July 9, 2022

Bodies On The Blockchain

Inspired by four transmedia artists, Katie Peyton Hofstadter asks how we might take charge of our own biological data in Web3
Credit: White Male Artist (AKA: Cassils), $HT Coin: After Cassils, 2021. Courtesy of the artist
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Bodies On The Blockchain

Technology is moving into our bodies, and our bodies are moving into technology. The stakes are high: Will we double our healthspans or create a techno-dystopian Gilead? By logging their bodies on a digital ledger, artists are probing the ways information flows between our biological and virtual identities, asking: What does it mean to have a body in a hybrid world? 

Rachel Rossin has minted her own DNA; Lans King has minted a code embedded in his hand; Nicole Wilson has minted her tattoos, as well as a record of their Bronze Age source; Cassils has minted their own shit. All are interested in what it will mean, and how it will feel, to have a body in a future where wetware (living tissue) serves as a foundation for technology, where medical implants monitor our hearts and minds, and where decisions are made by programs none of us fully understand. 

These artists are now extending a spectrum of strategies advanced by others in recent years, including Zach Blas, Stephanie Dinkins, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Simone Niquille, Mimi Onuoha, Trevor Paglen, and Hito Steyerl — who probe mass surveillance, biased algorithms, and the circuits of data capture that have come to define Web2. By contrast, the four artists that I consider here are all stress-testing Web3’s effect on their own bodies, thereby inviting the possibility that the lab rats might now take back control.

Mimi Onuoha, The Library of Missing Datasets, 2016. Courtesy of the artist

In her 2020 manifesto, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, Legacy Russell observed the “darkly modern paradox” of our newly splintered selves:

…as bodies disappear within the everyday interactions of the Internet, that which we might have assumed as inherently private — our physical bodies — remain at risk of becoming increasingly public, the abstracted fragments of our online selves making moves independent of those chosen of our own volition.¹

These fragments are presently being fed into machine learning algorithms at a planet-scorching rate, doubling every 3.4 months

In science and technology, a black box is a system whose internal mechanisms are opaque to its users, veiled by an interface. The brain is a black box, as are neural networks. But in order to protect our rights, we need to escape the global network of tunnels into which we have been shut, because the gap between physical bodies and data bodies is closing fast. 

Despite the swell of artists seeking to overturn the authoritarianism of Web2, blockchain’s deployment to log biological data suggests Web3 could be worse. As brain-to-machine interfaces and wetware become increasingly viable, and genetic engineering more mainstream, the minting of physical bodies may soon be more than a metaphor. Creators working at the interface of art and technology can have an outsized impact on the trajectory, and politics, of Web3. The future of bodies on the blockchain is still to be determined.

Rachel Rossin, (Still from) Rachel Rossin’s raw DNA, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Rachel Rossin

Rachel Rossin recently minted her DNA on the Ethereum blockchain in a work titled, Rachel Rossin’s raw DNA (2021), that deployed an ERC-1155 smart contract to unlock a TXT file of her sequenced genome. Priced at $1 million, it isn’t really meant to sell. Rather, it’s a comment on the commodification of genetic material and networked flows of biological information, as well as the impending technologies of wetware computing, and DNA storage

“We’re going to start making hardware out of living tissue,” Rossin tells me, over a Zoom call from her studio.² She’s been brain-jamming with a group of scientists, including Sam Kriegman, who is currently creating xenobots (synthetic life forms) from the heart and skin cells of frog embryos. If you’re not familiar with wetware, you soon will be. As early as 1999, a team of researchers at Georgia Tech and Emory University created a calculator based on the neural cells of a leech which they called the “leech-ulator.” Experiments with human brain cells are also currently underway.

In addition to asserting control over her own genetic identity, the project has helped Rossin to explore what an individual might actually do with such information. The implications aren’t abstract. Mutations and other cues in our code can alert us to potential preconditions or allergies, a susceptibility to cancer or markers linked to resistance, as well as how our bodies might respond to caffeine, cocaine, or IVF. 

