Interview with Ben Gentilli, artist and founder of the Robert Alice Project
On October 7th, Christie’s auctioned off Ben Gentilli’s artwork ‘Portraits of A Mind: Block 21’ (2020). It made $131,250, reaching more than 7x its high-estimate value of 18k. This marked the first time a major auction house sold an non-fungible token (NFT) work at auction.
Elliot Safra, partner at AndArt Agency, sat down with the artist to discuss the work, the auction, and everything in between. [N.B. Safra, Gentilli, and Christie’s Asian Head of Marketing, Georgina Hilton, will be sitting on a panel together during the upcoming Web3 Forum in Shanghai (Oct 29–30th). Excerpts of this interview were published in ODaily and ChainNews in anticipation of the event.]
To say that Gentili sold an artwork in the singular is misleading, as the sale actually included two objects: a physical object and an NFT collectible. The physical work is shaped like a disc, its surface is inscribed with 322,048 digits some of which are highlighted in gold, radiating outwards from the central void. On the inner rim the words block ‘Block 21’ are inscribed. There are 39 other circles or ‘blocks’ around the world. Together, their 12.3 million digits are an exact transcription of the v0.1.0 code that launched Bitcoin. The NFT work is a re-creation of the physical object with a twist; it is programmed with two ‘states’ making it only viewable during daylight hours of the physical work’s location (during evening hours the work goes ‘dark’).
Portraits of a Mind, 2020. (physical and NFT collectible):
ES: Speaking about the physical work, can you tell us a bit about the process of creation?
Of course, early conceptualizing around the code-base began in late 2017, once I’d decided aesthetically on the form following eight months of research and planning; in mid 2018 I got to work.
I imported machinery from Amsterdam for the engraving process — nothing has been engraved at this detail and at this scale before so from a technical point of view it was a six month process speaking to consultants and technicians about how to do it.
Then it was about sitting down, a bit like Roman Opalka, and starting to individually paint each of the 12.8 million digits of hex code. [This] took a bit of time.
ES: What about the geo-references attached to the physical works. Do you have a favorite or one that is particularly meaningful to you?
Yes, each work has a unique geo-coordinate embedded in the code-base. An algorithm I developed can find digits in the artwork that I specify. These were encrusted in gold. Not only are they references to the proof-of-work processes behind mining Bitcoin (with only 16 digits in gold from 322,048 they are algorithmically unearthed in the same way computers race for blocks), but they also evoke constellations (our oldest form of decentralized network structures) if you look at them together within the painting.
Each geo-coordinate relates to a significant place in the history of Bitcoin. Block 1 references Laozi, the semi-legendary Chinese philosopher who founded libertarianism. Block 38 refers to the exact location of Hal Finney at the time of the first Bitcoin transaction. Only 2 people know [where] this [is] in the world — Fran his wife, and I. It will be revealed in a few years time.
ES: Do the materials used have any specific significance other than aesthetic? Why discs?
The work had to have gold in in some way, the coordinates were a nice way of inserting the rare metal that is Bitcoin’s antecedent subtly. The disc points to many different things: early Japanese coinage, rai stones, cipher wheels, military targets, broadcast beacons, etc.
ES: Let’s switch over to talking about the NFT collectible. Is it an exact representation of the physical work?
BG: It is with a twist. The NFT is the first NFT to be completely tied to our experience of the physical work. So it is programmed to only be available for view during the daylight hours of the time zone the painting is located in.
Currently in New York it is plunged in darkness.
By playing with light and dark as binary opposites, I’m referring not just to the binary code-base, that is the constituent part of the codebase, but more importantly to the reality of how we experience digital art. Much as Basquiat crosses out words on his paintings in order to get people to read them more, by placing an NFT in darkness we can reflect on a curious assumption we often overlook — that in the digital world the lights never go out.
ES: Tell us a bit about your decision to use AsyncArt as an NFT platform.
For me, Async provides a super cool platform that actually is making radically new mediums within the NFT space, the idea [that] you can program and sell not just NFTs but layers within those NFTs is cool; it [also] opens up creative possibilities [as we see in the] NFT for Block 21.
