Øx is an exhibition of cryptographic artwork, operating in the intellectual tradition of 1960s conceptualism. What in 1968 Lucy Lippard and John Chandler termed dematerialization—in reference to practices which emphasized the rhetorical conditions and mathematical form of art objects over their physical production.

While “art as idea,” represented both a continuation of formal aesthetics and an affirmation of McLuhan’s thesis, the medium is the message, conceptual work was also motivated by a desire to eliminate the material constraints through which the impoverished economic conditions of artists was effected.

Notably, publisher and art dealer Seth Sieglaub identified the catalog as a complementary format for artistic experimentation, where mass production of print exhibitions might allow for a radical decentralization of audience and ownership.

Invited as part of the 2017 Ethereal Summit, 0x is an exhibit which posits the distributed cryptographic ledger now represents a publishing paradigm in which the many of these same ideals may be realized.

Øx takes its name from an ethereum address, 0xd604b44554d46DF89450D7d3D5EAb4BDC90fDbD8, created to broker the sale of included works. All funds consigned through this address will be donated to the New York City Department of Homeless Services.

⸺ Sam Hart

The instability of perception is encoded within that critical faculty [of sight], indexed to the density of social and historical constructs underlying how we see, and to the discursive factors which produce our seeing and organize value.

⸺ Ian Burn, Looking at Seeing and Reading



Sam Hart, Secret Piece (2017)

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Documentation of Mel Ramsden’s Secret Piece (1968), from the Art & Language anthology, Ian Burn & Mel Ramsden, Unlimited Edition (1971).

Text accompanying the original:

Envelope #1 encloses specific documentation of content of Envelope #2,
Envelope #2 encloses specific documentation of content of Envelope #1.

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Reproduction of Secret Piece (2017) by Sam Hart.

Here envelopes #1 and #2 are replaced with cryptographic envelopes A and B, representing two PGP key pairs using conventional “Alice” and “Bob” nomenclature.

Key pair A encrypts the secret counterpart of pair B,
Key pair B encrypts the secret counterpart of pair A.

The encrypted secret keys are placed inside transparent envelopes with the opposing public key printed on the exterior, after which the plaintext secrets are destroyed.



Melanie Hoff, Trust Game (2017)

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In The Trust Game, players don’t start off in equal positions of power.
It’s up to you and the person you’re playing with what winning means.

Melanie Hoff’s Trust Game is an online application which arranges an economic exchange between two players. Typically employed in behavioral economics, the reciprocal “game” is used to test whether trust is implicit in a particular transactional setting.

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The Trust Game, designed by Berg et al. (1995) and otherwise called “the investment game,” is the experiment of choice to measure trust in economic decisions. The experiment is designed to demonstrate “that trust is an economic primitive,” or that trust is as basic to economic transactions as self-interest. As “trust is not intrinsically part of mainstream economics,” the success of this experiment in demonstrating the primacy of trust is problematic for basic assumptions of standard economics, which tend to ignore trust.1

Hoff’s iteration of the game initiates a series of investigations into emerging social and political behavior online, using the browser-based game format as an opportunity to measure complex behavior of participants in a familiar setting.



Nora Khan, The Myth of Satoshi Nakamoto (2017)

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The origin story of a global cryptographic ledger and its enigmatic creator. A fiction that became reality, a history inscribed in the blockchain.

The burning intrigue over identifying Nakamoto reflects a wider curiosity about Bitcoin itself, which the creator defined in 2008 in a white paper. His argument was straightforward: People needed better ways to pay for goods without a third party, like a bank, that commodifies trust. The traditional model that grounded most electronic payments was inherently flawed and too expensive. In allowing one point of authority to be the arbiter of trust, people would always be at risk of becoming victim to corrupt or compromised systems.

Nakamoto’s solution was elegant. A currency stored in code, on hard drives. One Bitcoin would represent a cryptographically signed block of transaction histories, produced along a massive, peer-to-peer ledger, shared among computers all over the world.

A single person could produce money by syncing her computer with the Bitcoin network and verifying transactions via cryptographic proof. Further, she could buy and sell from someone in Algeria without running through local banks or regulatory institutions.

Popular speculations on the founder’s identity remain: that he is Bit Gold developer Nick Szabo; that he was cypherpunk cryptographer Hal Finney, who passed away in August. At the moment, Nakamoto could be one or many scholars, mathematicians and programmers spread around the world.

— Nora Khan

A SHA256 signature of the complete text was written to the Bitcoin ledger as proof of existence on May 18, 2017.

Signature: 12C7jQMhV9t3LepQGF8VwyEod6WgmDyU2w
Hash: a2389057f6ddc1e696c328b1bfbd9b4d8b572c0710ea5b58822c863416a2186e
Time: 2017-05-18 13:51:44
Block: 467002
Tx: 12C7jQMhV9t3LepQGF8VwyEod6WgmDyU2w

Text originally published on November 4, 2015 as part of Futures Along the Blockchain, a digital project by The Actual School, DeForrest Brown, Jr., Lars Holdhus, & Yuri Pattison, with support from Rhizome.



