Audio of the conversation with Sarah Friend on the social construction of value, quitting the art world, and how to explain the blockchain in haiku form.
Artist, technologist and software developer Sarah Friend works on the imbricated fringes of art, finance and blockchain technology. From an NFT marketplace incentivizing coordination to scaling trust with the crypto-UBI project Circles, Friend uses software as a medium to parody, question and re-invent value and our social behavior towards capital.
Hallie Frost: Sarah, I’ll just start with your bio, if that’s OK. Sarah Friend is an artist and software engineer specializing in blockchain and the peer to peer web. Uniquely positioned in this arena due to her technical expertise, Sarah has also worked as the co-founder of bitspossessed an art and software development consultancy, as a co-curator at Ender Gallery and as a technical lead at Culturestake. Sarah, thanks for talking with Weird Economies today.
Sarah Friend: Oh, thanks for having me.
HF: Yes, I want to first ask you about these creative, technical projects and communities you’re working within and then move our conversation towards your artwork and practice. I guess in that question, I would like to know if that is a distinction you even make. I was on your Twitter and you just launched this project “Offsupply”. Is that an art project or is that technical exploration?
SF: To answer the first part of whether I make a distinction between art and tech, I often say no, at least in terms of my own work, like my artwork is usually software. I think of software as sort of a sculptural medium that I make work with. That said, I also do work where I take on the technicians role. And so some of the things you listed, for example, in Culturestake, I feel that Culturestake is a work, a project that I was the technical lead on, but no, it’s not an artwork: It’s a voting application for arts funding. Now, maybe you could think of it as an artwork in some ways, but I don’t think of it as my artwork, certainly. So I do sort of more typical software contracting. With “Off” though? It’s both a technical project and an artwork. It’s also an artwork made up of artworks. Right?
HF: So could you briefly explain… It looks like an NFT marketplace. Is that right?
SF: It’s an edition. An artist edition of two hundred and fifty five solid black images, but it has a layer built on top of it, which is that each NFT is not only an NFT of a black image that corresponds to the pixel dimensions of the popular screen. It also has a game built into it. Each NFT is also a game piece. And the game is a coordination game. So when someone purchases an NFT, they also get an email with a secret image that corresponds to the NFT and hidden inside that secret image is a sentence and a shard of a private key. That private key is what encrypts the sentence, and the key is broken up in a way that none of the text can be decrypted unless 170, so two thirds of the total 255 collectors collaborate and share their secrets.
HF: Interesting, okay!
SF: I know you made a comment about terminology, and I think that it’s great to break down terminology, but I will say that I have been working with technology for so long that sometimes I forget what is accessible language. So if that didn’t make sense, if some of the things I’m talking about need clarification? Let me know.
HF: No, thank you. Yes. I think actually, I’m all right with all that because I want to— this corresponds to this question I had for you. From more of a philosophical place, you wrote this text in which you asked a question: Is the game theoretical man born or made? And in this text you’re talking about, essentially how do we build systems or games that incentivize human behavior? So we assume human behavior is rational and self-interested, but even if you take a broader historical perspective, you can see that we do change and alter with our society. It sounds like this incentivisation of behavior is something you’re super involved with… and then could you introduce Circles, also? Is that too leading of a question? Just try to fit it all in.
SF: Yeah, I’m glad you bring up that text. I sort of picked apart the homo economicus this sort of idea of what the human is, that is rational and self-interested. After we talked about “Off” because I think two things “Off” is a response to that idea and also in its way, I think, structured like a prisoner’s dilemma. So the prisoner’s dilemma is interesting, for those who don’t already know, it’s sort of this key example from early game theory that has been incredibly influential as an example of a situation that when laid out—if we stick these people who we imagine as rational and self-interested in it—they arrive at a globally suboptimal outcome… should I talk through the dilemma or assume people need to know?
HF: Let’s assume that they know. Again, this assumption that cooperation needs to be incentivized rather than it being a very natural response to being around other people is super interesting to me in both the prisoner’s dilemma and what we were just talking about.
