I am still alive
The nature of Bitcoin is such that once version 0.1 was released, the core design was set in stone for the rest of its lifetime.
Emanating out from the void in the center of the work, 322,048 digits of hexadecimal code arc across the surface of the painting. Like the ever increasing circular broadcasts of a beacon, a mass of letters and numbers radiate out of the confines of the canvas. A constellation of 32 gold-encrusted digits lie hidden amongst the mass of code, catching the viewer’s eye before tantalisingly disappearing again.
Portraits of a Mind is one artist’s response to the inevitability of digital degradation, to the idea of Bitcoin’s founding code (v0.1.0) as a Magna Carta of the 21st century. The largest work of art in blockchain’s history, the forty paintings that comprise Portraits of a Mind stretch to over fifty meters long and compromise a full transcription of the 12.3 million digits of code that first launched the iconic technology in 2008.
Of the 40 paintings, the first 20 works are now housed in important private and corporate collections across the world, from San Francisco to Tokyo – via Chicago, New York, London, Paris, Switzerland, Gibraltar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing. In this global footprint, Portraits of a Mind is a symbolic expression of decentralisation drawing up a global network of 40 collectors where no one individual will hold all the code. Referencing the iconic supply of the world's first cryptocurrency (21 million), Block 21 is the first work from the project to be made publicly available.
A digital fingerprint carved out of paint, Portraits of a Mind is a reflection on the nature of identity in our newly decentralised age. A pseudo-portrait of Satoshi Nakamoto, the work explores the politics and aesthetics of open source code and its relationship to identity and truth. The work not only examines the founding code for traces of Nakamoto’s identity, but also for the identity of Bitcoin itself. Mining the visual histories of cryptography, cartography and coinage, the work encases the code in shapes and forms that draw attention to Bitcoin’s essential ties with the past, opening up new perspectives on blockchain technologies while tracing the origins of where they came from.
Recalling ancient Japanese coinage, rai stones, cipher wheels, early astronomical and cartographic charts, it is at first the circular form of the work that demands attention. Drawing on this visual language, the form of the shaped canvas opens up space to consider Bitcoin’s essential ties to the past instead of the perpetuated perception of its radical severance with it. Intersected by a pair of crossed lines and further circular bands engraved into the paint, the work evokes the iconic target paintings of American artist Jasper Johns, themselves meditations on the nature of visual and semantic encryption. An allusion to cryptography’s long standing association with warfare, the target – aiming through the code – also performs a parallel function: the act of searching for, or closing in on an individual or location. In this, the target becomes a structure through which to locate identity. Reflecting on the essential fallacy of painting anonymity, each painting itself is physically decentralised – there is no center. Instead, a void. An empty space in the place of the dynastic portraits that have adorned coinage for millennia. The target lines are interrupted. An X is never formed. No one is found. The identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, encased by their code, remains elusive.
Drawing closer, the viewer encounters hundreds of thousands of intricately engraved digits raised out of the surface of the paint. Anonymous, unknowable, unreadable, the seemingly unending string of alphanumeric digits evokes ciphers both ancient and modern. Mined out of the surface of the paint, this code is a digital landscape made physical. Topographic in nature, it recalls the relief engraving found on minted coins but perhaps more pertinently the act, shape and form of mining. Glinting across the surface of the canvas like newly unearthed deposits of gold ore, the constellation of gold digits held within the mass of code reinforces the idea of mine in the viewer’s eye. Resource intensive proof-of-work processes are visualised through the aesthetics on which they were modelled – rare metal mining. Gold digits, algorithmically unearthed, become metaphors for bitcoins past, present and future.
And yet perhaps the gold digits speak not just to treasures that lurk below the surface of the earth and also those oldest of decentralised networks above us – stars. Networked across the surface of the painting, seeking out those gold digits, our eyes trace the lines of the now iconic Rand Corporation diagram on decentralisation. This network composition stretching across the canvas is a microcosm for the wider globally decentralised network of forty paintings that constitutes Portraits of a Mind.
It is with this idea of network structures both within each canvas and between all forty globally decentralised paintings, that the work turns. From a target-like form drawing the eye into the center to a work read from the centre out. Target signs become beacons. A honing in turns to an emanating out. This sense of the broadcasting of the code outside of the confines of the painting draws up in mind’s eye the presence of the other thirty-nine paintings in Portraits of a Mind’s network. In turn, drawing us to an essential truth surrounding decentralisation – that each painting, or node, is but a fragment of a larger democratic whole.
The idea of fragment not only suggests the presence of others but is visually suggestive of both history and time and its record of it – all central pillars of blockchain technology. Indeed, in its transcription of the code: the idea of ‘making a complete written record’ is a central tenant to the intellectual and aesthetic underpinnings of the work. In this, the three-dimensional physicality of the work and its emphasis on the idea of abstract portraiture recalls not just Jack Whitten’s (1939-2018) conceptual thesis that you “don’t paint a painting, you make a painting” but also Whitten’s Black Monolith series, particularly his 2016 work Quantum Wall (A Gift for Prince). In these works, Whitten too explores abstract portraiture through his use of tesserae.
Drawing on the aesthetics of cuneiform tablets and ancient steles, the representation of the code recalls both the visual qualities of historical documents and recasts Nakamoto’s original code as a Rosetta Stone for the contemporary period. This act of physical transcription of digital code attempts to draw parallels between the cultures of the past and the technology of our future, drawing emphasis on continuity in the face of radical progression in mediums of record keeping – from ancient clay tablets to the immutable records of blockchains.
The art of the written record finds no greater match than in the work of Polish conceptual artist Roman Opalka (1931-2011). His seminal work 1965 / 1 – 8 (1965-2011) was a lifelong project to paint the numbers 1 to infinity, themselves a form of portraiture and as well a record of time itself. The work carries many prescient similarities to the structure of blockchain technologies – their narrative consecutive structure, their indexing of time, their decentralisation through distribution, their insistence on the power of text as code, their potential for infinity. It was a project matched perhaps only by work of Japanese conceptualist On Kawara (1932-2014) who married an interest in cryptography with another early set of blockchain projects, the Date paintings. Portraits of a Mind in its own blockchained structure seeks to reshine a lens on these early blockchain artists and pioneers, resurrecting their conceptual structures for a newly decentralised age.
For more information on the project, please visit: www.robertalice.com.
Robert Alice's NFT for Block 21 is one of the first NFTs to encode all global time zones into its layering. Testament to the truly globalised nature of the blockchain community as well as the global footprint of Portraits of a Mind itself, the NFT plays with ideas around time, decentralised networks and binary states, while also exploring the relationship between the digital and physical mediums.
Digital art and NFTs sit on top of the "electronic superhighway" to borrow the phrase from video art pioneer Nam June Paik (1932-2006). Viewable anywhere and at any time, the lights are always on. This perpetual state of visibility and the artwork's dematerialisation into cyberspace is something the connected generation has come to take as standard. The lights do not go out on digital art.
Robert Alice's Block 21 plays with the nature of how we experience digital art at its most core level. Using Async Art's layering protocol, Alice draws the NFT back into the physical world of light and dark in order to bring into greater focus the structures behind how we view digital art. It is in opposition to reality that we understand greater the reality we are in.
For more information on the NFT, please visit: https://async.art/featured/block-21-at-christies.