Miami vice: Bitcoin and decadence

Miami vice: Bitcoin and decadence

Above: CryptoBabes by the author

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.
7 days 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?”

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.

20

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 host the reading series Satellite Lit and they're the Associate Editor at SuperRare.

FutureThink

Portraits

Negative Space

TAKING UP SPACE: aGENDAdao AND THE UNAPOLOGETIC POWER OF TRANS WEB3

TAKING UP SPACE: aGENDAdao AND THE UNAPOLOGETIC POWER OF TRANS WEB3

Above: electron ticket (Kate the Cursed, 2021)

TAKING UP SPACE: aGENDAdao AND THE UNAPOLOGETIC POWER OF TRANS WEB3

The founders of the mutual aid DAO for trans and non-binary artists discuss their work and what it means for trans creators to take up space on the blockchain.
1 month ago

THE QUEER DISCONNECT

“Oh, you can’t tell TikTok you work at SuperRare,” my partner advised me. To be fair, she was only agreeing with a concern I had expressed to her: that the queer people I knew on the app, particularly my trans siblings, would respond poorly if they knew I wrote about NFTs for a living. In September 2021, when I was still a freelancer with SuperRare Magazine, I interviewed Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonikova and learned the hard way what happens when you’re a queer person in the vicinity of NFTs. After posting my article on Instagram, a friend of a friend, connected to me only through the queer Web2 grapevine, commented, “the article is about how they’re using the stunt arrest for money, as proven by their selling of NFTs, which are fundamentally a scam, right?” I didn’t respond, but a friend came to my defense. The resulting exchange burned hot and fast, and ended with the implication that I was a bad person for writing about NFTs. Similarly, when I came to SuperRare full-time, a friend of mine, also trans, quipped that he couldn’t believe I, of all people, had taken a job in the NFT space. 

When I go to queer parties or gatherings and meet new people, I tell them I work for a digital arts publication, because if they know me before they know the specifics of my job, they’re more willing to keep talking. I’ve even come across queer Discord servers with “this server is anti-NFT” written into the rules. Queer people as a whole, particularly in the leftist, socialist, somewhat anarchistic creative circles in which I move, don’t like NFTs, and I understand why. For most of them, non-fungible tokens connote rich people who collect NFTs like Pokémon cards, or cryptobros who flex their assets on dates and become irate when you dare to disagree over the aesthetic merits of their PFPs. To them, crypto just means digital capitalism, repackaged and dangerously unregulated, a waste of energy and a strain on ecosystems. 

I think these are hasty generalizations. Plenty of good exists in the NFT space alongside the bad, and the refusal to learn remains (somewhat ironically) prevalent in queer scenes–no imagination, no optimism, no sense of exploration. Ultimately, blockchain is a technology, technology is a tool, and a tool’s moral compass isn’t inherent, but rather dependent on whose hands it falls in. Except everyone’s trapped in their algorithmically-generated Web2 echo chambers, their For You Pages and Youtube recommendations, Instagram stories shared among the same 500 people who all follow each other, unwilling to disrupt what they think they already know. 

This is a pattern in leftist queer spaces, with the most performative individuals vying to be the most ideologically pure. The echoes of Your Fave is Problematic culture have endured. Engaging with crypto is a bigger sin than engaging with traditional finance, and engaging with NFTs is more egregious than engaging with the traditional art world, despite abundant problems with both. If I worked at Facebook (oh, I’m sorry, Meta), the offense would likely be forgivable–a job’s just a job, after all. A kid’s gotta pay rent. Yet, the perception that NFTs are inherently evil, and also more evil than other evils, collapses under educated scrutiny, especially when separated from the perspectives of queer champagne socialists in the Global North. I would argue that late stage capitalism, facism, and the rising wave of techno feudalism actually produced the conditions that birthed demand for crypto and NFTs–blockchain is no more or less symptomatic of systems of power than anything else around us (I’ll spare you a full analysis for the sake of brevity). But NFT hatred persists in queer spaces, isolating queer Web3 creators from IRL sources of support and solidarity.

“Ultimately, blockchain is a technology, technology is a tool, and a tool’s moral compass isn’t inherent, but rather dependent on whose hands it falls in.”

Screenshot of aGENDAdao’s current pinned tweet, featureing art by Kate the Cursed.

