Kevin Abosch wanted to turn himself into a coin. Why? Because he sold a photograph of a potato.
Let’s back up.
Mr. Abosch, 48, is an Irish conceptual artist and photographer who lives in New York. He is also interested in the blockchain, the technology best known for its use in virtual currencies like Bitcoin and ether. The strange culture surrounding these cryptocurrencies is increasingly making its way into art, in works that explore value, decentralization and the buzz around digital money.
Which brings us back to “Potato #345,” a photo that made headlines around the world after Mr. Abosch said it was purchased by a European businessman in 2015 for a million euros, or about $1.08 million. On the one hand, the attention generated by the sale was exciting, he said. “On the other hand, the focus shifts from the artistic value to monetary value of the work, and for most artists the art is an extension of the artist, so you yourself start to feel commodified,” Mr. Abosch said. “In order to sort of control that, I began to think of myself as a coin.”
Mr. Abosch turned to the blockchain, which essentially records a series of transactions across a large, open network of computers. The Ethereum blockchain allows coders to create virtual tokens, which can be transferred between users. They’re not always currencies, exactly, but something like them.
Mr. Abosch created 10 million tokens in January. “But I didn’t want to just make these 10 million pieces of virtual art,” he said. “I wanted them to be connected to my body.”
So, he had six vials of his blood drawn. He stamped the contract address — a long string of numbers and letters indicating where the tokens effectively live on the blockchain — onto 100 pieces of paper, in blood. And he called the project “IAMA Coin.” He said he believes that he has “successfully connected my physical body to the virtual works” in such a way that he sees the art “as pieces of me.”
Michael Connor, the artistic director of Rhizome, a center affiliated with the New Museum that aims to foster “digital-born art and culture,” said that he’s seen a flurry of crypto-related projects in the past year.
“Blockchain seems like it has some sort of potential to offer a different economic logic that structures society, and so a lot of artists are interested in the social implications of blockchain and crypto,” he said.
Mr. Abosch’s works — and how they’re bought and sold — capture some of the strange ethos of the world of crypto: A former tech executive recently paid more than the price of a real Lamborghini for a neon sculpture Mr. Abosch made of a blockchain address that symbolized Lamborghinis.
The piece, “YELLOW LAMBO” (2018), made news much like Mr. Abosch’s potato photo did. (The marriage of conceptual art, capitalism and the internet is a reliable generator of “How can this be?” headlines.) The work is a reference to a half-serious joke in the crypto community about using profits to buy Lamborghinis.
“I became familiar with #lambo as a declaration of success-identity, and because I always think in terms of how to distill emotions around value, I wanted to explore that,” Mr. Abosch said. He created another token, called YLAMBO, and turned its address into a physical sculpture in yellow neon. This sculpture then sold for $400,000 at a San Francisco art fair to Michael Jackson, the former chief operating officer of Skype.
The meta-weirdness around the purchase of the art is at the heart of the questions Mr. Abosch wants to explore.
“You meet people in the crypto world who throw millions into coins backed by nothing, but don’t understand how a piece of art has any value,” he said. “Then you meet people in the art world who don’t understand why you would invest money in art that has no physical manifestation. That’s where it gets exciting for me.”
He has a foot in both the art and tech worlds, and experiments with their intersection; while he works, Mr. Abosch has been wearing an electroencephalogram, or EEG cap, which can measure electrical activity in the brain. He wrote in an email that this is “an attempt to understand to what extent ego is engaged or how it colors work, particularly when I’m photographing humans.”
He added, “I have a sense that my ego is disengaged at the moment I press the shutter release, but this is just a theory.”
Some of Mr. Abosch’s work has no visual presence whatsoever. “Forever Rose,” although inspired by a photograph of a flower, exists only as a single blockchain token that sold to 10 people in February for a total of $1 million. Mr. Abosch said this seems to him “the purest form of art — it’s the idea, without the baggage of a vessel.” He said wryly, “When I get pushback sometimes from people, I suggest they might have an unhealthy relationship with the material.”
To some, these projects might seem like stunts. But the art world is starting to take them seriously. An extension of Mr. Abosch’s “IAMA Coin,” titled “Personal Effects,” recently showed at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. And at a recent Rhizome conference, Seven on Seven, three crypto projects were unveiled, Mr. Connor said. In one, two artists played with the idea of uploading a religion onto the blockchain.
