Olivier: So what do you want to know?
Jason: I am curious what your inspiration for the project was. Did you ever engage Richard Prince with the idea?
O: Not directly. In fact, we had tried to get in touch with other artists before, such as Simon Denny. But of course, none of them have ever answered our mail. To fulfill our idea - about Ready-Made, Dada, and so on - we needed a signature. So we decided to create a signature of our own: Richard Prince. Richard Prince is the name of a Twitter account we hold so we told ourselves that it would be fun to play with the homonymy and see where this would lead us. We'd also find it fun to play over this kind of double identities for a Dadaist project. That worked like a experimental gesture.
In the end it's even us who directly pointed Richard Prince's manager toward our project to see his reaction - which was not that good. Given his work, we had thought that maybe it would find the project fun and interesting and would have agreed to play our game. It seems that he did not :)
J: So it was intended to be fun, but it became serious because it was not appreciated by Richard Prince and his manager?
O: Well, it was from the beginning a serious project given its artistic intention. We do believe that this project really raises a lot of important questions about what art is, about its relationships to the art world and the art market. It was not serious in the sense that we never intended to make us pass for the known Richard Prince. To be honest, when the Rare Festival invited us, we really wanted to be there, to explain to them why and « how » we were Richard Prince to explain the project to us - a project that they found « amazing » until they discover it's not about the known Richard Prince. In some way we've just proved what we wanted to prove. Even for a conference reclaiming itself from the Dada history, only the name of the artist matters. Not the artwork.
And to be clear: the ReadyMadeToken exists. If you have the highest bid, you win it.
It's just not an artwork by the well-known Richard Prince.
J: That was going to be my next question. It was only because I could not get enough Ethereum that I was not able to bid. How would things have played out if I had won the Ready-Made Token?
O: Well, in fact, it will be easier and more fluid to talk over Skype. Let me call you.
- We Switch to Skype the following is a transcription of our conversation -
J: One of the big questions I have, Olivier, is that it seems like a strong enough idea that you could have done it without people thinking it was by Richard Prince.
O: Yeah, after that we need to talk about the Rare Festival because that is another kind of question. Because it is really interesting how things went with the Rare Festival. To answer your first question, we chose a signature for this artwork -- well, the one idea -- and we had spoken a lot about this with friends from the artistic realm and the artistic world... There were two ideas.
The first one being that the whole point of a ready-made is that it is just a regular object from the regular world or community and the fact that someone signs it makes it an artwork and gives it a different status. We are no one, we are not known in the artistic world, we can not sign it ourselves. So the first thing was kind of a conceptual problem, as we are not recognized as artists, the gesture would not have been the same.
The second one, also for a question of visibility, because if you are not led by a known artist, no one talks about your projects, and even with the name of Richard Prince on the Ready-Made Token we have maybe 100 visitors per a day on the website. So it works, but that's not too busy.
So that was two problems. One that was conceptual, the idea of the signature and how we could handle it. The second was more pragmatic, how do you make people come to the website and ask questions about the project and talk about the project and so on.
J: Got it. So it was a way to draw attention to the project. You were concerned that if it was just signed by "Olivier," it would not have got the attention and would not have even been noticed.
O: Oh, sure, it wouldn't have been noticed at all, you can be sure of that.
J: Where you concerned at all when you signed it "Richard Prince" that the real Richard Prince would be upset?
O: Sure we were concerned, it was part of the game. We always had the idea to let Richard Prince know about the project at one moment. In fact, what we did expect at the beginning of the project that Richard Prince would have heard the project by one way or another and would come to us and we would explain the project and he would play in the game with us. We were thinking given his first works and his Instagram works and so on there was something fun and interesting in impersonating someone whose works rely on blurring property and private/public and so on. So we thought that would be a way to get in touch with Richard Prince in more of a fun and interesting way than just contacting him. If we had emailed Richard Prince, he would have never answered us, by the way.
Finally, some people talked about the Ready-Made Token with Richard Prince on Twitter but as Richard Prince seems to be... I don't know maybe on drugs all the time or drunk... I don't know. I don't know how he is but his tweets are always weird and, well, kind of really blurry. I think he didn't realize what it was about so he said, "Oh, no, I am not the one that works on blockchain" you must be mistaken or, "Yes, I do work on block" and then saying some really strange things about blockchain.
