Miami vice: Bitcoin and decadence

What happens when crypto begins to look like the institutions it sought to overthrow? April's Bitcoin conference in Miami gives us some insight into the phenomenon of crypto assimilationists.

Jun 27, 2022 Tech

5 months ago

I WANTED A VAPORWAVE DREAM BUT ALL I GOT WAS THIS SLEAZE-SHIRT

I never expected my weekend would conclude with me crying at Miami Beach Pride, but as the tears came welling up while I stood on the sidewalk about two blocks away from the diner where I got breakfast, the moment seemed fitting. My last major Pride event was long before COVID lockdown began–I typically dislike big corporate celebrations, and most years I avoid New York’s famous parade down 5th Avenue. I’m not really about humoring cops or tolerating the cisgender heterosexual women screaming YAAAS KWEEN at drag performers while simultaneously shooting glares at any lesbian who looks a little too masculine for their comfort. But after the time I had during my week in Miami, the rainbows and glitter slapping me across the face came as an unexpected reprieve. It stung so good.

Miami Beach Pride by the author

Miami Beach Pride by the author

I landed on Wednesday afternoon. The next morning, when I left the Dream Hotel in South Beach to scavenge for coffee and a croissant, three men cat-called me. The leader had his chest puffed out like a little boy with something to prove, and I made the mistake of glancing his way for a moment too long. He lurched after me as if he meant to follow (thankfully, he didn’t). I tried not to look too obvious as I put distance between us, and his laughter trailed behind me. Men have this different way of harassing butch lesbians on the street. It’s as if your masculinity threatens them, or like they view it as a challenge. The subtext always seems to be I’ll fix you or I’ll show you your place, even if they don’t say it out loud. 

Of course, that wasn’t the first time–I’m used to people who shout slurs at me on the street. Or women who glare at me in bathrooms and point me out to their boyfriends as I leave. Teens at the bodega laughing–gesturing my way and whispering, What is it? The occasional refusal of service in shops and restaurants. When I was younger and still tried to go to straight bars, sometimes men would want to fight. Even so, Puffed Out Chest and his friends felt more real. I was alone in a new city over a thousand miles away from home. The whole experience was so isolating.

On my way back to the hotel, a fourth man gave me an up and down and muttered just loud enough for me to hear: “I’ll show you, baby.” In that instance, the city’s reputation as a gay haven shattered. I couldn’t get the citizens of South Beach to stop glaring at me all throughout the week. 

After that I tried to avoid leaving the hotel alone, which didn’t prove difficult; my friend and colleague, Vinny Valenzuela, arrived in Miami Beach that day, both of us there to cover April 2022’s Bitcoin conference. Even with someone by my side, men in polo shirts, sitting outside at restaurants, had their eyes trained on me in displays of aggression. “Did you see that guy?” I’d ask Vinny while waiting for a ride or trying to cross the street. And she’d say, “Yeah. He was glaring at you. What’s his deal?”

How “Ossitocina Al Parco” is bound to this article:

Artist Dax Norman joined us in Miami for Bitcoin 2022 and produced work in conversation with our trip. In his signature style, colorful GIFs with subjects who roll into themselves and melt together, Dax rendered art of two people caught in a loving embrace. He told me he started drawing the day he arrived in Miami. “I like the neon colors of the city very much, and in my day to day life, always see beauty in the contrast between the artificial lights made by the street lights with the sunset as I drive my car.”

Dax said the piece is about how two people in love become something different than themselves as they merge together, “put concisely and somewhat abstractly.” The ungenderedness of the figures depicted in the art, the way they meld, the way that we as humans change each other through closeness and affection, makes sense in context with Dax’s explanation: if love makes two people something more than themselves, can that resulting dynamic object be gendered?

Not only is Dax minting the work on SuperRare alongside “Miami vice: Bitcoin and decadence,” but will mint using the KSPEC protocol, meaning the collector will own both the artwork and article together on the blockchain, much like the subjects of the art, becoming more than just the sum of their individual parts, changing one another through harmony and juxtaposition.