“Many people are getting pushback from their own communities, IRL queer communities, for engaging with Web3,” Sarah Moosvi told me over a call. I had the opportunity to speak with her and Aria Faith Jones, both founders of aGENDAdao, alongside artist Katherina “Kate the Cursed” Jesek. My introduction to the NFT space shocked me; it wasn’t generative PFP projects or watching art flippers make millions–my first experiences were following queer (mostly trans) artists minting affordable artwork on the Tezos blockchain, most of which had an underground, early computing aesthtic to it. When I first tip-toed in, I expected a sparse trans landscape after hearing other trans people espouse the dangers of NFTs, or at the very least roll their eyes when the topic arose. With IRL and Web2 spaces unwelcoming to trans people in Web3–and with Web3 spaces frequently falling victim to the same pitfalls as Web2 in regards to harassment, transphobia, and systemic biases–transgender people in Web3 needed a place to connect. 

Moosvi, who also works in film distribution, began establishing a blockchain-focused gallery program in 2020 while movie theaters were closed during COVID lockdowns. Using the unexpected free time to pursue an early passion for art, she came to NFTs because they bridged the literal distance between her and artists she knew in Asia. Eventually, between summer 2020 and 2021, she started thinking seriously about how to support artists in Web3, but didn’t “want to do it on the backs of artists, just capitalizing on their work.” The result was twofold: she now works as the director of TDC Gallery and as one of the founders of aGENDAdao. “My relationships with the artists really kind of developed in that year,” she said. “I had my own role as someone who collected the work of queer artists, but wasn’t really out in the community.” Kate the Cursed approached Moosvi with the initial idea for aGENDAdao, originally called transnbDAO, because the artist saw an opportunity to support trans and non-binary people in Web3. “That was the moment I actually decided to really be visible. Aria was in the early calls, and that initial group became aGENDAdao.”

Aria came to Web3 as an artist–originally a musician, her work on music videos expanded to other forms of visual art before she eventually started experimenting with Blender. After developing her skills and uncovering a knack for teaching, Aria began to upload Blender tutorials to Youtube and garnered a following. When she realized her viewers were minting and selling art made with those tutorials on the blockchain, she wanted to learn more, and ended up discovering a community of trans artists. “When I got into NFTs,” Aria said, “I right away found people like Kate, and it was just like, oh my goodness. People are so out…To have that community saying, yeah, it was okay, look, I’m doing it. This person’s doing it. Not only that,” she continued, “but they’re having success.” Before she found a space for herself in Web3, she didn’t address being trans online, except through her art. “It was really an amazing thing for me where I was like, you know what? I don’t need to–it wasn’t even hiding, but it was just avoiding it. I’m just not going to talk about that stuff. But it was such a big part of me and my art that it was hugely releasing when I was able to do that. I was like, oh my gosh, I feel so much more like myself, and I can express myself more inside my art.”

MUTUAL AID ON CHAIN

“Digital Graffiti” (Kate the Cursed, 2022)

“As a transgender tech artist working with non-standard mixed media processes, my unapologetic existence often feels like a powerful act of creation in itself. Taking up permanent space in the digital world with my words and artworks feels even more compelling.”

When it launched in August 2021, aGENDAdao’s original purpose was mutual aid. But more broadly, Moosvi told me, “it was about really kind of banding together and making sure that artists could be their true selves and not have this disconnect…It’s really just saying that if you wanted to be visibly trans in this space, there was a community there for you.” Initially, the DAO’s treasury was funded by selling Kate the Cursed’s art via TDC Gallery’s Mirror account–in a piece titled “Digital Graffiti,” the artist asks what it means to take up space online, writing “As a transgender tech artist working with non-standard mixed media processes, my unapologetic existence often feels like a powerful act of creation in itself. Taking up permanent space in the digital world with my words and artworks feels even more compelling.” Another early fundraiser was the sale of thirteen editions of her “electron ticket,” minted on OpenSea; holders were entitled to a private tour of Kate’s studio via livestream (an “electron ticket” is now in the Queer Museum of Digital Art’s collection). One of the first uses of DAO funds was a stipend for aGENAdao artists traveling to Miami Art Week, offsetting the cost enough to assure transgender people could take up space at a major art industry event. While trans people would always find each other in Web3 (we always do, everywhere), having a source of financial support strengthens the community and expands possibilities for trans artists. 

