Under the microscope: What Bayneko’s viral art experiment teaches us about security and community on the blockchain
An Infection Unleashed
On January 31st, 2022, I noticed something in my Tezos wallet that didn’t belong there: SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. Of course it wasn’t actually COVID, but rather an NFT. The image depicted cells under a microscope, pink and purple and mesmerizing, a horizontal bar of negative color in the middle, a banner flashing the name of the virus at me and declaring I had contracted the κ variant. As a child of Web1 who sat through internet stranger danger lectures and whose prior job calming panicked Apple users at the Genius Bar made me forever weary of what one wrong click could do, I wanted to exercise a degree of caution around the receipt of an unsolicited NFT from someone I didn’t know. But curiosity got the better of me. I can’t say why, but instead of following the Tezos address to uncover the sender’s identity, I took to Twitter, the hub of all things NFT.
Immediately, I realized I wasn’t the only person who received the cryptic airdrop. My feed was flooded with Tweets from tens of thousands of people–as a matter of fact, nearly 100,000. Anyone whose wallet held an NFT from Hic et Nunc (essentially the entire Tezos userbase) woke up to a virtual viral infection “in an act symbolic of the invasive and ubiquitous nature of the virus and its psychological effects,” as the token’s description on Objkt read. It turned out the massive airdrop, the largest performed on any blockchain to date, was orchestrated by Bayneko, an artist whose body of work features mesmerizing glitch art depicting cells under microscopes. His experiment proved divisive, with reactions ranging from fascination to fear. Some people used Twitter to express anger at the unsolicited drop, warning others not to touch the token. Others went as far as recalling what happened in December 2021 when rapper Waka Flocka Flame publicly asked OpenSea to investigate after interacting with an NFT airdropped to him from an unknown address drained the equivalent $19k from his Ethereum wallet. It isn’t an unfounded fear; malicious smart contracts exist, and while I’ve seen little discussion of them on Tezos, as the blockchain grows in popularity, it’s only a matter of time before they begin to invade.
Of course, many recipients of Bayneko’s “SARS-CoV-2” recognized that the token came not only from an artist, but a known member of the Tezos community. As fears eased, artists and collectors decided to participate in the game. Bayneko graciously spoke to me over Twitter DM, and his enthusiasm for the project was infectious. Thoughtful and with a clear sense of intellectual curiosity, I imagined him hunched over a microscope, laser-focused on a sample trapped between the glass panes of a slide. He shared with me that he expected a negative reaction to the project. “I am a bit surprised there weren’t more people angry that I symbolically gave them COVID.” Instead, Bayneko’s Twitter feed and DMs were full of people thanking him, people who understood what the drop said about blockchain and community, and who wanted to engage in the experiment and the conversation. “I’m also not surprised there were some who experienced fear. There was an element of danger to the demonstration.”
One very serious point Bayneko demonstrated was that the 100,000 wallets symbolically infected with COVID were also susceptible to other kinds of infection–spam, phishing scams, and tokens with smart contracts designed to cause harm. Specifically, he showed how easy it would be to execute attacks like that on Tezos, a blockchain with low enough gas fees to make such an undertaking feasible. Ultimately, this is what compelled him to pursue the “SARS-CoV-2” experiment. He didn’t care if a few people were angry with him because “if even ONE person sees this and thinks twice about interacting with an anonymously submitted NFT in the future, it will be worth it. The personal cost (financial or otherwise) didn’t matter at that point.” And there was, of course, a personal cost: 1,623 XTZ, or just under $6,000 as of writing. Not a small sum by any means, but certainly less than many collectors pay for art. And while scammers and spammers do call other blockchains home, Tezos users could be susceptible to them on a massive scale because the cost of each transaction is so low. Such an undertaking would be near impossible on Ethereum, where gas fees are higher and over 70 million users have wallets. “In the case of an anonymous token,” he said, “it may be best to leave it alone. But the marketplaces need to adapt.” Users have called for marketplaces to initiate protections and for wallets to allow users to decline unsolicited drops. It’s even possible in the future that defenses may be built into blockchains themselves. But for now? If you have a wallet, utilize discretion.
Bayneko, who is “fascinated with diseases and other destructive natural processes,” recognized that COVID and the blockchain act as perfect analogies for one another. “I was a bit worried that some people may take the art as political,” he acknowledged. But as he goes on to explain, SARS-CoV-2, like all viruses, is very much an apolitical presence. “The virus does not discriminate, it is simply doing what its genetic code dictates.” It is this comparison he drew between the virus and the blockchain; both simply behave as they are programmed, and while human beings cannot control if they contract or spread a virus, they can make decisions that influence the likelihood of those events occurring. Similarly, we cannot control what the blockchain wants to do as it’s programmed to respond in particular ways to specific commands, but we can make decisions that affect the outcome of actions on the blockchain.
