea of digital files that could be infinitely copied, but can now be verified, tokenised, encrypted and commodified, couldn’t be framed in a more memorable way than with the CryptoKitty sale at the Ethereal Summit. It potentially also fulfils the art market and capitalism’s desire for new, bold art that is ahead of its time.

Apart from spectacle, auctions serve also as demonstration of power. From the über wealthy Sotheby’s clients bidding on iconic Russian artworks to Ethereal Summit investors spending thousands of dollars on blockchain-based digital art, the stage of the auction demonstrates their financial power, but also philanthropy – investing on and supporting culture, and in the case of the Codex auction, benefiting a charity.

In discussing the financialisation of art, Max Haiven draws an interesting link between cryptocurrencies, encryption and freeports or ‘Palaces of Encypted Culture’, “a kind of architecture of global financialized capitalism that encrypts art within its walls” and “encrypt art as a kind of money: the art exists in the world as a kind of financial code, a digitally manipulated asset to be transferred and parlayed. Like an encoded word transmitted in a public broadcast, financialized art still transmits meaning and value, but only to those who bear the keys of decryption, in this case those with enough wealth to buy the work, ship it to elsewhere and uncrate it again as art.”(5)
Similarly, Rachel O’Dwyer mentions how “much of the art collections of High net worth individuals (HNWIs) now reside in freeports, liminal tax-free spaces that bypass National sovereignty.”(6)

Trickle Down includes two more auctions, which couldn’t be more contrasting than the Sotheby’s and Ethereal Summit auction. One, involves Mancunians bidding on bric-a-brac and basic everyday commodities at Openshaw Market in North Manchester. In stark contrast to the previous ones, the setting here is basic with most of the bidding carried out of the back of vans bringing the goods into the market. The second auction was staged by the artist with prisoners at HMP Altcourse in Liverpool, during an artist residency there in association with FACT. During conversations with the inmates, it was decided to stage the auction as a performance to try and explore the prison economy and ideas of value. In one of her talks at the Whitworth, Helen mentioned that the inmates wanted to bid for plants to keep and look after in their cells. However, since this request was overridden as a security risk, it was agreed they could bid for plants to send to their relatives as Christmas presents instead. It was also the inmates’ decision to bid with their labour. Here, as in previously mentioned auctions, the artist documents the people’s attire rather than revealing their identities.

As an artist traversing across different economic spaces and communities, moving between the fashionable art openings and art gallery world of west end London, and the neglected streets around her art studio in Gorton in the north west of England, Helen Knowles is well aware of the great disparities between the capital and the provinces. The auctions she is depicting in Trickle Down are portraying staggeringly different communities showing a gap in wealth and equality, and how financial power structures govern value and distribution of wealth. In Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty claims that reduced inequality in the 20th century due to public policies following the two world wars, the Great Depression, organised labour and taxation, was an anomaly rather than a lasting change, and the past few years this is being reversed.(7)

There are systems, within systems, within systems… the chorus of the inmates participating in the auction have been recorded singing for Trickle Down. Other auction participants, such as ConsenSys employees – the company behind the Ethereal Summit, sellers at the Openshaw Market and a Sotheby’s client, have also contributed to the art installation with their singing. These recordings along with sounds from the environments of all auctions make part of the installation soundscape. Sensors across the gallery space pick up the proximity of visitors to the screens in the room and the data generated effects the sound diffusion within the gallery, so the soundscape is always different.

Going back to the coin slot machine in the glass sculpture, in order for the visitors to experience the installation, a pound needs to be donated to the artwork through the coin slot. This transaction is captured via a sensor in the glass sculpture and stored in a blockchain by deploying a smart contract on Ethereum.(8) Every pound payment to the slot machine automates crypto payments to a group of people, who have been involved in Trickle Down. These people include the auction participants who have gifted a song or performance, people who provided their skills to make, write, design, program, organise and every other step needed in order to make the installation happen.

So all Trickle Down contributors will be receiving payments via Ethereum coin airdrops every time the artwork is exhibited.(9) This process is obviously reliant on people setting up a cryptocurrency (Ethereum) wallet – for which they received instructions from the artist. The inmates are obviously not allowed to set up a wallet, so a wallet will be set up for them in trust and shared once they are released and able to access it. Decisions such as who should be receiving payments; how the payments will be distributed; what the donations process should be like; but also what the glass sculpture and coin slot machine design should look like, were taken during public workshops at the Whitworth, part of the University of Manchester.(10) I assume, for Helen Knowles, opening up the decision making process to contributors and other members of the public is an integral part of Trickle Down, but also, if we think of all process layers as transactions in the project, Trickle Down draws a parallel to how blockchain transactions are processed in the public rather than through a central authority.

