I remember reading about Geraldine Juárez’s 2014 bitcoin-burning experiment at the time and getting immensely impressed by its boldness. Back then, crypto seemed like a fringe phenomenon – worthy of radical artistic interventions but not earnest policy debate – so I didn’t make much of it. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to discover, earlier this year, that Geraldine has pressed on with her critique of the crypto sphere, even as these communities became far more mainstream. Today, it is crypto that is burning the art world – and not the other way around.
Geraldine’s elegant essay, The Ghostchain, is definitely worth reading to get an alternative account of NFT-ization of the art world, written from a perspective of someone coming from the almost extinct world of radical copyleft, which, in the mid-2000s, flourished in Europe. The Pirate Bay and the associated think-tank Pirate Bureau are the obvious reference points here, but that culture has a much longer pedigree, extending all the way to the squats and social centers of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
I spoke to Geraldine about the politics of what she calls “blockchain culture”; its influence on the art world; why Berlin, the former center of alternative culture, went mad about crypto; the assetization of everything and how NFTs enable that; and the powerful imagery of the ghostchain as an emblem of Agambian inoperosity, revealing all the rusty and decrepit infrastructures that remain after the hyper-financialized digital capitalism has done its job.
Keywords: Ghostchain, NFT-ization, Cryptoartists, Decentralization, blockchain culture
One of your first big public statements about cryptocurrencies, in 2014, was you putting nine millibitcoins (0.00977616 BTC) onto an SD memory card and barbecuing it. Could you describe what moved you to make that statement back then? Why weren't you as excited about the cryptocurrencies as many others in the art community, who saw them as a way to "stick it to the man" or Wall Street or whatever?
I did the first performance in 2013 and burnt the wallet and the keys so the millibitcoins couldn't be recovered in case someone guessed the password. PoB, proof of burn, is a consensus mechanism like PoW and PoS, but mining power is acquired by the burning coins; the more you burn the more you can mine. It also uses less computational power. Basically you need to send your coins to a verifiably unspendable address. So I did that and also used real fire to burn the SD card with wallet and key, to watch it burn and decompose and change, using its fire and ashes to also grill marshmallows with my friends – people I trust – and strangers – people I must trust too. So Hello Bitcoin was a gesture against automated trust and immutability, the two values from blockchain culture that I find more anti-social and that, back then, I thought were creating a bad future for material and social exchanges. And I was not super mistaken unfortunately.
Back then there was this discussion about whether cryptocurrencies are “real” currencies or not, a debate that somehow continues today: are they currencies or a security? With my performance I wanted to denaturalise value a little bit so anyone could make their own conclusions from there, although my point was that a currency is real not because you can spend it, but because you can waste it. Which is why cryptocurrencies are more “real” now, i.e. coins can be wasted in apes or generative images. By the way, with “wasted” I'm not making an aesthetic judgment but referring to the fact that spending money on art (of any kind) is a kind of non-productive expenditure.
Anyway, already in 2014, I learned that half of all bitcoins were owned by something like 900 people, so all the promises of economic equalization are still as false as then. Even lower down the crypto food-chain you need a certain amount of money to buy in. But also, it was impossible to be thrilled or excited about a technology so compatible with the libertarian and right-wing turn that started to be more apparent in internet culture around that time. How can you be excited about a technology promoted by right-wing populists of the caliber of Max Keiser and Rick Falvinge?
Do you think that, amidst all this buzz around web3, we are losing the alternative spirit, which, at least in Europe, defined the ways in which art and technology communities interacted for most of the period between 1990 and 2010? Whether it's the hacker/alternative video culture in social centers and squats in the 1990s, or the many collabs around Chaos Computer Club, or the activities of Piratbyrån, these art/tech interactions were always anti-systemic in character; it's hard to imagine American venture capitalists listening in – let alone contributing to – some of those conversations. What do you think changed in the last decade?
I would still call blockchain culture and so-called web3 “alternative.” They are still outside the mainstream – but it doesn’t mean they’re progressive. An alternative can be outside the mainstream but still reinforce a system: 4chan and Silk Road were absolutely alternatives to mainstream culture but not at all progressive, quite the opposite. This alternative ended up consumed by some quite dark forces. For example, hacking now is as much a question of geopolitics as cultural politics.
