Virtual currency like Bitcoin has captured the imagination of a lot of people, from techies to economists to drug dealers. Now, artists are riffing on the idea, and one is trying to use it to fund her work—and to raise some new questions about what makes both money and art precious.
Sarah Meyohas, a Wharton School of Business grad who is currently finishing up her MFA in Photography at Yale University, is launching her own digital currency, which she calls, cheekily, BitchCoin. ("If you’re a woman who is taking a stake in your future and aggressive, you’re a bitch," says Meyohas.) Unlike Bitcoin, which is computer-generated by its users, BitchCoin represents a claim on a tangible asset, in this case Meyohas' photographic prints. One virtual coin is supposed to correspond to 25 square inches of print. Each time Meyohas creates a coin, she'll set aside a print in bank vault.
BitchCoin will be "mined" inside of Where, a gallery/shipping container in Brooklyn. Meyohas will be camped inside producing her work, while being streamed live via a webcam. Coin buyers will receive a certificate with key number encryption allowing access to an account on a free BitchCoin software program in which BitchCoins can be sent and received.
At one level, this is really just a clever take on crowdfunding art, similar to Kickstarter, IndieGogo and the relatively new Fotofund. The initial BitchCoins will sell for $100 each, and that money goes to Meyohas. But she also says the project is about "the role of value in reproducible objects like the photograph." And about the value of money. Since the end of the gold standard, regular money is just pieces of paper with pictures, backed by nothing. Meyohas describes BitchCoin as a virtual currency backed by a real asset, the art. But that art, of course, is just pieces of paper with a pictures. That paradox is especially relevant to her own medium. As Meyohas puts it:
For a long time, the art world wouldn't seriously collect photographs because they seemed too reproducible. It was only once printed and editioned, made materially scarce, that they could be valued. There is something about the value of money which you can print endless copies of that parallels the photographic print.
Meyohas is also exploring where the value of an artist's work should be placed, on individual pieces or on her entire body of work. Unlike crowdfunding or indeed traditional art buying, in which a patron invests in a specific project or publication, BitchCoin is supposed to represent a piece of Meyohas simply "as a 'value producer'." Meyohas says a BitchCoin is exchangeable not for a specific photo, but for any of her "editioned, unframed archival chromogenic photographs." She believes this approach gives her more of a controlling stake in her art and career; if her career is successful and her works grow in value, she can tap into that by creating new, more valuable coins.
By getting buyers to support a career, not merely one work, she's harkening back to an older type of arts patronage. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Florentine House of Medici which controlled Europe's largest bank and thus exerted unrivaled social and political influence over the region—used their wealth to underwrite art, architecture, literary and scientific projects. They supported the careers of those geniuses lucky enough to be aligned with their inner circle: Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, Galileo, Brunelleschi and Vasari—among others.
This Sunday, February 15, at 8 p.m., Meyohas will be launching BitchCoin at the Trinity Place Bar, a bar in a bank (of course) at 115 Broadway, in the Financial District of Manhattan. At its initial offering, BitchCoin will back the edition of one photograph, aptly titled "Speculation." Afterward, the exchange rate will fluctuate based on demand for BitchCoin, and of course the value of Meyohas' artwork in the market.
Virtual currencies are wildly speculative, and buying art is all the more so. And the idea of BitchCoin as a store of value is, well... complicated. If you see BitchCoin as really a part of Meyohas' artwork, what would it even mean to try to trade it for 25 square inches of her pictures? Since she says a BitchCoin would be destroyed whenever it was converted to art, wouldn't that in turn destroy part of the art, and part of its value? Prompting such knotty, unanswerable questions is of course what Meyohas is up to with this project.
This is part of The Photo Bank, a recurring feature on Money.com dedicated to conceptually-driven photography. From images that document the broader economy to ones that explore more personal concerns like paying for college, travel, retirement, advancing your career, or even buying groceries, The Photo Bank showcases a spectrum of the best work being produced by emerging and established artists. Submissions are encouraged and should be sent to Sarina Finkelstein, Online Photo Editor for Money.com at email@example.com.