We often talk about community when we talk about Web3, and trans people understand the importance of community better than most. There’s no single universal trans experience, but I think most of us feel pushed to the fringes of not only cishet society, but queer spaces, too. Trans community is about more than just connection–it’s about solidarity. It’s about taking care of each other when no one else will. A huge part of that is financial support–if you’re trans you’re likely no stranger to the idea that the same $20 gets passed around from trans person to trans person, Web2 style, in the form of GoFundMes for gender-affirming health care or people in urgent need of housing. Those situations can mean life or death, but the same attitude carries over to less dire moments. IRL, we go to crowded bars to watch each other read poetry and we buy each other’s artwork, not only because we want other trans people to flourish, but because art made by other trans people is where we most see ourselves. This aspect of community is replicated on the blockchain–aGENDAdao has donated to queer Web3 organaziations, who have at separate points in time donated to aGENDAdao. It’s common for trans artists to make sales and put their earnings back into the community economy by actively choosing to buy art from other trans creators, and aGENDAdao provides a forum for those artists to find each other (Aria said that, as an artist, the prospect of buying from other trans artists is so important to her). When we’re low on fiat or crypto, trans people still follow each other online, like and retweet and share and stitch and reblog each other’s achievements, take joy in the successes of our siblings and share in their sorrows and setbacks, even when we’re virtual strangers, strewn miles apart. We’ve even seen times when the Web3 trans community has fought back with wallets by choosing not to financially support those in the space espousing hateful rhetoric. And while there are divisions in the trans community (I think referring to trans communities in the plural is more accurate), Web2 brought trans people together in a way that never existed before. aGENDAdao carries that spirit into Web3. 

“Those moments where even though the community is an online community, that it could kind of materialize when you need it, and create safe spaces where needed, was incredibly powerful.”

Financial support comprises only one part of the community formula–the others are interpersonal, emotional, intellectual, and conversational. aGENDAdao’s Discord server, and the spaces that DAO members have built on other platforms like Twitter, allows artists to find one another, to build relationships, and to support each other in ways that are less immediately tangible, but vital all the same (the Discord is also where you can request your DAO token). Aria said she has a few comfortable online spaces, “but aGENDAdao specifically, where if I’m feeling a certain way related to my identity or queerness or transness or whatever it is, that’s the place I can go and be like, ‘Hey, this is exactly how I feel.’” These conversations happen not only among the founders, but everyone involved in the DAO, and the flow of support is organic because there is a community understanding. Moosvi added that she thinks of aGENDAdao alongside “this idea of a portable community, and it’s something that inspires the grant programs as well.” For example, the stipend that helped send aGENDAdao artists to Miami Art Week saw the translation of online community IRL. “Those moments,” Moosvi told me, “where even though the community is an online community, that it could kind of materialize when you need it, and create safe spaces where needed, was incredibly powerful.”

TRANS POWER, TRANS LOVE

It’s fitting that aGENDAdao blurs the binary between IRL and online communities. During our conversation, I noted that it seems trans people are frequently at the forefront of culture and tech, as creators, as early adopters, as both (Wendy Carlos, pioneer of electronic music, comes to mind as an example, her legacy contextualized by the numerous trans and non-binary musicians leading the hyperpop scene). While no data I’ve found documents the demographics of queer NFT artists, anecdotally, I feel comfortable asserting that a majority of openly queer people I’ve encountered in Web3 are trans. Moosvi described Aria’s willingness to dive into NFTs as a “quickness to embrace this new kind of identity online,” and I think that also speaks to the inherent nature of transness. A significant aspect of transness involves the reconstruction of the self, the reassessment of identity, and the willingness to embrace what you uncover, even when external pressures try to grip you tight and hold you back while you thrash. Moosvi continued, stating that “maybe for me, it’s about how being trans is really about creating your identity in your own terms.” Trans artists in Web3 are doing that twice over.

“As a collector and a gallerist, I really look forward to that day where we can collectively support the creation and then the conservation of trans cultural output,” Moosvi mused. I asked Moosvi and Aria what their most idealistic visions were for aGENDAdao’s future—”it’s unlimited, honestly,” Aria answered. The preservation of trans cultural heritage in the digital space sits at the apex of their plans for the DAO. It’s especially relevant now, as trans people and issues relevant to us have risen to the top of cultural conversations in ways both affirming and harmful. Too often, the legacies and achievements of trans people are swept out of sight, and while Web2 rapidly accelerated our visibility, the ability to mint work on the blockchain feels more meaningful and permanent. 

