My only real encounter with cryptocurrency happened during a trip to Tunis at the end of 2019, where I was invited on behalf of my organisation to attend a conference on arts and cultural funding. It was our last day of the trip. The conference organiser drove us west of the city centre and across a sparse seaside stretch on a rather artistic sightseeing tour – after all, we were representatives of three art organizations from abroad. We zipped from one fashion design collective’s studio to a glass artist’s home-atelier compound. Walking to our last stop — a decades-old establishment where we were to finally dissolve the day over mint tea — we stopped by an ATM because one of us was looking to withdraw cash. He was the senior associate of Vienna-based crypto-funding art foundation Machfeld. Not wanting to leave the next morning with leftover local currency, I offered to exchange mine. He didn’t have Euros either, so at some point between the ubiquitous Mediterranean blue walls and my traveller’s euphoria, I ended up exchanging my Tunisian dinars for his cryptocurrency, Konjungate.
Despite my becoming a crypto coin owner as of late, most of what I know about blockchain technology comes from seeing works by contemporary artists abstracting, conceptualising, and implementing it, and then making sense of them with my rudimentary grasp of macro-economic concepts. So imagine my befuddlement as coin names, hardware devices and other abbreviations rolled off the tongues of Christopher Fussner (alias @dj_blockchain_algoriddims ) of the Cebu-based Tropical Futures Institute, a multidisciplinary design studio and creative think-tank, and Krister Olsson, a sculptor, developer and crypto-miner based in Los Angeles, as they exchanged anecdotes from their time in the crypto space.
As they recounted their highs and — mostly — lows 🙁 in the cryptocurrency market, I couldn’t help but compare my brief, yet haphazard Tunisian encounter with cryptocurrency to Fussner and Olsson’s rollercoaster years of experience and investment. Nevertheless, speaking with them gave me a better understanding of what would have otherwise remained a holiday souvenir in my mind. As it turns out, the best way to get beyond the dense, intimidating sheath of too-much-information surrounding the blockchain is to illustrate some of its countless use cases as encountered by the insiders themselves. Over a Google Meet, we talked about Bitcoin and its degenerate inverse — “shitcoins” — to non-profit social action projects, the infamous collectable CryptoKitties, and the technology’s assimilation into the world of art.
Editor’s Note: There is a lot of technical terminology in this introductory dialogue. Refer to the footnotes if you’re in the dark, and these explanations should guide you throughout the rest of Issue 3.
JYT: More than once, I’ve been in a conversation where Bitcoin or another new crypto start-up comes up, and one person in the room goes, “Wait — what is this blockchain thing?” It’s still a mystery to the general public. How would you describe blockchain to someone who’s never stepped into it?
CF: I would describe it as a way that data is structured, so these blocks of data exist in a chain. That’s the literal interpretation. Often I’ll explain a use case like Bitcoin where you don’t need a trusted third-party intermediary, like a bank, to sign off on a transaction. It’s just the blockchain or the network itself signing off on a transaction.
JYT: So you’re saying that there is a third party, but this time, the third party is not one individual or institution, but is a trusted network and everyone’s got a hand in it.
CF: Yes. It’s a non-human entity as a third party.
KO: The most important thing for me is that the blockchain is immutable. Once something has been written to it, it can’t be changed unless you have a 51% attack – which is virtually impossible these days – where the data is changed within the network, or there is a “double spend” in which a transaction happens twice in a row, thus fooling the network. However, because of the number and volume of people that are using and thus involved in maintaining the network of Bitcoin, for example, that’s highly unlikely to happen. With smaller, younger currencies, the so-called “shitcoins”, that is very possible.
The most important thing for me is that the blockchain is immutable. Once something has been written to it, it can’t be changed.
JYT: Krister, you have had a pretty close relationship with shitcoins, as I gather?
KO: 01, or whatever platform you would’ve needed back then. Later in 2017, I started playing around with Ethereum mining just for fun, to play around with it a bit. I guess it’s not really a shitcoin, or it depends on who you talk to.
CF: It’s not.
KO: At this point, it’s not. But back then, people were not sure what it was.
A friend of mine had recently retired after many years at Goldman [Sachs], and he was like, “Well, I have a year or two, why don’t we set up a mining farm?” So we did that here in LA in mid-2018, but because of the power requirements for mining Bitcoin, it was just not feasible. LA has very expensive power which just keeps ticking up — it was such a big obstacle. You’d have to be in Iran or Saudi Arabia, or other places with huge oil reserves to really make it work. China is also great, because after the rainy season all the hydroelectric plants have a surplus of water, and so the power prices go way low.
