Sarah Meyohas (Yale MFA 15), Inventor of BitchCoin and Director of MEYOHAS Gallery
Sarah Meyohas is a visual artist and director of the MEYOHAS Gallery. For her latest project, Cloud of Petals, she staged a performance at the site of the former Bell Labs. Sixteen workers photographed 10 thousand individual rose petals, compiling a massive data set. The information was used to map out an AI algorithm that learned to generate new, unique petals forever. The performance resulted in a film, six gaze-based virtual reality experiences, and a series of sculptures, presented during a large-scale solo exhibition at Red Bull Arts New York and screened at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival, Slamdance, NY Times Talks, CogX, and Locarno Film Festival.
Previously, her 2015 cryptocurrency BitchCoin and Stock Performance at 303 Gallery have also explored networks of information, power, value, and communication. In addition to speaking on CNBC, PBS, and CBC, she’s been featured in The New York Times, Wired, Time Magazine, Vice, Fortune, HuffPost, Bloomberg, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Atlantic. She appeared on the cover of the 20th anniversary edition of Flaunt Magazine and was listed on both Forbes 30 Under 30 and Cultured 30 Under 35. She holds a BA in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania, a BS in Finance from the Wharton School, and an MFA from Yale University.
The Politic: Why don’t you tell me some background on the BitchCoin project?
Sarah Meyohas: It came out right on the cusp of 2014/2015. It was also connected to Yale because Lucy Hunter, one of the co-founders of Brooklyn’s Where gallery (located in an undisclosed shipping container) is still to this day completing her PhD in Yale’s Art History Department.
At the time, Bitcoin was nascent. It definitely wasn’t what it is today. To give you a sense of the timing, Ethereum hadn’t even launched yet. When I first heard about it, I actually thought it was an art project.
How did you first hear about Bitcoin?
I graduated from Wharton in 2013. No one was talking about Bitcoin back then. I heard about it through an artist friend who thought it would be up my alley. At that time, I was trying to think conceptually about value. I’ve since shifted my focus, but a lot of my projects had looked at the concept of value as it’s embedded in different systems throughout the world. I was looking at value in terms of systems (e.g., currencies, stocks, and big data), representations (e.g., beauty and subjectivity), and the intersection of those two. There’s kind of an analogical shift between the two conceptions.
Did Bitcoin change how value is imposed on currency?
Currency is not a thing– it’s an adjective, really. Different things have currency. Airline miles have currency, i.e., you can trade them, you can use them, etc. Even stocks–to an extent–have currency, i.e., you can give someone a stock. But the truth is that countries have legal tender. You must be paid back, or at least be able to be paid back, in U.S. dollars, which makes everything else a little bit useless.
All of a sudden, Bitcoin was this amazing attempt to create a currency detached from the power of a government. When I looked into it, I was personally fascinated by the digital coin’s relationship to gold– and the language used to describe the coins.
I had thought a lot about gold, because it crosses economics, art, religion, and many other fields. In every religion, gold is a cultural medal more than anything else. Gold always derived its value from cultural-religious uses, and its development as coinage reinforced that value. It’s a mutual cycle. I found it interesting that Bitcoin was tying into this language, and that it’s so material even though its point is to be immaterial.
From my side, too, I’m an artist who makes photographs. Through the artwork, I was making my own market even before formally entering it. At that point, photography was mostly reproducible. The way that artists give value to photographs is by creating scarcity, or by limiting the number of prints they create. It’s really no different than the government printing money and limiting supply.
So, I turned the Where gallery into a mine for finding, or “mining,” BitchCoin. I chose the term “BitchCoin” because it was just so funny. I thought of the term, and I was like, “I have to do this.” It was also a way of putting a female spin on something that’s kind of male-dominated, even to this day. The concept was a little aggressive, but it was just hilarious.
What would make this Bitchcoin valuable? My ‘thing of value’ is photographs, so I tried to make photographs to back the currency. I aptly called the photographs “speculations,” because BitchCoin’s greatest use case at that point had been speculation. That’s how I thought of constructing an image to back the currency.
