In New York, everything turns into something else sooner or later. A once shiny mid-century bank vault, the type you can imagine filled with pools of gold, has now been gutted and turned into a bar called Trinity Place. It's a bar for Wall Streeters and investment wolves. But on a recent Sunday night in February, the belly of the bar was taken over by finance-minded artists for the public unveiling of BitchCoin.
BitchCoin is, and isn't, difficult to explain. The basics: Artist Sarah Meyohas, an MFA student at Yale, has partnered with Where, a curatorial project run by art historian Lucy Hunter and artist R. Lyon to create BitchCoin. (In case you've never been there, Where is a gallery located in the part of Brooklyn where city officials never seem to bother cleaning trash of the streets, and where, during gusty wintery months, it's not uncommon to be smacked in the face with a kamikaze plastic bag carried along by the wind.) Its value is determined by Meyohas's artwork: One BitchCoin costs $100 and is equal to 25 square inches of any photograph she makes.
That's the simplest explanation I can come up with—that BitchCoin is an artwork-backed currency, but that doesn't mean that everyone gets it. (To be fair, ask most people what Bitcoin is and most won't give you a decent answer.)
To be honest, the first time I heard about BitchCoin, I assumed it was a conceptual joke. The title sounds like a parody. Alas, the internet had defined it years ago. BitchCoins are real:
Anyway, a bar party is not necessary to understand the basics of the currency, but it does make the currency seem more real.
And nothing is more real than showmanship. When I arrived at Trinity Place, Sarah Meyohas glittered in a floor-length mermaid dress, looking ready for her Las Vegas debut. "I finally have an excuse to wear this," she said. She, Lucy Hunter, and R. Lyon were sitting at a long drab fold-out table selling BitchCoins, then marking the sales on paper.
A different type of spectacle could be seen above the heads of the bartenders, on a screen that showed a livestream of the BitchCoin mining operation inside the Where gallery: an aluminum-lined corridor splattered with bloody-looking paint, a single computer set on the floor. Grotesque merged with glam, Las Vegas meets Carrie.
Elsewhere inside Trinity Place, the coatrack was bloated with puffers, set next to the one functional bathroom in the bar. At times, it was the most popular spot in the entire bar—and the chattiest, too. Faces were full of cheer and confusion.
"There's a flaw in the BitchCoin system," one finance-type guy told me. He seemed to have stopped in randomly, unaware of the party. He wasn't the only one didn't get it. "It's not a new currency; it's old-fashioned investment."
He was right. If BitchCoin were simply a new form of currency—as most journalists covering this story have claimed so far—then we should be able to expect to exchange the coins for another product. We can, but only selectively. A $100 BitchCoin purchase today means that you're only able to redeem it for an artwork by Meyohas. And if you're hoping to make a buck off of it, you're technically dealing in the futures market, which is exactly the type of old-fashioned investment the finance guy was talking about. You're investing in the future of Meyohas as an artist—in her labor, not necessarily her artwork—through patronage.
That's the serious part of BitchCoin, which, of course, goes beyond any clickbait-y gimmick. Meyohas, Hunter, and Lyon have initiated a new of patronage, focused on supporting an artist's career instead of selling the artist's products (paintings, photographs, whatever).
When it's hard to go a day covering art news without there being another story about "RECORD BREAKING SALES! HEDGE FUNDERS BUYING ART THAT COSTS MORE THAN TEN YACHTS," BitchCoin is a big deal. Patronage, whatever name it goes by, offers some type of alternative to the current art-world situation that, let's be clear, only benefits the very top of the collector class.
- Artprice, a publicly firm that gathers auction data, just announced in its 2014 annual report that $15.2 billion in artwork sold at auction in 2014. Artists don't see this money; the auction houses and collectors do.
- The 2013 European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF) report, prepared by economist Clare McAndrew, asserts that collectors are not buying more works of art; they're just spending more money on them.
They're still buying the Picassos, Richters, and pre-vetted works making the rounds at auction. Yale MFAs not so much, as young artists aren't totally safe investments. If that artist's career doesn't take off, in ten years you're stuck with a painting that won't be worth more than the $1,000 you spent on it in the first place.
Art hasn't always been this way. At one time, visual artists were a part of everyone's daily life, just one of many classes of artisans. In the Medieval era, artists belonged to city guilds—somewhat like labor unions—and members of a township would hire them for work. In 17th-century Antwerp, art collecting was a middle-class activity; even farmers owned on average ten to 15 paintings. Throughout Europe, the wealthiest still dominated the production of art, but unlike today, their interest was not limited to the production of paintings. Often, a royal or papal patron would pay an artist a stipend and living expenses; they were given a salary for being an artist, and it had nothing to do with how many objects they could produce in any given year.
Will BitchCoin work, as a model of patronage? It doesn't really matter. At this point in art where the dominant discussion tends to focus on art as a game for the rich, we're willing to try anything else.
If you're willing to bet on BitchCoin, as of this writing, there are only 20 left.
See more work by Sarah Meyohas on her website.
Follow Corinna Kirsch on Twitter.