So a few days ago, maybe two days ago, we decided we needed to contact him directly. So we didn't mail him saying "we are the Distributed Gallery and we are playing with your name." We just said "Oh, look, we have seen your work about the Ready-Made Gallery, it seems you are talking at the Rare Art Festival, so I would like to talk to you about the festival." So we led his agent to the Distributed Gallery and the Ready-Made Token to see what he thought about it. We did it with a personal email so they would make no link between the email and our project. They contacted us in a panic saying "you have to call us right us right now, this is a big problem!" So we just sent the manager of Richard Prince an email explaining the project and that we intended to play with them, and are they ready to enter the game with us, to play with blurring identity around the project, and so on. We didn't ever get an answer about that. We only know that they contacted the Rare Art Festival to say it wasn't Richard Prince coming. We did not no about the tweets from Richard Prince saying it's a scam or something like that. So we have no direct contact with Richard Prince, even though we have tried. He doesn't seem to find this fun.
J: Got it. I don't know the answer to this: Was he scheduled to speak at the Rare Art Festival or was that you?
O: The story with the Rare Art Festival is kind of fun because we just put the website online and sent a few lines to the cryptographic newspaper and the arts newspaper and the Rare Arts Festival came to us saying, "It's a wonderful project, it's amazing," I really want you and Richard Prince to (Skype cuts out)...
What was funny was that we always introduced us as Richard Prince but never said we were "the" Richard Prince, the well-known Richard Prince. We always said, "Yes, we are the Richard Prince artist who made the ReadyMade Token." And they said, "Ah, it is an interesting project and we would like to have the Richard Prince who did the Ready-Made Token on the main stage" and so on. So we said, "Yeah, we will come," and we intended to come. So they asked for a biography and picture to put on the website, so we didn't answer that because we didn't want to represent the real Richard Prince as we are not the Real Richard Prince so we never gave a picture or biography or so on. We let them find the information themselves by saying Richard Prince is a public character so you may find whatever you need for your website. So we kept on writing and exchanging using the Richard Prince email which is ours, and for us it was the Richard Prince we are that was talking with them... maybe what I have not mentioned yet is we do own the Twitter account @richardprince, so the game was to say "we are Richard Prince" we are one Richard Prince, Richard Prince is just a name and anyone can be Richard Prince. Anyone can call themselves Richard Prince. It is just a name. So we had never mentioned the famous Richard Prince with them, just that we are Richard Prince as artists but not the same Richard Prince. So we exchanged with them about the project and the projects at the Rare Arts Festival and they were quite amazed about our project. And when we contacted Richard Prince's agent, he called them to tell them it was not the famous Richard Prince that was coming. And at that moment, they said, "Ah, it's not the real Richard Prince, it's a scam." And for us that was really fun and interesting. You know if you can call something a scam over a signature change or because you made a mistake over the signature of artwork, it just says what we were trying to experiment with - that the art is just a matter of name, a matter of signature. That's really fun because the project was marvelous and fabulous to them until they realized it is not the right Richard Prince. In some way the conflict with the Rare Festival... well, right now they are really upset and angry with us... just participate from the artwork itself in some way.
J: It would have probably bothered me if I spent $1.4k on this thinking it was the famous Richard Prince and it was a different Richard Prince. I ask myself why that matters to me, and I think it is because beyond a name is a reputation. If I apply for a job, I have a reputation around my name "Jason Bailey" because I have a history of things I have accomplished. So if I get that job it is because I have an accumulated history of things I have done that makes me the person they want for that job. So if I thought I was buying a work by the real Richard Prince, part of the appeal would have been that he spent many decades building a reputation around this artistic appropriation. I would have been a little disappointed. I am a strange guy in that I would have been happy either way, as long as I got the token, because I think it's an interesting exercise. But I would have been a little disappointed because when you buy something, it comes along with not just the name, but the reputation, as well.
O: Yeah, well, maybe. Well, I think the difference between your example about talking to you or something like that because when you hire someone to work with, precisely you don't know yet what he's going to work on. So just don't come with an artwork with the work already done so that you can judge his work, you have to hire someone because you think he will be good at all the work you will propose him. So some of the difference between artwork which is supposed to exist in kind of an autonomous way as, you know, autonomous freedom and a guy you hired to work on various tasks. So I guess there's kind of difference there but I do understand what you say.