Anyway, we had to mine a bunch of shitcoins to make it work. And it did work, until it just was too time-consuming maintaining the hardware and dealing with ASIC machines  from China. The import tariffs made things even more complicated for us. We had ordered a ton of hardware, it was all properly itemised for customs, and within a week the U.S. tariffs hit and suddenly we owed a huge amount of money. It became apparent that there were all these things outside our control that we had to mitigate, which became less and less possible with so much global uncertainty. Right now, the farm is just maintaining itself, paying the rent.
CF: Don’t worry, dude! Bitcoin just broke $9500! [Laughs]
JYT: It’s interesting how tied down the blockchain is to local, physical infrastructure, like your energy grid.
KO: It’s a problem because if you’re looking at the security of a network, then suddenly you only have a handful of places in the world that are viable. It’s tricky.
CF: The Internet is a physical thing, right? And cryptocurrency needs the Internet. So it’s always going to be tied to some sort of tangibility with the Earth, like through thermodynamics or resource usage. On that note, the artist Julian Oliver made this piece where he used a solar panel to mine Zcash, which is a cryptocurrencies that is not trackable.
JYT: Traceability is a huge topic as well.
CF: Bitcoin, however, is trackable. There are other coins that are not, like Monero, Dash and ZCash. Monero used to use ring signatures, which means that a group of friends are part of a “ring” and two of the group are signing off on the transaction. The ring spoofs all the other signatures so you never know which signature it goes to. Now they have a new system called Bulletproofs where they mix addresses . I do think untraceable transactions are important. I just don’t like financial surveillance and all that.
We’re privileged because we’re in the States or in Singapore, countries which have rather sound macro-economics. But what if you’re in Venezuela and you have hyperinflation?
KO: It’s true. I’m probably the furthest thing from a libertarian, but I really don’t trust the government right now. Who knows what’s going on behind-the-scenes. So having something as anonymous as cash would be good.
CF: A quote that’s used a lot in the crypto space is: “Bitcoin or cryptocurrencies is a hedge against your government”. I think that’s why I’m still in the space, because I believe in the long-term macro fundamentals. We’re privileged because we’re in the States or in Singapore, countries which have rather sound macro-economics. But what if you’re in Venezuela and you have hyperinflation? I think a lot of it still goes back to the primary use case of money and money being a tool.
JYT: How did you first encounter the crypto space, Chris?
CF: Honestly, my first real encounter with digital currencies was from World of Warcraft. That was my first cross-asset transaction. I took my mom’s credit card and bought gold from a Chinese farmer. I had heard about Bitcoin here and there, and when I was researching these networks, it came up in a Google search and I thought, “Oh, yeah, I remember this. Let’s read into this more.”
Then in 2014, I started studying decentralised infrastructure, but more from a qualitative perspective, looking at the people behind these networks. I was doing a lot of work with different mesh nets  in New York, like NYC Mesh and Red Hook. That was when I bought my first Bitcoin on Coinbase, around the same time I read the Ethereum white paper for a class called “Post-Planetary Design” .
JYT: What was your approach towards networks, back then?
CF: I was interviewing the people who were up-keeping these networks, because in order to have a community-operated network or infrastructure, there’s a lot of “soft” infrastructure principles that need to be in place. That’s what led me to Bitcoin. I thought it was pretty cool that it worked with some of these micro-grid models I was looking at from the speculative space. Maybe in the future, that’s what we’d have because you could divide some of these currencies into multiple decimal places. After Satoshis, you have Micro-Satoshis, and so on…
JYT: Speaking of which, I recall this exhibition held in Athens by peers at httpdot.net . It was titled Blockchain is… /… For Nothing , and it was questioning — how much less can nothingness be?
CF: What is a hundred Satoshis, even? It’s like .0000 fraction of a cent. It really changed my perspective on money. It brings money back into a technological framework rather than a social or economic one. Micro-Satoshis are really nothing! People — including myself — were spec-mining  and then flipping it on these degenerate exchanges. It’s all gambling! With Dogecoins , I would set buy orders at a hundred Satoshis and then set sell orders at double or triple that on different things. And then Twitter would pop off with Doge memes and I’d be like, “OK, nice, I made a hundred bucks”.
JYT: Was the nothingness of spec-mining something that bothered you, Krister?
KO: It’s something that eventually drove my partner and I crazy. We stopped with the really, really shit coins. While setting up the farm, I built this dashboard that talks to a lot of exchanges, and to this site called WhatToMine, which gives you an educated guess of the most profitable currency to mine with your available hardware. But everyone’s looking at that as well. The minute a coin spikes on WhatToMine, the herd goes to that coin. So oftentimes, you’re better off just staying where you are.