Moosvi is passionate about exploring DAOs as models and tackling the challenges that arise as they’re more widely adopted. How can DAOs be further deployed at the service of communities? What does it mean to run a DAO like a non-profit when it’s not one? What happens when even a DAO, used as a democratized community space, unintentionally excludes people who could benefit from its resources? “When you’re dealing with a community that is more at risk,” she explained, “I never assume that people have the time to donate, to just be a member of the community. Putting forward proposals requires time to put that proposal together. Contributors need to be compensated. Those details need to be worked out.” Operating a DAO requires labor, and that fact isn’t lost on Moosvi. As solutions are found and implemented over time, the hope is that trans people in Web3 will flourish even more. 

identity creation matrix (Kate the Cursed, 2022)

“I grew up with the mentality that if I’m going to ever have success or money or whatever, I’m going to do it on my own,” Aria told me. “I’ve always been very secluded that way, so seeing it work in a different way is really cool. Being like, oh, you can be part of this Community and it will lift you up. I think it’s really incredible,” she concluded. Moosvi then added that the DAO has been “an incredible way for me to discover trans artists that I want to work with and whose careers I want to support, because I have a skillset that can help them with visibility. So it’s mutual aid all around.” 

aGENDAdao has made its name as a space that both embraces queer people in Web3 and gives trans and non-binary arists the tools they need to cultivate successful creative careers. Taking it even further, they’ve built a space that separates the experience of being an artist in Web3 from the idea that a creator’s worth lies in art sales. Something bigger than that exists. Community is powerful, and trans people, when banded together, can accomplish incredible things. When one trans artist succeeds, we all win. That’s the beauty of what aGENDAdao draws attention to: the power of trans and non-binary people. It’s about the power with which we love each other, with which we support each other, and, ultimately, the power we have to make or break a culture, one piece of art at a time.

20

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 host the reading series Satellite Lit and they're the Associate Editor at SuperRare.

FutureThink

Portraits

Negative Space

Do electric memes dream of JPEGS?: an interview with Moxarra Gonzalez

Do electric memes dream of JPEGS?: an interview with Moxarra Gonzalez

“GM JPEGS” by @moxarrarare (2021)

Do electric memes dream of JPEGS?: an interview with Moxarra Gonzalez

The OG talks about his work, the crypto art scene, and his punk roots.
1 month ago

Moxarra Gonzalez by Dave Krugman

What counts as art?  It’s a question with no definitive answer that artists and theorists have wrestled with for centuries, yet somehow, the artistic establishment still claims to know the truth. Distinctions between art and not art, high art and low art, the valuable and the worthless, often reflect the tastes of the ruling class. Over time, as more and more artists embrace styles and subjects that the traditional artworld refuses to engage with, those styles and practices assimilate into the mainstream. Then, once something becomes too popular for the elite to ignore, the cultural canon appropriates it.

“This isn’t art,” is an accusation frequently leveled at crypto artists. And while there is a great variety of art minted as NFTs, from digitally rendered oil paintings to fine photography, Web3 has seen its share of distinct styles and movements completely unique to the digital space (some even predating Web3), from trash art to vaporwave to work that utilizes blockchain itself as part of the medium. Unsurprisingly, some of the most emblematic pieces of crypto art have traditional collectors rolling their eyes, especially those that incorporate memes or reflect the tastes of artists who’ve spent their lives online. Are memes art? Establishment art types might scoff at the idea, but I think a case is easy to make. Writing for Polygon back in 2018, Sam Greszes asserted that “Shitposting is an art, if history is any indication.” Even prior to this, I’ve heard underground artists, friends, acquaintances, myself even, voice the same take since at least 2013: memes are Dada1. Greszes makes astute comparisons, for example likening memes that rely on found imagery to Duchamp’s readymade art. The argument for the inclusion of memes and internet culture in artistic spaces is as old as internet culture itself. But most such artists are still, by all accounts, artworld outsiders.

Moxarra Gonzalez by Oveck

Mexican artist Moxarra Gonzalez studied art at The Autonomous University of Nuevo León in Monterrey, but his introduction to digital art didn’t come until he worked at a newspaper in his hometown, creating infographics and illustrations with rapid turnaround times. Through a Facebook ad in 2015, he found Dada.nyc, the now-emblematic collaborative platform where users communicate via digital drawings made in a simple interface. He quickly became involved in the community. Moxarra’s move into NFTs arrived when the platform began monetizing its digital artwork through the “Creeps and Weirdos” collection, and today he’s regarded as a crypto art OG, with work minted on SuperRare2 , MakersPlace, KnownOrgin, Foundation, and other platforms. “I come from skate MTV culture,” he told me when I spoke to him over a video call. He lit a cigarette as he settled in to speak to me. I noticed he looked like he should’ve had a lanky frame, but in fact appeared rather sturdy. His black tee, glasses, and ponytail wouldn’t be out of place at the Bushwick skate bar I head to for a beer after work when decide I need to doomscroll on a weeknight. “I like to draw a lot…I like music. I like punk. So I think that’s reflected in my work.” And those influences truly are unmistakable–much of his art references the aesthetics and touchstones of the 1980s, but uses that framework to address events of the present, be it global news, the crypto scene, or internet culture. The result is frequently anachronistic, retrofuturist, and fantastically sure of itself. 