SF: So in “Off,” the way the prisoner’s dilemma is enacted is the choice to share your secret or keep it, I feel, this is a very similar choice to the choice that the prisoner faces theoretically in the prison term. Sometimes I call “Off” the massively multi-player prisoner’s dilemma. So everyone has to share their secret and they don’t know if enough people will ultimately share so you sort of are in a position of having to choose to trust or give something away without knowing what the outcome will be.
HF: What’s at stake when giving something away—is it that you’ve purchased something?
SF: And by giving away, you know, there’s a few dynamics that are coming up as I watch people play. But first, I was wondering maybe if there might be a perception that an unshared secret was more valuable…and I’m not sure I’m seeing that. But what I am thinking is, I think people are hesitant to share first, they want to wait to see a critical threshold reached, but then also say someone—there’s a max of five “Off” pieces per person—or I’ve tried to enforce this max with some weak measures. So say one hundred and sixty five of them are shared publicly and one person is squatting on five, that have not been shared, that person can now decrypt the secret before anyone else without sharing anything. Does that make sense?
SF: You need one hundred and seventy, to decrypt anything. So if I had five, that hadn’t been shared, but there were a hundred and sixty five sort of floating around in the public world. Then that person who has five that they haven’t ever shared can now decrypt the secrets–
HF: –because they have access to the rest of them.
SF: Yeah, because they’re going to share it in like a public channel— or not public—but like collectors only channel. I haven’t seen anyone post one publicly yet, though they might someday. So it’s kind of like this. Who will go first? Who will end up last? Who can reveal first, I think, is some of the tensions that people are thinking about. But of course, I can only speculate. I have watched what gets shared, but that’s about all we know, but what they’re thinking. So it’s a little bit like a prisoner’s dilemma. And I think that it’s challenging people to consider what they will give up in order to get access to something for everyone. Because also, once the secret key is revealed, anyone can decrypt the text that is hidden in their image. OK. It’s a kind of game. And I guess there was a second part of your question which was delving into Circles.
HF: Maybe I can quickly try to summarize Circles, for the uninitiated, but you’ll probably end up doing it better. Circles, from what I understand—it’s a UBI experiment, so a Universal Basic Income experiment that is using cryptocurrency. And what’s so fascinating in that for me initially right, it’s that UBI projects are almost uniformly considered from a governmental perspective. These large scale government funding projects, but Circles, because we’re using cryptocurrency in this case, would be a grassroots endeavor to implement UBI. And so already that super fascinating. One thing, though, that I had a question about was—the trust relationships that are involved in Circles. From what I understand, each person that joins this community is given their own personal crypto or their own personal capital. But the fungibility of that personal token is determined by how much this person interacts, engages in exchanges with other people in the Circles community. In theory, even though you’re getting the same amount of currency minted each month in the UBI model, there’s this incentivization for exchange and forming trust relationships with other people, which I thought was super fascinating. I also wondered how that is going and if you have anything to say about that, because how old is that project now?
SF: We shipped in October of 2020.
HF: OK, well, and that was, is that through bitspossessed, or?
SF: bitspossessed did not exist when Circles launched. Circles is its own team, I was a freelancer there. I worked with another developer on the app. We shipped it and then were completely exhausted. I don’t know if you were at all in the sort of vacinity that you saw things happening with the Circles launched when we launched online, but it was kind of a shit storm. I worked every day for two weeks. We were nowhere near prepared for the amount of traffic that we got. Our servers were going down all the time. Going viral really sucks if you’re the one responsible for keeping the webmap running. bitspossessed was formed to transition the working environment in Circles to be more sustainable. Andreas and I kind of started looking for people to work with, we found a couple of colleagues and founded bitspossessed together. So bitspossessed is now the core maintenance team of Circles. But it wasn’t around when it launched. I mean, your description of Circles is really accurate. That is how it works. There are incentives in Circles—incentives and risks—incentives to trust because your personal currency gets more fungible or sellable, the more people who trust you. But there are also risks to trusting others because those others can sort of spend currency through you. How that works?