And there’s another more technical component to that, especially when you mine in pools. A pool is where everyone collectively mines on a specific platform. Based on how much power and money you contribute to a pool, when a block is discovered — block being the reward you get for securing the network — you would earn from it. Pools have different ways of paying out rewards. They penalise you if you’re just jumping from currency to currency. You have to stay on a currency for a certain period of time to ramp up the rewards. So there’re a lot of different factors. I wanted our system to take as much of that into account as possible, but a lot of these sites did not work very well. Eventually we admitted, “This is just not a good use of our time.” We wound up mining third-tier coins like Zen Cash, which cannot be compared to the stuff we were mining before. It’s definitely a legit coin, but it’s still not considered really viable, long-term.
Bitcoin and blockchain really represented — and I think they still do for some people — a sort of techno-optimism, techno-solutionism that emerged in the mid-2010s.
CF: Man, I’ve so much respect for you because I was just a mining enthusiast. I only built a GPU  rig to mine Kryptonite with the Monero  algorithm. I never went into the numbers, but it was so fun!
To backtrack, I got into blockchain just for a speculative design project, but in the end, I got swept up in the market emotions and I was going super crazy. I was looking at buying fine art and watches, telling myself, “I’m set! I’m good!” I definitely had some amazing trades, but a lot of them went to zero. I lost maybe 97% in value. I had a trading buddy, and we would always counter-check what we were each trading, and how the other was doing on some psychological level. When you’re so high on the market, you feel invincible. It’s so powerful. When the market crashed, I was in denial. And then finally, I gave up. Some of my friends who weren’t attached so emotionally to the market would go, “Dude, I’m cutting right now”. And I would say, “ Dude , it’s just a correction. It’s gonna come back up. We’re gonna get the price target”. Nope, we never got the price target. To be honest, I’m still mentally scarred. It sucks . I mean, but I’m okay now !
JYT: But for people outside of the crypto space, or skirting around it, its extremities are a big part of the rhetoric that amplifies the hype, “It can change everything! Anyone can verify the transaction! It’s everywhere !”
CF: On a thematic level, Bitcoin and blockchain really represented — and I think they still do for some people — a sort of techno-optimism, techno-solutionism that emerged in the mid-2010s. It was this mantra, “ Oh, my God , we’re gonna decentralise the Internet; we’re gonna use peer-to-peer protocols so we don’t have to depend on these ISPs ”.
Ultimately, I don’t think it resulted in total decentralisation. I think the word to describe the phenomenon would be more like fragmentation, in a positive way. I visited the Schumacher Center for New Economics  which runs a localised community currency called BerkShares that keeps economic value in the community. I think that value can become very important, especially when everything is so abstracted in the economic model that we live in. At least with these local currencies, you can keep some of the wealth in the neighbourhood. That’s what I hope will happen more in the future, that these localities will be so ingrained in our technological stack, and that people can be aware of them.
JYT: Krister, I want to go back to your ongoing sculpture practice. Do you feel that it lends itself to your background in computer science or the crypto-space?
KO: My art doesn’t really have anything to do with blockchain per se. It’s more like an opposing thing. I was getting burnt out in 2017 when I had just done a couple of artist residencies, and I wanted to do something different. That’s maybe why I got more sucked into the crypto world than I perhaps would have otherwise. For a long time I did wonder if there was a way to turn this into an artwork? But there’s no real meaningful content out there. I just haven’t found anything interesting to say beyond what’s already been said. You could get into the theory, but there isn’t really an appeal to a general audience either.
CF: You’re right in a lot of ways. I remember thinking to myself, “I’ll just make some art on each block or something.” But looking back, there was one project called terra0 by Paul Seidler, Paul Kolling and Max Hampshire, where a DAC  was created on the Ethereum blockchain. You would assign a DAC to a natural resource, like a forest, which relates to a non-anthropocentric way of looking at natural resources and giving them autonomy, since the DAC would fund itself and maybe protect itself.
KO: Those things were fun, but you do one and that’s pretty much it. It’s a one-liner, right? But social action projects like terra0 did attract me early on.
These start-ups just can’t get through, partly because we’re in a blockchain winter now to a degree, which mirrors the AI winter we had back in the nineties.
JYT: I feel like we’re seeing blockchain in art as a lexicon for the digital world, a vehicle to explore and articulate more overarching topics of networks and ownership.
CF: Yeah, with CryptoKitties, that was the whole idea: a self-identical digital asset. But it’s hard. With all these things, you need the fusion and acceptance of the technology in order to have them function on a day-to-day basis. And when it does evolve or is widely accepted, we won’t even know we’re using it.