The other part is that while our goal has never been to rob anyone -- and to take concrete example, we have a girl who has bid on the Ready-Made Token and now she has realized it's a scam and so on, and we are on our way to fund her back. We don't want to rub anyone which is not a rich guy and which care about his money. So you know, if someone is rich enough to spend one million dollars in and out, well, it's his problem. If someone just spend one thousand dollars because he really thinks it's Richard Prince, we don't want to rob him. So our idea is to refund every person who is too disappointed by the fact that it's not Richard Prince, so it has always been our goal to say, "Well, we play a game," and if people are disappointed, we are not running after the money, we are running after a game and an experiment. So if people are disappointed, we are going to refund them and we are already doing that with a few people. So...
J: Got it. That makes sense. So then, what would the plans be with the money after... So let's say someone does bid on it and is happy to receive it. Did you already have plans about what you would do with the money that came in through the auction?
O: If we had earned any money with the auction?
J: Right. What would you spend the money on?
O: Oh, we have various unrelated crypto-projects which we've been working on a long time now, which, let's say, are much more serious. So I guess we would invest it in this same projects - we simply would invest it in other crypto-projects and so on because the Ready-Made Token was kind of a side project for us. We had the idea one night while drinking with a bunch of friends, and the more we were talking about it, the more it seemed interesting to us. So finally we decided to make it come true. But we do work on a lot of other projects in the crypto-stuff, so I guess we would have invested the money in those projects.
J: It sounds like you're working on a lot of crypto-projects. Do you think there's potential for blockchain and crypto-currency to make the art market more transparent, even if this maybe isn't moving in that direction?
O: Yeah, sure. To be honest, the kind of projects we are working on are completely related to transparency in the world of art. Well, to give you a quick look at what we are working on, our main project is a project that people collaborate with each other on the blockchain to write books, to compose music, to shoot movies, and our technology will allow them to automatically redistribute their shares of their work, their intellectual property around the work.
Say you want to take a song and sample it in your own composition, while it would have been clear cryptographically so that each time you earn money with your own song, it would help millions of people you would get your inspiration on. And so and. [laughing] And so we clearly work that kind of project in some ways. Besides that, there are also other numerous projects which are more related to the idea of really identifying artworks with cryptographic primitives to avoid a kind of fate and so on, and that's not the main part of our job, even if we do work on intellectual property to protect the work of our users. But there are a lot of works going on right now which are specialized in protecting intellectual property and certifying artworks and so on. So yes, there is a lot of stuff going on in that.
J: So do you worry at all that the Ready-Made Token, since it's so early for most mainstream people to understand crypotcurrency and blockchain, do you worry that because in this case you're playing with sort of hiding identity or double identity, that potentially people -- it could make it harder for people to understand that blockchain actually has potential to make things more transparent? I don't know if I'm asking that question right -- does that make sense?
O: Yeah, maybe you're saying don't we worry that we give a bad look to blockchain?
J: Yeah, especially around transparency. Because it seems like your passion is actually around building these projects for transparency for authorship in music. But by having a project that gets recognition for making things more opaque, less transparent with the blockchain, do you worry about that at all or see a connection there at all?
O: Sure, there's a connection. But I think they are two different things, because both of the blockchain stuff is about transparency and the transparency it brings; if you want to be transparent or if you are in a situation of being transparent, because it matters that you are transparent, because you run a business and you want to make things feel that, oh, you spend your money, where do you buy your stuff, and it's not related to "child work" and so on. So I don't know if things are concerned with transparencies; and blockchain is really an amazing technology to make things more transparent and to gain trust with your users, with your collaborators, and so on. So that's a part of the blockchain. But the whole blockchain is not about transparency, and from this, you do have now primitive crypto-graphic primitives which are developed up to provide anonymity with a blockchain connection. For instance, you can look at cryptocurrencies like Zcash which rely on different protocols and mathematical magic, but which all bring the power of anonymity of a blockchain because you can, for instance, make zero knowledge proof, which means that you can prove that you have paid someone without providing neither the amount of the cash you have transferred, nor your identity.
