Dirt: Petal pusher
We probably have Sarah Meyohas to thank for the endless stream of celebrity NFT projects. In 2015, Meyohas launched Bitchcoin — a project now considered to be the archetype for blockchain-based art. To a reader inundated with press releases about new NFTs, her approach will sound familiar. Each Bitchcoin is a blockchain-based token tied to an image, whose value is backed by a 25-square-inch piece of a print created by Meyohas. For many artists, Bitchcoin was their first encounter with crypto and with a work that considered the blockchain as an artistic medium.
But Bitchcoin’s contribution to digital art was more than popularizing the idea of token-based artworks. Meyohas conceived of Bitchcoin as a new form of patronage, one that decentralized the artwork as much as the artist. In its original form, Bitchcoin operated as a fork1 of Bitcoin and, much like a meme coin, was unlimited in quantity. At any point, Bitchcoin holders could choose to exchange their token for the print fragment that backed its value, effectively allowing them to speculate on the future value of Meyohas’s work. Through Bitchcoin, Meyohas’s work and her identity belongs to token holders — they alone control the market. “It was, at first, about embodying a system (capitalism) to render it visible,” Meyohas wrote in ArtNet.
Last year, Meyohas relaunched Bitchcoin on Ethereum, backed by prints of pressed petals from her Cloud of Petals work. In Cloud of Petals, which was documented in a video work by the same name, a gaggle of male workers at the former Bell Labs complex in New Jersey2 sorts through rose petals and photographs them for an AI, which then generates new petals. The men also selected petals that they thought were the most beautiful, which were then pressed and became the works backing Bitchcoins.
Cloud of Petals is one of Meyohas’s strongest works — the video is aesthetically appealing and well-paced — but its examination of gender feels underdeveloped. It’s a problem shared with the new version of Bitchcoin: Meyohas gestures toward a critique of the gendered nature of finance and tech, but her intent (beyond a rote statement about the industries’ gender imbalance) is unclear.3
Whereas the first iteration of Bitchcoin was unlimited, now Meyohas minted just 3,291 tokens. About 500 of those were sold in batches at Phillips for a total of $480,000, or $800 each. The rest went up for sale at OpenSea, where the floor price is currently around 1.85 ETH ($6,300). The decision to relaunch on Ethereum was partly practical — in February 2015, when Meyohas first launched Bitchcoin, Ethereum was but a twinkle in Vitalik Buterin’s cold blue eyes. Since then, Ethereum has emerged as the primary means of hosting crypto art.
Then there’s the more cynical read: Meyohas, eager to brand herself as the progenitor of blockchain art, adapted her project to achieve maximum visibility and meet market demands. Here, it’s useful to consider how adjustments to the structure of Bitchcoin affect the project. The decision to transition from the Bitcoin blockchain to Ethereum is akin to an artist switching to a new brand of acrylic paint — attentive viewers may notice, but the work is largely unchanged. The decision to artificially limit the quantity of Bitchcoins, on the other hand, is a remarkable shift away from the satirical approach that defined the earlier Bitcoin-based series. Beyond the obvious market considerations, there doesn’t seem to be any critical impulse behind this decision. Indeed, Meyohas herself said that she produced a finite supply in response to investor concerns about depreciation.
Still, it’s worth questioning what Bitchcoin offers in its current iteration. It lacks the historical weight of the original and its formal structure is now akin to any other asset-backed NFT project that derives its value from scarcity. As Meyohas blurs her own boundary between art and finance — she’s now a partner at Spark Capital where she led a seed investment in OpenSea — the avenues for viewing the market critically are rapidly evaporating. Nevertheless, she’s maintained Bitchcoin’s indefinite window for redemption, a distinctly unwise financial decision that allows collectors to maintain a certain degree of power over Meyohas.
It’s a half-baked optimist’s read, but as control over artistic rights and the market becomes a dominant point of contention for NFT projects, Bitchcoin may still serve a purpose. — Jonah Goldman Kay
The Dirt: Sooner or later, a wise artist goes for the bag.
Forks occur when a cryptocurrency’s community changes the rules it operates on. In Bitchcoin’s case, Meyohas was the entire community, so the new rules only applied to Bitchcoins.