For me, crypto is decidedly a right wing conservative project and part of this process of recuperation required for capital to continuously transform and expand. This too is always an aesthetic process, and is why the critique of the political aesthetics of the blockchain is essential.
How much of this has to do with the changes that happened in Berlin in that period and what kind of changes do you think those were?
I lived in Berlin only for the last couple of years (and I'm on my way out because the housing situation is just impossible) but like many artists I’ve been around this city quite a lot. I still can’t say too much about the changes during the last decade. From what I grasp, it’s been a demographic shift, not so much a local-grown thing. The culture and the people that made Berlin a centre where a lot of people gravitate towards, are being evicted by cops at midnight from their squats and book stores. What’s moved in is the start-up city.
Maybe we should consider that during the last decade, Berlin became one of the major destinations for the international digital nomad. The infusion of people with more money, a different attitude to how and where they lived, and a desire for access to cultural capital did more to change the complexion of these scenes than a kind of collective decision in favour of crypto. While it’s obviously still the centre, Silicon Valley culture has diffused internationally either through willing imitators in local start-up scenes or through the actual physical movement of people working remotely. Every major city that is appealing to live in now has these outposts of that culture, and it interacts with what’s already there.
After decades of art communes and communities where solidarity and collaboration was the norm – and they were not in any way facilitated by tokens – it's a bit strange to be exposed to the rhetoric of DAOs, which promises to build algorithmically-governed institutions which might (or might not) produce solidarity in the end. Is there some kind of a willful amnesia in this space, which results in VC-funded technologists teaching art communities things that they used to know how to do pretty well?
I think this idealises too much the way art communities work. Solidarity among artists does exist but is the exception rather than the rule. The norms are, and have been for as long as I’ve known it, brutal competition, inequality, patriarchy, racism, endemic gatekeeping and the dictatorship of the market. That solidarity and collaboration between networked art communities you refer to, when it existed, wanted to create spaces outside the market for non-monetary relations and mutual aid. They were not aggressively using market mechanisms as now to create those possibilities.
Symptomatic of this is how thinking about piracy and intellectual property seems to have completely reversed compared to the previous examples you mentioned.
I find it very difficult to imagine solidarity without questioning the existing financial logic.
If you were to describe the Trojan horse that infiltrated the radical European cultural scene in the last decade and infected it with libertarian or at least neoliberal ideas, what would it be?
Decentralization. The idea that decentralization of infrastructure equals decentralization of power is a trap that became evident to many around 2013-2014, when net politics and networked activism was at its strongest in Europe. Suddenly a lot of people realised that we had been civically engaged to promote the vision of the internet that was required for the US economy. Open-web, creative commons, net-freedom… all that stuff.
In important respects, “decentralization” is the new “democratization.” And even more than that often ambivalent concept, it overlaps with values of both left and right. Libertarian ideology is based on the freedom of the individual and private property but occasionally, and temporarily, their principles align with left politics and strategies, for example in rave culture, piracy, privacy, and anonymity. For socialists, communists, and the rest of the left, these principles are means to social ends. For libertarians, these are more ends in themselves – it doesn’t matter if decentralisation benefits human rights activists or owners of capital.
Thus the libertarian Trojan horse pushed the transition to a more liberal version of internet politics that was also in the interests of financial capital. Then with crypto and the rest they intended to financialise –perhaps capitalise is more precise – the idea of decentralization.
It’s weird to me that we don’t seem to have learned the collective lesson that networks themselves have a tendency to centralize – and this centralization will take shape around existing concentrations of power. The true paradigm shift will come when we come up with something beyond “networks.” But that is another topic perhaps!
One difficulty in even criticizing ideas related to web3 (and here I mean a broad constellation of them – NFTs, DAOs, tokenization) is that it doesn't actually talk the language of Hayek, let alone Milton Friedman. It's all about "community" and "public goods" (a nice web3 euphemism for charity) and "stakeholders" and "social coordination." Why is it so hard to see through the underlying logic of these projects? Is it because the intellectual resources that did exist in Europe at some point – the ideals of copyleft or of hacker culture as truly anti-systemic as opposed to adaptationist – have lost their power?
