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September 15, 2022

The Artist As Currency

Anika Meier and Hans Ulrich Obrist speak to artists Sarah Meyohas and Jonas Lund about the value of art after NFTs
Credit: Marcel Duchamp, Monte Carlo Bonds (detail), 1924
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The Artist As Currency

The brief history of art on the blockchain has witnessed the emergence of the artist as a currency. Projects like Bitchcoin (2015) by Sarah Meyohas and Jonas Lund’s Jonas Lund Token (JLT) (2018) address the question of how art is valued and how artists might distribute their agency in Web3. Here, curators Anika Meier and Hans Ulrich Obrist ask the artists how they imagine new economies and their own place in art history.

Anika Meier: Kevin Abosch, a pioneer of crypto art, recently told me that, at some point, he thought your artist name was “Bitchcoin.” He thought you had literally turned yourself as an artist into a currency by calling yourself Bitchcoin. What’s the story behind you choosing this title for your project?

Sarah Meyohas: First of all, I love a good play on words. Through the relationship between language and value we designate things. To coin a term means, quite literally, to designate something — from Bitcoin to Bitchcoin. I was adapting the coin for my own purposes, [which] were economically empowering. Artists as currency is definitely the play of it. I’m a girl. So I was the bitch.

Sarah Meyohas, Petals Backing Bitchcoin, 2015-2021. Courtesy of the artist

AM: Jonas, the Jonas Lund Token is named after you because collectors become shareholders, investing in your career as an artist.

Jonas Lund: I liked the idea of calling this cryptocurrency that functions as voting shares in my practice a token, as a reference to something else. It’s a placeholder that needs to be filled with artistic intention; the word itself has no real meaning beyond its own self-referential tokenization. So it’s quite literal — a token as a broad box into which anything can fit, as a conceptual framework. 

The primary function of the Jonas Lund Token is to distribute agency in my practice, and all the token holders get co-opted into my scheme of trying to renegotiate the rules by which decisions are made and value is produced. 

My principal idea with the Jonas Lund Token was to hedge value production, to have the advisors that vote on my proposals be representatives of the art world in which value production is circular. There is a game-like structure to the whole project. Different rules get executed and performed over time. Bitchcoin feels more like a monetary store to me, as a currency in and of itself and as a representation of your work. It is priced based on square inches. The Jonas Lund Token is priced based on the total estimated value of my artistic practice. So the better my career does, the more valuable the token becomes, however the mechanisms for determining the valuation of my practice are not entirely clear.

Installation view of Jonas Lund, Invest in Jonas Lund, 2019 at KINDL Center for Contemporary Art. Courtesy of the artist and Office Impart

SM: That’s how paintings have functioned for artists before. You buy a painting, and it is kind of a token of their career. If an artist’s career progresses, earlier paintings are worth more. It is not a financial guarantee, but it is an investment in the career of an artist. The medium of painting was able to do this really well because it is archival, easily stored, and easily comparable. It is a medium that allows people to make bets on artists. Other mediums didn’t have that built in. That’s also one of the advantages of NFTs. Bitchcoin is a futurist project. The fact that it was done so early, and thus pointed to the future, was crucial. 

The analogy for the Jonas Lund Token and Bitchcoin may be gold, [or] something that is backed by gold. Bitcoin is backed by computers. The gold is my speculative artwork.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Even if Bitchcoin and the Jonas Lund Token are different there is also something similar. That’s the connection to the future. I read a text of yours, Sarah, where you talk about the fact that Bitchcoin is backed by art from your Cloud of Petals exhibition. It’s not a picture of the petal, so Bitchcoin is convertible into your art. The choice is now between two ways to circulate value. There is a long history of this idea of having two ways of making decisions.