“It seems so unbelievable to me that we wouldn’t have this information,” says Rossin, who discovered, in her own genome, a very common mutation in the MTHFR gene that affects her ability to process folate — a vitamin common in leafy greens, beans, and fruits that is important for cell functioning. This predisposes her to depression and autism, yet no doctor had ever detected it. One reason she’s exploring her own DNA is to figure out, “What is this all going to feel like?” 

It feels almost subversive to bring human emotion into a discourse already dehumanized by an industry that mines us for profit. But when Rossin took charge of her DNA, she felt a lot better — she now takes a simple methylated folate supplement, which reduces the symptoms of depression.³ “It’s like night and day,” she says. 

Nicole Wilson, Ötzi, 2016-2021. Photography by TJ Proechel. Courtesy of the artist

Nicole Wilson

DNA is not the only chain of information that defines our species. Nicole Wilson has minted digital tattoo files for 61 tattoos, which derive from those detected on the body of Ötzi, a Bronze Age wet mummy exposed by the melting of ice in the Ötztal Alps. She had the designs tattooed on her own body, in locations corresponding to the mummy’s, adjusting for scale, and using her own blood instead of ink. She then photographed them. After the heme — the dark pigment of her blood — was finally reabsorbed into her system, only scars remained.

Wilson remembers learning about Ötzi in grade school, and being struck by the realization that humans had a long, ancient history to which she felt no connection. Ötzi (2016-21) creates a symbolic link between the body of an ancient human and that of the artist (as well as her collectors) — a flow of information that is simultaneously transparent and utterly obscure. It also reframes our cultural past as the black box it is, rather than an orderly taxonomy of conquest and innovation. If these marks are blueprints, we will likely never know what for. We may trace the provenance, recreate the aesthetics, and extract the data, but the meaning is utterly lost in the chain.

In its fertile silences, Otzi’s minted tattoos join Marcel Broodthaers’s bones, and perhaps Xin Liu’s tooth, in an attempt to document the unreadable codes of anthropological record. In doing so, the artist sends us back into the black box of history, to reimagine, or reinvent what other genealogies might exist in the past, and for the future.

“Knowing everything,” observes Jennifer Egan, “is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information.”⁴ Her 2022 novel, The Candy House, centers on a fictional memory-harvesting technology designed to externalize human consciousness, stored in a network of machines called Mandala Cubes. The program is called “Own Your Unconscious.” In Egan’s near-future fever dream, identity flows from brains into Mandala Cubes. Here in 2022, the networked flow of our own identities is much harder to track.

Lans King, NETWORK OF SELF, 2019-ongoing. Courtesy of the artist

Lans King

In NETWORK OF SELF (2019-ongoing), Lans King has created a remote dashboard linked to sensors on and inside his body: a Fitbit, an Oura Ring, and a NTAG216 (or NFC) microchip capsule implanted into the soft tissue of his left hand. The remote dashboard displays biological and behavioral information, including King’s physical location, vital signs, and sleep patterns. “It’s a programmable, dynamic, evolutive NFT so it can change as long as it’s always pointing to the same address on the IPFS [InterPlanetary File System]. It basically proves I’m alive.”⁵ 

Soon, it may be possible for anyone with access to the dashboard to log in to see King’s vital signs, which of course renders his biological identity — or at least parts of it — open to hackers. He is currently planning to add more implants and devices as they become available, with the ultimate goal of assigning the dashboard to a community of collectors like a DAO (decentralized autonomous organization).

However, a dashboard disguises the wet reality. For now, our digital identities throb with fragmentary, dubiously secured and arbitrarily labeled genetic, biological, and behavioral material. As bodies (and minds) are increasingly entwined with digital prosthetics, it’s easy to imagine “Own Your Unconscious” as a rallying cry. While we all wish to learn more about our minds, do we really want that knowledge available via remote control?

Cassils, (Still from) Eat Your Crypto: $HT Coin for the Revolution, 2021. Courtesy of the artist​​

Cassils

On the blockchain, not all bodies are minted equally. For the durational performance $HT Coin (July 1-30, 2021), Los Angeles-based artist Cassils took on the pseudonym, White Male Artist, to offer a handful of collectors exactly what they wanted — shit by famous white guys.