How “Ossitocina Al Parco” is bound to this article:

Artist Dax Norman joined us in Miami for Bitcoin 2022 and produced work in conversation with our trip. In his signature style, colorful GIFs with subjects who roll into themselves and melt together, Dax rendered art of two people caught in a loving embrace. He told me he started drawing the day he arrived in Miami. “I like the neon colors of the city very much, and in my day to day life, always see beauty in the contrast between the artificial lights made by the street lights with the sunset as I drive my car.”

Dax said the piece is about how two people in love become something different than themselves as they merge together, “put concisely and somewhat abstractly.” The ungenderedness of the figures depicted in the art, the way they meld, the way that we as humans change each other through closeness and affection, makes sense in context with Dax’s explanation: if love makes two people something more than themselves, can that resulting dynamic object be gendered?

Not only is Dax minting the work on SuperRare alongside “Miami vice: Bitcoin and decadence,” but will mint using the KSPEC protocol, meaning the collector will own both the artwork and article together on the blockchain, much like the subjects of the art, becoming more than just the sum of their individual parts, changing one another through harmony and juxtaposition.

CAPITALISM BUT MAKE IT CRYPTO

Miami might have a gay reputation, but it’s more recently become known as the home of a different scene: crypto. Plenty of shops accept cryptocurrency, there’s a coin named for the city, and lovers of blockchain have started to flock there. Miami is so crypto friendly that Mayor Francis Suarez, a Bitcoin fan, even unveiled artist Furio Tedeschi’s take on Wall Street’s Charging Bull, an armored mech sculpture with laser blue eyes, reminiscent of something out of “Transformers” (Tedeschi worked on one of those movies). And while New York’s symbol of institutional finance has become synonymous with wealth inequality, Tedeschi’s bull seems to say, same, but make it edgelord. It is not a symbol of blockchain’s revolutionary potential or a subversion of banks and brokers and capitalists–instead, it’s a symbol of imitation and assimilation, just with a different filter. 

The whole trip, I found myself having conversations with Uber drivers and bartenders, Miami-based NFT collectors and gallery people, who explained to me how the cost of living in Miami has historically been lower than places like New York or Los Angeles. But more recently, the price of taking up space is on the rise. When I spoke to locals, the service industry workers among them sounded worried. Most crypto people were not. 

I guess when you have enough in your wallet, you’re not concerned about where rent money’s coming from.

Screenshot from @davethewave

In some ways, the last decade’s great experiment with crypto has opened doors for legions of people, especially outside the United States. But in other respects, crypto has failed, and nowhere to me was that failure more evident than at Bitcoin 2022. While plenty of enthusiasts still believe in Bitcoin philosophically and technologically, while people have invested their faith in the idea that Bitcoin is the key to liberating us all from oppressive financial systems, the Lambo-driving, designer-wearing, coke-snorting elites who flocked to Miami that week were a perfect visual representation of how dire the situation is really becoming. To start, at the time of the conference, one bitcoin was worth about 38k USD, and while there’s certainly room for debate considering crypto’s volatility, popular crypto analyst @davthewave has predicted that in 2022, bitcoin will reach 100k USD (though the current bear market has perhaps said otherwise).

This is to say, there’s a lot of money to be had in bitcoin. Or rather, there’s a lot of money to already have in bitcoin. If you’re just starting now, and you’re not already wealthy, you can maybe save up, sink a couple hundred dollars in, probably recoup your investment and profit a little if you play the game enough. But in 2021, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 27% of bitcoin wealth is controlled by about 0.01% of bitcoin holders. This disparity was reported widely by outlets ranging from The Wall Street Journal to  CBS News to Gizmodo. To place it in perspective, according to recent Federal Reserve data, the top 1% of income earners in the United States control about 32% of the nation’s wealth, meaning that for a community claiming it wants to disrupt the financial establishment, wealth inequality among bitcoin holders is looking frighteningly familiar, if not worse. Most bitcoin whales invested early, watched the value of their tokens skyrocket, and were then perfectly positioned to keep hoarding. And now, because the cost of entry is so high, the only people who can take the bitcoin route to adequate earnings are those who have wealth to begin with. What those people really mean when they say they want to disrupt the financial establishment is I want to disrupt the financial establishment, but only if I can stay rich. It’s not a vibe.