KO: I don’t know if anyone cares about CryptoKitties anymore.
CF: No one cares!
KO: But there are a lot of companies that bank on blockchain moving beyond the novelty. There’s a platform called Harbor whose whole idea was securitising art, luxury goods and land on the blockchain. But these start-ups just can’t get through, partly because we’re in a blockchain winter now to a degree, which mirrors the AI winter we had back in the nineties. People thought AI was just some kind of hokum, and it’s the same thing with blockchain now. There needs to be some sort of killer application to get out of this cynical space where the general public doesn’t believe in its viability.
CF: I would say the killer app is still Bitcoin. It has the most amount of users in terms of any coin. But with that said, for it to be well-adopted you would need to be in a situation where you really need it — and most places don’t, because for one, a lot of the world isn’t banked. The other thing is that the banked world is usually in secure states. There needs to be some sort of economic catastrophe to push these alternative currencies into the forefront.
I remember investing in a coin that would clear invoices. There are these initiatives using the blockchain to dismantle bureaucratic infrastructure. But again, you need adoption. And that adoption won’t come until some of the front-end is changed or something at the back-end is innovated. It takes a generational shift to adopt. Many venture capitalists have a crypto desk that are developing applications and softwares, a lot of which goes into the Internet of Things or smart city space, in future scenarios.
I think things are happening, but it’s just taking a long time because — as Krister was saying — we’re in the winter days and the PR is still so bad. That crash in 2018 was so bad. I’m in some hundred-person crypto chat groups and no one talks except me and five other people. It feels like a lot of people don’t believe in it anymore.
There needs to be some sort of economic catastrophe to push these alternative currencies into the forefront.
KO: The trouble too is that there’re so many people who got in to speculate and they don’t really know anything. You don’t have this in AI so much. It brings down the quality of the conversation.
CF: There’s a lot of snake oil salesman too! The BitConnect saga  was probably the biggest scam ever. People were making fun of it, but it was really sad when thousands of people lost savings, went into debt and some wanted to commit suicide…
KO: It’s gonna be hard to get rid of all these multi-level marketing and Ponzi scams. I think that’s another challenge this whole space has to overcome.
In the financial market, a brokerage firm acts as the middleman between buyers and sellers, facilitating transactions.
Application specific integration circuits (ASIC) are single purpose chips. When designed for crypto-mining, an ASIC is the hardware that specifically mines using one cryptographic algorithm. Since mining is the ‘process of running calculations in the search for a specific number’, a hardware like ASIC basically speeds up that process. https://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/what-is-an-asic-miner
“Monero Becomes Bulletproof”, Lucas Nuzzi, accessed 28 February. https://medium.com/digitalassetresearch/monero-becomes-bulletproof-f98c6408babf
Wireless Mesh Network (WMN) is an alternative to traditional Internet Service Providers. WMN relies on a network of radio nodes that communicate with one another and are spread out over a place. Some WMNs, such as Red Hook Wi-Fi and New York Mesh, are community-based, so the owners of each radio node collectively run the network.
Post-Planetary Design deals with devising design strategies that take into account longer timeframes, larger scales and broader collectivities than the scope of our planet.
httpdot.net is a hub for peers of free culture established in 2009. The works by peers at httpdot.net rely on the language of contemporary art for speculating on the politics of information technologies.
Speculative mining refers to the mining of a relatively young cryptocurrency in hope that its value will increase in the future, thus earning a gain for the spec-miner.
Dogecoin is a cryptocurrency with a Shiba Inu dog on its logo, based on a popular meme.
Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) are responsible for the digital rendering in a computer system. Due to the need for repetitive computations in crypto-mining, GPUs are more efficient than the traditional central processing unit (CPU).
Monero is one of the cryptocurrencies that are untrackable.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are companies from which we buy internet subscriptions.
The Berkshires is a region in Massachusetts where BerkShares, a local currency run by the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, is circulated as a local currency. BerkShares can be obtained at participating bank branches in exchange for US dollars at a rate of 95 cents per BerkShare. BerkShare was set up in 2006 and is still in circulation.
A Decentralised Anonymous Corporation (DAC) is a business that is governed by a network of computers and operated by shareholders who make transactions through smart contracts built on blockchain technology.
Known for pulling the biggest exit scheme in cryptocurrency, BitConnect was a Bitcoin investment lending platform released in February 2016. Two years later, BitConnect announced that it was shutting down, revealing that it was essentially a Ponzi scheme and rendering their coin worthless in the cryptocurrency market. Bitconnect was known to popular among Youtubers who claimed they made huge returns on investment with the platform.