Benjamin Gentilli’s Portraits of a Mind  is a series of blockchain portraits produced over three years under the moniker “Robert Alice”. The works take the form of 40 large circular paintings — each just over 4 feet (128.5 cm) in diameter — that collectively have the 12.3 million hexadecimal digits comprising version 0.1 of the Bitcoin codebase transcribed on them. The paintings have been given sequential titles, from “Block 1” to “Block 40”.
Changpeng Zhao, CEO of Binance, one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges in the world by trading volume, counts himself as a collector. “Block 21” sold for US$131,250 as part of Christie’s New York’s auction of Post-War and Contemporary Art on 7 October 2020, far exceeding the estimate of US$12,000 to US$18,000.
I spoke with Benjamin about the nature of the project, crypto art and its relationship to other recent art genres, and why he chose Christie’s as the initial venue to exhibit and sell his work.
Krister Olsson: How did the Robert Alice project begin?
Benjamin Gentilli: The Robert Alice project was founded by me in 2018 to promote blockchain culture within the visual arts. Prior to setting up the project, I worked across the art world internationally in London, Hong Kong and Vancouver, and most recently at Sotheby’s, which I left to focus my energy on more creative work such as developing the blockchain’s visual culture. I have been making work very privately for my whole life. In 2015, I went down the Bitcoin and blockchain rabbit hole which changed my life. The promise that these technologies offered struck a chord with me on a political and intellectual level and I started scouting around for art and culture in the space.
Generally, when I find something new that I don’t understand, I learn about it first through art — it’s how I can understand the world most quickly. However, apart from a few fascinating projects by artists like Simon Denny and Nicholas Mangan, I was disappointed with the level and quantity of conceptually-engaged work in the space; for me, it didn’t match up to the blockchain’s critical position within the 21st Century and the future. Equally, the cultural engagement in the space was heavily siloed: Denny and Mangan’s work was consumed in the art world proper and then the blockchain community was seeing different work, generally of lower quality. I wanted to engage the space between or across both worlds, bringing the art world to the blockchain and the blockchain community to art.
Crypto art assumes that these artists don’t have either broader practices or interests, or more importantly, according to the semiotics of the term, it is crypto first, art second. It should always be art first, crypto second.
KO: Where does the project’s name come from and how many people are involved?
BG: Using a different name than my real one ties in nicely with the philosophy of pseudonymity in blockchain. I wanted something that existed outside of myself, giving me more flexibility to invite other artists to collaborate under the name and open up the opportunity for Robert Alice to become a wider decentralised collective.
As for the name itself: in the 80s on the East Coast of the United States, academic cryptography became exponentially more difficult with the development of algorithmic cryptography and widespread electronic communication. Suddenly, the number of participants grew exponentially in any cryptographic problem. To follow problems more easily, placeholders A, B, C turned to Alice, Bob, Carol, and a whole alphabet was developed overtime — Eve, Niaj, Trudy and many more. Alice and Bob are thus cryptography’s most famous characters, so I played around with these names: Alice Bob, Bob Alice, and finally, Robert Alice.
Portraiture and privacy are two competing concepts, so the essential fallacy of making a portrait, with all its traditional art history reference points, of someone who you cannot visualise brings an interesting conversation around the blockchain's potential effect on art history.
KO: Crypto art is still in its infancy, but much of the work produced seems to critique financial systems. You describe your work as portraiture, which makes it somewhat unique. Can you talk about why you chose to create portraits and what you find interesting about your subject?
BG: The term “crypto art” is becoming too broad — an overarching categorisation for all work made in the space, stretching from Bitcoin logos and images of kids on rockets to the moon, to more intellectually and conceptually-engaged work. I have never liked this since it does a disservice to the space. Quality work made in the space suffers from the umbrella term. I don’t think of myself or the Robert Alice project as a crypto art project but see myself making work investigating the blockchain or crypto. Crypto art assumes that these artists don’t have either broader practices or interests, or more importantly, according to the semiotics of the term, it is crypto first, art second. It should always be art first, crypto second.