J: So I think what you were saying -- and this is the interesting component to me -- is that while the blockchain could add transparency, it can also add on anonymity. So like when people go to the dark web to buy drugs or things like that --
O: Well, the dark web is not necessarily related to blockchains, just blockchains from the currency you use to buy drugs or weapons, and most people use Bitcoin or Monero or Dash, other crypto-currencies. In that way it's related to blockchain. But most dark markets are not based on blockchain technology, but on TORE and other anonymity technology. So while I think they are the big hype over the question over transparency and the blockchain -- and I really do think that the transparency will bring interesting stuff for the case where it does make sense to try running a business and so on. But I also think that anonymity is an important feature for the future of our communication, and not just make illegal stuff, not just to sell drugs or to sell weapons, because while -- there have been fights about that. You know that the creator of the Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, I don't know if you know his story...
J: Well, I know that he is sort of anonymous and came up with the idea and is considered brilliant, but then sort of disappeared -- it was never really known who he was. And then once the government came in to regulate more, it sounds like that coincided with his disappearance.
O: Exactly. What is interesting in this story is that the guy who created the transparent technology that is the blockchain was, in fact, one of these guys that nobody knows who he is. And it's important because it allows him to, you know, hide from the government in a sense. But it's also important because while all the things that opacity and anonymity can bring to people is not just about hiding from the government or hiding from whoever you want, it's also about existing on a particular mode and exchanging with people on a particular way, because the fact that a guy named Satoshi Nakamoto, which is a pseudonym, suddenly just gave humanity something like blockchain engine and just disappeared is much more elegant and, you know, often brilliant than bringing all the light on his name. Because look at how things went. Why did the blockchain succeed as it succeeded? Because the guy who made it has disappeared, and some people have been able to appropriate for themselves blockchain because they had no one to ask questions about what it is supposed to do. So as the guy who made it just disappeared and was not here anymore to answer this kind of question, people just have to answer the question by themselves, "Okay, we do our technology now, what can we do with it, and we just have to answer the question by ourselves." And we don't have any kind of authority who would tell people what blockchain is because he has created it. So the fact that Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared is not just about hiding from the government, it's about giving some kind of autonomy and freedom to its idea and its technology. For for a lot of use cases, anonymity and the ability to hide part of yourself is really important. And I do think that's maybe more close to what we have done with the Ready-Made Token. I do think that in the art world, in particular, the ability to play with identity is the ability to play with anonymity and so on are really important because it does really modify the way artworks are received, interpreted, played with, and so on. At the Distributed Gallery we are big fans of Michel Foucault, maybe you know him?
J: Sure, the philosopher, yeah.
O: Yeah. And Michel Foucault has done a lot of work around the way writing makes its author's thought disappear because, well, when you read a book, the author tends to disappear in the text and the text becomes some kind of an autonomous object which people integrate in the world and so on. And so Michel Foucault likes to make interviews without being cited, without being named. And he was saying, "Well, I do like anonymity because when I speak and I'm anonymous, people can just take my words for what they are and think about my words for what they are." And as soon as it became clear that it is Michel Foucault who is speaking, everything becomes different because the question is not what does this work mean, and more the question is, what Michel Foucault has intended to say. And it's not the same question. So I guess in the art world, anonymity is really important, and we are just at the beginning of the blockchain technologies, but I think we will be able to find intelligent and clever ways to articulate transparency where it is needed and anonymity and opacity where it is needed, too.
J: That makes sense. So do you plan on keeping the site up and continuing the auction?
O: What is fun and what was part of the game from the beginning, is that now that the auction smart contract is live on the blockchain, we can't stop it anymore. I have intentionally coded the smart contract, which is a small piece of code which runs on the blockchain to enforce the auction process. I have intentionally developed it and designed it so that there's no "emergency" button, there's no "stop" button. So now that it is live on the blockchain, [laughs] I can't stop it. So I can take the website down so that it's more difficult for people to bid on it because there won't be a point in clicking, but people who know the auction model could keep on bidding if they want, and the guys will win the Ready-Made Token. So I can't stop it. So we haven't talked about everything yet, but I guess we'll just let -- the Ready-Made Token is live on the blockchain. I guess we're gonna keep the website live. And well, for the few people who have bid on the auction with the belief that Richard Prince was the real creator of the Ready-Made Token, we'll just refund them. And for the rest of the people who find the project interesting, they can keep on bidding.
