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June 19, 2023

The Hackers You Can Trust

Sarah Friend and Paul Seidler discuss the need for trust in the blockchain ecosystem with ‍María Paula Fernández
Credit: PWR, Nesting Cycle (Ethereum mining computer), Tongersestraat 42a, Maastricht, NL, 9/10, 2015. Courtesy of PWR
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The Hackers You Can Trust

Probably the most succinct way to introduce Sarah Friend and Paul Seidler is by reference to Jaya Klara Brekke’s paper on “Hacker-engineers and Their Economies.” In her text, Brekke mounts a defense of cypherpunk culture while advocating a departure from neolibertarian narratives of hyper-tokenization that permeate today’s blockchain and NFT spaces. In turn, she proposes the hacker-engineer as an agent dedicated to disrupting the economic and financial status quo in order to reconfigure the material infrastructure of digital economies.

Both Friend and Seidler produce such disruptions, with the former’s Lifeforms (2021) enacting an alternative gift economy and Seidler’s Straylight Protocol (2022) presenting an on-chain multiplayer game as a means of inviting collectors to interact with their peers. The following conversation took place on a cold spring afternoon at Trust in Berlin — a space practically purpose-built for the emergence of hacker-engineers — where Friend and Seidler presented their respective theses on art-making after the NFT. 

Installation view of terra0, Flowertokens (2018) at Trust, Berlin. Photography by Stephan Baumann. Courtesy of the artists

Sandboxing a better world at Trust

Paul Seidler: I first met Trust’s co-founder, Arthur Röing Baer, back in 2017. At the time, Trust was yet to open, but various people who had previously encountered each other online were starting to network in real life. Many of Trust’s initial members came from art and design backgrounds and had participated in the Strelka Institute’s program, The Terraforming. Together with Calum Bowden, Arthur decided that there was a need for both a discussion space for artistic practices and a critical but effective engagement with technology. When Trust opened as a co-working space and “utopian conspiracy,” I exhibited a temporary installation with terra0, called Flowertokens (2018). This installation required enormous maintenance and therefore could only exist at a place like Trust. 

After the plants had overgrown the structure and appropriated the space, they started to wither, at which point we decided to shut down the installation so that people could remove their flowers. 

That infrastructure now houses a Cybernetic Library. There is no other space like Trust in Berlin, and a lot of the discourse and recent critical reflections on the NFT and Web3 space have stemmed from its members. 

Sarah Friend, Clickmine, 2017. Courtesy of the artist

Sarah Friend: I first found out about Trust online through a legendary Slack channel called “Crypto Circle.” Ruth Catlow added me shortly after her gallery, Furtherfield, commissioned Clickmine (2017). I met a lot of the people I work with today at Trust, which I first visited in person in 2018, just when the Flowertokens were being installed. When I ultimately moved to Berlin in 2019, I was one of the first Trust residents. 

When you first move to a new city, especially Berlin, you’re often hopping from sublet to sublet, trying to find some kind of permanent home. In my first year in Berlin, Trust felt like a stable home in my life. 

By that time, I had already written an article about blockchain governance and blockchain dreams. Reading it back again in 2021, I realized that I had been writing about Arthur before I even knew him. It’s still surreal to me how one’s online friends can become IRL friends.

Nascent in collaboration with Amy Ireland, Temporal Secession — Timezone #1, 2021. Courtesy of the artists

Clickmine is the OG memecoin

María Paula Fernández: Both in 2017 and then again in 2021 we witnessed the rise and crash of memecoins, although we used terms like “ICOs” and “liquidity mining” at the time. Artists have been following those trends since the very beginning. In 2017, Sarah created Clickmine as an interactive game where participants could accumulate a hyperinflationary ERC-20 coin, $CLK, simply by clicking their mouse frenetically. Meanwhile, in the same year, Sam Hart, Jared Pereira, and Saraswathi Subbaraman proposed an exploration of scarcity, One Token, just as Mitchell F. Chan was creating the first iteration of Digital Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, inspired by the ICO frenzy.

SF: In 2017, I also wrote an article for Coindesk that argued for “Useless Ethereum Token” and PonzICO as examples of conceptual art — that there was a collapsing of space between memes and art at the time. One of the things that makes memecoins so uninteresting is that we’ve already had the competition to launch the dumbest ERC-20 token and make a lot of money. 

PS: I’m ambivalent about memecoins. On the one hand, I find the notion of an ERC-20 as a form of artistic expression interesting. The aesthetic experience, which focuses mainly on decentralized exchanges and their interfaces, also feels very crypto native. There is a long history of artists who are not primarily interested in visual design working with money as a medium. On the other hand, the idea of a memecoin is always embedded in a larger cultural and economic environment that is difficult to synthesize, while the actual complexity of the protocol ends up being satirized by the memecoin’s uselessness. Like other forms of parody, the expression here becomes an inside joke. 