According to the artist, the tokenized $HT cans, “‘contain’ 30 grams of unique excrement generated by White Male Artist after eating the diet of his fellow famous artists, thus making the same shit they made.” Drawing a direct correlation between diet, identity, and the financialization of feces, the work portends a problematic economy. Everyone who purchased an NFT of the work through Phillips has the option to request its “Physical Companion.” Yes, that’s the actual can of excrement (but you might want to read the disclaimer). Cassils’s project is, of course, a conceptual NFT update of Piero Manzoni’s 1961 work, Merde d’Artista (“Artist’s Shit”), which was originally devised as a critique of consumerism and financial speculation in art.

“Only 2% of the top grossing contemporary artists are not cisgender men,” explains Cassils, who has been using their body to satirize injustice since long before blockchain technology (see Pissed (2017) and Human Measure (2021)). Nor was $HT Coin conceived as a specific comment on the logging of biological and genetic material by a digital avatar.⁶ 

However, Web3’s pseudonymous contracts did ease the process of collecting White Male Artist’s canned shit. That smart contract was originally planned with a backdoor, explains Sarah Conley Odenkirk, legal strategist for the project. In its original conception, the revelation that White Male Artist was in fact Cassils — a gender non-conforming, transmasculine artist who had been assigned female at birth — would link the work’s metadata to a new, aspirational contract, thereby redistributing the proceeds to a fund dedicated to transgender artists and artists of color. It would also offset the work’s carbon footprint by supporting jackie sumell’s Solitary Gardens project, which advocates for the end of mass incarceration and solitary confinement. However, this aspirational documentation was not attached, explains Odenkirk, “due to conflicts with the auction house buyer terms.” The aspirational contract was instead uploaded to the website, and its monetary terms fulfilled by the artist.

Auction houses are not unlike other cultural institutions in seeking to offer users utility without ceding meaningful control. For Odenkirk, “Ultimately, the back door that was intended to be a Trojan horse, ended up being the means for gutting the project conceptually at the 11th hour.”⁷ 

Rachel Rossin, Recursive Truth, 2019. Courtesy of the artist

The corporate body

The border between bodies and technology looks increasingly porous, with energy, information, and capital flowing both ways. Rachel Rossin’s raw DNA reverses the flow of control, exploring the artist’s desire to take her data, and the value associated with it, into her own hands. The chip embedded in Lans King’s hand is, in practice, less invasive of his privacy than the algorithms scraping information about our behaviors on a typical smartphone. 

Such data collection is designed to package our bodies for processing. To this end, consumer genetic testing companies offer one service — to tell us about our ancestry — while harvesting our personal data. In the US, we are often told: “Do your research,” a refrain (and corporate tactic) which cleverly flips the responsibility to the individual while offering the illusion of agency. But what if that company is sold or hacked? One’s personal genetic code could well be used for purposes one never intended. “Well, if you don’t like it, you can always opt out.” We are told. Which is a fine strategy, if you don’t depend on it for gig work, client management, freelance promotion, keeping on top of networking events, hosting your own events, bill paying, bill issuing, or access to healthcare during a global pandemic. 

Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum have written about the “information asymmetry” whereby data about us is collected “in circumstances we may not understand, for purposes we may not understand, and are used in ways we may not understand.” We’ve also been told that the companies tracking our bodies are simply too complex to regulate. Corporate opacity remains a formidable barrier to progress, much as it was in the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis.

Lans King, NETWORK OF SELF, 2019-ongoing. Courtesy of the artist

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal — the phrase: “There’s no data like more data” is infamously attributed to its founder Robert Mercer — many Facebook users were outraged to find that their data had been collected without their consent and passed to the consulting firm, which used it to provide support to the election campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Yet there followed no major overhaul of privacy policy in the US. The EU had already put into effect The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018 in order to enforce Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to respect for his [sic] private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” Chile has also recently passed a “neuro rights” law that will limit the recording and modification of “mental data.”

In the US, the Supreme Court’s recent reversal of the constitutional right to abortion augurs a disturbing onslaught of new scenarios, in which data about impregnable bodies may be sweepingly collected, subpoenaed or sold in order to effect prosecutions.

Imagine three women crossing a state border. Data made available for sale through data brokers may show that one of the women hasn’t had a period in two months, or that they have been inside a reproductive health center, or that they have searched for “abortion clinic” online. This information might be bought by bounty hunters, or subpoenaed by police based on a tip from a doctor or ex-boyfriend.