Sarah Meyohas, Petals Backing Bitchcoin, 2015-2021. Courtesy of the artist

For example, Louise Lawler did in 1983 this famous piece for [Leo] Castelli, which was a gift certificate. One could either keep the piece by Lawler, which is the gift certificate, or one could cash it in and get something else for it, but then one would lose the piece. This either/or decision is also part of The Currency (2021) by Damien Hirst. At a certain moment, collectors have to make a decision. They either have the NFT or they have the currency, as described in the conversation between Damien Hirst and Mark Carney in the Financial Times. That’s the fractionalization of the dot paintings by Hirst. 

While you fractionalize yourself [and] your own reputation, you make yourself vulnerable by allowing collectors to speculate on your future reputation.

SM: I agree. Damien Hirst wants collectors to pick. It’s more practical to ask people to pick than to have to hold something forever. Because then it would be over. Jonas and my currency, they go on for a long time. 

JL: For better or worse. 

SM: It really does put you in a vulnerable position because these things are out there and trading and they are you.

Installation view of Jonas Lund, Studio Visit. How to Make Art in the Age of Algorithms, 2022 at Francisco Carolinum. Courtesy of the artist and Francisco Carolinum

JL: To sell futures in your career as fundraising for artistic production is clever because then you are contractually obliged to deliver on these futures. Thinking of the future of these coins is an ongoing process — it becomes a responsibility towards everybody who holds your coin in a quite different way from the typical artist-collector relation. 

A traditional collector invests in your practice by purchasing your work because they appreciate it, because they like it, or because they like to speculate, but it’s mostly a one-way transaction; whereas with tokenization, it’s a long-running dialogue. 

AM: Is the Jonas Lund Token also a participatory performance? Damien Hirst’s Currency feels like a marketing stunt. He asked people to make the decision later so that there’s talk about the project again, which means trading will happen and the price will go up.

JL: This is true for most of my work, whether it’s paintings, sculptures, or NFTs — the process is transformation. I think of all my work as some type of performance. A lot happens when the work and the viewer meet, or when the viewer has direct influence on the outcome of the work. Similar to a Fluxus score, I define the rules: the rules of the game, the rules of the interaction, the rules of the piece, the rules of the token, and then initiate the process, and let it perform over time.

Sarah Meyohas, Bitchcoin Manifesto, 2021-22. Courtesy of the artist

AM: Hans Ulrich, your name and your image stand for the concept of a curator and the idea of the curator. How do you, as a curator, feel about the Jonas Lund Token? There are more people involved in the decision-making process who have no direct connection to each other and who are associated loosely by being shareholders.

HUO: I have always been interested in questioning this centralization of a curatorial position. For example, Yona Friedman, [through] urbanism brought in interesting [...] participatory models of bottom-up urbanism, which I thought would be interesting to bring into curating. For example, by inviting people to invite artists to shows within the show.

AM: Speaking of other artists, what do you consider to be the most important examples of artists as currency when it comes to the history of art? 

HUO: Have you been to the Duchamp exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MMK) in Frankfurt? The Monte Carlo Bonds were a 1924 Duchamp work in the form of legal documents, intended to be produced in editions of 30. At the Monte Carlo Casino, Duchamp endlessly threw the dice. It’s also a parody of a finance document, a system to play roulette — there is a contract with the Gesellschaftsstatuten (company statutes). Duchamp nominated himself to be the administrator of this Aktiengesellschaft (public company) in order to explode the bank in Monte Carlo. 

In 1935, he published Rotoreliefs, a set of six double-sided discs meant to be spun on a turntable at 40 to 60 rpm. They created the illusion of a three-dimensional object. Duchamp tried to sell them at a booth, not at an art fair but at a trade fair. It was a commercial failure. Almost none of it sold. Nonetheless, Duchamp had his own bond and his own Rotorelief business. Yves Klein’s Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (1959-62) are interesting in relation to bonds, which in his case are a receipt for the immaterial artwork. That was not an object but a non-object