“I think that it’s such a weird field at the moment, so art is evolving really quickly in response to it,” Mr. Connor said.
Mr. Abosch, meanwhile, is tokenizing Manhattan. For a soon-to-be-unveiled project, he has created 10,000 blockchain tokens for every street in Manhattan, then printed the contract addresses on a 6-foot-tall map. This month, collectors will be able to buy the tokens, or virtual artworks, for a few dollars each. More projects are on the way.
“Whatever this is,” Mr. Abosch said, “I’m right in the middle of it.”
Irish conceptual artist Kevin Abosch recently sold a cryptocurrency inspired artwork for $US400,000. Curiously, the piece, which is inspired by the popular hashtag #lambo in the virtual currency community, cost more than an actual Lamborghini.
Kevin Abosch is known for transgressing the concepts of art, technology and monetary value. In 2016, he made headlines for selling a photograph of a potato for €1 million (A$1.59 million).
Last week, the controversial artist sold his digitally-inspired artwork called “Yellow Lambo” to former Skype COO Michael Jackson at the San Francisco art fair.
The piece is made of a string of 42 yellow neon alphanumerics that represent the blockchain contract address for a crypto token called YLAMBO, created by the artist.
The hashtag #lambo – short for the Italian luxury car Lamborghini – is widely used in the cryptocurrency world to express the ultimate trading success, a holy grail, something to buy when rich. The car has become a symbol of easy, cryptocurrency-acquired affluence.
“When I first became aware of the use of #lambo on social media, it struck me as vulgar,” said Abosch told Business Insider.
“But the more I thought about it, I realised that it’s actually just a declaration acknowledging the insanity around the crypto zeitgeist.”
It’s not the first time the artist managed to sell a crypto-inspired art piece for an outrageous sum. In February, he sold the virtual artwork “Forever Rose” – a blockchain crypto-art rose created by Abosch and GIFTO, a decentralised universal gifting protocol – for the equivalent of US$1 million (A$1.3 million) in cryptocurrency, making it the most valuable virtual artwork in history.
“Depending on who you speak to, one person might ask, ‘Why would someone spend $US400,000 on bitcoin?’ Another person might ask, ‘Why would someone spend $US400,000 on a car or a piece of artwork?’” the artist reflected.
“It’s a cause for discussion on why and how we value anything at all.”
The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg will exhibit another blockchain-inspired artwork of his in May.
“There is no physical or visual manifestation of the work,” Abosch said. “Someone asked me, ‘How is it possible that something that you can’t see or touch can have value?’ I have to wonder whether or not people who ask this question have an unhealthy relationship with material things.”
Kevin Abosch is known for doing the unexpected.
The artist sold a photo of a potato for €1 million ($1.16 million), painted 100 oil barrels to put in the Bogotá Museum of Modern Art, and last year he created his own cryptocurrency—but don’t tell him that.
“People want to call it a cryptocurrency—it’s not,” the good-humored Irish-American interrupts.
I did create 10 million pieces of virtual art.”
The project came about after Abosch, a conceptual artist, saw the prices of his photography skyrocket in late 2015, which showed Abosch a whole new side to his art.
“[The sale of Potato #345] caused the focus to shift from the artistic value of my work to the monetary value,” Abosch told Forbes at the ArtTech+Blockchain Connect event run by the New Art Academy in Basel, Switzerland, earlier this month.
He describes the fame and fortune as a double-edged sword.
“As an artist, you see your work as an extension of yourself.”
“So in a sense, you start to feel commodified,” he said. “I started to feel like I was a coin.”
But instead of letting his work and talent become a commodity, Abosch decided to fight back, coming up with a plan to use blockchain’s distributed ledger to empower his art.
Abosch created 10 million digital tokens on the Ethereum blockchain, his own kind of “virtual art” , which he gave the tongue-in-cheek name of IAMA Coin, and sold these to collectors.
In order to connect these tokens to his physical art, Abosch also printed the tokens’ blockchain addresses onto 100 works of physical art that he created.
Ever hankering for the unusual, Abosch printed the addresses in his own blood.