HF: Yeah, yeah…
SF: It’s called a transitive transaction. So you have this sort of network or web of all these trust connections going between everyone in the system and everyone has their personal token. And I can spend my personal token with people who trust me. But what trust means in Circles is that they’ve agreed to accept my currency. You might find yourself asking, how does that actually make the economy work? Because obviously I don’t only transact with people who I know personally. It needs to extend or scale beyond that, and the way Circles solves that problem is something called transitive transactions. Basically, it means that we pass the Circles currencies through the network of trust connections. So say, for example, I’m trying to pay you, but I just met you today so maybe we have no trust connection yet—but you already knew my partner, Dietrich. So you trust Dietrich and Dietrich trusts me. So if I’m trying to pay you, what would happen underneath the lid of the system is some of my tokens would get passed to Dietrich and Dietrich’s token would get passed to you.
SF: So you would end up with only things you trust. But in effect, I paid you. So trust is risk. You’re really saying like, I agree to accept your token like my own and sort of, while I’m asleep you could transact from underneath me and leave me with all your token. So, yeah, there are incentives going, you know, in many ways. In Circles, we’ve definitely seen some perverse behavior, there were bots trusting everyone within like a couple of days of the launch or Telegram channels you could post in and get trusted by probably scammers— people trying to create a lot of fake accounts through that.
HF: I can imagine that putting anything, any game out online, the first instinct of online communities is to hack it.
SF: Definitely, yeah. And you know, in “Off” it conforms to the NFT….tea break.
(Frost pours tea)
HF: Tea break! We’re having Bengal Spice for those North Americans listening at home.
SF: “Off” conforms to the NFT trope of doing drops. So one of them was on Thursday night and I did a first one back in the summer and it was a quiet affair. A lot of friends bought, but it didn’t sell out quickly. It took a couple of weeks. The project had not gotten that much hype. I did one on Thursday, and it sold out in two hours.
SF: People were buying them as quickly as I could to create them. And then we saw some bad behavior, like I mentioned that you get this secret by email. I got one very obviously fake email, so, you know, someone is like defecting in the prisoner’s dilemma of the game so hard that they don’t even want a secret at all. Yeah, I also did a rate limiting of five per person, like I said and I did it by email. So assuming people would give me their real emails, like five per email. But I saw people using multiple emails…
HF: You get all those Hotmail accounts…
SF: And so one of the emails was obviously fake, bounced back immediately. But then there were still others in there, and I’m like, I don’t think this is real. So you do see, the speculative marketplace around NFTs incentivizes some strange behavior.
HF: Well, I think also timeline-wise with the NFT boom that makes sense that speculation economy would affect your project in this way, because that is how people understand NFTs in this moment.
SF: I think that’s the core of what the product is trying to do—it’s trying to work in that context of speculation to explore how that interacts with other coordination mechanisms, if it does, and how they’re affected. So for example, another thing that I’ve seen just in the last days is someone bought one on the secondary market for quite a bit more than the initial drop price.
SF: But then they emailed me and they were like, really excited to participate in the game and have joined one of those sort of places that the collectors are working on solving the puzzle. Initially, I thought the NFT impulse to like, flip them for profit might hurt the project, or the secondary market might be antithetical to the coordination game. But more recently, I’ve understood that perhaps it could be helpful in this way where people who don’t care about the coordination game are incentivized to sell. But those who care enough to buy, maybe people who care about the game more.
HF: Right, those are the people that would be interacting with that marketplace.
SF: Yeah. So how they’ll work together has surprised me a little bit. I didn’t anticipate that until I saw it happen.
HF: I think that does make sense to me just in that we are in this interesting moment with blockchain and all of these different marketplaces where people actually get to choose which marketplace they interact in. And to some extent, that’s being done intentionally, like when you see whether people are trading on Proof of Work or Proof of Stake chains. This is a moment where we’re looking at: Can there be ethics of this market? Should we apply them? Slowly but surely, you do see that the technology can evolve quickly enough for people—for the demands of the public and the user.