But as an artistic medium, ERC-20s are currently in a state of reproducing memecoins, with all their positive and negative associations, without really producing anything new. 
Paul Seidler, “On Smart Contracts as a Medium” at Trust Berlin, 2023. Courtesy of Trust Berlin

The art of incorporating a forest

MPF: Richard Brautigan’s poem, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (1967) has inspired techno-utopians to imagine better futures living in harmony with nature. Paul, back in 2015 you formed the collective, terra0, with Max Hampshire and Paul Kolling, which has since manifested one of Brautigan’s principal visions by affording a forest its own economic agency. How close are we to a cybernetic ecology that unites nature with the machine?

PS: terra0 is a project that thinks of smart contracts almost as administrative tools for the collective ownership of ecosystems. It was based on research from the early days of Ethereum at a time when people were interested in smart contracts as autonomous agents, as well as the idea of protocols that could make decisions autonomously and manage property. 

One of the things we’re focusing on at the moment is whether DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) or smart contracts could be legally bound to property and how this might work through existing legal constructs. More specifically, we’re working to establish whether DAOs and the German form of legal association, called a Verein, might be merged. 

This is something I’m pretty hyped about as far as terra0 is concerned because it would open the way for collective ownership of natural resources, and for smart contracts to hold governance rights over property.

Recently, terra0 applied for funding from GnosisDAO to continue with our project, which was quite a positive experience. However, ultimately the proposal did not pass. One of the problems with blockchain governance arises when you have four or five people whose voting power is such that they can outvote even the majority. This is the so-called “one token, one vote” mechanism. 

SF: To really solve this we have to come back to identity. Quadratic voting requires identity, and so does “one person, one vote.” With token distribution there needs to be a mechanism that militates against huge concentrations of tokens or power. To assess the degree of decentralization of voting power in a DAO, you need identity because otherwise, you can’t tell a Sybil attack from one big account. 

Installation view of Sarah Friend, “Terraforming” at Crypto Kiosk, Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin, 2022. Courtesy of Galerie Nagel Draxler

Toward a decentralized universal basic income

MPF: Sarah, alongside your artistic practice you’ve also spent several years building Circles, an alternative currency that allows communities to give each other a universal basic income (UBI) without state action. This project rejects the ideology of trustlessness that pervades the blockchain ecosystem, replacing it with a web-of-trust scheme whereby participation is determined by individuals verifying each other. 

SF: A universal basic income depends on identity, which is why I’ve spent so much time thinking about how identity might look, without necessarily finding the most concrete answers. There is data to suggest that a social graph can be used to detect sybil attacks with good enough accuracy. Circles itself may not be the implementation of UBI that succeeds, but I’ve worked on it for many years because I consider it an interesting enough set of mechanisms to bring into the world.

One of the major affordances of blockchain is the ability to rapidly prototype economic mechanisms. That is most interesting when they are truly experimental. We won’t learn anything about humans, money systems, or behavioral economics by deploying old mechanisms in a new context. 

Circles is currently in the early phases of a new project called Circles Entropy, which seeks a “good enough” identity for a use case like universal basic income distribution, but in a way that preserves privacy. It is also designed to be generalized to other use cases. All of the big webs of trust that I can think of either have a central custodian with access to the entire web, or else are public, scrapeable, and browsable by anyone. Circles Entropy is attempting to do the latter, but in a zero-knowledge way. What this means is that I can make a proof about my identity that could be checked as true without other parties being able to view the social graph that allows me to make that claim. This could fill a really important void in a lot of protocols. 

PS: I fully agree that prototyping these experiments and the resulting relationships between different actors can tell us something about the social, economic, and ecological systems in which they are embedded — the people, the plants, or the computers. It is almost like relational aesthetics.

SF: Isn’t everything?

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Sarah Friend is an artist and software developer from Canada who is currently based in Berlin. She is represented by Galerie Nagel Draxler and, in 2022, was a visiting professor at The Cooper Union in New York. She is an alumni of the Berlin program for artists, a founder and co-curator of Ender Gallery — an artist residency that takes place inside the game Minecraft — and an organizer of Our Networks, a conference on all aspects of the distributed web. Recent solo exhibitions include “Off: Endgame,” curated by Rhizome, Refraction, and Fingerprints DAO at Public Works Administration, New York, and “Terraforming” at Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin.

Paul Seidler is an artist and researcher based in Berlin who focuses on economic systems, decentralized programs, and computation. In 2020, he graduated from the Berlin University of the Arts in the class of Professor Joachim Sauter. Seidler is one of the founding members of Terra0, a collective comprising developers, theorists, and artists committed to the development of hybrid ecosystems within the technosphere. He also collaborates with Max Hampshire as part of Nascent, a production studio that examines alternative infrastructures. Seidler’s work has featured in prominent exhibitions and discussions, including the 7th Athens Biennale, Schinkel Pavillon, Transmediale, the 58th Carnegie International, and KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

María Paula Fernández is co-founder of JPG and the Department of Decentralization. She has been working in Web3 since 2017 when she joined the Web3 Foundation, and has since worked or consulted on several of the most prominent blockchain projects. In 2018, she founded the Department of Decentralization, hosting Web3 hackathons and researching, publishing, and curating at the intersection of art and technology.