To reflect this, an integral component of “SARS-CoV-2” was community participation. In the description of each variant on Objkt, Bayneko presented choices to recipients: “WIll you cure yourself of SARS-CoV-2 by burning this viral token in an act of communal catharsis? Will you choose to infect others? Or, will you risk the consequences of superinfection with an increasing viral load? Life is a terminal condition. Act appropriately.” Bayneko described himself to me as a storyteller and said the project allowed him to “realize this fantastic caricature of myself–a mad scientist of sorts.” And truly, another driving force behind the experiment was scientific curiosity. What would happen if he sent an NFT to everyone? How would people react? The Tezos blockchain specifically proved an “ideal laboratory” to test it out. Not only did the low cost of sending tokens enable the experiment to happen, but also the low cost of burning them. As of yesterday, Bayneko said that 2,050 copies of “SARS-CoV-2” had been burned. “That’s a fascinating number to me in terms of raw blockchain engagement. Historically, it’s very hard to incentivize people to burn an NFT. It seems they’d much rather keep it.”
Similarly, a previous experiment by the artist KOLM involved sending a mass airdrop with instructions for recipients to burn the tokens. Simply entitled “please burn this work,” the black square on an off-white background was sent to 443 wallets; as of writing, 120 have been burned. And while the KOLM experiment was smaller, the artist similarly chose to execute it on Tezos. To overcome the challenge that Bayneko described–incentivizing people to burn NFTs–the choice of blockchain was important. I told him that it seemed his audience saw value, not in the monetary worth of the NFTs, but rather in the experience of participating in the game and in the Tezos community. He agreed. And really, it made sense to me. NFTs on Tezos tend to have lower price points–1 XTZ has never risen above $9 and typically hovers around $4, and it’s common for artists to price work anywhere from 1 to 20 XTZ. The “SARS-CoV-2” variants all fetch around 0.5 to 1.5 XTZ on secondary. The low cost of participation, the accessibility of it, drives community engagement. And while NFT communities on the whole are often tight-knit and creator-driven, these qualities are especially amplified on Tezos, with its smaller and highly dedicated base of users, producing the ideal community conditions for projects of this nature to thrive.
Not only did people burn “SARS-CoV-2,” but others collected all ten variants in the spirit of seeing what happened. Some even minted their own variants of “SARS-CoV-2” and tweeted them at Bayneko in appreciation, an unexpected but flattering turn of events for him. “The Tezos community has the most active artists because of the low fees,” he told me. “The community is so unique and wonderful. The fact that so many people reacted positively to my experiment is a testament to the unique and welcoming perspective of the artists.” And the community was rewarded for their participation, each person in different ways depending on the choices they made. Whether they simply had fun engaging or were drawn to think about the purpose of “SARS-CoV-2,” they reaped something. But those who collected all ten of Bayneko’s variants received an NFT: “FEVERDREAM.”
“FEVERDREAM” is the key to continuing participation in the game. Bayneko’s goal moving forward is to hold weekly drops and foster an audience. “I want people to know when to expect a result from their decisions. It’s not just about audience engagement, there is a responsibility for the artist to engage as well.” He said it’s very possible that “FEVERDREAM” could evolve into a narrative driven by the holders, discussing the ever changing relationship between artist and audience, the way that blockchain has allowed that relationship to be reciprocal in a brand new way. As he put it, in this emerging space where the participants are drawing the maps and writing the rules, artists have become the ones “collecting collectors.”
“And you know what?” Bayneko reasoned. “The currency isn’t Tezos or Ethereum. The currency is your attention as a viewer. I want that. I need that for my art to be meaningful.”
Since writing, Bayneko has released “KILLSWITCH,” another installment in the narrative. Holders of more than one edition of “KILLSWITCH” were rewarded with an NFT, “LEVIATHAN.” Collectors who burned “KILLSWITCH” were rewarded with “INSIDIOMA.”
Oliver Scialdone is a queer writer and artist based in Brooklyn, NY. They earned a dual-MFA from The New School, and their work can be found in Peach Mag, ImageOut Write, and elsewhere. They used to host the reading series Satellite Lit and they're the Associate Editor at SuperRare Magazine.
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