SF: There are so many layers to what ethics makes sense to apply. The entire world of NFT trading… I mean, for me, I don’t think of it so much as applying ethics to it, though I’ve chosen to use Proof of Stake for my projects, largely from climate related concern, also a part of it has been price point related as well. I make other work about climate that has not been about blockchains. Part of my approach towards blockchains and the energy cost is—it’s so easy to not use Proof of Work. What is the argument for doing it in 2021? And perhaps I can demonstrate that it is quite possible by example, by doing it. But then there’s also this a price point dynamic, which is that an NFT on “Off” is about 35 USD equivalent and a transaction fee on Ethereum, which is the most commonly used network for NFTs, I would say, can sometimes be like 100 USD just for the transaction fee, so it makes no sense to sell a low priced NFT on that network. So that’s another factor into the choice. But I think there’s a cost to launching on Proof of Stake in terms of the visibility of the project. I think that people, there’s certain NFT world that doesn’t really look outside of things on main net. It’s harder for new users to participate in it because… What are Matic tokens? What is Polygon? How do I set up a wallet on that? Slightly more advanced questions. I know people who’ve set up the Polygon wallet just to participate in “Off” to which is amazing, and very sweet. See, it was a real, real tough decision. Lots of pros and cons. But anyway, on the subject of ethics, we always target and I just talked about all the parameters, the choice, but for me, it’s not so much that. I feel like with the sale dynamics, I want them to follow from the concept of the work. So “Off” has this very egalitarian, flat price situation, which I think fits the concept. As an example of a totally different pricing model that also follows from the work, I did a nonfungible tokens edition for Clickmine back in 2018.
HF: Right, OK. So just because we didn’t talk about this while we were recording, but Clickmine is the work that you presented at Proof of Stake at the Kunstverein Hamburg.
SF: I have two works in the show, Clickmine is one of them. Clickmine is a blockchain work from 2017. Back in 2017, it was a very funny moment in the blockchain world. It was the first real bull run like what we’ve witnessed this year—it has felt like history repeating itself because there was this crazy moment of media attention and stupid headlines and high prices back in 2017 as well. And at that time, I was working in the blockchain industry as a software developer of a big blockchain company. And so I made this clicker game that was kind of satirizing those elements and I think also responding to the question of like what gives a token value. Back then, and actually still now, there’s this tone of the conversation a lot where people speak as though something just being a token means value in some way. But value obviously is like the secondary process of social consensus, so I made this token that was almost like engineered to be valueless in every way imaginable. And you could get it with this clicking game. Clicking games are a genre game and usually in a clicking game, the player can do nothing except click, get money and maybe buy power-ups. So that’s what you do in Clickmine, you just click and you get this token and it is a real token in every way.
There’s this narrative of the game where you get this little procedurally generated piece of land and as you click, you are digging a hole and the hole gets deeper and deeper and deeper, and you get richer and richer and richer. And the game ends when you’re sort of so deep in the hole that there is no light anymore, the screen is just black and you have like trillions of dollars.
HF: That gives me chills. I have goosebumps right here.
SF: It’s a little bit dark. I thought it was funny.
HF: I was going to say poetic. Well, you said one thing in this description: the fungibility of the token is a social process outside of the creation of it…
SF: I think I said the value. It’s kind of this question that everyone watching every kind of token has to ask themselves. Being a token is nothing, it’s social consensus that gives it value. Why is Bitcoin, Bitcoin? Why are some NFTs worth millions where others with nothing? It has nothing to do with the quality of being an NFT. It’s also this question has bearing on Circles, because Circles…
HF: …has this social aspect, I was going to say when you’re first explaining it, this sounds so much like the materialization of social capital.
SF: And that’s one of the biggest dangers of Circles, right?
SF: They say we’re giving people this token in Circles, and obviously it’s worth nothing because Circles itself as a system has not hit a point where there is social consensus in Circles, tokens have value and then each individual also faces this in their own in a way. So it’s kind of two layers in which we ask: Where does the value come from? So in a way for Circles, the real hurdle to adoption or to being a successful alternative currency is not shipping the software—but we had to do that. It’s the reproductive labor of, you know, bringing businesses and people and communities into this world which is valuable. Convincing them that this economic system is valuable, without that consensus from people and participants it’s just empty accounting.
HF: I read a book this summer. It is—I’m kind of embarrassed to say the title–—but it’s called Sex at Dawn and this book introduced me to the concept, that at least like from a biological anthropological perspective, we are wired to trust in very small groups, like upwards of one hundred and fifty people. This also relates to the Mean World hypothesis, that when we get outside of very small communities or groups, we do just inherently fear or distrust members from the outside. So it’s interesting when you’re talking about having widespread adoption of Circles, I’m wondering like how? How small those communities might need to start out as. The Macao community in Milano, I believe, were using some crypto…. was it Circles?