There’s a popular sentiment in certain pockets of the crypto space, especially within bitcoin, amplified by influencers and Web2 social media. Need tuition money? Invest in bitcoin–I did! Need to pay rent? Invest! Wanna escape your dead-end fast food gig? Invest! The results can be disastrous for those who don’t have much money to throw around. The attitude is akin to what Boomers have spent the last three decades telling Millennials (and now those even younger): It was so easy to buy a house when I was your age! If you don’t have enough money to do it, it’s because you’re not working hard enough. Entire sections of the industry have cropped up around the cult mindset that bitcoin will save us all. Every time I see #WAGMI online I want to break something. We will not all make it. As long as a majority of the world’s population lives under corporate-centralized capitalism, it just isn’t happening unless the advances enabled by blockchain are paired with real systemic change, and to be frank, I doubt that blockchain will be Bitcoin. I’ve heard people talk about change. I’ve seen people try. But I didn’t even catch a glimpse of that in Miami. From where I stood, it all felt pretty bleak.

GASLIGHT, GATEKEEP, I DON’T WANNA BE SUED BY SOPHIA AMORUSO

While in Miami, I attended an event with Vinny in which a panelist told the audience, “Decide what you want, and it will happen.” The statement had us both scoffing. CryptoBabes, the organization that put it on, aims to provide educational resources for women in crypto and Web3. In practice, it was a networking event for girlboss types who liked bitcoin: modern, career-minded, professional women interested in making money and climbing that corporate ladder. Spicy. I brought my DSLR and Vinny showed up armed with the Notes app–we were determined to find a good interview. 

The sea of pink powersuits transported me to Buzzfeed listicles, North Face and Ugg combos, those hipster Disney princess memes everyone loved ten years ago for some reason. We were the only attendees with visible tattoos. Even the party’s look, nestled into an outdoor space with perfectly trimmed grass and Instagrammable pools, signs placed nearby asking party-goers not to swim, screamed live laugh love-core, with bunches of millennial pink balloons accenting the dated aesthetic. Even the CryptoBabes logo, on display throughout the party, used that one cursive font emblematic of early Pinterest, reminiscent of an affluent cishet couple’s out of touch gender reveal party (before it sets the state of California ablaze).

At the bottom of the Eventbrite page, in parentheses, the organizers had included, “men are welcome,” and while plenty of men indeed showed up, no one at the party looked like me–the vibe was idealized cisgender heterosexual femininity, downright assimilationist visions of womanhood inherently entwined with capitalism. Succeeding as a woman is easy! Drop tons of money to perform gender the way advertisers tell you to, then value your personal success and wealth over collective liberation. But this time, make it crypto! As far as I’m concerned, it’s all just different shades from the same Kylie Cosmetics palette.

We arrived about halfway through a panel discussion featuring women professionals in Web3, bombarded with a mix of toxic positivity, buzzwords, and some serious discussion about the place of women in corporate crypto. After the speakers wrapped up, Vinny and I tried to get an interview with one of them, but we could barely even slide in to wait–the panelists were mobbed by attendees looking for the sort of connection that could lead to a salary. One panelist sat down with an audience member who was crying. I overheard another walk someone through what to say during an interview. It actually took so long to speak to someone that we went to the bar, got a round of drinks, and returned to find that the crowd had barely thinned. I spotted someone in a shirt that read Jesus loves Bitcoin on the back and pointed it out to Vinny. We both thought it was hilarious. Speaking of cult-like spaces in crypto, these evangelicals thought they were preaching the good word. 