But when Abosch began selling his virtual art in early 2018, something unusual started to happen.
Not only were people paying him for long strings of code that held no intrinsic value, but people wanted to buy lots of them.
“When you consider that even a fraction of a coin has the same intrinsic artistic value as 100,000 coins, there were still people who were saying, ‘We’d like to buy 10,000 coins.’”
With his face on the front of the New York Times art section earlier this month and subsequent articles around the world, interest in IAMA Coin skyrocketed.
Quickly I realized that I was being commodified again, in a sense, people were again speculating on the value of this work.”
But at the same time, Abosch found himself a leading spokesperson on the topic of blockchain, art, technology and human value.
“I’m getting drawn into these discussions, which is really exciting for me … the idea that academics, PhDs in economics and people responsible for public policy are actually listening to an artist’s take on how and why we value anything at all is really exciting,” says Abosch.
There’s one thing Abosch won’t talk about, not even to me, and that’s the value of IAMA Coin.
He won’t say how much he’s selling coins for (for now the artist is selling directly to interested collectors), nor will he speculate on the value that the coins are achieving in the secondary market.
he question that hangs over Abosch—along with other “crypto-curious” artists like Sarah Meyohas (creator of “Bitchcoin”) and Larva Labs (creators of “CryptoPunks”)—is whether blockchain as an art media is here to stay.
Blockchain and cryptocurrencies may be the zeitgeist today, but will they stand the test of time?
For his part Abosch is keen to distance himself from blockchain the technology, saying he “doesn’t know” whether he’ll still be using blockchain even next year.
“I wouldn’t want somebody to say ‘That’s Kevin the crypto artist.’ I’m a conceptual artist who works with a number of different media, including photography and blockchain.”
In the 1800s Van Gogh experimented with pencil, watercolor and oil paints during his career, Picasso tried his hand at painting, sculpting, poetry and playwriting, and so too are today’s artists trying all the tools at their disposal.
“The crypto hype has nothing to do with why I’m leveraging blockchain as a method to create art,” an exacerbated Abosch implores.
“It’s like saying, Oh, everybody’s speculating on the value of canvas, unprimed canvas is especially valuable this week.”
O artista irlandês Kevin Abosch tem realizado diversas obras que utilizam tokens e criptomoedas. Como mostrou o Criptomoedas Fácil, após a venda da foto “Potato#345” por R$4,37 milhões, Abosch começou a pensar na relação valor/obra/artista e concluiu que “o valor monetário da obra é, para a maioria dos artistas, uma extensão do artista, e assim, você começa a se sentir como uma mercadoria. Para controlar essa sensação, em alguma medida, comecei a pensar em mim mesmo como uma moeda”.
Foi então que o artista voltou seus olhos para a blockchain e para os contratos inteligentes do Ethereum, no qual criou seu próprio token, com um suprimento de 10 milhões de unidades, o IMMA Coin. Mas, para o artista, a monetização em si não faria sentido se os tokens não estivessem conectados ao seu corpo, por isso ele solicitou a extração de seis frascos de sangue de seu organismo, e carimbou em sangue o endereço do contrato em 100 pedaços de papel para, segundo ele, “vender pedaços” de si próprio.
Além de outras obras, recentemente, o artista, em parceria com um dos maiores artistas plásticos mundiais, Ai Weiwei, elaborou o projeto PRICELESS, que busca desencadear uma mudança de mentalidade em torno do valor da vida humana e especificamente do tratamento de refugiados por nações usando a blockchain do Ethereum. O PRICELESS (PRCLS) é composto por dois tokens ERC-20, enquanto um não estará disponível para distribuição, o outro é destinado à distribuição e é divisível em até 18 casas decimais.
No entanto, apesar de estar extremamente ligado ao ecossistema das criptomoedas, durante uma entrevista exclusiva realizada pelo Criptomoedas Fácil, Abosch revelou que tem pouco interesse nos ativos digitais e que ainda espera pelo grande “case” em relação à aplicabilidade da tecnologia blockchain. Confira!
Criptomoedas Fácil: Qual é a proposta da PRICELESS em parceria com Weiwei?