SF: I think it might be called Fair Coin or something like that. I have met some people from that community over time of working on NFTs. What you said about, you know, groups and coordiantion, I think is real. I’ve spent a lot of time in the blockchain world, and decentralized organizations trying to not have hierarchies, trying to coordinate with consensus. And yet it doesn’t scale past a certain number. Different types of decision making processes I’ve watching fail with seven or eight people. And so one of the ways I sometimes describe Circles to people is as a way to scale the pre-economic gift economy. So I don’t know if you’ve read Debt by David Graeber. If so, he talks about these sort of communities of trust and the gift economy that operated before currencies are introduced, or currencies that can be used only in specific contexts. And otherwise, communities operating with gifts. And yeah, those communities have certain size. And so with Circles, it has some small elements, like your granted Circles by your existence in relation to other humans. So there’s sort of this idea baked into it as a protocol that a human is deserving of sustenance by the basis of existing and being part of a community like anyone who is part of the community is deserving. And so in a way, it feels similar, but it has this transitive transaction mechanism that is designed to let it scale outside of all of that, you know? So say I might only ever actually trust these 150 people through those 150 people. Honestly, if you trust 150 people, you probably are connected to a hell of a lot more through. I mean, I’m not sure how many hops out, the limit on the trust hops is right now. It was three for a while, but that was a technical limitation.
HF: I’m actually I’m three degrees from Obama, personally, so get me on this app.
SF: So one thing that is true is that if you heard the like six degrees of separation rule or whatever, It is actually true. Like that is how the type of network that human social relationships are.
HF: Could you explain it further?
SF: Yeah. So you have this entire network of—who knows—everyone. And then there’s this idea that you’re never more than six hops away from any other person. And it’s true. Like, I don’t know if six is the actual number, but it is surprising how small that number is to connect humans. Given how many humans there are. And it has to do with the type of network and patterns that end up getting formed between… in human relationships. There’s a type of network called I think, a small world network and for this reason, because it makes the world feel small because it’s only so many hops to any other node.
HF: Interesting. OK.
SF: Yeah. So Circles is new and there are data scientists working in Circles and sort of analyzing these aspects of the system. So what I’m saying is a hypothesis, not like a confirmed finding, it’s something we’ve observed, it’s something that tends to be true of social graphs.
HF: Yeah, OK. I love that. Well, to move away actually from talking about currency, there is also a place which I’m really excited to hear you speak on. What can you say about blockchains facilitating these micro-level communities with other applications? In Culturestake, you’re talking about voting. When I was researching other blockchain governance groups there is the Decentralized Autonomous Kunstvereien which you are definitely aware of…What can you say about these endeavors?
SF: Yeah. Well, the reason I got involved with blockchains in the first place is really these peripheral things that I was so excited about and curious about. Culturestake uses blockchain mostly to give the kind of auditability and transparency to the vote results. So after the vote is over, if you want to understand how the decision was made. You can sort of verify that your vote is part of it… how many people voted for what. And I think the way, Furtherfield who are the initiators of the project, talk about it is that it’s towards building a public data commons. Could you build something like that on an architecture that’s not a blockchain? Yes, I think, but also in the use case of cultural funding, I think there is an advantage to being adjacent to blockchain because you could add the sort of funding layer to Culturestake as a system automatically. So perhaps because of the result of the voting, funding is dispensed. So an example, DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) are an emerging blockchain forum, I say emerging but they’ve been around for a long time. One of the most notable headlines of early Ethereum was the hack of the first DAO, which was called The DAO, confusingly enough, and that was back in 2016. But DAO tooling has been hard to build, and I think it’s only really in the last year, like hitting a point where people are really using DAOs, where it’s common to hear about DAOs. You mentioned the Decentralized Autonomous Kunstverein, and they were part of the Proof of Work exhibition at Schinkel and I believe it’s still going. I’m not part of the DAK, but the kunstverein itself sort of makes sense as a DAO model because in some ways I think it already is. One of the things I sort of like to joke sometimes is that there are DAOs all around us, or like groups of people, coordinating.
HF: But blockchain gives these systems this assurance of transparency.