While the world is currently witnessing a green wave of protests, on a level that stands to turn elections and change policy, companies like Google are promising to start deleting some sensitive location data (though not offering to stop its collection). Should we really stake our right to privacy on companies that rely on invading it? As voters in the US demand reproductive justice, privacy regulation must protect not only women’s bodies, but all human bodies, over shareholders and corporate profits. 

Nicole Wilson, Ötzi, 2016-2021. Artist book published by Small Editions. Photography by TJ Proechel. Courtesy of the artist

Bodies on the blockchain

Artist and activist Dread Scott’s recent conceptual NFT, White Male for Sale (2021), sold at auction for $32,500. For Scott, while our current vision of Web3 deploys different instruments, it is still “born in slavery and colonialism,” much like all iterations of technocapitalism. Meanwhile, as scholars like Kate Crawford have asserted, terms like “raw data” are directly traceable to the language originally used to justify physical resource extraction. Today, they uphold new forms of techno-extraction, while reinforcing the same colonial structures

Jen King is an advocate for transparency and co-construction — a two-way conversation in which the people designed for are in dialogue with the designers themselves. In her view, sensitive information should be licensed (and not sold) for specific, transparent purposes.⁹ Helen Nissenbaum advocates for the term “information flows” to replace “property,” arguing in her theory of contextual integrity that information should be understood, gathered, and regulated based on context, rather than unreadable contracts.¹⁰ But how might we manage lives of endless licensing? 

Take the analogy, Dr King suggests, of a password manager. Imagine having one for your healthcare and another for your biological data. In practice, this would require a dashboard much like Lans King’s, whereby citizens of a human-centered Web3 might license personal information temporarily, while retaining ultimate control over their distributed data bodies. By minting flows of information on the blockchain, artists are already modifying our fixed understanding of history-as-context — reimagining art as flow, rather than commodity form. 

In The Dawn of Everything (2021), David Graeber (1961-2020) hypothesized:

If, as many are suggesting, our species’ future now hinges on our capacity to create something different (say, a system in which wealth cannot be freely transformed into power, or where some people are not told their needs are unimportant, or that their lives have no intrinsic worth), then what ultimately matters is whether we can rediscover the freedoms that make us human in the first place.¹¹ 

Rediscovering “the freedoms that make us human” now requires replacing the racial capitalist cult of data capture with something more human than ever — which means smaller, slower, and more embodied. Artists Rossin, Wilson, King, and Cassils are all experimenting with this reinvention. Maybe we should follow their lead.

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Katie Peyton Hofstadter is a Los Angeles and Brooklyn-based writer, artist, and curator. Her work has been published in The Believer, BOMB, Flash Art, Gargoyle, Pank, and the Vienna Biennale for Change. Her public art campaigns include #MakeUsVisible, the Climate Clock monument, and Future Art Models (apexart). She teaches at Parsons, The New School, and lives with a dog named Peanut in a room full of books.

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¹ L Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, London and New York: Verso, 2020. 94.

² R Rossin, interviewed by the author on April 13, 2022.

³ Rossin isn’t suggesting we make uninformed decisions without medical guidance. She is simply demonstrating one way in which controlling the flow of our own genetic information (perhaps similar to our own medical records) has value.

⁴ J Egan, The Candy House, New York: Scribner, 2022. 333.

⁵ L King, interviewed by the author on April 22, 2022.

⁶ Cassils, interviewed by the author on May 11, 2022

⁷ SC Odenkirk, interviewed by the author on July 8, 2022.

⁸ F Brunton and H Nissenbaum, Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, Boston: M.I.T. Press, 2015. 7.

⁹ J King, interviewed by the author on May 17, 2022

¹⁰ This is based partly on a theory of privacy proposed by Helen Nissenbaum in her book Privacy In Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life (2010). In her paper, “Privacy as Contextual Integrity” (2004), she explained that contextual privacy “ties adequate protection for privacy to norms of specific contexts, demanding that information gathering and dissemination be appropriate to that context and obey the governing norms of distribution within it.”

¹¹ D Graeber and D Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022. 8.