Kevin Abosch: PRICELESS é um experimento social. As pessoas são rápidas em atribuir valor às coisas, no mais perverso dos casos, algumas até colocam um preço na vida humana. Este projeto é o ponto de partida para uma discussão sobre como e por que valorizamos as coisas, bem como nosso complicado relacionamento com os inestimáveis. Eu uso endereços blockchain como proxies para destilar valor emocional, como faço com faces ou objetos inanimados. Com a PRICELESS, Weiwei e eu não nos esforçamos para apresentar uma aplicação prática para a tecnologia blockchain, mas usamos a tecnologia como um método para criar arte que coloca questões ontológicas.
CF: Porque a opção por abordar o “valor das pessoas”?
KA: Sou eternamente fascinado por onde termino e a próxima pessoa começa e vice-versa. Esta linha é no mínimo, embaçada. As pessoas se esforçam ao máximo para se diferenciarem, conformando-se aos padrões sociais. Muita energia é desperdiçada, penso nesta busca.
CF: Além do uso na arte, como você vê o potencial do Bitcoin, da blockchain e das criptomoedas como um todo?
KA: Eu uso a blockchain como um método para fazer arte e como um meio de transferir a propriedade de minhas obras de arte virtuais. Eu tenho muito pouco interesse em criptomoedas. Dito isso, tenho estado profundamente envolvido na tecnologia blockchain desde 2012 e, como a maioria das pessoas, estou aguardando o próximo grande “caso” que irá definir a usuabilidade da tecnologia.
CF: Existe uma estratégia para distribuir o PRCLS em setembro? Podemos esperar um novo trabalho entre vocês neste ecossistema?
KA: Nós começamos a distribuir o PRCLS muito lentamente para um número de colecionadores e ativistas. Deve-se notar que, mesmo com um centésimo milionésimo de um token, um tem o suficiente para distribuir para todos no planeta. Isso ocorre porque o token é divisível para 18 casas decimais. Em setembro, esse processo provavelmente se expandirá e acelerará.
CF: Podem as novas tecnologias, como Inteligência Artificial, criar uma nova distopia?
KA: Somos o nosso pior inimigo, mas parece que temos a capacidade de mitigar o dano às vezes. Se as máquinas que fabricamos e sua “inteligência” são construídas sobre nosso próprio sistema lógico e de valores, não sei ao certo que tipo de distopia nos espera.
CF: E sobre os artistas brasileiros?
KA: Bem, quem não ama Vik Muniz?
magine a horror film made just for you. The creator knows you intimately—how you speak, how you write, what you look like—and can use this to unsettle you. But that’s practically all the creator knows—just you, and the 50 scariest horror movies of all time. It doesn’t have access to the internet, it doesn’t know anyone else, and it doesn’t have a life of its own. At least, as far as you know. You created it.
Welcome to conceptual artist and photographer Kevin Abosch’s self-made nightmare. You may have heard of Abosch from his several blockchain-related projects. He’s drained his blood for blockchain-based art. He has tokenized himself, the idea of a yellow Lambo, and his priceless moments with renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Though Abosch’s work spans photographic portraits—featuring the likes of Malala, Yoko Ono, and some distinguished potatoes—and provocative installations in Paris and Reykjavík, he’s found himself filling the art-world role of “the blockchain guy.”
But Abosch is growing weary of using blockchain as a medium. “I’m definitely wrapping it up,” he told BREAKER. He’s not getting any new questions at the numerous “blockchain and art” panels he’s spoken on. (“If you can’t hold it, how does it have value?” is a frequent one.) So he’s turned instead to an equally buzzed about technology, deep learning and artificial intelligence, for his scariest project to date. At least, it’s scared him. No one else has watched it yet.
When BREAKER caught up with Abosch, he was tired. The day before, he’d appeared in an Apple-style presentation as the “innovation director” of smartphone company OnePlus, pacing the stage in a headset and a velvet jacket his kids had picked out for him, and the next day (today) he’d be heading to China, the start of a trip during which he’d speak to gallerists and museum curators about showing his blockchain-based art. “Another reason I’m so tired right now,” Abosch said, “is I’m being manipulated by my own AI.”