I prefer to refer to that constellation as blockchain culture, and I agree that at surface level their discourse apparently doesn't speak in the terms of Mont Pelerin. Although Buterin’s blog posts are pretty straightforward libertarian stuff. But one doesn't even have to go very deep to understand that “DeFi,” decentralized finance, really just means against centralised banking, one of the great boogeymen of the Austrian School and libertarians more generally. Dig just a bit deeper and it is clear that the “right to exit'' is merely a Randian capital strike. But blockchain culture also speaks the language of Mark Fisher, McKenzie Wark and Walter Benjamin: terms like capitalist realism, collectible-ass and aura are constantly de-contextualized and yanked out from their original roles in a class analysis to contextualise crypto assets positively and infuse legitimacy artificially. As has been long observed, it happens that the aura of things and files can actually come from somewhere else than artworks and their conservative provenance. On top of all the theory-cant it is lacquered with astrology and systems-theory: it’s too much!
I do think that a whole lot of people, including lots of artists, see through the underlying logic of blockchain culture. People are not dumb, artists – right-click savers, no-coiners, hodlers or, you know, just artists without a financialised crypto label – we all know exactly what the stakes are in participating and not participating in this moment. The market giveth and the market taketh away. And critique is definitely not a good investment.
About the anti-systemic ideals you mention… The truth is that for instance in file-sharing there was always a libertarian strain and a communist strain of the same position. A friend recently suggested to me that “Cyberpunk” is a good word to capture this duality: “cyber” as this utopian, collective idea – from Otto Neurath to Stafford Beer, cybernetic thinking has been aimed as much at creating a socialist freedom as much as capitalist control – and “punk” as this individualist, elitist response to cyber’s capitalist employment in systems of control. Hacking or subverting systems for personal gain or to establish a kind of new elite.
For some of us, file-sharing was a form of communism and political practice against private property. For libertarians, it was a form of breaking monopolies and protesting against state intervention in the free market in the form of IP laws. During the right turn of the 2010s in politics and internet culture, we lost. The libertarians were able to adapt easily because they basically already agreed with all the ideas becoming popular.
These tensions and elements were already inherited in the previous cultures and ideals you mentioned before.
As an early opponent of Bitcoin, how do you see the entrance of crypto-finance into the world of digital art? Why is it to say easy for the narrative of "taking back control" – by means of financialization – to strike the populist chords with the art crowd? Are artists suckers for this kind of accounts of redemption by means of capitalism because of the way in which the existing art market works?
Some artists can afford to make art – digital or otherwise – without needing a day job. But most of us need to work extra bread-jobs or side-gigs to pay the bills and be able to make any art at all – and/or also we spend a lot of time writing grants that will allow us to make art in the future. Inequality among art workers is very pronounced too: those within institutional art bureaucracies have salaries while those producing art for their exhibitions get crumbs of the budget. Fees, set based on individual negotiation, are low and frequently paid late. On top of this there is the usual inequality between payment for men and women.
So even before crypto, the fantasy sold to artists by the art market was the promise of the Big Sale that brings financial independence. This created the expectation of wealth through art, of course unrealistic in the extreme when considering the number of artists out there and the way the art market is concentrated. The hope of escaping the need to hustle or at least the desperation about next month’s rent is however very understandable. This situation only worsened with the lockdowns and restrictions through the pandemic. Finding work or sales got harder. These factors together made artists the perfect targets for the expansion of crypto-finance.
The cryptobros (a subspecies of techbro) found it easy to sell the idea to artists (soon transformed in cryptoartists) because it was so easy to analogise between the Big Sale and the successful start-up exit. A founder who has subsisted on cup noodles for years is finally bought out by a big platform after years of toil: this is now my time, gorpcore! The artistic version is something like this: an artist who has worked at their practice for years invests their Coronavirus Emergency Grant from the German government in ETH to mint a work from a few years ago that went viral yet made no actual fiat, and lol! the Big Sale (minus gas fees and platform commission): cashing-back, wagmi!
So besides artists being the perfect target, the view that artworks are assets to be capitalised is nothing new. The capitalisation of artwork has always been this unclear potential, and the idea of the starving artist toiling with minimal means until the Big Sale was there long before smart contracts and NFTs. The crypto-capitalists just adopted it and exploited it at the perfect time: a moment of crisis.
