“I’m excited about a future where micropayments are omnipresent. Artists paid by the view, writers by the poem, musicians by the listen.” - Cryptograffiti
In a recent auction designed to sell to the lowest bidder, artist “Cryptograffiti” sold his elegant work Black Swan, a collage made from a single dollar bill, for $0.000000037, making it the least expensive artwork ever sold at auction. To understand why, we recently spoke with the artist.
Like Banksy and Shepard Fairey, Cryptograffiti’s origin story begins with street art, only his has a uniquely Silicon-Valley twist. Around 2011, Cryptograffiti left a job at Apple to launch a startup inspired by a Myspace feature called “Top Eight.” His startup’s product allowed you to share your favorite photos in a tangible piece of hardware:
The “Top Eight” was really fascinating to me because this was back when social networks were really picking up steam. The psychology behind why that was such a popular feature was really interesting. I thought that if I could make a product that encapsulated that, then the product would also be popular… kind of a modern take on lockets. You can wear a photo, and then there was an app so you can also tell people which photo you were wearing and why.
It turned out that the person helping Cryptograffiti develop the app was really into Bitcoin and was interested in being paid in cryptocurrency. This got Cryptograffiti looking at Bitcoin and blockchain much closer.
It was pretty clear to him that blockchain and cryptocurrency would eventually make the old banking system obsolete, so he began exploring this idea of making art using materials from the dying banking system (old credit cards and paper money) to “help explain this new era that was coming” ushered in by currencies like Bitcoin.
Cryptograffiti then had an “a ha” moment in late 2012 when he learned about micropayments.
I started hearing about micropayments as being the future: essentially being able to pay for things in little bits that wouldn’t be possible otherwise because of the minimum fees that come with credit cards…
…I have artists in my family and I was aware of the trials and tribulations that they had in the traditional art world. So I started to think of different ways that crypto and micropayments could be used specifically for artists as new revenue channels, and that got me to thinking about doing street art with the QR codes attached, and if people liked the work, then they could send over some Bitcoin. There were a number of different things that made me want to go all in, and in 2013, my startup was only doing “okay,” and it just didn’t seem as fascinating as this new world that was laid out before me. So I just decided to really jump in. It was super risky, but I’m really glad that I did.
I asked Cryptograffiti to help me understand micropayments a little better, because while I love the idea in theory, I couldn’t understand how it would work if the transaction fees associated with making payments using cryptocurrencies would exceed the amount of money being spent with a micropayment.
A lot of it depends on how overloaded the system is. Back in 2012 and 2013, there was just not as much congestion going on. But if you look like a year ago at December, 2017, the fees were sky high for Bitcoin because there were a lot of transactions happening and miners could pick who they wanted to work with, and so settlement times were slower and the fees were higher. A lot of this was coming down to a scaling issue, but there are solutions in the works. That’s part of why I wanted to do something with the Lightning Network with my art, because there is so much talk about price in the mainstream media and really not much discussion outside the crypto circles about some of the solutions that people are working on.
Which brings us back to Cryptograffiti’s Black Swan setting the auction record for least expensive artwork sold at auction. The auction was designed to reward the lowest bidder (instead of the highest bidder) to draw attention to the increasing viability of micropayments now made possible by the Lightning Network. The Lightning Network speeds up Bitcoin transactions while reducing transaction costs. As Cryptograffiti describes it:
The “Black Swan” was a fun idea I had knowing that it would not be lucrative, to help spread awareness about the Lightning Network. For those that don’t know, the Lightning Network is a payment channel layer on top of Bitcoin to help alleviate some of these payment scaling issues. So essentially, you can open up a channel with someone, make payments with them, and it will get settled up with the blockchain later on when the channels are closed, and so it helps with the congestion. There are no fees and it’s very quick. It’s really groundbreaking stuff. If it works, then it is going to bring about this era of micropayments that I yearned for from the beginning. Doing things like paying for reading an article or paying by the song or by the view for an artwork, these are all interesting ideas that haven’t been able to happen yet because of the payments to middlemen like credit cards.
The Black Swan itself is clever and aesthetically appealing. It’s a tiny work measuring in at 1.44 in x 1.75 in (3.55 cm x 4.44 cm) and features Cryptograffiti’s signature style of collage using older forms of physical currency, in this case, a single dollar bill. But I find the larger performance to be the most engaging part of the work.
For example, the video Cryptograffiti created to promote the artwork reminds me of a bootstrapped version of the massive marketing campaigns put out by Sotheby’s and Christie’s to promote and elevate works they bring to auction.
The special protective case, the white glove treatment, and the soundtrack (Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) all create a hilarious parody of the exclusivity and seriousness with which we treat important artworks at auction, which in turn drives home the absurdity of selling Black Swan for as little as possible in an auction designed as a race to the bottom.
Beyond the brilliant marketing campaign, I see the auction itself as an essential part of the artwork. For me, Black Swan is a conceptual or performance art piece with the swan itself serving as just one part of the performance.
In a world where it is nearly statistically impossible for artists to be “discovered” and self-shredding Banksys and controversial AI art capture headlines, artists seeking a larger audience for their work could learn from Cryptograffiti. In many ways, Cryptograffiti’s savvy Black Swan marketing campaign is indistinguishable and inseparable from the artwork itself.