Moxarra’s roots in punk and skate culture are evident in series like Non Fungible Tokens–ten cards stylized like Garbage Pail Kids that reference different aspects of the NFT space–and Surprise PFPoops, his take on PFPs. It’s the type of art that reminds me of when Heinz sold green and purple ketchup that my mom wouldn’t buy, no matter how much my brother and I begged3. But that’s the point. To be a little cheeky and juvenile, even gross. Nothing is so serious that there isn’t room for a swirly green piece of shit wearing weed glasses with a tab of acid on its tongue. Or even better, a joint hanging from the corner of the mouth of Hielos, specifically the bust of Hielos that’s become so familiar to fans of vaporwave via the cover of Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus. Plenty of Moxarra’s pieces have a vaporwave sensibility to them–even if they aren’t quite so overt as “Vapor Dave”–particularly in his GM series, which utilizes bright neon colors, bold lines, and flashing gifs. Characters featured in these works are mostly (but not always) pulled from 1980s pop culture, and if they’re not, they occupy the same visual niche. Moxarra told me that he usually draws a GM everyday, and likened the practice to when he needed to turn art around quickly for newspaper deadlines.

“GM Assholes” depicts a man whose manner of dress denotes a corporate ladder-climbing yuppie. Not explicitly Patrick Bateman, but not too far off.4 Except then he’s holding a smartphone; a speech bubble blooms from it as he’s about to tilt his glasses down. The bubble contains the Microsoft logo and the phrase Little Capitalist Assholes. “It just came naturally from my collection of ideas because I tend to mix all the pop references that I have immediately in my brain,” Moxarra told me. “So when I see something popping up in crypto culture, I try to connect it with my past references. So yeah, a lot of connections of what I saw when I was young and what I can do right now. And all the eighties, baby boomer, boom of Wall Street and all that stuff. It’s like, I mean right now with the crypto boom. So yeah, a lot of connections of what I saw when I was young and what I can do right now.”

And Moxarra isn’t afraid to comment on the crypto scene, both in regard to insiders and outsiders. In “NFTEvil,” he addresses artists who hate NFTs using the format of the Old Man Yells at Cloud meme (memes really do make for effective communication in the arts), and in “HODL Please” he similarly uses the format of a meme, this time the Everything’s Fine dog, to poke fun at crypto evangelists who place a little too much faith in the coin. 

When we spoke, I asked Moxarra about the NFT space, and what he wanted to see change. He thinks that too many people are trying too hard to be seen. “All these little groups that have been like…they really want to identify with something. So that’s weird because when we started, we were anonymous. Most of the people thought that Moxarra was a girl.” In many ways, part of the point of crypto is anonymity—there’s a reason your public wallet address is a string of characters in lieu of your first and last name. Even when crypto artists have public facing identities, they frequently go by their social handles or nicknames (Moxarra is a nickname, after all). Some OGs do share their real names, and certainly some can be vocal. But on the whole, they’re still quieter than newcomers.

La Lagunilla Market by Dave Krugman

“They start in this world and they want to be famous like Picasso or, I don’t know Modigliani, or they look at the old school days of art, either the big people in crypto art like, I don’t know, XCOPY.” For Moxarra, it doesn’t matter who someone is, where they’re from, or what groups they belong to. The most important thing is the art and how he can connect to it. “Be anonymous, I think,” he said, in regards to crypto artists. He acknowledges his thoughts on the matter could be colored by the fact that when he first entered the space, no one knew who he was. No one knew who anyone was. “We didn’t really care if we got famous. I don’t really give a fuck if someone knows me or recognizes me on the street.” We discussed the positives and the negatives of the crypto art scene going mainstream; on one hand it brings legitimacy to the art and the artists; on the other hand, as when anything goes mainstream, it gets diluted into an afterimage of its former self, taken over by people who don’t understand what it meant in the first place. “Well, maybe the NFT scene will get established in a moment because we are seeing all these Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions with NFTs. So more of the outsiders, they are getting to know NFT culture.” He paused for a moment, then continued. “But as we started this stuff, I don’t want to be mainstream now. I hope it goes mainstream, but I don’t want to be mainstream, you know?” The perspective was very punk of him, I thought.