CryptoBabes by the author

CryptoBabes by the author

CryptoBabes by the author

CryptoBabes by the author

When we finally managed to speak to one of the CryptoBabes panelists, the topic of the old guard came up. I asked Daniela Henao, COO of crypto-analytic platform Defy Trends, about the biggest barriers for marginalized people in Web3. She made it clear that even people who view crypto as an investment opportunity are weary of what the space is in danger of becoming. “If we’re not intentional about it, we’re just going to be building the same things as before,” she said. I found her interesting, personable, and intelligent, with more substance than what the event promised. I genuinely wanted to hear what she had to say. But as we discussed the future, the interview got interrupted at every turn by people trying to network. 

“Is it okay if I finish this conversation first?” Daniela asked fawning fans more times than I could count. When I phrased a question by asking about women, queer people, and people of color in Web3, someone jumped in and shouted, “I’m bisexual and a person of color!” as a gateway into the conversation, clearly not understanding that we were conducting an interview. She didn’t say anything to myself or Vinny, directed all of her comments towards Daniela, but when I made eye contact with our interloper for a moment, she frowned (or was I reading too much into it?) as if she felt we had overstayed our welcome. Daniela very gracefully requested that she wait a few minutes. The fervor of the audience was nothing short of blind and religious.

CryptoBabes by the author

RICH MEN DON’T HAVE TASTE

“It occurred to me that of course the intersection existed between the rich boys club and Bitcoin lovers–the venn diagram isn’t exactly a circle, but it’s getting close.”

Later that night, we attended an event that on the surface seemed antithetical to CryptoBabes, but perhaps had more in common than was immediately apparent: The Maxim Magazine Bitcoin party. As a concept it felt especially absurd, and if there is anything I love, it’s absurdity. I remembered seeing the word Maxim in red across the covers of magazines on newsstands circa 1998, a banner over photos of near-naked women in compromising positions. While researching for coverage of the party, I learned that Googling Maxim Magazine prompts the search engine to issue a warning across the top of the webpage: Some results may be explicit. Turn on safe search to hide explicit results. I always thought of Maxim as the trashy version of Playboy, and although its website does feature a vertical simply titled “Women,” I mostly found articles about vacation spots, luxury timepieces, finance, TV, and cars. It’s certainly more of a lifestyle publication than an erotic one, offering up the image of men who try to buy their tickets to sophistication.

I was forced to watch a man dressed in all white dancing with a woman who wore a matching outfit. She looked younger than half his age. They moved together in a way engineered to ensure his crotch could rub against her thigh–their positions looked so uncomfortable and unnatural that I was sure they had choreographed the whole thing in advance. These men, while not the same individuals, could have been interchangeable with the man I saw dancing. Video by Nathan Beer.

 The venue was nice of course, the outdoor part featuring trees, a pool, lights, and cabanas, and an indoor space housed a roped-off VIP area and a gorgeous wooden bartop. I almost forgot it was a Maxim party at moments, but then I’d remember after seeing a bikini-clad server strut by, dressed like a Vegas showgirl and about to deliver someone’s bottle service. I didn’t expect many real Bitcoin enthusiasts to attend the party, but in that respect I was surprised–I ran into someone from New York who hosts crypto events, and even encountered some NFT collectors I met the previous day at a brunch party thrown by SuperRare and Y.at. Did I mention? Maxim definitely covers crypto. It occurred to me that of course the intersection existed between the rich boys club and Bitcoin lovers–the venn diagram isn’t exactly a circle, but it’s getting close. 

