On Art, Cryptocurrency, and the Value of… Value
Silicon Valley’s latest unicorn isn’t changing the way we work, sleep, or buy avocados — it’s disrupting the art world.
San Francisco-based sculptor (and my significant other) Marina Berlin has launched an artistic and social experiment called The Golden Unicorn: a one-of-a-kind wire sculpture that she is only selling for Bitcoin, in a public auction that runs through late April, 2018.
Being a startup wife for over two decades, Berlin is no stranger to the idea that entrepreneurial dreams can be turned into reality by manufacturing consensus around value. Venture capitalist Aileen Lee coined the term unicorn a few years ago, to denote those rare and magical startup companies with massive valuations, based largely on aspirations for the future. Now, Berlin has decided to create a unicorn of her own, an art piece centered around the latest high-flying technology trend: cryptocurrency and the blockchain.
The Golden Unicorn is unique, hand-crafted art, but more than that, it’s a statement about where we are as a society, and an inquiry into the nature of value itself.
Proof of Work
As an artist creating labor-intensive, one-of-a-kind sculptures, Berlin is constantly challenged about how to price her work. Should it be based on time and materials? On what she says it’s worth? Or on a price set by the market?
With The Golden Unicorn, Berlin has decided to put these questions to the test. The unicorn is for sale only for Bitcoin, auctioned on Bitify, a Bitcoin marketplace and auction site. The auction will not only determine the price of the piece in Bitcoin; it will also define the exchange rate between Bitcoin and a new cryptocurrency token Berlin has created: the Unicoin.
Unlike typical cryptocurrency, by dint of being tied to a unique physical object there is only one unit of the Unicoin. And unlike most cryptocurrency, the Unicoin is backed not by a complex set of calculations, but by the sculpture itself, which is impossible to duplicate. In this sense, The Golden Unicorn is not only art; it’s what crypto pundits might call proof of work.
What is a Thing Worth?
What I find most fascinating about this project is that The Golden Unicorn isn’t actually made of gold; it’s made out of Berlin’s preferred medium, industrial wire mesh. The choice of materials is critical to the experiment. Marina had this to say:
If the unicorn was made of actual gold, it would have a predetermined value, namely, the price of gold. But this piece has no intrinsic value other than its beauty, and what the market will bear. The unicorn is made of industrial wire mesh, alchemically transformed to a golden hue, with my painstaking labor. So what is that worth? Let’s let the market decide. — Marina Berlin
In other words, what is the value of a bunch of wire and paint, outside the cost of the materials, and the countless hours Berlin put into crafting something so unique and lovely? Only we can decide, by consensus.
And how is this any different from how we value tech startups? Or token offerings?
Beyond these essential questions about value raised by The Golden Unicorn, I am thrilled by its postmodern overtones. Allow me to play amateur art critic here...
The unicorn is a very real piece of art, and yet it is also thoroughly conceptual. Berlin could have just sold the work as usual, through local galleries or dealers. But by auctioning the piece, she has changed the conversation about how to value art, and brought a global buying population into the process of making a consensus determination on value. This is as much a social experiment as it is an art auction.
The unicorn is a hand-crafted object, made in an era when physical things are being rapidly devalued. Even money itself hasn’t really been physical for years; it’s just digits, transacted electronically, only occasionally rendered onto physical paper or coin. Cryptocurrency like Bitcoin merely makes this tacit fact explicit, once and for all. By selling a very physical piece for completely nonphysical scratch, Berlin has thrown questions about the nature of money right in our faces.
Finally, Berlin could have left The Golden Unicorn unpainted, opting for the gray that is the natural color of the wire. To date, most of her work has been that way, relying on form, light and shadow to tell the story. But in this case, she went for the gold. Only, as noted, it’s not gold. Like a reverse Damien Hirst, Berlin has made a quite beautiful thing out of ordinary, cheap materials. In the era of Donald Trump and golden toilets, The Golden Unicorn speaks to us about superficiality, and all that glitters.
The auction is live. It goes until April 25th at midnight. I can’t wait to see how this turns out. Who knows? Maybe some crypto-billionaire will plunk down serious Bitcoin on it, and this thing would actually become a unicorn! Let’s find out, shall we?
Golden Unicorn live auction site.
Golden Unicorn website.
Marina Berlin’s website.