“It’s a common joke between the Mexican artists,” Moxarra said. “We are just doing silly little drawings that move5.” And the crypto art scene in Mexico is impressive, featuring not only Moxarra’s talent, but contemporaries like Ann Ahoy, Neurocolor, Criptocromo, Hola Lou, and Carlos Marcial. There is incredible community among these artists–Moxarra told me that it’s different to be around other artists, in a good way; he said that it was difficult to talk to his ex-wife about NFTs: “every time I talked to her about my funny little drawings that I was selling for magical internet money, she was like, what the fuck is that?” The thing about people who aren’t involved in the crypto art space? They don’t get it. Not all of Moxarra’s art, but a fair amount of it, requires the viewer to have the correct cultural background to understand it. The work of so many OGs and the people who followed in their wake will be dismissed by those who aren’t in the space, all because they don’t know where it came from. And that’s all too frequently the benchmark for what does and does not count as art; it has nothing to do with the merits of a piece, but the audience’s inability to understand. And it’s not as if the work is inaccessible in the way that bourgeois and aristocratic art is inaccessible to the people. In many ways, artists like Moxarra are more of the people than anyone in the mainstream. Who doesn’t know Pepe the Frog, or the Everything’s Fine Dog? Your boomer parents, maybe6. Even pieces that more specifically reference crypto or Web3 don’t take much research for a noob to understand, as long as that noob has media literacy skills7. A refusal to recognize crypto art as real and true art is, most frequently, willful. Artists like Moxarra are necessary. Artists who create with no concern for the tastes of the mainstream. He’s pushing art towards evolution. Moxarra is out here, making GMs and minting little poops, among those who continue to set a new standard. 
20

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 host the reading series Satellite Lit and they're the Associate Editor at SuperRare.

FutureThink

Portraits

Negative Space

Minting royalty: how Hackatao is changing the face of PFPs

Minting royalty: how Hackatao is changing the face of PFPs

Q+K #4285 by Hackatao, part of their “Queens+Kings” project

Minting royalty: how Hackatao is changing the face of PFPs

In order to survive, PFPs will need to change. Enter Hackatao and their project, Queens+Kings.
Oliver Scialdone
3 months ago

A symbol of Web3

My most recent interaction with a PFP project was not online or in my crypto wallet, but the sliver of a glance from out the window of an Uber, right about where Bed-Stuy becomes Bushwick. Someone had painted an eight foot tall CryptoPunk on the side of a building, plastered it among the street art and graffiti so distinctive of that part of Brooklyn. Seeing such an unmistakable PFP out in the wild, basking in its blocky pixelated glory, drove a sense of displacement through me. I couldn’t quite identify why, but thirty minutes later, by the time my girlfriend buzzed me into her building, the feeling still lingered. I spent the next few days ruminating on it; so many pieces of art could be NFTs, but could just as easily be sculptures or prints, photographs or live music sets, books nestled between someone’s hands. Material. Tangible. But PFPs by utility are unique to the online space, a product not only of digital art, but of the culture of crypto. Seeing one outside the little circle of someone’s Twitter profile gave me the same sensation I imagine I’d have if I saw a rare Pokémon card mounted on the wall at the MoMA. 

CryptoPunk #5822

Bored Ape #23

In that case, it makes sense that PFP projects have largely become the public face of NFTs–they are distinctly of their communities, the hallmark of the chronically crypto. Especially for Twitter users, CryptoPunks, Bored Ape Yacht Club, Cool Cats, Doodles, mfers, and others are inescapable whether you’re a citizen of Web3 or not. Owning one is like an initiation into NFT culture, and when skeptics criticize NFTs, they often zero in on PFP projects. As NFTs continue to meld with the mainstream, PFPs have come to symbolize the technology and the medium. Even if you don’t know anything about the space, you’ve seen memes about Jimmy Fallon and Paris Hilton, you’ve watched influencers shill scammy PFP projects on Twitter and TikTok, you’ve met that one guy at that one party who won’t shut up about how much he paid for his PFP because he thinks spending power is a personality trait. And while PFPs can be very cool and fun, their value depends entirely on the project, and there’s too much out there to sift through. In truth, I think the skeptics have a point–the worst parts of the space are screeching at them through a megaphone, and I can’t blame them for covering their ears.  

