It has no inherent value and causes observers to rotate between feelings of fascination and anger. We’re talking about cryptocurrency, but also art. In a new series, artist Andy Bauch is bringing the two subjects together with works that use abstract patterns constructed in Lego bricks. Each piece visually represents the private key to a crypto-wallet, and anyone can steal that digital cash—if you can decode them.
Bauch first started playing around with cryptocurrencies in 2013 and told us in an interview that he considers himself an enthusiast but not a “rabid promoter” of the technology. “I wasn’t smart enough to buy enough to have fuck-you money,” he said. In 2016, he started to integrate his Bitcoin interest with his art practice.
His latest series of work, New Money, opens at LA’s Castelli Art Space on Friday. Bauch says that each piece in the series “is a secret key to various types of cryptocurrency.” He bought various amounts of Bitcoin, Litecoin, and other alt-coins in 2016 and put them in different digital wallets. Each wallet is encrypted with a private key that consists of a string of letters and numbers. That key was initially fed into an algorithm to generate a pattern. Then Bauch tweaked the algorithm here and there to get it to spit out an image that appealed to him. After finalizing the works, he’s rigorously tested them in reverse to ensure that they do, indeed, give you the right private key when processed through his formula.
His approach adds a bit of an egalitarian approach to the value contained in art. The work wouldn’t exist without the private wallet key, and each piece has its own price tag. The titles explain what type of coin is in the wallet and how much it was worth at the time he purchased it. During the exhibition, he’ll be projecting a live feed of the changing values of each wallet. The cryptomarket is volatile, and this week the total value hit $10,000, but as of this writing it’s about $9,000. A collector can buy the piece, but any viewer who thinks they’ve cracked the code can take the money from the wallets. There’s a level of gamification going on that you too could participate in if you’re so inclined—all the works can be seen on Artsy and the wallets can be found here. Maybe let Bauch get through his opening first before ganking all the coins.
“A lot of the work that I’m doing is trying to span this gap that often exists between new technology and humanity,” Bauch said. He likes Lego as a medium because it gives him a nice tactile way to work with a pixel-like aesthetic. Its industrial, mass-produced nature can be used metaphorically, as well, such as in a series of portraits he’s making of workers who are being made obsolete by technology.
There’s been a rising interest in cryptocurrency and blockchain tech in the art world. Brad Troemel, an artist who’s probably best known for collaborative Tumblr project the Jogging, started including physical “Bitcoin” pieces shrink-wrapped into his work years ago. The physical bitcoins were emblazoned with real private keys, and the purchaser of the work took over ownership of the coins. The lucky collectors could have cashed out a huge return at the height of crypto-mania last year and are probably still doing pretty great. Of course, in the murky world of conceptual art, the collector would risk destroying the piece if they wanted to withdraw the funds. They have to make a decision: Would they rather have the cash and a damaged artwork or keep everything intact?
I asked Bauch if there was any additional incentive regarding the cryptocurrency for a purchaser of the artwork. Yes, there is, he said, “I will give them a hint.”