SF: Yeah, it can give a kind of finality to the decisions that were made by the DAO, which is possibly useful. I will say that I’ve been part of some DAO experiments and sometimes recording all your votes on the chain is kind of a formality, the coordination is social. I’ve also seen people vote in a DAO, decide they don’t like the outcome, and then re-vote. Much like value, consensus is actually social. Decision-making…the tool does not actually drive the decision in groups like this. They’re not bound the way a country is bound to actually have a leader who is the outcome of the vote. If that group of people decides to re-vote, they can. Now one thing DAOs can sometimes do is automatically execute decisions. So if the DAO is voting on paying someone, they may have been set up so that that person is just automatically paid or hired. DAOs interacting with finance is happening more and more, so on Ethereum, there are some collector DAOs collecting NFTs, investment DAOs sort of operating like a group investment pool where some DAO participants are more actively managing the investment. And so in those cases, yeah, you know, you might have automatically executed the transaction, but I’ve definitely been part of DAO experiments that do not.
HF: Right, right. OK, well, I have two more questions…Oh, my gosh three more, but one of them is asking you to re-quote this article that you wrote. But could we talk for a second about your personal history and this trajectory, like how did you come to be doing the work that you’re doing?
SF: Well, you asked earlier about Art and Tech and whether I see them as distinct, my projects as being distinct. And I would say that I went to art school, I actually studied painting, and so there’s this way that you could say that I have been an artist for a long time. But I’ve always been interested in technology as well. Back when I was young, it was really difficult to enter tech spaces—if you didn’t have a parent or teacher who was particularly knowledgeable—you were not going to get onboarded into that world. Also, to be honest, like harder as a young girl. So I was always interested, but never really dug in until my early 20s I started teaching myself to write software. And, you know, for a while, I also tried to quit making Art, tried to quit the Art world and really focus on being a software developer and it’s funny that my quitting Art world was a bit of frustration with the market economy around artworks. So it’s really funny that I should be re-entering the art world in the context of…
HF: …to completely change it.
SF: True, it’s like I’ll claim that sort of early moment of frustration because it feels really interesting and it actually informs a lot of what I do.
HF: Yeah, of course. I think that is such a… I mean, obviously your individual experience, but I think it’s definitely also more of a universal experience as well for artists coming out of school to realize that actually there’s this whole other game that is to be played that your professors who have tenure in art school don’t know how to play… so didn’t tell you about it.
SF: Yeah, absolutely. The real awakening.
HF: It’s like having a head through a window.
SF: I also sometimes talk about how being in university, I was like shielded from class differences amongst my peers and emerging they were suddenly so stark. It was like whose parents paid for this studio? Who has 80,000 USD of student debt? Those people end up having really diverse careers a year out. And it’s so obvious to say, but when you’re in undergrad, those differences are like masked because we’re under this umbrella of an institution protecting you from it—who is getting their tuition paid and who’s having a loan for their tuition is a little bit invisible. So it was a harsh moment in many ways. But I was learning software and becoming immersed in this new world that brought me back to art—like I started making games. I was making software that was art. So in a way my Art/Tech journey is narratively thesis to antithesis to synthesis in a way.
HF: This could be wrong…but it does seem that when you’re left to your own devices, you’re creating Art software and when you’re collaborating with a community, that’s when you are doing these projects that I would call technical exploration.
SF: I can’t seem to not make art. Like my ideas keep coming out as Art so I’ll run with it. It’s one of the worst economic ideas I’ve ever had.
HF: Yeah, but it seems like you probably had a couple other good ones with that early blockchain work. OK. Do you want to try this haiku?
SF: Haiku about blockchain? Yes, I can answer the question of what blockchain is. I’m not going to give you a serious answer. And I can’t write haiku on the spot.
HF: Can I count the syllables, and we can try? So I’ve asked Sarah Friend to explain Blockchain in haiku form, which for those of you at home is… five, twelve…
SF: I guess five, seven, five.
HF: Five, seven, five. There you go. We’re counting on our fingers.
(Sarah Friend composes haiku)
HF: Take your time. I’ll shorten this piece of audio if you take all the time. Do you want to write in my diary?
SF: This is really fun. It’s going to be… OK. So recently, I tweeted that I was trying this thing out where I never explain blockchains again and I only give deranged answers. So….