While many PFP projects are developed in good faith with dedicated fan communities on Discord and Twitter, by way of how they often work (a template, layers, an algorithm), they’re also easy cash grabs for those with minimal creative skills and the resources to hype themselves up to buyers. Or, even worse, for those trying to scam noobs with unsubstantiated promises of profit. Using tools like Mintables, someone doesn’t need to know anything about blockchain or coding or even art. The market is oversaturated. NFT enthusiasts are getting bored. I’ve heard more than one educated commentator speculate that PFPs are heading for a market crash, and I’m inclined to agree. But then what is the future PFPs, a genre where form is so deeply entwined with function? 

Hacking the PFP Formula

“Flood” by Hackatao
Q+K avatars are inspired by Hackatao’s art

When considering form and function, one of the most interesting PFP projects in recent memory is one that rarely appears on lists of PFP projects to know–probably because it isn’t exactly a PFP project. Hackatao, the OG NFT duo, completed the first drop of their “Queens+Kings” project in December 2021. When I spoke to Hackatao over a call, they described “Queens+Kings” as not so much a PFP project, but rather an “exploration of PFP projects.” This description is apt; the idea is to subvert the act of collecting, to blur the lines between collector and artist. They explained to me that demand for a Hackatao avatar project first surfaced in June of 2021 among their audience on Discord, around the time they partnered with Christie’s to bring “Hack of a Bear” to life. As collectors of PFPs themselves, they found the idea intriguing, but alongside their audience, they were sometimes frustrated with the randomization of traits found in all generative PFP projects, the fact that you buy the NFT and you don’t have any say in the design of your avatar. Of course, with most PFP projects a collector can choose an avatar with traits they like. But what happens when no specific combination turns your head? As Hackatao put it, “they wouldn’t necessarily be, let’s say, characteristic of them or like a newer image of them as collectors.” The point of a PFP is to express yourself to an online community, and they wanted to take the possibilities of expression even further than an immutable image. Thus, “Queens+Kings” was born in partnership with NFT Studios and Sotheby’s. To them, “Queens+Kings” is “a very natural evolution of the avatars. It made perfect sense that one would be able to have the avatar and build it as it best represents them.”

Screenshot from my initial hack

Second screenshot from my initial hack

The collector experience begins as it would for most PFPs–users mint their avatars after connecting their wallets to the “Queens+Kings” website or by going to OpenSea (whitelisted users were able to mint multiple avatars during the genesis drop). Each avatar has a set of traits with design inspiration taken from Hackatao’s art. But after that, if collectors want the full experience “Queens+Kings” has to offer, they can (and should) hack their avatars. Hacking means that a collector can mint their avatar’s traits, separating the traits from the avatar like the clothes from a doll. If someone chooses to remove all of an avatar’s traits, they’re left simply with a blank template, a gray silhouette waiting for adornment. This allows them to buy, sell and transfer traits to customize their avatars. Some traits are more common than others, and users can see which percentage of “Queens+Kings” avatars possess particular ones. In that sense, the avatars derive value entirely from which traits are attached to them. The concept of trait rarity isn’t new to the PFP game, but the gamification of trait rarity is. Depending on which traits an avatar starts with and which traits the avatar’s owner chooses in the process of hacking, someone could end up with an avatar worth more than where they began. That said, Hackatao shared with me that some more common traits are also very aesthetically popular; the Hackatao community isn’t only in it for the ETH, but rather the experience of creating. You could say they know how to party like royals.

The first time I spoke to Hackatao about “Queens+Kings” was last year while working on a story about the first 100 tokens minted on SuperRare. This time around, Hackatao offered to provide me with a “Queens+Kings” avatar for the purpose of this article–they expressed strongly that they wanted someone writing about the project to experience it. If it wasn’t already obvious, PFPs aren’t really my scene. At worst they represent everything that kept me away from NFTs before I found my little niche in the space, and at best, I don’t understand the appeal in the same way that collecting baseball cards or sneakers doesn’t really speak to me. I hoped that maybe, Hackatao could change my mind. 

Hacking on video

My first avatar, “Q+K #4285,” came with a set of traits, each varying in rarity. The components that make up an avatar–power, crown, hair, eyes, mouth, beard, face, dress, body, and background–can all be swapped out, and each variation of a trait is named (#4285’s original mouth is called “two teeth 2”). Hackatao later sent me “Q+K #4273” so that I could hack them together, minting their traits and mixing them between avatars. Once traits are minted, they can also be sent or sold, and the project’s page on OpenSea even features some avatar and trait bundles available for primary sale. I decided to call the original “Q+K #4285” Hamlet and the original “Q+K #4273” Emo. Hamlet had flowing seafoam green locks and a beard to match, blue almond-shaped eyes and long lashes. Their golden crown and epaulets, the background like the wallpaper of an old mansion, gave them the appearance of classic European royalty. Emo, on the other hand, boasted a black crown, pastel violet hair (Manic Panic’s Velvet Violet, in my imagination), winged eyeliner, big, round brown eyes, and a black t-shirt with a skull, all on a pixelated camouflage background. Hair dye wasn’t accessible to me in 2010, but otherwise, Emo was the spitting image of me at the age of fifteen. I almost wanted to leave them as they were, but I thought that if I hacked both avatars, I could maybe give myself something else I didn’t have access to in 2010. 