ES: Will it be possible to sell the NFT but keep the physical work (or the reverse)?
The collector can do whatever they like. If I were them, the NFT is a constituent part of the work so they do so at their peril.
ES: How did the collaboration with Christie’s come about?
From some art collectors who wanted to see Satoshi’s code-base on a global stage. Christie’s are forward looking enough to make bold decisions on what they include — I owe them a great debt of gratitude.
ES: Can you tell us how many of the blocks have already been sold?
Ben Gentilli / Robert Alice:
ES: How did you decide to become a full-time artist?
I’ve always made work, Bitcoin gave me some financial independence, not much, but enough to take a few years out from the world and focus on something I wanted to explore just for me.
ES: Who / what are your inspirations?
Many. On the crypto-side, Simon Denny, Nicholas Mangan, CryptoPunks, [and] the curator, Ben Vickers.
On the art side, Roman Opalka and On Kawara were the basis of the work conceptually. Formally, Jack Whitten and Jasper Johns were two artists I hugely admire. Hanne Darbhoven’s work is someone I am looking at intently. Hito Steryerl is someone I — and I know many of my peers — read intently.
ES: The Robert Alice Project is the name of your studio-space. What is your vision for it? Why did you call it that?
Bob and Alice are cryptography’s most famous couple. Making the project under a different name was important [to me] as it gives me flexibility in moving forward. I want to get artists to come in and take a deep dive into the crypto-space and see what they find…..
ES: Is Christie’s selling an NFT collectible going to have a significant impact on the digital art market? What do you think is currently working in the market and what could be done better?
I hope it becomes a landmark moment in history for the space. The rate of disruption and innovation in NFTs is astounding. The economic side of the tech is groundbreaking. The art side — while of value to a small niche audience of intellectual crypto-collectors — needs expanding. Sooner or later the traditional art world will catch on.
ES: Do you see the market growing? What do you think the drivers to growth might be?
More traditional artists in the space. Better ways of displaying the work. Bigger virtual museums. Better fulfilling of the artists resale rights. Conceptually, the resale right for artists baked into the work itself is ground breaking; the slippage at the moment is too high.
More than anything though it will be the next generation. And then the generation after that. Art is a slow game. This is pioneer time.
Digital Art vs Traditional Mediums
ES: Will the digital art market start to emulate the traditional market more closely? Will digital art fairs become a thing?
Yes! If they don’t, they should. COVID has changed video conferencing; it may well open people up to the value of a cultural experience anywhere, anytime.
ES: Have you seen a large crossover of ‘traditional’ art collectors buying digital art? Or the other way around, has digital-art become an entry port into other more ‘traditional’ art forms for the crypto-community?
The collectors of this project are almost 50/50 art and crypto and some people in both. I think the 2 can exists together. You may be obsessed with digital art but you still live in a home with walls.
ES: You have quite a diverse collector base, both geographically and due to their backgrounds. How did you and the collectors connect?
I think it’s testament to the truly globalized nature of the blockchain community. It’s just indicative of that — no more. We met privately as collectors whispered.
ES: Do you have any dream collections that you’d like to be part of?
Future Projects / Misc.:
ES: Are you already working on your next project? If so, can you already announce anything to us?
Art is slow game, you’ll hear from me in time….
Bio Benjamin Gentilli: Benjamin Gentilli is a London-based artist and founder of The Robert Alice Project, a studio that aims to promote blockchain culture within the visual arts. Gentilli has worked across the art world internationally in London, Hong Kong and Vancouver. Most recently he has focused his energy more creatively on developing blockchain’s visual culture. Portraits of a Mind is the first work of art from the project and was made solely by Gentilli over the course of a 3 year period. Following on from Portraits of a Mind, collaboration with artists, creative developers and blockchain stakeholders will see Robert Alice become a decentralised collective.
Bio Elliot Safra: Elliot Safra is a partner at AndArt Agency, a creative agency focused on creating synergies between multinational brands and the art world. Previously, Safra served as Senior Director, Global Strategy for Lévy Gorvy and was part of the Chairman’s Office at Christie’s where he developed a number of initiatives including the Art+Tech Summit. Safra serves as Vice-Chairman of the International Board of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.