The excitement about NFTs in some of these communities seems akin to the excitement about the Robinhood trading app on Reddit's WallStreetBets. The consequences seem to go that way too: just like the traditional hedge funds ended up making much more money on the backs of all these Robinhood users, it seems that the big auction houses might emerge as the ultimate winners of the NFT craze... Why is it so hard for artists to see through this?
Maybe it has to do with the expectations I just mentioned, some just hope individually that they are the one camel that will pass through the eye of the needle. They were early enough to make it to the winner's side, so why not. Plus, the new and the first are temporalities that often attract and accrue value in the art market. I can understand how everything makes perfect sense for some.
I also think that examining the class character of these asset-craze events would give more clarity and perhaps offer more information that could help explain phenomena similar to the GameStop short-squeeze but in the blockchain market.
In your essay on NFTs, you draw many interesting connections to contemporary academic literature on financialization and assetization. Do you think those advocating NFTs as a way to emancipate artists are not familiar with such critiques and are just naive? Or do they just ignore them in pursuit of their own agendas? How much of what's going in this space – not just in terms of NFTs, but also in terms of web3 and DAOs – is driven by what Lenin used to call "useful idiots" and how much of it is just people acting in self-serving ways to justify and boost the value of their own crypto holdings?
I can’t say if blockchain culture evangelists are familiar or not with the interdependence between assetization and financialization. There are artists I know who know it is a scam but either prefer to try their luck at this hustle than work excruciating service jobs, or have some idea that they can hack the system in some way. Personally I don’t think re-affirmative strategies work here: they only make the situation worse.
In general, I think that “assets” are taken for granted: it is never questioned how something becomes an asset and why and whom it will benefit. In the so-called web3, assets (as opposed to content) are king and investors believe that they are doing something good and changing the world by turning everything into an “asset.” There is no shortage of subversive opportunism going on and we hear that the internet of assets (web3) “is here to stay,” that artists should participate to fix this mess and that web3 is a “slightly better capitalism.”
Other advocates of the internet of assets promote blockchain culture as a more democratic network infrastructure that will equalise current disparities. But in reality, I think, they are all just promoting the vision of the wealthy (stop calling them whales: it’s part of the “anyone can win” casino fantasy) and their wealth.
Maybe what we actually need is a slightly worse capitalism: less productive and less dynamic.
Could you expand a little bit on the notion of the "ghostchain" that you introduce your recent and very perceptive essay? Do you aim to offer a counter-paradigm to the NFT-ization of art here?
Ghostchain is a term used in decentralized finance to refer to the blockchains where there is no or very little trading volume. We also hear this soundbite used over and over by crypto-investors that “crypto/web3/whatever is here is to stay.” And this is a good example of ultra-capitalists not understanding their own ideology – if capitalism is characterised by anything, it is constant renovation and transformation. This is before we even consider the effects of the climate crisis, which make clear that in capitalism, nothing, not even the world, is here to stay.
The financial imagination can only produce more conceptual, abstract stuff, so the ghostchain was the perfect image for what the demise of crypto-finance would look like. Empty apartment buildings (as in Berlin), rusty abandoned train tracks, and landfills full of discarded bikes from failed bike-hire start-ups are all kinds of discarded assets that litter the world: this is how it would be for crypto.
I was imagining the ghostchain as this non-productive blockchain, full of burned useless coins and dead links to intellectual property, unverifiable perhaps because it is unprofitable for miners to do so, or because crypto-miners have been shut down in the face of environmental regulations, or perhaps even because of sabotage from some neo-Luddite movement. The idea of the blockchain as a mathematical landfill, a wasteland of crypto-assets, a digital monument honouring the collective rejection of the antidemocratic and unequal future it promised is quite compelling to me.
I don’t have any kind of counter-paradigm or “proposal” against NFTs specifically: I’m more inclined to do nothing about it, to refuse participation in the process of capitalisation, and simply not add more blocks to the chains.
Geraldine Juárez (b. Mexico City) is a Mexican-Swedish artist working with time based media, sculptural objects, and performance about histories, imaginaries, and materials involved in the social production of technological culture. Her work has been exhibited and performed in Casa del Lago, Jeu de Paume, Skogen, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, transmediale, Fotomuseum Winterthur and University of Disaster at the 57th Biennale in Venice. Her writing has been published by Constant, Continent, Scapegoat Journal, Sink, Paletten, K. Verlag, and Rojal Förlag. She lives in Berlin. Geraldine's site.