The buyer had two possibilities to choose from. If they kept the receipt then Klein kept all the gold. If, however, the buyer wanted the piece completed, then this could happen in a ritual where the buyer would burn the receipt and Klein would throw half of the gold into the river Seine.
Marcel Duchamp, Monte Carlo Bonds, 1924

Another example — we’ve just worked on an issue of Cahiers d’Art featuring Cildo Meireles, the legendary Brazilian artist who created an analog Shit Coin in 2017. That is a continuation of his insertions into anthropological circuits where he’s making objects analogous to those on the market. He has been thinking about the relativity of monetary value to zero coins with lots of different materials. There’s irony involved, and artistic fetishism. Jonas and Sarah, are these examples from the analog history of artists inventing their own currency an inspiration? 

SM: Yves Klein is certainly an inspiration, especially because he embodies the jokester and his work has a metaphysical aspect. His tone and interest in gold are interesting to me. But, more than Klein, the French writer Jean-Joseph Goux has been an inspiration. He wrote a wacky book called Symbolic Economies (1990). He was looking at political economy from a psychoanalytic Lacanian framework that was at least like creative fodder for thinking about how to link your personhood and thinking about identity as economic identity. And then, for sure, there’s Bitcoin with its novel creative act as a point of reference for Bitchcoin, [which] is not coming from a corporation or startup but from an anonymous individual. 

JL: Any conceptual work that attempts to rewrite, subvert, or alter the default rules of operations — the established standards — or satirize the often rigid structures of the art world informs the work. But the creation of the Jonas Lund Token came more from a longer research trajectory of trying to work out the core principles of value production in the art world, and rewriting some of its rules. The basic assumption is, expanding on the institutional theory of art, that art is whatever the art world says is art; so by extension, good and relevant art is whatever the art world says is good, relevant art. So the higher up you are in the art world hierarchy, the more agency, influence, and power you have to determine what gets platformed and exhibited, and what becomes valuable. So how can I reach the top of this hierarchy? 

Jonas Lund, Critical Mass (We Take You Where You Want To Go), 2017. Courtesy of the artist

With the Jonas Lund Token, the token holders are largely art world participants, so if we take the institutional theory of art at face value, the decision makers of my board are also the value producers. So whatever they vote for automatically becomes the most optimal decision, most geared towards value. But then there are so many different types of values to optimize for, not only monetary ones, which of course informs the token project one way or another because it’s such a dynamic work as it changes over time. 

It’s interesting to think about this right now — how the NFT space connects to wider art history — as [the NFT] is sort of a novel medium, if one can call it a medium. There’s no long-running history yet, and perhaps we’re right in the middle of working out the core reference points, the standards.

AM: Sarah, with Bitchcoin in 2015 you were one of the artists kicking off using the blockchain as a medium. How do you feel about that now? And do you now use the blockchain as a medium differently?

SM: Yes, I do use the blockchain differently now but there are some projects for which I use it in a similar way. For example, I did a project called The Non-Existent Token (2021), which is also a satirical play on value, where I direct my attention to NFTs themselves. The project is a smart contract where you send money, and, in exchange, receive an NFT of floating bubbles. The next person can only bid 10% more, at which point, your NFT’s image switches into a receipt that advertises your return. I play with the Ponzi that is so prevalent in crypto; it is literally the most honest Ponzi scheme. The Non-Existent Token states that this is the truth. It also replicates some of the dynamics that are popular in crypto art, such as the resale royalty — I always get my 5%. In addition, it illuminates that an NFT is not pure ownership. It’s a token pointing to a media asset. In this case I utilize my ability to change it. 

The Merge has now happened. That’s why I am thinking about how I can respond to that with Bitchcoin. I might do a project where if you stake your Bitchcoin you get something else, but only while you’re staking it. It’s like a visual change to the contract.

Sarah Meyohas, The Non-Existent Token — Website UI, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AM: How do you as a curator think about the topic of value? When it comes to the art market, value is very closely linked to monetary value.