Q+K #4285 by Hackatao, before the hack. 

Q+K #4273 by Hackatao, before the hack. 

The avatars themselves are ungendered. Andorogynous. Able to adapt with the avatar’s owner, their tastes, their feelings. This, according to Hackatao, is entirely by design. Even the title of the project was intended to be read with a similar lens–the phrase, after all, is most typically represented the other way around: kings and queens. “Sometimes people forget that Hackatao is two people, and that one of those people is a woman,” they told me. Thinking of my avatars as blank canvases for not only aesthetics, but gender too, added another layer to my experience. Full disclosure: I’m a transgender person. One of those they/them-using, HRT-taking, Leslie Feinberg-idolizing types. And while trans people in both my home country and across the globe face far more pressing issues than representation in PFPs, I still felt a spark of giddiness while transplanting a bushy green beard (from Hamlet) onto an avatar with features typically coded as feminine (Emo). In fact, while working on this article, I showed the avatars to a colleague and, half-joking told her, “they’re a queer couple.” 

#4273 after I gave them #4285’s beard and eyes

The future of the self

“Queens+Kings” allows collectors to become whoever they want online. And in contrast with off-chain PFP options that allow users to customize their avatars – like the Picrew PFPs popular among TikTok users – the fact that “Queens+Kings” requires traits to be bought or transfered in order to apply them to an avatar encourages engagement and community building. Does this mean projects like “Queens+Kings” are the future of PFPs? One thing remains true: if PFPs are going to survive, they need to evolve. Hackatao’s innovation represents just one direction for the genre. With clever engineering and creative thought, more possibilities may come to fruition–animation, audio, equipable 3D figures that translate into the metaverse with full bodies and motion. As Web3 protocols are more widely adopted, cross-project and cross-platform experiences could even become accessible. For now, Hackatao is taking a strong step in the right direction, even gearing up for an exhibition of “Queens+Kings” this spring (as laid out in the project’s roadmap). And indeed, the traditional art world has finally begun to pay attention to PFPs. In February 2022, Sotheby’s New York was slated to host its first evening sale entirely centered on NFTs, auctioning a lot of 104 CryptoPunks with an estimated combined worth of up to $30 million. That is until the seller, 0x650d, tweeted, now infamously: “nvm, decided to hodl.” 

CryptoPunks, of course, are different from other projects. Originally available for free in 2017, long before NFTs (and PFP projects specifically) became what they are now, CryptoPunks have amassed incredible monetary value because of their historical value, because they essentially proved the efficacy of NFTs. And while plenty of PFPs are sure to fizzle out (collector WhaleShark famously predicted that 99.99% of NFT projects are going to fail), I certainly see longevity for “Queens+Kings,” especially considering the content of the project, the position that Hackatao holds in the space, and the community that supports it. I found myself hesitant to re-mint my “Queens+Kings” avatars, rendering my changes fixed, but my anxiety around permanence runs contrary to the purpose of the project. The royals are intended to be hacked, minted, and re-minted over and over again. “Queens+Kings” avatars allow collectors to become artists – not once, but as many times as they want. They don’t even need to acquire other avatars if they want to change how they represent themselves online. All they need to do is hack.

Today, April 14th, 2022, is the fourth anniversary of Hackatao’s first drop on SuperRare.

20

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 host the reading series Satellite Lit and they're the Associate Editor at SuperRare.

FutureThink

Portraits

Negative Space

Under the microscope: What Bayneko’s viral art experiment teaches us about security and community on the blockchain

Under the microscope: What Bayneko’s viral art experiment teaches us about security and community on the blockchain

“FEVERDREAM” by Bayneko

Under the microscope: What Bayneko’s viral art experiment teaches us about security and community on the blockchain

Bayneko talks to SuperRare about the biggest airdrop in the history of blockchain, and what it means beyond the historic feat.
4 months ago

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. 

Communal Catharsis

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.”

20

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 host the reading series Satellite Lit and they're the Associate Editor at SuperRare.

FutureThink

Portraits

Negative Space