The categorisation of “crypto art” may change over time as the work gets stronger and more established artists start experimenting with non-fungible tokens (NFT), but currently I think the culture and politics around the blockchain and its perception in the mainstream art world suffers because of the broadness of the term. Put it this way — crypto doesn’t need another interpretation of a Bitcoin logo, it needs deeply engaged work that is culturally valuable over the long term, which helps to develop and challenge the narratives, politics and culture around the blockchain.
So you are right, at the core of Portraits of a Mind is portraiture, as well as history paintings — art first, crypto second. At the centre of the Bitcoin question is the question of privacy and identity in an increasingly open-source and decentralised cyberspace. These questions tend to focus around the most visible identity (or non-identity) in the space, such as Bitcoin’s unknown inventor who has the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. In this sense, Satoshi becomes a fascinating vehicle to re-examine the idea of portraiture and its trajectory moving deeper into the 21st Century. Portraiture and privacy are two competing concepts, so the essential fallacy of making a portrait, with all its traditional art history reference points, of someone who you cannot visualise brings an interesting conversation around the blockchain's potential effect on art history.
To feel the Internet, we just have to load up Google Images and we are bombarded by a specific set of aesthetics. A blockchain explorer is very different — it’s more like a day in a library than a visit to an art gallery.
KO: Why did you choose to make physical works of art as opposed to screen-based works?
BG: Blockchain technology is not only about privacy, it is also itself hidden. We have seen a flux of artists engaging with the Internet in the 80s, 90s, and the 00s because it is inherently a visual medium. One of the reasons you’re not seeing the same trend with the blockchain is that it's a ledger, a decentralised excel spreadsheet — much harder to get the juices flowing when you phrase it like that, right? To feel the Internet, we just have to load up Google Images and we are bombarded by a specific set of aesthetics. A blockchain explorer is very different — it’s more like a day in a library than a visit to an art gallery.
In the blockchain, you have the hidden aspect and the digital aspect, so making physical work is a contrarian approach to the status quo. It is also an attempt to develop a more human relationship with the narratives around the blockchain by allowing people to interact with the art object in time and space, and have a physical relationship with it. One of the core interests I have is relating the blockchain back to our past — again to make it more relatable and thus understandable. For me, the physicality of the paintings drew links back to the aesthetics of older forms of historic documents and archiving — essentially the functions of the blockchain — all the way back to things like the Rosetta Stone or the Hammurabi Code when documents were preserved directly onto stones. French philosopher, Jacques Derrida's text Archive Fever: A Freudian Impressionm (1995) left a big impression on me from the outset of the project.
KO: How did you arrive at what materials to use for your portraits?
BG: The materiality of the works was influenced by the American painter Jack Whitten’s conception that “I don’t paint a painting I make a painting”. The three-dimensional physicality of the works draws directly from the abstract portraits he made at the end of his life, notably Quantum Wall for Prince. In addition, if I made my works out of stone, they would have felt too unoriginal. Paint, paintings and their theoretical history allow you allude to something without actually being of it. It gives you a critical distance.
What can crypto art give to the post-Internet art world and the wider art world? Well, the simple answer is NFTs. Sooner or later, artists will realise their power for retaining cryptographically-secure equity of their work in the long term.
KO: Do you see a relationship between crypto art and post-Internet art?
BG: I do see a relationship between the two, and as a student of art history, many of the crypto spaces can certainly learn from both early and post-Internet art; hopefully these are clues for our future trajectory. One of the questions I have is: what does post-Internet art have that crypto art doesn’t? Around the early and post-Internet art generations, a lot of digital publishing, manifesto-making, open-source collaboration, online exhibition-making occurred and these practices still carry on today. It would be cool to see crypto embrace that in a more intellectually-engaged way — after all, the blockchain is essentially the most radical forward leap in publishing since the Gutenberg Press. You can also look at how a number of collectives and artists came together in the Internet art space to help formulate coherent art historical narratives.