HUO: The urgent question is: how can we imagine a new economy when we consider the artist as currency? I have just read Kate Raworth’s book, Doughnut Economics (2017). Her thoughts are really interesting in relation to value. She talks about the doughnut — an inner ring of well-being and an outer ring of protecting life support for the planet. There is the social aspect and the environmental aspect, which are usually not taken into consideration in the economic system. 

The economy is not floating on a neutral background. There is unpaid caregiving; there is value created that doesn’t get monetized. If you think about such a doughnut economy — whose application is now being discussed — what could art or an art currency contribute to such a different economy?

Sondra Perry talks about [...] translating net neutrality into a lot of work or collective production. Action is what she aims at [through] open source and open access. With Kate Raworth, the question is: to what extent could new technologies such as blockchain produce communion with the environment as opposed to domination [and] separation from the environment.

The other day I was speaking with Primavera De Filippi. She talks a lot about that, also in relation to Plantoid (2014-ongoing). A Plantoid is the plant equivalent of an android. It is a robot or synthetic organism designed to look, act, and grow like a plant. This particular species of Plantoid is an autonomous blockchain-based life form that is able to reproduce itself. It is a hybrid creature that lives both in the physical world (as a mechanical contraption made up of recycled steel and electronics) and in the digital world (as software deployed on top of a blockchain-based network). 

How could a currency be invented in the future which might move in the direction of the values Kate Raworth describes in her book?

Primavera De Filippi, Plantoid Garden, 2018. Courtesy of the artist

SM: A number of initiatives in the space are bringing together some of these ideas. There’s a lot of interest in putting together carbon credits with tokens. I am deeply suspicious of anything that sells carbon offsets. 

JL: I totally agree with your suspicion of carbon offset initiatives. Earlier this year, I developed a project called Eco Indulgence (2022), which was trying to subvert the current pollution rights trading scheme in the European market. 

Basically, companies get CO2 pollution rights, and can then sell these rights to pollute in case they have a surplus, creating a market for CO2 pollution — letting the market “solve” the problem. My project would buy these rights and burn them so that no company could use them, thus removing CO2 pollution. 

Based on my initial calculations, I could sell carbon offsets at a fantastic price. But just before launch, I found out my calculations had been off by a wide margin, so the project was shut down, and following further research into carbon offsets and pollution rights, [I discovered that] it’s a very complicated market. 

Coming back to the activation of the currency as an artist, my favorite aspect of the Jonas Lund Token project is the bounty program, which basically allows people to receive tokens in exchange for art world favors. Anika has received many bounties over the last two years, for example, by inviting me to do a solo exhibition at an institution. Overall, I think these mechanisms can incentivize change through gamification and through community building, by using DAOs as the center for a common goal. But if a DAO sounds too good, I think one should be pretty skeptical. 

Installation view of Jonas Lund, On this Day, 2021 at König Galerie in Decentraland. Courtesy of the artist and König Galerie

HUO: The topic of gamification also plays a role when it comes to the artist as currency. I spoke via mail with Pak about gamification and NFTs. Pak said that the NFT world and the gaming world are going to merge and that this is inevitable. In 2021, an estimated 2.8 billion people [...] played video games. We have already seen NFT aspects enter video games. Early on, the artist Sarah Friend played with minting while playing a game. I was wondering if the topic of gamification is included in the conversation about artists as currency because your token models include gamification elements. 

JL: To me, gamification and games are all about building worlds, defining the rules of engagement, introducing novel concepts, and providing incentives for particular behaviors. We can think of DAOs as doing some of the same work, imagining different ways of governance, and shared decision-making. 

AM: You are currently working on a game titled, In Search of Ideas

JL: I am actually working on two games. One is an upcoming NFT project where you have no agency to say who wins or loses, which is determined by the way in which the NFT is created. And the other is a metaverse open-world game, where you play as my character, exploring a changing world searching for ideas. There will be exhibitions and a lot of other things to discover. 