The world’s biggest clock. A Very slow computer. Makes lots of money
HF: Make lots of money! Yes! And it fits! Incredible. I think we have the title of our piece so thank you for that. This was my capstone question for you.
SF: There’s one thing also that I didn’t talk about. Which I’d love to tell you about because I was segueing into it and then we wandered, which is sort of examples of price following concept in the work. So talking about Clickmine but then I didn’t tell you about the way the price comes into the Clickmine nonfungible tokens. So I did this edition in 2018 of physical bronze coins, which I thought was quite funny, and I called them physical, nonfungible tokens. I have one here so you can see what they look like. They have the hash of this image printed on them—
HF: Oh, this is gorgeous.
SF: —these are sold in an artist’s edition. But the pricing in the artist edition is in full variance. So each one costs exponentially more than before. So the first one was like a couple hundred then by the twentieth, by twenty one, I don’t even remember, like millions. So I don’t expect these to sell unless my art career changes significantly. But that inflationary pricing sort of follows the way the token works and click in the game, which is inflationary and hits ridiculous numbers very quickly. And so also in a way, like the coins are a bit of a game, right? It’s the game of every time a new person buys the price for the entire edition raises. It’s kind of an auction built into the artist edition. So I don’t always price things in like a super egalitarian, communalistic way. It’s just when it fits the works. I think of the work as an economic system. So I wanted to explain that because I had said this earlier and we were talking about it and it’s still relevant now.
HF: And I also really appreciate how you are so aware of all of these ideological concepts, but you apply them….you have this fidelity to the work and to a concept that’s really impressive.
SF: Thank you.
HF: Alright this question and I don’t know if this is going to launch a whole thing, but I love this quote of your’s from again, this piece where you were talking about the game theoretical man. You posit this question about community values, essentially the people that are in the blockchain community and how there is a value system and the value is decentralization. But the question you actually asked is: the question of the future is not what if tyranny, but which? And I got chills. This rings so true, that these systems are being built to solve one problem. You know, you look at the white paper for Bitcoin references the financial crash. But instead, it often just leads to a different kind of tyranny unless the incentives change, unless we’re using these applications for something other than just capital accumulation. Ich glaube…
SF: Yeah, yeah, it’s something that has haunted me about the blockchain world for a long time. I think there are absolutely ideologies embedded into the way we design protocols, and unpacking decentralization as a concept is a worthwhile task that we probably can’t do here, but I have tried to do in other places. I think that one of the ways I’ve been thinking about sort of the conversation around blockchains now around artist monetization, now. The conversation around NFTs has been to think about…We’ve seen this happen with Web 2.0 and with the internet in general, these sort of technologies which contain different affordances and with them different ideologies and how they have reshaped our communication landscape and also the economic landscape of what is valuable. So kind of non-consensually artists were thrust into a world of digital content sharing in like the late 90s. I guess…a lot of the seeds were planted, I think, in cyber-utopian culture. And now that’s we’re sort of watching this happen again. And I feel like what’s happening feels like this reaction almost to some of the unanticipated consequences of Web 2.0, of some of those dynamics that emerged. People are trying to now monetize content with frenzy and perhaps that is because content creation was so successfully stripped of value by Web 2.0 technologies. Which, of course, prompts the question right? If what is being built by the blockchain world now are responses to the failures of past systems– but we know from watching past systems that they had perverse incentives, perverse affordances came from them.
The question to ask ourselves is what will come from what we’re building now? So I think about this a lot, I feel cautious, but I also feel like it’s important both creatively and in a more utilitarian way, as a technologist, to be working in a place where you can potentially affect the outcomes of perhaps which tyranny we get.
So I guess that’s why I feel maybe drawn to blockchain, drawn to working adjacent to this hyper-financialized space. Because from there, I can do more to shift what is possible, in what is imaginable, from there than I can from outside it.
HF: Yeah, that seems like a really good place to end. Sarah, thank you so much for your time.
Friend’s next NFT-based social experiment is called, Lifeforms. Hatching at the Kunstverein Hamburg show, Proof of Stake the tokens require care in order to thrive and must be given away within 90 days of purchase to avoid expiring in the buyers’ wallets.
Lifeforms and their contracts, Sarah Friend, 2021, Kunstverein Hamburg