J: Got it. I understand. So even if you took the website down, the blockchain would keep on going. Are you worried at all that Richard Prince or his manager might try to retaliate or something like that?
O: Well, to be honest, it's not about that. Maybe the question we'll have raised if we had raised one million dollars -- for now we are at something like one thousand euros, so [laughs] I don't think Richard Prince and his team will sue us to get back five hundred euros. Given the history of Richard Prince and even his works in the past, it would be really strange for him to sue us for something like that and make no sense. In some ways we are kind of trustful with this work, and are just like, well, it would make no sense for him to sue us for such an artistic experiment.
J: Would you consider yourself a fan of his work?
O: Well, I wouldn't say a fan, but we do know his work and we find it interesting. Well, I'm not a fan of anyone, in fact, but I do like his work, to be honest, and I find it just interesting. And when we thought about, you know, taking the name of Richard Prince, we find it interesting because it echoed with his own work. And that's fun, by the way, because his own manager, when we were talking to him privately, when we informed him of the project and we send an email with a personal email, when he talked to us, he said 'it's really crazy because it really looks like work by Richard Prince. There's no way to know it's not his work. So we were kind of happy with that [laughs]. And well, for now we try not to worry too much, because to us it's just a game, and I don't see why people would just take it too seriously.
J: If you were able to say something to the real Richard Prince, what would you say to him?
O: I guess I would say, "You're a curious man, and to be honest, we're kind of disappointed you didn't play much more with the Ready-Made Token because here is something that could have been really fun to play with. Well, maybe you're too serious at the end [laughs]."
J: Interesting. Okay. I wonder if you have any questions for me, given that I wanted to try to buy it.
O: Well, what did you think of the project when you first heard of it?
J: Yeah, so I saw it, and I thought it was thoughtful. I started to try to look into crypto-art in general, and I bought a CryptoKitty because I couldn't figure out how to use Meta Wallet and all these other things, and then I bought a CryptoPunk, and I bought some crypto-art from DADA.nyc. And then I saw this, and I thought, 'Oh, well, this is interesting,' because I was curious if some well-known artists with reputations, who would be the first to pick up on this as a future way of doing commerce and art? So when I saw that Richard Prince was involved, I thought it made a lot of sense. I think I had the same response that Richard Prince's manager had when you talked to him: this seems like a very Richard-Prince thing to do because it's a play on anonymity and identity. So when I read through it and saw the bid, I thought, 'Well, maybe because it's so hard -- for me, anyway -- to get enough Ethereum together to bid on this, maybe the regular collectors of Richard Prince won't be able to figure this out, and I actually have a chance to get something interesting." And it's conceptually -- it's almost a scam either way in that there's nothing there. It's a single Ethereum coin, so it's like an invisible pizza. And my thoughts were, 'Because the potential for the blockchain is to democratize it and make it so that everybody can have a piece,' I wanted to buy the token and then tokenize it and sell much smaller pieces of it, because the way I read your website, it sounded like the Richard Prince was going to make it exclusive by having just one token. And I thought, 'Well, that's unfortunate, because that's not really the direction that I think -- that I hope the blockchain goes. So maybe if I save enough money and get it together, I can buy it, and then I can divide it up and everybody can have a piece of it.' And then I started writing about it and thinking about it some more, and that's when I started seeing all the emails and the tweets that it was a scam. And it already sort of seemed like a scam, but I was still interested. So that's when I wrote the article this morning when I woke up, because I was like, 'Well, these things are actually not that hard to figure out, right?' I just went to the WhoIs for the website and I found your name, and I was going to write something slightly more scathing, but you seem like me. You seem like someone who is interested in art and technology and experimentation. So I tried not to be too mean about it. But I think it's an interesting story to share.
O: [laughs] Well, we really appreciate you not being too mean. And to be honest, when I saw -- well, I was wondering when someone would first pick my name. So it was fun to see. In fact, another guy from The New York Times did it yesterday. We have to speak with him tomorrow, so that's fun. And well, one other thing. Yeah, so when I saw the article with my name, I was like, "Oh, crap [laughs]." And I read your article, and I said, 'Well, it's kind of an honest article,' and it seemed fun, and it was good. So I was happy to read it finally.