There’s a lot of correlation between games and conceptual art. There’s an idea — perhaps a set of rules or a contract — that you perform, enact, or embody, and you become part of that reality. I think of most of my works as game-like structures, played either by me or by the viewer.

SM: I’m not a gamer, and I’ve never played a video game before. So that part of the NFT space feels very foreign to me. Gaming in the NFT space has gotten a lot of attention for a while, [...] and that can be fun, but gaming is gaming the system, right? It can also be a negative thing. There is a constant delay of the actual thing, because you’ll constantly get something in the future. Is that being honest with people? The whole world functions based on games so why do we criticize the NFT space? A lot of the people trading on the stock market are playing it like a very serious video game. That’s life — games are part of everything.

HUO: A lot of games [produced] by artists don’t work with winners and losers. The way artists are now working games often subverts or undermines the game.

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Jonas Lund creates paintings, sculpture, photography, websites, and performances that reflect critically on contemporary networked systems and power structures. He earned an MA at Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam and a BFA at Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam. He has exhibited globally, with solo exhibitions at The Photographers’ Gallery and Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; König Galerie, Berlin; Steve Turner Gallery, Los Angeles; Växjö Konsthall, Sweden; Showroom MAMA, Rotterdam; and at the New Museum, New York. He has also participated in numerous group exhibitions including at Centre Pompidou, Paris; Schinkel Pavillon and KINDL Center for Contemporary Art, Berlin; ZKM, Karlsruhe; Vienna Biennale 2019, Witte De With, Rotterdam; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. 

Anika Meier is a writer and curator specializing in digital art. She writes a column for the German art magazine Kunstforum titled, STATUS UPDATE, about the developments around the topic of NFTs in the field of art. She developed König Digital for König Galerie, collaborated with CIRCA on the first NFT drop by Marina Abramović, and with Quantum for Herbert W. Franke’s NFT drop, Math Art. Her curated exhibitions include: “In Touch. Art in the Age of Post-NFTism” (with Micol Ap), ART NFT Linz; “Tribute to Herbert W. Franke”; “The Artist Is Online,” König Galerie and at König in Decentraland (with Johann König); “Exercise in Hopeless Nostalgia. The World Wide Webb” by Thomas Webb at König Digital; “Surprisingly This Rather Works” by Manuel Rossner at König Digital; “Link in Bio. Art After Social Media” Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig; and “Virtual Normality. Women Net Artists 2.0,” Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig. She also sits on the curation board of Art Blocks.

Sarah Meyohas is a conceptual artist and pioneer in the field of crypto art, whose practice considers the nature and capabilities of emerging technologies in contemporary society. In 2015, Meyohas created Bitchcoin, a cryptocurrency backed by her physical artwork. Predating the launch of Ethereum, Bitchcoin is the first tokenization of physical art on a blockchain, effectively a “proto-NFT.” Meyohas has exhibited globally at Red Bull Arts, 303 Gallery, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Barbican Centre, London; Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai; and Ming Contemporary Art Museum, Shanghai. 

Hans Ulrich Obrist is Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries in London. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Since his first show “World Soup (The Kitchen Show)” in 1991, he has curated over 300 exhibitions. Obrist has lectured internationally at academic and art institutions, and is a contributing editor for Artforum, AnOther Magazine, Cahiers D’Art, and 032c. He also writes columns for Das Magazin and Weltkunst. In 2011 he received the CCS Bard Award for Curatorial Excellence, and in 2015 he was awarded the International Folkwang Prize for his commitment to the arts. Recent publications include Ways of Curating (2015), The Age of Earthquakes (2015), Lives of the Artists, Lives of Architects (2015), Mondialité (2017), Somewhere Totally Else: Columns, 2012-2017 (2018) and The Athens Dialogues: Interviews by Hans Ulrich Obrist / Photographs by Ari Marcopoulos (2018).