There was cocaine being sold legally in the bathrooms of the Art Basel fair in Miami over the past weekend, sort of. While you couldn’t snort it and it wouldn’t get you high, you could put the so-called “crypto cocaine” in your blockchain wallet.
Colombian artist Camilo Restrepo brought his controversial electronic art project a ToN oF coke to Art Basel over the weekend, and used Pokémon Go-style technology to place digital images of cocaine in little baggies around the world famous art fair. By opening a simple link in a browser on their phones, Art Basel attendees could hunt for the baggies as if they were Pokémon. If they found them, the user could then click through to the “crypto-cocaine” project — a series of 1,000 non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that each represent a kilo of blow that collectively represent “the first legal ton of cocaine in the history of art and the history of humanity,” said Restrepo.
NFTs are buyable and sellable crypto tokens that are linked to digital files and represent ownership of a collectible. They can be anything, from a JPEG, to famous sports moments, or a popular tweet. This allows collectors to feel that they can own nearly anything on the Internet, including Restrepo’s digital cocaine kilos. Since NFTs began first being bought and sold a couple years ago, it’s become a multi-billion dollar industry — much like cocaine in the 1980s.
The project launched in 2021 as a way to open a debate about the failure of the war on drugs, something Restrepo witnessed first hand growing up in Medellin during the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar and other prominent Colombian drug traffickers. For Restrepo, the bathrooms of Art Basel seemed like the natural place to “challenge the conventions of art and real cocaine” because “the boom that Miami had was thanks to drug trafficking.”
Much of the cocaine that entered the U.S. in the 1980s came through Florida and coke consumption became synonymous with the burgeoning Miami club scene at the time.
“We put it in the bathroom because in general, that’s where people consume [cocaine],” Restrepo told VICE World News. “Also, in art, in the arts scene, there’s a lot of cocaine use.”
Restrepo partnered with Juanjo Martí, a digital artist from Spain who works in the metaverse, augmented reality and digital experiences, to place the digital cocaine at the art fair. Martí used a software similar to Pokémon Go, the popular augmented reality game that allows users to hunt for Pokémon in their day to day life by viewing the world through an app on their cell phone.
Martí told VICE World News that the technology is “most known to people” because of Pokémon Go, but his way of using it is “more advanced because in this case it does not require people to install anything. They access from a browser, in this case from a smartphone, or a tablet.”
Martí used the technology to place three digital cocaine baggies viewable through the link around Art Basel: one in the bathroom, another at the entrance of the fair, and a third at the venue’s restaurant. If he wanted to, he could have placed dozens, or millions more, around the event.
“It is a bit of what the metaverse does, not just virtual reality. You no longer need a helmet, you simply activate it in a physical context, in which you can always keep the screen facing forward,” said Martí. “This creation can interact with the public and with what the metaverse is, breaking down the physical barriers. In other words, right now a work, the same digital work can be on the entire planet at the same time.”
The “guerrilla style” placement of the digital cocaine, Restrepo said, was not sanctioned by the Art Basel fair, and “is a branch that we are exploring, which continues to look at the contradictions that have been present in [a ToN oF coke] project from the beginning.”
While he was legally selling crypto cocaine, he was doing something illegal, by placing an art installation inside of the world famous fair, without permission.
“That’s disruptive because it is putting something into a space, illegally, planting it, that is also very much the language of cocaine,” said Restrepo. “So let's say that one starts to think in legal terms, what can happen with an installation of these, or if the art exists or does not exist, if it is allowed or is it illegal? How do you legislate a baggie of cocaine that is not cocaine, but is cocaine.”
Restrepo made clear that the crypto cocaine NFTs do not represent actual cocaine, in a physical sense. All the NFTs portray a simple three-dimensional white rectangle on a gray background, with the price rising with each image, until the most expensive equals around the same value as what Restrepo claims a kilo of coke sells for in Colombia.
When the project launched over a year ago, it created a buzz in Colombia and abroad and launched a conversation via comments sections online of various posts and articles, about the legalization of cocaine. Twitter suspended his account for the project after it supposedly believed it was real cocaine.
Months later, the dialogue around cocaine in Colombia became a global talking point following the election of President Gustavo Petro who has made the failure of the war on drugs one of his top issues.
“What Petro is saying is very true, that it is also a war against the poorest and the peasants in Colombia,” said Restrepo. “Starting the conversation and shouting that the war on drugs is a failure, when a president is elected no less, is a great success for this government.”
“Because what he is reiterating, is what [a ToN oF coke] has tried to do: to visibilize the discussion,” said Restrepo. “That drug policy, the drug war, is a failure.”