So, I took these photographs of two-way mirrors to create this mining-like, photographically endless void. In my sort of theoretical reading, reflection is always used as a metaphor for exchange. In a way, that relationship is bi-directional. You have a physical body appraising itself in its image, in its reflection, like a commodity to a buyer.
If you look at Plato, our world just reflects the ideal Forms, i.e., the physical chair is a reflection of the ideal form. But, reflections are often used as a metaphor because value is always created through exchange. One is in the place of another. That’s why I turned to the concept of reflection.
I also called these images “speculations” as a play on words of “specular relations.” I was still at Yale when I worked on that project. It was by no means high profile, but the internet certainly loved it. I only issued 250 coins, but there were tons of articles in all these different languages.
When you look at Where’s website, the Wired coverage, and other press releases/profiles, they all point to the significance of not only investing in the artwork, but investing in you. How does that equivalence, and the introduction of a currency backed by art, change the way that we value artists and the art that they produce?
Think about Andy Worhol, right. To be honest, his artwork, his paintings– they’re like a currency. You can track how a lot of artwork in the art world is doing purely by tracking the prices of Warhols. He was the ultimate artist who turned himself into a brand.
Today, and especially when social media was first gaining traction with influencers, part of the fun of art projects is reflecting on reality by taking a concept to its logical extreme, e.g., we are all branding or we are all trading ourselves. So, we turn ourselves into brands, and the logical extreme is we turn ourselves into currencies.
To be fair, I don’t think we’re that far away from Kim Kardashian issuing a credit card like a “KimCard.” Uber has an Uber card (the “Uber Visa Card”) which rewards you points for taking rides. Kim could have a KimCard which rewards you points for buying her merchandise. Credit cards will compete for customers.
She could have KimCoins.
Yeah, right? When the BitchCoin project got so much attention, it got me thinking, “Okay, I really struck a nerve here with tokenization,” with this idea of art as a cultural artifact– one which has value but doesn’t throw off cash dividends like a company (I just burned off cash with storage). I thought to myself, “What would happen if you took long-established, highly-valuable cultural objects or artwork and tokenized them? What would happen if you repeated the idea for BitchCoin except with Van Gogh?”
Pretty quickly, I concluded that you would pretty much exclusively bank on the piece increasing in value, or people continuing to think that it’s worth more and more. Why? Because there are huge administrative costs, e.g., insurance and storage, to having artwork like that. As I found out real quick, this tokenized artwork is technically a “security,” so you also have regulatory costs. If the piece doesn’t increase in value, those costs are real.
It’s also difficult to pool artworks together because each piece is unique. How can you say, “Well, we’re going to issue these coins, because we think this Picasso is worth x% less than this Van Gogh”? That’s a very difficult equivalence to make, so it’s difficult to pool artworks together. Instead, you have to keep them separate, and when you keep them separate, you’re never talking about very huge numbers. It didn’t seem like a very good financial idea or investment vehicle, especially when these investors are price-sensitive people willing to own pieces outright and fully like trophies.
On top of that, I’m not sure it’s a great idea for the artwork itself to be so commoditized– for its ownership to play such a huge role. We see that already. When the line is around the block to see Munch’s The Scream at the MoMA, it’s not because everyone is interested in The Scream. It’s because the painting represents such an enormous financial accumulation in such a small amount of space that the exhibit becomes spectacular as a result. I’m not sure it’s in the art’s best interest to be so intertwined with its monetary value all the time.
It’s interesting to see the emergence of BitchCoin and cryptocurrencies, the way they’re changing our conceptions of the market, and to see a more direct link between artwork and its underlying market.
Now there are so many crypto art projects. I see them because people always contact me to talk about them. A lot of them fail, but there’s this hope that we can democratize the art market by putting pieces on the blockchain– a solution which only practically works if the artwork is digitally native, i.e., if it’s a GIF, a video, or a digital photo.
The truth is that the market for digital art is smaller than miniscule. People aren’t interested in collecting digital art, which means that blockchain enthusiasts are providing a solution to a basically non-existent problem.
They sometimes claim that using blockchain can help with provenance, but the truth is that you can’t establish the provenance of paintings from the 1800s through blockchain. You can only do so through the record itself. There’s another issue where if a painting isn’t on the blockchain, someone could forge it and place it on the digital record.