Bitchcoin by Sarah Meyohas
One of the first tokenizations of art on the blockchain
25-28 May 2021
Predating the launch of Ethereum by five months, in February 2015 conceptual artist Sarah Meyohas released Bitchcoin, one of the first ever tokenizations of art. The prescient audacity of the project garnered considerable attention and was featured in Vice and Wired, among other publications. Meyohas’s creation of cryptocurrency as art, minted on her own proof-of-work blockchain, engaged with the ownership and utility of art in the digital future, but the intrinsic connection between each Bitchcoin and its constituent artwork necessitated non-fungibility, creating one of the world’s first NFTs as early as 2015.
Now, six years later, the artist is migrating Bitchcoin from its native chain to Ethereum, releasing 480 reserved Bitchcoins backed by art from her seminal Cloud of Petals exhibition at Red Bull Arts New York. Five bundles of Bitchcoins will be offered at auction: the first comprising 160 tokens and four subsequent bundles each containing 80 tokens. Each Bitchcoin is backed by a relic created from a rose petal from Cloud of Petals and is uniquely registered on the Ethereum blockchain. While Bitchcoins are artworks in their own right, these tokens are backed by the Cloud of Petals relics; if one chooses to redeem their Bitchcoin for a physical relic, their coin will be destroyed, or “burned,” establishing the symbiotic value of token and backing.
When she originally released Bitchcoin, Meyohas was a recent graduate of the prestigious Wharton School completing her MFA at Yale University. Thinking deeply about art, markets, and her own agency in the art world, Meyohas considered the speculative value of cryptocurrency in relation to the subjective value of art; by minting artworks as cryptocurrency to create cryptocurrency as art, Meyohas reclaimed agency over her own market, a feminist appropriation of a male-dominated technology. Thus, Bitchcoin was born. The blockchain-verified nature of the coin, moreover, ensured the uniqueness of each part—coin as well as artwork—and established essentially the proto-NFT, a distinctive artwork registered on the blockchain, even before the advent of Ethereum. Those who invested in Bitchcoin could hold them, sell them, or trade them in for work by the artist, at which point the surrendered Bitchcoin would be burned.
Although pioneering in every sense, Meyohas’ innovation exists in the grand tradition of conceptual art. Bitchcoin recalls Yves Klein’s Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle, performances involving the sale of documentation of ownership of empty space for gold where Klein produced receipts of sale verifying that the transfer of the intangible had taken place. The purchaser acquired an ethereal asset, and, more importantly, acquired verification that the transfer had occurred.
Klein’s “Ritual Rules,” however, dictated that each purchaser had two options following the sale: If they only paid the stipulatory amount of gold, Klein kept all of the bullion and the buyer did not acquire the full “authentic immaterial value” of the work; conversely, if the buyer purchased the immaterial zone and burned the receipt in an elaborate ritual on the Seine, Klein would throw half of the gold away into the river and full immateriality was achieved.Trading one absurd commodity for another—gold, valued for its ostensible preciousness, and imaginary space, intangible to both buyer and seller—Klein illuminated the inarticulable value of art and probed the merits of objective value.
This series of Bitchcoins is backed by the artist’s 2017 Cloud of Petals project, a present-day happening in a former temple to Progress. Cloud of Petals explored the future of labor in the face of automation and weighed the paradox of subjective valuations of beauty. Meyohas employed 16 male workers for a data collection ritual at the former R&D center of Bell Laboratories, a soaring steel and glass structure by Eero Saarinen. The men meticulously plucked, preserved, and photographed 100,000 rose petals to amass a dataset for artificial intelligence capable of algorithmically producing new, unique petals ad infinitum. Injecting human subjectivity into the equation, the workers set aside the one petal per rose they considered most beautiful, creating a taxonomy of individual aesthetic value. The 3,291 chosen petals were exhibited as the centerpiece of the artist’s 2017 exhibition Cloud of Petals at Red Bull Arts New York.
The petals are the documentation of the performance; materially limited and unique, they are the proof-of-work of Cloud of Petals. As each Bitchcoin is backed by a relic from this project, the value of the cryptocurrency is tied to the inarticulable value of art, continuing the symbiotic call and response that established Bitchcoin as one of the world’s earliest NFTs.