By the time we left, I could admit that the novelty of the whole thing charmed me. It was a Robert Crumb comic all dressed up in a suit and black tie, someone doing shots of an expensive aged single malt from his rich daddy’s liquor cabinet. An Ivy League chapter of the Young Republicans. Not camp, but not not camp, either. Camp without self-awareness. Even so, I knew that if I walked into a club and it resembled the Maxim party, I’d leave. And, true to form, we eventually ended up at a snug gay bar bumping club remixes of Madonna. The place wasn’t my usual vibe–a little too Hell’s Kitchen for my tastes, with closely trimmed beards and muscle tees abound–but still more palatable for me than the unnecessary show of cishetero masculinity on display at the Maxim party. I sipped my well drink, then listened to my boots smack against the sticky concrete floor as I walked. A boy, thinking I was a man, stopped me to try and flirt in a classic queer space comedy of errors. There’s a lot of talk in crypto spaces about community, but in that gay bar where I came as a stranger, I belonged. I belonged unequivocally, with no caveats or translation, no price of entry except my experiences. My presence was accepted so easily, because queer bodies understand the cost of taking up space, out there in the world, among the types of people who read Maxim on purpose. I haven’t found anything in the crypto community like that yet, only in specialized spaces for marginalized people who band together because we see the ways Web3 is coming to resemble everything it wanted to crush–ultimately, people are still running the show, and they carry with them lifetimes’ worth of socialization, of feelings, of biases. All anyone can do is try to be better, but that isn’t a strategy at all.

AND NOW WE PRAY

Miami Beach Pride by the author

Being queer and existing in the crypto space aren’t mutually exclusive. But something about the excess of the Maxim party, the rigid gender performance encouraged at CryptoBabes, the people I spoke to about the value of art and artists, the men who catcalled me, the fact that I felt so incredibly out of place in most of the crypto spaces I visited in Miami, built up and up until I found Pride. It was an incredible release, a great antithesis to everything. Spiritual, even. I kept returning to religion while considering the people who believed so ardently in Bitcoin. At Pride, I noticed someone on a float holding a sign that read Jesus loves you, bitch, and immediately I thought of the Jesus Loves Bitcoin shirt. Jesus loves you, bitch is a powerful statement for people ostracized from churches, devout families, entire communities (most religious queer people in my circles aren’t Christians, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty out there). The sign’s font was a flowing cursive, not dissimilar to the CryptoBabes logo, but it was handwritten with a sharpie, not in a display of performance and branding but rather an authentic and personal expression. 

“I’m over capitalists cosplaying as radicals and reproducing the very issues that drove everyone to crypto in the first place. Fuck the rich. Bitcoin for the people.”

I’m not a religious or spiritual person, but religion has something in common with Pride which has something in common with Bitcoin. People want to believe. They want to be part of something. Tensions were high when it came to Miami Beach Pride. The issue at the forefront that day was the Parental Rights in Education Law, whose propoents used faith to justify their attempts to legislate queer people out of the lexicon. There was no question about what people there believed in. 

In contrast, I remain unconvinced that the culture of Bitcoin includes room for radical change, and I worry it’s dragging other parts of the space down with it. Earlier this year I remember hearing about a party: models held Bored Ape cutouts and men in ties mingled under night club strobe lights. And while this isn’t to say all Bitcoin lovers are bad, harmful, or in it for the wrong reasons, too many clearly are. Currency is soulless, when you get down to it. Blockchain is a tool. Your faith shouldn’t die in the coin, but live in the people reimagining its possibilities. I care about what crypto can do for unbanked people. I care about using DAOs to distribute mutual aid. I care about how good artists can bypass a system that would traditionally exclude them. I care about the potential for blockchain to revolutionize the way we manage documents and store information. I care about what it means for the distribution of green energy. Are there people in the Bitcoin space who want to deliver on the potential of the technology? I’m sure. But the space needs to clean house. I’m over capitalists cosplaying as radicals and reproducing the very issues that drove everyone to crypto in the first place. Fuck the rich. Bitcoin for the people.

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Oliver Scialdone

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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