J: I have sort of made friends with some of the people that are involved with The Rare Digital Art Festival, and they seemed sort of upset about it. But, you know, that's...
O: Well, maybe I could ask you. All of the guys from The Rare Art Festival are taking the game... are they really upset right now?
J: It seems like it. I've only seen the tweets. The CEO from DADA.nyc is going to be presenting. She seems really great. I didn't talk to her about this, to be fair. I just talked to her in general because I think they're doing some interesting work. I've talked to her and I've seen some tweets and tweeted back and forth with some of the other folks. I think they're worried -- from what I can tell; I don't want to speak for them -- I think they're worried that the mainstream public are already concerned that digital scarcity and digital ownership seem like nonsense, and they're trying to say, "Well, no, there's actually a lot of potential here," and I think they're probably worried that something like the Ready-Made Token could do damage to their goal of trying to democratize art and have -- you know what I mean?
O: Well, I guess we are gonna write to them at one point to explain the project to them, if they want. But if we don't find the time or we don't finally, and you see them, maybe you can explain to them that the idea was not to make people not care about rare art and so on, and that's precisely why we have decided to refund people that would bid on the token and were finally disappointed, because we don't want people to say, "Well, you know, rare art is a scam and people are there just to make money," and so on. So we wanted to keep the -- well, we knew we are going to lose money on this story because it cost us money to run the website, to deploy the contracts and so on. So we really wanted to make it right, so that while we could play this experiment, and in the meantime, not hurt anyone and not hurt anyone in the crypto-community which we're a part of.
So if you have an opportunity to talk with them about that, just tell them that our point was not to make them hurt, it was just to play with these technologies and see how far we can go with them. And while I'm going to send them a mail to explain to them the project, I guess...
J: That makes sense. It seems like maybe it got more attention than you expected, and some people might have taken it the wrong way or didn't see it in the same spirit.
O: And to be clear, we intended to go to the Rare Digital Art Festival. We were kind of scared about that. But our idea was not to leave the Rare Art Festival with just a big hole in their programming. We decided to go there and pay the aircraft by ourselves, and so on, because she even proposed to pay for Mr. Prince's travel, and we said, "No, no, it's okay, we're going to pay it, and it's fine." So we really decided to go there and just, you know, reveal we are Mr. Prince and it was kind of an experiment with crypto-currencies and so on. So we did not ever want to make them lose money or make them lose credibility. We just wanted to push the project towards its end.
J: Right. But you can understand -- I mean, I can understand that if they advertised to a large group of people that the real artist, Richard Prince, that they thought they were getting, and then if let's say a hundred or more people showed up and it wasn't the Richard Prince that everyone thought it was gonna be, they may not get the joke or appreciate it - right? - and then they would be in hot water or, you know, would have anxiety around it.
O: That's also one of the reasons we decided to contact Richard Prince's manager, so that things go clear. And at the beginning, we were like, "Well, we're gonna go right there and we're gonna tell them, 'Well, we are the Richard Prince'" and explain the whole project, and so on. And then we told ourselves, "Well, maybe it's kind of dangerous to do that," and maybe put the Rare Digital Art Festival in a weird situation. So that's why we decided to contact Richard Prince a little more sooner than we had expected to clarify the situation with either the Rare Art Festival.
J: That makes sense. Okay. Thank you for talking with me, Olivier. I'll be curious to follow your projects in the future and see what else is going on there. I have to decide if I want to keep my money in Ethereum and gamble with it going up and down or put it back into US dollars. I'm sure my wife will have thoughts on that.
O: What is probably going to happen, nothing is settled yet, but it's probable that if we don't sell the Ready-Made Token, which is probably what's gonna happen right now, we are gonna save it for a kind of symbolic cost to Distributed Gallery which is being built up right now and which is trying to collect a few artworks from a few different crypto-artists to make Distributed Gallery collectively owned by the artists.
J: No, it's a good idea. I thought about something similar. I don't have quite the technology chops. But I think the idea of a gallery where the art is distributed broadly is a good idea. So hopefully it goes that direction.
O: Yeah. It's probable.
J: My blog's focus in on the intersection of data and technology and art. So if you end up doing something like that, I'd love to hear more about it and potentially write about it and share it with the audience.
O: Sure. We'll keep in touch.
J: Thank you for your time.