For the crypto art space, this won’t happen until great artists allocate more time to the space and concepts, and curators help define the space art historically. I think as the blockchain infiltrates our lives, it will become something more natural for artists to engage with. Artist Mika Rottenberg’s Spaghetti Blockchain  is a prime example of this — an artist interested in the culture and technology of today who alludes incidentally to the politics of the blockchain in an iconic video artwork.
Another question to ask is: what can crypto art give to the post-Internet art world and the wider art world? Well, the simple answer is NFTs. Sooner or later, artists will realise their power for retaining cryptographically-secure equity of their work in the long term. This will offer, again, the biggest shift in power back into the hands of artists since the Gutenberg Press.
KO: Why did you choose to showcase and sell your work at Christie’s rather than online or through a traditional gallery?
BG: I was approached by a number of galleries to do shows, but I chose Christie’s for a number of reasons. Firstly, the auction mechanic itself directly relates to the trade of Bitcoin, which is essentially a global auction that has been rolling every microsecond for the last ten years. The idea of value speculation, value creation and the market intersects in a much more “live” or performative way at auction — it is the market that is speaking and nothing else. I felt that the blockchain community would enjoy this experience more. I don’t like or agree with waiting lists and hierarchies of collectors that come with galleries. Bitcoin is radically open and in a way, although it sounds ridiculous, Christie’s, as an open marketplace, is as well. The final reason is that — and this goes back to the discussion around the term “crypto art” — the blockchain community wouldn’t understand the importance of a well-known but ultimately small gallery in some European city. Seeing Satoshi’s codebase and portrait hanging alongside masterpieces of the 20th and the 21st Century was an important moment for Bitcoin’s culture — a celebration of its vital place in the 21st Century and a moment to reflect on how far we have come in such a short span of time.
“Portraits of the Mind,” Robert Alice, https://www.robertalice.com/
“About,” Robert Alice, https://www.robertalice.com/about
Christie’s Auctions and Private Sales, https://www.christies.com/
C Sephlon, “Crypto art paying tribute to Bitcoin’s inventor sells for $130,000 at auction,” Modern Consensus, October 7, 2020, https://modernconsensus.com/technology/crypto-art-paying-tribute-to-bitcoins-inventor-sells-for-130000-at-auction/
Simon Denny, http://simondenny.net/
“Home,” Nicholas Mangan, http://www.nicholasmangan.com/
Here, crypto art is used to reference work about the blockchain, not work merely sold on digital art marketplaces such as SuperRare and KnownOrigin.
Non-fungible tokens (NFT) is a type of cryptographic token that represents a unique asset. They serve as verifiable proofs of authenticity and ownership within a blockchain network; therefore they are not interchangeable.
The Rosetta Stone is a broken part of a larger stone slab which has a message carved into it in three types of scripts. It has helped experts learn to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. “Everything you ever wanted to know about the Rosetta Stone,” The British Museum, https://blog.britishmuseum.org/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-the-rosetta-stone/
The Hammurabi Code is a collection of 282 rules established by the Babylonian king Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) which was carved onto a large black stone stele. These rules were standards for commercial interactions, such as implementing fines and punishments. “Code of Hammurabi,” History, https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/hammurabi#:~:text=TheHammurabicodeoflaws,andfinallyrediscoveredin1901.
Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” (trans. Eric Prenowitz), Diacritics, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 9-63. http://artsites.ucsc.edu/sdaniel/230/derrida_archivefever.pdf
Kenneth Goldsmith, “Jack Whitten,” BOMB, no. 48 (Summer 1994): 36-41, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40425415?seq=3#metadata_info_tab_contents
View Jack Whitten, Quantum Wall, 2016, https://arthistoryproject.com/artists/jack-whitten/quantum-wall-a-gift-for-a-prince/
The Gutenberg Press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th Century Germany, which was a mechanical printing machine. “Printing Press,” History, https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/printing-press
“Travels through Mika Rottenberg’s Spaghetti Blockchain,” Hauser & Wirth, 2019, https://www.hauserwirth.com/ursula/26406-travels-mika-rottenbergs-spaghetti-blockchain