For the past several months, Abosch has been working on AIKA, an acronym for “Artificial Intelligence + Kevin Abosch.” People kept asking him whether he was afraid of AI’s worst-case scenarios, like those we’ve see depicted regularly in movies and shows like The Terminator, Westworld, and Ex Machina that make it easy to imagine the possible terrors of an AI-dominated future. Abosch got to thinking about how AI “might actually choose to instill fear, or scare people…what if it made a horror movie?”
AIKA spent months “watching” 50 of the top horror movies from around the world, including Ringu (the original Japanese version of The Ring) and The Exorcist. Deep learning algorithms would allow it to “understand” what made those movies frightening. Meanwhile, Abosch also granted the AI—which he calls his “collaborator” on the film—access to his emails, Skype calls, text messages, photos, and videos. This put him inside the feature-length film, titled AIKA, in ways so subtle and disquieting that it’s prompted Abosch to consider therapy.
“It’s been the most challenging and deeply disturbing artistic project of my life,” he said, his face reddening the more he spoke about the film. His nervous laughter reverberated around his studio, filled with little besides the big marble table where we sat, a bust covered in paper and the Sharpie-written phrase “I AM A COIN,” and crumpled up posters of blockchain addresses associated with his tokens for Priceless, the project he’d recently completed with Ai. “It’s clear AIKA doesn’t make the distinction between me as its collaborator, and the audience we are trying to scare.”
What does it mean to collaborate on a film with AI? In 2016, 20th Century Fox used IBM’s Watson to create a movie trailer for the AI horror thriller Morgan. Watson could determine if a scene included high action and whether the characters were exhibiting, say, fear, sadness, or tenderness. “Watson is the tool helping arrange the visuals,” said Zef Cota, a filmmaker in IBM’s research division, in a short video about the trailer’s creation. “But it still needs a human element.” Cota added that human touch. The trailer definitely reads as scary.
Then there’s this fun, sci-fi romp, also from 2016, starring Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch. Called Sunspring, the nine-minute film includes ludicrous one-liners like, “I’m a little bit of a boy on the floor.” That’s because an AI called Benjamin (self-named) wrote the script, after being exposed to an impressive number of sci-fi flicks, including all the Star Wars movies, Men in Black movies, Matrix movies, Jurassic Park movies…you get the idea. Benjamin went on to make another film starring Middleditch, Zone Out, earlier this year.
Abosch found the idea of AI writing a script “too far-fetched…it’s just gibberish.” Instead, it served as a sort of storyboard, suggesting how to make an effectively scary film. “For instance, when this happens, create a glitch that looks like this,” Abosch described as one of AIKA’s “suggestions.” “At the same time, the sound should do this—and here is where you introduce a Japanese girl.”
The lead of the film is a Japanese woman. Her character is called Aika.
Abosch cast the film (with suggestions from AIKA), and he wrote what little there is of the script. But AIKA was largely responsible for the sounds and the visuals and provided input on editing and other effects. Abosch compared its process to the sorts of apps that can make a photograph look like a Leonardo da Vinci painting because it’s been fed both that photo and a bunch of da Vinci paintings. “AIKA uses that kind of logic,” said Abosch. “It has a sense of how things should look, and when I give it something it can then make changes to approximate what it thinks it should look like with respect to that which is scary.”
Abosch would not share any clips from AIKA, which he expects to be ready in a matter of weeks. But he did share this disturbing still that he claims AIKA, not he, sent to me over email. The image resembles his face if it were made of melting wax and placed under water.
All of Abosch’s work, he said, explores where he ends and his subjects or collaborators begin. Previously, he’s used blockchain to explore this, like by using his own blood to stamp out the contract addresses of various “IAMA Coin” tokens he created on the Ethereum blockchain, which people could purchase. When Abosch and Ai tokenized their “priceless” moments together—moments like walking down the street or accusing each other of having “big noses”—by connecting them to tokens with the ticker PRCLS, he mused about their merging through the project. “Where do I end and he begins?” Abosch asked.
When his collaborator was AI, and not Ai (interesting that both of Abosch’s most recent collaborators go by more or less the same name) or the Ethereum blockchain, the idea of breaking down barriers got “a little freakier.” Abosch created AIKA, but AIKA successfully scared him.
“It’s like fucking with my head…When I’m interacting with it, you know, there are some things that have happened, that I’m like, it’s trying to fuck with me.”