Visitors donate a pound coin to experience the artwork and compensate those who worked to bring the artwork into being; in that way Trickle Down addresses the inequality and exploitation also present in the art world, which is fuelled by a big number of low paid and many times even unpaid workers, not to mention only the small number of artists making a living from their work.
Here, people from vastly different worlds, such as Sotheby’s buyers, blockchain entrepreneurs, market sellers, prisoners, art professionals, institutions and so on, receive equal shares from an artwork as an acknowledgement for their invisible labour. Hoping that the artwork will have opportunities and demand to be continuously exhibited, trusting that people would want to experience it and make a donation, and that the Ethereum price will continue to rise, its value will keep increasing and consequently the payments to the contributors.

But will the prospect of receiving – most probably – small amounts of Ethereum coins be a good enough incentive for people to take part and contribute to this experiment? Not to mention the blockchain technology barrier, inaccessibility for some, and effort in setting up a crypto wallet. Or is it maybe the experience of taking part in the performances, singing, sending plants to families – in the case of prisoners – and being part of conversations about value, offer more of an incentive than Ethereum coins?

In 2018, artist Jonas Lund launched a cryptocurrency – the Jonas Lund Token (JLT) – creating 100,000 shares in his artistic practice and giving shareholders voting power over future proposals and his career moves. As the artist’s career and market value increased so did the value and demand of the tokens. In the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Dan Mihălțianu presented Canal Grande: The Capital Pool and The Associated Public, a black pool used as a wishing well for visitors to throw coins, while establishing an autonomous art fund with members of the public to manage the funds and decide on how to use them for social or humanitarian projects.

Could blockchain technology possibly help reduce social gaps and enable more equality in society or does it only benefit those who can control and navigate it? A decentralised blockchain technology that allows transactions to be transparently verified and encrypted might be enticing and offering many possibilities, but doesn’t automatically create equality. After all neither technology nor money are neutral. Earning cryptocurrency requires computing power. Gilles Deleuze, in his short essay ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, discusses how Societies of Control – operating with computers – are replacing the Disciplinary Societies “operating in the time frame of a closed system” – as described by Michel Foucault. For Deleuze, Societies of Control are organised with codes – passwords “that mark access to information, or reject it.”(11)

In Trickle Down, Helen Knowles is not looking to present us with an equitable financial system or suggest that contributors having equal shares from the artwork means they become equally powerful. Instead Trickle Down engages with economic issues from the inside, inviting us to rethink value and imagine the possibility of equal distribution of wealth. To borrow Lewis Hyde’s words, “works of art exist simultaneously in two economies, a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.”(12)

(1) Steyerl, Hito. Duty Free Art. Verso, 2017.

(2) A blockchain is a decentralised ledger of transactions across a peer-to-peer network. Using blockchain technology, participants can confirm transactions without the need for a central authority. Cryptocurrencies are the tokens used within these networks to send value and pay for transactions. Blockchain has applications far beyond bitcoin and cryptocurrency.

(3) CryptoKitties is one of the most popular applications of the blockchain’s digital ledger technology and one of the earliest blockchain games allowing players to purchase, collect, breed and sell cute digital animated cats.

(4) Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism; Is There No Alternative? O Books, 2009.

(5) Haiven, Max. Art after Money, Money after Art. Creative Strategies Against Financialization, Pluto Press, 2018.

(6) O’Dwyer, Rachel. ‘The work of art in the age of CRYPTography: the tokenisation of art on the blockchain’,

(7) Piketty, Thomas. ‘Part Three: The Structure of Inequality’, Capital In The Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, 2014.

(8) A smart contract is an agreement between buyer and seller in the form of computer code and running on the blockchain. This means that transactions are processed without the need of a central authority mechanism and are stored in a public database, therefore are trackable and irreversible.

(9) Airdrop is a distribution of a cryptocurrency coin or token to numerous wallet addresses.

(10) The Whitworth supported the commissioning of the glass structure (machine) as part of their current research strand Economics the Blockbuster. As part of this commission, Helen delivered three workshops tracking the development of the machine and its operation.

(11) Deleuze, Gilles. ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October Vol. 59 (Winter, 1992)

(12) Hyde, Lewis. The Gift. Random House New York, 1983.