Lars Holdus, 2C E6 85 DC 0B A7 9F 2C 71 CD 47 52 E2 77 CC D2 96 DB 9B 67 51 F4 34 FD 20 A4 0C 86 5A 02 65 B7 D7 68 B6 FB E5 79 31 03 B6 48 76 26 63 1F 19 DC E0 2C C5 CD 74 A4 80 36 A5 56 83 EF 59 2A E8 31 (2017)

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The word ‘encryption’ implies secrecy, confidentiality, and the drive to hide information from a public “adversary.” Yet more broadly, any art object might be understood as something withdrawn from a viewer’s comprehension; hiding information, witnessing unknown pasts or simulating as-yet unforeseen futures.

⸺ Nick Bailey

5000 cryptographic tokens were minted to authenticate every artwork produced during Lars Holdus’ natural life. This painting’s facade discloses the private key belonging to its own token, such that the owner of the artwork can never display the work in its entirety without giving it away.



Rob Myers, Is Art (2016-2017)

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Here is a contract that can assert that it is art. It toggles its status as art when sent a message instructing it to do so. […] Anyone can change the contract from not being art to being art (and vice versa).


Ethereum DApp

init:
    contract.storage[1000] = "may be"

code:
    if msg.data[0] == "toggle":
        if contract.storage[1000] == "is":
            contract.storage[1000] = "is not"
        else:
            contract.storage[1000] = "is"


To Change The Status Of The Contract

  1. Click anywhere on the screen.
  2. In the dialog that opens, click “Update”.
  3. And in the dialog that opens in response to that, click on “Accept”.
  4. Watch for the update on both screens.


Late 1960s Conceptual Art and mid 1990s net.art are useful inspiration for thinking about the blockchain and smart contracts. These art movements stood in critical tension with the systems of communication, law and commerce of their eras. Each treated rootless information, whether about sense data or network messages, as the critical subject of art and a new potential artworld. Their promise and their eventual recuperation by the existing artworld chimes with the historical experience of the blockchain.

Is Art takes the Conceptual Art ideas of dematerialisation (art that is not presented in a fixed physical form) and nomination (something that is art because someone or something says it is) and combines them with the net.art idea of the interactive artwork that exists in or interferes with network protocols.

In it, an Ethereum smart contract contains the assertion that it either “is” or “is not” art. A web page connected to the Ethereum network displays the state of this assertion to anyone who can access the contract and allows them switch it between states. When they do so this will become a fact secured in Ethereum’s blockchain with the strength of millions of dollars of computing power a day.

Is this sufficient to determine whether the contract is or is not art? Where and how is the claim really being made and determined? How does this relate to historical examples of such artworks? And how does it relate to other claims of fact stored in other smart contracts?

⸺ Rob Myers



Simon Denny, Blockchain Future States (2016)

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The 0x curatorial program shared an exhibition space with Simon Denny, who brought work from his recent Petzel Gallery show depicting players in the cryptocurrency space as warring factions engaged in an out-sized game of Risk.

Since the work had seen a positive response in the critical art context, Simon and I had a chance to speak throughout the day about the differing response, now exhibiting at a technology conference.

Notably, that the reception of game was always couched in criticism at the former, while interpreeted as a matter-of -act rendering of the competitive and volatile crypto environment in the latter. To be sure, interesting and productive responses came from both camps, however the contrasting tone revealed important differences in predisposition.

While competition will be fierce as the corporate map is (re)drawn, opportunities for collaboration and creativity are just as vital. Perhaps the most instructive experience as an artist, was in providing a link between two cultures.

For many, distributed ledgers offer a tool for the reconfiguration of capital. “Success” for such a project, is then contingent on both the vitality of the ecosystem and the value system created within.



FOAM, Tropical Mining Station (2016-2017)

Modern collectives are confronted with the challenge of creating spatial conditions that enable […] the concentration of isolated entities into collective ensembles of cooperation and contemplation. This calls for a new commitment on the part of architecture.2

—Peter Sloterdijk, Foam City

To house the exhibition, decentralized architecture firm, FOAM, led by Ryan John King and Ekaterina Zavyalova, fabricated a temporary inflatable enclosure. The “bubble” is part of a larger investigation into distributed spatial infrastructure designed to accommodate ephemeral requirements, often by engineering tight couplings with local supply chains. For the Ethereal conference, the installation featured an Ethereum miner, able to solve cryptographic puzzles while ventilating waste heat into the structure.

The bubble also recalls the work of artist-collective Ant Farm, who often collaborated with Stewart Brand to publish materials on distributed architecture for the Whole Earth Catalog. In 1971 the group designed a similar “Pillow” inflatable in which the entirety of the Whole Earth Supplement was designed and published.

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Ant Farm bubble

Several pages of this supplement humorously describe the practical issues facing an editorial team stationed in an inflatable pillow in the desert of the Saline Valley in California. Anecdotes like this illustrate the experimental character of the production of the publication, and the commitment of the participants to a publishing project completely on their own terms, turning the publishing practice into a kind of performance and the process becomes part of the final work.3



Admittedly, such comparison to the events and thinking that took place nearly 50 years ago eventually breaks down. However in discovering connective threads, we also find an opportunity to enrich the contemporary conversation by learning and building upon those ideas.

My sincere thanks to ConsenSys and to Saraswathi Subbaraman for the opportunity to present this body of work. Also to Sarah Hamerman, for locating documentation of the original Secret Piece in the MoMA archives.


Produced in partnership with ConsenSys

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  1. Bestiary of Behavioral Economics/Trust Game, Wikibooks.

  2. Sloterdijk, Peter. “Foam city.” Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 9, no. 1 (2008): 47-59.

  3. Access to Tools, David Senior, 2012.